Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gandhi kept his family safe

When Singapore fell to the Japanese on Feb 15, 1942, many Indian households here put up pictures of Mahatma Gandhi on their doorstep. Mr Bala A. Chandran's family was one of them.

Gandhi was the well-known leader of the Indian independence movement against the British colonialists.
The Japanese knew that, and it was a sign to them that the household in question was Indian and not Chinese. Chinese men were being targeted by the Japanese in islandwide killings because of their perceived support of Japan's arch-enemy China.
'If the Japanese were short of food, they would raid your house for canned food. If they wanted to do their laundry, they would call you to fetch water from the well for them. If you didn't go, they would give you one tight slap'
Mr Bala A. Chandran, on life during the Japanese Occupation
'When the Japanese came and saw the picture of Gandhi, they would say, 'Ah, Gandhi ka (is it)?', 'Hindu, ka?', and go off,' recalls Mr Bala, who was then 14. He is now 82.
His was also one of numerous Indian families who took the opportunity to hide close Chinese neighbours in their Gandhi-protected homes.
'Of course, if we had been discovered, we would all have been killed. And some Indian families did get into trouble that way,' he says.
This was not to say that the Japanese did not behave aggressively towards the Malays and Indians during their three-year occupation of the island, he adds.
'If the Japanese were short of food, they would raid your house for canned food. If they wanted to do their laundry, they would call you to fetch water from the well for them. If you didn't go, they would give you one tight slap. Slapping was very common,' says Mr Bala matter-of-factly.
Born in Ipoh to a Tamil family that had been in Malaya for three generations, he moved with his family to Singapore in 1937.
His father, then an engineer in the Malayan Railway, had a job transfer here. Mr Bala was the second of four children.
The Japanese Occupation was a rude interruption to normal life as the family knew it. Mr Bala's education at Radin Mas School ground to a halt - he was in Standard Six, the equivalent of Secondary 2 - and he witnessed some of the cruelty of an invading power.
But it also provided the young man, a supporter of the Indian independence cause, with an unexpected opportunity to realise that dream.
The platform was the Indian National Army (INA), an armed movement rallied by the Indian revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose, who visited Singapore in July 1943.
The 40,000-strong army comprised Indian civilians here as well as Indian prisoners of war who originally fought with the British.
The Japanese backed the INA as they wanted to use it to fight the British on the Indo-Burma border. The army is the subject of a book to be launched later this month on Bose's legacy, titled A Gentleman's Word and published by the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.
Mr Bala joined the INA's youth wing in 1943 because he had long chafed against the 'arrogance, superior attitude and colonial pride' of the British.
He lists instances of British discrimination - toilets in Singapore at the time were segregated and marked 'European' and 'Asiatic', while his older brother 'was once hauled up by a British officer and told to clean up a public toilet that had been dirtied by a passer-by'.
In the youth wing, he was trained for intelligence work on the Indo-Burma border. This involved making studies of British camps and other strategic facilities and reporting back to his officers.
However, he never went to the front, where the Japanese and the INA were suffering heavy casualties. As much as one-third of the army could have perished in the 1944 battle for Imphal in north-east India.
As a result of their alliance with the Japanese, members of the army were treated better than the rest of the Singapore population, which subsisted mainly on rice and sweet potatoes.
'We got to eat mutton once a week and chicken once a month. We could drink black coffee and black tea,' Mr Bala recalls.
He says INA members did not suffer any backlash from locals during the war, though they experienced some hostility after the war from Indians and Malays who were pro-British.
By 1945, however, tension set in between the Japanese and the INA, as the Japanese were losing the war against Britain and other Allied forces and the INA was seen as a burden.
After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, Bose ordered the INA to disband immediately.
Today, a monument to the Indian National Army stands at Esplanade Park. A few readers have weighed in recently in this newspaper's Forum pages that this historic marker is disrespectful to the other war dead who lost their lives fighting the Japanese.
Mr Bala's view, however, is that 'the memorial was set up in memory of soldiers who died fighting for a cause they believed in - the independence of India'.
He thinks that spirit of heroism should not be discounted just because they fought on the losing side and that it 'should be respected by both the victor and the vanquished'.
After the Japanese Occupation ended, he went back to school and obtained his Junior Cambridge certificate, the equivalent of O levels. He has held various jobs in media and public relations, including being a journalist at two now-defunct newspapers, the Tribune and the Singapore Tiger Standard.
He and his 62-year-old wife, who works for Changi Airport, have two god-daughters aged 35 and 40. He has also been active as a grassroots volunteer for 25 years.
His wartime experiences have driven home two things to him. One, the need to 'fight for your rights, without fear or favour, in a peaceful manner'.
The other is the importance of patriotism to your country, which to him now means Singapore. 'I hope young people today can spare some time for community service,' he says.