Skip to content

Why is Sybil Karthigesu’s legacy in tatters?

September 3, 2019

Sybil survived 3 years of torture and was only released after Japan lost the war. Her crime? She and her husband ran a free clinic dispensing medicine to the locals in Papan town near Ipoh, Perak.


The building which was once used by Sybil and her husband to run a free clinic, is now a museum but decaying due to a lack of funds.

Today, Sept 3 is Sybil Karthigesu’s birthday. You can rest assured that her birthday was the furthest thing from her mind as her fingernails were permanently ripped off with pliers and her legs scalded with hot iron rods.

She was forced to drink large quantities of water before the Kempeitai stomped their boots on her bloated stomach, forcing water out of all her orifices.

She suffered damage to her spine and skull due to severe beatings. She could not walk and had broken bones everywhere.

Her five-year-old daughter, Dawn, was dangled from a tree and her torturers threatened to roast her baby alive. Her husband Dr Karthigesu was regularly beaten in front of her.

Sybil Karthigesu suffered the torment of seeing her family in pain, but she did not break. Her indomitable spirit was prepared to face the harsh punishment meted out by the Japanese army.

Sybil survived three years of torture and was only released after Japan lost the war. Her crime? She and her husband ran a free clinic dispensing medicine to the locals in Papan town near Ipoh, Perak.

She also secretly attended to the medical needs of the fighters in the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) and kept illegal radios to listen to the BBC and pass information to the MPAJA, as she spoke fluent Cantonese.

After Malaya’s liberation from the Japanese in 1945, Sybil was flown to England for medical treatment.

In 1948, she became the only Malayan woman to receive the George Medal for Gallantry, a high civilian honour awarded by Britain’s King George VI.

Sybil died on June 12, 1948, in Britain, seven months after she was released from her Batu Gajah prison.

Her death was due to a wound on the jaw sustained from the vicious 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.

Medical equipment displayed to replicate the clinic as it originally was.

Although her autobiography “No dram of mercy” was completed in 1948, it was only in 1954 that it was first published by Neville Spearman in the United Kingdom and reprinted in 1983 by Oxford University Press.

No publisher in Malaysia was willing to reproduce it until Prometheus Enterprises did in 2006. In Fair Park, Ipoh, a road is named after her to commemorate her bravery. But the sad truth is, she is not mentioned in any Malaysian history book.

The idea for a museum at Sybil’s old clinic at 74 Main Street, Papan, is the brainchild of the President of the Perak Heritage Society (PHS), Law Siak Hong.

Law feels that this is where Sybil actually stayed and carried out her brave acts during the war so it makes the perfect backdrop to tell her story.

When he first saw it, everything was broken, decaying and the rooms were overgrown with weeds. Law repaired the shop house and tried to replicate the clinic as it originally was.

It is Law Siak Hong who came up with the idea for the clinic-museum to commemorate Sybil and her work during the Japanese occupation of Malaya.

There are not many records of what the place looked like before, so he recreated the general feel of the place based on descriptions in Sybil’s memoirs and testimonies from living witnesses.

He collected things from that era to put in the museum to portray an idea of what the clinic would have looked like, opening it to the public in 2003.

This includes furniture, an old bicycle, the Karthigesu family’s sepia photographs, newspaper cuttings and medical paraphernalia donated to the museum.

Law left untouched a hole under the stairs where Sybil might have hidden her three radio transmitters, as well as the back door where the jungle operatives gained access through a secret knock.

The importance of the Sybil clinic-museum in Papan is that it stands as a stark memorial to the fact that her story has been sidelined in recounting the Second World War in Malaysia’s history.

The clinic interior has been left intact.

Many sites associated with her have been demolished. The miner’s mansion that was commandeered as the Kempeitai headquarters where Sybil witnessed her daughter strung up over a fire is now a low-cost housing development.

Her husband’s clinic at 144 Brewster Lane, Ipoh is now a mechanic’s repair shop and left unmarked. The Ipoh High Court where Sybil’s tormentor, Sergeant Ekio Yoshimura, was put on trial and sentenced to the death penalty is left unmarked.

Law is struggling to maintain and upkeep his labour of love. He has used up much of his own funds and does not receive any federal or state funding.

Perhaps this is due to a lack of commemorative culture, or older Malaysians’ desire to bury all things associated with the Japanese occupation under the carpet. There are many more brave but forgotten WW2 heroes besides Sybil.

Sybil’s life and courage must be remembered and taught to today’s young as the best example of Malaysian unity.

Sybil’s legacy must be preserved to honour her courage.

An Indonesian-born Eurasian woman whose family migrated to Penang, who married a Ceylonese Tamil and cheerfully attended to Malay, Chinese and patients categorised as “lain lain”.

She is a freedom fighter who paid the ultimate price for her country Malaya, the British and the mostly Chinese MPAJA members who fought for the independence of Malaya.

Meanwhile 16 years down the road, her clinic-museum in Papan is languishing in decay and disrepair due to a lack of support and funds. There is only so much one man alone can do.


From → Malaysia Upclose

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: