It was mid-1943, and it was time to move again. This time to Segamat, about 45km away from where we were. My uncle had obtained employment there and I moved with his family while my parents remained in Nordanal Estate. I was enrolled in Segamat High School. My teachers were Japanese army officers who came to class in full uniform, armed to the teeth complete with pistols and small knives and a large fearsome katana or samurai sword. As you can well imagine, discipline in class was not an issue at all.
However, despite their formidable appearance they were very friendly and kind to us, the students. It could have been their natural disposition but it could also have been because none of us dared to test their patience, given their appearance. Soon though, a sort of camaraderie was established between the students and the teachers. As I have already mentioned they taught us Japanese Language, Music, a little Math, some History and gardening but not much else. While the children loved school because it was so stress free, parents began to see very little value in the education provided. Slowly some of the older children started to drop out and go to work.
The Japanese decided to construct an airstrip in Labis to support their airbase in Singapore, 120km away. Construction work had already begun in the Johore Labis Estate, an oil palm plantation, about 40 km away from Johore Bahru. Civilians were quickly recruited to support the army construction team and a Mr. Parthasarathy Iyengar, an Indian trained civil engineer oversaw the work, under the supervision of Nagai San, the general manager of sorts, of all estates and a stickler for discipline. As a matter of fact, this was a common trait among all the Japanese officers. Tolerance for slackness, indiscipline and dishonesty was non-existent. They all shared one goal and that was to achieve what their Bushido or Fighting Spirit dictated. And to that end, they worked tirelessly. They never forgot who they were or why they were there. So whether it was to school as teachers or work as supervisors and engineers, they came in full uniform, fully armed. Similarly, just like in school, where lack of discipline was unheard of, insubordination in the workplace simply did not exist.
My father and uncle were recruited as chief clerk and chief of water supply respectively. They had a vacancy for an interpreter and since by then I had acquired some amount of proficiency in Japanese, I was duly recruited as well. My father and uncle felt that my time was better spent working since nothing much of value was taught in school. My job was simple. I had to interpret simple messages from the Japanese bosses to the junior office staff. Sometimes it would be something simple like ordering food and drink. One day though, my immediate boss, Mr. Parthasarathy or Pat as he was known, wanted some information regarding supply of concrete pipes and other construction supplies from our supply unit in Segamat. I had to interpret Mr. Parthasarathy’s message to Nakamura San, the boss of the supply unit in Segamat on the phone. This was indeed a tall order for the fourteen year old that I was, whose knowledge of Nippon-Go was limited to social interactions. I was shivering to say the least. My anxiety was overwhelming when I realized that the message was riddled with technicalities which I had to interpret. There was an audible quiver in my voice as I spoke, watched with bated breath by the other staff. When I finished successfully and heaved a loud sigh of relief, the rest of the staff laughingly cheered. This was probably my biggest challenge in this job.
A little after this, I was posted to the store which held all the supplies for the construction site including food stuff, to assist with storekeeping. This was where I got a full view and a clear idea of what punishment at the hands of the Japanese was like. There was an incidence of theft of some dried fish which I had to report to my boss, a Japanese. Upon investigation, the suspect turned out to be none other than the night watchman (security person). He was made to kneel holding a block of concrete all day, in full view of the office staff. I was both appalled and sorry for the poor man. Around midday, the man broke down and confessed to the crime only to be dealt with a resounding slap by the boss. The boss drew his sword while the rest of us held our breath, horrified. Swoosh! He brought it down, deliberately missing the man’s head by inches. “Lain kali potong kepala! Wakarimaska!” or “Next time I will chop off your head! Understand! ”, he roared. Yes, discipline, honesty and adherence to work ethics under the Japanese were definitely not a problem.
Chapter Navigation Links
Part 1 - Languid Plantation Streams
Part 2 - Storm
Part 3 - Calm but murky waters
Muar and an uncertain certainty