25 July 2004

Naipaul on the Japanese in Malaysia, 1942-45

The Japanese were in Malaysia for three years and eight months. Until they came, Syed Alwi had not seen violent death. Now, near the market in Taiping, where his old English-language school was, he would see staked heads. He was told that they were the heads of Chinese people.

Syed Alwi said, "After the first year things became bad. Food became very short--the basic necessities, rice, sugar. The life in the kampung began to go very bad when disease became rampant. We didn't have much nourishment. So you got ulcers, skin diseases. We had lost our knowledge of local herbs. We had grown used to hospitals and Western medicine. We couldn't cope with the breakdown of society.

"Besides, the Japanese had promised that everything was going to be all right, and that there would be abundance of everything. They specifically mentioned that a lot of rice would be coming, because in Japan they grew a lot of rice. Whenever they took anything from us they would say it would be repaid many times over. They would say, 'I take your bicycle now. I will repay it with five bicycles or more.' And they would add, 'Not only bicycles, but other things as well. 'They mentioned silk. And for months and months the community waited. The Japanese kept that promise alive by circulating rumors that shipments of rice had arrived and people in certain kampungs had already received theirs.

"At the beginning of newsreels, in the mobile cinemas and the theaters, they would say in Japanese, Malay, and English: 'Thank God Asia has been given back to Asians.' What followed were images of the greatness of Japan: bundles and bundles of silk and other luxury goods. This had an effect. The first Hari Raya--the festival after the fasting month--we were talking about how everybody would be dressed in Japanese silk."

But things just went from bad to worse....

Syed Alwi said, "A new way of life, a decayed way of life, began to develop. Right and wrong began to be decided not by any moral or religious or spiritual standard, but by what was good for the self and survival. If moral values were applied you couldn't survive. What was normal life then? Pain and suffering and starvation and deprivation and disease. If those were things of normal life, why should morality be the deciding factor? What was of value would be what could alleviate your pain. Or what you could find to keep yourself some self-esteem. What was normal was that you saw Japanese soldiers beating up people. You saw people being snatched in all kinds of ways. You saw people being destroyed by torture, or escaping torture or worse by jumping in the river."
SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1998), pp. 404-405

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