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Exploring the controversial effects of the Japanese Occupation on localities

Asia Reborn: A Continent Rises from the Ravages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism
By Prasenjit K Basu, (Aleph, 2017)

AFTER the Japanese capture of Singapore in February 1942, thousands were summarily executed in a purge called the Sook Ching massacre. The Japanese secret police rounded up suspects into prisons in Outram and Stamford Road. The victims were mostly Singaporean Chinese and ranged from trade unionists, petty businessmen, activists and civil servants. There is discord on the scale of the casualties. Japanese accounts estimate it at 5,000. But some Singaporeans place the figure at more than ten times that number.

This atrocity was one of many that the Japanese committed in Asia from 1895 to 1945. Until its surrender in WWII, Japan controlled vast swathes of East Asia. This included Taiwan, Korea, and a vassal state in Manchuria. During WWII, other territories such as Malaya, Vietnam, Dutch Indochina and the Philippines fell to the Japanese.

As with the Sook Ching massacre, the Japanese legacy in Asia is controversial. Prasenjit K Basu, a Singapore-based economist, has virulently defended Japan's imperial record in Asia in Asia Reborn. Basu's 680-page work is dense in detail. However, he has done justice to the vast topic by weaving a forceful argument. He explains the success of the East Asian economies that were under Japanese sway.

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Basu diligently chronicles Asia's resurgence from colonialism over the last century. He recounts the ravages of European rule. The British in India, for instance, ignored basic education. Britain left the subcontinent with a literacy rate of 14 per cent in 1947. Today, the largest Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have worse social indicators than some sub-Saharan African countries. There were few industries except those that served the British colonial interests. In Vietnam and Indonesia, poverty - not industrialisation - was the feature of European rule. The Japanese forces were welcomed as liberators by the nationalists. Japan's defeat in 1945 accelerated the march to independence in both countries. European rule had another curse - the practice of divide and rule. They encouraged religious and ethnic divisions in India, Indonesia and Burma, according to Basu.

By the sharpest of contrasts, Basu argues that Japanese rule led to rapid industrialisation in its territories. The Japanese applied their centralised bureaucratic practices to great success. Also, there was intense investment in health and education. Taiwan (then Formosa) recorded industrial output growth of 6 per cent per year from 1911 to 1938. The Taiwanese adopted Japan's industrial policy after 1949. Today, Taiwan is an indispensable cog in the global supply chain. But economic growth is only part of the story. Basu ignores the role of institutions in the former colonies. The British built the edifice of India's democratic institutions such as the independent civil service and judiciary. The Japanese avoided that aspect of development.

He makes little mention of Japan's atrocities such as the rape of Nanking. Instead, he sympathises with the dissenting judgement of Justice Radhabinod Pal in the Tokyo Trials, who argued that Japan's atrocities did not constitute war crimes.

Basu glorifies the Indian National Army leader Subhash Chandra Bose, who allied with the German and Japanese fascists. But there was widespread support for Britain's war effort among Indians - a fact that Basu is silent about. Basu has the amateur historian's glib self-confidence. This leads him to engaging conclusions. This virtue might be at the heart of the occasional error. For instance, Ceylon's fourth Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike converted to Buddhism in 1931 (and not after independence as Basu implies).

The errors and omissions do not detract from the virtues of this provocative work. It is a departure from the simplistic fad that China is at the heart of Asia's ascent. Japan was the first non-European power to industrialise. Its positive imprint on the economies of the territories that were in its grip is admirable. However, the victims of the Sook Chiang massacre may disagree with its political virtues.

  • Nirgunan Tiruchelvam is a market commentator.