Film showing Malaya before, during and after the war.
The film shows: how people from many races have settled here; the way that the Malays live; the Chinese and their way of life; the role of the Europeans, the 'white' man, in bringing civilisation to this area; the Indians and the way that they helped to build up Singapore; the way that money was spent - on hospitals, law and government, for example - to turn Malaya into a prosperous and contented country; 1941, when the Japanese overran the country and undid the work of more than a century; the building up of a secret resistance movement; the Japanese surrender; the desolation that faced people as they came back either from hiding or the army; cleaning up the mess that the Japanese had left before real productive work can proceed; disease, and the fact that the Japanese had refused to give medical treatment and many people were a long way from hospital and beyond the reach of ambulances; the shortage of food, which eventually led to stealing; the newspapers that were being produced; more easily available advice, and the idea that now, 'Malaya has changed. New ways grow side by side with the old. In no country is the struggle between traditional ways and the modern world more intense'.
Enhanced data reproduced from COLONIAL FILM CATALOGUE - www.colonialfilm.org.uk
Although released in Britain in 1948, production on Voices of Malaya actually dates back to September 1945, when a detachment of the Crown Film Unit went ashore with the first wave of troops into Malaya. Cameraman Denny Densham explained how the Unit came to be there; ‘We had been standing by with a small flotilla of minesweepers in Southern India awaiting the start of an operation known locally as “Zipper” the invasion of Singapore’. On hearing that the British would take over the occupation of Penang Island on 3 September ‘Ralph Elton and I bribed the skipper of an M.L. to take us ashore, rather against orders, and we were set up on the jetty with our camera ready and waiting for the first official landing party’. Densham explained that after a couple of days, they explored the mainland, cleared themselves with the Japanese military headquarters in Taiping, and then drove south to interview the Sultan of Perak. ‘It was’, Densham added, ‘a great opportunity to put on record the history of a country as it unfolded before our camera; a chance almost unique in documentary film history to make a picture that lived with newsreel realism, yet had a heart so much deeper. We made a request to London for permission to go ahead on the story of a country’s post-war construction, and it was granted’ (Colonial Cinema, June 1948, 38-43).
Ralph Elton, who headed the Unit with a nucleus of four Englishmen and nine Malayans, returned to England with Densham in October 1946 (The Straits Times, 7 October 1946, 3). The crew had shot 250,000 feet of film, and the film was then left to a team in Britain, headed by Terry Trench, to edit. Densham referred to the ‘jungle of tin cans’ found in the cutting rooms and noted the enormity of the task facing the assembly unit back in London (Colonial Cinema, June 1948, 43). Trench and his team were responsible for ‘moulding the film’, developing a narrative and formulating the idea of the ‘Five Voices’, although this in itself is derivative of Alexander Shaw’s 1938 film for the Malayan Government, Five Faces.
It was difficult to complete the film because of the rapidly changing political situation within Malaya. Ralph Elton noted in 1946 that ‘script writing was very difficult. We would anticipate history and find that next week we were hopelessly out of date… it’s all very amusing to read our first rough script’ (The Straits Times, 4 August 1946, 4). Densham also noted that ‘owing to constant political changes in the Far East, it was impossible to shoot to a script… we shot most of the film off director Ralph Elton’s cuff’ (Colonial Cinema, June 1948, 39). The constant changes forced Crown to abandon their initial plans for two separate films – Speed the Parting and Reconstruction in Penang – as Speed the Parting was deemed out of date before completion, so both films merged into Voices of Malaya (INF 6/397).
By the time the film was finally released in 1948, the political shifts were even more pronounced. The Malayan Union, established in April 1946 and the subject of much Malay opposition (as noted by a banner within the film) had been replaced by the Federation Agreement on 1 February 1948, while the Emergency was declared on 18 June 1948. The COI file for the film noted that ‘the end was altered in accordance with the request of the Malayan Government before the film was released’ (INF 6/397). Mary Heathcote explained that the commentary originally hinted that Malaya still faced ‘internal problems’ but the government, claiming that ‘everything in the Garden’s lovely’, was unhappy with this and the commentary was changed. Heathcote suggested that the ending was now likely to be changed back again ‘to be in keeping with current events’ (The Straits Times, 1 August 1948, 9). The version viewed here concluded that ‘Malaya has a long tradition of peace. The goodwill with which all communities have accepted the new Constitution gives confidence that her problems will be solved as the four races build up a common loyalty to Malaya’. However, the script held with the COI file offers a different final line, without direct reference to ‘her problems’: ‘Progress is seldom simple, but Malaya is a naturally rich country with a long tradition of peace. The chances are in her favour. If the four races can build up a common loyalty to Malaya’ (INF 6/397).
Footage from the expedition was also used elsewhere. Densham noted that the filming served ‘mainly for record purposes, while quite a bit of footage was taken and used by the newsreels’. In addition, their material was used in a number of Crown and COI films including This was Japan, Pop Goes the Weasel, The World is Rich and Burma Victory, while subsidiary films were made from the footage including This is Malaya, Malay Village, People of Malaya, and Products of Malaya (Colonial Cinema, June 1948, 38, INF 6/397).
The expedition’s greatest legacy was perhaps not Voices of Malaya, or any of the footage it produced, but rather its influence on the formation of the Malayan Film Unit. In a letter sent to Basil Wright at Crown in January 1946, Ralph Elton recognised the potential for a film unit in Malaya; ‘a unit could be set up here with a nucleus of European technicians to act as guidance. Really a single knowledgeable man could do the job with nothing but Malayan staff’ (‘Letter to Basil Wright’, BFI Special Collections). Elton stated in the local press that he hoped the training gained by the local staff would ‘not be wasted and that they may one day form the nucleus of a Malayan documentary film unit’ (The Straits Times, 4 August 1946, 4). Writing two years later about the expedition, Mary Heathcote argued that ‘The Malayan Film Unit was the outcome of their success’, while a later report credited Ralph Elton as ‘the man who eventually made it [MFU] a reality’ (Straits Times, 1 August 1948, 9, 24 August 1965, 14). When Elton and Densham left Malaya in October 1946, the newly-formed MFU ‘absorbed into its ranks the Malay and Chinese members’ that had worked on Voices of Malaya, and many of these figures would go onto to enjoy long and distinguished careers with the Unit (The Straits Times, 6 October 1946, 7).
Reviews for Voices of Malaya widely praised its pictorial elegance – ‘the photography is sheerly beautiful’ – and offered comparisons with Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (Film Review – South Africa, 1948, 7, Film News, October 1948, 10). They did however highlight the film’s failings as a record of the current situation in Malaya – ‘a lot has happened in Malaya since it was produced’ – and for viewers, then as now, the film is as noticeable for what it fails to address. For example, the Emergency, the rise of the MCP, and indeed its optimistic presentation of ‘common loyalty’ and racial cooperation.
In its formal structure, as with Five Faces, Voices of Malaya endorses a long-established British policy, which sought to maintain ethnic boundaries within Malay society and build up a Malay elite. It allows each group to talk in turn – ‘to us Malays, this country is our land’, ‘Malay would have been nothing without us Europeans’ – and repeatedly suggests that the problems encountered within Malaya are the result of ‘the struggle between traditional ways and the modern world’ and the Japanese occupation (‘In fifty-four days the Japanese over-ran the country. In fifty-four days they undid the work of more than a century’). It also notes the improvements achieved by the British since the war – ‘today the factories destroyed in the war are producing more than ever before in Malaya’s history’ – and emphasises that the Chinese demand for equal rights as citizens has been met.
In many respects the film’s production history highlights the difficulties of making a topical colonial film in this post-war era. The film constantly changed in response to the political situation, both in an attempt to remain relevant and also, as the COI file notes, to serve the interests of the Malayan government. As Ralph Elton acknowledged, the Crown expedition illustrated the potential value of film to the Malayan government, and directly influenced the establishment of the Malayan Film Unit in 1946. However, while this film played extensively throughout the world (for example in South Africa and America in 1948), it was not used as propaganda within Malaya, and when it was finally shown there in 1950, it was only as a ’second feature to a cowboy picture’ (The Straits Times, 22 October 1950, 14).
Tom Rice (February 2010)
Densham, Denny, ‘Voices of Malaya’, Colonial Cinema, June 1948, 38-43.
‘Voices of Malaya’, Film News, October 1948, 7, 10.
‘Voices of Malaya: A Film of the Month’, Film Review – South Africa, Volume 1, Number 2, November-December 1948, 7.
‘Letter from Ralph Elton to Basil Wright’, 23 January 1946, accessed in Basil Wright file at BFI Special Collections.
‘Voices of Malaya’, COI File (INF 6/397), accessed at the National Archives.
‘Documentary Film Of Malaya’, The Straits Times, 30 October 1945, 4.
‘Rehabilitation of Malaya filmed’, The Straits Times, 15 December 1945, 2.
‘The Film Story of Malaya’s Recovery’, The Straits Times, 4 August 1946, 4.
‘Malayan Film Success’, The Straits Times, 6 October 1946, 7.
‘Malaya's Post-War Film Story Flown To London’, The Straits Times, 7 October 1946, 3.
‘U.K. Sees Malaya’, The Straits Times, 1 August 1948, 9.
‘They Go To So Much Trouble…’, The Straits Times, 22 October 1950, 14.
‘Idea Originated behind the Walls of POW Camp’, The Straits Times, 24 August 1965, 14.
- Related period
- 1945-1989 (content)
- Colonial Office (Production sponsor)
Central Office of Information (Production sponsor)
Crown Film Unit (Production company)
Elton, Ralph (Production individual)
Trench, Terry (Production individual)
Hudson, Eric (Production individual)
Freedman, Clive (Production individual)
Khan, Yusee (Production individual)
Seong, Lee Meow (Production individual)
Shamsudin, Osman (Production individual)
Law, Red (Production individual)
May, Jock (Production individual)
Mackenzie, Jean (Production individual)
Shortall, Paul (Production individual)
Densham, Denny (Production individual)
Pritchett, V S (Production individual)
Lutyens, Elisabeth (Production individual)
The Philharmonic Orchestra (Production individual)
Hollingsworth, John (Production individual)
- Production date
- Place made
whole: Number Of Items/reels/tapes 4
- Catalogue number
- COI 670