The brutal Japanese regime coerced tens of thousands of Malayans and those from surrounding regions into forced labour, with as many as 100,000 dying in the construction of the infamous Burma Railway. The Japanese massacred tens of thousands of Chinese in the Sook Ching purge in Singapore (then a part of Malaya), and hundreds of thousands of Malayan women were forced into sex slavery.
Resistance movements in the region included the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), which had resisted British rule prior to the war, but with the Soviets siding with the Allies, and the Chinese Communist Party’s resistance to the Japanese, the MCP decided to cooperate with the British. Malayan resistance efforts thus gained a vehicle for indigenous recruitment that could be aided by SOE expertise, and the joint effort would nurture Malaya’s largest resistance force, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA).
The SOE established Force 136 in 1942 in presentday Kandy, Sri Lanka, to assist indigenous resistance in Japanese-occupied territories. Alongside MPAJA, they would help create resistance units – including Ulu Perak, Kedah and Pahang - which combined British-born and Malayan-born SOE agents, the latter in many cases having worked or studied overseas before WWII.
Such agents included Ibrahim Ismail. Born on 19 October 1922 in Johor, present-day south Malaysia, Ismail initially joined the British Indian Army but was later recruited into the SOE’s Force 136. In October 1944, he led an all-Malay team by parachute into Terengganu, northern Malaya, in accordance with ‘Operation Oatmeal’, which hoped to infiltrate a Japanese sabotage and observation team.
However, they were detained by the Japanese, and what followed was an astonishing feat of deception from Ismail and his team as triple agents. Left alone after being beaten, he and his remaining team members - Mohamed Zin bin Haji Jaffar and Yahya bin Haji Mohamed – decided to “twist the story and chance that things would work out well”. As he later told The New Straits Times, what ensued was:
“[a] 10-month charade that convinced our Japanese captors that we had defected and were working with them for the ‘greater benefit’ of Malaya and Asia. […] In full view of our captors, we sent a cryptic prearranged radio signal back to our home station in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) which indicated that we were being held prisoners”.
SOE in Ceylon understood the message and played along with the numerous communications sent, making the Japanese think that they were feeding misinformation to the British, when in fact they were being duped, often to great effect. Though not carried out, given the eventual Japanese surrender, an Allied capture of occupied Malayan ports was planned. Ismail and his team had successfully convinced the Japanese that the landings would be 650 miles to the north of their actual location. Ismail survived the war and would go on to have leading positions in the Malaysian military.