Malaya at War (part 2)

by V. Jegatheesan

For Part 1, which covers days 1 and 2 of the tour, please visit https://museumvolunteersjmm.com/2019/09/02/malaya-at-war-part-1/

Tour – Day 3

This was a long day. The first stop was the Army Museum Port Dickson. It is a small museum but filled with interesting displays and exhibitions. For airplane buffs, there is an armed Canadair CL-41G, locally renamed Tebuan, the first fighter jet of the Royal Malaysian Air Force. There is also a de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou transporter and an A4 Skyhawk. For artillery gun buffs, there is a good display of artillery guns.

Among the many displays, there were exhibition halls portraying the Melaka Sultanate, the British era and some others. However, the main attraction is a full replica of a communist tunnel system. As you walk along inside, you can see the medical supplies they had, the various arms used, a diorama of a surgery and a meeting room. This is very impressive but you must be cautious if you have a problem in closed spaces.

The tunnel

We then had a long drive to Kampar and a lunch pack to nourish us on the way. Kampar is along the old trunk road south of Ipoh and it is the first real location where the British forces put up a reasonable defence against the Japanese advance. The British plan was to stop or delay the advance and the Japanese plan was to seize it for the Emperor as a New Year’s gift. However, the Emperor only got his gift on 2nd January 1942.

The town has hills opposite overlooking the town and this provided a good place for an attack on the Japanese from high ground. Here we had the assistance of Encik Shaharom Ahmad, a Malaysian Military Historian and Researcher and his colleague, Hisham, dressed in period uniform. Also assisting was Mr. Santokh Singh, a retired teacher and another enthusiast in present day casuals. Shaharom, Hisham and Rizal are members of the Malaysian Historical Group. Though members are not academics, their keen interest and knowledge is a credit to them all. With metal detectors, they have found artefacts and have also spent money to buy the period uniforms.

The ridges are not very high, about 120m as we were told. There are three ridges i.e. Thomson Ridge, which is now a housing estate; Cemetery Ridge, which remains as such; and the Green Ridge, which has been left alone, so far. On 30th December 1941, the Japanese arrived and the battle started. Ultimately, the Japanese suffered heavy losses of about 500 or an unknown number. At one point, they even had to withdraw but the British pulled back because of Japanese reinforcements coming in from Teluk Anson (now Teluk Intan). This was considered a success for the British as the advance was delayed but the British still had to retreat to Slim River.

We climbed the Green Ridge and saw the trenches that remain, though overgrown. There the remnants of the artillery gun positions and trenches leading higher up to a larger area where the headquarters was set up. From here supplies were sent down to the positions. Now looking so serene and quiet, it must have been hell on those four days in the past.

A trench, now shallow

Shaharom explaining the gun pit together with Santokh

Take away the vegetation and that is how it was

A section of Kampar, now such a peaceful place

After Kampar we made another ‘Quantum Leap’ and proceeded to the Sungai Siput Estate, formerly known as the Phin Soon Estate, now well known as the spot where two of three British Planters were shot sparking the Emergency. The bungalow is no more but a monument and a gallery have been erected. The gallery had many posters and pictures. We were assisted by Mr. Harchand Singh Bedi, a Military Historian Researcher, with his immense knowledge. The monument was placed by the Malaysian Palm Oil Association. The estate is owned by the National Land Finance Cooperative Society, which is maintaining the gallery.

The gallery at Sungai Siput Estate

It was already late evening and on the way we stopped at the entrance of Elphil Estate now owned by Sime Darby. This was the scene of the first shooting of the British Planter and now there is only a board at the entrance marking the area. Unfortunately, the name on the board is Walter instead of Walker. This board was put up by the Army Museum Port Dickson and I am making attempts to contact them to correct this error.

It was a long day and we checked into the Weil Hotel just after 9pm. At Kampar we had been joined by 4 officials from Tourism Malaysia and the Director of the Northern Region Tourism Malaysia. They accompanied us for the same earlier reason to get to know the various sites so that they can create memorials or plaques to permanently recognise and remember these historical sites.

Tour – Day 4

The next day saw us at the nearby Ipoh Railway Station, which the older locals will remember for the lamb chops in its first class ‘dress for dinner type’ restaurant and later on, in ‘casuals allowed’.

In front of the station, there is the Cenotaph erected in 1927 commemorating Remembrance Day in honour of the fallen in World War 1, but now including those fallen in the World War 2, the Malayan Emergency and the Confrontation. We then moved nearby, Ipoh being a small city, to the Saint John’s Anglican Church. This place suffered some damage in Japanese aerial bombing meant for the railway station, intending to destroy the trains carrying ammunition of the retreating British forces. The church also has a small air raid shelter.

The Cenotaph

The St. Michael’s Institution in Ipoh also has a place in the war. Retreating from Jitra downwards, the British 11th Indian Infantry division suffered heavy losses. Within this this division the 2nd East Surrey and the 1st Leicestershire Regiment were so badly reduced that they had to be amalgamated to form the British Battalion. This unit remained till the end in Singapore. This amalgamation was done at St. Michael’s and later the school became a Japanese Prisoner of War camp.

We then travelled to Batu Gajah where the famous cemetery known as God’s Little Acre is situated. Here are graves of the three planters who were killed during the Emergency, as well as graves of many civilians, military and police who fell during the Emergency. This is a very old cemetery and there are also many graves of very early residents of Batu Gajah; the oldest that I saw was dated 1886.

At the entrance of God’s Little Acre
The Roll of Honour

Next stop was a town called Papan where the Malayan heroine, Sybil Karthigasu, lived during World War 2. She helped the communist soldiers of the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army and was tortured for it by the Japanese. After the war she was sent to England for medical treatment where she died after some years. Later she was reburied in the cemetery next to the St. Michael’s Church. She was awarded the George Medal for Bravery. The house is sadly in total disrepair and Mr. Law Siak Hong, President of the Ipoh Heritage Society, has taken a great interest to restore the house to a decent form. Nothing belonging to the family remains and the only reminder is the hole under the staircase where they hid the radio set, radios being banned then with serious consequences if found. Later on Sybil’s daughter donated a cabinet.

Sybil’s house in Papan
Hole under the staircase in which the radio set was hidden
Mr. Law Siak Hong giving a tour

After lunch in a nearby Pusing, we left for Taiping. Passing the well-known beautiful Lake Gardens, still peaceful despite very large crowds of people, we arrived at the Taiping War Cemetery. Here are the graves of those killed in action during the war, the Japanese Occupation and those posted here after the war but before the Emergency. Among some 800 graves, about 500 are unidentified. The Christian and non-Christian graves are in two separate sections; they are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Some members of the Taiping Heritage Society were at hand to meet us, led by their President Mr. Yeap.

A formal ceremony was held at the Cross of Freedom with a prayer and a short sermon by Reverend Dr. Philip Mathius. This was followed by the Oath by Lt. Col. John Morrison accompanied by the Last Post by three buglers of a local Scout Troup. A wreath was laid by Commodore (Rtd.)  Arasaratnam of the Royal Malaysian Navy accompanied by Colonel Dr. Robert Likeman.

The Taiping Heritage Society then hosted us to tea at the New Club, which had been founded in 1892 by members of the Perak Club (founded in 1885) in protest of the Perak Club’s rule of restrictive membership to high-ranking officials. We returned at night for our dinner here.

Tour – Day 5

The next morning was a mix of history and places of general interest. We started at the Spritzer Plant, in case you did not realise, a Malaysian company producing natural mineral water. Water is pumped from an aquifer 400 feet below, purified and bottled. The Plant is situated just below the hills, which are behind it.

We stopped at the Matang Museum, a historical building built by Orang Kaya Menteri Ngah Ibrahim, the son of Cek Long Jaffar who is credited for opening up the Larut district for tin mining. The building has variously been a Teachers College, Japanese Army headquarters, a Malay school and now a museum.

The Matang Museum

This museum is off the beaten track and is well worth a visit. One side of the perimeter wall was damaged when a Japanese fighter plane crashed into it. There are many displays and artefacts including about tin. But at the back are stone pillars, or stele, which is a Japanese memorial to their soldiers killed in the invasion at the Thai Malayan border.

We stopped at a charcoal factory in Kuala Sepetang, or once known as Port Weld. Mr. Chuah from the factory gave us a tour. This factory produces high quality charcoal from bakau, a swamp wood. Much of it is exported to Japan. The bakau is cut from the surrounding swamps. But it is well controlled with replanting and is monitored by the forestry department. Incidentally, making charcoal is not just burning the bakau. It’s a much longer and involved process. Another blog another day.

Mr. Chuah explaining how charcoal is made
Inside the empty oven

We then travelled on to Penang and checked into the Royale Chulan Georgetown. This is in the old Boustead building, which were once offices and warehouses by the quay.

Tour – Day 6

On this day, we went to the Convent Light Street. Here we observed in a classroom the names of Prisoners of War from the American submarine USS Grenadier. This submarine was sunk near Phuket and some of the prisoners were interned for 108 days in this school, which was then the Japanese Naval Headquarters. The names were etched using their belt buckles on the door and walls of a classroom. The school has preserved these by putting a glass casing over them. A plaque has also been installed.

This school was not always a school. It was built around the bungalow of Sir Francis Light, the Founder of modern Penang. It was later the Government House and the offices of the early Penang Government. There is even a well in the compound used for Francis Light and another for the public.

Francis Light’s personal well in the school compound

The next stop was the Cenotaph at the Penang Esplanade. This is placed by the Penang Veterans Association in honour of the fallen in the wars from the First World War to the Communist Re-Insurgency.

The Cenotaph at the Esplanade Penang

Fort Cornwallis was not to be missed. Exhibits are sparse and only a part of the wall exists. But it is well maintained and conservation works promise new discoveries.

The final stop was the Penang War Museum in Batu Maung. Having lived in Penang in the early sixties, this place was for me and I am sure many other Penangites, a total surprise, not having known of its existence all this time. Located in the south east corner of Penang, it was built in the early 1930’s and was equipped with anti-aircraft guns, cannons, barracks, pillboxes, tunnels and facilities for the occupants. It was evacuated by the British in their retreat in December 1941. It was taken over and used by the Japanese to protect shipping, as well as a prison. After the war, it was abandoned and disappeared in the overgrowth.

However, in the 1990s, an entrepreneur, Johari Shafie, started a company and with the Penang State Government restored the fort and created a war museum. It was opened in 2002. I personally found it to be an interesting place and spent quite some time such that I was the last back on the bus.

Lunch was at the Queensbay Mall where we separately wandered in the food court for a variety of not just Penang fare. We returned to the hotel and gathered again for dinner. This was at the TOP View Restaurant Lounge on the top (of course), 59th floor of the KOMTAR Penang. Participants were given a Certificate of Participation. One of the group, Colonel Dr. Robert Likeman, was inducted as a member of the Council of Fellows of the War History Institute. There was Malaysian Cultural dance by four dancers organised by the Tourism Malaysia.

We boarded the bus back to the hotel with farewells to mark the end of a very well planned and enjoyable tour of the Malayan battle sites. An eye opener even to me as a Malaysian with a keen interest in our history.

For Part 1 of this report, please follow the link below. https://museumvolunteersjmm.com/2019/09/02/malaya-at-war-part-1/

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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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