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1. The Humble Beginning (1908-1944)

St. John Ambulance started in Malaya in 1908 by a group of medical officers who served in the Colonial Medical Service in the Federated Malay States (FMS) and Straits Settlements. Capt. Dr. John Sutton Webster (Singapore), Dr. Richard Desmond Fitzgerald (Johor) and Mr. Arthur Mitchell Goodman (Kuala Lumpur) were the pioneers of St. John Ambulance activities when they came to Malaya between 1908 and 1922. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) in the Far East gave urgency to the preparation for war within the British Colonies in Southeast Asia. Works on establishing a civilian defence organisation, the Passive Defence Services, were underway. 

The organised St. John Ambulance Association (SJAA) started in 1935 by Dr. Webster in Singapore. The SJAA work was then extended to other states in Malaya. Letters were sent out to British Residents (for Federated Malay States), British Advisers (for Unfederated Malay States), Resident Commissioners (for Straits Settlements) and State Medical & Health Officers to promote and introduce the work of St. John Ambulance. All States were encouraged to start SJAA Centres with British Residents, British Advisers or Resident Commissioners appointed as SJAA Presidents and the respective State Medical & Health Officers elected as SJAA Chairmen. 

In 1937, SJAA in Malaya held its first Annual General Meeting. Lady Ursula Copland-Griffiths, daughter of Viscount Halifax, representing St. John Ambulance Brigade’s Lady Superintendent-in-Chief, arrived in Singapore and visited Melaka, Seremban and Kuala Lumpur in January 1938. She was on a mission to stimulate interest among the Malayan people to form the St. John Ambulance Brigade (SJAB) in major towns.

From 1938, the British Administration in each of the Malay States established SJAB divisions in schools,government establishments and in the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR). The first Ambulance Cadet Division was formed in Pulau Pinang in 1938. In 1939,SJAB could be found in Singapore, Pulau Pinang, Melaka, Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Kelantan, Johor and Kedah. The organisation was guided by Dr. Fitzgerald who was the President, Dr. Webster, its first District Superintendent and Capt. Goodman Ambler, who later succeeded Dr. Webster. Dr. Robert Barr MacGregor was the last SJAA Malaya Chairman and SJAB Malaya District Commissioner before the war broke out. 
Association and Brigade during the War

The early activities were mainly concentrated on educating the public on first aid knowledge, conducting gas instructors’ courses and providing training for the Civilian Casualty Clearance Service members. Training and courses were conducted by the association. Brigade instructors were trained in Gas Mask Instructors Course Class I and Class II in preparation for emergencies during the war years. First Aid classes were also conducted by the respective Association Branch at State level. In the beginning, classes were mostly attended by Europeans and open to men only. As manpower shortages became acute, courses were opened to the locals and women
were also invited to attend.

The Brigade members were first recruited as Stretcher-Bearers and once they were proficient, they were allowed to attend first aid lectures. As qualified Brigade members, they were supplied with one set of khaki uniform, belt, black peak-cap, a pair of black shoes, black water bottle and a white haversack, all free of charge by the Government. In early 1941, SJAB organised regular meetings and air raid practices together with the Air Raid Precaution Corps. Civilian Casualty Clearance Posts were assigned to the divisions to carry out first aid work during emergencies. In September 1941, the Government introduced the Medical Auxiliary Service and all SJAB members were automatically drafted into this service. In addition, they were allowed to wear their SJAB uniforms and retain their ranks. This gave great encouragement to all the officers and members to serve due to the recognition given to the movement.

When the Japanese invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941, SJAB members rendered their service at the Casualty Posts. Many members withdrew to the south together with the Armed Forces when the Japanese Forces advanced and captured major towns. Many more served in the Battle of Singapore and lost their lives in
the service of the country. St. John Ambulance was the only voluntary organisation in Malaya rendering first aid services during the war. Many of these members later became the pillars of the St. John Ambulance movement in Malaya, including Encik. E. Paramasivam (SJAM Commander-in-Chief 1987-1991) and Encik Ng Khoon Hong (SJAM Perak State Commander 1972-1996). In 1946, those who served during the war were paid a war allowance and conferred the Defence Medal by King George VI.