Japan’s Invasion During World War II was Brutal for Southeast Asians. Does This TV Series Ignore Their Suffering?

‘The Singapore Grip’ is facing mounting criticism for leaving the stories of Southeast Asians on the cutting rooms floor.
September 10, 2020, 11:38am
ITV, Southeast Asia, Singapore

Japan’s bloody invasion of Malaya and the fall of Singapore were major turning points during World War II, but a new six-part ITV teledrama is taking flak for marginalising the experiences of Southeast Asians by focusing on the lives of a British family.

“The Singapore Grip”, set to air in the U.K. on September 13, is based on a 1978 J. G. Farrell satirical novel of the same name and was adapted by award-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton. “It shows the corrupt practices and casual racism of the ruling elite,” Hampton said in defence of his work. “Any fair-minded viewer will easily understand this.”

But his words were lost in the growing online criticism and scrutiny over what many saw as the fetishization of British colonialism during a brutal, sensitive and overlooked chapter in Singapore and Southeast Asian history. Critics say it is a pattern when it comes to mainstream entertainment about the period.

“No. Just no,” tweeted Canadian actor Simu Liu, who plays Marvel’s first Asian superhero, in response to the trailer. The BEATS advocacy group, which actively promotes equal representation of British East and Southeast Asians in theatre productions, issued a strongly-worded statement about the show, calling it “a kick in the teeth” to those it claims to represent.

“This is especially concerning at a time when anti-Asian hate crime has dramatically increased during the coronavirus pandemic,” the group said, adding that Hampton’s screen adaption “could have taken a more enlightened perspective”.

Some of the best-known novels, histories and movies about World War II in Southeast Asia are about the experiences of westerners, especially the forced labor around the building of the so-called death railway. Pressed into service, tens of thousands of poor workers from Southeast Asian countries died in the effort. But movies like The Bridge on The River Kwai with Alec Guinness in 1957 or The Railway Man starring Colin Firth in 2014 don’t tell their stories.

For those in Singapore, like prominent activist and culture buff Kirsten Han, the “Singapore Grip”, even with its satirical narratives, remains problematic.

“Many of us grew up hearing stories from our parents and grandparents about the Japanese Occupation. Christopher Hampton is right in saying that the British surrender of Singapore was clearly a catastrophe but it was most keenly felt by the people who directly had to suffer during the Japanese Occupation,” Han told VICE News. “But saying that the British messed up is no longer good enough, not with ongoing global movements against racism and colonialism. It relegates the pain and suffering of colonized countries to the background and is out of step with how far society has come in conversations about the legacy of colonialism, race and representation.”

Singapore, a major British military base and historical trading point in Southeast Asia, fell to Japanese forces during World War II on February 15, 1942. Tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese died at the hands of Japanese soldiers as part of a brutal campaign to extend Japanese rule in the region. The Japanese moved into Burma, where some of the most crucial battles with the Allies were fought in terrible conditions.

A locomotive sits on the last remaining portion of the "Death Railway" in Myanmar.

A locomotive sits on the last remaining portion of the "Death Railway" in Myanmar. (Credit: AFP)

“The fall of Singapore was a deep psychological blow to Britain as the myth of British superiority and prestige had been shattered,” Singaporean historian Dhevarajan Devadas told VICE News. “The brutal experiences of Singaporeans and prisoners of wars in particular, along with those sent abroad to build the Death Railway, dominated generations of books, documentaries and exhibitions. It was a time of great suffering in Singapore’s history.”

Local history buff and independent researcher Jerome Lim, said that the Japanese occupation of Malaya was a painful but important time in Singapore and Malaysia’s histories. “It was what led to the end of the British empire and a loss of faith in our ‘colonial masters’, the whole episode was a shameful one for the British and their views will always undoubtedly be clouded by their experiences - or how they wish to see things. So the Brits will always look at the war from their prevailing viewpoints and this is clearly a drama made for their audiences,” Lim told VICE News.

“For the older generation of Singaporeans, there is still a lot of pain that came from the war. There are families who have lost members to the Japanese during the occupation and there are clearly many who have still not forgotten about the wartime atrocities that were allowed to happen.”