Tag Archives: Sybil Kathigasu

Remembering Sybil Kathigasu



By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

editorial - Remembering Sybil Kathigasu - 2My interest in Sybil Kathigasu was rekindled when an old acquaintance emailed me to ask whether the road named after the local heroine, somewhere in Fair Park Ipoh, still remains.

His fear is not without reasons, as Ipoh City Council has a habit of changing street and road names at the drop of a hat. Why I use the euphemism is because there is no clear policy on street and road names, although several mayors in the past had categorically stated that only new street and road names would be given names. Renaming of old streets and roads, which are of significance to both residents and citizens, is taboo.

That was the premise but, like all things else, promises are made to be broken. At best, they are made merely to please the few vocal ones who would go to extreme ends to demonstrate their displeasure. For law-abiding people like you and me, a little indiscretion is of no consequence.

So those in the corridors of power will think nothing of a name change even though it means plenty to the poor blokes, who have to change their identity, calling and credit cards. Some have been known to change addresses, as the new street name is in poor taste.

editorial - Remembering Sybil Kathigasu - 1Now back to my lingering interest. Sybil Kathigasu was born Sybil Medan Daly to a Eurasian planter and a Eurasian midwife on September 3, 1899 in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia. That accounts for her middle name, Medan. She was the fifth child and the only girl. She was trained as a nurse and midwife and spoke Cantonese fluently.

Sybil and her husband, Dr Abdon Clement Kathigasu, operated a clinic at No. 141 Brewster Road (Jalan Sultan Idris Shah) in Ipoh from 1926 until the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941.

Days before Japanese forces occupied Ipoh, the couple moved to Papan. The predominantly Chinese community of Papan was so fond of Dr A.C. Kathigasu and gave him a Hakka nickname, ‘You Loy-De’.

Residing at No. 74, Main Street in Papan, Sybil Kathigasu secretly kept shortwave radio sets and listened to BBC broadcasts. The couple quietly provided medical treatment, much-needed medicines and information to the MPAJA (Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army) soldiers operating in the Kledang jungles.  Due to treachery they were eventually arrested by the dreaded Kempeitai, the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army, in 1943.

Despite being interrogated by her captors, Sybil revealed little or nothing and was incarcerated at the Batu Gajah prison for her defiance. Sybil suffered all kinds of torture while in captivity, including the infamous “water-treatment”. After the end of the Japanese Occupation in August 1945, Kathigasu was flown to Britain to be treated.

Sybil was awarded the George Medal for Gallantry months before she succumbed to her wounds in June, 1948. She was the only known local woman to have won the medal, which was instituted in September 1940 by King George VI. The medal is presented to civilians who perform acts of bravery in, or meriting recognition by, the United Kingdom.

Iban tracker, Awang anak Rawang, was awarded the George Cross in November 1951 for valour while serving as a tracker with the Worcestershire Regiment during the Malayan Emergency (1948 to 1960). The George Cross, incidentally, is the highest gallantry award for civilians and is equal in precedence to the Victoria Cross. The Malaysian equivalent of the Victoria Cross is the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa or commonly known as SP. Some 28 security personnel have been conferred the award thus far.

If you ask the youths today whether they know either Sybil Kathigasu or Awang anak Rawang, most will reply in the negative. I tried asking my thirty-something son about the duo. He gave a blank stare instead.

Youths of yesteryear were taught history as it was supposed to be taught; school children today are told to memorise names of Malay rulers and their consorts by heart. I wonder what were their contributions that warrant their names be committed to memory?

There is an onerous effort by the authorities to systematically erase historical facts that have relevance to the nation’s past for reasons best known to them.

I believe the reasons are obvious. Sybil Kathigasu’s heroism is being sidetracked purely because she helped the Communist insurgents and thus was considered an anti-hero. As for the Iban tracker, he was in the service of the British Army and not the Malaysian Army.

The colour of one’s skin and the belief he or she professes play a part too. I can’t be far wrong.

Sybil Kathigasu Remembered


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

Dripping from the Keg of Time


Kampong Tales

By Yusuf Martin

 It has been an odd year, a back and forth year, an uncertain but wonderful year.

In this past inequitable year, I shook warm hands with the local newspaper the Ipoh Echo, beginning an exciting new quest into the various New Years and beyond – with thanks to a certain generous woman, who has a penchant for antiquities and food.

2009 was also the year when Perak Academy, Perak Heritage Society and the oral history project all welcomed this mining pool wanderer, battered jeep and all, and entered my aging father-in-law’s voice into posterity.

This was the exceptional year when Gopeng got its very first museum – with grateful thanks to some very determined people – it was also the year when Gopeng nearly lost some of its old water pipe, amidst all kinds of wrangling and stubborn materialisms. It was in this fragile, unsettling year, that the last remaining tin dredge began to tilt on its base, threatening its previous stability, and stared into a distinctly unknowable future. It was a year in which rogues, bent on mischief elsewhere in Perak, sought to profit from collected historical artefacts.

As the last few dregs of the year were dripping from the keg of time, I was to recall that this was the year of my introduction to the still, quiet, tranquil wonders of Papan, and its fading beauty. Dodging Batu Gajah and its seller of the most remarkable mee rebus, I travelled, in my jeep, through lanes and roads to discover an altogether different type of feast, in the sumptuous museum at Papan. Although off the normal beaten track, the Papan museum is firmly wedged in Perak history as an historical site, with dedication to the war hero Sybil Kathigasu.

Ultimately, for me, it was a bookish year. It has been a year when several Perakian authors became published nationwide, and one book retracted. A year when I attended launches of books galore, yet encountering no book as illuminating, as a chunky, silver coloured tome explaining Ipoh and its shining history, from the age of tin.  This welcome launch came prefaced with a fascinating, evocative lecture, and a thought-provoking stroll down memory lane, amidst friends.

In many ways, it has been a glorious year. These twelve months have been the time in which I have listened to celestial music, produced by a cerebral local artist, and have vibrated to the stringed beat of Malaysian culture and her musical traditions. This has been the most extraordinary year, when I have met with artists, musicians, actors, directors and a whole host of very talented people – discovering, meanwhile, a distinct lack of acting ability within myself.

Ultimately, it has been another year of challenges. It has been a dizzy year, of ladders and cats on hot roofs. A time when I finally conquered my longstanding fear of heights, by extracting said cats from said roofs, and briefly considered a fresh career dressed in red and white, slipping down chimneys.

It was a most remarkably wet year, of floods, and children fishing in streets, hoisting immature black tilapia into convenient containers, running, or rather wading, back to their doting mothers, full of glee and, of course, fish.

Trailing towards the year’s nadir, it has been, literally, a rubbish year. That is to say a year’s end concerned with rubbish, trash, garbage, waste. There, sitting on my galvanised wire fence, above roaming predator height, one full week after my wife had placed it there before leaving for her job in Kuala Lumpur, was our rubbish.

Each increasingly fragrant day that dawned I thought, “Well, they’ll pick it up today, surely, just to clear it up before Christmas, they will, won’t they, yes of course, says I, they’ll never leave it over Christmas”, but, how wrong can one man be? It was approaching Christmas morning, when I realised that yes, the rubbish collectors would, indeed, leave our rotting discards stinking, fly ridden over Christmas, because, well, they had.

Normally my sympathies would have gone out to the loaders of rubbish, the heavers of waste and potential fathers of Lonnie Donegan, but the stench was getting beyond bearable and the feral dogs braver and braver by the day.

The kampong gossip factory slipped into gear to deliver a myriad, and one, reasons why the rubbish collection had ceased. Arguments with bomohs, striking private labourers, dismantled waste truck – stories abounded.

Next door Pakcik, oracle and news vendor to the kampong, informed my wife, upon her return after one week of working in Kuala Lumpur, that the rubbish truck, was just that – a rubbish truck, and had been towed away to be fixed.

A fitting climax to another remarkable year, some might say, and they would be right – let us see what a fresh year holds.

Cinema in Paradiso?


by Yusuf Martin

Perak once again rings to the unique, and some might say quite mystifying, sounds of camera tracks being laid, spotlights being erected, dollies being pushed, best boys, props masters, carpenters, costume designers, an earnest producer wrangling and an eminent director directing. Yes, the illustrious and industrious film people are back in town.

For more than a delicious decade Perak has been a favoured spot for enterprising film crews, be they TV or cinematic. Malaysia’s lushly green and mountainous state draws eagle-eyed location hunters like bees to nectar, mainly due to its immense natural beauty, and because it still has enough antique buildings left standing to represent any number of bygone ages. Though, at the present rate of ‘renovation’ and upgrading, one wonders if Ipoh and its surrounds will have any aged buildings left the next time a film company comes to call.

Back in the early 1990s, a Gitane smoking, baguette munching French film crew descended upon Perak, bringing the illustrious, and, I for one, might also say quite delectable, Catherine Deneuve with them. There they made that masterpiece of French cinema – Indochine (1992).  It is rumoured that a certain Robert Raymer, Malaysian writer- par excellence, also had a cameo role in that film. Time moves inextricably on and a little later the English film Director John Boorman brought Patricia Arquette to Perak, to shoot Beyond Rangoon (1995).

Anna and the King with Chinese actor Chow Yun Fat followed in 1999. Local film maker Amir Mohammad made his, subsequently banned, The Last Communist, here, released unseen in 2006, while another local boy, local to Ipoh that is – Patrick Teoh, TV/movie star, writer and former radio personality, starred in Kinta 1881 (2007), also made around Perak. In the very same year Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon man, Ang Lee, got us all hot and bothered by filming Lust, Caution (2007) in and around Ipoh’s old town. Maybe the kopi drew him.

Now it is the turn of local film and TV director Bernard Chauly, Red Communications and Astro TV, who are making an eight-part series concerning the Second World War heroine, mid-wife and resistance fighter Sybil Kathigasu. 

Filming started recently in Papan, utilising local traditional houses as well as the actual building where Sybil had set up her dispensary and, later, free clinic. Bernard Chauly, known for his recent film Pisau Cukur (Gold Digger, 2009), and Goodbye Boys (2006) has brought Elaine Daly, former Miss Malaysia (2004), known for her numerous film and TV roles, to play the role of the brave Sybil Kathigasu. This is entirely fortuitous, as Ms Daly is a dim distant relative of Sybil’s.

The Astro Citra eight piece series, of one-hour episodes, which incidentally forms part of the Suatu Ketika (a Time in the Past) sequence, has a working title of Apa Dosa Ku (What is my Sin).  This new TV series follows Sybil from the Japanese occupation of Ipoh, to its eventual liberation, by the British.  The TV series comes after the enormously successful theatre production – Sybil, which was a two-act play directed by Dato Faridah Merican (2008) based upon Sybil’s collective memoirs – No Dram of Mercy (1954).

In October of 2009 a resounding call went out for local participants to appear at auditions in November. Actors, extras, Eurasians, Chindians, Malays, Indians and an assortment of other races were needed to appear in this new production of the Sybil story. Many came but few were chosen. One local enthusiast, Audrey Poh, Ipoh book club member, part founder of Perak Heritage Society, former committee member and secretary of the Perak Society of Performing Arts answered that call. In the Red Communications production for Astro Citra, Audrey girds her loins to play Sybil’s best friend, and the godmother to Olga, Sybil’s older daughter.

Law Siak Hong, esteemed current president of Perak Heritage Society, creator and curator of the Papan museum for everything Sybil, has been working closely with producer Angela Rodrigues, director Bernard Chauly and their hard working film crew, to make everything run as smoothly as possible during the shooting for the production.

Contrary to what I have written above, the Red Communications film crew have been diligently subtle in their approach to film making, perhaps adhering to Star Trek’s Prime Directive (Starfleet’s General Order #1) of non-interference.  Despite the film crew working in the town, Papan is barely disturbed. It is only the interior ‘shots’ which require some minute disruption to daily lives, with puzzled house residents looking on, perhaps somewhat bemused by the coming and goings.

‘Apa Dosa Ku’ (What is my sin) airs on Astro Citra channel in March 2010. It is an eight-part series, of one-hour episodes, under the Suatu Ketika banner.

Who knows, maybe, someday, someone might make a film of Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory, set in and around the Kinta Valley.