The Royal Malay Regiment
The Royal Malay Regiment or Askar Melayu was formed on 1st March 1933 with an experimental unit of 25
Malay recruits under a British officer. It was termed experimental
because at this stage, it was only an atttempt according to Maj.Gen.
G.Bruce, OBE, MC (ret) to find out how the Malays will react
to military discipline.
The British colonial administrators were reluctant and cautious
about arming and training Malays for regular units, partly due
to the belief that the Malays, with their laid-back, leisurely
temperament and lack of military traditions were unsuitable for
strict military discipline. But more importantly, the British
were worried that the well-trained and well-armed Malays might
be involved in rivalries among Malay chiefs for power and control
of the lucrative tin-mining areas which were widespread in the
Malay states. It was only in 1933 that the British finally changed
their minds mainly because of the high costs of hiring the Burma
Rifles from India.
Maj. G. Bruce, a liberal and a wise officer, was appointed by
the British to be the first Commanding Officer. Although all military
commands were in English, Malay was used widely for instructions.
Bruce realised that this arrangement would assist many non-English
educated Malays in their learning and it could thus train as many
non-commissioned Malay officers to staff the new regiment as possible.
British officers from the Commanding Officer downwards were expected
to learn Malay and subsequently to know something about Malay
customs and the Muslim religion. Maj. Bruce, for instance, took
a short Malay language course. In addition, there was also the
appointment of a regimental religious teacher in the unit.
Competitions were frequently held to get the best out of the men
on parade and in the field. The instructors also aimed at developing
in the Malay soldiers a sense of patriotism, a love for their
country and loyalty to their rulers. Special attention was paid
to food, social recreation and the general welfare of the soldiers.
In keeping the name "Malay Regiment", efforts were made to retain
the distinctive Malay character. Maj. Bruce conceived the idea
of a Regimental mufti embodying the Malay national dress. He argued
that for esprit de corps, British personnel serving in the regiment
had to wear the Malay Regiment uniform which would identify them
from the onset with the Malay Regiment rather than with their
own British units. A regimental badge was created containing the
motto: "Ta'at dan Setia" (loyal and true). Three regimental colours were chosen for the
regiment - green representing Islam, yellow for Malay royalty,
and red for the British army. These unique uniform, motto and
regimental colours were well accepted by members of the unit.
As expected, the Malay soldiers responded "extremely well" and
serious breaches of discipline were rare, according to its Commanding
Officer. The high standard of training, sensitive and matured
management must have contributed greatly to its special quality.
The Malay soldiers did not take long to prove themselves to be
highly disciplined and credible fighting men. On 1st January,
1935, the experimental company became The Malay Regiment with
a compliment of 150 men. Recruitment speeded up with another 232
recruits, 2 rifle companies were started and a HQ Wing that included
a Vickers platoon, a signalling section and a corps of drums.
Trained in Port Dickson, Malaya, the regiment also went through
a 3-month attachment with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in
Singapore. In 1936, advanced training for the regiment was carried
out in Singapore from 1937 and again in January and February 1938
for drills in battalion and other military exercises. The performance
of the Malay Regiment was so impressive that there was a call
by the locals to establish a similar regular regiment in Singapore.
As the shadow of war loomed larger, training was intensified.
Long route marches - No.3 platoon of A company covered a record
104 miles in 4 days, 4 hours and 15 minutes, and exercises at
battalion and brigade levels became frequent. The soldiers also
began training with mortars and anti-tank weapons. They were also
well know for their marksmanship.
The unit remained small until 1939, when it was expanded into
the 1st Battalion of the Royal Malay Regiment (Rejimin Askar Melayu DiRaja). On 1st December 1941, some of the trained officers of the 1st
Battalion were drafted to form the 2nd Battalion under the command
of Lt.Col.F.Y.Young. The Japanese attacked Malaya just one week
later. The two battalions formed the 1st Malaya Brigade, and fought
on the mainland alongside 44th Indian Brigade.
2nd Lieutenant Adnan Saidi
Among the Royal Malay Regiments early recruits was Adnan Saidi,
a well-educated young man from Kajang when he enlisted in 1933
at the age of 18. Selected as the units best soldier, he became
the first Malay NCO in 1936 when he was promoted to sergeant.
In the following year, he was chosen to represent his platoon
in a military parade in London to honour the ascension of King
George VI to the throne. Shortly thereafter, Adnan Saidi was promoted
yet again to coy-sergeant-major and headed for Singapore for an
officer conversion course. Upon graduation as a 2nd lieutenant,
he became the commander of 7th Platoon, C Coy of the1st Malay
Adnan had married schoolteacher Sofiah Fakir after winning his
commission, and now moved his family to the safety of Singapore.
They took up residence among the British officers families in
the Pasir Panjang area. But there was no safety to be had - within
weeks, the Japanese had forced their way ashore.
Alarmed, Adnan sent his pregnant wife and two small children back
to Kajang. I was only four, his oldest son, Mokhtar, recalled
later. I did not realize that it would be the last time I would
see my father. My brother and I kissed our father's hand before
he left us. He did not say much. He merely told us to take care
of ourselves and not be naughty. I could see that my mother was
very sad. She did not say anything.
On 11 February, Japanese troops advancing with tanks down Jurong
Road, Ulu Pandan Road and Reformatory Road expected to sweep everything
before them. Australian troops fighting nearby looked on with
horror at what happened next. The Malays started to fight the Japanese on Reformatory Road, said Lt. Penrod V. Dean of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion. They had dug slit trenches but they didn't have a lot of weapons.
They started fighting the Japanese just with rifles virtually.
And when the Japanese broke through them, the Malays took to them
with bayonets, they put bayonets on the rifles and with a bayonet
charge they drove the Japanese back across Reformatory Road. They
were very brave people. They fought very hard, but for every Malay
soldier there was about 10 or 12 Japanese soldiers. So it was
inevitable what was going to happen.
On 13 February 1942, with the British-led defense of Singapore
collapsing, the remnants of 1st Battalion, about 300 men, took
up positions on Bukit Chandu, or Opium Hill, site of an opium
processing plant in the early 1900s that later became a trendy
housing area for senior British officials - the very spot where
Adnan had sent his family. Over the next 48 hours, wave after
wave of Japanese from the elite 18th Chrysanthemum Division
broke on the hill. The Malays fought them all back in savage hand-to-hand
At the front of the defense stood C Company. Capt. H.R. Rix told
his men they would retreat no further, and that he would die with
them where they stood. In a bungalow at 31K Pepys Road, Rix stationed
42 men led by Adnan. Repeatedly the Japanese fought their way
into the buildings under a shower of grenades, and just as often
the Malays threw them back out. At the Alexandra Brickworks, D
Company also stood fanatically, mowing down hundreds of Japanese
who came forward in human-wave assaults.
Lt. Adnan came to my stockade through the communication trench,
Datuk Abbas Manan, one of the 42 heroes, remembered. He asked me to help him. He wanted to fire the machine gun, so
he needed me to change the magazines while he was firing. Incidentally,
the Japanese were coming from the front of the stockade positions.
They were wearing disguises. So Adnan opened fire. The Japanese
soldiers scattered when they were fired on, and many died. Then
Adnan said to me, Mr. Abbas, if I should die today, I am quite
willing as long as someone can look after my family. Those were
his last words and that was the last time I saw him alive.
Adnan, suffering from several bullet and shrapnel wounds and a
broken arm, refused to leave his men and fought alongside them
with pistol, and finally as ammunition ran out, his bare hands.
Grievously wounded, Adnan was instantly recognized as the short
berserker who had personally killed dozens of Japanese. His captors
beat him savagely, then slowly killed him with bayonet thrusts.
The next day, the British surrendered. The Japanese separated
officers and men among their prisoners, sending the Malay rank
and file to join Indian enlisted men in an enclosure at Farrer
Park. All the battalions British officers had died fighting.
Two days later, Sofiah gave birth to a daughter, who died soon
afterwards. Sofiah survived the war but died in 1949, leaving
her two young boys in foster care.
Five other Malay officers were captured by the Japanese. My husband
Ibrahim Sidek and his friends were told by the Japanese to take
off their Malay Regiment uniforms and accept release, Sharifah
Khadijah Hamid recounted years later. They refused. They didn't
even want to remove their badges of rank. A week later, the Japanese
executed them. My children were still very young, too young to
know their father. His body was never found. We cannot even remember
him with a grave.
Reflections at Bukit Chandu, National Heritage Board, Singapore
Lim Choo Hoon, The Battle of Pasir Panjang Revisited
Lim Choo Hoon, a lecturer in Military History Branch, SAFTI Military
Institute recounts in his article, The Battle of Pasir Panjang
"The first battle between the Malay Regiment and Japanese soldiers
occured on 13 February at around 1400 hrs.16 The Japanese 18th
Division started to attack the south-western coast along the Pasir
Panjang ridge and astride of Raja Road. The Japanese 56th Infantry
Regiment, supported by a considerable force of artillery, attacked
the ridge during the morning. One of the units defending the line
was the B Coy of the Malay Regiment. Under the heavy fire of the
Japanese troops supported by artillery and tanks, the B Coy was
forced to retreat to the rear. But before all of them could retreat,
the Japanese army succeeded in breaking through B Coy's position.
In the battle, B Coy troops fought hand-to-hand combat using bayonets
against the Japanese. A few from B Coy managed to save themselves
while others were caught as prisoners-of-war. This penetration
led to the withdrawal after dark of both 44th Indian and 1st Malay
Bde to the general line Mount Echo (junction of Raja and Depot
Road) Buona Vista.
Battle of Opium Hill
On 14th February, the Japanese again launched a heavy attack at
0830 hours, supported by intense mortar and artillery fire, on
the front held by the 1st Malay Bde. The defenders beat off this
and a number of other attacks. The fighting included bitter hand-to-hand
combat, and losses from both sides were heavy. At 1600 hours an
attack supported by tanks eventually succeeded in penetrating
the left, and the defenders on this flank were forced back to
a line from the junction of the Ayer Rajar and Depot Road through
the Brick Works and along the canal to Bukit Chermin. Owing to
the failure of units on both its flanks to hold their ground,
the 1st Malay Bde withdrew at 1430 hours. It was at this point
that C Coy of the Malay Regiment received instructions to move
to a new defence positionPt. 226, Opium Hill.
Opium Hill or Bukit Chandu in Malay was named after an opium-processing
factory located at the foot of the hill. This was also where C
Coy of the Malay Regiment made their final stand against the Japanese
attack. Opium Hill was a key defence position for two important
reasons. It was situated on high ground overlooking the island
to the north; and secondly, if the Japanese gained control of
the ridge, it gave them direct passage to the Alexandra area.
The British army had its main ammunition and supply depots, military
hospital and other key installations located in the Alexandra
C Coy's position was separated from D Coy by a big canal. Oil
was burning in the canal, which flowed from Normanton Depot. The
burning oil prevented C Coy soldiers from retreating further south.
C Coy was under the command of CPT Rix, a brave and daring British
officer. CPT Rix encouraged the soldiers to defend Opium Hill
down to the last soldier. His bravery was exemplified in the battle
and he was killed together with many of his Malay Regiment soldiers
in the last defence battle at Pasir Panjang.
The Japanese troops pressed their attack on Opium Hill in the
afternoon but under the guise of a deception. They sent a group
of soldiers, dressed in Punjabi uniforms, passing themselves off
as Punjabi soldiers from the British army. C Coy saw through this
trick as they knew that the Punjabi soldiers of the British army
usually marched in a line of three whereas the Japanese disguised
Punjabi soldiers were in a line of four. When the disguised soldiers
reached the Malay Regiment's defence line, C Coy's squad opened
fire on them with their Lewis machine guns. Some of the Japanese
troops were killed and the rest badly wounded. Those who survived
rolled and crawled downhill to save themselves.
Two hours later, the Japanese launched an all-out assault in great
numbers. The attack overwhelmed the strength of the Malay Regiment.
Greatly outnumbered and short of ammunition and supplies, the
Malay Regiment continued to resist the Japanese troops. All kinds
of arms such as grenades, small arms and bayonets were used by
troops of the Malay Regiment. It was reported that 2LT Adnan handled
a Lewis machine gun against the Japanese troops. Some soldiers
engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat using bayonets. Yet, they
stood their ground frustrating their enemy. In the ensuing battle,
men and officers fell. 2LT Adnan was seriously wounded but he
refused to retreat and instead encouraged his men to fight to
the last. It was this disregard of danger that inspired the coy
to stand up gallantly.
Mubin Sheppard, an ex-officer and former POW, had this to say
about his friend, the late 2LT Adnan, "He was heavily outnumbered
by the Japanese they bombed him but he fought on fiercely and
inflicted heavy losses on them. Adnan would have never surrendered
under any circumstances. He was absolutely dedicaded. In fact,
just before fighting, he adopted a motto for his platoon, "biar putih tulang, jangan putih mata" (death before dishonour).
Corporal Yaakob, who won a Medal of Gallantry after the war, was
one of the few who survived Opium Hill. During the chaos of the
battle, he fell and landed on top of the bodies of the dead soldiers.
He escaped death by lying motionless among the pile of bodies
and witnessed the gruesome death of Adnan Saidi. He said that
the resistance of the Malay Regiment angered the Japanese, and
when they captured 2LT Adnan, they dragged and pushed him into
a gunnysack. The Japanese soldiers then hung him by his legs on
a cherry tree and then bayoneted him again and again. His throat
was slit repeatedly. Even after the battle, no one was allowed
to bring his body for burial. No one dared.
Another eyewitness, Burhan Muslim, who had lived along Bukit Chandu,
recalled going up the hill with his cousin a few days after the
battle. In one of the white bungalows that stood on the hill at
Pepys Lane, he saw the dismembered bodies of Malay soldiers everywhere.
In one of the rooms laid the body of a Malay soldier. His throat
had been slit several times. His uniform was soaked with blood.
Judging from the badges he had on his uniform, Burhan believed
that he was an officer. He felt that the body could have been
that of 2LT Adnan Saidi.
For the entire Malayan Campaign, but largely on 12, 13 and 14
February 1942 in Singapore, the Malay Regiment suffered a total
of 159 killed (six British officers, seven Malay officers, and
146 other ranks) and a large but unspecified number wounded.
From a purely military operational perspective, the Battle of
Pasir Panjang had little significance. The battle could not change
the outcome of the fate of Singapore and it was a matter of time
before the British would surrender to the Japanese 25th Army.
Those who look at only the tactical significance, however, will
miss a very important lesson. The Battle of Pasir Panjang, and
the Battle of Opium Hill in particular, manifested the acme of
the fighting spirit in battle. In the words of Noel Barber, the
author of Sinister Twilight, the Malay Regiment was described
thus: "A regular, locally raised unit, commanded by Malay-speaking British
officers, it was a living and dying illustration of the folly
of not having raised more such local forces before the war in
which men could defend what was their homeland."
And as Percival noted, the Malay Regiment: "showed what esprit de corps and discipline can achieve. Garrisons
of posts held their ground and many of them were wiped out almost
to a man."
The 48-hour Battle of Pasir Panjang put up by men and officers
of the Malay Regiment exemplified the highest form of "duty, honour
and country" that soldiers can show in war. The courage, bravery,
and sacrifice to defend Singapore island despite the foregone
defeat of British forces will always remain one of the highlights
in the story of the Battle of Singapore."