The soldiers in the officers’ mess are in a boisterous mood. The men, dressed in their neatly ironed uniforms and perfectly polished boots, have every reason to celebrate. This is the first Christmas party they’re celebrating in Malaya since the horrific Japanese Occupation ended just four months ago.
For many in the room, it’s a home coming of sorts as the Royal Air Force (RAF) base here in Kuala Lumpur has been their station prior to the Second World War. A large majority present are part of the liberation task force which set sail from Colombo and Trincomalee as soon as news broke about the Land of the Rising Sun putting up the white flag. The remainder are former prisoners of war who suffered greatly during the Japanese Occupation. These gallant men were mainly interned at various locations throughout Selangor, including the dreaded Pudu Jail.
Moments later, the commanding officer heads over to the gramophone and stops the music. Raising his glass, he taps it gently with a spoon. The sharp clinking sounds resonate across the room, catching everyone’s attention.
The commanding officer proceeds to make a short speech before inviting everyone to take their places at the table, and says: “Enjoy your Xmas dinner as I assure you that the prevailing cheery atmosphere here today is just a temporary interlude. We have a long and difficult task ahead of us. We are to set Kuala Lumpur and all of Malaya back on track, return them to the way they were before the war started.”
An attendant turns the music up once again, aptly setting the mood by playing Judy Garland’s wartime hit, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Christmas’. The room immediately erupts into loud cheers and applause. “Let the party begin!” someone shouts out and again laughter thunders across the wide expanse.
The loud shrills of a mynah resting on my window ledge jolts me from my reverie. I gaze at the slightly toned Christmas Fare card in my hands. Although it’s crudely made from light green Manila card and decorated in a simple manner with a coconut tree in the centre and the RAF insignia at the top left corner, this card remains one of my most treasured possessions.
Made to celebrate the 1945 Christmas party at the RAF station in Kuala Lumpur, this card represents a new beginning in our country. Back then, Malaya was still reeling from the after-effects of the war and the Malayan people needed all the help they could get to return to their normal way of life.
Down memory lane
Opening the card to study the menu, I realise that what the soldiers were having on that day was considered a luxury considering the prevailing food scarcity in Malaya at that time. The meal started off with cream of tomato soup and this was followed by quite a large main course consisting of roast pork with sage and onion stuffing, roast chicken and potatoes, cabbage and peas. Dessert came in the form of mince pies and Christmas pudding with rum sauce. The fresh fruit platter has apples, bananas and pineapples. The dinner was completed with an offering of coffee, chocolates, beer and even cigarettes!
Contrary to the expectations of the returning British forces, food was readily available for a very brief period after the Japanese surrendered on Aug 15, 1945. Looters raided warehouses and the British soldiers started to distribute rice from the massive Japanese stockpiles located all over Malaya.
Shops started displaying ample amounts of food stocks for a few weeks. Unfortunately, the time of abundance was short-lived. Stocks quickly vanished from the shelves into a burgeoning black market when news of an impending acute food shortage became common knowledge.
Rice, the main staple diet of the population, soon became a controlled item. On Jan 1, 1946 the official ration for each person in Malaya was 130g of rice per day.
By February, this amount was supplemented with an additional three ounces of wheat flour. Demand quickly surpassed supply and in just two months, the rice ration was drastically reduced to just 85g per person. This was a far cry from the 453g each person consumed before Second World War started!
To make matters worse, consumers were frequently supplied with poor quality rice that contained a high proportion of broken grains and a great deal of dirt. As a result, those with deeper pockets had to supplement their rations by purchasing smuggled rice from the black market. The government closed one eye to this practice as it was considered the best way to ensure that the population received sufficient food.
Fortunately, the rice supply improved significantly by July 1947 and the increased volume allowed the government to lift internal curbs completely. By 1948, much to everyone’s relief, Malayan rice production returned to its pre-war levels.
The original owner of this card managed to get his mates and close friends to autograph the blank portion next to the food list. There are no less than eight different signatures as well as nicknames. A person by the name of Joe Paddy Millikin must have been keeping a constant eye out for letters from home to earn the nickname Wot No Mail.
Prisoners of war in Malaya during the Japanese Occupation depended solely on the International Red Cross to bring them letters, postcards, and parcels from their loved ones in England. During their internment, mail days were considered one of the main highlights of the week. Inmates would, to the envy of their empty-handed friends, often scurry off to a quiet corner to read and re-read the contents of the letters from home.
Even during the Japanese Occupation, all mail coming into Selangor had to pass through the General Post Office, located right next to the iconic Sultan Abdul Samad building. Like many others in the city, both of these buildings sustained damage when the Allied bombers started attacking major installations starting from November 1944.
Even the RAF airstrip in Kuala Lumpur was not spared. Remedial work got underway as soon as the British returned. This airstrip, built by the RAF in 1931, is located five kilometres from the city and was equipped with its own swimming pool and cinema. Known also as the Sungai Besi Air Force Base, its single runway was said to have the highest number of aircraft movements in the world from 1949 to 1954. This period of time in our history represented the height of the Malayan Emergency.
The British forces returning to Malaya, including the RAF, were aware that the unquestionably enthusiastic and warm reception accorded to them by the local population were primarily dominated by anti-Japanese rather than pro-British feelings.
As a result, the British Military Administration (BMA) resolved to make rapid progress in overcoming shortages plaguing the local population in order to sustain this initial public euphoria. The authorities were well aware of the monumental task that lay ahead. Apart from providing relief supplies, they also had to create conditions to promote the resumption of normal economic activities.
Talk of the impending war crime prosecution in January 1946 would surely have escaped the lips of the people attending the Christmas party. The Japanese officers who initiated the sook ching or purification by elimination massacres had to be brought to justice but the prosecutors were facing a large headache. Their efforts were hampered by the fact that the screenings and executions were carried out by ordinary soldiers and it was proving to be very difficult to pinpoint the officers who gave the orders!
At the same time, the authorities were aware that nearly all of the Malayan population had in some way collaborated with the Japanese, apart from those who joined the guerrilla forces in the jungle. Adopting a conciliatory attitude, the British chose not to take the pro-Japanese and anti-Allied opinions expressed publicly by prominent citizens during the Japanese Occupation at face value.
The British preferred to believe that these individuals had co-operated with the aggressors under duress and had merely acted as intermediaries for the betterment of their own communities during those war years.
I’m quite certain that the officers attending the 1945 Christmas parties throughout Malaya also spent many sleepless nights thinking of ways to deal with their wartime allies. Although the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) had rendered valuable service by fighting the Japanese soldiers, the Malayan Communist Party, which controlled the MPAJA, were harbouring an agenda that extended beyond the defeat of the Japanese.
Faced with problems coming in from all fronts, the British top brass preferred to adopt cordial relations with the MPAJA, conferring honours and cash payments to the guerrillas in exchange for disbandment and return of arms. As a show of sincerity, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten personally presented war medals to members of the resistance.
Life goes on
On Dec 1, 1945 the British staged elaborate demobilisation parades throughout Malaya where the fighters handed in weapons en masse and received gifts of clothing and money. The MPAJA also took part in the victory parade held in London.
The British would later discover that these efforts to placate the MCP were merely superficial. The MCP, upon realising that their political ambitions were hampered by the authorities, quickly became involved in nationwide racial instigations, riots and strikes. Ultimately, by 1948, Chin Peng and his battle-hardened comrades were left with little choice but to return to the jungle to launch their futile armed insurrection.
In the meantime, life continued for the common folk. Taking hardship in their strides, brave Malayans continued to strive for their betterment and that of the future generations to come. Despite the fact that religious festivals like Christmas were celebrated at a much lower scale during the rebuilding years after the Japanese Occupation, they still remained the forerunners in maintaining racial harmony in Malaya.
It took a few more years before lavish parties with their elaborate concerts and pantomimes began making their appearance felt again in the local scene. Even then, Malayans found it difficult forget the overwhelming euphoria and relief brought by the first Christmas celebrated when the British returned after the war.