Over 50,000 people died during the 3.5-year Japanese occupation of Singapore. Half of the deaths took place within the first 3 weeks of the occupation alone. In what was to be known as “Sook Ching” or “cleansing through purging”, the male Chinese population of Singapore was deliberately singled out for reprisals.
For 14 days between 18 February to 4 March 1942, all Chinese males aged 18-50 were ordered to report to screening Centers across the country. The Japanese occupiers were intentional in their efforts to root out any and all resistance within the Chinese community. By the most arbitrary means at their disposal, the Japanese began weeding out the potential troublemakers – often without any evidence. Hooded informants would point out the individuals who were involved in “anti Japanese activities” or who had contributed to the war effort in China. Individuals who “failed” the screening process were loaded onto trucks, driven to remote locations across Singapore and summarily executed. The corpses would then be buried in mass graves, hidden out of sight from the rest of the population.
The secrecy of the killings meant the families of the victims had no knowledge of their loved ones’ deaths till after the war when the mass graves were dug up. Conservative estimates put the death toll of the Sook Ching Massacre at 25,000. That figure represents approximately 3.14% of the total population of 795,000 at the time. Higher estimates of 40,000 dead would put that figure at approximately 5.03%. The rate at which people were being killed was exceptionally high, given the short amount of time the Japanese took to execute Sook Ching. It was slaughter at an industrial scale and it forever altered the landscape, society and destiny of Singapore.
Even after 75 years, the legacy of the Sook Ching Massacre is still being felt in one way or another. Almost every Chinese household that traces its roots to pre WW2 Singapore has lost at least one member of the family. The brutality of the massacre and Japanese subjugation sparked a political awakening in the local Chinese community. After the war, more individuals became actively involved in pro independence, anti colonialist movements. It was from the bloodshed of WW2 and left wing revolutionary fervour in the immediate post war years that the PAP was first founded. The disproportionate rate at which the Chinese were singled out for acts of brutality widened the rift between the Chinese and Malay community. These tensions would be played out on the streets during the racial riots of 1964, nearly 2 decades after the end of WW2. The painful memories of occupation was the primary motivation for the Pioneer leaders of Singapore prioritise national defence to guard Singapore’s sovereignty. Till this day, all male Singaporeans have to serve 2 years of National Service in the SAF or SCDF. Few events in our past have left such a profound impact on our culture and society.
The Sook Ching Massacre remains one of the darkest chapters in Singapore’s history. Looking back at the events of 1942, one can’t help but to bemoan and lament the tens of thousands of lives that were cut short. They were fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, Neighbours, friends – real people with real stories. Their deaths left a void in society that remained long after the war ended.
In March 1962, the first mass graves of the Sook Ching Massacre were dug up. The discovery of thousands of human remains confirmed the worst fears of the families that theirs missing loved ones were dead. Grief quickly turned to anger as the Chinese community demanded reparations be paid by the Japanese Government to atone for the war crimes committed during the Japanese Occupation. A mass protest attended by more than 120,000 people was held at City Hall on 25 August 1963. Dubbed as the “blood debt” rally, it was organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCC) and supported by the Singapore government. The purpose of the rally was to press the Japanese government for a compensation or “blood debt” amount of no less than M$50 million. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who was himself, a survivor of the Sook Ching Massacre was one of the speakers. With nearly 10% of Singapore’s total population in attendance, the “Blood Debt Rally” remains the largest protest ever organised in the history of Singapore.
Today, Singapore enjoys close economic ties to Japan. Japanese culture permeates every level of society in Singapore whether it’s manga, anime, popular video games or Japanese restaurants. With every passing generation, the memories of war are slowly being relegated into the history textbooks as fewer survivors who lived through WW2 remain alive. Younger generations of Singaporeans do not harbor the same animosity towards the Japanese as older generations had. After all, the Japan of today has left its fascist, imperialist past behind and is now looking to the future. Though our differences have been reconciled, we still make every effort to learn from our past. The events of February, 1942 serve as a warning from history. It is now the moral responsibility of this generation and generations to come to ensure that such atrocities are never repeated again.