"LEE Saw Gim, your maternal grandmother has never slept in her pyjamas ever since the Japanese Imperial Army started attacking Alor Star during the early days of December 1941," remarks my mother's second sister, Ooi Joo Kim, when we were sharing our thoughts about a recently unveiled monument that was erected to remember Japanese soldiers who lost their lives in the Kedah capital during the Second World War.
Her voice quivering, Ooi recounts tales of mayhem and chaos that were left in the wake of the Japanese forces as they swept southwards to Singapore. "The physical and psychological trauma affected your grandmother so much that she retired to bed each night fully dressed in her sarong kebaya, ready to flee at a moment's notice," adds Ooi.
The atrocities witnessed during the war years affected Lee so much that she continued her habit of wearing day clothes to bed until the day she passed away peacefully after a brief illness on Feb 22, 2012.
Returning our chatter to the contentious monument, Ooi immediately voices opinion that similarly echoes those of many Malaysians, including Kedah Chinese Assembly Hall president, Datuk Cheng Lai Hock.
Cheng was quoted as saying that it wasn’t appropriate for the state government to allow the Japanese Consulate to erect a monument in remembrance of three soldiers who lost their lives during the early days of the war while trying to gain control of the strategic bridge connecting Alor Star town and the rest of Malaya to the south.
AGGRESSORS ARE NOT HEROES
The uproar stemmed from the fact that the inscriptions on the granite surfaced monument and its accompanying explanatory signboard, written in three languages, hailed the fallen Japanese soldiers as heroes.
The Second World War may have occurred more than seven decades ago but the painful memories still linger in the minds of many Malaysians who lived through that dark period. They cannot comprehend how the three aggressors, together with the rest of their compatriots in the Japanese Imperial Army, could be glorified when all they did was to bring severe upheaval to the peaceful Malayan way of life.
Keen to better understand the situation, I head over to the controversial structure located on a small fenced up plot of land just beside the nearby Sungai Kedah. The flowers on the wreaths laid during the opening ceremony are starting to show signs of wilting but, apart from that, the serenity of this secluded part of the city belies the tumultuous past related to the 1.8 metre tall monument.
The Japanese Imperial Army gained absolute control in Alor Star on Dec 13, 1941. Their swift advance after landing off the coast of Singgora in Thailand just five days earlier was primarily attributed to the false sense of security on the part of the defenders.
In the months leading up to the outbreak of hostilities, it was the general belief that the British position in Malaya was secure thanks to the dense jungle covering large swathes of the Malay Peninsula. As a result, war preparations were, at best, minimal.
The British forces established the Jitra Line to defend the strategic junction where the road to Perlis branches off from the main trunk road leading to the Thai border. Intermittent night curfews were imposed upon the Alor Star residents as armaments and ammunition were moved up under the cover of darkness to fortify the defences there.
At the same time, a small portion of concerned civilians joined the newly established Kedah Volunteer Force as well as the Civil Defence. They were trained to hold posts like air raid precaution wardens as well as auxiliary firemen and medical personnel.
LULL BEFORE THE STORM
The preparations, however, failed to impress the Commander-in-Chief in the Far East, General Archibald Wavell when he visited Alor Star to personally inspect the defences. Apart from the presence of soldiers and military units, it was largely business as usual in Alor Star. There was simply no sense of urgency at all.
Occasionally, orders were flashed on cinema screens at the Empire, Rex and Cathay recalling troops to barracks but the rest of the audience merely brushed off the announcement as some form of regular exercise and continued enjoying the shows.
The first ominous sign of impending conflict happened on Oct 22, 1941 when a long, strangely-shaped cloud was seen high up in Alor Star's northern sky. The superstitious declared that it portended evil while others said that it was caused by a British spy plane.
The latter were correct in their surmise that the unusual phenomenon was caused by an aircraft but it was by no means friendly. The cloud was actually smoke emitted from a Japanese aircraft making a reconnaissance flight to survey British aerodromes at Alor Star, Sungei Petani, Butterworth and Taiping.
Less than three weeks later, all lingering doubts were put to rest when Japanese bombers took the British by surprise when they hit the Alor Star and Sungei Petani airfields, decimating all except one of the fighter planes at 8 am on Dec 8, 1941.
Alor Star residents were shocked and surprised. After the initial reactions, they calmed down and stuck to their unwavering belief that the British would soon have the situation under control, especially after the police began rounding up Japanese males living in the town.
Several, who had long acted as spies for the invading forces, managed to elude capture and tried to disrupt communications between the front line defences in Jitra and the British central command in Alor Star.
MAYHEM IN ALOR STAR
On that same day, a clandestine operative disguised himself as a beggar and pounced on the back of a Punjabi despatch rider and brought him down at the section of Jalan Langgar in front of Sultan Abdul Hamid College.
At that time, the students were sitting for their Cambridge School Certificate and Junior Local Certificate examinations. It was the last day of examinations for the latter while there were still a few more days to go for the former.
Realising that danger was imminent, the teachers quickly sent out all the answer scripts just before the General Post Office at Jalan Raja closed that evening and the parcel reached England by sea safely.
First contact with reality for the Kedah capital came in the form of 60 Japanese fighter planes which hovered over the town the following evening and stayed well beyond the range of the mobile anti-aircraft batteries. The experience was terrifying for the Alor Star residents who’d never heard large artillery going off in such close proximity nor seen enemy planes at such a low altitude.
Throughout town, children wailed uncontrollably while adults prayed for safety. Fortunately for them, the Japanese fighter fleet was just there to make a statement. Not a single bomb was dropped and they disappeared after half an hour. The aggressors were already confident of victory and wanted Alor Star to be as intact as possible when they started governing the land.
Nevertheless, life had to go on. As soon as the School Certificate examinations ended a day later, on Dec 10, 1941, the students were asked to leave and await further announcements regarding the recommencement of lessons. At the same time, the teachers spirited the remaining answer sheets to safety and only sent them to Cambridge after the war ended in 1945.
The decision to close the school couldn’t have come at a better time as news soon arrived that two Japanese soldiers on a motorcycle were fired upon from the Central Police Station when they were negotiating the traffic island in front of the General Post Office.
The rider lost control of his machine and crashed into a shoemaker's shop by the junction of Jalan Langgar and Jalan Raja. The collision set the shop house and the one adjacent to it ablaze. Both buildings were burnt to the ground.
The perished motorcyclists were the frontline scouts for a column of 500 advancing Japanese soldiers racing into Alor Star on commandeered bicycles. Lightly clad in singlets, shorts and rubber boots, the aggressors moved speedily. Among the places in Alor Star that they occupied upon arrival was the already-deserted Sultan Abdul Hamid College.
By Dec 12, 1941 all optimism had evaporated. Those who owned cars quickly cashed their petrol ration coupons and headed southwards. Realising the gravity of the situation, the Kedah government took steps to pay civil servants a month's salary before the State Treasurer F. E. Ivery moved the state coffer to Kulim.
In Alor Star, street fighting began with the Japanese forces having the upper hand. An eye-witness saw some Japanese soldiers chasing four British troops to the first shophouse in Jalan Langgar where the latter were subsequently cornered on the upper floor and killed.
Looting was rampant all over town except in Pekan Cina where the shopkeepers armed themselves to the teeth with sticks, changkols and axes and stood their ground to guard their families and property.
At the height of the chaos, many frightened Alor Star residents fled to the riverbank and tried to secure the services of boatmen to ferry them across to Seberang Nyonya. Quite a number tried to swim across on their own and were swept away by the current and drowned. Over the duration of a week, the Anak Bukit River was a gruesome sight of swollen corpses floating up and down the tributary with the tide.
BATTLE FOR THE BRIDGE
Shifting focus to the information board next to the memorial, I learn that the invading forces were on the verge of taking full control of Alor Star on the morning of Dec 13, 1941 when an urgent communique from the Japanese 11th Infantry Regiment arrived informing of a plan to slow the Japanese advance south by blowing up the main bridge in Alor Star.
Platoon Commander Lieutenant Hajime Asai was instructed to immediately ride his motorcycle towards the northern section of the bridge and defuse the bomb. Asai was on the verge of cutting the bomb wire circuit when the explosives went off, killing Asai instantly.
The explosion and subsequent Allied gunfire also claimed the lives of his two comrades, Corporal Kaneko Juga and Corporal Nakayama, who were following close behind. Reinforcements soon arrived and the Japanese managed to subdue the Allied forces and capture the bridge. The damage was quickly rectified by Nippon Engineer Corps and the invading forces once again had access to the rest of Malaya south of Alor Star.
General Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander of the 25th Army, arrived in Alor Star a day later to set up his temporary headquarters and orchestrate the plan to capture Singapore. Yamashita placed Alor Star under the purview of the Japanese Military Administration.
Soon after, the people of Alor Star were ordered to assemble in front of the Central Police Station where British sympathisers were screened and taken away to be executed. During the process, several hooded informers merely pointed their fingers at those who they suspected to be helping the British and their victims' fate were sealed.
After that, K. Shiba, a long time Japanese resident of the Kedah capital who had a shop in Jalan Raja near the Royal Theatre, proclaimed the beginning of prosperity under the Nippon Government rule. Ironically, all Kedahans present knew that the speech signified that the life they once knew was gone forever and things would never be the same again.
On my way out, I bump into Adlan Aman who confides that he too was curious about the memorial after reading about the uproar on social media. During our chat, the Kota Bahru-based graphic artist expressed his surprise at the decision to build the memorial to hail the very people who brought so much misery to our country.
"It’d be better if memorials are built to remind Malaysians about the terrors of war and help promote unity to our people so that we will always work together to prevent history from repeating itself," says Adlan before telling me that he purposely made it a point to stop by while on the way back to Kelantan with his family after visiting his in-laws in Jitra.
"My children may still be little but it’s never too early for me to start inculcating the love for our nation in them. Back home, I’ve also taken them to Pantai Sabak, the site of the first historic battle in Malaya between the British and Japanese troops which took place on Dec 8, 1941," he elaborates.
I couldn’t agree more. Steps should definitely be taken to help Malaysians learn about historical events that have played pivotal roles in shaping our beloved nation to what it is today. But building memorials to recognise aggressors as heroes shouldn’t be one of them.