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The St John's Ambulance Brigade established itself in British Malaya in the 1930s, as part of efforts to mobilise and train the colony's subjects for civil defence as the geo-strategic climate in the Pacific deteriorated. This article demonstrates how the provision of emergency medical care was a gendered and racialised undertaking in the colonial context. Unlike the military, comprising mainly European and ‘trusted’ ethnic Indian soldiers, the realm of ‘passive defence’ was identified as a feminised undertaking for women and ethnic Chinese men who were considered to be either too vulnerable or too disloyal to bear arms. The rapid advance of Japan's military in south-east Asia violently shattered such social boundaries, as many women and non-European volunteers found themselves exposed by retreating Allied forces to the Japanese offensive and took up duties at posts from which their European supervisors had been forced to desert. Mainstream military historiography has often been highly gendered towards what is considered as the male-dominated public domain of the battlefield. In this respect, the involvement of the St John's Ambulance Brigade reveals the process in which colonial ethno-gender identities and hierarchies were being established, appropriated and subsequently subverted by the exigencies of the war in British Malaya.