Monday, October 12, 2009

Book preview: Captain Mohan Singh’s dark night of the soul

This is the third book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which will be launched next week. The first two previews were 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out' and 'The education of Singapore girls'. A new preview will be published on this website every Monday in October.

This preview is from the World War II section, where we recount the Battle of Malaya through the eyes of soldiers in the field. The following story begins just three days after the
Japanese launched their ground-based assault on the Malay Peninsula, after the fall of Jitra.

Captain Mohan Singh’s dark night of the soul
For Captain Mohan Singh, a Sikh officer with the 14th Punjab regiment in Malaya, the defeat at Jitra proved to be the major turning point in his life. In his memoirs, he recalled that on 11 December the heavy Japanese bombardment and the withdrawal of his regiment’s transport sowed immediate confusion. ‘Some men jumped into the trucks to escape. I lost my temper, got hold of a stick and used it freely on any man trying to slip away’. Shortly afterwards, Japanese tanks burst into sight, tanks which Mohan Singh’s British commanding officer had assured him the enemy did not possess. The defenders dispersed ‘in utter confusion’ in a case of ‘everyone for himself’. By the time night fell,
Blind firing had started from all directions. Panic and chaos spread like wild fire … The morning of the 12th found British and Japanese troops terribly mixed up all over the place … So fell Jitra, the Maginot line of Malaya …
Over the next three days, tired and demoralised, Mohan Singh and his men staggered through jungle, padi field and leech-infested swamp as they tried to rejoin the main force of the retreating Allied army. For the Sikh captain personally, the circumstances of the defeat triggered an additional ‘intense inner struggle’. It was clear that while the Japanese ‘had come fully prepared and were ready to pay the price for their objective, a definite mission to do or die’, British-led forces ‘had no patriotic motives to fight with their backs to the wall’. But this realisation merely brought to mind an even deeper concern:
Throughout night, a panorama of those four days’ fighting was repeatedly appearing before my eyes … The horrible scenes of the drama of death and destruction witnessed during those few days deeply distressed my soul. I began to ponder over the real worth of life. Within a second or two, one could be no more. Like a bubble, the life of an individual could be pricked in a moment and it would vanish forever …

… If life could be abruptly snapped in a split second, as seen on the battlefield, would it not be better to direct and dedicate it to something better and nobler?
When Japanese planes dropped leaflets, ‘expressing their war aims in pithy slogans, assuring the coloured races of their immediate liberation and beseeching them to join hands in that mighty undertaking’, Mohan Singh felt ‘violently shaken’:
In a normal situation, no one would have given any serious heed to the shibboleths [sic] of the invading hordes, but at that moment their effect on me was tremendous. I felt as if they were voicing my inner feelings …
He emerged from three days in the swamp-filled jungle with a mission. He intended to approach the Japanese to obtain their help ‘to start a movement for Indian independence’, one that would ‘cut deep at the roots of the British policy of exploiting Indians for their wars all over the world.’ On the 14th, having drawn other Indian stragglers to his cause, he sent a local Indian to make contact with the Japanese on his behalf.

Mohan Singh admitted that his decision was not an easy one: ‘It was, indeed, a long drawn-out struggle between two loyalties—one to my own Commission, which meant allegiance to the British Crown, and the other, unwritten yet much more biding—my duty to my beloved country.’ In the end he joined the enemy ‘simply because, as an Indian, I felt that it was my duty to contribute my humble share to the service of my country’. On 15 December, he met with Japanese military officials at Alor Star and a few days later with Yamashita himself, who assured him that the Japanese had no territorial ambitions in India.

‘I was now going to raise an army for India’s liberation,’ wrote Mohan Singh. ‘In the very first week of our joining the Japanese side, I had decided that the name of this force would be ‘THE INDIAN NATIONAL ARMY’.

© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography will be published in mid-October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore, Editions Didier Millet & Hong Kong University Press.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

10 quick questions: Mark asks, Yu-Mei answers

1. Why did you take on a job as a researcher with the National Museum of Singapore project?

Because it was the most interesting job offer I had at the time. One of my friends calls me an 'accidental historian' as a result. It's a catchy label and the 'accidental' part is true, but I wouldn't call myself a historian. More a writer who appreciates history, a good story and a confluence of the two.

2. Why the sudden interest everywhere in Singapore history? Is it media-led or a genuine popular interest?

A lot of the current interest seems to be in the post-war period and Singapore's initial years of independence. A whole generation is getting nostalgic, I think – specifically, the generation that was told in the 1960s and 1970s that certain things had to go in the name of progress and development. Now that generation is reaching retirement age, maybe starting to think about their choices, their experiences and their legacy. There is a profound sense of loss in some quarters, or a feeling of urgency to claim or "reclaim" the recent past before all the actors pass away. Plus the fact that our physical landscape keeps changing – the recent accelerated developments in the Marina Bay area and Orchard Road, to say nothing of the constant "upgrading" of HDB estates – is a relentless reminder of how quickly and thoroughly things can be erased or replaced.

So some of the interest is in nostalgia, and some of it is in history. And this interest in digging up or rehabilitating the past has its spillover effects. I think more people now are curious about the past, where Singapore "came" from, and some want to question or hear alternatives to the official narrative. And on the official side, government money is flowing into museums and the "heritage" sector.

3. Of all the personalities featured in Singapore: A Biography who would you invite for dinner and why?
4. What would you talk about?

Oooh, tough one. Right off the bat I'd say Munshi Abdullah, who was Raffles's scribe. He was impressively multilingual – in Malay, Arabic, Tamil, Hindi and English – and very curious about what the colonials were bringing into his world. I imagine he'd be a sparkling raconteur and I'd love to buttonhole him and find out if he really thought the British were all that.

If I could have a second guest, I'd sneak in Constance Goh, the charismatic and tireless family planning pioneer from the post-war period. If she had the chutzpah in the 1950s to convince an English supplier to halve the price of contraceptives for her family planning clinics, I'm sure she'd waltz in to dinner with even more incredible stories. Also, I'd be very curious to hear her response to Singapore's population policies of today.

5. Singapore appears (to a non-Singaporean like me) to be a highly status-conscious place. What is your response to people who say 'Hey, you are not a PhD! How can you write my nation's history?'

I think there are different types of books that can be written about a nation's history. Singapore: A Biography tells one kind of story – reviving eyewitness accounts, piecing together interesting and complementary experiences, revealing some of the different faces of Singapore over the centuries. You could say I write for a reader such as myself: a non-specialist who's nonetheless curious about history and interested to unravel some of the complexities behind it.

6. Who would win in a historical smack-down between Yamashita and Lee Kuan Yew (and why)?

Yamashita would press Lee Kuan Yew into a corner, kiromoni sakuren-style, at which point Lee might seem outmatched, outgunned – but wait, the British referee calls a time-out, or rather, summarily dismisses from the ring those armies standing to the left of Yamashita. Now Yamashita is the one outnumbered, and Lee charges back with his party, pummelling Yamashita with a renewed, unfaltering one-two rhythm (the radio commentator seems to be on his side, too). Yamashita falls hard and loud. The round – and match – go to Lee.

7. One of our reviewers said we seemed to have a lot of fun writing this book. What was your favourite part?

I'm big on social history, so I liked writing about aspects of Singapore life that let me step away from the political and the economic, to take a peek at people's inner lives. Moments like recreating from James Warren's books the daily 19th-century routine of rickshaw coolies or karayuki-san (a euphemism for Japanese prostitutes), or looking at contending notions of education for girls in the early 20th century. I suppose you could say my favourite part is putting the people back into the history.

8. Imagine you had to pitch this book to a Hollywood executive.

It's a historical epic, retold Paris, Je T'aime-style, but with much more action-packed sequences. Imagine nine vignettes, with nine different directors, each dramatising the story of a particularly vivid eyewitness to Singapore's history. There's the magic realism of the 14th-century Sejarah Melayu world, the rough-and-tumble derring-do of the 19th-century port-city, the fierce frontline action of World War II and the sly political manoeuvrings of the post-war era. Our protagonists will run the gamut from swashbuckling colonials and intrepid pirates, to baby-faced soldiers and ingenious women from all levels of society. Nine surprising stories, and they all happen to take place on one small island called Singapore.

9. What are you going to do next?

I'm going to continue doing some travel writing, which is great for gaining some perspective on what's going on in Singapore, but from outside Singapore. I also have a couple of non-fiction and fiction ideas at the back of my head, which I'll need a bit of time to disentangle and prioritise.

10. Please explain your surname (family name).

My surname Balasingamchow (or, in its original formulation, Balasingam-Chow) combines names from my father's Sri Lankan heritage and my mother's Cantonese one. My parents, it appears, were prescient about what would be useful in the Internet age: a readily Google-able name.

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