Back in November 2016, I had the opportunity to visit Sandakan, Sabah, in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Among the many places of interests that I went to was Sandakan Memorial Park, which is built on the site of what came to be known as Sandakan Death Marches during World War II. There’s a “hut” in the beautifully landscaped park, which has displays inside where I learnt about the horrors of the war that had happened right there in the area. There were about 2,500 prisoners of war in Sandakan, of which only 6 had survived. There are no graves there, however, as they had been relocated to a war memorial in Labuan.
Despite this, it was still a rather sombre visit. Elsie Maria, of Sabah Tourism Board, mentioned to me that it’s even more moving during ANZAC Day Memorial Service. At the time, I could only imagine it and wish to attend one such service in the near future.
That wish came true exactly 2 years later in November 2018, albeit in Labuan, a small island that is often called the Pearl of Borneo, located about 2.5 hours flight from the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. What makes it even more special is that the day, 11th November 2018, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day, and I was attending the ceremony at Labuan War Memorial, the largest war cemetery in Malaysia.
The cemetery holds the graves of some 3,908 war heroes from Australia, the UK, India, Pakistan, Brunei and other Commonwealth countries, including some locals, Sarawakians and North Bornean, who had fallen whilst protecting Borneo during World War II. While the 100th anniversary refers to the end of World War I in 1918, Armistice Day – as the day was previously known – had been renamed Remembrance Day soon after the end of World War II, and commemorated as a memorial day for the British Commonwealth countries to observe and remember all their fallen heroes, not just during World War I but also ever since then.
Back in 2016, whilst in Sandakan, I had wondered why the graves of those who perished during the death marches had been moved to Labuan. I still have no idea about the exact reason for it but now, it somehow seems fitting. Labuan was actually the last point of surrender by the Japanese army during World War II following the success of Battle of Labuan.
Having arrived early for the memorial service ceremony, I took the opportunity to walk amongst the many rows of tombstones. I noted that there are 3 main sections of the cemetery with Christian graves taking up a large area (almost 1,700 graves are of Australian and British soldiers) while Hindu/Sikh and Muslim sections take up a smaller portion that corresponds with the number of graves. There are 2 memorials in the compound, a cross - The Cross of Sacrifice - in the centre of the Christian section, and a cenotaph that is meant for those whose remains are buried elsewhere, in the Hindu/Sikh section. There’s no monument in the Muslim area, however, I presume in adherence to the teachings of Islam, as I understand it.
Only about 1,752 of these graves are identified while the rest, well over 2 thousand graves, remain nameless. Near some of the tombstones that are inscribed with a name, there’s a piece or two laminated A4 papers that tell the stories and anecdotes of the fallen hero who lies underneath it, shared probably by either a close family member or an old friend. Some of these are quite moving, while some are pretty funny yet remain poignant. They remind me that while they’re recognised as heroes, they were also normal, ordinary human beings, whose lives were cut short because of war.
I returned to my seat, underneath a makeshift tent set up near The Cross of Sacrifice, as the heat from the sun above starting to get to me. More guests had arrived by then. Apart from some foreign dignitaries and ranked officers, I noted that there were also several next of kin who have travelled all the way from Australia to pay respect to their loved ones. One of them is Mr Ian Litchfield, whose brother was in The Royal Australian Air Force 200 Liberator Special Duties Flight. I later found out that a great-grandson of a Sikh soldier whose name is engraved on the cenotaph has also travelled from India just for the Remembrance Day ceremony.
The ceremony started with a small military band marching in, complete with bagpipes. The musical instrument reminded me of my time in Edinburgh, Scotland years ago. The music that the band played throughout the ceremony sounded very familiar, perhaps from movie scenes showing a state or military funeral. Checking the programme booklet, I found out that the tune is called Flower of the Forest, a traditional Scottish song of mourning and remembrance.
Speeches by a few of the guests of honour followed. And then, an announcement was made for all the guests to split and follow separate groups to designated areas for a simultaneous prayer service according to their respective faith. I went over to join the Muslim group for the prayer, held just across a few rows of tombstones from the Hindu/Sikh group while the Christians remained at the Colonnade near The Cross of Sacrifice.
Despite the separate prayer services, I guess, we were all simultaneously praying for the same thing.
Once we finished with the prayer, everyone returned to the Colonnade to continue with the ceremony. Soon after, the sound of the Last Post was performed as a symbol of final farewell, after which “the duty of the dead is over and they can rest in peace”.
This was followed by two minutes of silence, a symbolic gesture in remembrance of the original Armistice Day, the time the armistice was signed between the German and the Allied nations that marked the end of World War I, exactly 100 years ago.
Silence hung heavily in the air until a military helicopter flew over for a flypast. And then, wreath-laying ceremony in memory of the fallen heroes began.
Wreath-laying ceremony while 4 soldiers stand around the monument in 'reversed arm' position (i.e. leaning on a weapon held upside down)
During the luncheon that followed the memorial service, HE David Thomas, British Deputy High Commissioner to Malaysia gave a short speech in which, among others, he briefly mentioned about Harry Patch, a British World War I veteran who was the last soldier of the war to die. I quickly googled the name whilst having lunch and found out that he had died in 2009 at the age of 111. Harry Patch apparently never spoke about the war until he turned 100 years old. Towards the end of his life, however, he became the unofficial spokesperson of World War I soldiers by virtue of being, literally, the last man standing. In fact, in 2007 at the age of 109, he wrote a book – The Last Fighting Tommy – in which he says, “Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder”. I couldn’t agree more with this.
Another popular quote by Mr Patch is, “For me, November 11 is just show business.” Although admittedly, he had said that because he considered the day he lost his pals to the war was his true remembrance day, it is still worth pondering. I would like to think no, Remembrance Day is not just a show. But when we wear a poppy flower on our chest and proclaim Lest We Forget, are we just trying to remember and pay respect to the fallen heroes or are we also saying no to war ever again?
I guess only time can prove Harry Patch is wrong.
Personally, however, I’m glad that I got the chance to attend Remembrance Day 100th Anniversary ceremony. Like what Elsie had told me back in 2016 of a similar event, it was indeed touching and poignant, a perfect setting and time for reflection, a timely reminder to also be grateful for the peace that we are enjoying today.
Lest we forget.
Lest we forget.
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A Thank You and Disclosure Note
I was in Labuan at the invitation of Labuan Corporation and Gaya Travel Magazine for the #ExploreLabuan programme.