Tiger of Malaya
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Every nation has its heroes, and most become
known to outsiders as well. For Malaysia and
Singapore, the heroic symbol of resistance
to Japanese aggression is Adnan Saidi of the
Royal Malay Regiment.
2nd Lt. Adnan Saidi
The Royal Malay Regiment began in 1930 with
an “experimental” unit of 25 Malay
recruits under a British officer. The unit
remained small until 1939, when it was expanded
into the 1st Battalion of the Royal Mayal
Regiment (Rejimin Askar Melayu DiRaja). The
British agreed to limit recruitment to Malays,
excluding Malaya’s ethnic Chinese community.
In our Tiger
of Malaya game, both Malay battalions
appear. Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita became
known as the “Tiger of Malaya”
in Japanese propaganda, but the title truly
belongs to a different man.
Among the Royal Malay Regiment’s 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 unit’s
best soldier, he became the first Malay NCO
in 1936 when he was promoted to sergeant.
In 1937 he attended officer training school
in Singapore and became the first commissioned
A second Royal Malay battalion was formed
in December 1941, less than a week before
Japanese troops began landing in Malaya. The
two battalions formed the 1st Malaya Brigade,
and fought on the mainland alongside 44th
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 4,” 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
1st Battalion on parade
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 a
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 combat.
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.”
Japanese advance up Opium Hill.
Adnan, suffering from several bullet and shrapnel
wounds and a broken arm, refused to leave
his men and fought alongside them with pistol,
sword and finally as ammunition ran out, his
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.”
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. Rix and all the battalion’s
British officers had died fighting.
And then there was the Malay lieutenant.
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
Two days later, Sofiah gave birth to a daughter,
who died soon afterward. 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
A Malaysian movie studio is currently working
on Adnan’s story.
This piece originally appeared in May 2005.
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