Born in Singapore on 23 March 1916, John Eber was the son of Richard Eber, a prominent Singapore Eurasian lawyer. In 1924, Eber attended Harrow School in London before proceeding to Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, where he became an active member of the university’s golf club. After being called to the bar, Eber returned to Singapore in 1939 where his law office was located in Raffles Place, a decidedly prestigious part of Singapore. Despite his achievements and living like an Englishman, Eber was not admitted into the Civil Service because he was Eurasian. His early experience with discrimination coupled with the suffering he endured during internment in the Sime Road Camp from 1942 – 1945 resulted in him emerging from the war as a fierce critic of colonialism.
After the Japanese Occupation, Eber was appointed as Counsel for the Prosecution by the British War Crimes Legal Section, where he prosecuted Lieutenant Colonel Banno Hirateru and six other Japanese officers for committing war crimes against 3600 Australian and 3400 British prisoners-of-war, during a 1943 journey to Siam, in Siam, as well as on their return to Singapore in 1943.
During the trial, it was revealed that prisoners-of-war were told that they were destined for “health-camps” where food would be “abundant”, allowing the sick a better chance of recovery. In reality, these men were crammed into steel rice-trucks to Bampong in Thailand, where they continued the rest of the journey by marching 300 kilometres to their destination in “pitch-black darkness”, trudging through slushy tracks and thick jungle foliage with inadequate food and water.
Upon reaching their destination, these men were not only subjected to hard labour and daily beatings, but also poorly housed in unroofed huts that exposed them to the continuous downpour of monsoon rains. Coupled with poor hygiene and limited access to sanitation, the camps quickly became hotbeds for cholera, dysentery, and malaria, resulting in the deaths of many prisoners-of-war. By the time these men were slated to return to Singapore on December 1943, 3000 had perished and 1000 had to be left behind in Burma or Thailand, as they were deemed incapable of surviving the journey.
It was against this backdrop that the Prosecution charged the seven accused for violating the laws and usages of war, as they had wilfully exposed prisoners-of-war to “unhealthy and unhygienic” living conditions and subjected them to “inhumane treatment”, resulting in the physical suffering and deaths of many.
At the end of trial, all seven accused were found guilty and awarded sentences of varying lengths, ranging from 18-month imprisonment to life imprisonment.
After the war, Eber went on to dash his father’s hopes by becoming a “revolutionary Malayan nationalist”. He was a senior Malayan Communist Party member, founder of the Malayan Democratic Union and an active member of the Malayan Forum in London in the 1950s. As a result of his political activities, the Singapore Special Branch become especially concerned about the association between Eber and the English-educated middle-class intellectuals. In January 1951, Eber was arrested under Emergency Regulations and imprisoned in Outram Gaol for over 18 months without trial. He was released on February 1953.
After his release, Eber wrote a booklet titled Malaya’s Freedom Is Vital to Britain in 1954, and he continued to control the Malayan Forum until he was ousted following a 1956 vote of no-confidence brought against him by Goh Keng Swee. Eber passed away on December 1994 in London.