Sybil Kathigasu Remembered

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On June 12, it was exactly 65 years since Sybil Kathigasu, the freedom fighter, died. In her book ‘No Dram of Mercy’, she gives an insightful account of a woman of great courage who should be held as a beacon and a role model to all Malaysians.

In the late ‘20s till the early ‘40s, Sybil and her husband Dr Kathigasu operated a clinic on Brewster Road, now known as Jalan Sultan Idris Shah in Ipoh. Sybil’s warmth, readiness to help and her fluency in Cantonese made her popular with the local Chinese community.

Our country has a rich history having been colonized by many Western powers like the Portuguese, Dutch and British. But the one historical event that can never be forgotten is the Japanese invasion. In 1941, the Japanese army bombed Ipoh, this event prompted Sybil and her family to move away to Papan, a small town fringing Ipoh. It was here that Sybil ran a free clinic dispensing medicine to the locals and fighters of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army.

She also kept a radio nicknamed “Josephine”, so that she could listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for news and pass on information. When the Japanese army found out about her “subversive” activities, she was immediately arrested and tortured. Her fingersnails were ripped off with pliers and her legs scalded with iron rods. She was also forced to drink large quantities of water before the Kempeitai (Japanese Military Police) stepped on her bloated stomach. She suffered damage to her spine and skull after a severe beating by a thick bamboo stick.

After Malaya’s liberation from the Japanese in 1945, Sybil was flown to England for medical treatment. In 1948, she became the only Malaysian woman to receive the George Medal for Gallantry, a high civilian honour given by Britain’s King George VI.

Several months later, Sybil died due to an old wound on the jaw sustained from the kick of a Japanese boot which had brought on a fatal bout of septicaemia. Her body was later brought back and buried at St Michael’s Church in Ipoh.

Sybil’s life is perhaps the best example of unity – a Penang Eurasian-descent woman who willingly sacrificed her life for the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army members who were mostly Chinese who fought for the independence of Malaya.

In Fair Park, Ipoh, a road is named after her to commemorate her bravery. But the sad truth is, she has never been mentioned in any of the Malaysian history books. Perhaps, Malaysians have a poor sense of history. In recent decades, our education system placed little emphasis on this subject. Little is known to our school children on local heroes like Sarjan Hassan, Leftenan Adnan, the Iban hero Kanang and our forgotten heroine Sybil Kathigasu.

Therefore, can the Education Ministry include some chapters for local fighters like Sybil Kathigasu in our history books?

S. Sundralingam