Sabah’s season of suffering

  • One Man's Meat
  • Saturday, 19 Jan 2019

Petagas Memorial in 1946. -Photo by Chia Yuk Tet

SABAHANS who lived through the Japanese occupation of North Borneo from 1942 to 1945 called it Musim Jipun (Japanese season). I’ve heard about Musim Jipun from my elders. They told me that life was difficult then.

They only ate cassava as food was scarce. It was a reign of terror as the kempeitai (Japanese military police) beheaded those who rebelled.

The Chinese in my hometown of Penampang, near Kota Kinabalu, switched to Kadazandusun-sounding name so that the Japanese do not know their actual race. Worthless banana money (Japanese currency featuring a banana tree) was in circulation.

That’s the little I knew about Musim Jipun.

When Datuk Danny Wong Tze Ken, my classmate in La Salle Secondary School (in Tanjung Aru, near Kota Kinabalu), WhatsApp-ed me that he was launching a book on the Japanese occupation in North Borneo, I asked for a copy. I was interested to read about Musim Jipun.

The Universiti Malaya history professor sent me a copy of One Crowded Moment of Glory: The Kinabalu Guerrillas and The 1943 Jesselton Uprising, which will be launched on Monday in Kota Kinabalu.

One Crowded Moment of Glory gave me a glimpse of the Japanese occupation in North Borneo, which was what Sabah was called before the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

The Japanese invasion of North Borneo on January 1, 1942 was like pressing a nail into a banana. There was no resistance from the British.

Unlike Malaya, Singapore and Sarawak, North Borneo had no British Imperial troops, wrote Wong.

The defence of North Borneo depended solely on the arrival of a British force of substantial strength. On December 20, 1941, all hopes were dashed with the news that the Japanese had sunk battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse off the coast of Kuantan.

The British High Command in Singapore issued a directive to the Governor of the North Borneo Company administration not to resist the Japanese army.

On Jan 1, 1942, the Japanese army invaded Labuan island. The next day, they landed at Mempakul on the mainland and took Weston town and then Beaufort.

A week later, the Japanese army took over Jesselton (now called Kota Kinabalu).

“A crowd of almost 300 was reported to have gathered along Birch Street, at the train station, waving Japanese flags to welcome the Japanese soldiers. The town was decorated with Japanese flags produced locally and sold at $2 each,” wrote Wong.

How was life during Musim Jipun?

One of the reasons for the Japanese occupation in North Borneo was to exploit its economic resources for Japan’s war needs. The local economy collapsed, resulting in much hardship.

There was a marked decline in rubber and timber exports, mainly because of the cessation of production by European-owned businesses and the closing of trade routes to importing countries.

The Japanese replaced the North Borneo Company currency with banana money. Japanese companies bought goods and food stocks using the new currency.

“The Chinese merchants were the main victims. Goods were purchased with the worthless Japanese military currency. While the currency was initially accepted as it was forced upon the people, it was not long before it was despised and discredited as a mode of exchange,” Wong wrote.

“The town populace preferred the old North Borneo Company currency, even at the peril of being discovered by the Japanese and punished.”

The main feature of the Japanese curriculum was learning Nihon-Go (Japanese language) and also singing, marching and gardening.

“However, these programmes failed to achieve the primary goal of shifting loyalty to the Japanese, partly because of the harsh treatment meted out by Japanese officers in charge of these schools, and lack of proper useful curriculum,” wrote Wong.

“The banning of Chinese and English education also strengthened the resolve of the locals, especially the Chinese community, to resist the Japanese and learning Japanese language.”

When visiting my sister’s house in Kapayan, near Kota Kinabalu, I pass the Petagas War Memorial. However, I did not know the history behind it.

Wong’s book says the memorial commemorates the fallen multi-ethnic guerrillas who rose against the Japanese in what is called the Jesselton Uprising on October 9, 1943.

The uprising was one of the few anti-Japanese movements in South-East Asia led by civilians in an occupied territory. But 75 years on, asked Wong, how well is the Jesselton Uprising remembered in the consciousness of Sabahans?

For many, including me, Musim Jipun is of a distant past.


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