Malayan Film Unit

The study of the Malayan Film Unit allows an insight into the workings of a colonial Government at the end of Empire and during one of the most volatile and significant decades in Malayan history. Amidst the death throes of colonialism, the MFU sought to maintain social order and, through both its films and the development of its multicultural Unit, prepare for and imagine a modern, self-governing society. By 1950 it was increasingly focussed on the Malayan Emergency, as it became an integral component of the Government’s propaganda war against the ‘Communist Terrorists’. What we see throughout this decade is a growing awareness on the part of the Government of the importance of film as a means of communicating to disparate, and largely illiterate, audiences.

As Malaya celebrated its independence in 1957, Tom Hodge, the recently departed Film Advisor to the Malayan Film Unit, recalled the achievements of the MFU since its establishment in 1946. ‘To look through the chronological film list in the M.F.U. catalogue’, he wrote, ‘is to review Malaya’s history of the past ten years, grave and gay, in the space of a few minutes. In fact, the Unit can fairly claim to have played a part in that history’ (Hodge, 1957, 539).

On the one hand, the Malayan Film Unit recorded the major historical incidents during the last decade of colonial rule – for example the Baling Talks in 1955: The Year in Malaya (1955) and the independence celebrations in Merdeka for Malaya (1957) – but it also claimed a more active role in prefiguring the formation of a modern, self-governing Malaya. While the MFU celebrated and endorsed the existing colonial administration (see Malaya Celebrates, 1953) it also, in the words of an official company catalogue, assisted Malaya’s ‘progress towards self-government’ (Films of Malaya, 1953, 13). Hodge noted the importance of the MFU in ‘Recording every stage in Malaya’s march towards independence’, which he suggested helped in ‘establishing that unity and harmony among Malaya’s many races which alone make independence a workable aim’ (Hodge, 1957, 539). In playing to an estimated non-theatrical audience of ten million in 1954 – as well as providing 6910 screenings in Malaya’s commercial cinemas during the year – the Unit sought to extend its messages to all parts, and communities, of the country (Film News, Fall 1955, 13). ‘It has helped to train the people in the methods and standards of elections and census taking’, Hodge stated, ‘and to encourage a sense of responsible citizenship. It has given basic education in hygiene and health, improved methods of farming and fishing, and acted as a clearing house for news’ (Hodge, 1957, 539). The films served as ‘visual education’ outlining, for example, the benefits of literacy (The Letter, 1953), the welfare of the blind (Touch and Go, 1953), the Government’s pension scheme (Worry Free, 1954) and rehabilitation through the prison services (A Better Man, 1953). In promoting self-sufficiency, modern welfare services and a western model of citizenship, the Unit sought to play an active role in the modern nation-state building process. While Hodge certainly overstated the influence and successes of the MFU in shaping and westernising Malayan society, the Unit does illustrate the ways in which the Government sought to address its citizens and imagine a modern Malaya.

Secondly, and most significantly, the Unit served as an integral part of the Government’s Emergency propaganda campaign, and through its productions – and its fleet of mobile cinema vans – brought government propaganda directly to those communities (such as the rural Chinese) involved with the insurrection. The Unit had formed in October 1946, acquiring filmmaking and processing equipment from the disbanded SEAC Army Film Unit and taking on local personnel trained by Ralph Elton and Denny Densham during the Crown Film Unit’s year-long expedition to Malaya (the origins of the Unit are discussed in the entry for Voices of Malaya, 1948). The Unit initially sought a broad, general appeal – ‘it is important that the idea of the three races living in harmony should be preserved and fostered’ – producing films, such as its first release assisting in a ‘Grow More Food’ campaign, that aimed to improve ‘the standard of living and education in the area’ (Colonial Cinema, March 1947, 15). After the British government declared a state of Emergency in June 1948, the Unit began producing films, such as The Kinta Story (1949), which outlined measures to counter the Communist ‘bandits’ (Colonial Cinema, June 1950, 35). The MFU then underwent a major expansion from September 1950, when Hugh Carlton Greene arrived in Malaya to head the newly established Emergency Information Services. Having produced 19 films in its first three years, it produced 52 films in 1950 and then 111 in 1951, of which 24 were related to the Emergency (these included A New Life, which outlined the benefits of the government’s resettlement scheme) (Ramakrishna, 2002, 110, 111). The ‘Emergency’ films, such as Jungle Fort (1953), offer a valuable historical record of the Government’s response to this colonial war. They also indicate the increasingly prominent role afforded to film as a tool of colonial governance and social control, as film became an essential means of disseminating propaganda to disparate and largely illiterate rural communities.

With the arrival of Alec Peterson as Director-General Information Services in October 1952 (and Tom Hodge as the head of the Government Films Division), the MFU was more fully integrated into the EIS. It produced films that directly endorsed Emergency propaganda campaigns, such as The Knife (1952, a dramatised documentary promoting the Government’s reward scheme for handing over ‘Communist Terrorists’), and continued to expand, co-ordinate and centralise the Unit’s mobile cinemas. The Emergency Information Services had brought 30 more public address vans and travelling cinemas (there had previously been only 23) into service in 1951 ‘to tell the story of the Emergency to people who live even in the remotest parts of the country’ (Straits Times, 16 January 1951, 4). By 1954, there were 92 mobile units (giving a total of 17,092 shows during the year), extended to 123 by 1957 and 134 by 1959 (KW, 10 March 1955; Hodge, 1957, 538; MFU, 1959, 3). The units played not only in Malay villages and kampongs but also in Chinese resettlement areas, as most of the MFU films were available in four languages – English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin Chinese.

Although its films were intended for domestic audiences, the Unit also provided items for international newsreels and distributed its productions overseas. In reviewing his time with the Unit, Hodge noted that the MFU has ‘kept Malaya’s achievements in the eyes of the world’ (Hodge, 1957, 539). This was important both in generating international support for Britain’s continued (military) involvement in Malaya, and also in proclaiming a rhetoric of colonial development and welfare to other colonial audiences. In 1954, British newsreels used 29 MFU stories, BBC television used 31, and American television 23 (KW, 10 March 1955). The Malayan Film Unit catalogue further stated in 1959 that ‘films from Malaya made by the MFU are being shown in 68 different countries’, and were most widely seen in Britain and Australia (MFU, 1959, 3). Tomorrow is Theirs (1953), outlining the Government’s education and welfare services, was shown theatrically and non-theatrically in 28 different countries (Weekly News Summary, 8 January 1955, 7). The films were also celebrated at international film festivals, claiming eight of the dozen major awards in the documentary category at the four Asian film festivals between 1954 and 1957, and winning awards at Edinburgh and Venice (for example, with Timeless Temiar in 1956) (Hodge, 1957, 538). Furthermore, the influence of the MFU extended beyond its own productions, as it operated on semi-commercial lines, renting out equipment, technicians and services to visiting production teams, providing processing and printing work, while also accepting commissions from commercial sponsors (for example, Dunlop in Malaya, 1955). While operating primarily as a government unit, the MFU’s revenue increased from $17,612 in 1952 to $185,260 in 1953 and over $500,000 in 1956.

The structure and growth of the Malayan Film Unit was also held up as an example of the broader development of the country as it moved towards independence. While other Colonial Units received criticism for continuing to rely heavily on European personnel, the MFU (which, from the outset, was run independently of the Colonial Film Unit) emphasised its role in training and developing local talent. ‘When I left the Unit in June this year’, Hodge wrote, ‘a Chinese (Ow Kheng Law) remained as head’ (Kheng Law had initially worked with the Crown Film Unit on Voices of Malaya). Hodge further noted that a Malay (Md. Zain Hussain) served as Associate Producer and Deputy Head, while the ‘three film directors are respectively Malay, Chinese and Indian, and the Chief Editor is Eurasian’ (Hodge, 1957, 539).

Writing in 1952, Alex Josey, the Controller of Emergency Broadcasting, had noted the rapid development of the six Asians who had joined the newly formed MFU after the War. ‘A Chinese, who joined as an administrative officer is now, five years later, a fully-fledged director with the Malayan Film Unit’, he stated. ‘Another has become chief cameraman and supervises the work of three others locally trained – two Malays and one Indian. The others are also still with the Unit as technicians and craftsmen’ (Josey, 1952, 111). By 1953, the Unit employed 135 men and women, of which 70 were Malay, 30 Chinese, 22 Indian, 9 Eurasian and 4 European (Films of Malaya, 1953, 13). The Unit thus came to represent both the ideal of racial integration within this multicultural society and of social development, albeit under European supervision.

Indeed, the coming of independence in 1957 appeared to mark a similar moment of transition for the Unit as it moved from British to Malayan hands. Tom Hodge departed somewhat acrimoniously, informing the press that he was tired of ‘battling with the Government over all kinds of routine matters’ and that he was getting ‘more and more fed up’ with the working conditions at the Unit. Yet the MFU continued, at least initially, largely as before (The Straits Times, 22 March 1957, 5). Despite a proposal to run the MFU as an independent, fully commercial enterprise, it remained a part of the Government’s Department of Information Services and, according to Hassan Abd. Muthalib, its films also continued in a similar vein. Muthalib, a noted Malayan filmmaker, argued recently that ‘with Malayan independence, the master had changed, but the representations had not. The ideological state apparatus continued the tradition of promoting an image of the Malay according to its own construction’ (Muthalib, 2009, 62).

This continuation of the Unit beyond the moment of independence – in its structure, practices and representational strategies – suggests that British colonial rule continued to influence and shape modern Malaya even after the British flag was lowered. Indeed, perhaps the greatest legacy of the MFU – aside from the films themselves, which are fascinating historical records of the period – was its role in the development of a Malayan film culture, as the MFU built up a local staff and established a network of non-theatrical distribution and exhibition, which brought film to rural communities throughout the country.

Tom Rice (June 2010)


Works cited

Catalogue of Films Made by the Malayan Film Unit (Kuala Lumpur: Department of Information, 1953).

Malayan Film Unit, Catalogue of Documentary Films in the Federal Film Library (Kuala Lumpur: Department of Information, Federation of Malaya, 1959).

‘Films in Malaya’, Colonial Cinema, March 1947, 13-15.

‘The Malayan Film Unit’, Colonial Cinema, June 1950, 34-36.

‘Eagerness abroad for Films about Youth’, Federation of Malaya Weekly News Summary, 8 January 1955, 7.

‘Presenting ­– The Malayan Film Unit’, Film News, Volume 15, Number 3, Fall 1955, 13.

Hodge, Tom, ‘Eleven Years of the Malayan Film Unit: A Record of Solid Achievement’, Educational Screen and Audio-Visual Guide, November 1957, 538-539.

‘Vintage Year for Malayan Film Unit’, Kinematograph Weekly, 10 March 1955.

Josey, Alex, ‘The Malayan Film Unit at Work’, in Visual Aids in Fundamental Education: Some Personal Experiences (Paris: U.N.E.S.C.O., 1952), 109-116.

‘Letter from Ralph Elton to Basil Wright’, 23 January 1946, accessed in Basil Wright file at BFI Special Collections.

Muthalib, Hassan Abd., ‘“Winning Hearts and Minds”: Representations of Malays and their Milieu in the Films of British Malaya’, South East Asia Research, 17:1 (March 2009), 47-63.

Ramakrishna, Kumar, Emergency Propaganda: The Winning of Malayan Hearts and Minds 1948-1958 (Richmond: Curzon Press. 2002).

‘Propaganda War on Reds will be Intensified’, The Straits Times, 16 January 1951, 4.

‘The End for me says Malayan Film Unit Boss’, The Straits Times, 22 March 1957, 5.

Browsing: Production Company / Malayan Film Unit
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1955 : the year in Malaya

1955 : the year in Malaya (1955)has video enhanced entry

Malayan Government propaganda.

The film covers the first Malayan general elections, emphasising popular support for Tunku Abdul Rahman and ...


1959 (1959)

Government film reviewing the year, 1959.

Catalogue coverage. Royal tour of Brunei. Tunku Abdul Rahman, one of Asia's "most ...


a NEW LIFE - SQUATTER RESETTLEMENT (1951)has video enhanced entry

Film showing the resettlement of Chinese squatters from the edge of the Malayan jungle, away from the Communist ...


ATS - MALAYA (1955)

Women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, on duty in Malaya: girls operating switchboard, office workers, girls playing tennis, relaxing in ...


DUNLOP IN MALAYA (1955) enhanced entry

Film about the Dunlop Rubber Co's worldwide activities, particularly in its 13 rubber estates in Malacca. The film looks at ...


GETAH (1951)

Land clearance for a rubber plantation.


JUNGLE FORT (1953) enhanced entry

The process of planning, constructing and operating a jungle fort (Fort Dixon) in the jungles of Pahang.

Over aerial ...



Various aspects of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya.


Remarks: cataloguing incomplete.



Film showing Sarawak, the youngest colony of the British Commonwealth.

The film indicates that a hundred years ago Sarawak ...



Film showing the past and present life of Malacca.

The film tells how Malacca has been conquered several times ...



How Malaya has developed its armed forces since the last war.

The Royal Malayan Navy, a small fleet with ...


MALAYA CELEBRATES (1953) enhanced entry

The people of Malaya celebrate the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2 June 1953.

The film opens ...