Ford Motor Company of Malaya (Ford Malaya)
Ford Malaya was established in 1926 to directly control Ford operations in Malaya. It set up a full-fledged assembly plant in Bukit Timah in 1941. The plant became famous not only because it was the first in the region, but also because it was the venue where the British officially surrendered Singapore to the Japanese during World War II.1 For its historical importance, the Former Ford Factory was gazetted as a national monument on 15 February 2006.2
The entry of Ford vehicles into Malaya was facilitated by merchant firms that began to diversify into automobile distribution. Ford Canada, an affiliate of the US Ford Motor Company, was set up in 1904 to take advantage of its British colony status to evade duties imposed by the Empire on automobiles from non-British sources.3
Dodge & Seymour, a New York trading firm that handled the sales of Canadian Ford models in Asia, made Gadelius & Company, a Swedish firm, Ford’s first sole agent in Malaya. On 20 December 1909, Gadelius placed Ford’s first local advertisement in The Straits Times. Gadelius was replaced by Wearne & Company, an Australian merchant firm, on 1 October 1911. The latter signed a contract with Ford to sell 60 cars a year. Wearne made this public by placing a large advertisement in The Straits Times on 4 November 1911. By that time, there was increased demand for Ford automobiles due to the boom in tin and rubber prices.4
Despite the successful alliance between Ford Canada and Dodge & Seymour, Ford Canada decided to take direct control of its activities in Malaya to take advantage of both the local and regional market sales and to reduce costs. Hence, Ford Motor Company of Malaya Limited (Ford Malaya) was incorporated as a private limited company on 9 November 1926.5
The transition from Dodge & Seymour, which had set up a Singapore office in 1924, was smooth as Ford Canada took on the merchant firm’s employees, as well as 250 Ford dealers and service stations throughout Singapore and the Malay States. Ford Malaya focused on the regional distribution of Ford products in Malaya, Burma, the Dutch East Indies and Thailand. Ford started a plant in 1926 in Singapore, albeit not a full-fledged assembly plant, with wheel-fitting and touching up of vehicles as the main processes.6
The factory, which churned out the Model T automobile, operated from a rented shophouse off Enggor Street, while Ford Malaya offices were located on the first floor of Dunlop House on Robinson Road.7 Mass-produced Ford automobiles were considerably cheaper than other makes, including British ones. British vehicles in the mid-1920s lost out to their American counterparts in terms of the vehicular power relative to price, hence more American cars were seen on Malayan roads at the time.8
In 1929, Ford gave up the plant on Enggor Street and moved into a new warehouse on Prince Edward Road.9 From 1930, the plant began to assemble semi-knocked-down automobile units that had been imported from its parent companies, Ford Canada and Ford England. These were sold to Thailand, Burma and the Dutch East Indies.10
Ford captured a big share of the Malayan market in the 1930s, which peaked at 80 percent in 1939 due to the war disruption that gravely affected the supply of British and Continental European automobiles. In the years leading up to World War II, Ford Canada’s export to its subsidiaries, including Ford Malaya and Ford India, was averaging 50 percent of total sales, which meant that Ford Canada relied on foreign markets more than its domestic sales.11
In 1941, due to increased demand, Ford Malaya moved to a bigger, newly built assembly plant in Bukit Timah. It was the only automotive assembly plant in Malaya, and Ford’s first in the region. There, Ford Malaya began body assembly.12
World War II
The onset of World War II and the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45) halted Ford Malaya’s production. On 15 February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese. The Ford Factory in Bukit Timah was used for the signing of the surrender of Singapore between Lieutenant Arthur E. Percival and Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Japanese army. During the Japanese Occupation, the Ford plant was used to assemble Nissan trucks for the Japanese. Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, the British army returned the plant to Ford Malaya in 1946.13
Ford resumed operations in April 1947. The plant was re-equipped and assembly work gradually picked up pace. In addition to vehicle assembly for Singapore, Malaya and North Borneo, Ford set up an export market to monitor direct and indirect sales to India, Goa, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia. In 1948, Ford Malaya began to assemble many automobiles from Ford Britain.14
In the 1950s, changing consumer trends in Malaya caused Ford’s market share to decline. The trend in Europe for small and medium-size cars caught on in Malaya, and demand shifted to other makes, such as the British minis (Morris, Austin), German Volkswagen, Italian Fiat and Alfa Romeo, as well as the French Renault and Peugeot. Malayans were spoilt for choice and became more price-conscious and selective. American “compact” models could no longer compete in the small-car market.15
The Ford Factory in Bukit Timah continued to be the only motor vehicle assembler in Singapore until 1965. At various times in the history of Ford’s car manufacturing in Singapore, the company had assembled vehicles from kits imported from the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany and Australia.16
Ford shut down its Bukit Timah factory in June 1980.17 Over the course of its history, Ford Malaya had increased in size, skill and experience, growing from a humble workforce of 16 to 300 employees by the time it closed down. It had produced more than 150,000 automobiles.18
Housing important wartime memories, the Former Ford Factory was gazetted as a national monument on 15 February 2006.19 On 15 February 2017, the permanent exhibition Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies was officially opened at the Former Ford Factory.20
Kartini Saparudin & Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman
1. “Ford Company in Malaya Is 30 Years Old,” Straits Times, 9 November 1956, 14; “Ford Motor Company Is 50 Years Old,” Straits Times, 16 June 1953, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Tan Beng Luan and Irene Quah, The Japanese Occupation 1942–1945: A Pictorial Record of Singapore during the War (Singapore: Times Editions, 1996), 49. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 TAN)
2. “Site of WWII British Surrender to Be Made National Monument,” Straits Times, 8 February 2006, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Shakila Yacob, The United States and the Malaysian Economy (London: Routledge, 2012), 127. (Call no. RSEA 337.59507309041 SHA)
4. Shakila Yacob, “Beyond Borders: Ford in Malaya 1926–1957,” Business and Economic History On-line 1 (2003), 1–26.
5. Yacob, “Beyond Borders.” 1–26.
6. Yacob, “Beyond Borders.” 1–26.
7. International Chamber of Commerce, Singapore, From Early Days (Singapore: International Chamber of Commerce, 1979), 134 (Call no. RSING 380.1065595957 SIN); Shakila Yacob, “Anglo-American Cooperation in the Malayan Automobile Market Before the Pacific War,” Jebat 38, no. 2 (December 2011)
8. Yacob, “Beyond Borders.” 1–26.
9. Yacob, “Anglo-American Cooperation.”
10. Yacob, “Beyond Borders.” 1–26.
11. Yacob, “Beyond Borders.” 1–26.
12. Yacob, “Beyond Borders.” 1–26.
13. Grace Ho, “Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and Its Legacies,” National Archives of Singapore, 12 February 2016.
14. International Chamber of Commerce, Singapore, From Early Days, 134.
15. Yacob, “Beyond Borders.” 1–26.
16. International Chamber of Commerce, Singapore, From Early Days, 135.
17. Ford Motor Company, Ford News (Singapore: Ford Motor Company, 1980). (Call no. RCLOS q338.76292 FMCFN)
18. International Chamber of Commerce, Singapore, From Early Days, 135.
19. “Former Ford Factory,” National Heritage Board, 2020; Ho, “Surviving the Japanese Occupation”; “Site of WWII British Surrender to Be Made National Monument,” Straits Times, 8 February 2006, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Melody Zaccheus, “New Gallery Reminder of Traumatic Past,” Straits Times, 16 February 2017, 7. (From NewspaperSG); “The Syonan Gallery Name Change Saga: A Timeline,” Straits Times, 18 February 2017. Note: The original name of the exhibition was Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies, but it was renamed a few days later.
The information in this article is valid as of January 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.