Looking back at Singapore’s time as Japanese “Light of the South”

An extract from an upcoming history of Singapore and Malaysia, published exclusively with the Globe, explores Singapore and British Malaya's fall to Japanese forces during World War II and the Lion City's grim and macabre experience as 'Syonan-to'

Christopher Hale
February 21, 2023
Looking back at Singapore’s time as Japanese “Light of the South”
British commander Arthur Percival surrenders to Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita in February, 1942. Photo: courtesy of Wikicommons

Take a map of the Malay Peninsula and the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Stretching eastwards is the great archipelago of islands of the Nusantara, the Dutch East Indies, modern Indonesia. Now imagine the thoughts and emotions of a Japanese soldier on the early morning of 8 December 1941 as he struggles, burdened with rifle, life jacket and kit, through heavy surf onto the beach of Kota Bharu, Kelantan, in northern Malaya. 

Shells from British guns roar overhead, and even if this soldier of the Imperial Japanese Army makes it off the beach, ahead of him stretches more than 300 miles of hard marching and savage fighting along heavily defended jungle roads to reach Johor Bahru and gaze across the Causeway at the mighty fortress of Singapore. And yet Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the commander of the Japanese invaders, had good reason to be confident that his attack would prevail and that Singapore would fall.

As Britain confronted the German armies in Europe, the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, took comfort that in the Far East, at the furthest reaches of the empire he loved, Singapore was an impregnable fortress. No Asian army could possibly hope to conquer this island outpost. Singapore and British Malaya would stand firm. Nothing could be further from the truth. Malaya was, in fact, like a door without hinges – and the Japanese knew it. 

The Japanese onslaught on Malaya began on 8 December 1941 with simultaneous landings in neutral Thailand at Songkhla (Singora) and Patani, and at Kota Bharu in the northern Malay state of Kelantan. Three huge transport ships anchored off the Malayan coast at Kota Bharu. They carried a 6,000-strong brigade of the 18th Chrysanthemum Division, led by Major-General Hiroshi Takumi. His task was to secure the airfield at Pengkalan Chapa and, more importantly, divert British attention from the main Japanese landings to the north in Thailand. 

‘The Driving Charge’: Japanese armour advancing through Malaya, January 1942. Photo: courtesy of Wikicommons

It is a myth that the British did not defend Malaya – and for Takumi the first wave of landings on the Kota Bharu beaches was touch and go. As the heaving boats filled up, British Hudsons suddenly roared low across the waves hurling 250-pound ers at the now vulnerable Japanese invasion fleet. They scored direct hits on the Awagisan Maru, a cargo ship.

Fire erupted from the superstructure and thick, oily smoke billowed across the sea. When Takumi’s men finally reached the beaches, they were hit by withering fire from behind a labyrinth of entangled barbed wire. The Japanese soldiers were forced to dig their way under the wire with spoons.

Just over an hour after Yamashita’s armies stormed onto the beaches of Kota Bharu on the north-east coast of the Malay Peninsula, Japanese air and naval forces launched a surprise attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbour on the island of Hawaii. The following day, the United States Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan. 

Churchill brushed aside the news from Malaya, and rejoiced. He was, he admitted, “saturated and satiated with emotion … England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live.”

That night, as Japanese soldiers fought their way off the beach and into the town of Kota Bharu, Churchill slept “the sleep of the saved and thankful”. Roosevelt called 7 December 1941 as a “date that will live in infamy”. For Churchill, the attack on Pearl Harbour was a godsend. As Churchill slept, Japanese soldiers began marching south from Patani and Kota Bharu. Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita called his strategy kiramoni sakusen (the “driving charge”). 

Japanese engineers reconstructing a bridge as they approach the Causeway. Photo: courtesy of Wikicommons

In a matter of weeks, Japanese forces punched through every defensive line that the retreating British threw across the peninsula. On 12 December, Japanese troops marched into Alor Star, the capital of Kedah. In the meantime, the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been crippled, and half the American air force destroyed at Clark Field in the Philippines. 

On 10 December, Japanese aircraft sank the British capital warships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales off the coast of Kuantan in Pahang. Japanese bombers rained fire and terror on Pahang. The British fled, leaving their Asian subjects to fend for themselves. 

By 28 December they had seized Ipoh in Perak. 

Kuala Lumpur, the colonial capital of the Federated Malay States, fell on 11 January. At the end of January, the Japanese marched into Johor. Here General Yamashita was warmly welcomed by Sultan Ibrahim Abu Bakar. From the comfortable vantage point of the Bukit Serene Palace, Yamashita could look out across the Causeway towards the great prize of Singapore.

The back door to Singapore now swung precariously on its hinges. Soon Japanese soldiers would kick it wide open. The Malayan campaign would be the prelude to the shaming of Singapore’s colonial masters by soldiers who had been belittled by General Sir Archibald Wavell as “highly trained gangsters”. 

Historians continue to fret over who was to blame for this humiliating rout, but for thenpeoples of Malaya and Singapore, the consequences of defeat are not in doubt.

The end came quickly. 

On 15 February 1942, the British commander, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, abjectly surrendered to General Yamashita in the boardroom of the Ford Factory. At the end of a campaign of just 68 days, the British rulers of Malaya had been vanquished. By then, Japanese troops had captured Manila and Cavite in the Philippines. From Thailand, Japanese troops struck at Burma, but General Yamashita, the ‘Tiger of Malaya’, had not yet fulfilled his solemn promise to Emperor Hirohito. The Japanese swept into Sumatra and on to Java, seizing Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, on 6 March. By early May, the Japanese had captured the vast archipelago of the East Indies. The old colonial map had been torn apart and the new Japanese empire stood complete. Singapore had been officially renamed Syonan-to, the ‘Light of the South’. 

Malaya became Malai. The rising sun had reached its zenith.

In the days following the surrender, Singapore was a surreal maelstrom of chaos and despair. British and Commonwealth troops raided liquor stores and brawled drunkenly on the streets. An order was issued to destroy all supplies of alcohol to prevent them from falling into Japanese mouths, and on the Padang members of the Singapore Cricket Club organised bacchanalian parties to drink cellars dry. 

The Cathay Building had been turned into an improvised air raid shelter. As the Japanese came ever closer, Singapore’s elite sheltered in its air-conditioned restaurants, while the poor and desperate sought refuge in the sweltering basement. 

On the waterfront, crowds of frenzied Europeans laid siege to the docks, clutching evacuation passes as hundreds of British deserters, brandishing tommy guns, forced their way along the quays to clamber on board departing ships. 

Australian commander, Major General Henry Gordon Bennett, who later accused British troops of cowardice, was observed fleeing on a sampan, screaming blue murder at a desperate soldier who had leapt on board stark naked. 

As the former masters of Singapore fled in confusion, Japanese aircraft strafed the docks, teeming with desperate men, women and children, and rained down a tornado of shells on streets, setting off warehouses stuffed with Chinese New Year fireworks in fiery blazes. As cars and rickshaws burned, oil spewed into the Singapore River. 

Everywhere, blackening corpses lay scattered, bloating in the heat, and the torpid air filled with the stench of death. On 11 February, Japanese soldiers rampaged through the Alexandra Hospital bayoneting helpless patients and staff. 

Unknown numbers of Chinese Southeast Asians were murdered in the ‘Sook Ching’ following the British surrender of Singapore. Image: courtesy of Wikicommons

Then, suddenly, Singapore fell deathly quiet. The city, a journalist wrote, “had the stillness of the grave”. At noon, the silence was shattered as Japanese military trucks roared into the hallowed European centre of the city, horns blaring. 

Roadblocks were set up and Japanese military police fired into crowds of looters as General Yamashita handed out medals to his officers. While the Japanese soldiers showed mercy to Indians and Malays, they dragged scores of Chinese aside and peremptorily lopped off their heads. Outside the Cathay Cinema, the Japanese set up a macabre display of severed heads in cages. The fly-ridden remains were a foreshadowing of the catastrophe that would soon engulf the Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaya. 

Now Singapore was Syonan-to, the ‘Light of the South’, caught in the python-like embrace of the Japanese ‘Co-Prosperity Sphere’. When Hokkein speakers heard the new name of their city, the word made them think of the word for birdcage.  

In Mandarin, Syonan echoed the phrase shou nan dao – ‘island of suffering’.

Christopher Hale is an award-winning author and documentary producer. As a filmmaker he has worked throughout Southeast Asia for the BBC, National Geographic and Channel News Asia International where he was executive producer of the CNA Singapore unit. ‘A Brief History of Singapore and Malaysia. Multiculturalism and Prosperity: the Shared History of Two Southeast Asian Tigers‘ is published by Tuttle on 21 March.

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