HONG KONG — Notoriously media-shy Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok agreed at age of 95 to be interviewed by The Asahi Shimbun to share what he heard and saw during fighting in the Asia-Pacific region during World War II.
Kuok made his fortune in sugar refining and the real estate business, and also founded the Shangri-La hotel chain. According to Forbes business magazine, he is the wealthiest person in Malaysia. He also served on an advisory panel to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last year.
He published his memoirs two years ago and Kuok spent the interview talking mainly about his wartime experiences, saying he did so because he wants young people to learn what happened more than 70 years ago.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
NO ONE SURVIVED
Question: You are well known for not agreeing to interviews, so why did you accept our request?
Kuok: I want the younger generation to know the history. Once, a young Japanese woman who was our family friend asked me to talk about the war. After I told her about my experiences for 10 to 15 minutes, she said, “I cannot believe you. What you have said was not in the Japanese history textbooks.” I was shocked. Although I had not seen the killings, I had heard a lot of tragic stories and many people I knew were killed.
Q: What kinds of experiences have you heard or seen?
A: In a town called Ulu Tiram, about 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) away from Johor Bahru where I used to live, a group of Eurasian families was massacred. After the Japanese invaded Malaya, about 80 or 90 Eurasian people took refuge in the town because it had a small Roman Catholic church. One day, some Japanese soldiers touched the Eurasian girls. Enraged by this behavior, the Eurasian men took out their revolvers and asked (them) to stop the nonsense. The Japanese left that day but after several days, they came back one evening with three truckloads of soldiers, which was about probably 60 or 80 people, surrounded the whole compound and killed everyone. One of the victims was my close friend. He was an Indian who was close to the Eurasian families and he was there at the time. About 15 or 20 people that I knew, including my school teacher, were killed in this one incident.
At the time of the incident, I was in a pineapple plantation where my family took refuge from the Japanese invasion, so I did not see the massacre. But when we were going back to Johor Bahru from the plantation, we passed by Ulu Tiram about 10 days after the incident. There I saw two skinny men who didn’t seem to recognize anything or anyone. They just kept talking to themselves about what they had seen. They had gone out of their minds because of the massacre they had seen.
Q: Were any other people you knew killed in the war?
A: My classmates from a family originally from Chaozhou (in China’s Guangdong province) in the Johor Bahru Chinese school were also killed. They were the daughters of a member of the “China Relief Fund.” This fund was started by Tan Kah Kee and it collected money to donate to China for war relief. When I went back to Johor Bahru from the plantation, I went to look for my classmates and was told that they had been raped, brutally killed and buried in a sports field, together with their whole family. Only two sons who had been sent to schools in China survived.
There was not only one massacre but many. I was a student at the Raffles College, where Lee Kuan Yew (the first Singapore prime minister) was one year my senior. One of the senior students was singled out as anti-Japanese and killed in the “Sook Ching” (purge). He was made to kneel facing the water on Changi beach, and shot with his hands tied with barbed wire.
In a war, though they are ordinary people, more than half of the soldiers will misbehave. Most of the soldiers came from poor backgrounds and they were misled.
NEVER REPEAT ‘STUPID ACTIONS’
Q: Did you work for a Japanese company when Malaysia was occupied by Japan?
A: I was the youngest of three sons. One day, a Taiwanese man advised my mother that if none of her sons were employed, the Kempeitai (secret police) might think that we were “anti-Japanese.” Neither of my brothers said yes, so I went to work for (the trading company) Mitsubishi Shoji. I studied Japanese with a textbook titled “Nihongo Made Easy.” I still can speak some Japanese. I will not get lost in Ginza because I can read the signs. Japan is my favorite holiday destination.
My boss in Mitsubishi, whose name was Nagaoka-san, was one of the most wonderful people I knew. He trusted me and even told me his negative view of the war, without telling me “Kuok-san don’t tell anybody.” But there were other Japanese managers who hit my colleagues.
The Japanese army said that they were out to create the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But the “Co-Prosperity” meant Japan taking 90 percent and you 10 percent.
Q: What do you think about the Japanese who say Malaysians are thankful to Japan for liberating them from British colonial rule?
A: There is nothing I can say or do because I cannot change what you want to believe. All I can say is, what if the shoe is on the other foot? If your mother, your sister, your wife, your girlfriend, were brutalized? I have worked with Japanese companies and I have an understanding of the Japanese people. I am a friend of the Japanese. But at the same time, I hope they will not repeat their stupid actions.
Q: But aren’t there even Malaysian politicians who say that Japan liberated Malaysia from Britain?
A: To me, that is a racist statement. It is true that the Japanese soldiers did not do as much harm to the Malays as they did to the Chinese. The Japanese felt that the natural enemies was “Shinajin” (Chinese). But the Malaysian Chinese who were killed, are they not Malaysians?
In my memoir which was published in 2017, I had recounted my experience of the war and the Japanese occupation because it had left indelible memories in my mind and my soul.
A few years ago, I read, for the first time, the English translation of General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s last message to the Japanese people, which he dictated a few hours before he was executed for war crimes in 1946. (Yamashita was known as “The Tiger of Malaya” for conquering Malaya and Singapore.) When I read this, I began to see it from the other side. Yamashita had put the full depth of his feelings and emotions into words much more clearly than I could ever have done.
Facing execution, Yamashita agonizes over the loss of “priceless lives” and the “horror of this war.” He deplores the “moral decay” of the Japanese military. He exhorts the Japanese people to build a “new Japan” that “must not include militarists or scholars who try to ‘rationalize war.’”
The parts of Yamashita’s message which resonated most with me were his plea to his countrymen to carry out their duties “with an independent mind and with culture and dignity,” and his advocacy of both “scientific” and “human” education for peaceful purposes.
Japan is a nation of honest, hard-working people. They only wanted to lead normal decent lives. They were misled by a handful of criminal-minded men. It was General Yamashita’s fervent hope, and it is also my fervent hope, that such horrible misdeeds are never done again.