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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