Lim Bo Seng

Millionaire. Activist. Romantic. SOE Operative.

Note: Chinese names are written surname-first in this article. Locations are referred to by their English names from the period (e.g. Bombay, Ceylon, etc).

Singapore in the 1930s was — as it had been for centuries — a bustling port city. Situated at the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula, its wide, placid waterways connect the Indian Ocean and the China Seas, allowing for easy access to trade routes over the entire region. Merchants from throughout Southeast Asia have been stopping here to exchange goods since at least the 1300s.

The arrival of the British colonists in 1819 attracted an influx of international traders with established networks, leading to decades of rapid economic and population growth. By the turn of the century, Singapore was one of the most important ports in the world, handling a significant amount of the trade between Europe and Asia.

Its multicultural population reflects a mix of the major racial and ethnic groups in the surrounding areas. The 1936 Census provides the following breakdown: Chinese: 76.7%, Malay: 13.5%, Indian: 5.1%, Eurasian: 2.7%, European: 0.6%, and Others: 1.5%. However, these raw percentages are misleading for a few reasons…

For one, none of these racial groups are culturally homogeneous. For example, the Indian population includes Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs; and the Straits Chinese (who have lived in the region for several generations) are distinct from the first-generation Chinese, who have much stronger ties to mainland China. Likewise, speakers of the Hokkien, Hinanese, Cantonese, Teochew, and Hakka dialects have differing cultural ties.

And, of course, that tiny percentage of Europeans represents an enormously outsized concentration of political influence and wealth stemming from the British Colonial system.

During this period, Singapore was a Crown Colony of The Straits Settlements, which also included the major states of Malacca, the island of Penang, and Province Wellesly [modern-day Seberang Perai]. The Straits Settlements were, in turn, a subset of a larger organization called British Malaya, which encompassed the Western, peninsular half of modern-day Malaysia.¹

British Malaya was an incredibly lucrative colony. In 1940, it produced 38% of the world’s rubber, and 56% of the world’s tin — two materials in extreme demand as the world threw itself into arming for global mechanized warfare… but I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

Suffice it to say: very little of this wealth was trickling down. The Straits Settlements’ policies were designed to prevent the local population from participating in government, and created hurdles for economic advancement — ensuring that many were unable to move beyond manual or menial labor, as the European colonials grew ever richer.

However, owing to its long history as a trading destination, Singapore had developed a small class of wealthy local merchants and business-owners, many of whom were involved in import/export with the surrounding countries. As a result, the Singaporean communities began to organize on their own.

These organizations represented different ethnicities, trades, political affiliations, and many other mutual interests; they created a sort of parallel system of mercantile regulation, labor organization, and governance to fill the gaps left by — and counterbalance — the British colonial policies.

The Chinese Clan associations, trade organizations, and particularly the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (which functioned similarly to a parliament) were among the most active and influential of these groups.

“11”

Lim Bo Seng was born in China’s Fujian Province in 1909, the first son after 10 daughters to an extremely successful businessman and architect named Lim Loh, earning him the nickname “11.” Loh would go on to have 27 children by his 6 wives, a familial arrangement which would not have been unusual for a man of his stature at the time. His company built several iconic buildings in Singapore, including Victoria Hall, the old Parliament House, and the Goodwood Park Hotel.

As a youth, Bo Seng is described as something of a troublemaker, though in the course of schooling, curiosity and a sharp mind began to develop. He moved with the family to Singapore at age 16, and was educated at Raffles University before leaving to attend the University of Hong Kong. He returned to Singapore in 1929 after his father had taken ill and passed away. Bo Seng inherited and expanded the family business: a brickworks, a biscuit factory, the construction company, an import/export firm, and other investments.

Quickly, his business acumen, regard for his workers, keen intellect, and general tenacity saw him become an influential leader in the community. He was a member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and served on the board of the Hokkien Clan Association, Builders’ Association, and was involved with many other social and trade organizations. He was a member of the Kuomintang [Chinese Nationalist] party in Singapore.

Now that he was the head of the household, his mother arranged for his marriage to a family friend: Ms. Gan Choo Neo, a Straits Chinese teacher at St. Margaret’s School, who had tutored some of Bo Seng’s sisters. Though the impetus for their marriage might have been traditional, their relationship was loving and dedicated. They raised a family of seven children, and he remained a doting husband, given to romantic gestures like reciting poetry and making portraits of his wife.

However, as the endless parade of steamers and sampans carry goods to and from Singapore’s waterfront, and the Lim family enjoys idyllic afternoons at the park, miles away in the Northeastern provinces of China, much darker events had begun to coalesce…

The year was 1937, and tensions between Japan and China had reached a breaking point.

Six years earlier, the Japanese had invaded and occupied Manchuria, using a series of minor — and in at least one case, staged — incidents to justify the incursions. In the intervening time, the well-equipped Japanese armies had begun to amass in China, prompting the Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces to put their civil war on hold, in order to mount a defense of the surrounding areas.

On the night of July 7, an exchange of fire broke out, escalating into a small but intense battle where a group of Chinese defended the Marco Polo Bridge from a Japanese assault. A ceasefire was called, but the diplomatic break was irreversible.

A day’s worth of hurried negotiations proved fruitless, and on the 9th, the Japanese shelled the surrounding cities. Both sides reinforced and the situation transitioned into full-scale warfare, beginning with a series of major battles around Beiping [modern-day Beijing].²

Singapore’s Chinese community sprang into action: Lim and other community leaders organized fundraisers, protests, and boycotts of Japanese products. These campaigns involved wide grassroots participation among the major dialect groups, but the pressure to conform with these organizations was intense. The Straits Times reported picket lines forcibly barring entry to Japanese establishments. Some of the small number of Chinese merchants who refused to participate received letters threatening their shops or families if they didn’t fall into line — on a few occasions, their wares were destroyed by boycott enforcers.

In February of 1938, Lim and a colleague traveled in secret to the Dungun District of Malaya’s Trengganu province. Here, they helped organize a strike of 2,300 indentured Chinese workers of the Nippon Mining Company — whose iron ore was being exported for the manufacture of Japanese materiel. The strike closed down the mine during a crucial period for Japan’s armament, and some of the workers returned with the Singaporean organizers, where they were welcomed by the Chinese community, resettled, and employed.

At this point, the British were still pursuing a course of appeasement with Japan, and they began to view this well-organized and effective activism with some apprehension. Additional suspicions arose that some of the benignly-titled “Relief Funds” were actually being funneled to Chinese military groups.

The colonial government might have eventually moved to suppress some of these activist groups, had the outbreak of war in Europe not diverted their attention to prioritizing the steady flow of tin and rubber from Malaya, and fortifying their naval presence in the region. Through 1941, the British remained primarily focused on defending the British Isles and North Africa.

While the Japanese continued to seize new territory and positioned their forces throughout Southeast Asia, the Allies used oil embargoes in hopes of slowing their progress — a move which backfired, as the Japanese expedited their invasion plans to secure a steady flow of resources.

The first air raid on Singapore arrived concurrent to the attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 8, 1941.³ The situation became critical two days later, with Japan’s surprise sinking of the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse off the East coast of Malaya, which threw the entire British Southeast Asian defense strategy into question, and left the region exposed for amphibious invasion.

Now finding themselves politically aligned under extreme duress, the British reached out to local organization leaders. Lim served on the newly-formed Mobilization Council⁴ as head of the critical Labor Recruiting subcommittee.

Here, he helped to recruit around 10,000 people for the noncombatant Labor Service Corps [responsible for cleanup and repair in the aftermath of bombing raids], and defense forces such as the colonial Straits Settlement Volunteer Force, the Civil Defense Corps, and the all-Chinese group, the Dalforce.

The Battle of Singapore

Over the next two months, the Japanese advanced southwards from Thailand and Malaya, gaining key victories over the British in quick succession. The British fell back to concentrate a final defense of Singapore, which was under frequent aerial bombardment. The Japanese crossed the Straits of Johor on the 8th of February, and the Battle of Singapore began.

During the ensuing evacuation of Europeans (sometimes called “Singapore’s Dunkirk”), Lim and a colleague from the Mobilization Committee are contacted by a representative from the British government. The British have learned that owing to their Anti-Japanese activism, they are considered high-value targets — certain to be hunted down by the Kempeitai [the military police, comparable to Germany’s Gestapo] if the city falls. The British can hold a seat for them on a departing steamer, but there is not enough space for their families. If they go, they must go alone.

Lim returned home, unsure of what to do. He and Choo Neo discuss their options, and she convinced him to escape — if he remained in Singapore, he would be under the constant threat of capture, torture, and death… and he worries that his presence will further endanger his family.

On February 11, in his office on Telok Ayer street, he said goodbye to his children, entrusting his beloved wife with their care and safety. In his diary, he described this as the hardest decision he has ever had to make. In the early hours of the 12th, he set off from the island, watching the rolling fire and smoke of the battle recede into the distance.

The British defense of Singapore had been too little, too late.

They had drastically overestimated their naval position, and failed to adequately prepare for a land-based offensive from the North. The tactical fluency of the Japanese in jungle combat overwhelmed the inexperienced British soldiers, and the speed and intensity of General Yamashita’s “Driving Charge” ensured the British had no time to regroup; only continually retreat until they found themselves pinned against the sea.

Once the battle had begun, the commanders failed to adjust their plans in time for a more effective defense. The Dalforce — who had only recently been armed by the British — fought valiantly to defend their homeland, but could only delay the inevitable. Though the Japanese had been outnumbered 3 to 1, on February 15th, 1942, the island was theirs.

Churchill described the subsequent surrender as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” The few local militants who survived the battle escape North and regrouped with resistance forces in occupied Malaya, or made their way off the island at the last minute with fleeing British soldiers.

Choo Neo and the children escaped to St. John Island, where they went into hiding. Soon after, the Japanese raided the Lim family home. Eight of his relatives were arrested by the Kempeitai, all were eventually killed in captivity.

During the first month of the occupation, tens of thousands of Singaporean Chinese were systematically killed in the Sook Ching Massacre.

Lim and his fellow evacuees stayed on the move, hopping between ships and making their way West: motor sampans, a requisitioned steamer to Sumatra (where they narrowly avoided a Japanese air raid), overland to Padang, an Australian destroyer, a cruiser. Lim arrived in Colombo, and from there to Bombay, Darjeeling, and finally: Calcutta.

During these frantic weeks, Lim kept a diary. Often, these hastily penned entries begin as a record of the day’s logistics (coordinating travel plans, lodging, translators, currency exchange…) before turning to thoughts of his family.

As he sees, for the first time, the rising mountains of Darjeeling, he describes the routes and vistas as if writing a letter back home. He daydreams himself here instead in a time of peace, on a vacation with the wife and kids. At this point, he had no way of knowing if they are safe, in captivity, or worse. He overhears a familiar tune — a song he used to sing with Choo Neo while hiking — only now, it is sung in an unfamiliar language.

Along the way, Lim had joined and split with several different groups. During one leg on a Steamer, he organized the rotation for shoveling coal. Here, he had a chance meeting with a British officer escaping along the same route: Lt. Col. Basil Goodfellow, the Chief Commander of the British Troops in Ceylon [modern-day Sri Lanka].

Over several hours of labor together in the sweltering stokehold, the two exchanged stories and Lim made an impression on him as a dedicated and effective leader. They separated along the journey, but eventually both wound up in Calcutta, where they meet once again.

Here, Goodfellow arranged for Bo Seng to meet with Capt. Davis, Capt. Broome, and Col. How. This meeting functioned as a roundabout sort of interview; but it quickly became apparent that Lim was exactly the man they were looking for — and that he had also surmised the nature of their work from their lines of questioning.

Force 136

Davis and Broome decided to fill Lim in, but the need for secrecy is paramount. They were from Britan’s newly-formed Special Operations Executive [SOE] — a military branch focused on clandestine operations inside occupied territories: intelligence gathering, sabotage, and coordinating with resistance groups. The Southeast Asia arm of this group was called Force 136.

The pair had been tasked with creating a strategy for Malaya — but they’d reached an impasse.

Just prior to the Japanese invasion, the SOE had trained and equipped a small group of guerrillas, to act as a stay-behind force. During the invasion, these guerrillas had reported the size and armament of the Japanese army to the British in Singapore… but as the British defenses collapsed, the loss of Singapore also meant there was no longer any way to contact or resupply them.

What the SOE now needed was a group of agents who could secretly infiltrate the occupied cities and blend in with the local populations. These agents would simultaneously gather information, and provide a means of contacting the guerrillas, so the British could coordinate sabotage and other large-scale operations.

…but, Davis and Broome lacked the contacts to locate and organize the required personelle. This is where Lim came into the picture.

He quickly agreed to help, and threw himself into the project; He flew back and forth to Chungking, and met with generals from the Chinese National Army — who give him the rank of Colonel. He assisted in formalizing an arrangement for a joint operation, with China supplying the men, Britain providing the training, transport, and finances.

Lim gathered a group of Malayan Chinese volunteers from the Nationalist Army in Chungking: capable men willing to undertake this extremely dangerous mission. They returned to Calcutta.

In preparation for the next phase, Lim fills his diary with tidy and extensive technical notes: chemical formulas for disappearing inks, different methods of encrypting messages, tactics for concealing agents during travel, demographic information for creating believable cover stories, different methods for organizing the network, and strategies for 5th Column offensive tactics: rumor, propaganda, and sabotage.

A period of intense physical and espionage training for the Chinese agents followed, held at several top-secret sites across the Indian subcontinent to cover different environments (jungles, coastlines, etc).

The British call them Dragons.

Hidden deep in the jungles of Occupied Malaya, the Guerrillas were laying in wait. But, in order to introduce them properly, we need to back up a few years…

In 1931, after the Japanese had invaded Manchuria, they began eyeing the territory to the West: Russian-occupied Mongolia. This led to a series of skirmishes along the border, which ran through the rest of the 1930s. These conflicts culminated in a decisive Russian victory at Khalkhin Gol in September of 1939 — coinciding almost exactly with the German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact, and the German invasion of Poland which began the European Theater.

With both Russia and Japan looking ahead (respectively) to the eventuality of the Eastern and Pacific Theaters — they ceased fighting and negotiated a neutrality pact, which was signed in 1941 and remained unbroken until the final week of WWII. But in the intervening time, both countries worked behind the scenes to undermine one another.

Moscow contacted Communist groups throughout Southeast Asia, and ordered them to assist the Allies in any way possible against the Japanese. The Malayan Communist Party [MCP]⁵ (most of whom were ethnically Chinese) had reached out, and contacted the British.

Initially, the British had debated weather or not to work with the MCP — who were expressly anti-colonial, and some of whom were in prison for dissidence — as it seemed likely that any armaments or training provided to them would be redirected at the British in a bid for independence once the war was over.

But in a case of necessity making for strange bedfellows, as the British naval defenses collapsed and the invasion of Malaya became imminent, the SOE finally got the go-ahead from high command. They sprung the MCP members from jail, provided them — about 165 in total — with basic espionage training and armaments, and hurriedly dropped them into the Malayan jungles just ahead of the advancing Japanese line.

Since losing contact with the British, the guerrilla cells throughout the peninsula had located one another, formed their own communication networks, and organized a command hierarchy. They received a modest influx of volunteers from the surrounding areas, and began to mount operations.

Their small-scale strikes and raids against the better-armed and highly experienced Japanese in early 1942 often ended in failure. Eventually, in order to preserve what few men and arms they had, the guerrillas were forced to return to hiding, and a life of harsh subsistence in the jungle. Towards 1943, the groups had re-stabilized, and began to radicalize as increasingly political leadership came to the fore.

They maintained relations with nearby villages with lighter Japanese oversight, and connected with resistance sympathizers to cover necessities. But as time wore on, critical supplies like medicine and ammunition were becoming scarce.

Clandestine Operations

In May of 1943 — while Lim stayed behind in Ceylon to relay information and directions by radio — the first party of 5 men under Capt. Davis left for Malaya, traveling by Dutch submarine. They arrived off the North coast of Pankor Island, landing under cover of night in foldboats, near Lumut. They rendezvoused with soldiers from resistance forces and established a basecamp in the jungles around Sitiawan. The operation was codenamed “Gustavus I.”

Over 50 Dragons eventually landed in Malaya, by submarine or parachute. They dispersed into the surrounding areas, establishing contact with the guerrillas and infiltrating cities to collect intelligence, sometimes using legitimate businesses as covers. Secret messages were relayed via shipments driven through jungle roads; hidden in hollow tubes of toothpaste, cigarette packets, and salted fish to elude searches at Japanese checkpoints.

But over the next several months, the guerrillas refrained from forming any further plans with the British-led groups. After watching the British strategy fail so completely during the Japanese invasion, they were now skeptical of the Allies’ ability to retake Malaya.

In November, six months after the arrival of the first team, Lim traveled by submarine from Kandy to the coast of Perak, to receive an in-person report from Capt. Broome. But the Japanese had begun to strengthen patrols along their route from the jungle to the shore — and Broome (an Englishman) would be obviously suspicious if spotted.

They decided to send the MCP’s State Secretary Chin Peng to make the rendezvous instead. He made his way past the Japanese patrols, and traveled by junk to meet the submarine.

Below deck, Lim and Chin met to discuss plans. And at this point, Lim makes a pivotal decision: he is supposed to return to Ceylon and continue coordinating operations via radio — but Goodfellow has given him the authority to alter his orders as he sees fit.

Instead of returning, he disembarked — and after several days’ travel with Chin, arrives at Force 136’s new basecamp, in the jungles to the East of Ipoh.

The Ipoh Network

As the Allies made progress in early 1944, the MCP guerrillas were now severely under-supplied, and begrudgingly began to formally cooperate with Force 136 in exchange for badly needed arms, ammunition, and financing.

The negotiations were conducted in Mandarin, with Lim translating for the British. They reach an agreement whereby the MCP will “help the Allied Command to defeat the Japanese and also… assist during the period of Allied military reoccupation afterword,” in exchange for supplies.

Lim did his best to acclimate to the hurry-up-and-wait pacing of life at the hideout, filling the downtime by taking over the cooking duties with his characteristic intensity and zeal. But he soon became frustrated with merely relaying information and directing operations from the basecamp, and he decided to take the risk of embedding himself in the nearby city of Ipoh to work with the agents directly.

This decision was fiercely debated among the commanders, who were concerned about his high risk of being identified — he had done business in this area of Malaya many times before, and had a memorable disposition. But Lim eventually won out, citing the delays caused by the circuitous methods of communication with the Ipoh agents, and the advantages of having someone on-site with the authority to issue immediate decisions.

The intelligence network in Ipoh was anchored by the work of agent Ah Ng, who was running a market by the name of Jian Yik Jan, using the assumed identity of the nephew of a wealthy Chinese tapper [rubber plantation owner]. Japanese soldiers would often stop into the store, and information could be gleaned from unguarded conversations.

Lim assumed the guise of Ah Ng’s wealthy uncle, under the alias Lim Tan Choon. The first order of business was acquiring the funds promised to the MCP guerrillas. For this, he sent Ah Ng to Singapore, to meet with agents there who could supply enough currency to cover their needs — a risky assignment which required passing through the “Hell Gate” between Malaysia and Singapore, where random searches and arrests by the Japanese were frequent.

But unbeknownst to the commanders at the basecamp, relationships between the agents and their various cover businesses had begun to intertwine in dangerous ways.

Force 136 was responsible for maintaining a few small junks for submarine rendezvous, a task which they entrusted to a local shopkeeper named Chua Koon Ying, who had no military experience or espionage training. Chua had become acquainted with many of the Dragons as they circulated in and out of his shop.

By the time Lim arrived in Ipoh in March, the Japanese had already begun to put the pieces together: sightings of an allied submarine, reports of unusual nighttime boat trips, and intercepted messages. On May 23rd, the Kempeitai ran a sweep of local fishermen, who they suspected might be assisting the resistance.

They brought in Chua for questioning — and the noose began to tighten.

Acting on Chua’s information, the Kempeitai found and arrested the Force 136 agents one by one. On March 26th, an agent warned Lim that the arrests aretaking place — but he decided to risk staying in Ipoh for one more day, in hopes of making contact with Ah Ng, who should be returning from Singapore with the funds for the guerillas.

But Ah Ng never returned to Ipoh. He was arrested in Kuala Lumpur that same day, and by the dawn of the 27th, the Kempeitai had located Lim. He was arrested and taken to their acting headquarters, the Ipoh police station.

At this point, Lim had information on the location, sizes, and armaments of the Malayan resistance groups, as well as a broad overview of the British intelligence operations in the area. This information could lead to the discovery and death of resistance fighters, undercover agents still in the field, and the destruction of crucial transport materiel and equipment.

It was here that Lim’s final test of will began. But after days of brutal torture and interrogation, he told the Kempeitai nothing.

Batu Gajah

Eventually, the captured Force 136 agents were transferred to Ipoh’s Batu Gajah prison. Here, prisoners were kept in tiny cells, with only one barred window, less than a foot square, at the top of the wall. The cells contained only a bed of wood planks and a bucket. They were given only a few pieces of rotting sweet potato to eat every day.

The prisoners begin to loose weight, begin to starve. They were given only a few minutes outside each day, to quickly wash and empty their buckets. They became sick, and desperate.

Even in these dark moments, Lim’s thoughts were for his men. When the Kempeitai left them in the care of the more lenient prison guards, he gives up his meager rations in a hunger strike to protest the prisoners’ conditions, and asks the guards to distribute his food to the others.

The Kempeitai periodically returned to torture and interrogate the agents, hoping the weight of their imprisonment will overcome their endurance.

The living conditions were terrible. In a few weeks, the agents were suffering from dysentery — they were given no medical treatment. By the end of May, Lim was completely bedridden.

Seeing his condition continue to decline, the guards wrapped him in a blanket, and moved him to an open cell outside of the main prison. He was given no food, water, or medicine; he was simply left to die. Late into the night of June 29, 1944, Lim Bo Seng succumbed. He was 35 years old.

To the very end, he did not break.

The Kempeitai returned to the prison, and in the wake of Lim’s death there was a change in procedure. Their commander was upset by losing a man with such valuable information, and — if only for a short time — the Agents are given medical attention and small baskets of proper food.

In Mourning

By the end of 1944, the tide of the war was firmly against the Japanese. The Allies had planned for the liberation of Malaya and Singapore in September of 1945… but this was superseded by the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; creating an horrific inflection point in history, and leading to Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 15th.

In keeping with Emperor Hirohito’s wishes, the commander of occupied Singapore, General Itagaki, formally signed the surrender documents, and turned the island over to the Allies on September 12th at City Hall.

Choo Neo and the Lim children survived the war. She had kept the family safe by remaining hidden on St. John’s Island through the worst of the Sook Ching killings. As the years of war passed, the occupying soldiers became more lax, and many were diverted to other areas in the region. Eventually, the family was able to safely return to their home — which had been used as a Japanese barracks for a time.

She was informed of her husband’s death by a priest from the St. Andrews School. In December, she traveled to Batu Gajah with their oldest son, Leong Geok, to reclaim Bo Seng’s remains from an unmarked grave behind the prison, and returned them to Singapore.

On January 13th, 1946, he was given a funeral at City Hall. The Straits Times reported that members from every Chinese guild and union arrived to pay their respects, and “By the time the hearse carrying the casket arrived there were thousands in front of the Municipal Building steps.” He was eulogized by Col. Chuang, Brigadier P. A. B. McKerron, and Col. Broome (who gave his eulogy in Chinese).

Lieutenants of Force 136 and Lim’s oldest son bore the casket, which was draped with the Chinese flag. He was buried with full military honors, and posthumously conferred the rank of Major General.

Originally, this grave was marked with a simple cross. Bo Seng had converted to Christianity in order to marry Choo Neo, but refrained from attending services out of respect for his ancestors, who were Taoists. The current granite memorial was installed in 1952, and the foundation stone of the Esplanade memorial was laid on November 3rd, 1953.

MacRitchie reservoir was chosen for his grave site because he and Choo Neo would spend afternoons here during their courtship, and later, with the children. It remains a beautiful park, where lovers are still often seen strolling along the brick walkways, or sharing a moment beneath the shade of swaying branches.

For all of his political fire and inexhaustible drive, Lim Bo Seng remained, at heart, a romantic. During his time in Calcutta, among his diary’s many pages of carefully penned, orderly lists of catalytic agents for improvised explosives and strategies for concealing messages in the unusual placement of a letter’s postage stamp — there is a pause.

He reserved a page to record a remembered poem by A. A. Procter, in delicate script:

No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been
Since Good, though only thought,
Has life and breath —
God’s life — can always be redeemed from death.
And evil in its nature is decay,
And any hour may blot it all away.
The hope that lost in some far distance seems,
May be the truer life, and this the dream.

The fall of Singapore and the Japanese occupation set the stage for Singapore’s postwar moves towards independence. As Poh Guan Haut bitingly and succinctly comments, “Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, together with the popular myth of the white man’s superiority and invulnerability.”

The residents of the island had watched as one empire put up an ill-conceived and halfhearted defense, before simply abandoning them en masse to another. After enduring the bloodshed of the Japanese occupation, to have their country handed back over to British Colonial control was a bitter pill to swallow.

Similar experiences in Japanese-occupied colonies throughout Southeast Asia gave indelible force to ongoing or nascent independence movements at the end of the war, under varying degrees of military duress:

The Philippines — whose people had fought in sporadic battles against colonial control since the 1500s against the Spanish, British, American, and Japanese — was peacefully granted sovereignty by the Americans in 1946.

Indonesia’s Republican government declared independence from the Dutch just two days after the Japanese surrender, leading to four years of intense military conflict and political negotiations before the Dutch ceded control of the islands. In recent years, the Dutch government has formally apologized for their ruthless mass killings during this period.

To the North in Vietnam, the Viet Cong took up arms against the French, who sought to reassert their colonial ownership over a country which (in the process of resisting the Japanese) had formed a well-organized political and military structure, strong international alliances, and was heading inexorably for independence. Unfortunately, this path lay through two decades of violent and tragic warfare with the Americans.

In Malaya — as Broome and Davis had expected — the MCP’s militants simply remained armed, and regrouped to continue the fight against the British in a conflict known euphemistically as “The Malayan Emergency.” But unlike in Vietnam, this much smaller (and primarily ethnically Chinese) guerrilla force eventually lost the support of the majority ethnic Malayan population. Malaya’s independence (like Singapore’s) came more gradually, in the less-chaotic realm of legislature.

The efficacy of their prewar activism was not lost on Singapore’s residents; and in the postwar period, the local organizations spearheaded the agitation which sought to resist and dismantle colonial control — using many of the same mobilization and fundraising techniques seen in the anti-Japanese activism of the 1930s.

In 1955, the British finally introduced conciliatory legislative reforms, for the first time allowing a general election of colonial officials. The pre-election preparation and media coverage was thorough, and turnout was overwhelming.

Every official who was elected viewed Singaporean independence as not a question of if, but when.

Notes

[1] Malaysia is split into two parts, like Michigan.

The other part is to the East on the island of Borneo [not pictured], which it shares with the countries of Indonesia and Brunei. Both of these parts were British Colonies, but this story takes places only on the peninsula. Throughout this article I will be using the name of the British colonial entity “Malaya”, which refers only to the Western, peninsular part.

My proofreader had several questions about this colonial setup, which was too complex to describe in detail in the article. Here’s the gist:

  • The Crown Colonies were governed directly by the British.
  • The Federated States had a centralized (Federal) government, where the British handled defense and foreign affairs, while the local leaders handled domestic governance.
  • The Unfederated States were each governed autonomously, with “input from British advisors”.

There was a comparable setup in place for the Eastern half of modern-day Malaysia, under the name “British Borneo”. The chart near the bottom of the Wikipedia page is helpful for visualizing this infuriating tangle of bureaucracy.

[2] This conflict is called the Second Sino-Japanese war. Some historians group the conflicts from 1931 through the end of World War II into a continuity called The Fifteen Year’s War, which is a helpful Asia-focused way to conceptualize this period of unbroken military activity.

[3] Dec. 7 on the US side of the date line.

[4] In full: The Singapore Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese Mobilization Council.

[5] The Malayan Communist Party is a political entity. The formal name of this associated military group is The Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army [MPAJA]. For simplicity, I will use the shorthand “MCP” throughout, as eventually much of the MPAJA’s leadership was drawn from the political entity. There were also a few small Kuomintang [Nationalist] guerilla groups active in the Northern states of Occupied Malaya as well.

Bibliography

Note: The primary deficit this article faces is that it draws from exclusively English-language sources. While English is used as the Lingua Franca in Singapore, my lack of knowledge of Chinese creates an unfortunate blind spot for many other resources which may be available.

I have elected to present this bibliography narratively rather than as a list, in order to provide some details on each work. Most links provided are catalog entries for the NLB, or the National Archives. Materials which are available only through reference or request are marked with †.

Shoutout to “Ask A Librarian” at the NLB. I have used this service for a few projects, and it has provided excellent starting points for further exploration.

† Excerpts from Lim’s diary (which was kept in English) are available through the National Archives on Microfiche. This item also includes the transcript of a broadcast talk by Col. Broome for the Dept. of Chinese Affairs in May of 1945; which is a brief synopsis of Bo Seng’s story. [Link]

Several recordings and transcripts of oral histories are also available through The Archives’ website. Broome and Davis gave extended interviews. Other members of Force 136, Dalforce, and some of the Lim family have had interviews recorded (some are conducted in Chinese). Also, family members of Tan Kah Kee (who was extremely active in the 1930s activism, and headed of the Mobilization Council) have given oral histories. [Broome], [Davis], [Lim Bo Yam (one of Bo Seng’s brothers)]

Tan Chong Tee, who worked closely with Bo Seng during the war, has a lengthy autobiography which has been translated into English, “Force 136: Story of a WWII Resistance Fighter”. Tan was imprisoned with Lim, and his account forms the basis of this article’s telling of Batu Gajah. [Link]

There is a graphic novel titled “Lim Bo Seng: Singapore’s Best-Known War Hero” which is based primarily on Tan Chong Tee’s account, but condenses some of the chronology, people, and events for narrative flow. Some of the art is quite graphic, and may not be appropriate for everyone. [Link]

The website IRemember.SG has an interview with two of Lim Bo Seng’s children, focusing on the prewar period. This article also includes a lovely photograph Bo Seng took of Choo Neo. [Link]

† The Singapore newspaper New Nation ran an extensive 4-part account of Lim’s story, starting on May 24th, 1971, which is available on Microfiche, or the [intranet only] online newspaper system. Segments from Lim’s diary which are not included in the archive’s microfilm are quoted throughout. However, the writing style veers slightly into sensationalism at times. The final installment includes a then-newly declassified report tracing the exact timeline of the Ipoh network’s breakdown. [Link]

There are three honors theses at the national library which are excellent detail-oriented resources on specific topics:

† “Lim Bo Seng: Nanyang Chinese Patriot” by Poh Guan Huat, from the Univeristy of Singapore’s History dept., 1972. This 50-ish page paper is heavily researched, and draws from several in-person interviews with people who worked with or knew Lim Bo Seng personally. Note: The numbers given for the Dungun strike vary quite a bit in different articles. I have used the figures from this thesis, which are taken from an interview with someone who was involved with the activist group. [Link]

† “The ‘Double-Seventh’ Incident, 1937: Singapore Chinese Response to the Outbreak Of The Sino-Japanese War” by Pang Wing Seng (also from University of Singapore, ’72) includes detailed breakdowns and personelle involved with the activism during this period, as well as specifics on the activities of the different dialect groups. [Link]

† For an overview of the civil defense organizations, see “Singapore on the eve of the Japanese Occupation: Civil Defence 1939–1942” by Julie Tan Beng Geok, Dept. of History, NUS, 1981. This one is perhaps the most focused and unusual of the three; it goes into significant depth on the British perspective on civilian strategies, and the exact demographics and activities of groups like the Labor Service Corps. [Link]

The 1936 Census is available through Books.sg. [Link]

Episode 3 of Dr. P.J. Thum’s left-leaning “History of Singapore” podcast covers the early, wild west colonial stages of the country, and includes an overview of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce’s operation. [Link]

Author N.I. Low published a short memoir about his time during the Japanese occupation, titled “When Singapore When Syonan-To”. This includes two short sections on Lim, whom Low knew personally. This is an interesting book, which occasionally tends towards dark humor. [Link]

For an extremely thorough accounting of the occupation, see the book “The Syonan Years”. The library system carries multiple copies of this book at several branches. It is constructed largely from firsthand accounts in both English and other languages, and includes a wealth of visual material (which is ocasionally quite graphic). The NLB also carries a handful of memoirs from residents who lived through the occupation. [Link]

Singapore’s Ministry of Defense website includes several short articles on the history of Singapore’s military, organized chronologically. See these articles for military specifics on the Straights Settlement Volunteer Force, Dalforce, etc. [Link]

“The Diplomat” has an excellent article on the Soviet-Japanese conflicts by Stuart D. Goldman. [Link]

† The details on the Guerillas over 1941–42 come mostly from the opening chapters of “Malaya: The Communist Insurgent War, 1948–1960” by Edgar O’Ballance. This author is fairly hawkish and overtly anti-communist. I think this book is now out of print. [Link]

The NLB carries many in-depth military texts about the defense and fall of Singapore, primarily from the British point of view. I skimmed several of these to get a broad overview of several authors’ views (which generally tended to a consensus). There are a number of interesting stories concerning local commanders who highlighted Singapore’s vulnerabilities but were subsequently ignored.

Richard Gough, “The Jungle Was Red: SOE’s Force 136, Sumatra and Malaya” mentions Lim Bo Seng (but only briefly) in the broader context of the Gustavus missions. Part of a series of books about the SOE. [Link]

“SOE: Arms and The Dragon” is great BBC Documentary featuring interviews with Broome & Davis, touching briefly on the Gustavus missions. However, it tends to highlight the “tall tales”. [Link]

Quotes from the memorial section are from the Straights Times, January 14th, 1946.

† The NLB has a program from the 1954 unveiling of the Esplanade (née Elizabeth Walk) memorial, housed in an ephemera box. [Link]

Photo Credits

Cover and final photo are mine. Maps were made in QGis with considerable help from my wife (who is a geospatial data analyst). They use shape files from Natural Earth Data, and Open Street Map (with some modifications for period-correct names).

1930’s Raffles Place is from Gregory Olney’s Postcards from the Past.

“Crossing river by Gate of China.” from China Incident Photograph Album Volume 2, published in 1938 by Asahi Shimbun. [Public Domain]

Batu Gajah photo by Ng Shannon.

Musician, Bookseller at Green Apple, Blog editor at Full-Stop.net. (Occasional nonfiction writer.) http://devinsmith.work

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