Wrong to suggest local heroes forgotten
Published on: Sunday, October 06, 2019
By: Lynette Silver
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I  read with more than passing interest an article about WW2 hero Ojagar Singh, written by Avtar Singh and published in the Daily Express on 22 September. 

I make no criticism of the narrative dealing with Ojagar and his family, a great deal of which is recorded in my book Blood Brothers,  published in  2010. However, I take exception to the many erroneous statements appearing in the final section of the article, in which the writer claims:

Till today, there has been no acknowledgement by the Australian government nor the Sabah State government or Malaysian government of the bravery and courage of Warrant Officer Ojagar Singh, Sergeant Abin and Detective Ernesto Lagan contributions in saving the lives of prisoners of war or their bravery as North Borneo Constabulary officers.

In trying to preserve the lives of so many, they made the ultimate sacrifice not only for the prisoners of war at the Sandakan Prisoner of War camp but also for the people of Sandakan and were never remembered for their great sacrifices, even today. 

The compensation paid via the Widow’s and families pension fund was very little and could not support Anup, his mother and brothers and sisters. Promises were made from the Australian government but those promises were never fulfilled and they were eventually all but forgotten about not only by the Australian’s, but also about by the North Borneo government and the Sabah government.

Their positions in the constabulary prevented the Australian government from providing financial compensation to the families of Singh, Abin and Lagan. There was an understanding after the war that the government of North Borneo would provide pensions for the families of its administrative staff who lost their lives during the war, based on their term of service.

The great sacrifice and courage of these men have all but been forgotten about. There is never any mention each year during the Sandakan Memorial services about “The Lion of Sandakan” and the men of the North Borneo Constabulary. If anything, the services are generally focused only on the sacrifices of Australian and British prisoners whilst the Sandakan Underground has all but been forgotten about, and this is a very sad aspect of the memorial services being carried out. No memorials exist in Sandakan to remember these fallen men either, except for a tomb in Kuching. 

These are the facts:

The claim of lack of recognition and memorials

In August 1946  a memorial was erected in Sandakan by the British to honour “those citizens of this town who by reason of their loyalty lost their lives during the Japanese occupation19 Jan 1942 -17 Oct 1945”. It was unveiled by the Governor General of Malaya and British North Borneo, Malcolm McDonald. A temporary memorial unveiled that day, carved from a log, was later replaced by a concrete ‘log’, and then further upgraded with bronze plaques.  It is in the square near the present day Sandakan Municipal Council building. 

In March 1999, the Sandakan Memorial Park, funded by the Australian Government, was opened to honour both POWs and local people. Since then  it has been upgraded and improved considerably with funds provided by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.  The narration in the Memorial Pavilion, which I checked and edited, includes the story of  the local heroes and the underground movement.  The granite memorial in the commemorative area states ‘In remembrance of all those who suffered and died here, on the death marches and at Ranau’. The “here” refers to Sandakan  and the “all” encompasses both POWs and local people. 

For several years the Australian Government made available to visitors at the park a beautifully published official booklet entitled “Heroes’ Roll”, which I prepared and which listed as many local people I could find who had died or assisted in the war effort in some way. The names of Ojagar Singh and all those executed at Kuching are on the first page.  A photograph of the Heroes’ Grave at Kuching was featured on the rear cover. 

April 2005 saw the unveiling of the magnificent stained glass Windows of Remembrance in St Michael’s Church Sandakan. A gift  from the relatives and friends of POWs, it serves as a memorial to the POWs and, as a plaque on the wall clearly states, also and equally importantly, as “a thanksgiving to the people of Sabah who risked, and gave, their lives to help them”.  The thanksgiving element occupies almost half of the window’s design. 

That same year my husband and I established the Sandakan Memorial Scholarship Trust, to assist in the education of students from the interior whose schooling, otherwise, would not  progress beyond primary school. Funded entirely by private donations from POW families and others, this project is a “living memorial” and is seen by the donors as a means of  thanking Sabahans for their wartime efforts.  

The failure of the Australian government to provide compensation

In 1946 the Australian Government  ordered a special mission, headed by Colonel Harry Jackson, to  travel to Sabah to reward anyone who had helped POWs.  Had Avtar Singh taken time to use the resources of Australian Archives to research the events that occurred post war, including an entire file devoted to payments made by the Australian government, or even read Blood Brothers, which also provides details, he would have avoided making claims that are  untrue.

As Jackson’s reports show, many many people were compensated, and special attention was paid to the widows of those executed at Kuching. 

Jackson, who enquired into the whereabouts of Ojagar’s widow and family, reported that “the widow of the late Ojagar Singh is now living in Lahad Datu.  I was informed by the police authorities that she is to receive a police pension for the loss of her husband.”

Because of this,  police widows were not  included in the “rewards”  program. It is worth noting that  it was the Australians, who were in no way responsible for people living under British colonial rule, who paid compensation to all those who qualified. As the payout to widows was substantial,  district officers  distributed it as a pension,  not as a lump sum, so that money-grubbing relatives could not take advantage!

 While Ernesto Lagan  “worked” as a “detective” for the Japanese, he was not a member of the constabulary as claimed. I understand that he was an ex employee of Harrison and Crossfield and a member of the Volunteer Defence Force.  His widow therefore was entitled to compensation.  

The Australian Government gave out 67 monetary rewards totalling almost $37,000, a significant amount of money at that time.  Lump sum payments ranged from $5,650 to Lagan’s widow who had four children, (and whom the writer of the article claims received nothing), to $2,150 to the widow Halima, who had no dependents. 

The failure to acknowledge local 

heroes at Sandakan Day 

I have been to every Sandakan Day service and every Anzac Day observance since their inception many years ago. 

The sacrifices of  Sabahans are always acknowledged. Profiles of local heroes are usually included, and some are read out by a family member. Among those honoured to date are Peter Raymond Lai, Paddy and Alex Funk, Ambrose Dumpangol, Khoo Kim Cheng, Khoo Siak Chiew, Ernesto Lagan and Felix Azcona. 

Relatives of those who died  and inform the organisers of their attendance are invited to call the name of their loved one at the roll call, and lay flowers provided by the Australian government on Anzac Day and local authorities on Sandakan Day.

Many family members of local heroes attend these services but I do not recall any member of the Singh family ever taking part, or of Ojagar Singh’s name ever being called. 

The Sandakan Municipal Council and representatives of the Australian government  do their best to ensure that all are remembered at commemorative services and invite relatives of POWs and local people who are attending to submit a profile of their family member. It is therefore very disappointing to see such ill-informed comments appearing in an article about such a revered hero as Ojagar Singh.

Lynette Silver, AM, FAIHA

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