Singapore’s Schindler: Japanese Spy Saved Thousands From Sook Ching

With Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the Second World War is well underway. Together with the destruction and devastation of war, he also brings the racist, anti-Jewish policies of Nazi Germany to the countries he conquers. Almost two million Jews are displaced from their homes, while concentration camps kill over 90% of Poland’s Jewish population.

In this environment of terror and violence, Oskar Schindler manages to save thousands of Jews from the concentration camps. As an ex-spy for the Abwehr (Nazi Military Intelligence) and as an industrialist, his connections allowed him to own a factory run primarily by Jews. Schindler also gave Nazi officials large bribes in order to keep his workers safe with him. In one instance, the German Gestapo (Nazi Secret Police) came knocking on his factory’s door, demanding for the handover of a Jewish family with fabricated paperwork. Schindler later remarked that these two officers walked out of his office drunk and “without their prisoners or without the incriminating documents they had demanded.” Such was the influence and charm of Schindler.

Much has been said about the man’s heroic actions during the Second World War. Multiple film and book adaptations of the story have come out over the years, with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List being the most critically and popularly acclaimed. But did you know that Singapore has its own Oskar Schindler? The similarities run deep. During the Sook Ching Massacre, a Japanese ex-spy leveraged his position to save the lives of many Chinese Singaporeans, including Lim Boon Keng’s.

Prologue

In 1937, Japan started the brutal invasion of the Chinese mainland. A fragmented and weak China was unable to do much to stop the progress of the Japanese as they captured major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. Nonetheless, many ethnically Chinese Singaporeans contributed financially to resistance forces, trying to stop the Japanese. 

As such, even before Japan invaded the island, the Chinese in Singapore were viewed to be anti-Japanese and with suspicion. The Sook Ching massacres that happened from 21 February to 4 March 1942 were the culmination of these beliefs. Chinese males between the ages of 18 and 50 were summoned to various mass screening centres. Those deemed guilty of being anti-Japanese were executed.

The War Crime Trial

The War Crime Trials in progress. (Source)

After the end of the Second World War, the allied powers agreed to trial war criminals across the world. You might have heard about the famous trials held in Nuremberg, to bring the Nazis to justice. What people tend to forget is that Singapore too had its own war trials in 1947. In one specific hearing, multiple Japanese military commanders were tried for their roles in the Sook Ching massacres.

Shinozaki Mamoru was a witness for the prosecution. As a high ranking Japanese official, he was well positioned to shed light on the methods and the aims of Sook Ching. However, by the end of his hearing, it was clear that he had a bit more to say about Sook Ching than his peers.

During the launch of the operation on 18 February 1942, Mamoru Shinozaki had just assumed the role of an adviser of Defence Headquarters, a rank tantamount to a lieutenant colonel. As he saw the operation gradually being rolled out, he decided to risk both his life and career to save the locals. Shinozaki liberally gave out 20,000 to 30,000 good citizen cards, also known as protection cards, without question to many Chinese and Eurasians who are most at risk of being murdered by the soldiers. 

I didn’t care if a person was good or bad or whether he was a communist. To anybody who came and asked for a pass, I gave one

Shinozaki Mamoru, during the War Crime Trials, 1947

Going above and beyond his duties, Shinozaki betrayed his own country by rushing to detention locations and pulling rank on Kenpeitai officers to ensure the release of many local men. He personally intervened to save the lives of about 2,000 detainees from concentration camps, including Lim Boon Keng’s, from the Sook Ching massacres. Many of these people survived and became prominent Chinese leaders. An estimated 6,000 to 60,000 other unlucky victims were transported to secluded locations in Singapore before being machine-gunned, their bodies thrown into mass graves or dumped at sea.

That said, Shinozaki’s contributions were not without criticism. When he testified during the Sook Ching war crimes trial, Shinozaki mentioned that the officers who carried out the operation were kind, but had to proceed with the atrocities as they were orders. Shinozaki also contributed to the downplaying of death toll during the Sook Ching massacre in his memoir. His estimation of 6,000 Chinese killed during the massacre, based off the Japanese government, was significantly lower than many estimates such as that by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and medical doctor, Chen Su Lan, who put the figure at 50,000 to 60,000.

Schools and a Secret Pro-Chinese Organisation

Shinozaki (right) guides a general around to inspect the battlefields of Singapore. (Source)

From the onset, Shinozaki was unlike many of his Japanese counterparts. During a 1942 meeting with Lim Boon Keng, Shinozaki birthed the idea of setting up an organisation that will protect the Chinese community. While publically, it would be used as a platform for the Japanese to “work with” the local Chinese, in reality, it would secretly help seek the release of influential Chinese personalities who were detained. Having such an organisation would have been attractive to Japanese leaders, as if prominent Chinese individuals were seen to be supporting the Japanese, the Chinese population at large would be more willing to do the same. This is also why Shinozaki stressed the importance of showing that the association was controlled by the Chinese instead of the military. According to his direction, the organisation was named differently from similar ones in Japanese-occupied territories, such as the Peace Maintenance Committees. Thus, the name, Oversea Chinese Association (OCA), was chosen.

However, there were disputes surrounding Shinozaki’s genuine contributions to the OCA. Soon after its founding, Shinozaki removed himself from the organisation, leaving the oversight of the OCA to the less forgiving Military Administration Department. Founding members of the OCA also said that they have received death threats and tortures to form the organisation so that they can raise $50 million for the Japanese administration. 

In March 1942, the same month after being commanded to cease further involvement with the OCA, Shinozaki became appointed as chief officer of education in the Education Department. In his new role, Shinozaki dedicated himself to reopening schools and reorganising teaching staff. He softened directives from the Military Administration to accommodate the teachers, and secured the release of school buildings that were being used by the military.

Five months later, in August, Shinozaki was appointed as the Chief Welfare Officer. Not only did he look into locals’ complaints, found jobs for the unemployed and established a labour office, he also helped set up the Eurasian Welfare Association, which represented the Eurasian community to the Japanese administration.

A Post-War Return to Singapore 

Shinozaki (Left) towards the end of his life. (Source)

Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, Shinozaki was interned in Jurong Camp along with 6,800 other Japanese. He was released after the Chinese and Catholic communities petitioned the British on his behalf. After this, Shinozaki continued to work with the British field security service as a translator and interpreter, assisting in the repatriation of Japanese citizens. He also translated Kempeitai reports on Malayan communists. He was then repatriated himself in 1947.

With a wish to visit Singapore in 1951, he boarded a ship headed to the city. Unfortunately, the Colonial authorities denied him a visa, not allowing him to step ashore. As such, visitors, including Lim Boon Keng, boarded his ship to visit him. More than two decades later, in 1975, Shinozaki finally managed to enter Singapore to promote the English-language translation of his war memoir, Syonan, My Story: The Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

While the man still might be a slightly controversial figure in Singapore’s history, there is no doubt that his story deserves more recognition.

While Schindler’s story is known worldwide for being one of compassion and humanity, not many Singaporeans even know of Shinozaki’s existence, and that’s a pity. After all, this man probably saved thousands of Chinese men and women.

Who knows, maybe you might not exist, if not for him.  


Author

Vanessa Ng

Contributor

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