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COMMENT: Lifting the veil on Singapore’s comfort women

The Cenotaph is a war memorial in Singapore that commemorates the men who perished during the World Wars, although only the names of the soldiers who perished in the first world war are inscribed. It was unveiled in 1922 by Prince Edward of Wales.
The Cenotaph is a war memorial in Singapore that commemorates the men who perished during the World Wars, although only the names of the soldiers who perished in the first world war are inscribed. It was unveiled in 1922 by Prince Edward of Wales.

By Daniel Moss

(Bloomberg Opinion) — Wartime horrors and sexual slavery aren’t top of mind when perusing luxury malls on Orchard Road in Singapore. Yet Cairnhill Road, a terraced street a short walk away, was home to one of most prominent brothels used by the Japanese army in World War II. Sentosa, an island known today for golf courses, tony hotels and spas, also hosted a so-called “comfort station” where women were similarly subjugated.

The world is familiar with the ordeal of comfort women mainly because of the courage shown by Koreans who were coerced into bondage and have publicly campaigned for compensation and acts of contrition from Japan. Less well known is the way that Japan reshaped and directed the sex industry of Singapore from 1942, when British colonial rule was vanquished, until Tokyo’s defeat three years later. Fear of stigma and a lack of encouragement have hampered survivors in this Southeast Asia country from attaining similar recognition.

Kevin Blackburn, an Australian who is associate professor in history at Nanyang Technological University’s National Institute of Education, hopes to change that. His recent book, The Comfort Women of Singapore in History and Memory, charts the development of comfort stations during the war and why it’s been so hard to document their brutality. I spoke to him about the silence of the women, many of whom have now died, and why this is the right time to tell their story. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DANIEL MOSS: How large was the network of comfort stations in Singapore and were many local women put to work?

KEVIN BLACKBURN: Quite extensive. There were different types of comfort station. There were ones run by the military and those that were privately owned but heavily influenced by the military. It’s been difficult to document the presence of local women at comfort stations. Usually, the narrative is that after Feb. 15, 1942, there is a rounding up of local women and their rape. There is substantial evidence from the memoirs of Japanese veterans that there were a variety of women and it’s likely there were locals. There were abductions of teenage virgins. This is well documented in archives and oral history. They turned to existing brothels and women already engaged in this trade. In many instances, they were coerced or tricked into the system, but because they were already engaged in this line of work, they don’t get as much sympathy as those who were kidnapped.

Recollections of Japanese servicemen characterize Singapore as a kind of sexual paradise. The place already had a reputation under the British. Local businessmen started operating brothels designed for the Japanese military because they were the ones with the money. The brothels set up by local merchants tended to have local women. For the comfort stations run by Koreans, they were inclined to use Korean women. The first few months after the UK defeat were very difficult and dangerous because the stations were being set up. Local women also got sent to towns in Malaysia for work there.

Lee Kuan Yew recalled seeing lines of soldiers waiting their turn on Cairnhill Road.  Photographer: Daniel Moss/Bloomberg
Lee Kuan Yew recalled seeing lines of soldiers waiting their turn on Cairnhill Road. Photographer: Daniel Moss/Bloomberg

DM: The plight of Korean comfort women has received great publicity. Why has sexual labor in Singapore, and the role of local women, been given much less emphasis?

KB: They do appear in Singapore public culture, but not in any meaningful way. The old Ford factory, Singapore’s main war museum, doesn’t give them much more than a sentence. Museums run into issues about whether there is enough evidence. In the oral history project of the National Archives, people describe locals being comfort women, but none of the women have come forward to give their testimony. There are similar challenges throughout Asia. In Malaysia, women did come out, but their names are largely obscured. There is a lot of stigma in Asian societies related to being engaged in any sex work, so it’s not shocking there is this reluctance.

The Singapore government didn’t pursue the issue. They are always wary of the history wars raging in Northeast Asia. There’s also a notion in some quarters that Singaporean women might have escaped sexual slavery. Additionally, there is an element of patriarchy, where women who talk about such things become stigmatized. It’s surprising on one level, but also not surprising on another. Singapore is a city. In other, bigger countries there is more latitude to coming out. The cost of talking about this sort of thing here can be quite high.

DM: In 1992, soon after the Korean women began telling their story, Lee Kuan Yew expressed doubt that Singapore women were involved. He was no longer prime minister, but still a towering figure. What impact did his comments have?

KB: His remarks got a lot of attention. They were there for the comfort women to read. Whatever Lee said would have had great influence. But there were local journalists digging around trying to find out the story. They did locate women, but they were reluctant to go public and were surrounded by families and friends who tried to shield them. After the war, the returning British tried to rehabilitate them, especially underage girls. The emphasis was on trying to re-integrate them into society and perhaps marry Chinese men who couldn’t afford a bride from China. There is a lot of silence in society about the sex industry.

DM: Compare the attitude in Singapore to that of Malaysia, where the youth wing of the long-time ruling party, and a leading Chinese party, actively promoted a discussion of comfort women.

KB: The youth wing of UMNO and the Malaysian Chinese Association were initially very successful at getting women to come forward. However, the Japanese embassy got involved as did then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was very pro-Japanese in his outlook. The result was that people were lent on. The government shut it down, to some extent, though one victim in Penang, Rosalind Saw, told her story to The Star newspaper.

In Singapore, it doesn’t seem to be possible. The government isn’t interested, nor to be fair, are most governments. It’s usually the preserve of NGOs to persuade women to come forward, but in Singapore the government is very strong and not very sympathetic. In Singapore’s case, it’s unlikely that the Japanese embassy was involved. Singapore wasn’t receptive to this type of thing anyway.

DM: You devote considerable space to a person called Ho Kwai Min. Who is she and why is her story important?

KB: She is significant because she was acquainted with the prewar sex industry as well as the comfort system. From her actions, she avoided involvement despite heavy pressure from Japanese officers. She regarded herself as a high-class prostitute. In an interview with the Oral History Center, Ho was clear about how she was trafficked from Canton (now Guangzhou) to Hong Kong. She was supposed to be a virgin and people would have paid handsomely to be the first to have sex with her. Ho spoke about this openly, which was very rare. She talked about that she noticed the Japanese were coming into the existing red-light district. A merchant comes with two soldiers and demands she become a comfort woman. She and her manager persuade two lower-class prostitutes to take her place, but the price was she had to have sex with the businessman and soldiers. She was beaten for refusing to go along. The two that take her place end up being shipped to a comfort station at some military base in Malaysia. Ho ends up living in a high-class neighborhood and does visit Japanese officers in their bungalows. She stays formally separate from the comfort system.

Later in her life, Ho talks to Singapore TV and reveals that she experienced discrimination and stigma because of her work. It indicates that any woman who talks was in for a hard time. She was quite a strong person. She had an ability to raise money, her husband was a businessman. She was wealthy and devoted to some philanthropic causes, especially those related to children. She was initially sold as a child from a poor family to a person in China and then resold into Singapore. She died in 2017. In her life, she had a great deal of agency. There’s a view that women were passive. She says she chose her fate. It was worth documenting her story at considerable length.

DM: Given the historical reluctance to make comfort women a headline issue in Singapore, what’s been the reaction to your book?

KB: Most people like it because it does cover a part of Singapore history that should be talked about. It’s a hidden and forgotten aspect of women’s history. There’s a long pattern of women being written out of history. The fear of rape and being taken away was very common among those who lived through the Japanese occupation. I chose to write about this knowing that most of the women have now passed away. It was part of Singapore’s past that was in danger of vanishing. An inspiration was the 2019 novel by Jing-Jing Lee called How We Disappeared.

DM: More broadly, is there a greater openness now on the part of Singapore to explore aspects of its history that were once discouraged?

KB: There are always going to be areas that are sensitive, but generally, people want to acknowledge issues and not just forget them. If you look at Singapore’s past and the way it appears in textbooks, there is now a more comprehensive way of looking at things. There is greater willingness to debate some issues, especially as generational change comes to the fore. There is a broader shift in the way history is examined.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously, he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for economics.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.