The outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941 saw Japanese forces invading southern Thailand and northern Malaya on 8 December. By the end of the month, they had established control of both the Peninsula and the Borneo states. The island fortress of Singapore was captured on 15 February 1942, followed in March by the Dutch-occupied Sumatra. British rule was replaced with that of Japanese military. Singapore, renamed Shonan, became the centre of a regional administration which incorporated all previous British colonies as well as Sumatra.
The Peninsula was divided into provinces which largely followed state lines and which were placed under Japanese governors. The Malay sultans were retained as ‘advisors’ and representatives of the various communities appointed to various councils (sanji kai). The Unfederated Malay States, however, were exempted from this administration as they were annexed by Thailand and remained under Thai suzerainty for the duration of the occupation.
A separate military government was established in the Borneo Island, which was divided into five prefectures. The lack of personnel resulted in large-scale retaining of Malay native officers and European prisoners of war to assist the Japanese. Many local members of the Brooke and Chartered Company civil services gained valuable governing experience.
The removal of British colonial rule affected ethnic interactions, especially in Malaya. The Occupation had brought about a collapse in Malaya’s export economy, which had already been weakened by the pre-war decline of the tin industry as well as the scorched earth policy of retreating British forces as part of the defence effort. Production of tin languished and rubber plantations were neglected. Most of the output was sold domestically, and a majority of the workers were forced to become ‘squatters’. From 1943, the Japanese emphasis on increased food production brought competing Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians into closer contact as groups were resettled in agricultural areas. Thus, racial tension was significantly exacerbated by economic competition among the ethnic groups.
Additionally, the ethnic groups did not receive equal treatment during the Occupation. In general, Malays were accorded preference, particularly in administration. Those recruited as vigilantes into the auxiliary police force and other paramilitary units gained access to privileges and organizational experience through Japanese-run conferences, language training and administrative education. Furthermore, Malay schools were accorded preferential treatment and 721 out of the Peninsula’s 885 Malay schools reopened in the 12 months after the invasion.
Moreover, while perpetuating the pro-Malay policy of the British, the Japanese regarded the Chinese with intense suspicion because of their loyalty to the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party anti-Japanese movement within their homeland. In the first week of the Occupation, the Japanese executed Sook ching (purification through suffering), a purging operation, on the Chinese male population of Singapore and the Peninsula. It involved the screening of Chinese neighbourhoods, followed by the detention or execution of any suspected of working against Japan. This large-scale mass punishment was never repeated, but throughout the Occupation, the Chinese were subjected to much persecution and constantly squeezed for financial contributions to the war effort. Communal institutions such as dialect and clan associations were also disbanded and a majority of Chinese schools were closed down to counter the perceived threat of Chinese resistance.
By comparison, the Indians received milder treatment due to their participation in anti-British nationalist organizations. The strength of the anti-colonial movement in India was an important factor in the softening of the Japanese attitude towards the Indian community. Furthermore, the local Indian Independence League, established in 1943, was a highly effective means of reaching the Indian community and the Japanese used this nationalist organization as a means of obtaining Malayan Indian cooperation. ‘Voluntary’ contributions were demanded of wealthier Indian individuals.
Birth of Malay nationalism
During the Occupation, Malay left-wing nationalists in the 1920s and 1930s increased in prominence, in tandem with decline of the traditional rulers and Japanese encouragement of Malay nationalism as a means of promoting a larged and more unified Malaya (Sumatra and Malai). The more radicalized Malays were quick to seize opportunities that opened up when they were appointed to lead youth movements, namely Ibrahim Yaacob and the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM). Besides that, several also gained prominence in the Japanese-organized paramilitary youth group, PETA (Pembela Tanah Air).
Despite their ambitious plans, the radicals had little to offer potential allies because they lacked a strong power base and were geographically divided. Furthermore, the Japanese had no intention of promising independence as they intended to make Singapore a permanent colony and the Malay states a protectorate. Most pre-existing communal organizations were abolished and even the KMM was dissolved in June 1942. Ibrahim nevertheless maintained his position as a Malay spokesman, and in July 1945 the Japanese finally agreed to promote a Malay nationalist movement based on the ‘Greater Indonesia’ concept. A new political organization, KRIS (Kesatuan Rakyat Indonesia Semenanjung) was formed under the leadership of Ibrahim and Burhanuddin Al-Helmy, with the aim of uniting the Peninsula and Sumatra. These plans were brought to a premature end when the Japanese unexpectedly surrendered in August 1945.
The MCP and MPAJA
Following the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) had emerged as the champions of Malayan Chinese through its leadership of the anti-Japanese National Salvation Associations and offered full support to the colonial government at the start of the invasion. The swiftness and efficiency of the enemies’ attack, however, dashed hopes of a combined operation and in Borneo and Singapore, Japanese intelligence effectively ended organized MCP resistance within two years. Despite this, the party survived and regrouped to play an effective role in the MPAJA’s general resistance movement in Malaya.
Formed in consultation with the British, the largely Chinese Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army had begun resistance activities even before Singapore’s fall. The core of this anti-Japanese resistance unit consisted of largely Chinese MCP members as well as a few left-wing Malay units. Several of its features were carried on into the later communist insurgency period. Firstly, the MPAJA were supported by a civilian wing, the Anti-Japanese Union (remaned the Min Yuen during the insurgency) which helped provide supplies and recruits to the MPAJA. Second, the MPAJA developed an antagonistic attitude to the police. Thirdly, it cultivated close relations with the ORang Asli groups in their shared jungle environment. Fourth, it combined a policy of friendship and intimidation to achieve its aims among the civilian population. Finally, it gained valuable experience in guerrilla warfare.
The defeat of the Japanese in 1945 momentarily raised the hopes of those within the MCP party. In accordance with the Communist International policy enunciated in 1941, the Fascist powers had been overrun and a national revolution could now be set in place. However, these hopes were dashed when post-war violence set in following the return of the British on 3 September.
The collapse of order during the postwar interregnum
Distrust and tension between the Malays and the Chinese reached unprecedented levels as the war tide turned against Japan and the economic situation grew increasingly desperate. Malay attacks on Chinese settlements began in Johor as early as May 1945, forcing thousands of Chinese to flee to larger towns.
The period between surrender and the return of British authorities was one of terror as the MPAJA conducted attacks on the weakened Japanese and their local personnel in the Peninsula. Being the sole armed, well-organized group, they were able to move quickly to impose control over numerous areas, especially where there was a substantial Chinese population. Even after the British return, MPAJA units were used in some areas to maintain order- a measure which was largely interpreted as preferential treatment for Chinese. Communal relations were also seriously damaged because the MPAJA/MCP used this opportunity to invoke retribution upon old enemies and those who had previously collaborated with the Japanese. Major targets were Malays. IN response to the ‘Chinese aggression’, Malays organized themselves under village secular and religious leaders and retaliated in kind.
Across the Straits, Indonesia had already declared its independence in August 1945, and efforts to promote the concept of a ‘greater Malaya’ were once again taken up. In the latter part of 1945, Malay leftist groups (including MCP, KMM and KRIS members) established the Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Muda (PKMM). As well as self-government, political rights and social reforms, it stressed Malay unity and racial harmony, calling for Malaya to be incorporated into the Republic of Greater Indonesia.
Similar efforts to establish racial harmony were carried out by other groups who hoped to unite under common political goals. In December 1945, the Malayan Democratic Union was formed in Singapore, consisting principally of left-wing. English-educated, Malaya-born individuals hoping to ‘create a sense of loyalty to Malaya among all races by inspiring a national loyalty over an above his natural loyalty to the Sultan’.