By Mei Mei Chun Moy
On February 15, 1942 Singapore and surrounding Malaya countries fell into the hands of the Japanese Empire. The conflict began on December 8, 1941 when Japanese forces bombed Singapore and continued to make their way through the treacherous Malayan jungle. British prime minister Winston Churchill called the attack, “the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history”. Once the Japanese took over, Singaporeans were immediately ordered to come in for questioning. While men, women, and children were questioned, their homes were looted and destroyed by the Kempeitai, the secret Japanese police.
The Sook Ching Massacre, literally meaning “purge through cleansing”, began on February 21, 1942. The mass murder of Singapore residents ages 18 to 50, was targeted at eradicating anti-Japanese sentiments. Victims of the massacre were either Chinese, suspected of being pro-Chinese, anti-Japanese, or Communist. Men and women were questioned and if found guilty, they were taken to one of Singapore’s beaches and murdered. The death toll shows less than 5,000 according to the official Japanese record, while Singaporean officials claim the number of victims was at least 50,000.
Seven Japanese vessels in the Singapore harbor were demolished by a special forces team from Australia and Britain. Operation Jaywick was a mission to be completed by special forces, but the Kempeitai mistakenly thought the attack on the shipping vessels was carried out by British prisoners. 13 days after the destruction, on October 10, 1943, the Kempeitai infiltrated and raided cells at the Changi prison. This event is aptly named the Double Tenth Incident. The name is significant because October 10 is the date the Republic of China was founded. During the prison raid, the police found prohibited radio sets, and later interrogated 57 civilians. The Japanese were determined to find the culprit behind the shipwreck and whom supplied the radio pieces. In the end, 15 civilians ended up dead due to the horrendous torture tactics.
Elizabeth Choy, born Yong Su-Moi, was an educator, politician, and war hero. She moved from North Borneo to Singapore in 1929, and there she continued her education at a missionary boarding school. Since Singapore and the Malaya countries were under the mighty British rule, it was unthinkable that Japan would ever attack them. But on December 8, 1941, Elizabeth experienced the casualties and horror first hand while volunteering as a night shift nurse at the hospital. Very few families were prepared for the bombing, and many did not build adequate shelters. When Japanese planes began flying overhead, Elizabeth removed her family including her newlywed husband, hoping each new place would be safer than the last.
When Japan conquered Singapore everyone was immediately mandated into concentration camps and questioned. Soon after, the Sook Ching Massacre occurred ensuing in chaos and devastation everywhere. The ghastly acts continued for many weeks. Numerous were arrested and sent to Changi prison. When Elizabeth’s husband and father were released, medical professionals from a hospital named Miyako asked them if they would be willing to open a restaurant where the staff could buy food. Elizabeth and her family agreed to help. The Japanese sent ill prisoners to Miyako to be treated. As expected the prisoners had no communication with the outside world. Since the Choy’s had many British friends who were imprisoned, they agreed to help them send and receive messages. It began as messages, then written notes, and later even packages of food and other items.
During the Double Tenth Incident, the Kempeitai raided the Changi prison, they discovered several radio sets meticulously hidden under prison chairs. One of the prisoners finally admitted he had received parts to build the radio from the Choy’s. While the Choy’s passed notes and food, sometimes they passed radio parts. But they rarely knew the exact contents of each package. One day Elizabeth’s husband was taken to jail, and a few weeks later Elizabeth was unexpectedly taken to jail with the false promise of seeing her husband. There she was pushed into a cell, only 10 by 12 feet, crowded with other prisoners. Almost daily, Elizabeth was interrogated, beaten, brutally tortured, threatened with death, tied up, and other monstrous acts. The Kempeitai tried to force her to say she was anti-Japanese and pro-British. While she always denied it, she did admit that she and her husband may have aided prisoners with creating radios, but they never opened the packages. Though she was going through an unspeakable time, she relied on God and continued to help and encourage her fellow inmates. When she was allowed more food, she immediately gave it to the sickest prisoner in her cell. Elizabeth constantly told her peers, “you must believe…justice will triumph”.
On May 26, 1944, Elizabeth was finally released from prison. She was inside for 193 days. After the Japanese were defeated, the British government learned of Elizabeth’s story and asked her which officers she would recommend for execution. However she displayed grace and dignity by refusing to name a single soldier. She believed that war is wicked and knew the officers had a duty to their country. Later, Elizabeth was recognized in many ways including representing Singapore during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, given a private meeting with the Queen Mother, and was even asked by the British Foreign Office to speak about her experiences in the United States and Canada. She also entered politics and taught in various schools for 40 years. Elizabeth Choy passed away in 2006 and will forever be remembered for her heroism and bravery during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.