British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by John Gullick
The British Return to Malaya in 1945
Morib Beach
The Japanese surrender came suddenly as British and Commonwealth troops were about to embark for an assault to liberate Malaya. The movement had to proceed as planned and the main force landed on Morib beach, on the west coast of Malaya, early in September 1945. It included detachments, each of about a dozen army officers, whose task ('civil affairs') was to impose military control on the remains of the civil government. The detachment assigned to the Malay state of Negri Sembilan was commanded by a pre-war Malayan Civil Service officer, one of the few not captives of the Japanese since 1942, and included a police officer and a PWD engineer of the pre-war service, plus a couple of retired Malayan rubber planters. I was the only one with previous experience of military government, but - like the rest including two army doctors - new to Malaya.

It was dark when the landing craft bumped into the sand and we marched forward into a couple of feet of water. We had stopped at a sandbank, not the shore itself. In Morib village our detachment of about a dozen found shelter on the back verandah of a shophouse. The man who did our catering got out the army English-Malay phrasebook we had been given and asked the Chinese shopkeeper if we could have boiling water to make tea. Malay was not the mother tongue of either party but I have never seen such a total state of mutual incomprehension, but at last we got our tea.

The British Return to Malaya in 1945
Operation Zipper
The very superior American army rations issued to us were supposed to have a 14 day sequence of cooked meals, but we found that our entire supply was steak and kidney pie, on which we lived - breakfast, lunch and supper - for a couple of days until one of our two vehicles, a jeep, was landed. The detachment commander decided to set off with two others - I was one - and leave the rest to follow. Southwards down the coast road we went between endless rows of rubber trees - a most unexciting vista - on either side until we reached Port Dickson where an Indian army brigade had just landed. We turned inland to reach Seremban, capital of Negri Sembilan, in late afternoon. Although the Japanese had withdrawn, the government staff had come to work and were closing the offices to go home. The brigadier had moved into the Residency, whence the Japanese military governor had departed earlier in the day, protesting at being limited to two suitcases for his belongings - it was one more than his lot had allowed ours in 1942. Our detachment had been allotted the pre-war mansion of the high court judge, where we found an armed sentry to keep off looters. He was a Chinese guerrilla in the communist-led Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), of whom more later.

The British Return to Malaya in 1945
Japanese Prisoners
Strict instructions had been issued that immediately on arrival we must publish the proclamation by which Mountbatten declared a military government. We had copies of the proclamation, about the size of a broadsheet newspaper, and a bottle of gum. But where could we find a large enough notice board in a public place? Down at the railway station we found the Indian stationmaster in ecstasy. Earlier in the day the revered figure of the pre-war general manager of the railway, now impressive as a full colonel with a red hat, had passed through on a special train, pausing to reappoint the stationmaster under the military government. He readily cooperated in pasting the abundance of legal prose on his timetable boards - there were no railway services running.

The next day the detachment commander went off to do business with the brigadier since our job was to control the civil population and prevent it rioting, suffering epidemic disease and other inconveniences to his forces. The third member of the advance party was the policeman who went to police headquarters to begin a difficult day. My job was to make a round of inspection of 22 government offices, which I found were on the whole in good shape, at least for routine work. After 1943 the Japanese, with the shadow of defeat upon them, lost interest and concentrated on the outward show of authority, the daily obeisance ceremony to the emperor, etc. In the town the street cleaners, anticipating that the Brits would demand more of them, were already clearing up the accumulated rubbish. Some departments had been disrupted by moving to different offices, dispersal of records etc, but the local staff had worked to high standards before the war and, with some encouragement, did well in difficult times after it.

The most acute problem was law and order, the base of all other government activity. The Japanese had misused the police, almost entirely Malay, in their pursuit of the MPAJA guerrillas, who from hide-outs in the jungle had been a distraction rather than a threat to Japanese control. However British liaison officers (Force 136) had gone in to join them, by submarine or parachute, and arms and supplies had been dropped from the air. There was an interregnum of about three weeks between the collapse of the Japanese and the arrival of the British regimes, during which the MPAJA had moved into the villages to assert themselves and to pay off old scores by kidnapping - usually at night - and killing Malay headmen or police against whom they had a grudge.

By wartime agreements the MPAJA were British allies but the military administration was instructed to prevent them - without open confrontation - from assuming authority and committing crimes. For the first couple of months after our return the British hold on outlying areas was precarious. Most of the troops which had landed in September had gone on to serious conflict in Indonesia and elsewhere. The Malay police, in fear of their lives, would not go out. Military patrols - half a dozen Indian soldiers in a 15 cwt truck - were no substitute for police on the ground. However in the end, after some retraining, a policeman and a soldier, both armed, went out together and gradually the police regained their confidence and authority.

The British Return to Malaya in 1945
Humber Super Snipe
Meanwhile there were some bad moments. On 23 September I was sent to make a visit, the first by a British officer, to the remote Jelebu district, isolated behind a range of hills. I tanked up over the winding pass in a requisitioned pre-war Humber, inherited from the Japs and rather wheezy, to find the Malay District Officer lurking in his house to which he had retreated after the MPAJA had invaded the district office and burnt all its contents, including essential land records that took years to replace. He refused to remain any longer in the district, even with an armed guard on his house, but fortunately the Malay ADO was more robust. His forbears, he said, had been pirates and he reckoned he could deal with this lot - as he did. Later in his career he rose to be one of the most senior civil servants in the country. Together we went down to the police station to find it occupied by the MPAJA, with their 3 star flag at the masthead. It was to be the headquarters of the communist republic of Jelebu that they had declared. We exchanged dirty looks and I decided that we should have to persuade the MPAJA state commander to get them out. In the Rembau district the MPAJA tied the Malay DO across his own office desk while they discussed whether to cut his throat. He survived however to become the head of the state government in 1948 with somewhat severe views on policy issues affecting the Chinese.

The British Return to Malaya in 1945
MPAJA flag
The Malays hit back. The worst incident, in early November, was a Malay attack, under much provocation, on a remote Chinese settlement in which 40 people, mainly women and children, were killed. The terror spread to other areas. In Seremban after dark a report would come in of a clash at some village, to which we roared out, headlights blazing, to find people cowering behind barred doors. Not here, they said, but blood is all over the street at a village a mile or two on. So we went on in pursuit of a sinister unattainable rainbow's end. The terror reached its climax just after sunset one evening when a group of Chinese, living on the outskirts of Seremban, thought they heard a noise in the nearby jungle. They came screaming into town - 'the Malays are upon us'. Murphy's law - if it can go wrong, it will - applied. The decrepit generator that provided the town's electricity supply failed and Seremban's Chinatown was plunged into darkness. Men began beating dustbin lids to sound the alarm and women ran screaming for their children. When light was restored everyone found themselves still alive, but not confident of remaining so. We called a meeting the next day of the community leaders who said that they knew and trusted each other, but it was the fear of attack by strangers that alarmed them. They agreed that if such fears came again they would first go to the other lot and work out together what to do. We set up these 'peace committees' in all the villages. In the context of a gradually improving security situation it worked.

The other critical problem was food, which in Malaya means rice. Wheat was no substitute and they particularly disliked local tapioca. The Japanese occupation period was remembered for years as 'the time of tapioca' (zaman ubi kayu in Malay). The Japanese, unable to maintain the pre-war import of rice, introduced a badly run ration scheme in the towns and in the countryside they put much of the padi land out of cultivation by requisitioning most of the crop. In 1945 we had agreements with Thailand and other surplus producers for renewed supplies which they did not fulfill. Some rice was smuggled in to a lucrative Malayan black market. The problem with a black market is not the dealers, who will always go for a profit, but the wealthier citizens who create the market by offering money to get what they want. We struggled and at times could not meet the demand of a much reduced ration scale.

The general situation slowly improved as the weeks went by. Meanwhile preparations were made for the restoration of civil government under a new constitution that caused far more protests than any shortcomings of the interim military administration which is however remembered as a time of hardship. But we did what we could.

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Originally Published
OSPA Journal 98: October 2009


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