As part of the larger initiatives to establish St. John in the colonies, the St. John Ambulance Association was first formed in Singapore in 1885. In Malaya, First Aid training classes were organised for local police groups in Malacca and Penang in around 1897 following the initiatives in Hong Kong to get the police constables first aid trained. The St. John movement in the region suffered from manpower shortage due to movement of civil servants. It was not until 1906, the movement enjoyed steady growth of membership under the initiative of Rev P. N. Hunter, the Association Secretary based in Singapore.
In 1908, the St. John Ambulance Brigade was first proposed to be established in Straits Settlements. The early activities were confined among civil servants in the health service and Malayan Railways. The organisation continued to grow in Singapore and major town across Malaya. It was not until the Second Sino-Japanese War in the Far East, the colonial government sense the urgency to prepare for war. From 1935, the government of the Malaya worked on establishing a civilian defence organisation, the Passive Defence Services, in major cities of Malaya.