'The Lion of Malaya': Insights into civilian resistance

Rebecca Kenneison (Essex), PhD Student

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Research on resistance in Japanese-occupied Malaya usually focuses on the armed resistance of the Malayan People’s Anti Japanese Army (MPAJA); civilian resistance rarely features. [1]Where it is does, it is usually discussed in the context of the Malayan People’s Anti Japanese Union, the MPAJA’s civilian network. [2] This network, though again little studied, is reasonably well understood: ‘outside workers’ – often highly intelligent, educated and charismatic people – were devoted to propagandising the villagers along the jungle fringe and organising them to supply intelligence, food and finance to the guerrilla forces of the MPAJA. [3]

Other civilian resistance is almost invisible in the literature, meaning that the activities of Gurchan Singh appear to have been largely overlooked. [4] Gurchan was employed as a policeman in Malaya prior to the outbreak of the Pacific War. He was thus a member of the intermediary class, providing a point of contact – surely not always a welcome one – between the colonised and the colonial state. During the Japanese occupation, he developed his own resistance network; his memoir of these events was published in 1949. [5] It is possible that interest in this book was submerged by concern over the Malayan Emergency, which had been declared the previous year. His book, however, is worthy of study, not least because it offers three very important insights: firstly, it offers suggestions as to the beliefs and sentiments of members of the intermediary class through the course of the Occupation; secondly, it reveals the possibility of cross-communal unity during the occupation, a time usually associated with deepening ethnic division; thirdly, it suggests how intelligence sometimes made its way to British military planners, and hints at its impact. [6]

Gurchan and his network were not, of course, the only civilians in Malaya who set out to defy the Japanese. In Negri Sembilan the Orang Asli (jungle aboriginals) and local Chinese enabled four Gurkha evaders to survive the war. [7] Similarly, two mixed-race members of the Indian Army were sheltered by the Eurasians of Kuala Lumpur. [8] As with the Gurkhas, they were not betrayed. Other tales of resistance are also revealed in the post-war newspapers. Early in the Occupation, all radios in private hands had to be ‘sealed’, so they could pick up only the one approved broadcaster. Unsealed radios were hidden, and listened to in secret, and the news passed on. This was important for civilian morale but, as newspaper reports attest, it could prove fatal. [9]

Civilians didn’t just receive information: they also gathered it, and passed it on to the guerrillas and later, when they infiltrated into Malaya, to the British clandestine operatives of the Inter-Services Liaison Department (ISLD, part of MI6) and Force 136 (the Asian arm of the Special Operations Executive). The ISLD operation, Evidence, received news of a Japanese light cruiser about to leave Penang. This was radioed back to ‘base’ and the ship was duly sunk. [10] Che Salleh, a Malay civil servant, was arrested and beaten on the suspicion of passing information to a Force 136 operation. [11]

Arguably, the most remarkable example of civilian resistance was the network masterminded by Gurchan Singh – because it was an organised network, centered on an independent operator rather than a clandestine operation or a guerrilla movement, and because it was so effective, and because of who was in it.

In 1941, at the outbreak of the Pacific War, Gurchan was a member of a police ‘surveillance squad’ in Ipoh. During the Malaya Campaign he expressed his willingness to remain with the police all the way to Singapore, but his boss left him in Kuala Lumpur without warning just before the city fell. He was dismayed rather than infuriated by what he felt to have been a breach of trust. He did not – as he might have done – turn against the British; instead, he saw the Japanese as also being imperialists, and more violent and less trustworthy than the British. [12]

The book about his activities – nominally his own work, but composed with the assistance of an editor – reflects the views of the intermediary class as Malaya fell. Gurchan Singh quotes his brother as saying that the British, ‘call themselves a warlike race’ who ‘came here to protect us’ but nonetheless failed in this mission. This sense of abandonment was to reach far forward, influencing the attitudes and beliefs of many Malayan residents in the post-war period. Singh’s book, published near the beginning of the Malayan Emergency, can be seen almost as a work of pro-British propaganda – except that it gives so much agency, and allows so much initiative, to a member of a ‘conquered race’, albeit one considered ‘martial’ in the stereotypes of the time. It also shows the British departure from Kuala Lumpur in a less than flattering light, and is very critical of British military tactics. [13]

As Kuala Lumpur descended into chaos, Gurchan weighed the sentiments of his three brothers. One was an Indian nationalist, and ready to side with the Japanese. The other two wanted to work against them, even the one who expressed disgust at Britain’s failure to protect the country and was baffled as to why a better guerrilla resistance had not been properly organised. [14]

The network Gurchan Singh developed was multi-ethnic: those he names are Sikhs, Chinese, Tamils, Ceylonese, Malays and Eurasians. [15] Japanese policies did not deliberately foster racial enmity, but they favoured Malays and Indians over Chinese and their net effect was an increase in ethnic tension, which spilled over into violence and killings between Chinese and Malays in the last six months of the Occupation. Yet Gurchan’s network contained members of all the large domiciled communities, and some of the small ones, working towards a common goal, knowing that they risked punishment and death: by the war’s end, three members of the group had been tortured to death, and one had been executed. [16]

Gurchan himself was interrogated and beaten at the beginning of the Occupation. Undeterred, he and his brothers began with a few small acts of sabotage, and one attack on the Japanese. They soon concentrated on printing and distributing leaflets and posters, although they encouraged sabotage where possible. [17] They kept themselves as the hub at the centre of the spokes, to limit the possibilities of betrayal. Gurchan also wrote his propaganda from a Chinese viewpoint, for additional cover. [18] Gradually, their reach extended to Seremban, Ipoh, Penang and even Singapore: two hundred miles to the north, and well over two hundred miles to the south. [19]

The leaflets contradicted the Japanese news, and passed on illicit information. Early in 1945, Gurchan hit upon a scheme for disrupting production by persuading people to stay away from work. He did this by claiming an air raid was due to take place on a particular day at a particular location – the railways workshops at Sentul. To his amazement, this raid duly took place. Emboldened, he warned of another raid – this time on the Brickfields district of Kuala Lumpur. Again, to his astonishment, the bombs came down where and when he had ‘predicted’. [20] This is too unlikely to be coincidence; almost certainly, his propaganda made its way to either Force 136 or the ISLD (both active in the country at the time), who had the ability to send this information back to Ceylon. Raids could then be planned to cause the Japanese the maximum disquiet, and persuade the local population that a direct connection existed between local resistance and British planning.

By this stage, Gurchan was suspected by both his family and the Japanese. A Malay, later killed by ‘Allied partisans’ (the MPAJA, one assumes), was spying on him from a neighbouring house. Japanese soldiers raided his house; he escaped through a window.

Just after the Brickfields raid, Gurchan fled with three of his agents, eventually reaching safety in Thailand, where he was at the time of the Japanese surrender. He later found that he had been betrayed by an agent who was arrested and tortured: Gurchan, perhaps anxious that his reader should not judge, does not give us his name.

Civilian resistance is by its nature far less dramatic than armed insurgency, and this is perhaps why it is so often sidelined, even though – as Gurchan makes clear – it possesses the power to sway the population, disrupt industrial production and wreck trains. Other reasons for the marginalisation of Gurchan’s account also suggest themselves. Firstly, as already suggested, interest in it was perhaps overwhelmed by the declaration of the Malayan Emergency. Secondly, neither Gurchan nor his editor had a pre-existing reputation as an author, unlike, for example, the explorer Freddy Spencer Chapman, who already had several books to his name when his own wartime memoir was published. [21] Yet Gurchan’s account is significant. He gives us a startling insight into the mood of Malayan civilians of many different backgrounds during the occupation, and shows us that opposition to Japanese control was widespread, that people from train drivers to successful businessmen were prepared to take considerable risks to obstruct and challenge it. He widens our view, bringing an understanding that resistance does not have to depend upon a political party or the support of an army, and lets us see that resistance in Malaya was far more widespread and successful, and far more complex and ethnically mixed, than popular accounts incline us to believe. Gurchan shows us, too, just how dangerous it was.

Post-war, in court, he met Nishi Yoshinobu, the Kempeitai agent who had almost captured him. ‘If I had caught you,’ said Nishi to Gurchan, ‘you would have died.’ [22]



Rebecca Kenneison is a PhD student at the University of Essex. She has previously published ‘Playing for Malaya: A Eurasian Family in the Pacific War’ (NUS Press, 2011). Her current research focuses on the role of Force 136 (a branch of the Special Operations Executive) in Malaya during World War II and the intelligence it gathered.