Singapore, the former hub of war crimes courts?

Sep 07, 2016 05.18PM |

by Suhaile Md

GLIMPSES of horror, compassion, indifference and passion. Vicariously felt. All thanks to an online vault-full of records from a bygone era in Singapore’s history: The Singapore War Crimes Trials (WCT) web portal.

Launched last Monday (August 29) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Law, the portal houses information about war crimes trials held by the British, to try the Japanese, on Singapore soil in the mid-1940s, right after World War II.

The portal took over three years to set-up and it was a labour of love for Dr Cheah Wui Ling, an assistant professor at the NUS Faculty of Law and Ms Ng Pei Yi, 28, a legal counsel in the private sector. In the couple of months leading up to the launch, they spent about 10 to 15 hours a week – basically all their spare time – working on the portal.

What motivated them? “We don’t really learn about this part of history… the post-war era [in Singapore] was not just about the road to independence,” said Dr Cheah. So this is “purely a public outreach” effort to plug the “gap in history” added the 35-year-old.

When asked if they hoped the portal would be used for education in schools, Ms Ng replied: “Yes, it would be great if the portal is used for education in primary and secondary schools to supplement history lessons.” She said they would also like the portal to be “a jumping off point for international law researchers, so as to generate more in-depth research about war crimes trials and international law in Asia”. Dr Cheah also added that the “story of international law and international criminal justice” in mainstream textbooks “remains rather Euro-centric”. They hope the portal will make headway in “the construction of more inclusive international law narratives”, she said.

Volunteers from the general public are also welcome as the duo need help to update the portal and “conduct research on other aspects of the trials”, Ms Ng added.


Passion project

The portal documents trials organised by the British Military in Singapore to seek justice for the crimes committed by the Japanese during their years-long occupation of various places in Asia. None of the cases included local collaborators though. The locals were considered British subjects and were hence tried for treason in different courts – not the war crimes courts, said Dr Cheah.

Of the 12 war crimes courts the British established, eight were in Singapore. Singapore became the base for the British military’s war crimes investigations and prosecutions in Asia – 131 out of 330 trials were conducted in Singapore. Interestingly, only about 30 per cent of the 131 cases were crimes that had actually occurred in Singapore. Singapore was chosen as a base because it was a “central location” and it had “more resources” like qualified “personnel” to conduct trials compared to other parts of the British Colony in Asia, said Dr Cheah.

Crime locations of the trials conducted in Singapore. Image is a screenshot of the Singapore War Crimes Trials Portal.
Crime locations of the trials conducted in Singapore. Image is a screenshot of the Singapore War Crimes Trials Portal.


Case summaries in the portal references news clippings from the time, copies of court records in Singapore as well as the original court records stored at the National Archives in the United Kingdom (UK). The portal has 130 case summaries out of the 131 trials that took place here. There is one missing case because trial records pertaining to it were “lost in transit” according to the UK archives, said Dr Cheah.

The UK archival case records however, only focused on trial proceedings and not on what happened after sentencing. Based on secondary research though, Dr Cheah said that “convicted war criminals sentenced to imprisonment were generally imprisoned in Changi Prison”. But due to “changing political circumstances” like the Cold War and reconstruction of post-War Japan as a Western ally, the British scaled down the trials, which came to a halt in 1948, said Dr Cheah. By the 1950s, most convicted war criminals serving their sentences were being released by the British under clemency programmes, she added. This means, many did not serve out their entire prison sentence and “got off lightly in the end”, she said. This did not apply to those sentenced to death because most were executed shortly after their trials, added Dr Cheah.

“the biggest struggle we had was pushing out facts versus our own judgements”

In summarising the cases, “the biggest struggle we had was pushing out facts versus our own judgements”, said Ms Ng. That’s because one of the objectives the duo had was to let people “look at the information and decide for themselves”, she added.

Ms Ng said that the war crimes trials conducted then cannot be compared to the modern day war crimes trials like the Rwandan Tribunal or the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. One key difference between then and now is this: Even low ranking soldiers like privates were charged back then, but now there tends to be focus on the superior officers. It was a “different era”, she added. Back then, international criminal courts were still a nascent idea. Now, there are “complete codes” in international courts, said Dr Cheah. Having said that, modern international criminal justice can “trace themselves back” to these post-war trials, she added.

Dr Cheah and Ms Ng had no funding when they started out on the project. But as the project grew, they needed research assistants to support them. Plus, because the duo were used to learning purely through text, they had initially struggled to think of presenting the information in a visually appealing way. But they soon realised that their project had to be presented in an interactive and appealing way for public outreach to be effective. But they did not have the expertise to do so. Thankfully, a total of $28,000 worth of grants from the National Heritage Board and the Singapore Academy of Law enabled them to hire research assistants and enlist the help of Quirk Pte Ltd, a communications agency, to design the portal.

As for the future, they hope to include the stories from the other side of the court room: portraits of “witnesses and victims” in Singapore.


Interesting cases

Banno Hirateru and others

Over 3,000 out of 7,000 prisoners of war (POWs) died due to maltreatment by the Japanese soldiers. The POWs were forced to work on the Burma-Thailand railway. Many died also because the staff in charge of the camps along the way were also indifferent to diseases, like dysentery and beri-beri, that were plaguing the POWs.

Japanese staff in charge of the various POW camps were charged. Lieutenant Colonel Banno Hirateru was the highest-ranking officer held responsible. But he got off lighter than almost all of his junior officers except one.  He was sentenced to only three years in prison. One of his junior officers was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The other five were sentenced to prison for between five years and life. Dr Cheah said that the length of a life imprisonment refers to the duration of natural life under British law.

How was it that the highest-ranking accused got off with the second lowest sentence? From the transcript of the case, “you get the impression that Banno was an ineffectual leader”, said Dr Cheah. He could not control his subordinates and they did as they pleased, she added.

Banno’s incompetence saved him from harsher punishment, it seems.


Amari Yaekuchi and others

Amari Yaekuchi and Naotake Okuda along with three others were deserters from the Japanese army in Singapore and tried to escape to Indonesia. When they reached Indonesia however, some of them shot and killed two Malay policemen. Only four of them were found guilty however.

Naotake Okuda was found not guilty.

Defendant Naotake Okuda had made fiscal donations to St. Joseph’s Institution. He had an extensive list of local residents attesting to his good character and kindness and they signed a petition to the Government of Singapore to plead for leniency with regard to his sentence.

“Not everyone fits the stereotype of the cruel Japanese,” said Dr Cheah.

Featured image Trial of Japanese War Criminals in Singapore by Wikimedia Commons user No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit. (CC BY 1.0)

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