AFIO Rudi, 21, had never thought much about his grandfather Jeli Abdullah’s life story until an Australian TV programme interviewed the 79-year-old about being Sarawak’s last surviving World War II child prisoner of war (POW).
The engineering student then realised that despite living in Sarawak all his life, he also didn’t know very much of the state’s – let alone the rest of East Malaysia’s – role in WWII.
But his lack of knowledge isn’t surprising given that Malaysian history textbooks, while covering the events of the war in Peninsular Malaysia, don’t touch on East Malaysia’s side of the story very much.
“I didn’t really learn about it (WWII) in school. I learnt more about it when my school participated in a Heritage Student Exchange Programme and I met delegates that were representing Australia and New Zealand,” said Afio.
This gap in the reportage of the country’s WWII experience is something R.AGE hopes to fill with the latest season of its multimedia project on WWII survivors, The Last Survivors.
The entire third season, which launched today at rage.my/lastsurvivors, focuses on stories from Sabah and Sarawak.
While filming The Last Survivors, Jeli returned to the former Batu Lintang barracks where he was held as a child. Over two-thirds of the POWs there died, mostly as a result of the inhumane conditions imposed by the Japanese troops.
The visit was Afio’s first, and it certainly spurred his interest in his grandfather’s history. “I feel that I need to know my own family’s history, so that I can tell my future generations about it,” he said.
Stories from the past
Like Afio, Fritzgerald anak Andrew, 33, knew very little of his state’s history despite having tried to research it on his own.
“School textbooks focus more on the Japanese Occupation in West Malaysia. I learnt about the Japanese Occupation in Borneo mostly from the Internet and watching documentaries,” said the Sabahan who works as an assistant science officer.
In fact, he knew so little about the WWII history of Sabah, he didn’t even realise that the church he attends, St Michael’s in Penampang, was bombed by the Allied Forces during their campaign to liberate Borneo in 1945.
An even more incredible discovering was learning that his grandfather, Anthony Labangka, 88, witnessed the carnage.
“I was baptised here. I had my first Holy Communion here. But I never knew it was bombed,” said Fritzgerald.
St. Michael’s was just one of many battle sites in Sabah. Formerly known as North Borneo, Sabah was the centre of fierce fighting between the Kinabalu guerillas and the Japanese troops during the Double Tenth revolt, also known as the Jesselton uprising.
Led by Kuching native Albert Kwok, who managed to recruit fighters and collect weapons from the Chinese, indigenous, and Eurasian communities across Sabah, the uprising was successful, at first.
However, the Japanese Kempeitai were ruthless in their retaliation, killing 2,000-4,000 innocent civilians in their hunt for guerilla leaders. Three months later, the leaders finally surrendered and were executed in Petagas on January 21, 1944.
Yet, these stories go almost entirely unheard.
Giving our past a voice
Universiti Malaya Arts and Social Sciences Faculty dean, Professor Datuk Dr Danny Wong Tze Ken, hopes to shed some light on Borneo’s history.
He published a book on the Jesselton uprising, in memory of his grandfather who served as a medic for the guerillas and died in Japanese captivity.
“In Malaya, the resistance was organised by the Chinese communists whereas in Sabah and Sarawak, it was the local ordinary folks who came together. To some extent, it was a multi-racial effort and it’s something worth learning from,” he noted.
He is determined to ensure that East Malaysia’s wartime stories live on in the memories of the younger generation.
“It’s important for us to showcase the events from Sabah and Sarawak, especially what took place during the war because they are very much part of this nation.”
Despite being largely untold in Malaysia’s WWII narratives, Sabahan pride in its wartime sacrifices still burns brightly.
Every January 21, the Sabah Chief Minister and state government members gather at the Petagas War Memorial in Sabah to commemorate the resistance movement – the only war memorial in Malaysia to be continuously commemorated since WWII.
But Afio feels more needs to be done in order to ensure East Malaysia’s history isn’t forgotten.
“I think our WWII stories need to be included in history books – not just the main events but also the details in between. So many lives were sacrificed during the war – soldiers, unsung heroes, and even someone else’s great-grandparents.
“We need to learn to appreciate our history. Then, we can learn to appreciate the life we have now,” he said.
Afio now hopes to attend the annual Anzac memorial service at the former POW camp with his grandfather every year, in remembrance of those who perished during the war.
“I feel that I need to know my grandpa’s history and continue his story,” Afio said. “If I don’t, I don’t think anyone else will.”