Sep 2017 - The Malayan Emergency

The Malayan Emergency – the Political and Social Aspects
Jegatheesan Velupillay


Jega opened his presentation by emphasizing the handling of the Emergency is a source of great pride to the government as it is the only government that has signed a peace treaty with communists. It is also a source of pride for the army and police who took over from the British in the late 50s and mid 60s till the effort was completely local by 1989.

Surprisingly, the Malayan Emergency, which lasted from 1948 to 1989, had its genesis in the early 1900s. The Comintern was set up in Russia in 1919 to spread Communism and the Chinese Communist Party was established in China in 1921. In 1930, a group from Comintern came here to set up the Communist Party of Malaya.  One of those involved was Nguyen Ai Quoc, whom we now know as Ho Chi Minh.  The CPM had three objectives: to drive out the imperialists (the British), to establish the Democratic Republic of Malaya and to eradicate feudal elements. The leader was a man known as Lai Teck (a serial spy; first for the French, then the British and finally for the Japanese) from Vietnam who led civil disruption through strikes. Although illegal, the party survived.
Immediately after the Japanese invasion in December, 1941 the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army was formed by the CPM with the knowledge of the British to resist the Japanese. During World War II, the party and the colonial power cooperated in resisting the Japanese occupiers through jungle guerilla warfare; the Communists would do the recruiting for the MPAJA and the British provided training and arms. Spencer Chapman, who specialized in jungle warfare, helped organize a ‘stay-behind’ force to live in the jungle, gathering information. British captains, John Davis and Richard Bloom were with commando Force 136 (a British secret service organization) advisors who liased with Chin Peng, a CPM official, in gathering intelligence to allow the British to invade the occupied territory. Interestingly, Chin Peng became the Secretary-General of the CPM in 1947 at the age of 26.

How Handled
The surrender of the Japanese in 1945 after Horoshima and Nagasaki led to a situation where the MPAJA was not legal, but accepted by the returning British. Now the fight was against the British.
The Federation of Malaya was formed in 1948 when former British states formed a single colony, but the CPM felt it was forced upon the people and was undemocratic and biased towards the Malay elites. CPM-led labour unrest had been ongoing since the War and on June 16, 1948 three British planters were murdered in an escalation of violence. Two days later Britain declared an, ‘emergency’ rather than a war and the CPM was outlawed. Some believe the term ‘emergency’ was used instead of ‘war’ since insurance payments to rubber estates and tin mines would not be made in case of war, while others believe British High Commissioner to Malaya, Edward Gent, wanted only a low level reaction of the army and police.
Both sides became polarized and the British took military steps to drive out the guerillas while the CPM continued to harass the civilian population hoping to break the British power. An important source of support for the communists was a civilian organization called the Min Yuen or People’s Movement, which provided food supplies, money, intelligence, uniforms and combat units. In 1948 Henry Gurney became British High Commissioner but was assassinated by communist insurgents in ’51.

One of his initiatives was instituting the Briggs’ Plan, a massive resettling project to bring mostly Chinese settlers who lived near the jungle fringe into 450 new guarded villages. The intention was to cut off the either voluntary or forced support that the communist terrorists got from the settlers. These ‘new villages’ were surrounded by barbed wire, had floodlights, guards, a single entrance and exit, central cooking facilities and curfews were imposed. The idea was to keep the civilians in and the terrorists out. Schools, clinics, electricity and water were supplied in hopes of winning support from the settlers.
In ’52, Sir Gerald Templer, a highly experienced military tactician, was brought in and given both military and civilian powers. He felt the answer lay in winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people. By the time he left in ’54 progress had been made.


Impact on Daily Life
    Identity cards, known as IC in Malaysia, were introduced in September 1948 for use at military checkpoints. They were to be carried at all times. Legally registered residents were given ICs to identify them if they were stopped, so those without an IC were assumed to be terrorists. Military roadblocks were set up on major roads.  Control of food was of major importance and people could not travel with food.  Curfews were introduced, especially in small towns near the jungle, from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am.  
    Despite all the difficulties, life went on. People went about their daily lives, went to work and went to school. There was entertainment and people travelled.  
With the introduction of the ‘new villages’ life became harder for the CPM.  Food was a major problem. With the support from the Min Yuen cut off, many in the jungle were suffering from starvation. This in fact led to desertion of many of the guerillas. In the period from ’48 to ’50 there were several notable skirmishes: in Batang Kali (Scots Guards surrounded a rubber plantation and 24 civilians were killed), in Gua Musang (two policemen were killed) and in Bukit Kepong (20 police and auxiliary police).
Following the first elections held by the Alliance Party (UMNO, MCA and MIC) in July 1955, in which it won 51 out of 52 seats, Chin Peng offered to negotiate for peace. Talks were arranged in Baling for December.  Chin Peng wanted legal recognition of CPM but Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Prime Minister, rejected this. So the Baling Talks broke down and Chin Peng and his fighters returned to the jungle, regrouping on the Malaysian-Thai border.

How It Ended
    By 1960 the Malayan government passed an act to lift the Emergency but this was not a peace treaty. By then it was no longer a war of colonial liberation and many guerillas had given up. Over 2000 civilians had died, over 1000 troops and police died with over 6000 guerillas killed.
    This wasn’t really the end as the CPM moved to Betong, southern Thailand.  The guerilla force faced internal squabbles, broke into factions, faced loss of morale, lack of food, desertion, capture and a communication breakdown. In 1974 the Inspector General of Police was murdered in the heart of KL and in ’75 the Perak Chief of Police was shot.
    December 1989 saw peace negotiations to achieve peace with dignity held in Thailand. The treaty was signed between the Malaysian Government and Chin Peng’s CPM and a similar one was signed between the Thai government and the Thai guerillas. After this the CPM was dissolved. So after more than 40 years there were no more curfews, no more checkpoints.  The Emergency had ended.

Museum Volunteers Malaysia
     Jega, in addition to being an avid historian, is also a trainer in the Museum Volunteers Malaysia program. He gave us some details about the training program to be museum guides, which is about to start in September and runs till December 16, with classes meeting on Saturdays. Initially those enrolled give a three-minute presentation on a museum object, then a seven minute talk on another display. This is followed by a 15-minute tour of one of the four galleries (early history, Malay kingdoms, colonial era, present day Malaysia) and finally three rounds with a mentor chosen from the trainers or another qualified guide, culminating in a tour of the entire museum. Participants pay a RM 300 non-refundable fee. Upon graduation the expectation is that one guides once a month for two years. Having completed the MVM program I can assure anyone interested that it is a truly worthwhile experience.  The trainers are wonderful, positive, so well informed and always willing to help. The participants are a great group as well. There are lots of guides among the MCG members so contact one if you want to find out more.



Leslie Muri