by Sally Ma
*Syonan- name of Singapore during the Japanese occupation
Shortly after the British surrendered Singapore to Imperial Japan in February 1942, the Japanese Military executed Operation Sook Ching to wipe out all anti-Japanese elements. The Japanese military police, Kempeitai, were afraid of Singapore resisting Japanese rule and feared losing control of the city. Therefore, General Tomoyuki Yamashita ordered the military to execute members that would be considered a threat to the Japanese government. The series of purges to eliminate all anti-Japanese threats among the Chinese community is known as Sook Ching, in Chinese translation means “purge through cleansing.” From February 21 to March 5, the Japanese military summoned Chinese males between the ages of 18 to 50 for mass screening and executed those who were suspected to be anti-Japanese. They considered members of the volunteer force that resisted Japanese occupation in Malaya and Singapore, communist, looters, people who owned armed weapons, businessmen who provided financial support to resist Japanese invasion in China, gangsters, and names of people on the list given by the Japanese intelligence to be anti-Japanese.
In order to adequately secure control of Singapore, General Yamashita’s priority was to eliminate all Chinese resistance. There was a massive influx of refugees coming from Malaya Peninsula due to the recent Japanese invasion. The population of Singapore was estimated to be 1.4 million, and more than half of the population was ethnic Chinese. In comparison to the Chinese population in Singapore, the Japanese treated Indians and Malaya more kindly. The Japanese did not trust Singaporean Chinese because the Japanese and Chinese have already been fighting for about five years since the Second Sino-Japanese War beginning in 1937 and many of the Singaporean Chinese support resistance against the Japanese force in China. For that reason, the Japanese launched a brutal operation to wipe out and clean impure elements against Japanese ideology and specifically targeted the Chinese population.
Operation Sook Ching divided Singapore into four regional zones to assemble the Chinese community in preparation for the screening process. Issues and notices were sent out, posters were shared, and men used loudspeakers to announce the news to advise Chinese males between the ages of 18 to 50 to present themselves at screening centers. Kempeitai carried out the screening sessions and decided which individuals are deemed to be anti-Japanese. However, the Japanese military police poorly conducted the selection process. The specifications to measure anti-Japanese qualities differed in every screening center and officers. In some instances, victims were chosen solely based on their occupation, others were selected based on the way they responded to questions, and some were suspected because of their tattooed body. The chosen suspects were transferred to isolated areas in Changi, Punggol, and Bedok for execution. It is estimated that the Sook Ching Massacres killed 10-20 percent of the Chinese male population in Singapore. According to the Japanese record, Sook Ching killed 5,000 civilians, but Singapore’s record estimates the death toll to be 50,000 to 70,000. However, the exact number is unclear due to lack of written records.
Geoffrey C. Gunn, “Remembering the Southeast Asian Chinese Massacres of 1941-45,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol.37, No.3, August 2007, pp. 273-291.
Jean Abshire, “Chapter 5: Fortress Singapore to Syonan-to: World War II,” in The History of Singapore (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011).
Lee, Geok Boi, The Syonan Years: Singapore under Japanese rule 1942-1945 (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram, 2005).
Peter Thompson, “Chapter 26: Sook Ching (Purification by Elimination),” in The Battle For Singapore: The True Story of the Great Catastrophe of World War II (London: Piatkus Books Limited, 2005).