Saluting Our Warriors

loading The Cenotaph.

The peace we enjoy today would not have been possible without the sacrifices of our war veterans.

Peace never comes easy. In Malaysia’s case, the population had to survive the harsh Japanese occupation, the Malayan Emergency and Konfrontasi.

Freedom and prosperity should not be taken for granted, and those who sacrificed much and gave their lives for the country need to be remembered.

The idea for a veterans’ association stemmed from Harold Vernon Speldewinde, who was of Dutch descent and who began serving as a freedom fighter in the Penang Eurasian Volunteer “E Company” at the young age of seventeen during the Second World War. His wartime recollections are priceless today.

Battle

The aggressive air raids of December 1941 killed thousands on the island, and the General Hospital was filled with casualties. Cooperation to maintain law and order was promptly secured between the Penang Service Committee1 under the chairmanship of M. Saravaranamuttu, the then-editor of The Straits Echo, fondly known and remembered as “Uncle Sara”, and the Penang Volunteers. Under the command of Lieutenant A. Wilwebber, the volunteers were soon entreated into service as volunteer police.2

Tasked primarily with curbing looting – mainly by cordoning off the harbour and main shopping districts, and keeping all unauthorised persons from entering these areas – the volunteer police were similarly empowered to prevent the illegal movement of goods, and they could confiscate these where ownership could not be satisfactorily proved.3

With law and order restored within days and looting eliminated almost completely, Harold also became Uncle Sara’s personal bodyguard and assisted him with peacekeeping on the island.

After the British fled the island, Uncle Sara fulfilled the most challenging mission of lowering the Union Jack and hoisting the white flag of surrender to prevent further bombings of the undefended island. Assisted by Harold, he evacuated stranded British officers by sneaking them onto large tongkangs along Sungai Pinang at midnight, bound for Singapore – then thought as the impenetrable fortress.4

The late Harold Vernon Speldewinde, founder of the PVKPP.

The arrival of the Japanese army saw Uncle Sara incarcerated and Harold put on the list as the “most wanted man in Malaya” with a price of $500 on his head. Fortunately, Harold succeeded in fleeing to the jungles of Cameron Highlands together with his young wife, Molly McIntyre, and they resided with the Orang Asli community throughout the war years5 – thanks in part to Harold’s father, Clair Alexander Spledewinde. Formerly a forester in the early 1900s and later a rubber planter who owned a rubber plantation in Tapah and tea planter in Cameron Highlands, Clair’s old generosity with the Semai community there invoked their kind protection of Harold and his family, whose hideout was within the operation ambit of the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army.6

Peace

Harold’s wish to secure the welfare and common interests of his fellow freedom fighters resulted finally in the formation of the Persatuan Veteran Keselamatan Pulau Pinang (PVKPP) in 2001, alongside the key efforts of Tan Sri B. Bek-Nielsen, Datuk Dr K. Ragupathy, Datuk Dr Peter C. Vanniasingha, Datuk Mary Ritchie, Nirmala Devi, Betty Oxley, Raghbir Singh and the late Dr S. Jayaratnam.

Most freedom fighters and uniformed bodies do not fall under the category of the armed forces and therefore are not entitled to most benefits enjoyed by ex-armed forces personnel; thus, Harold aspired for the NGO instead to cater to all groups and sections of veteran fighters. Its lenient conditions for membership allow it to include all ex-officers and other ranks in the regular, mobilised and volunteer units of the Malaysian Armed Forces; all ex-members of the Royal Malaysia Police; all ex-officers and other ranks of the armed forces of Commonwealth countries who served in Malaysia; all ex-members of the People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela); and all ex-personnel of prisons, fire brigades and the rescue and civil defence services.7

As its first president, Harold focused his efforts on securing the welfare of the veterans and their families, binding them in the spirit of comradeship they once shared. PVKPP plays a huge role in organising fellowships, tours and get-togethers.8 With donations from the government and individuals, tokens are allocated towards the support of veterans, especially those in their advanced years.

Remembrance Day.

Graves of fallen soldiers at the Western Road cemetery.

In some instances, veterans are entitled to benefits offered by the PVKPP based on their past service records; in others, the PVKPP liaises between the veterans and existing veteran agencies in England, the British Armed Forces and the British High Commissioner in areas concerning military pensions, the endorsement of service and past military records.9 Apart from its veteran-centric activities, the PVKPP is also involved in the preservation of war-time history and once assisted in the restoration of the Batu Maung Fortress, now known as the Penang War Museum.10

In Honour of the Fallen

Honouring the fallen has a long history in Penang. The erection of a war memorial at the Esplanade to commemorate the soldiers who fought in the First World War was first mooted in the early 1920s, and a memorial in the form of an oblong granite cenotaph, designed by D. McLeod Craik, was raised.

War veteran Jerome Jeremiah.

It hads four cornerstones carved with the badges of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Mercantile Marine emblems to symbolise most sections of the veterans.11 While the cenotaph was first unveiled by his Royal Highness Prince Edward VII – then Prince of Wales – in March 1922 during his tour of India and the Far East,12 it was not completed until the early 1930s. In fact, its construction could not have been completed without public subscription to the cause, with appeals carried out by the local branch of the Ex-Services Association of Malaya in 1928. A hefty sum of $7,000 Straits Dollars was required.13

It was claimed that the people of Penang “had raised more imposing sums in the past for deserving objects and no difficulty should be encountered in collecting the sum”.14 The money was indeed raised, although the cenotaph’s expected cost of $7,000 rose to $12,000 in the end15.

Since 2001, Remembrance Day has been diligently celebrated by the PVKPP at the cenotaph, distinct from the National Remembrance Day service held in KL at the National Monument. On that day, retired veterans and their families, and around 400 representatives from Malaysia, Singapore and other Commonwealth states such as Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, and Rhodesia, gather to salute the war heroes who defended the country in the Second World War, the Malayan Emergency and in all other military conflicts.

Major Sivarajan Ramanathan.

During the ceremony, fallen heroes – irrespective of race, nationality or creed – are remembered and honoured; a two-minute moment of silence is observed and wreaths are laid out at the cenotaph by individuals and by representatives of various government and organisations.16 This is followed again by a moment of silence in final memoriam of all faded veterans whose spirit and noble services continue to remain in the hearts of surviving family and friends.

PVKPP also plays an active role in supporting various annual memorial services in the northern region – for instance, the Gurkha Remembrance Day service held in Ipoh honouring the sacrifices of Gurkha servicemen,17 followed by a commemoration service at the Anglican cemetery, God’s Little Acre, in Batu Gajah for British expatriates – including planters, police officers, miners, civilians and troops – who lost their lives during the Emergency.18

Today, the baton of PVKPP’s presidency has been passed to Major Sivarajan Ramanathan (retired), who served in the army between 1965 and 1992. From 40 members, the PVKPP now has about 200 on its membership list. While veteran support remains the priority, a more pressing task is to alert the young to the sacrifices made by war veterans.

The authors wish to thank the PVKPP, mainly Major Sivarajan Ramanathan (retired) and A.A Rajah, for the kind assistance rendered throughout the course of writing this article.

The 16th Annual Remembrance Day Ceremony takes place at 7am on November 19 at the Cenotaph, the Esplanade. All are welcome.

Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the History section of Penang Institute who writes to inspire and takes pride in introducing herself as a writer rather than a lawyer.
Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute. She graduated from Taiwan National Tsing Hua University in Anthropology. She loves to explore the hidden history of Penang through documents and interviews.

1 The Penang Service Committee comprised members from four different communities, duly elected to run the town. It is noteworthy that among the notable figures were federal legislative councillor, Lim Cheng Ean, and Penang magistrate Lim Khoon Teik.
2 Saravanamuttu, Manicasothy. The Sara Saga. Areca Books, 2010, p 111.
3 Ibid.
4 Speldewinde H.V. “An Account on the Occupation and Liberation of Penang.” Penang Veterans’ Association, PVA Document File.
5 “Fighter for the People.” The Eastern Times. 25 July 2008, pp 8-9.
6 Ibid.
7 Constitution of the Penang Veterans’ Association 2001.
8 Ibid.
9FLOAT (PVA) Invitation List 2005. Correspondence between PVA and Ministry of Defence Secretary, British High Commissioner confirming military service of a veteran, dated 25 April 2006, PVA Document File.
10“Fighter for the People.” The Eastern Times, 25 July 2008, pp 8-9.
11Untitled, Malaya Tribune, 4 September 1928, p.8
12Letter from the Royal Archives, London to the PVA, confirming Prince Edward VII’s unveiling of the Penang Cenotaph, dated 4 May 2006.
13“Penang War Memorial.” The Straits Times, 23 August 1928, p 7.
14Ibid. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adviser, 28 August 1928, p 3.
15Info board on Cenotaph.
16“Remembering WW2 Heroes.” New Straits Times, 21 August 2014, p 3.
17Annual Remembrance Week 2011 by Wira Association Kinta Perak, Ipoh, PVA Document File.
18Letter to PVA from Malaysian Palm Oil Association, Perak branch, dated 19 February 2010, PVA Document File.



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