The British Military Administration (BMA) was the interim administrator of British Malaya between the end of World War II and the establishment of the Malayan Union in 1946. The BMA was under the direct command of the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, Lord Louis Mountbatten. The administration had the dual function of maintaining basic subsistence during the period of reoccupation, and also of imposing the state structure upon which post-war imperial power would rest.
The BMA was established by virtue of Proclamation No. 1 (15 Aug 1945), the Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia established the British Military Administration which assumed full judicial, legislative, executive and administrative powers and responsibilities and conclusive jurisdiction over all persons and property throughout such areas of Malaya which at this time included Singapore. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten became the director of the administration in September 1945. Major-General Ralph Hone was given the post of Chief Civil Affairs Officer Malaya (C.C.A.O.(M)) responsible for the territory of Malaya.The C.C.A.O.(M) was responsible in administrating the civil population of the newly liberated Malaya, the direction of administrating the civil population must meet the requirements of military commanders.
By mid-1946, Malaya had been ruled by the returning British (BMA) for nearly two years. It had not been a very pleasant experience for anyone. The British in short could no longer automatically command the respect of the people of Malaya. Indeed, the Malays referred to the period of when the Japanese defeated the British as "the time the white man ran". Equally, while the British were clearly defeated by the Japanese in 1942, the British were not so clearly the victors in 1945 from the point of view of the Malays. The civil colonial government took over from the BMA in April 1946, the civil government was faced with picking up the pieces of what the BMA left behind. It can not be entirely the fault of the BMA as it was a much different organisation compared to the pre-War efficient administrative machinery..
Proclamation No.1 is the document which legitimised the establishment of the BMA. The following lists the extent of the authority of the British Military Administration in Malaya. The returning British felt by reason of military necessity and for the prevention and suppression of disorder, that a military administration should be first installed and not a civil one.
Powers invested in the Supreme Allied Commander (SAC) in Southeast Asia:
- Assumption of powers and jurisdiction, SAC had full executive and administrative powers and responsibilities and conclusive jurisdiction persons and property such areas as are at any given time under the control of the forces under SAC command.
- Delegation, the SAC has in his authority to delegate however he see fit in accordance with the authority vested in his position. Delegated tasks must be fulfilled and completed in a reasonable time frame.
- Orders to be Obeyed, All persons including non-BMA personnel will obey all order given by the SAC or under the authority of the SAC.
Existing laws to be respected
- All laws and customs existing immediately prior to the Japanese occupation will be respected.
- All rights and properties will be respected.
Suspension of Courts
- All courts and tribunals, other than military courts established under the authority, were suspended and deprived of all authority and jurisdiction until authorised.
- Revocation of all Japanese military administration proclamations.
The BMA and by extension the British Supreme Allied Commander has board sweeping authoritative power in Malaya. In so far there has not been any academic works to illustrate the Malayans had a formal channel to voice their views and/or dissatisfaction.
For the purpose of streamlining the administration, postwar Malaya was divided into 9 regions with Perlis-Kedah, Negeri Sembilan-Melaka, and the other states as regions in their own right. The regions were controlled by a Senior Civil Affairs Officer (ranked either Colonel or Lieutenant-Colonel). Earlier, the planning for civil affairs in the Malayan Peninsula was done by the Deputy Chief Civil Affairs Officer, Brigadier H. C. Willan. The Federal Secretariat in Kuala Lumpur hosted the Civil Affairs Headquarters. In October 1945 this office was merged with the office of the Chief Civil Affairs Officer.
Given the military nature of the administration, the official power of some of the pre-war civilian governments' entities were suspended, including the rights of the Malay sultanate rulers. Civil Affairs Officers also acted in the capacity of District Officers. Colonel J. G. Adams was selected as the President of the Superior Court in 1945.
Although its name (British Military Administration) implies the BMA was primarily a military organisation. however there were civilian advisers and many of the military officials were civilians in uniform, it too often appeared indifferent to popular concerns. A complication factor was that the BMA had few seasoned professional administrators on whom to call. Nearly three-quarters of the senior staff had no previous experience in government and only a quarter of the Civilian Affairs senior staff had any knowledge of Malaya. Further, the armed component of the BMA was a source of innumerable complaints. As a British observer noted, "In general the Army behaved, and this goes for the officers also, as if they were in conquered enemy territory'. The best accommodation were requisitioned, sometimes without proper authority, and the soldiers were billeted in private residences. This was a major source of inconvenience and dissatisfaction to the local population.
Corruption within the BMA and in post-war Malay society was wide spread.. Pre-War British colonial administrations adhered to a strict code of behaviour, and thus corruption had been virtually absent. Under the Japanese, however, bribery, smuggling,extortion,black market dealings, and other unsavory habits had become a way of life and were much too ingrained to be changed without a strenuous effort once the British returned.
One aspect the military government might have been expected to be most successful- that of ensuring personal security- they were found wanting.. Firstly, the BMA were incapable of curbing what was widely referred to as 'gangsterism'. Over 600 murders reported during the BMA period (1945-1948), and it was general acknowledged that the actual was much higher. Kidnapping and extortion were common throughout the Peninsula, as was piracy along the west coast. The overall crime rate in the Peninsula further fuelled resentment against the administration, which did little to curb crime and restore law and order..
Through the personnel make up and economic policies of the BMA, one may see they were in no good position of winning back the hearts and minds of the Malayan peoples. Except for the first few days after they returned to Malaya, the British never really regained the confidence of the general public. Failure to win the hearts and minds of Malayans would lead to other developments, for example the rise of the Malayan Communist Party.
The greatest initial challenge of authority for the British Military Administration was its capacity to re-introduce and re-enforce order in trade and employment in the aftermath of Japanese surrender and departure. The destruction of the pre-War infrastructure was not conducted by the Japanese alone, rather the British use of a "scorched earth" policy as they retreated down the Peninsula in 1942..
From the onset it because quite clear that the British government in the metropole would not provide funds in the reconstruction of Malaya. Of course, Malaya was fortunate to have been saved from further destruction by the sudden surrender of the Imperial Japanese Army, but the damage already done was considerable. It was estimated, for example, that $105 million would be needed to restore that railway infrastructure to its pre-War condition. In addition, within a few days after the British arrived in Malaya, it was announced that the Japanese currency, or 'Banana money' as it was called, was 'worth no more than the paper on which it is printed'. This led to a drastic shortage of currency, nobody had any money to buy necessities such as food and fuel. Individual savings which had been carefully accumulated during the war years were completely wiped out overnight. This unsurprisingly created an increase of tension between the local populace and the BMA..
The BMA further set controls on currency payments for imported goods, goods imported from the US for example still had to paid in sterling or were under heavy restriction. This policy of the BMA was not of its own choice, it was a policy of the then Secretary of State for the Colonies. This policy was categorised as 'a regime of war time austerity as regards imports'. Only goods that were considered essential could be imported from outside the sterling area (Canada, Great Britain, Australia). This resulted in acute shortages of important supplies and machinery which in turn hampered Malaya's economic growth. Lastly, the sale price of key commodities were set by the British government in London and enforced by the BMA. The key commodities were rubber, tin and to a lesser extent timber. The artificially and unrealistically low prices were considered by most producers as unacceptable. Hence, after the return of the British, the economic strategy of the British and to a lesser extent the Malayan government exasperated the country's business leaders. In particular. Malayan businessmen (ethnic Chinese) were greatly dissatisfied with the economic policies. It was felt by the local population that British interests were placed high above the interests of Malaya.