In the Chinese language, “sook ching” roughly means “a purge through cleansing”. It has been applied to the activities that took place in Singapore following the British defeat in 1942. This loss not only left Britain bereft of its most powerful presence in southeast Asia, it also left the hundreds of thousands of Singapore’s residents with little or no protection against their new occupiers.
When Russia invaded Poland in 1939, they brought with them lists. Those lists contained the names of public officials, police officers, university professors, musicians…anyone who was considered to be a threat to the Soviets. These people were rounded up and summarily executed.
Similarly, the Japanese brought lists with them to Singapore. These lists were more generic, but they were lists just the same. They were looking for people active in the China Relief Fund and its wealthy contributors. They sought out individuals who showed loyalty to, or were active members of, Chinese dissident groups. And they looked for British sympathizers, Chinese gang members, and a catch-all group of “security risks”.
The implementation of this search focused on screening centers, set up all over the city-state. All Chinese males between 18 and 50 years of age were to be rounded up and taken to the centers. If they were deemed safe, they were stamped with the word “examined” on their face or arm and allowed to return home. Those not deemed safe were marked with triangles, taken to one of several sites, and executed.
Of course, once word started spreading about what was happening, order began to break down and the process became less discriminant and more random. Many victims, whose only crime was being born a Chinese man or woman, were marked with triangles. Many others were simply killed without any screening at all.
Official death counts are difficult to get. The Japanese leaders of that time, for reasons that are obvious, either didn’t keep good records, or simply whitewashed them. In their ledgers, the Sook Ching Massacre, which began on February 18, 1942 and ended on March 3rd, claimed fewer than 5,000 lives. But as we have seen before, “official” numbers may tell only a fraction of the real story. Other claims have put the count at more than 100,000 killed. The true number will never be known, but probably lies somewhere in the middle.
When the war ended, several Japanese officers were tried for leading the massacre. Two were executed while the others received life sentences. Japan eventually made reparations payments to Singapore but, to my knowledge, never officially apologized for the actions of its military. And for many Singaporeans, this was small consolation for the lives of their friends and families that had been ended simply because of their race.