Sunday January 27, 2013
Andrew Barber's Kuala Lumpur during WWII
By ALLAN KOAY
A new book traces the history of our capital city during World War II.
WE know what happened in World War II during the fall of Singapore. Noel Barber and many other authors have written about it. We can also find accounts of the effects of the war on Penang. We also know about the sinking of the British warships, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales. But how much do we know about what actually happened in Kuala Lumpur during the war?
Author Andrew Barber (no relation to Noel) felt that there has never been much emphasis on the capital city when it came to historical accounts of WWII, for some reason. So he set himself the task of retracing the city’s history during those times. The result is a book entitled Kuala Lumpur At War 1939–1945, an intriguing, suspenseful and sometimes humorous account of the days leading up to the Japanese invasion and thereafter.
“I had already written a book about Penang,” says Barber at a recent interview, “and I kept on getting references to things happening in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. I couldn’t use them in the Penang book (Penang At War, published in 2011), so it was a shame.
“Some people had written about Singapore, a lot has been written about the military side of things, the defeat of the British, but not so much about the Japanese occupation and what happened.
“When I got into it, I was amazed at things like what had happened in Pudu prison and the comfort houses, and the commandos and Force 136 guerillas.”
Kuala Lumpur At War provides a vivid picture of pre-war life in the city. While trouble was brewing in Europe and elsewhere, KL-ites lived under a false sense of security, believing that the British would provide enough protection should the Japanese attack. Life went on as usual, with newspapers advertising dinner dances next to reports of the war, and businesses going on as if nothing important was happening. It was December 1939 and preparations for Christmas were on-going, especially in the expatriate community.
On page 41, Barber wrote: “Initially, despite an air of foreboding, life in Kuala Lumpur carried on as much as it ever had. The city worked as normal and the main shops were firmly into the Christmas season and would not be distracted from their commercial imperative by the irritant of a Japanese invasion.”
But as the Japanese got ever closer, panic started to set in.
Barber, who studied history at Cambridge University, writes with an academic posture as much as he does with a full-on thrilling and often times scary narrative of a ripping good yarn. He conveys a palpable sense of inevitability as an ill-prepared urban society realised that the lack of British aerial and ground firepower to match the Japanese Zeroes and advancing tanks would be the making of the city’s downfall. Then began the city folk’s frenzied, terror-fuelled exodus.
The Japanese actually landed in Malaya just one hour before the infamous attack on the US Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor (Dec 8, 1941 in Malaya, Dec 7 in the United States). Barber details the advance of the Japanese from the north of Peninsular Malaya until the British’s last stand in the battle of Slim River, Perak. In KL itself, there was actually very little fighting.
Barber first came to Malaysia as a diplomat in 1998. After some years, he returned to London to work at the Foreign Ministry. Today, he runs AB&A, a corporate research company based in KL, and has been doing so for the last 12 years.
“I wrote some articles for Expat magazine,” Barber explains. “After about a year-and-a-half of writing monthly articles, I thought, why don’t I pull all these articles together? I had the bones of a small book. All I needed were photographs.”
It became his first book, Malaysian Moments – A Pictorial Retrospective, a collection of “small stories about Malaysian history” accompanied by some lovely photographs. The profits from the sale of the book were donated to the Lighthouse Children’s Home.
He subsequently wrote Malaya, The Making Of A Nation: 1510–1957 and Penang Under The East India Company: 1786–1857, followed by Penang At War.
Immersed in history
For Kuala Lumpur At War, Barber, who describes himself as an “amateur historian”, spent two years on research, with a bulk of the work carried out in London. He also found a lot of good historical records in our Arkib Negara, and talked to war survivors.
“If you enjoy it, it doesn’t feel like work,” says Barber. “To be honest, I probably neglected my office. I would go to the archives, and I would tell my office I would be about half an hour. But it would take five hours!”
A lot of interesting and rich stories emerged that surprised even Barber himself. In the book, he fleshes out various aspects of life during the Japanese occupation. There are the brutal kempetei (Japanese military police) and its reign of terror; the harrowing conditions in Pudu prison, and the trials and tribulations of the various communities, from the Malays, Chinese and Indians to the Eurasians. (Spencer Chapman of The Jungle Is Neutral fame also gets a few mentions.)
Then there is also the wartime economy, when funnily, even panties became a controlled item, and food shortages led to cows’ tails being cut and stolen by thieves for meat.
One of the most heart-rending stories is the one about Doris Van der Straaten, an Australian woman who was eventually killed by the kempetei under dubious circumstances.
Her extraordinary story led her from the jungles of southern Thailand to the Taiping prison hospital in Perak. Then she became the concubine of a Japanese colonel before the Japanese arrested her and she was thrown out of a window.
“Amazingly, despite the fact that this woman plunged to her death from the top floor of the kempetei headquarters during interrogation, her interrogator was not convicted.”
Telling it like it is
Barber is also unflinchingly honest about the failure of the British in defending Malaya and their unpreparedness. They relied instead on optimistic propaganda that helped to buoy a false sense of security among the residents of KL. On page 36, Barber wrote: “Observant witnesses, however, might have noted in the array of military equipment being paraded through the streets of Kuala Lumpur that the British lacked tanks on the ground and modern fighter aircraft in the sky.”
“I couldn’t do anything else but be honest,” says Barber. “The British performance was pretty poor. But this isn’t saying there wasn’t a lot of individual bravery. A lot of British people died.
“Normally when you’re in a defensive position, as the military, you would expect the attacker to have a much higher level of casualties, usually two to one. But if you look at the casualty rates among the British and Indian troops, they were higher than among the Japanese. So there was no lack of bravery.
“What there was, was a lack of competence ... the British were very stretched at that stage; they didn’t have tanks or aircraft. So technologically they were behind. But they had a lot of people and artillery, and the advantages of defence. But you have to give credit to the Japanese. They were a formidable machine, they were very hardened. They had seasoned troops and had been in Manchuria.”
Barber had many people read various drafts of the book to weed out factual errors and inaccuracies. “Hopefully, it is a piece of light history that a student or just anybody can pick up,” says Barber. “Equally, I do hope that the scholarship and the research are sound.”
Asked what the reaction has been to an “outsider” like him writing about local history, Barber replies: “People have been really generous. There were some who said, ‘We should be doing it. Why should it take a foreigner to write about our history?’ And I agree. I wish more Malaysians would be interested, because the history is so fascinating. They might end up with very different comments and views.”
> Kuala Lumpur At War 1939–1945 is available in all major bookstores.