September 12, 2011

Email Interview with Lynette Ramsay Silver

I did an email interview with Australian author and honorary Sabahan, Lynette Ramsay Silver on behalf of North Borneo History Enthusiasts. The interview is published on NBHE's blog but I thought I should share it here too.

For NBHE - Justin Wong

Lynette Ramsay Silver, the Australian writer who wrote Blood Brothers : Sabah & Australia 1942 - 1945, recently agreed to entertain our email interview despite her busy schedule. This Australian writer had immersed herself for the past 20 years, towards championing Sabahan World War II heroes and also the natives who helped the British and Australian POWs. Hence, I thought she is a personality...... her work, her efforts should be appreciated. One wonders why our State Government has yet to honour her with a Datukship, not that she would be bothered about it, I think.

NBHE : Give an introduction of yourself e.g. which part of Australia you live in, your career,

LRS : I live in Sydney and have been investigating little known aspects of Australian history since 1982. Previously I was a school teacher. I really developed a passion for research in 1983, when I located vital documents relating to gold discovery in Australia that had been 'lost' for 134 years. Many eminent people had searched for them, without success.

My next book, which documented a convict unprising in Australia against the British in 1804, was also ground-breaking research and, even now, well over 20 years later, remains the only book on the subject.

I then moved into world war 2 - to the intriguing world of Australian 'Special Operations'. As these missions took place in the far east, I became well acquainted with the fall of Singapore and the occupation by Japan of the entire area, including Sabah.

Special Operations research soon expanded to incorporate Australian POWs. With so many held at Sandakan and the discovery that the reason they were not rescued was due to faulty intelligence collected by a Special Operations team working behind the lines, the two research areas merged and my focus turned to Sabah, where it has been for the past 20 years.

NBHE : What motivated you to write Blood Brothers - Sabah & Australia 1942 - 1945? You must have known that it would be a huge undertaking given that Sabah do not have proper records of that era and yet you forged on. Most young Sabahans haven't even heard of of the many local heroes that you mentioned in your book and yet you managed to unearth them.
LRS : I first came to Sabah in 1999, the year after my book 'Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence' was published in Australia. I was very  embarrassed, at the ceremony to open the Memorial Park at Sandakan, to which I had been an honorary consultant, that two of WW2's great local heroes, Mr Chin Chee Kong and Mr Joseph Wong (both of whom were present and proudly wearing their medals), were not acknowledged. I vowed that if I were ever in a position to do something, I would make sure that the locals received the acknowledgement they deserved.

That chance came in 2005, with the unveiling of the Windows of Remembrance at St Michael's chucrh, Sandakan, where many POWs had spent the night before being marched to Sandakan camp. When commissioning the windows in 2003, my brief to the artist stipulated that the windows were to remember the POWs who had died and the many Sabahans who had risked, and given, their lives to help them. I asked that the story of the good samaritan - a man who extended the hand of friendship to a total stranger in time of need - be incorporated into the great west window. 

Many of the people in Australia and UK who contributed to the fund, set up by my husband and myself, asked that their donations be recorded as a tribute to these brave Sabahans. This was done, and the sentiments are recorded in the Book of Remembrance, on display at the church. 

At the unveiling, the guest list was restricted to donors, family members of the local people who had helped the POWs and those who had assisted with the actual project. At my insistence, the family members of the POWs and local people were the 'VIPs'. They, not those usually considered to be VIPs, held centre stage. It was not until I was presented with a beautiful painting of Mt Kinabalu by an elderly chinese lady, to thank me for acknowledging the Sabahans in the Windows of Remembrance that I realised how much this belated acknowledgement meant to the local people. I was very moved. She cried and so did I.

When we proceeded to stage 2 of the project, I moved the focus from one of reflection to hope for the future. The new windows, unveiled in 2008, would be celebration of 'Friendship' - the legacy left to us by Sabahans and Australians, united in common bond in those terrible days of 1942-45.

The particular assistance given by Kadazans and Dusuns to prisoners on the death marches, and those who escaped, is also the reason for the establishment in 2005 of the Sandakan Memorial Scholarship scheme. This initiative, our way of saying 'Thank You', now helps educate talented students from remote villages whose schooling would otherwise ceast at primary level. Run in honorary capacity by my husband and myself, the scheme obtains its funds from donations I solicit when I give talks on my books. The generosity of donors is such that the trust fund is now sufficiently large to ensure that our annual contribution to the scheme will continue in perpetuity. We have three students at university now, and several moving along to attain the required level for entry. 

By 2009 I was very aware of the suffering of the people of Sabah at the hands of the Japanese. In August that year, the Australian High Commisioner to Malaysia, Penny Williams, and Kathy Upton-Mitchell, Deputy Director of the Officer of Australian War Graves (which, since 2007 took over the running of the Anzac Day services that I had begun in Sandakan in 1999), asked me to consider writing a 'booklet' for Sandakan Day 2010, to draw attention to the local story.

I was only too pleased to be asked. Having attended many memorial services at which the entire focus was on the POWs, my discomfit at the lack of acknowledgement had grown, not lessened, since that first service in 1999.

However, I told my two friends that the people of Sabah deserved far more than a booklet. I would write a book.

And so Blood Brothers was 'conceived'. But its birth was only made possible by Datuk C L Chan, who had published the Sabah edition of my first book in 2007, and who now agreed to publish Blood Brothers.

Because I consider Blood Brothers to be my gift to Sabah, I received no financial benefit from its publication. Indeed all my activities in Sabah, from the books I write to the treks I undertake along the Death March track, and Anzac Day Commomerative tours I accompany, are conducted on a purely non-profit basis.

As I have no agenda, this allows me to do what I think is best, without my work being compromised by commercial or business considerations.

Fortunately, I have have the overwhelming support of my husband, Neil. The deadline to publish Blood Brothers on August 15 2010 - 'Sandakan Day' in Sabah and the launch date - was very tight. To enable me to submit the completed manuscript by 1 April 2010, Neil took over the entire household - All cleaning, shopping, cooking, washing and ironing. My focus was entirely on the book, from 8 am until often 2 am the next day. 
I always find that the writing is easy enough. The research in this case was difficult.

Although Mary Chin, of the Daily Express, had written an article published in 2009, asking for local people who had family members connected to the POW story to contact me, most of the emails I received were from Sabahans asking me what I knew about a relative - not providing me with any information. 

However, I did have a very good response from some, which was vital, along with some useful material collected by Sabah Tourism a few years ago. This, coupled with wonderful interviews I had conducted with Mr Chin Chee Kong, whom I knew from the late 1990s due to his family connections in Australia; From Sabahans I had met and talked to over the years; And from material available in Australian archives - gave me enough to put a story together.

The first two chapters of the book, which deal with Sandakan's history from 1873 to 1942, when the Japanese arrived, were the hardest part to research. I wanted readers to understand the phenomenal development of Sandakan from a small bamboo and attap kampong to the beautiful town it became, pre-war. Life for the expatriates and hard working locals who had prospered to make this British-controlled outpost a jewel in the Crown of the Empire, was exceedingly pleasant until January of 1942, when the Imperial Japanese army arrived. It was all downhill, from then on.

I was fortunate to locate the family of an Australian Army officer who had been involved in the post-war reconstruction of Sandakan, reduced to a mass of ruins and charred timber at war's end by allied attacks and a Japanese scorched earth policy. Families of local people living outside Sabah also sent me some great material, so that bit by bit I was able to build a picture of the years of occupation as well as the days immediately following the liberation. 

Having accessed hundreds of WW2 files in order to write my first book, I now re-combed these documents to extract the names of local person mentioned, so that I could create an honor roll. This list is by no means complete, but its compilation was dependent entirely on what was available here, and from Sabah. 

NBHE : Are you satisfied with your finished product? Do you think it could have been better? Are you satisfied with the impact of your work to Sabahans and Australians. You said that other respondents had emerged belatedly with more information after your book was published. Do you plan on making a second edition on Blood Brothers with the new information?

LRS : I am happy with the finished product, based on the material I was able to source. I really enjoyed writing this book, which gave me a great deal of satisfaction. Had more material been available, I could have definitely improved upon it. For example, it was not until launch day that a local veteran, who had an interesting story to tell, actually told it. I was disappointed that, despite the appeal in the Daily Express that neither this man, nor members of his family, had come forward.

If the current print run sells out, I will definitely ask Datuk C L Chan to consider publishing a revised edition to include any new material that has come to light.

NBHE : What is/are the most memorable moments you had while collecting/researching for Blood Brothers? And was/were there any major obstacle/s to your efforts?

LRS : The realisation of just how sophisticated Sandakan was before 1900 (for example, a telegraph line linked Sandakan to Labuan - throug the uninhabited jungle and then underwater!) and the discovery that a friend I have known for years had a fabulous diary, written by her father. She was born in Sandakan, and her dad, a local planter, had detailed exactly what happened in Sandakan from November 1941, when war clouds were gathering, until the end of the war. I only found out that she had this when I asked her if she had any photos of Sandakan pre-war. 

Material supplied by the Funk family was also very helpful, as was the generosity of the family who posted me an entire photo album of the re-building of Sandakan, immediately post-war. I scanned the photos at a high resolution and, with the family's permission, have been able to make them available to the Sabah government. 

There were no major obstacles to overcome that I can remember, apart from finding the source material the deadline. It took me from August to Chrismas 2009, working 24/7, to collect the material, so I had just four months to collate it, find out if there were any 'holes', collect more information if necessary, write the manuscript, knock it into shape for publication and source additional illustrative material and maps. The publisher did a brilliant job with the layout, and everyone worked very hard to ensure that copies were at hand for the launch at Sandakan on 15 August by the Governor General of Australia and Datuk Peter Pang, representing Sabah's Chief Minister, who was overseas at the time.

NBHE : What development do you wish to see or hope for in the future where the 'kinship' of Sabahans and Australians is concerned?

LRS : I hope that strong bonds between Sabah and Australia will continue. It is wonderful that, wherever I go, in large towns and in the smallest, most humble villages, friendship and hospitality is always extended to Australians.

The bonds forged originally during the war, and with the liberation of Sabah in 1945, were strengthened with the Colombo Plan, an educational initiative by our government that saw many young Sabahans studying in Australia, and the assistance given by our Defence Forces during the Indonesian Confrontation in the 1960s. This was followed by the building of a number of major roads in Sabah's interior in the 1970s, with Australian assistance. And now, especially since 1999, we see an increasing number of Australisn travelling to Sabah to pay homage to our shared war experience. 

I am hopeful, with many younger Australians coming to Sabah to walk along the Death March track, opened up by my friend Tham Yau Kong and myself in 2006, that the 'Ties that Bind' Australians and Sabahans together will not only continue, but strengthen. 

Because of my close connections to your country, I am often called 'An Honorary Sabahan'. I consider it a great privilege and honour to be considered to be one of you.


Mrs Silver will be at Western Australia on 12 September 2011 in yet again another self-funded mission to promote Sabah and its history. She will be in Sabah again to attend the Remembrance Sunday service in Labuan on 13 November 2011.

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