Japanese Occupation of British Malaya and Singapore

Module Summary

The Japanese occupation was experienced differently in different places and by different groups of people. This module looks closely at how this phenomenon was manifested in British Malay where Malays were generally well treated and given high administrative posts, while Indians were not treated as kindly. The Chinese were harshly treated in the sook ching (purification through suffering) campaign, especially in Singapore. Brutalities and forced financial contributions continued throughout the period of occupation. On the other hand, the Chinese were essential for the war effort. The issue of collaboration caused divisions among Chinese in post-war Malaya. Understandably, Chinese formed the majority of armed resistance in the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which was dominated by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). This module considers the following questions: How did different groups of citizenry in Malaya/Singapore respond to Japanese occupation? Why did the attitude of the ethnic Chinese differ from other Asians? Does an understanding of previous relationships help explain these varying attitudes? How did responses to the Japanese in other nations, such as the strong resistance by the Communists in China, affect the way ethnic groups were treated in distant parts of the Japanese empire?

This module is based on the presentation by Cheah Boon Kheng (Visiting Professor, Department of History, National University of Singapore) for the East-West Center’s 2011 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Institute for Teachers.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this module do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the East-West Center.

Optional Reading

The optional readings for this module are:
Cheah Boon Kheng, Red star over Malaya: resistance and social conflict during and after the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941-1946 (Singapore : Singapore University Press, 1983), Chapter 2 “The Social Impact of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1942-1945.”
Paul Kratoska, The Japanese occupation of Malaya: a social and economic history (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997), pp. 44-51.

Teaching Materials

PowerPoint lecture “Life under the Japanese Military Regime in Malaya & Singapore”

Key topics include: Chinese minorities, communism, decolonization, democracy, development, ethnic minorities, European powers, fascism, imperialism / colonialism, independence movements, Indian minorities, minority identities in Southeast Asia, Islam in Southeast Asia, Islamic sultanates, Malaya/British Malaya, Malays, nationalism, post-war period, revolution, warfare and combat, WWII in Southeast Asia.

We welcome comments from teachers on how you have integrated this material into your teaching, including what was useful and what wasn’t, and what additional resources you would like to see in or recommend for this module.