'The Lion of Malaya': Insights into civilian resistance

Rebecca Kenneison (Essex), PhD Student


Page 2

Taken from Singa: The Lion of Malaya, Gurchan Singh ed. Hugh Barnes, London, 1949

Extract A: Multi-ethnic nature of the network:

The title page and the one immediately following. ROLL OF HONOUR *Dan Singh, Inspector Gurbachan Singh +Ismail de Silva *Lall Singh Bull [sic] *Low Ghee Beng, Inspector Shanmugan, M. Teja Singh *died as a result of Japanese torture +Executed by the Japanese [Gurbachan was killed in a bus crash; it is not known how Teja Singh and Shanmugan died]. CHIEF MEMBERS OF THE SINGHA ORGANISATION Who voluntarily worked for the cause of the Allies during the Japanese occupation of Malaya […] Dr. Abdul Ghani Anthony Ash Arunasalem, N. Aster Gunasekera Augustin Lye Nyen Foo Balakrishnan, M. Behara Singh, Sub-Inspector *Bhagat Singh Gill Sgt. Bughar Singh *Bhag Singh Chanan Singh Chong Tak Ngit Gurdial Singh Gurnam Singh Bull *John Sandasamy Kehar Singh Khem Singh *Dr. Kok Ho Teik Leong Hew Meng Leong Kai Swee Madame Lau Peng Kim Ramasamy Ganga Ramasamy PakryRodrigo, B.M. Sarjeet Singh Sarmukh Singh, Inspector Suppiah, P. Tan Beng Hok Tan Beng San Thirunalan, M. Toh Chin Guan Yap Ghim Leong Yap Ghim Hoe Yeoh Chai Lye *Tortured by the Kempetai

Extract B: Gurchan is left behind by the retreating British: P. 15-19:

On January 9th there were rumours that the Japanese had actually effected a landing at Port Swettenham. When we heard of it at Kuala Lumpur I was in Mr. Livingstone’s office, helping him to record statements from two North Indian Muslims, who had been arrested on suspicion of acting as Japanese advance guards. We found, however, that they had simply fled in terror of the Japanese, and they were soon released. ‘If Kuala Lumpur has to be evacuated, Gurchan Singh, are you prepared to go?’ Mr. Livingstone asked me as he closed the file of their statements. I replied that I was ready to leave whenever I was given the order. ‘Very good,’ he said. ‘Now how can I get in touch with you if the order to evacuate comes after office hours?’ ‘I am living just opposite the house where you are staying now, sir.’ […Livingstone undertakes to collect Gurchan during the afternoon of 10th January, but does not come…]. The next morning when I woke up I began to worry about him, but thought that perhaps the evacuation had been cancelled after all. I told my family so at breakfast, and they looked somewhat happier. After breakfast I decided to call on Mr. Livingstone at his house on the opposite hill, but on arrival I found it locked- up and no one about, not even the servants. I bicycled on to the office. To my surprise it was also deserted except for a few clerks, who like myself, were bewildered to discover that all the officers had apparently left during the night.

Extract C: Attitudes of the intermediary class in early 1942; decision to form a resistance network P. 21-41:

That evening when I returned home all eyes of the family were on me. I passed them as though I had not seen them and went straight to my study, where I sat at my desk planning my next move, I felt somewhat disgusted with life and rather desperate about the whole affair. I made me sad to think that I had missed the car taking the evacuees to Singapore, and I could not understand why Mr. Livingstone had left me behind. Some of my friends arrived with a bottle of whisky, which they had obtained free somehow or other. Obviously they had nothing to worry about and they expected me to be in a happy mood too. We began to discuss the war and how the Japanese would come to the Federal Capital [Kuala Lumpur]. The conversation became more heated when my younger brother Americk Singh joined us. Like me my friends were pro-British, but my brother thought that his dreams had at last come true and that he would soon see the British driven out of India […a heated discussion ensues…] My brother Americk was an Indian nationalist, who only thought of the independence of his country; but, as my Chinese friend pointed out, it would never be achieved if Japan won the war and made India part of her Empire. Feeling somewhat ousted in the argument, Americk finally turned to me and said, smiling to conceal his annoyance, ‘I’d have thought that as an Indian you at least would be more patriotic, Gurchan.’ […] My other two brothers, Gurbachan Singh and Gurdial Singh, were different. I believed they were both staunch supporters of the Allied cause. Both were still in their ’teens. Gurbanchan was the stronger and more energetic, having bee a cycling champion. I called him into my study and had a talk with him. Not only was he of my way of thinking, he responded to my plans with some of his own. ‘It’s a pity we haven’t got a tommy-gun,’ I remarked. ‘It would be so easy to finish off at least a dozen Japanese and get away without being suspected.’ ‘You’re telling me,’ he said, gnashing his teeth. ‘And the British call themselves a war-like race! they came here to protect us, didn’t they? They should do so then even at the cost of their lives. Yet they keep retreating without leaving anybody behind to fight. When they did leave a few Indian soldiers behind up north, they fought like men till they were all killed, If they’d only left behind some small groups of men to take the enemy by surprise, there would have been many more Japanese casualties, But they’re disgracing themselves with this retreat, and the Indian soldiers, too, who with any encouragement would stand and fight either to kill the enemy or get killed themselves. We Punjabis know no surrender. It’s a disgrace to surrender, better not start the fight at all. Those British officers in charge of the Malayan units should have said something like this to their men: “Though we’ve no air support, we must fight our own way by hiding in the jungles and in the hills, killing the enemy whenever we meet him. We’ve come here to fight, ready to die if need be, but we’ll take a heavy toll of the Japs anyhow.” Some words like that would have played merry hell with the enemy. But the officers themselves were afraid of being killed. We’ll tell the world the truth one day. For the present we’ve got out own part to play – a big part.’ These were the most stirring words I had heard since the invasion. They made me twice bolder than I was before. Moreover, I knew that he had spoken the truth. Malaya is a country where it would have been easy to hide in the jungly hills overlooking the main roads and fight the Japs unobserved. It was only true that most Malayans agreed with my brother as to why the British did not stand and fight or use other tactics against the enemy. The British officers had a good alibi too, in saying that the men were not trained for jungle warfare.

But there were thousands of British in Malaya who knew the country so well that they could have led troops through those jungles. I know several British civil officers who wanted to do it, but they were never given the chance. […His youngest brother, Gurdial, agrees with his aims…] Later in the day we all met in my study to discuss our plans. I told them that we must not let the rest of the family know what we were doing, success depending on secrecy and co-operation. ‘You’re both young,’ I continued. ‘Consider my ideas every carefully, perhaps you can add some of your own. To-day there are only three of us, but one day if we work hard we may have a battalion behind us without anybody knowing who’s who. We three are going to be like the hub of a bicycle wheel, our agents or rather those who help us will be the spokes. Each spoke must be quite independent of the other – I mean, one agent mustn’t know who the other is. Everyone will always be wondering who the other agents are, but no one must ever let the cat out of the bag.’ ‘Yes, but what do you propose to do?’ said Gurbachan impatiently. ‘Three things – sabotage, propaganda, intelligence. We must sabotage the enemy wherever and whenever we can. Not only destroying his heavy armaments and ammunition depots, convoys, trains and bridges but the smallest thing belonging to him. We’ll start with cutting lines of communication, removing papers from offices and destroying them. As for propaganda, we must start a sort of “whispering gallery” among our friends, tell them not to co-operate with the Japanese and get them to persuade their friends to do likewise […..] But I’ve got another idea, to publish anti-Japanese leaflets and, if possible, an anti-Japanese newspaper. I want you both to think of a suitable heading for these pamphlets and the newspaper – something striking that people can easily remember.’ […They decide to call the pamphlets ‘The Allied HQ Communique’ and to sign it as ‘Singa’ – ‘which means lion in Malay’. Within the next few days, the Japanese arrive, and Gurchan is picked up, and beaten by a Japanese major. His brother-in-law, the MD of Punjabi newspaper, is able to arrange for his release. The same night, he goes out with his brothers and they clip some newly-laid communication wires…] All electric plant had been destroyed by our retreating forces, so there was no electrical supply. Therefore, I asked my brother Gurdial, who was an expert radio mechanic, to convert our radio receiver so that it could be used with a battery. Having bought a battery, some paper and a hand printing machine with a good supply of ink, we were ready to set to work [….] It was about midnight before we had corrected all the mistakes and obtained a clean proof. Then triumphantly we looked at the first anti-Japanese leaflet printed in Malaya since the invasion began only thirty-nine days before:- “Allied HQ Communique No. 1. The Allied fight for freedom. If you are a freedom loving person do not cooperate with the Japanese. Be patient, and chins up for our speedy victory. Singa.”… Leisurely making our way into Kuala Lumpur between seven and eight that evening we merely dropped our papers outside shops and houses. As there was no electric light in the town we could easily do it unobserved. Next morning they were picked up and read by all kinds of people.’

Extract D: He covers his tracks (he tells his agents later that he is told what to do by ‘HQ’ in the jungle) P. 48:

I used these executions [of Chinese in Kuala Lumpur] as a subject for propaganda in my pamphlets, which made the townspeople all the more eager to show their deadly hatred of the invaders. I wrote as though I were a Chinese, so in those early days Singa was actually thought to be a member of the Chinese community, and this belief persisted throughout the three years of the occupation. [P.49-50 He and his brothers ambush and kill Japanese troops using grenades.]

Extract E: Expansion of network to Seremban and Singapore, via Chinese and Sikh agents P64-65:

While still carrying on with this work I decide to recruit some more agents and thus extend the area covered by our propaganda. In April [1942] I went to Seremban, a town forty miles or so south of Kuala Lumpur. There I contacted five more agents, who, of course, had been my friends in the past. I met them casually one by one and had drinks with them. From their conversations I discovered what was in their heads, and who could be trusted and who could not. If they seemed pro-Allied, I showed them some Singa communiqués, which had an immediate effect on them. They looked as though they had been hungry for days and were now getting some delicious food, the very dishes they wanted. They asked for more, and were given it in abundance. Throughout the occupation they worked faithfully for the Allied cause. There were two Chinese who were brothers, Mr. Tan Beng Hock and Mr Tan Beng San; a Malay, Inche Omar bin Said, who unfortunately collided with a military lorry whilst riding his motor-cycle, and died towards the last days of the Japanese occupation; and an Indian, Mr. Khem Singh. Soon afterwards I went on a short visit to Singapore, hoping to get some more helpers there. I met an old friend who ran a small dispensary in Middle Road [….] I had a long talk with Dr. L.S. Bull in his dispensary. (Like everyone else I always called him doctor, though he had no medical degrees.) His hatred of the Japanese was more intense than that of many who had suffered worse losses. After two hours finding that we were alone in his dispensary, since assistants had gone home for tiffin [lunch], I produced a Singa leaflet and watched the look of joy and astonishment on his face. ‘Where did you get this,’ he asked. I replied casually that they were left for me daily by a Chinese friend who was in contact with some jungle people [guerrillas]. Then he made me promise to send him copies whenever possible, and even offered to pay me for them. His enthusiasm seemed so genuine that I ventured to ask him if he could find us one or more agents in Singapore to help in the work of distributing the leaflets. ‘Leave everything to me,’ he replied unhesitatingly. ‘You can rest assured that I’ll carry out everything you want me to do; but you must send the propaganda without fail. And send as much as you can.’ [He becomes involved in the Black Market – ‘a game as thrilling as it was profitable’ – to raise more funds for the network.]

Extract F: Expansion of network to Penang P. 66-69:

[In Ipoh he recruits several Chinese and Sikhs as agents. He then visits Penang, where he meets the Chinese secretary of the Penang Turf Club] At first I was somewhat uncertain about Mr. Ong’s attitude towards the Allies. I even thought that he must be a staunch Japanese supporter from the way he agreed to organise the Penang Turf Club. So I decide to find exactly what was in his mind. Whilst discussing the races in his office one day I referred casually to politics. I expected him to reply like everyone else in Penang; on the contrary Mr. Ong responded with a great show of interest. It seemed he was already doing all he could to spread the pro-Allied gospel. An ardent listener to British broadcasts , he gave me some items of news that I had dismissed. In time I learned why he found it necessary to propitiate the Japanese authorities. He was married to an Englishwoman who was interned in Singapore, and he was trying to obtain her release. Finally, he succeeded. Though few people realised it at the time, in reality he was a most loyal supporter of the Allied cause. When we discovered we could trust each other, we helped each other in many ways.’ [P.75: He obtains confirmation that senior Japanese are aware of his pamphlets, when he is shown one by a Japanese colonel.]

Extract G: Multi-ethnic nature of the network: P. 93:

I also visited my only medical agent in Kuala Lumpur, Dr. Abdul Ghani, a Malay, who was an assistant Medical Officer in charge of the out-patients at the hospital. I went to see him almost every other day and joined the patients waiting outside his consulting room. […] From the hospital I would go to see another agent, Mr. Aster Gunasekera, the Sports Editor of the Malay Mail, who was mainly responsible for spreading Allied news among his Ceylonese countrymen. In spite of being well past forty he was extremely active. Besides receiving my pamphlets he would tell me the news which he had heard on the radio at great risk to himself. He never knew that I listened to the Allied radio, too, so I had to pretend that what he was telling me was indeed news to me.

Extract H: Sabotage P. 99-105:

After ordering some coffee and the girl had brought it, I turned to Bhag Singh, saying, ‘Look, Bhag, I want you to find me some reliable friend in the railway workshops – a supervisor, or locomotive foreman, or even an engine driver.’ ‘Why to you want such a man?’ he asked, eying me curiously. ‘Don’t tell me that you are going to run your own locomotive!’ ‘No,’ I replied. ‘it’s our headquarters in the jungle – they want to know if we can get hold of any men like that. It’s not my business to ask why, but to carry out their orders. Tell me, have you a friend of that sort – someone you can trust?’ [….] It was not until about a month later that Bhag Singh brought with him a South Indian Tamil named John Sandasamy, and introduced him to me. All three of us went to a café on the second floor of a large building, where some good music was being played. We sat at a table near the window. Here we could talk freely, for behind us was the window overlooking the street and about fifteen feet away in front of us the bandstand with a seven-piece orchestra. […] On 2nd May 1944, I met Bhag Singh again, and he told me that an ammunition train was due to leave Kuala Lumpur Station for the north at 10 a.m. the next day. Owing to the shortage of locomotives there was only one engine available – a No. 80 ‘O’ Class, which the Japanese would doubtless use to draw it. If it was ammunition or petroleum, I knew that it was intended for Burma, since owing to the trend of events the Japanese no longer dared to send such invaluable war material by the sea route. This locomotive would probably drag the train as far as Ipoh about 150 miles north of Kuala Lumpur. Thanking Bhag Singh for all this information I made my way to John Sandamsamy’s house in Bungsar Road where I was told he could be found at the locomotive round- house. He was there chatting with some friends. Calling him outside I asked him if he could do anything to locomotive No. 80, which was going to be used to draw an ammunition train to Ipoh. […] On 3rd May, 1944, he thus did his first job. When the large locomotive was on the turn-table line in the round-house at about half-past four in the morning, he set the turn- table-against the engine, opened her regulator, jumped out of the cab and ran away, while she slowly moved off and got herself derailed. […] During the next two months he repeated this operation several times. He also damaged many locomotives by interfering with the proper setting of their valves. He filled their gear boxes with water besides oil, and painted over the oil-indicator glasses of night trains so as to mislead their drivers as to the amount of oil remaining in the gear boxes, thus causing the engines to fail due to lack of lubrication. [John conducted many acts of sabotage in various ingenious ways, before he was finally arrested in October 1944.]

Extract I: ‘Warns’ of bombing raids (February 1945) P.113-156:

On the very day before the race I was lucky enough to pick up news that Allied forces had landed on the Bonin Islands, which the Japanese newspapers had not yet published. With the Allies no more than 500 miles from Tokyo, I had something sensational to exploit – something that would set people buzzing with excitement when they read it. For propaganda’s sake I also included a warning of an Allied air raid over the Sentul area, where there were many factories all producing war material for the Japanese. All that week I had been sticking up posters in that area, urging workers to stay at home that day and to keep away from the Sentul district. [He arrives early for the race, and succeeds in pasting up some of his posters. One of his agents, who is also present, assures Gurchan that this pasting up is carried out by ‘the Communists, of course. It’s their work sure enough.’] After the races the whole town was talking of what had happened and discussing the air raid on the Sentul district announced for the following day. […] On the fateful morning at about half-past seven a solitary Allied plane soared above Kuala Lumpur without at first attracting much attention. I was on my bicycle at the time approaching the town. Someone told me that it was not a Japanese plane. So I dismounted and started gazing at the sky, whereupon others did likewise. Before long the plane was out of sight, so I mounted my bicycle and rode on into town. There I saw it coming back again. Everyone declared that it was not a Japanese plane. A few seconds later the air-raid siren sounded. I watched it hopefully, thinking that if it would only drop a bomb somewhere I could claim my forecast as correct; but after about five minutes of leisurely flight it zoomed away. Half an hour later came the first wave of bombers, three B29s. Could I believe my eyes? Yes, there they were – three of them, three monsters of the air. […] But on they went till they appeared as small things near the far-off horizon, and I feared they had gone for good when I saw them turn. Back they came and a few seconds after they had passed over the building where I was, I saw the first bombs being released. […] When I rose a few seconds after the blast a huge column of smoke was rising to the sky, and I watched the planes fly away to the horizon where they were lost to sight. My joy knew no bounds. Had I not unwittingly foretold what was now really taking place? […] three more planes appeared overhead […] After that wave after wave of planes zoomed over […] From where I stood it looked as though the bombs had fallen far beyond the Sentul area; but when after the raid I left the roof and went in that direction, I learnt from people on the way that it was not so. […] Some went slightly astray, but most found their target, which was the railway workshops at Sentul. Much damage of serious consequence to the Japanese was sustained there. […] Meanwhile I decided to warn the townspeople of the possibility of another raid – this time in the Travers Road and Brickfields area. Almost at once people began to move out despite the threats of the Japs. Mixing freely with the inhabitants as they evacuated their homes, I was surprised to find how much faith they had in my writings. [He is questioned at his home by the Japanese, who discover his printing press. He manages to escape. While on the run, he handwrites a few dozen copies of his final communiqué, which he manages to paste up, warning of the Brickfields raid, due on the 10th March – the next day. The following afternoon, he attempts to catch a train.] I cycled six miles back along the track until I reached the town of Kajang, sixteen miles from Kuala Lumpur. I asked the stationmaster there what time the train was expected to arrive. He stared at me with obvious surprise, saying, ‘What train do you expect to-day? Don’t you know that Kuala Lumpur has had a very bad air raid? The main line was hit.’ [The raid had been concentrated on Brickfields, Travers Road and Damansara Road – exactly the areas ‘predicted’ by Gurchan Singh. He goes to ground in Singapore and then, with three friends – one the son of his Singapore agent Lal Singh Bul – he escapes to Thailand.]


[1] For guerrilla resistance, see Cheah Boon Kheng, Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation, 1941-1946, Singapore University Press, 3rd Edition, 2003; there is also considerable discussion of this topic in Chris Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan, Penguin, Penguin, London, 2005 (first published, Allen Lane, 2004)
[2] See Cheah, Red Star, pp. 64-71
[3] See, for example, F. Spencer Chapman, Report, HS 1/109 (UK National Archives), p.9
[4] For a fleeting mention of Gurchan Singh, see Cheah, Red Star, p.81
[5] Gurchan Singh ed. Hugh Barnes, Singa: The Lion of Malaya, London, 1949
[6] ‘Intermediary’ is another term for ‘collaborator’: someone who provided a buffer zone and a means of contact between the empire and the colonised: translators, court officials, tax collectors, police, clerks in the administration. However, the term ‘collaborator’, particularly with reference to the Japanese Occupation, is bitter and loaded, and also often ill-defined.
[7] Major C.H. Fenner, Operation Humour Report, pp. 2-3, HS 1/122, TNA
[8] These two men were Henry O’Herne and Mervyn de Neise. O’Herne: information from his widow and friends; de Niese, Liberation Questionnaire, WO344/371/2 (I am grateful to Jonathan Moffatt for making me aware of this document)
[9] See, for example, Straits Times, 28th June, 1947
[10] George Brownie, Interview, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive, 11253, Reel 2
[11] PGJ Dobree (who led the Force 136 operation, Hebrides), Private Papers, Imperial War Museum, p.35
[12] See Extracts B and C
[13] See Extract C
[14] See Extract C. This was exactly the sort of guerrilla resistance suggested by the SOE’s Oriental Mission six months earlier, and scotched by Malaya Command as being bad for ‘native morale’
[15] See Extracts A and G
[16] See Extracts A and G
[17] See Extracts C and H
[18] See Extract D
[19] See Extracts E and F
[20] See Extract I
[21] Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle is Neutral is the best-known memoir of the war in Malaya. It has been frequently republished since it first came out in the same year as Singa.
[22] Straits Times, 29th June 1946, p.7, accessed on-line 10th January 2014