THE Japanese called it a tribute, but to the Chinese who had to cough up $50mil (Straits dollars) in 1942, it was extortion. What else could it be called when the Chinese communities in Malaya and Singapore had watched lorry load after lorry load of Chinese disappear, presumably killed, before the "request'' was made, points out Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia secretary-general S.T. Wong.
"The Chinese agreed to the Japanese's demand as the mentality at that time was they (the Japanese) can kill you any time. When the Japanese arrested you, you disappeared. That was the Japanese's rule of military terrorism,'' he says, recounting what federation members have told him.
In 1967, when the Malaysian government was negotiating with the Japanese government over the Blood Debt for lives lost during the war and property destroyed, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce raised the issue of the forced contribution of $50mil. The Chamber demanded RM130mil, RM10mil for each of the 13 states in Malaysia, as repayment.
When the chamber's demand was not included in the Blood Debt settlement, Wong says "the Chinese community stopped taking action;'' though, "now and then the community would talk about the repayment.''
On the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, Aug 15, 1995, the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia decided to take up the repayment issue.
Wong explains: "There was no `head' to lead the Chinese community in pursuing the demand when the Chinese Chamber of Commerce failed in its attempt in 1967.''
When the federation was formed on Dec 13, 1991, it became "the highest Chinese body in the country,'' says Wong, and it decided to take up the issue again. But first, it spent four years gathering information about how the Chinese community in Malaysia felt about the issue. Then, on Aug 27, 1994, the federation sent a memorandum to the Japanese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The memorandrum was signed by presidents and chairmen of the eight major Chinese associations representing the Malaysian Chinese community.
Included in the memorandum was this statement: "During the period of three years and eight months of Japanese occupation, the Chinese community, in particular, was forced to pay 50 million Malayan dollars contribution. We demand the Japanese government offer at least RM500 million to the Malaysian Chinese community as compensation.'' (The federation estimated the repayment should be at least 10 times the $50mil the Chinese had paid in 1942.)
The Japanese government ignored the memorandum.
On Dec 17, 1999, the federation, with the assistance of a group of Japanese academicians, sent a delegate to Tokyo to present its demand to the Japanese Prime Minister's Department and Foreign Affairs Ministry. The Japanese government then informed the federation that, "as far as it was concerned the Japanese and Malaysian governments had legally settled the war matters in the 1967 settlement,'' Wong says.
"But we informed them that the settlement was between two governments. We pointed out that in 1942, when the Japanese military government forced the Chinese leaders to pay the money, there was no government (of Malaya) at that time.'' Wong argues that the $50mil agreement was between the Japanese government and the Chinese community in Malaya.
"For us, the Japanese government and the Malaysian Chinese community have not settled (the matter). It is a simple matter you (the Japanese) owe us this much, you pay us back.''
If the federation is successful in its claim, the leaders of the 13 Chinese Assembly Halls in Malaysia and the groups representing the seven major Chinese dialects will decide how to use the money. Probably, says Wong, they will form a foundation to deal with education, culture and charity.
While waiting for the Japanese government to deliberate on its demand, the federation is organising forums nationwide to educate the public on atrocities committed by the Japanese during their occupation of Malaya and Singapore in WWII.
"After half a century, most people, especially those born just after or during WWII, know nothing about it. We want our community to be aware why we are asking (for) the money and what happened in those days.''
The federation organised forums in Kuantan and Penang in March. Its next forum will be in Alor Star on April 31. At the two forums last month, it managed to collect from descendants of contributors 20 receipts the Japanese had issued in 1942.
How does the federation rate its chances of obtaining repayment from the Japanese government?
"Of course, with this kind of thing after 50 years, say easy cannot say easy (sic) but if we don't do anything, it will be difficult. We consider it our duty as community leaders to do something,'' Wong says.
"But what is in their (the Japanese government's) mind, we do not know. It is they who will foot the bill.
"Another century will start (in 2001) and we hope whatever happened in the 20th century will be closed. We want to forget every unhappiness of the past. What we wish and pray is that everything will be settled before the end of the century.''
Notes: PHILIP GOLINGAI finds out what's happening with the Malaysian Chinese community's effort to seek repayment for the money they were forced to 'donate' to the Japanese during World War II.