15 March 2006

British Malaise in Malaya, 1941

The lack of civil preparation, the general ‘Malaise’, was to be a persistent charge against the British in Malaya. But, by the outbreak of war, the people of Malaya had experienced more intrusive government than at any time in its history, especially in the form of food controls and price fixing. Mindful of Malaya's dependence on imported rice, the authorities had by 1940 built up reserves for 180 days. The state also took on new functions such as surveillance and propaganda. By April 1940 there were 312 officers involved in censorship in Singapore and 58 in Penang, plus a number of part-time workers, many of them European wives reading each other's mail.... However, the Ministry of Information in Singapore soon had a staff of over 100 and issued Chinese newspapers and illustrated propaganda in four languages at a rate of a million pieces a month. Before December 1941 the Japanese could not be mentioned. Instead was broadcast – in the style of Orson Welles's adaptation of War of the Worlds – a ‘nightmare’ of conquest by the fascists. The dire situation was disguised by over-confident propaganda which encouraged complacency about the scale of the threat. When the war began, the need to maintain this posture immobilized the British regime. The Japanese-owned daily the Singapore Herald fought against the mood by applauding Chinese cabaret girls for dancing with Japanese men and with such headlines as ‘Down with alarmism’ and ‘Prepare for peace’. In October, around 600 Japanese and their families were evacuated, and the consul-general was recalled at the end of the month. But many remained.
SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain's Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), p. 67

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