By Avtar Singh | DAILY EXPRESS | SABAH, MALAYSIA |
Jemadar (Warrant Officer) Ojagar Singh, is known to elder Sikhs in Sabah today as the “Lion of Sandakan.” A 6 foot 5 inch giant, Jemedar Ojagar Singh, in his distinct, traditional Sikh turban wrap, was a quiet, disciplined but proud man who served the North Borneo Constabulary Police Force loyally as a warrant officer.
The first Sikh to arrive in North Borneo was in early 1868 on the island of Labuan and that person was Bhagat Singh Sandhu, who arrived in North Borneo from Singapore, having being recruited by a coal mining company to act as a policeman in Labuan Island.
This means Sikhs have been present in North Borneo and Sabah for at least five generations for at least 150 years, working as policemen, government administrators, government officers, medical doctors or lawyers and prominent businessmen.
Ojagar was also blessed with a powerful sense of right and wrong; this sense came from his devoted parents who taught him to love thy neighbour, regardless of race or religion, and to defend those who could not defend themselves. Ojagar would take these lessons to heart and this would form the basis of his values as a human being till the very end of his life as a serving policeman.
Ojagar is fondly remembered within the community as a man who was a patriot with a deep sense of loyalty not only to the North Borneo flag, but also to the men he led and commanded in Sandakan in the North Borneo Constabulary.
His father, Pal Singh, also a constable with the North Borneo Constabulary, as was the case with his brother Chanda Singh and most of the Sikhs who arrived in Borneo in the late 1800s by ship from Calcutta to Singapore, to Labuan, and finally to Jesselton where North Borneo would not only be their home for decades to come but also ultimately, where many of them would also die as they would not go home to the Punjab after service in the constabulary as most would marry a local girl and settle down in North Borneo.
Moving from Jesselton to Beaufort, and then back to Jesselton before being posted to Sandakan, Ojagah was the father of eight children, five daughters and three sons.
The youngest survivor of the family of 8 is retired Chief Inspector Anup Singh, formerly of the Malaysian Police Force.
In Sandakan, Jemadar Ojagar Singh’s house was on top of a hill near the Police Headquarters at Bukit Metah, or where the current Sandakan Yacht club is located. He had a grandstand view of the harbour including Berhala Island.
But how and why were the Sikhs in Borneo and what was their legacy in India that made the British recruit them to serve in faraway lands as far as North Borneo and Sarawak?
When the Sikh’s were defeated in the First and Second Anglo Sikh Wars against the British in the mid-1800s, they were recruited, not only for their loyalty to the battle standard carried into battle for the Sikh army, but also to their commanders for whom, most died fighting alongside and to the end with.
They were noted for their courage and ferocity in battle as well as their size and build due to being descendants of Alexander the Great.
The most famous battle in Sikh history is not Saragarhi as many would think, but the Battle of Sabroan, in which the Sikh army was ultimately betrayed by one of their own commanders and then defeated with thousands fighting to the last man within their fortifications along the Sutlej River or drowning whilst attempting to cross the Sutlej River.
This was the Sikh’s version of the Battle of Thermopylae.
In 1942, Sandakan, being the administrative capital of North Borneo, contained most of the key European administrators and clerks who oversaw the administration of North Borneo
With the arrival of the Japanese in early 1942 and the surrender of the British in North Borneo including Labuan, Sarawak and Brunei, the island of Borneo saw many prison camps built to not only intern these European administrators but civilians as well. In Sandakan, Berhala Island became the primary staging area for prisoners before a larger camp was built Batu Lintang in Kuching , Sarawak and they were moved there in 1943.
The North Borneo Constabulary also saw them falling under the directions of the Japanese as the commander of the Constabulary, Major Rice Oxley, was interned by the Japanese on Berhala Island along with European civilian internees from Sandakan, Lahad Datu and Tawau.
With the absence of European officers, the leadership of the police force in Sandakan fell under the command of local policemen Inspector Samuel Guriaman, Sergeant Major Yansalang and Warrant Officer Ojagar Singh.
The Japanese allowed the local police force to maintain law and order, and appointed the three men to continue their roles of keeping the peace but under the directive of the Japanese leadership of Sandakan. However, unknown to the Japanese, whilst interned on Berhala Island, Rice Oxley, ordered the three junior officers to corporate with a Dr. James Taylor, the chief medical officer of Sandakan who worked at the Sandakan hospital. Once the new Prison of War camp at Mile 8 in Sandakan was built to house the 3000 strong prison of war prisoners captured in Malaya, Singapore and Java, Rice Oxley also instructed his three men to try to begin communicating with the leadership of the prisoners and to build a network of information and to assist them in whatever means possible.
Thus in mid-1942, began the “Sandakan Underground” activities of smuggling letters out of the camp as well as sending in food and what little medicine was available to the Berhala interns which included a large network of Dusun’s, Malays, Filipino, Chinese and European’s in Sandakan who became a part of this underground movement. Led by Dr. Taylor, the underground movement becomes active late 1942.
Aware that there existed Japanese informants within their ranks of the police force, Guriaman, Yansalang and Singh decided to limit the number of people who knew about the Sandakan Underground movement and to restrict all knowledge about their activities to a small group of policemen they knew they could trust.
Building a communication network into the Prison of War camp and to Captain Lionel Colin Matthews, an Australian who was tasked with carrying out underground activities on behalf of the prisoners in the Mile 8 prison camp.
The goal for the Sandakan Underground movement were initially for humanitarian purposes but slowly expanded into smuggling food and medicine, radio parts, collecting and distribution of money, the gathering and sharing of intelligence on the Japanese and eventually the smuggling of weapons into Sandakan and into the prison camp.
Part of the escape plan was the building of a transmitting radio; this would be used to contact Filipino guerrillas in the Philippines and submarines with a view to obtaining more arms and other support. This development was not just about escaping; it was a challenge to the Japanese position in North Borneo, and one that inevitably would invoke most violent Japanese response.
Matthews had the idea that because the Japanese presence in Sandakan was limited in numbers, there was a possibility of a successful prisoner’s insurrection to either seize the camp and town or undertake a mass escape of all prisoners and become guerrilla fighters.
It is from Berhala Island in June 1943 that we see the first two groups of prisoners successfully escape internment; these were not the first of many attempts by prisoners to escape. Several failed attempts prior to the Berhala escape had been attempted at the Mile 8 prison of war camp but all failed with all the escapees captured or betrayed. .
At this juncture, it is important to understand the Japanese views on prisoners and the treatment prisoners would receive from guards and soldiers of the Japanese Forces in Borneo; According to Lieutenant Colonel Suga Tatsuji, commanding officer of Borneo Prisoner of War Internment Area to his prison staff, “…rewards must be uniform and punishment relentless. Let there be no half-measures.”
He further adds “…to show Maudlin sympathy or to lapse into sentimental indulgence, thus creating the impression that you can be influenced like a little child, is extremely reprehensible.”
The underground movement was eventually betrayed to the Japanese; in mid July 1943, Singh, Matthews, Taylor and many police officers, agriculture and forestry staff as well as local businessmen, many who were members of the Sandakan Underground were arrested and brutally beaten and tortured by the Japanese secret police or “Kempetai.”
Ojagar Singh, being one of the senior members of the Sandakan Underground was pin pointed as the man most likely responsible for helping the Australian prisoners escape from Berhala Island and a man of great interest to the Kempetai.
He were taken to a bungalow house outside of Sandakan town near Jalan Tanah Merah where he was beaten and tortured for several days. During the violent interrogation, Ojagar’s jaw was broken and his elbow shattered.
Despite attempts by Dr Taylor to seek permission from his interrogators to treat Ojagar’s broken jaw and limb, these requests were denied; he could only watch as Ojagar stood alongside other prisoners, all beaten and tortured and all in severe pain and distress from either standing for hours or squatting for hours and staring down at the floor. In Ojagar’s case, he was also bleeding from the intense torture he had gone through with skin missing from his back and blood and infection from the wounds.
Eventually, like most prisoners, he was broken after days of torture and told the Japanese about secret letters he had smuggled out of the Mile 8 prison camp and hidden under a chicken cage at his home, was taken back to his home where he was forced to show the Japanese where he had hidden the letters. He did not reveal who had passed him the letters, except to say he collected them himself.
With his pregnant wife and young children watching, Ojagar’s last words to his wife were “take care of the children and look after yourself.” This would be the last time a young Anup Singh and his siblings would see their father ever again as he was then brought back to the house of torture and beaten some more.
Police officers from the nearby police station would also move her and the children to the Police Barracks as they did not feel it was safe for her to be on her own with the children, and being pregnant as the Japanese had also confiscated all her jewellery, personal belongings and money, leaving her and the children penniless and without any income.
After being transferred to Kuching on 19th October 1943, Ojagar and his colleagues underwent further interrogation before they were put on trial. Records show 52 civilians were arrested along with 20 prisoners of war and together were all shipped by sea to Kuching.
On the 29th February 1944, Warrant Officer Ojagar Singh alongside his men which included Sergeant Abin of Ranau and Detective Ernesto Lagan along with businessman Heng Joo Ming, Sandlewood trader Wong Mu Sing who was a lieutenant in the Philippine Guerrilla Force under the command of US Forces, Alex Funk, a member of the Borneo Volunteer Force, radio shop owner Felix Azcona, Dusun farm manager Matusup bin Gungau and Captain Lionel Matthews were sentenced to death by a firing squad.
The rest of the prisoners are sentenced to prison for terms ranging from 15 years to six months.
Matusup had been instrumental in smuggling information and medicines and food into the Sandakan prison camp at Mile 8 whilst Azcona and his brothers had smuggled radio parts to the camp. The dashing and handsome Alex Funk was the son of the first non-European magistrate of North Borneo and was a smart, intelligent young man and from a prominent family in Sandakan who was actively assisting the Sandakan Underground and was one of the key leaders.
Heng Joo Ming, sympathetic to the prisoners smuggled food to the prisoners and is betrayed by two friends over money and blackmail over the sale and purchase of rice on the black market.
He had previously assisted in the escape of the prisoners from Berhala Island and was betrayed because he refused to pay money as a bribe and was subsequently arrested along with his father, tortured and then sentenced to death.
Australian prisoner of war and radio operator Lieutenant Rod Wells, also arrested after transcripts of radio communications are found in his possession in the Sandakan prison of war camp recalls hugging the beaten and tortured Ojagar Singh in one final embrace before the Sikh policeman was led out of court limping from his injuries to face a firing squad on the 2nd March 1944.
The 8 men were led to a clearing in a jungle area some 5 kilometres from the prison at a rubber estate in the Batu Kawa area outside of Kuching where they are lined up in front of a Japanese firing squad before they were all shot to death without a chance to write a final goodbye letter to their families.
Hearing rumours of the death of one of their own, the local Sikh community in Kuching marched to the Japanese headquarters and demanded the release of Ojagar’s body so he could be cremated according to Sikh burial rites. This request was denied and the party were chased out of the headquarters by armed Japanese guards.
Anup’s eldest brother Hercharan Singh assumed the responsibilities at the age of fourteen years old as the sole breadwinner for the family including including that of his baby sister, born two months after Ojagar had been taken away to Kuching.
As Hercharan had a working knowledge of Japanese, he was employed for a while as translator, and as a fresh water fishmonger. The family grew their own vegetables and relied on tapioca as their staple diet till the end of the war and also sold oil extracted from coconuts to survive.
In late 1943, Ojagar’s brother-in-law, Sergeant Dial Singh from the Lahad Datu Constabulary arrived with his wife and two children with the intention to take the entire family back to his home outside of Lahad Datu. Their journey was however stopped by the Japanese who refused to let the family board a ship for Lahad Datu, allowing only Sergeant Dial to board the ship.
Dial returned seven months later with eight local porters to help the family move on foot to Lahad Datu, walking over land through virgin jungle. The adventure of escaping Sandakan was truly remarkable; after exiting Sandakan on foot with their porters, the family boarded sampans to get to Kampung Bikang, outside of Lahad Datu.
About sixteen kilometres from Lahad Datu the family left the vastly swollen Segama River and all perils of crocodiles behind and continued on foot along the road, wading through knee deep floodwater for the first three kilometres before reaching the Tengah Nipa Estate where relatives lived. It was during this time that the youngest sister of Anup passed away due to malnutrition and illness.
Arriving at Dial Singh’s property, he led them to a hut he had built secretly for them to hide and live in which was in the jungle to ensure their safety from the Japanese. There, the family remained in hiding until the end of the war, living off vegetables they grew and tapioca they planted, catching fresh water fish and crabs as well as salt extracted from sea water.
Unknown to the family at the time, Sergeant Dial Singh had been meeting Americans who came to Lahad Datu by submarine from Tawi Tawi to gather intelligence and to share information on Japanese forces in the area.
Dial Singh too was betrayed by a fellow police sergeant who learned about his clandestine activities with the American’s and seeking a reward from the Japanese, decided to write a letter for the Japanese secret police which he requested Dial Singh to personally deliver, unaware that Dial Singh had already been suspicious about this Sergeant’s loyalties and instead opened the letter given to him and read the contents. Dial Singh had doubts about the Sergeant loyalties and opened the letter and discovered he was to be betrayed.
He had no choice but to escape into the jungle and to hide out for the reminder of the war.
It was during this time that young Hercharan Singh fell ill and the two baby girls in the family, weakened by malnutrition and illness, died after accidently eating poisonous mushrooms.
Till today, there has been no acknowledgement by the Australian government nor the Sabah State government or Malaysian government of the bravery and courage of Warrant Officer Ojagar Singh, Sergeant Abin and Detective Ernesto Lagan contributions in saving the lives of prisoners of war or their bravery as North Borneo Constabulary officers.
In trying to preserve the lives of so many, they made the ultimate sacrifice not only for the prisoners of war at the Sandakan Prisoner of War camp but also for the people of Sandakan and were never remembered for their great sacrifices, even today.
The compensation paid via the Widow’s and families pension fund was very little and could not support Anup, his mother and brothers and sisters. Promises were made from the Australian government but those promises were never fulfilled and they were eventually all but forgotten about not only by the Australian’s, but also about by the North Borneo government and the Sabah government.
Their positions in the constabulary prevented the Australian government from providing financial compensation to the families of Singh, Abin and Lagan. There was an understanding after the war that the government of North Borneo would provide pensions for the families of its administrative staff who lost their lives during the war, based on their term of service.
The great sacrifice and courage of these men have all but been forgotten about. There is never any mention each year during the Sandakan Memorial services about “The Lion of Sandakan” and the men of the North Borneo Constabulary. If anything, the services are generally focused only on the sacrifices of Australian and British prisoners whilst the Sandakan Underground has all but been forgotten about, and this is a very sad aspect of the memorial services being carried out. No memorials exist in Sandakan to remember these fallen men either, except for a tomb in Kuching.
Author’s Note: During the course of my interviews with Inspector Anup Singh (Rtd), son of Ojagar Singh, one name that keeps coming up during the interviews is the name Koram bin Anduat, who was Ojagar’s most trusted aide on Berhala Island and who was part of the group of policemen who successfully carried out and assisted the escape of the Australian prisoners from Berhala Island on the orders of Ojagar Singh.
Not enough recognition has been given as well to the activities of Koram who not only suffered terrible torture by the Japanese secret police, but remained steadfast in protecting Ojagar and the rest of the policemen in the Berhala Island group arrestd.
The sad part of this story is that it was another prisoner who eventually broke during interrogation and torture and who told the Japanese everything which would lead to the trial in Kuching and the death sentences imposed on Ojagar and the Sandakan Underground members.
It is important to point out that no man (or woman) would have withstood the type of torture and brutality of interrogations carried out by the Japanese and that everyone, regardless of size, build and intelligence breaks during torture. It is not a question of how, but when.
The pain and suffering is unbearable and at some point in time, the Japanese would have eventually found out about who did what and what activities were going on within the Sandakan Underground and the group was doomed anyways once they were betrayed and arrested.
This article was co-authored together with Mr.Shari Jeffri in September 2019.
1. Prof. Danny Wong – Historical Sabah “The War” (2010)
2. Arkib Negeri Sabah – World War Two: “The Sabah’s Story (2010)”
3. Paul Ham – “Sandakan” (2012)
4. Interview with Inspector Anup Singh (Rtd), Son of Jemadar Ojagar Singh, August, 2019.
5. Avtar Singh Sandhu-”The Lions of North Borneo: The forgotten Sikhs of Malaysia.” (2020)
The article, Ojagar – the forgotten ‘Lion of S’kan’, was first published at Daily Express (22 Sept 2019).