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The Last Survivors: Omar Senik (Ep. 1)

THE date is Dec 7, 1941. The Japanese are poised to make an audacious surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

But little do people know, an hour before that historic moment, Japanese troops landed first on Pantai Sabak to invade Malaya. It would prove to be the moment the war in Europe became an actual world war, bringing Asia – and Malaya – firmly into the theatre of World War II.

These days, there’s nothing in Pantai Sabak that points towards its historic significance, or the remarkable stories of war and hardship that would follow in the years to come. No plaques, no monuments – nothing to remind the younger generation of the blood that was spilt here.

But Omar Senik was there on the beach that day, then a young man of around 13-15 (he doesn’t have a birth certificate), singing songs with the British Indian soldiers.

Many of those soldiers would be killed in the fierce battle that followed with the Japanese troops, a battle which Omar recounts on the first episode of The Last Survivors (rage.com.my/lastsurvivors), an online documentary series on Malaysia’s World War II survivors.

“There were gunshots everywhere. The villagers tried to escape by boat, but Mr Kawasaki stopped us,” he said. Kawasaki was a Japanese spy who had been living among them. “He used to give sweets to the children, so we were very shocked to see him leading the Japanese troops up the beach.

“There were bodies everywhere on the beach. I was a fisherman back then, and nobody wanted to eat fish after that because of the bodies.”

From Pantai Sabak, the Japanese would go on to capture the rest of the peninsula and Singapore from the British empire, which was already at war with Nazi Germany.

Auditor Kavina Mathavan, 24, had grandparents who were alive during the war, but like many young people today, she did not know what the youth of that generation went through.

“My grandfather was a prisoner who was captured and tortured by the Japanese. He was unrecognisable when they released him, and everyone thought he was dead,” said Kavina.

“I wish I could have asked him about it, to find out more about what he went through. If my mother hadn’t told me about it after he passed away, I would never have known.”

To make sure stories like Kavina’s grandfather’s are never lost again, R.AGE has started The Last Survivors, an interactive video documentary project to find stories and locations of WWII significance in Malaysia and Singapore.

The project, launched yesterday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the final signing ceremony in Kuala Lumpur which confirmed Japan’s surrender, will start with a video series produced by the R.AGE team, and continue with story, photo and video contributions from young people across the country.

“The younger generation needs to know these stories so we can avoid war. We should appreciate peace, because everything about war is bad,” he said.

Screenshot WW2 2

We brought Omar back to Pantai Sabak, where he and WWII researcher Zafrani Arifin chatted about the Japanese invasion.

Last survivors

To film The Last Survivors, we took the survivors back to the locations where their stories took place, and most of them are now fairly nondescript – a school asrama, a deserted beach, a church, a charity hall.

Case in point: survivor Ethelin Teo, 85, witnessed the execution of locals accused by the Japanese of being spies working against them, and she said they were buried at Teluk Cempedak, right beneath the beach’s popular fast food joints.

“There was a public trial in the padang (Padang Majlis Perbandaran Kuantan),” said the former nurse, who now lives in Shah Alam. “Those condemned were taken to Teluk Cempedak in a lorry and lined up in front of a hole. They were shot, and their bodies were buried where they fell. I knew one of them, a lady, who I think was a spy back then.”

While she’s not sure if the bodies are still there, Lee is adamant that’s where they were buried.

“It was all jungle back then, with only a small path leading to that spot on the beach. There was no road but the Kempeitai (the military police) made one.”

Teo’s grandson, Teo Kheng Soon, said hearing about these stories from his grandmother made them exciting.

“The way she tells it makes it feel like an action movie!” said Kheng Soon, 31, a chef. “When I was younger and we visited Kuantan, they would point out where the bodies of thieving villagers used to hang at the padang.

“When I was younger I just wanted to play on the trees at the padang, but if I went back now and saw them, I’d have a very different reaction,” he said.

Teo’s husband, Teo Kim Beng, 89, had a rather different experience of the war. He had just finished his studies in Singapore, and was working there in a company that handled imports and exports. The company did a lot of business with the Japanese, so his family was spared from a lot of hardships.

“He was pretty well off at the time, but after the war, the ‘banana money’ (the currency issued by the Japanese government in Malaya) became worthless. That’s why I always say – why didn’t I meet him back then?” she said with a laugh. “We had no money, no food in Kuantan, but he was living comfortably in Singapore.”

For most people, food was hard to come by. Former civil servant Andrew Carvalho, 86, quit school to work at a paper mill in Malacca run by fellow Eurasians under the Japanese.

“I had to stop school to earn rice for my family. They used to supply rice, tapioca, sweet potatoes and cigarettes for employees at the paper factory,” said Carvalho. He wasn’t given any money, just food supplies.

Ethelin’s family survived on a diet of tapioca (which her family planted themselves), and the two tins of rice the Japanese would give out to each family every week.

“They didn’t care how many of us there were. They only gave two tins the size of milk tins. We had tapioca and rice porridge every day.”

Etheline and her husband at Teluk Cempedak in Kuantan, where she tells us the Japanese had buried bodies of traitors.

Etheline and her husband at Teluk Cempedak in Kuantan, where she tells us the Japanese buried the bodies of ‘traitors’.

Atrocities

Unfortunately, many of the survivors’ stories include painful recollections of the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers.

To this day, James Jeremiah, 92, still cannot bring himself to go to the Wesley Methodist Church in George Town, Penang because he can still remember the screams of the people who were tortured there by the Kempeitai.

James was part of the British volunteer force, and is the last surviving member of the Eurasian “E” Company. When the Japanese took over, he was chosen to become an office boy.

“The Eurasians with lighter skin, including my British commanding officer, were taken away and interned in Singapore. I think I was spared because I had darker skin,” he said.

“I had to make coffee for the Japanese officers and polish their shoes at Wesley Methodist Church (converted into a Kempeitai office), but I couldn’t take the screaming of those being tortured.”

The screaming was so bad, James requested a transfer to the railway company, where he became a locomotive driver.

James Jeremiah speaking to R.AGE journalist Vivienne Wong at Fort Conrwallis, Penang.

James Jeremiah speaking to R.AGE journalist Vivienne Wong at Fort Conrwallis, Penang. He remembers the screams of torture victims at the Wesley Methodist Church (converted into a Kempeitai office) were so bad, he has not revisited it in over 70 years.

Carvalho remembers his uncle being taken away to the Meng Seng charity hall in Malacca, where he was tortured for three days and sentenced to life imprisonment, all for listening to the radio. The Japanese confiscated all radios during the occupation.

“They used to call the Meng Seng building a ‘house of hell’. They used to do water torture there,” he said.

While Carvalho’s granddaughter Kyra Carvalho, 12, finds his stories of the past interesting, her friends don’t share her interest in them.

“They find me boring when I talk about it. They only know about Hitler,” said the student, who also lives in Malacca. “I think they’re not interested mainly because it’s in the past. They think it’s better to learn about the present, and work on it for the future.

But for someone like Omar who has been through the war, the best way to work towards the future, is to learn from the past.

“The younger generation needs to know these stories, because these things might happen again,” he said. “They should do whatever they can to avoid war, because to live in peace is a blessing. That’s all I would say to them.”

If you know any World War II survivors who would like to share their stories, please get in touch with us. Email us at alltherage@thestar.com.my or message us on Facebook. For more on The Last Survivors, click here.
  • The acute food shortage during the Japanese occupation can be examplified by my experience of buying a banana. When buying a banana, the stall-holder will ask you if you want to buy the banana with the skin or without the skin. If you want it with the skin it will cost more. If you want it without the skin it will be cheaper but you will have to peel and eat the banana there and return the skin. This is because the banana peel is sold, as it can be boiled and eaten.
    I am 77 years old.
    M.Ganeshadeva

  • During the Japanese occupation, inflatable inner tubes for bicycles were scarce and locally produced solid rubber tyres were used in most bicycles. I had painful experiences riding such a bicycle and always ended up with severe stomach cramps.

  • On my way back from school, I would invariably encounter a hospital laborour pulling a hand-cart with about 10 pale malnourshed corpses, on his way to the burrial ground. This was from a small hospital in a small town.

    • R.AGE

      Thanks for sharing your memories with us M.Ganeshadeva. Where were you during the Japanese Occupation?

      • I was in Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan during the war years. I studied in Tuanku Muhammad school Kuala Pilah which was used as the kempetai headquarters for that town. Most of those who were taken there for interrogation never returned. I understand that the land behind the school was used as a burial ground for those executed.

        • Marina

          Dear Mr. Ganeshadeva,
          Very interesting account of the Tuanku Muhammd School during the Japanese occupation. Was wondering during the Japanese occupation whether this school was used as a breeding place for rats and rabbits for some sinister purpose by the Japanese. Found an article from the BBC UK in Chinese whereby some of the residents in Kuala Pilah indicated that this school was used as a breeding ground for the rats and rabbits. I am a researcher at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and would be interested if you could share more information about the Tuanku Muhammad School. I can be reached by email at: mabdulma@hotmail.com for a more detailed discussion on this matter.
          Thank you.
          Miss Marina

      • Hardly anyone of the civilians wore clothes that did not have patches to cover tears and holes in their clothes. The tears and holes were patched with a piece of cloth of a different type ( eg. floral design that did mot match)that was glued over the tear or hole with rubber latex which also attracted dirt and the patch was surrounded at the edges with unsightly black dirt. Since every one wore such incongruous patches it did not look comical.

      • M.Ganeshadeva

        I was in Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan during the war years.o

  • Rajandran Martin Dawson

    I think this projek is very interesting.When I was a boy,I use to ask my father about the japanese.Thank god i did,for his words are like black pearl.My father was Mr Thomas Dawson,his father was Frank Anthony Dawson.My grand father was a health inspector.When the japanese came-they spared him because he was in the health and very close to the top officers.As there was a shortage of food,my father and his brother use to steal food and stock them at home above the normal ration.According to my father,the japanese found out and at once came and took evertihing away,they beat my father and his brother but spared their life when my grandfather pleaded with top officers and assured them it would never happen again.I am Martin Dawson,his son,memory to tell my daughter and share with everyone.Thank you RAGE.

    • R.AGE

      Hi Martin,
      Good to hear that you took the time to ask your father and that he had many interesting stories. Where was he located during the war? If you wish, we can add his story as a pin on our interactive map.
      The next episode of The Last Survivors will be out next Monday 🙂

  • John W

    My grandfather was mistakenly taken away and beaten to half death because he resembled the look of another suspect the Japanese army tracing as traitor. After his release eventually, he suffered severed injuries. He lost his factory when the war arrived and everything was ruined after the occupation. He died at the age of 86. Location: Kuala Lumpur

    • R.AGE

      Hi John,

      Sorry to hear your grandfather had such an awful experience and thank you for sharing his story. Do you know what type of factory it was and whereabouts in KL it was located?

  • Mellissa Pang

    This is one awesome column. Wished more survivors could tell their stories and could contribute to this before all knowledge is lost forever. Let the new generations knows the hardships that war can brings and the destructions to all. History cannot be rewritten but it can be lost if not told.l.

    • R.AGE

      Hi Melissa,
      Thanks for commenting our on project – we have more episodes to come. Yes, sadly the older generation will soon be gone and there isn’t much information about the war in Malaya (or rather, Malaysia) available. We were very lucky to have the privilege to interview these survivors and hopefully the youth of today have been inspired to find out more about the war and what their grandparents went through.

  • Kelly Teo

    I am the 2nd son of Etherlin Teo, one of the witnesses featured in your article above. Compliments to R.Age and Star for taking the initiative to preserve an important part of Malaysia’s history. Without it a nation loses it’s real identity, it’s cohesiveness and it’s shared values.
    Singapore has preserved much of it at the old Ford Factory in Bukit Timah, with artefacts, photos, film, witness recordings and literature of all the events during that period. Malaysia should share in that heritage, after all, both countries were one and the same from historical to post-colonial times.

    • R.AGE

      Hi Kelly, thank you so much for commenting! Your mum was a joy to film and so full of life.

      We’re afraid you’re right – Singapore has done a better job of preserving our history. it was quite hard finding detailed information about what happened in Kuantan. Without eye-witnesses like Ethelin, these memories would be lost forever.

  • Lee Janet

    Very interesting column. My Dad will be 90 years old in May & he still tells us gruesome stories of what happened during the Japanese occupation. He knows Mrs Etheline Teo and they were best of friends. Schoolmates if I am not mistaken. Showed Dad her photo as featured in your column of the STAR. My Dad is Lee Boon Sow, residing in Kuantan. I am Janet Lee his daughter. Great work.

    • R.AGE

      Hi Janet, glad you enjoyed our documentary. Does your father have similar memories to Ethelin? We would love to hear his story if you could email us at alltherage@thestar.com.my.

      FYI, Ethelin’s episode will be released in the next two weeks. Hope your father will enjoy it! =)

  • M.Ganeshadeva

    i was told that the spies who were attached to Japanese companies even before the war.later joined rhe fegular Japanese army towards the end of the war when it appeared apparent to them that they were going to lose the war -because spies are not covered by the Geneva Convetion and wii me summerily executed as they will not be considered as prisoners of war.

  • Merlene

    Hi… my mum is now 88 years old and she has some very interesting stories to tell about the Japanese Invasion in 1941. Her name is Bridget Narcis and she resides in Bagan Ajam, Butterworth. I can arrange for her to be interviewed if you are interested. I am currently working at Eastern and Oriental Hotel Penang. I am in charge of the hotels’ Social History corner.

    • R.AGE

      Hi Merlene, thanks for contacting us. Perhaps you could email us a number we can contact either you or her on, as well as some information about her memories so we can add it to our interactive map?
      If you could give us a few points of information – where she was, which locations, what was the memory – that would help us greatly 🙂

  • merlene

    Hi there… my mum would be really happy if you could contact her at 0164522487. She was 14 years old during the Japanese Occupation. At that time she was in Bukit Mertajam.

  • do you think Sarawak people suffered more? There was embargo of ships from Singapore, and there were no rice import.

    • R.AGE

      Hi Ann, we still haven’t been able to find survivors in Sarawak to be interviewed, so we’re really not sure. But if you know anyone, please email us at alltherage@thestar.com.my. Thanks!

  • I’m not sure if my grandmother would remember anything that happened during the Japanese Occupation, but I believe she should be in her 20s when the war broke out. I’ll ask her! 😀

    • R.AGE

      Thanks Dila, let us know if she has any stories and we’ll share it on our page 🙂

  • Amirul

    Please find Pvt. Ujang Mormin. He is the only WW2 veteran from Royal Malay Regiment that maybe still alive. He fought alongside Lt. Adnan Saidi at Bukit Candu, Singapura but managed to escape from capture.

    http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/veterans-relive-battle-pasir-panjang
    http://www.kosmo.com.my/kosmo/content.asp?y=2012&dt=0831&pub=Kosmo&sec=Varia&pg=va_01.htm
    http://www.sinarharian.com.my/nasional/wira-pertempuran-bukit-candu-singgapura-masih-hidup-1.31133

  • alec

    I notice in the article dated 22nd march,mention japanese fighter jets based in johor bombed singapore.During early part of ww2 there are no fighter jets yet until later period of the war after 1945.Do a thorough research first.

    • Vivienne Wong

      Dear Alec,

      Thank you for your comment on The Last Survivors. Perhaps we should have put fighter planes. Another survivor, James, has also mentioned seeing the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters in action in Penang before they made their way down to Johor and Singapore.

      But don’t worry, we’ve changed it in the story. Have a nice day!

  • cool project! you should get the videos subtitled into Japanese since a lot of young people in Japan are being led to believe Japanese army were good decent folk, liberating people of Malaya from the Brits! https://revisionistjapan.wordpress.com/2016/03/22/malaysian-history-textbook/

    • R.AGE

      Thanks! We’ll definitely look into that =)

The Last Survivors interactive map

Contribute your WWII survivors’ stories to this map by emailing us at alltherage@thestar.com.my.

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