On the 3rd September 1899, a baby girl was born to an Irish-Eurasian planter Joseph Daly and midwife Beatrice Matilda Daly, in Medan, Sumatra, back when Indonesia was known as the Dutch East Indies. This baby will eventually grow up to be Sybil Kathigasu, Malaysia’s relatively unknown warrior woman and freedom fighter.

Sybil married Dr. A.C. Kathigasu and had 4 children, 3 biological and 1 adopted. Their first-born, Michael, died in infancy due to major birth defects, and the couple later adopted William Pillay, a young boy who was delivered by and living with Sybil’s mother. They then had two daughters, Olga and Dawn.

The couple operated a clinic on Brewster road, currently known as Jalan Sultan Idris Shah in Ipoh. Sybil was popular with the local community there due to her genuine warmth and her fluency in Cantonese endeared her to the local Chinese community. Sybil and her husband were forced to vacate their clinic when the Japanese started bombing Ipoh. They sought refuge at their friend’s place in Papan. As the Japanese Occupation in Malaya progressed, they remained in Papan, eventually setting up a new clinic there. When things settled down, Dr. Kathigasu returned to Ipoh to reopen the clinic there, while Sybil remained in Papan, maintaining a dispensary and providing free treatment to the poor.

Sybil’s home

This dispensary plays a further role in the history of the Japanese Occupation in Malaya. Sybil knew and anticipated playing a role in the resistance against the Japanese occupation. She then agreed to provide treatment to the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) guerrilla movement. The backyard of the clinic was planted with vegetables to provide cover for the MPAJA members requiring treatment, who were brought in for treatment from the back door of the clinic. Sybil also had “Josephine”, a radio she kept to tune in to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for any news, and passes on any information she obtained to the resistance.

It was thus unavoidable that eventually Dr. Kathigasu was arrested, followed by Sybil. The Japanese had found out about her “subversive” activities, which led them to torture for information. They ripped her fingernails off with pliers, scalded her legs with iron rods, and forced her to drink large quantities of water before stepping on her bloated stomach. They also severely beat her with a bamboo stick to the extent that sje suffered damage to her spine and skull. To top that off, they also tortured her youngest daughter, Dawn, at 7 years old, in order to prompt Sybil to give up information. Neither mother not daughter gave in. Sybil was interred at the Ipoh central police station, under the custody of the infamous Ipoh Kempeitai chief Ekio Yoshimura from October 1943 to July 1945. Sybil was accused of being a spy, fraternizing with the enemy, giving medical aid to Communist guerrillas, and possessing a radio to listen to enemy propaganda. She was then transferred to the Batu Gajah prison and finally given a mock trial in the Ipoh lock-up.

The Japanese surrendered on the 6th of September 1945, and three weeks later, Sybil was found at the Batu Gajah jail, and was transferred to the hospital by the British Army unit which was led by Captain David McFarlane. She was then escorted back to Papan, where the whole contingent of the MPAJA as well as the whole town of Papan turned out full force to give her a heroine’s welcome home.

Soon after, The British government flew Sybil over to London in order to receive treatment for the injuries she suffered. While she was there, she was summoned to the Buckingham Palace, and was awarded the George Medal by King George VI for her role in the defeat of the Japanese in Malaya.

Sybil’s injuries were extensive. An old wound to her jaw caused by the steel-toed boot of the Japanese army brought on a bout of septicaemia which turned out to be fatal. She succumbed to her injuries and died in Scotland. Her body was brought back to Ipoh a year later and finally laid to rest at St Michael’s Church cemetery. Sybil’s body arrived in Penang by boat from Scotland and brought back home to 141 Brewster Road. The following day saw one of Perak’s largest funeral processions as the people of Perak and beyond turned up to say their goodbyes to their heroine.

Sybil Kathigasu, to her end, remained a great freedom fighter. Her great courage should be highlighted as a beacon of loyalty and a role model for doing the right thingdespite circumstances. Our education system these days seems to leave out a lot about out local heroes. People like Sybil, Sarjan Hassan, Leftenan Adnan, Kanang anak Langkau and many more are forgotten to local storytelling and lore, as modernisation takes over the interests of children these days. The Ministry of Education may perhaps consider re-introducing more comprehensive chapters about our local heroes in the history syllabus to ensure that their deeds are not forgotten in the development of Malaysia as an independent nation.

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