Only in Sabah – an uprising!
Published on: Sunday, May 01, 2022
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An illustration in the book.
In October 1943 Sabah lay under the iron heel of the Japanese. The armies of Japan had invaded Borneo in January 1942 as part of the Japanese war of conquest in the Far East which had begun on December 7th, 1941 with the victory by the forces of the Emperor over those of the United States of America at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. 

Labuan was taken on January 1st, 1942. At that time Great Britain was engaged in a struggle for its very life both in Europe against the Germans, and in the Far East against the Japanese. 

She could not spare arms and men to defend Sabah, so the North Borneo Chartered Company ordered its officers not to fight but to hand over their powers to the Japanese. 

The North Borneo Government issued special orders to the people to obey their new masters and not to get themselves into any trouble. The only fighting men who could have defended Sabah were the police and a Volunteer Force. 

This force was small and was made up of clerks, school teachers, planters, Government officers, and others who had been given army training in their spare time. When the Japanese came the Volunteer Force was broken up (disbanded) and the men returned to their homes. 

The Japanese army at first allowed the European Government officers to carry on at their posts. They put out an order to confirm this, but the order made it very clear that everything in Sabah was under the control of the Japanese. 

This order, made on January 13th, 1942, said two very important things. The first was that the Japanese had the power to demand from the people anything they wished for themselves. 

The second was that all local produce must be sold to the Japanese at a reasonable price whenever they asked for it. 

Of course, the Japanese would decide what was a reasonable price. 

All this meant that the Government of the country was in the hands of the Japanese and if they wanted anything from the local people they could take it. 

This was the greatest blow ever to fall on the people of Sabah.

They had never had much say in their Government either under the Pengirans and Sultans or under the Chartered Company, but they had always been given rights. 

Now they had none. They were slaves. The people did not realise this at first. The Japanese wished to make friends of them. 

They talked about a great new age when Sabah would be happy and prosperous with the rest of Asia — under the Japanese of course. For a short while all went well. 

Suddenly things changed. The Europeans were rounded up and put into prison where for years until the Liberation they were treated harshly, and the Japanese took over the Government completely. 

The reason for this change was that the Japanese found they were not winning the people over to their side and they felt that the best thing to do was to get rid of the Europeans. 

Unfortunately, after the disappearance of the Europeans the people did not love their conquerors any better, so they were treated harshly. 

Every Sabahan had to bow to a Japanese wherever he met one, even in the street. 

If he did not do so the Japanese would slap him hard on the face or beat him with a cane. 

The conquerors took away rice from the padi farmers. 

The farmers looked upon this as theft. The usual amount was about forty per cent of the crop, but the collectors also helped themselves, so sometimes up to eighty per cent was taken. 

Many farmers hid their rice and drove off their cattle to hideaways in the forest, but if they were caught they suffered fines, imprisonment and severe beatings. 

The Japanese set up strong army posts in the interior to control the local people. Ranau, Keningau, Tenom, Beaufort and Pensiangan had garrisons. The strongest were at Ranau and Pensiangan. 

There were some troops also in the main coastal towns. 

They appointed headmen in the villages and gave them big tin badges to wear as a sign of their authority. They also appointed spies to report on these headmen. 

If the spy said the headman was not carrying out instructions the poor chief was punished. 

The up-country villagers who had always led a free-and-easy life- under the Chartered Company now found they had little freedom. What they really hated was forced labour. 

The Japanese made them work without pay on roads and airfields and other public works. 

The people of the interior began to hate the Japanese. 

The fishermen and island dwellers round the coast of Sabah are proud and freedom-loving. 

The Sulu islanders of the east coast had many friends and relatives in the Sulu Islands of the Philippines and they kept in touch with them. 

The Philippine Sulus were holding out against the Japanese under a leader called Alejandro Suarez who had the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the army of the United States of America. This kept the spirit of revolt alive among the Sabah east coast islanders. 

Off the Sabah west coast as far north as Mantanani Island the Bajaus, Binadans and Sulus of the off-shore islands were equally set against their overlords.

These folk had been, in the days before the Chartered Company, pirates and slave traders. Defiance of danger was in their blood. 

Hardest hit of all by the Japanese conquest were the Chinese people. For many years Japan had been at war with China and the overseas Chinese had given large sums of money to help their motherland. 

The Japanese now made them pay for the war against their own people. They made an order that all goods and cash owned by the Chinese belonged to Japan. 

Anyone who disobeyed orders was thrown into prison and beaten and tortured. One of the places where this took place was the Jesselton Sports Club which was taken over by the Japanese Military Police, the Kempeitai. 

People living near this building used to be wakened at night by the screams of the victims. A mild form of punishment was to stand people in the hot sun for hours. 

Another less mild, was to make two prisoners fight each other with fists while the Japanese stood round roaring with laughter. If the fighters were half-hearted they were soundly beaten and the loser was always given a hiding for not trying. 

These ‘fights’ were staged on what is now the town padang in Kota Kinabalu. More severe beatings took place inside the building. Often the victim died. 

Another form of punishment was the water torture. Large amounts of water were poured down the victim’s throat until his stomach swelled greatly. The Japanese then jumped on him until the water was forced out again. 

No Chinese was safe from arrest. One trick the Japanese had was to invite a number of people to a big dinner. After the feast many of them would be thrown into gaol. 

Those who received invitations to these parties did not know whether to go to them and be arrested or to stay away and be arrested for not attending. 

All this time the people of Sabah had great hopes that the Allies would invade Borneo and drive out the Japanese. 

The British officers who went into gaol in Kuching were quite sure that they would be free in six months. 

Only those who knew how the war was going could see that the defeat of Japan would take years, not months – and there were few in a position to know this in Borneo. 

The lowland farmers and the people up-country, though they hated the Japanese, were not ready to fight, them. 

They wanted to keep out of trouble, but they saw little hope for themselves and their families as more and more of their food was taken from them. 

The off-shore islanders were keen, to attack their masters, but they were not organised; nor were the Chinese, nor the Eurasians. 

Day by day all the people of Sabah were becoming more desperate. There was need of a leader, and one came forward. 

The following account of the Double Tenth revolt was taken from a chapter of the now rare book “Stories From Sabah History” compiled by FG Whelan, the Deputy Director of Education, Sabah. 

It once was part of the Sabah school syllabus until discontinued during the Usno administration. (1967-1975) for reasons unknown.

The Double Tenth revolt was the only armed uprising in Malaysia by ordinary civilians against the Japanese led by Albert Kwok, a Sarawakian Chinese which managed to even defeat the Japanese army, killing many and temporarily taking over Jesselton (now KK). 

Today’s Malaysian school history books hardly mention it.

Daily Express decided to reproduce this important but largely forgotten episode of Sabah’s history, so that readers can compare it with the eyewitness account by Neelakantan on what happened at that time.


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December 20, 2014