Japanese (Un)preparedness for the Occupation of Malaya
Sandra Khor Manickam, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
The Japanese invasion of peninsula Malaya began on 8 December 1941 with troops landing in southern Thailand and the northern states of Malaya. Almost every Malaysian school child has been told the story of Japanese troops advancing on their bicycles, silently and swiftly, while the British watched for an attack coming from the south and fortified Singapore with two ships, the Repulse and Prince of Wales, which were sunk when they moved north towards the site of the Japanese landing. On 15 February 1942, the British surrendered in Singapore in the Ford Factory building which is now a museum dedicated to the wartime experience of the occupation in Singapore.
Considered one of the Second World War’s greatest military campaigns, Japan’s victory in Malaya has been attributed to skillful planning and organization. In contrast, it appeared that governing Malaya was much more haphazard and difficult, with scholars arguing that the Japanese occupation authorities were largely unprepared for the task of government. The memoirs of the chief architect of the campaign, Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, highlight how information gathering on Malaya began in early 1941 for the military operation and included basic information on the region, its people, culture, and geography. This operation demonstrated that there was so little knowledge of Malaya in military circles that it was considered necessary to establish a research group based in Taiwan to compile information that was, in principle, already available. At the time of the invasion, there were more than 6,000 Japanese residents in Malaya, numerous Japanese companies involved in mining, rubber-planting and fishing, and several Japanese Associations in towns in Malaya which were focal points of the Japanese community, as well as Japanese consulate staff in Singapore, all of whom had years of experience living in Malaya. Tsuji and the research team, however, had to scout for private individuals, scholars and former officials who were in Taiwan and Japan who would be able to provide them with information. Many of the troops who invaded Malaya had seen combat in China and were completely unfamiliar with the Malay Peninsula. They were then turned into an occupation force to administer Malaya and Sumatra.
Malaya and Sumatra were strategically important to the Japanese as a command centre for military defence as well as an economic and transport hub for the Southern regions. Emphasis was placed on re-establishing basic administrative functions as quickly as possible and to facilitate the economy so that Malaya might be self-sufficient and orderly so as not to require additional forces for its administration. The Japanese occupation authorities did not make many changes to the detailed functioning of government, and what changes were made were mostly in name only. Former ‘states’ were now called ‘provinces’, with Japanese ‘governors’ instead of British ‘residents’ leading them. Street and school names were changed to remove traces of Western names and Malaya was now referred to as ‘Malai’ and Singapore as ‘Syonan-to’. There were, of course, larger changes, such as ceding the northern Malay states to Thailand and combining Sumatra, which had been part of the Dutch empire, and Malaya, which had been part of the British empire, as one organisational unit under Japan’s 25th Army. In both cases, however, it is doubtful as to whether this resulted in further changes in how Sumatra and Malaya were governed and administered. On the whole the governing structure remained largely the same, as even British intelligence reports stated in 1944. The main change was in placing Japanese leaders in positions that used to be filled by the British and other Europeans, and in promoting local officials to fill higher positions left empty.
As mentioned earlier, the Japanese occupation staff in Malaya had very limited local knowledge, and information gathering about Malaya had to be done in situ through research groups and translations of British texts on Malaya. As late as 1943, reports by some government divisions in Selangor show the local administrators still trying to figure out which local staff were employed in their department, what pay scale they were on, and where they might find additional manpower to perform essential tasks left by Europeans who were interned or locals who had escaped to the countryside to avoid the invading Japanese. Japanese staff in Malaya were tasked with restoring the status quo before the war in order to form a basis for their continued operation during the war, but as infrastructure such as road and railway bridges, warehouses and buildings had been strategically destroyed by the retreating British to prevent them from being used by the Japanese, inventories of available facilities and staff had to be gathered from scratch.
Resources were channelled to areas that were considered necessary for the defense of Malaya and this left holes in other important areas such as health. I will take the case of maintenance of anti-malarial measures as an illustration. The fact that Malaya relied heavily on effective anti-malarial efforts to ensure the smooth operation of the economy was well-known before the Japanese invasion both within Malaya and in the international community of tropical disease experts. The problems caused by malaria hindering British efforts to develop Malaya economically had received plenty of attention in Malayan government papers and widely read medical journals such as the Lancet and the British Medical Journal. Health and sanitary boards had been established in Malaya, tasked with maintaining healthy conditions in towns and estates, at least in order for the economy to function well. In addition, there were Japanese doctors in Malaya trained in Japan and employed by Japanese companies, or who were part of the local Japanese community and had trained in Singapore, who were later incorporated into the occupation government, such as Chief Medical Officer Kozo Ando. Japanese-owned mines and plantations in Malaya were required by the British colonial administration to undertake their own anti-malarial efforts. General information on Malaya was also available in the form of tourist guides published by the Japanese Department of Railways.
Although many sources of information were available (in Malaya if not in Japan itself), it seemed that the Japanese military commanders and administrators were not prepared for the need to maintain health and sanitary efforts, if only to keep the economy functioning and deliver important raw materials to support the Japanese war effort. Officials responsible for town maintenance in early 1943, almost a year and half after the beginning of occupation, for example, reported on the drastic increase in malaria infections due to ‘the cessation of supply of anti-malarial mixture’ on the outbreak of hostilities. Production of rubber on plantation estates ceased for almost a year in some places, during which time there were no anti-malarial measures. Given that Japanese occupied Malaya was an important base for military, economic and transport operations, it is surprising that a fundamental aspect of the management of the territory, ensuring minimal infections from a well-known disease, was not recognised and taken into account.
There also seemed to be a gap in expertise on the ground. A prominent Malaysian malariologist. A.A. Sandosham, who worked with the Japanese authorities during the occupation, asserted that the Japanese in Malaya ‘had little or no knowledge’ of malaria and how to tackle growing infection rates. This is at odds with what we know of Japanese anti-malaria expertise and efforts elsewhere such as in Taiwan and Korea but goes to show that knowledge from other Japanese colonies and occupied territories was not brought to Malaya. Sandosham was one of the people in charge of teaching anti-malarial classes organized before the war and two years into occupation a malaria handbook was published aimed at training anti-malaria officers in Malaya. The Japanese military administration did not manage to harness the knowledge that was already there, and instead seemed to have to reinvent the wheel when there was a need to implement important aspects of governing Malaya, such as health and sanitary measures to control malaria.
There are many intriguing discrepancies in our knowledge of what happened during the occupation of Malaya. Although information about Malaya and how its government and economy worked was widely available, this knowledge was not gathered by the Japanese military and utilized ahead of the war. By the time the authorities saw the need for such knowledge, Japan’s future in Malaya was uncertain. It was also subject to major administrative changes such as merging and then splitting the occupied territories of Malaya and Sumatra, and changes in the vision for what part Malaya should play in Japan’s plans for a Greater East Asia. Transportation of goods and people between Japan and Malaya, and between Japanese territories in the region, was interrupted by the war, and further difficulties were caused by military requisitioning of medical supplies, vehicles and fuel. The time period during which Malaya was under Japanese administration was short, about three and a half years from the start of the invasion in December 1941 until the surrender on 15 August 1945, and hence these gaps in knowledge and planning may have been dealt with eventually.
Yet seeing how Malaya was, by Japan’s own admission, a strategically important part of its southern empire, it is nonetheless surprising that while the military invasion and campaign was skillfully planned and organized, there was such a lack of knowledgeable personnel and foresight during the period of occupation in dealing with everyday and well-known issues of administering Malaya. The most likely explanation would appear to be not negligence or ineptitude but short-sightedness. At the time of the invasion, the urgency to conquer Malaya and neighbouring territories out-weighed any other considerations. Once in power, the constant changes in Japanese fortunes during the war meant that planning and organisation were still mostly geared towards military efforts. Reacting to the changing circumstances of war was the main preoccupation of Japanese authorities in Malaya, while routine but essential tasks of government were neglected.
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Manickam, Sandra Khor, ‘Andō’s Ambiguities in Malaya: The life of a Japanese medical doctor between British and Japanese empires’, East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal (EASTS), July 2022. Open access, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/18752160.2022.2084581
Cover picture: Battle of Malaya and the Japanese bicycle, L Joo