Words by Jasbir Singh
Photos by Yeong Hui Min
Although the fighting in Sabah during the Second World War was not as intense as elsewhere, the worst ever atrocities against Australian soldiers was witnessed here – the Sandakan Death Marches.
The ISO Sabah group posing for a group picture with Mr Sevee at the Kundasang War Memorial entrance
By January 1945, the Japanese had 1793 Australian prisoners of war, who were being held with around 641 British soldiers at the Sandakan POW Camp. Most of these were soldiers who surrendered at the fall of Singapore in 1942 and had then been shipped to Sandakan to construct military installations. Conditions at the camp were very poor. Not only were they malnourished, the POWs also suffered from diseases such as malaria, dysentry, beri beri and other infections. Many did not event have shoes.
As pressure built on the Japanese forces, a decision was made to forcibly march the able bodied soldiers to Ranau, about 260km away. In total the prisoners numbered 1063, of which only six survived by escaping their captors. “The smell of death was there all the time,” said one of the six survivors Keith Botterill in an Australian documentary on the death marches. There exists many stories of soldiers who either lost their will to live, or were stabbed with the bayonet for being unable to walk further. The remaining soldiers at the POW Camp, totaling 1368, eventually died or were killed by the Japanese forces.
Only six of 2434 Prisoners of War (POWs) held by the Japanese in Sandakan survived the war.
The Kundasang War Memorial was established in 1962 to remember these soldiers, and their British counterparts who died during the Second World War. It also recognizes the help given by local Sabahans to the suffering soldiers during their time of need, for example done by handing out food to the marchers. However, due to lack of funding, the War Memorial and Gardens fell into disrepair until they were restored by Sabahan Sevee Charuruks in 2006.
Sevee, a businessman from Kota Kinabalu, who retired in 2003, was taking a friend on a tour of Sabah when they stopped over at the memorial. Here, he was dismayed by the poor conditions of the place, which led him to take action.
“It was a very run down place and was being used by drug addicts and for prostitution.”
“There was no funding available for the place. In fact, the authorities even asked local hotels if they would like to refurbish and manage the place. All declined.”
“My friend did not say anything, but I could sense that he was very upset.”
“I approached the authorities and they were very happy that I had volunteered. I worked on it for a year, and when it was completed, they asked me if I would like to continue looking after the place.”
As there was no funding available, Sevee said permission was granted to charge a small entrance fee of RM2, which ensure the place to be well maintained and are paying the salaries of gardeners and administrative staff.
The memorial also features personalized photos of the fallen soldiers donated by their families.
He said there is still no regular funding for the memorial but it did receive money from the Australian government in 2009 to fund a new building.
“We need this a as place to honor soldiers who died defending this place. I thought it was very disrespectful to their memory to leave the place that way.”
“It was frustrating initially as there was very little support from the authorities. I almost gave up at one point, but my wife encouraged me to complete the restoration,” said Sevee, who is happy to see the results of his efforts.
Sevee, who has been interested in military history since opposing the Vietnam War as a student, said there was a very powerful lesson to be learnt from the memorial.
The Kundasang War Memorial honors Australian and British soldiers killed during the Second World War.It also features two beautifully maintained gardens.
“If you ask the soldiers who have fought in the wars – you will find that there was no reason.
There are no winners in war, as far as Jasbir Singh is concerned, and he believes the sad stories of such serve to highlight the need to prevent war and maintain humanity during the most difficult of times.