Remembering Sybil Kathigasu

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

My 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.

Now 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.

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