Sybil Kathigasu – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

Sybil Medan Kathigasu neè Daly, a nurse and resistance fighter during the Second World War, is little known even within Malaysia, the country she helped during its occupation by Japanese forces. But in my opinion her contributions, and her bravery in the face of hardship, should not be taken lightly or be forgotten. So allow me to tell a brief history of an interesting and courageous figure of both Malaysian and WW2 history. 

Born in Medan, Sumatra in Indonesia (then known as the Dutch West Indies) on September 3rd 1899 to an Irish planter and an Indian midwife as the only girl of five children, not much information was recorded about her early life before marriage. What is known is that she eventually moved and spent most of her life in British Malaya (as Malaysia was known as before gaining independence from British rule) where she had trained as a nurse and midwife as her mother before her. She was also fluent in Cantonese due to living in areas with a large Chinese population, which proved useful for her future work.

While embarking on her nursing and midwifery course at the General Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, she encountered and fell in love with one of the doctors there, a Dr. Arumugam Kanapathi Pillay. He was said to be a quiet reserved man, which was in contrast to Sybil’s more outgoing nature. Despite being in love there was initial objection from Sybil’s family due to Sybil’s family being Catholic while he was a Hindu. Eventually he converted and changed his name to Abdon Clement Kathigasu, three days before they finally wedded on January 7th 1919 in St. John’s Church in Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur. By the time they started their own practice in Ipoh in April 1921, Sybil had given birth to two children Michael and Olga, though Michael died due to complications not long after birth, and adopted another child named William. Another child, Dawn, was born in 1936.

The Kathigasu family were still living and operating their clinic at 141 Brewster Road in Ipoh when the Japanese forces started their invasion and bombing campaign in 1942, but fled from their home just before the Japanese reached Ipoh on December 26th. They were taken in by a friend in the nearby village of Papan, and set up a makeshift clinic where they stayed at 74 Main Road. While Dr. Kathigasu eventually moved back to reopen the clinic Sybil stayed behind to run the clinic, eventually leading into her working with the resistance.

Even before her resistance work, the clinic had been well known for providing free treatment for the poor and those displaced by the occupation. Eventually she was offered to assist the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army guerillas (or MPAJA) by providing treatment and medical supplies to their members covertly. Any MPAJA members that needed help were snuck in through the back of the clinic, with a vegetable garden used as a cover for their activities. She even kept radios to listen to BBC broadcasts, which was expressly forbidden by the Japanese. From her own accounts of that time you can tell how much she relished her role and duties, and how much of a dominant figure she was allowed to be while doing what she felt needed to be done.

Eventually, due to Papan becoming notorious for being a safe haven for communists and rebels, both Sybil and her husband were arrested in August 1943. They were imprisoned in Bath Gajah jail where they were tortured for any information they had on the rebel troops. Despite the ghastly torture which I’ll keep out of this writing, Sybil refused to say anything to her captors. This continued until February 1945 where they were sentenced in a kangaroo court trial for a variety of crimes including working with the rebels, leading to a 15 year sentence for her husband and a life sentence for Sybil herself.

The couple were found and freed from their imprisonment in August 1945 soon after Malaya was liberated from the occupation, and not long after that was Sybil flown to the United Kingdom so that her injuries could be treated. While there she went about writing a memoir of her experiences of the war, later collected and published in 1954 under the name No Dram of Mercy. She was also awarded the George Medal for Gallantry by King George VI, the only Malayan woman to have received the honour. Unfortunately her injuries were too severe and she died in Lanark. Scotland on June 12th 1948. She was initially buried there before having her remains brought back to Ipoh and reburied in St. Michael’s Church Cemetery on March 21st 1949 with the honour of a grand funeral procession.

Today, there have been a few remembrances of Sybil and the work she has done. The building in Papan where Sybil’s clinic was once located still remains as a memorial to her, and a road in Ipoh was named after her after Malaysia’s independence in honour of her. A ten part Malaysian docuseries was made, titled Apa Dosaku? (What Is My Sin?) in 2010 with Sybil’s own grandniece, Elaine Daly, playing her. Google Malaysia even made a doodle to commemorate what would have been her 117th birthday. But to me, more should know of Sybil’s brave deeds during her life. She deserves to be widely remembered as a hero of WW2, and of Malaysian history.

Written by Ammar Khalid (he/him) originally from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, now living in London, UK. Follow him on Twitter! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.

Works read for this piece:

  • No Dram of Mercy by Sybil Kathigasu
  • Faces of Courage: A Revealing Historical Appreciation of Colonial Malaya’s Legendary Kathigasu Family by Norma Miraflor & Ian Ward

Images taken from:

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