How the Japanese Had a Role to Play in Malaysia's Independence

In light of Merdeka, consider this a throwback to how far we've truly come.
Thursday 30 August 2018
The spirit of liberation. Photo: Getty Images

Conservative British historian Niall Ferguson has issued a warning: “If you want to be poor, fight for independence.” Some men throw rocks; others hide behind it.

The history of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia is one of defiance.

Whether or not our Tiger Economies are currently punching below their weight is a question for another day, but what’s certain is that without Independence, we wouldn’t be punching at all.

“God, Gold, Glory” fuelled European dominance. Bayly and Harper in Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 illustrates how valuable the colony was to the empire: “If India was the jewel in the imperial crown, Malaya was the industrial diamond. In 1940, the governor of Singapore estimated, Malaya was ‘worth’ an estimated £227.5 million to the British Empire… From 1895 until the Japanese war, at no point did British Malaya need financial help from outside.”

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An Avro Lincoln heavy bomber drops two 500-pound bombs over the Malayan jungle during a bombing mission, circa 1950. Photo: Imperial War Museums

When Japanese threat loomed, neither Whitehall nor the Netherlands took it seriously. Military expert Colonel John Hughes-Wilson documents British commanding officers at the time believed the ‘Japanese could not fire rifles because they could not close only one eye’ and ‘would flee at the sight of a white soldier’.

On December 8, 1941, the Imperial Army made beachhead at Kota Bahru, attacking southwards to Singapore and captured Malaya.

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Japanese executioner about to behead a Chinese man in Tientsin, China, circa 1900. Similar beheadings took place throughout Malaya. Photo: Libaray of Congress via Pingnews.

In the ensuing four years, Japanese bloodshed – particularly against the Chinese in retaliation for the Sino-Japanese War – outstripped anything Malaya had experienced under British rule.

Nippon’s unconditional surrender at Pearl Harbour on August 15, 1945, was as pivotal as its occupation. If Japanese occupation had inspired the possibility of Asian dominance over Europeans, its defeat opened the doors for self-governance.

As Britain and the Netherlands retrieved their respective colonies, the heady scent of nationalism was unmistakable. Democracy had come a-knocking and there was no turning back.

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Malaya’s vast railway network was built by ‘natives’ who cut rock as deep as 38 feet to lay tracks that connected the Federated Malay states. Photo: The National Archives UK

Although history is written by the victors, the truth is that any neat rendition into ‘cowboys’ and ‘red indians’ is but a poor one. What did we take away from our years as a colony? Perhaps the world’s oldest statesman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said it well enough: “What we did get from them (the British) was a well-organised administration and a fairly well-developed infrastructure. What we also got, however, was a psychological burden, was the belief that only Europeans could govern our country effectively.”

We’ve come a long way from such Pinkerton Syndrome.

But I always reminisce around this time of year – the good, the bad, the ugly – because Independence is sweetest when shaken and stirred. Here, an untold story exemplifying the multifaceted experience of Malayans and Malaysians.

The Making of the First Prime Minister

Late 20th century Malaya saw the blossoming of political consciousness and a rising Indian intelligentsia in the vein of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

Penang-born Sir Dr Husein Abdoolcader was Malaya’s first Indian knight and scion of one of her greatest forgotten families. Born in 1890 in Surat, India, the Cambridge-educated Gujarati Muslim barrister was regarded as primus inter pares or ‘first among equals’ by his English peers.

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Penang-born barrister Sir Dr Husein (standing) was part of rising Malayan Indian intelligentsia. Taken on 5 March 1949. Photo: The Abdoolcaders

He spent a lifetime as statesman, raising and representing issues of importance to Malaya’s Hindu and Mohammedan (the term then commonly used to denote people of the Islamic faith) communities.

When WWII erupted, the Abdoolcader family covertly resisted the Japanese, including giving refuge to rebels of the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army. More than once, Sir Husein was picked up for questioning and was nearly beheaded for treason against the Imperial Japanese Army.

For his contributions to the British Empire, he was knighted by King George VI at Buckingham Palace in 1949. However, Sir Husein’s most enduring legacy is as ‘Malaya’s Holidaymaker’, a moniker earned as he successfully lobbied for both Deepavali and Awal Muharram to be recognised as public holidays by the British government, in recognition of the immense financial and economic contributions of Malaya’s Hindus and Muslims to the empire.

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Unbribeable, Tan Sri Dr Eusoffe – known as The Legal Lion of the Commonwealth. Photo: The Abdoolcaders

This spirit of duty and public service was passed on to his son, the renowned advocate and judge, Tan Sri Dr Eusoffe Abdoolcader. Dubbed by the British press as ‘The Legal Lion of the Commonwealth’, his ferocious courtroom advocacy and landmark judgments set the precedence for other Commonwealth nations such as Australia and New Zealand.

Tommy Thomas, Malaysia’s current Attorney General, has described him as “Without doubt, the greatest judge since Merdeka and, to me, Malaysia’s greatest judge, is Eusoffe Abdoolcader. Much of Sir Husein and Tan Sri Eusoffe’s contributions to nation-building remain uncredited.

But we do wish to accord Eusoffe this: As a young King’s Scholar in post-war London, he tutored a family friend, the much older Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was then not yet the Prime Minister of Malaya and was resitting his examinations to the English Bar. They spent many evenings at the latter’s flat and Eusoffe’s tutelage resulted in Tunku finally passing his Bar examinations. This paved the way for Tunku to return to Malaya as Deputy Public Prosecutor and later, President of the Selangor Court – duties which prepared him for his ultimate role in securing Independence and becoming Malaysia’s first Prime Minister.

This is part of a feature that was first published in the August issue of UNRESERVED. Pick up a copy to read the feature in its entirety.

Related: Why Race Is Such an Ingrained Part of Southeast Asian Culture