Joseph Kennedy in his book "British Civilians and the Japanese War in Malaya and
Singapore, 1941-45" gives an
interesting and authoritative account of British expatriates in the war in Malaya and
Singapore. On the other hand certain social issues are either not dealt with, or are not
dealt with as fully as one would like. These issues may be of interest to the historian.
I participated in many of the events described in the book. I was a civil engineer in
the Public Works Department. I had left the U.K. in early 1938, that is before the
Second World War broke out. When the Japanese war broke out I was living in
Johore Bahru. I was in the PWD party mentioned in the book as leaving Singapore on
the SS Kuala. I returned in the British Military Administration. When civil
government was restored I resumed my career in the PWD. The country became
independent in 1957. Subsequently I became the State Engineer for the States of
Kedah and Perlis. I left the PWD in 1960.
As the Japanese advanced we discussed what we should do if they reached Johore
Bahru; leave or stay to meet them. This subject is mentioned in the book. Government
departments provide very varied services. In the PWD we were undertaking a large
development programme; road works, buildings etc. The Japanese would not be
implementing any such programme. Hence we had nothing much to hand over. I did
not wish to be involved in working for the Japanese possibly on their defence works.
There was the point that a Japanese objective was to oust the Europeans, and
presumably the Americans from their possessions. Not least in our minds was that if
Singapore was held, as we expected, Johore Bahru would be on the front line. (It was
in fact for just over a week.) After the war I found some Asians criticised us for not
defending the country better. On the other hand our staffs respected us for not
attempting to come to terms with the Japanese.
When the Japanese war broke out I, like many other expatriates, although a
civilian, was a trained soldier. I was a sapper in the Johore Volunteer Engineers, an
engineer field company. Before the Japanese war we had been mobilised for training
and then stood down. Shortly before the outbreak of the war the company was
mobilised. I did not mobilise with it because of my civilian work. When I had to leave
Johore Bahru, and went to Singapore, I was commissioned lieutenant in the Straits
Settlements (Singapore) armed forces as were most, if not all, of my PWD colleagues.
The book recounts how the PWD party I was in, about forty strong, reached
Ceylon. Ceylon was then threatened by the Japanese navy and so we were moved on as
soon as possible. We travelled on an armed merchant cruiser in convoy to Bombay.
Once there it was time to start getting back into the war. We reverted to being civilians
and reported our presence to the Colonial Office. (It may be noted here that all the
British territories occupied by the Japanese had had their own administrations. Only
one, Burma, set up a government in exile.)
Some including myself, especially the younger ones, were released for military
service. About five of us were given direct commissions as 2nd lieutenants in the Royal
Indian Engineers, Indian Army, and assigned to railway transportation as we were
experienced construction engineers. By the summer of 1942 I was on field service in
151 Indian Railway Construction Company, Royal Indian Engineers, in Assam
(north east India). Throughout my service in the Indian Army I was in this company
and, ultimately, was its commanding officer.
When the Japanese entered the war the north east frontier region of India was
railway and not road served. Their capture of Burma severed the supply route to
China. Consequently to put the 14th Army into the field to drive out the Japanese from
Burma, and to enable the Americans to supply China by air from upper Assam, the
capacity of the railway system had to be vastly increased. The work of developing the
railway system was undertaken almost entirely by the Indian Army and units such as
the one I served in.
As the years went by my colleagues and I from the Malayan PWD were told
informally that when the time came we would be transferred to the military
administration for Malaya. Before this happened it was 1945 and the war in Europe
had ended. The army now introduced a scheme for short leaves in the UK for those of
us who had been long abroad (operation Python). I qualified. The intention was that I
should join the British Military Administration on return from leave. My leave was
delayed because of the command I was holding. I was not put out. I was by now a
captain but my command carried the rank of major. I was hoping, after three years
field service, my promotion to major would come through any day; but it did not.
Eventually my leave came through and I flew from Calcutta to England in converted
On arrival in England I calculated I had been abroad for 7 years and 7 months; for
the whole of the war in the West. I was single and I set off to see my parents. They knew
I would be coming on leave but I had not been able to tell them when. So when I rang
the bell at 'home' a neighbour popped up and told me my parents were on holiday but
would be returning next day, and kindly put me up for the night.
My parents had moved to Bristol since I had left home and so I hardly knew any of
the local people. Then the war in the West had been so cataclysmic I found there was
little interest in the war with the Japanese or, indeed, knowledge of it. This attitude was
epitomised by my bank where I had a small account. When I called and asked for a
statement the manager ushered me into his office saying one had been sent to me and
had been returned by the Post Office. He produced the envelope which was addressed
to me in Johore Bahru which was occupied even then by the Japanese!
Indeed the war had changed so much in Britain it made me feel a stranger in my own
I returned to Malaya as a captain in the British Military Administration on a
troopship from Madras. Early one morning we docked in Singapore. The docks
looked much the same as they had done on my first arrival in the country in 1938. But
now, although the war with Japan was over, the docks were far less busy. On the
troopship for practical purposes we were all service personnel and most of us were
travelling light but at least one lady in uniform had several large crates of her
belongings on the quay.
On arrival we were told we were booked on a night train to Kuala Lumpur. So, in
the course of the day we were able to see something of Singapore. I had last seen it
about 3 and a 1/2 years earlier. Then the trolley bus wires had been down and there had been a
pall of smoke over the city probably from burning oil tanks. Now the city had been
tidied up and the trolley bus wires were not down. In 1942 there had not been bomb
damage on the scale of, say, London. Some was to be seen. Otherwise the city
appeared to have stood still, to be unchanged. During the war no new building had
gone on, of course.
In Kuala Lumpur I reported to the Director of Public Works or, rather, to his
military equivalent for duty. The PWD senior staff were all in uniform as officers in
the military administration but many had spent the war years outside Malaya as
civilians. The PWD was in fact run as a civilian organization. Thus in no time at all I found that the command of a company I had held counted for nothing and that there
was now no prospect of promotion to major. Although we were still in the army what I
experienced was the attitude of civilians to the armed services when they are
demobilised. One's achievements in military service are discounted.
I was posted to Kuala Lipis, then the capital of the State of Pahang, as the PWD
district engineer and given a jeep and a civilian driver, a south Indian Tamil, to get
there. We talked in Malay. The picture as we drove over to Kuala Lipis and of the town
was of an economic decline approaching collapse. There was hardly any traffic on the
road. In places grass was growing out of the bitumen road surface. There were severe
shortages, for instance, of cloth. The railway track through Kuala Lipis had been
removed by the Japanese for use on the Burma-Siam railway. The railway bridges had
been blown up during the retreat in 1942 and had not been rebuilt to a standard to
carry trains. But the telephone service was working as were the town electricity system
and the water supply; but the treatment plant had worn itself out. But there were signs
of enthusiastic activity and the economy was recovering rapidly.
We lived or, rather, camped in houses for there was a shortage of furniture and, for
instance, my dressing table must have been used by a Japanese sitting on a mat it was
so low. But furniture could be made locally in time. Some personal belongings did
survive and at one party we were astounded to hear a lady, a guest, claim the carpet! It
was a dull grey affair. This would hardly call for comment but for the fact she was the
lady I had seen on the quay at Singapore with whole crates of belongings. I asked her
what had happened to the crates she had had in Singapore. She had lost the lot. In
those immediate post war days it was advisable to keep an eye on your property if you
did want to lose it and I fear she had not done so.
The political scene was attracting attention. Some BM A officers were saying "We
are only here to put the country on its feet and then we shall be off". Those who had
been in the country before the war counselled discretion. We knew changes were
desirable and inevitable and welcomed them but there was uncertainty over their exact
form. One example was that before the war the British had looked on Singapore as the
effective capital. But now Kuala Lumpur was the capital.
The BMA PWD presence in Kuala Lipis consisted of two officers, the State
Engineer and myself, and a signals detachment. We worked with the civilian PWD
staff. There was a shortage of labour and I had a detachment of Japanese POWs
working a quarry. The priority task was rehabilitation, that is putting things back in
order, before we could resume development work brought to a halt by the war. The
principal project delayed by the war in Pahang was the road, since built, between
Temerloh and Maran, which was to improve road communication between the east
coast and the rest of the country.
When the Japanese occupied Malaya and Singapore in 1942 the effect was to
remove almost all the senior staff from the PWD. What then happened? Firstly it
should be remembered there was in general no scorched earth policy associated with
the British retreat. For instance when I left Johore Bahru the town water supply was
left in full working order. I suggest the consensus of opinion is that the junior staff left
behind did extremely well. Spares for engines could not be ordered of course and in
time skill and ingenuity had to be used to keep things going. On the other hand the
senior staff were also handling considerable development work. Responsibility for
such work did not devolve on the junior staff as such work naturally was halted by the
Since Malaya was a country which had been fought over my memory is that one
always had to be careful about discussing the war. Undoubtedly there had been
hardship. For instance one man would tell you how he had managed to keep a cow so
that his children might have milk. Or again in 1945 the Rest House keeper in Temerloh
told me there was such a shortage of rice they were forced to eat tapioca.
The military administration in Malaya ended on 31st March, 1946. Civil government
with all its administrative procedures and audits came into being on 1st April.
We simply exchanged our military shirts for civilian shirts or, perhaps, just removed
the military insignia, for there was still a shortage of cloth, and carried on with our
That is how the war ended. When I recall the Japanese war I remember my PWD
colleague, Ted Fallows, who left us on Pom Pong island. I doubt if others remember
him. Presumably he still lies there forgotten in an unmarked grave. That was the fate of
so many, Asians and Europeans.