New Straits Times

Sybil, heroine of Papan


INSPIRATIO­N: Sybil Kathigasu will always be the idol of the people in Papan and the surroundin­g areas. When the Japanese invaded Malaya, Sybil and family moved to the small town near Ipoh where she set up a clinic and helped the people.

Raja Khalidatul Asrin walks down memory lane in Papan

ADEAD-END town, surrounded by mountains outside Ipoh, was where the Florence Nightingal­e of Malaya, Sybil Kathigasu, set up her dispensary during World War II.

The older generation may have learned about her in history classes but the younger generation do not know about the unsung hero.

The building in Papan where the clinic was once located is now run by Law Siak Hong, one of the founding members of the

Perak Heritage Society.

It is exactly how it was on the outside and the inside.

“It was in 2003 that I opened this building, which I rented from a local.

My main reason was to turn it into a ‘writer’s retreat” and it took me five months to do up the place.

“Of course after that, others showed interest in it and so I decided to turn it into a memorial to Sybil, whom I learned more about from her late daughter Olga,” said Law.

“Initially, I got help from Nicholas Coffill, an internatio­nal heritage adviser and museum designer.

“He did the first exhibition at this building which brought so much interest from the public. That was how people knew the significan­ce of this clinic.”

He said Sybil and her doctor husband, who was a Ceylonese, were living in Ipoh before the war.

Their house was at 141, Brewster Road, which is now known as Jalan Sultan Idris Shah.

The doctor had his clinic downstairs and the upper floor was where they lived. The couple had three children. William was an adopted son and their two girls were Dawn and Olga.

Sybil’s daughters went to school at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.

“Sybil used to throw a Christmas party for the orphans at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, also known as Main Convent, every year before the war,” said Law.

When the Japanese invaded Malaya, Sybil and family moved to No. 74 of Papan’s main street.

“It was a small town near the Kledang range. Here was where she set up the clinic and helped the residents by being a midwife. “Sybil was a nurse by profession and most of the locals were delivered by her,” he said.

Law said Sybil’s crime in the eyes of the Japanese was because she owned a radio which she fondly referred to as “Josephine”.

“She also helped the Perak Anti Japanese Army or the hill people,” he said, adding that during the Japanese occupation, it was a crime to own a short-wave radio.

He said Sybil was in Papan for 20 months before she was captured by the Japanese and then tortured by the Kempeitai or the Japanese military police corps.

Sybil wrote a book called

when she was recuperati­ng in England.

“That was how she was known throughout the world, as a hero for helping the residents of Papan by giving them medical treatment,” he said.

It was in the book that she described how she was tortured by the Kempeitai.

She wrote: “The weeks of interrogat­ion that followed dwell in my memory like the confused collection of a nightmare. They seemed desirous of battering the truth out of my body.

“Usually, I was punched and slapped in the face, and beaten with sticks and heavy rattan canes.

“The places on which the blows were concentrat­ed were those that had no vital nerve or organ so that no permanent injury resulted to the victim.

According to her book, it was her daughter Dawn, not Olga, who was hung upside down with ants crawling all over her from a tree.

Among the places that she was interrogat­ed was St Michael’s Institutio­n in Ipoh.

Sybil was strong and to all the questions and beatings, her reply remained “I don’t know”.

The Japanese came to know of her involvemen­t with the guerillas through one of them, who was captured.

He betrayed her by spelling out her name to the Japanese when they asked him who treated his injury.

Among tortures she went through were being beaten with a wooden bar, a kick on her jaws and her nails being pulled out.

“As I reeled and staggered under the force of his infuriated violence, a severe blow caught me squarely on the spine. I felt an acute spasm of pain throughout my body and fell to the ground in a dead faint.

“After what seemed an age, I came to and found myself being half dragged, half carried to my cell. The next day, the pain in my spine was intense and there seemed to be no strength left in my legs,” she wrote.

One humid afternoon in late November, 2005, Law said Olga went back to Papan. Sybil Kathigasu

“It was her first visit in 61 years. She said it was a privately maintained shrine, a praisewort­hy effort at keeping culture and history alive in Malaysia.

“Olga was astonished at what she saw.

“Just the same, she muttered, as she walked about the long front room and began describing how it was organised by her mother.

“Under the staircase, she said there was a hole where her mother hid the radio and there were three holes for the three radios that she referred to as Josephine 1, 2 and 3,” said Law.

“Olga said the dispensary was in the front half of this ground floor,” he added.

Law said Olga had also inspected the memorabili­a that he gathered after he took over the building.

“It is my personal mission to conserve the memories of Sybil’s heroic resistance against the Japanese occupation,” he said.

Law said in 1947, Sybil was awarded the George Medal by King George VI for her bravery.

“Sybil died six months after receiving the award from the torture during the war.

“Sybil’s body was brought back to Ipoh and buried at St Michael’s in Ipoh,” he said.

Law said Olga recalled the day her mother was arrested.

She said that her grandmothe­r asked her mother for her wedding ring and her mother gave it to her. The ring was then given to Olga. Olga said: “Grandma was very lonely after the Japanese arrested mummy.

“She cried all the time. It was very hard. Why did we have to suffer so?”

Olga died in Kuala Lumpur when she was in her 90s. The wedding picture of and

 ??  ?? Dram of Mercy
Medical equipment in the building. The hole where Sybil hid one of her radios. She had three radios named Josephine 1, Josephine 2 and Josephine 3.
Dr Kathigasu
Dram of Mercy No Medical equipment in the building. The hole where Sybil hid one of her radios. She had three radios named Josephine 1, Josephine 2 and Josephine 3. Sybil. Dr Kathigasu

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