This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Malayan Emergency, an undeclared war fought between the Communist Party of Malaya’s (CPM) guerrilla army and the former British colonial government of Malaya. Modern-day independent Malaysia would emerge from the tumult.
Over the course of the 1948-60 conflict, ethnic minorities were granted citizenship for the first time and Malaya’s first municipal and district elections were held, developments that fostered the political alliance that would define Malaysia’s post-colonial landscape.
While the period saw an ideological division widen in relation to Malaya’s place among the rival blocs of the Cold War, another struggle with links to the present also manifested: the tussle for a viable political compact capable of effectively governing Malaya’s complex multiracial society.
Seven decades on, after historic elections on May 9 this year, that long-held compact is now under review.
Leading the armed communist revolt for Malayan independence was Ong Boon Hua, an ethnic Chinese political activist better known by his alias Chin Peng. Years before becoming the British Empire’s most wanted man, he was one of Britain’s most dependable wartime allies, helping to drive invading Japanese forces out of Malaya during World War II.
The British colonial administration returned following Japan’s surrender and were determined to restore Malaya’s economy – Britain’s most profitable colony in dollar terms – to pre-war levels. Two enormous industries, rubber and tin, had been established by the British and both relied heavily on non-citizen laborers imported from China and India.
Chin was among the leaders of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, whose fighters were multiethnic but predominately Chinese. They buried their British-supplied weapons in the jungles and disbanded after 1945. But by 1947, CPM-controlled labor unions were instigating mass strikes directed at European-owned mines and plantations. Industrial unrest ensued as the CPM agitated for independence and self-government.
In 1948, colonial authorities banned CPM activities and began a crackdown. Chin was convinced the British could be ousted by force and began retrieving buried weapon caches and training guerrillas in jungle bases. The armed struggle was launched earlier than expected when guerrillas shot dead three British planters on June 16, 1948 at Sungai Siput.
In response to the killings, the colonial authorities declared an “emergency” to enable Malaya’s rubber and tin manufacturers to make insurance claims from Lloyds of London on property damages usually refused in wartime. In his memoirs, Chin said the Sungai Siput killings were unauthorized and threw the CMP’s plans for an armed uprising into disarray.
British officials, according to archive documents, regarded almost all anti-colonial activity as evidence of a planned communist takeover. Both sides employed brutal tactics. Security forces photographed themselves with the severed heads of Malayan guerrillas, while the guerrillas lacked command control and used coercive violence against perceived traitors.
On December 12, 1948, 24 unarmed plantation workers were shot by a 16-man patrol of the Scots Guards in the village of Batang Kali in Selangor, which continues to be among the most contentious incidents in British colonial history. The victims were reportedly mutilated and their village burned to the ground. All soldiers involved were exonerated in 1949.
The guerrillas, highly experienced in jungle warfare, proved to be a formidable force, gaining the upper hand in the early years of the conflict aided by a hidden network of couriers known as the Masses Organization, or Min Yuen, who equipped them with supplies, food and intelligence. The colonial government was forced to call for reinforcements.
Lieutenant General Sir Harold Briggs was dispatched to Malaya in 1950, where he instituted a far-reaching resettlement program. Over the course of the conflict, the Briggs plan forcibly transferred over a million squatters and villagers into guarded resettlement centers in order to prevent them from smuggling food, money and supplies to the guerrillas.
Despite difficulties faced due to debilitating food shortages, a result of being isolated from the Min Yuen, momentum was still with the guerrilla army, which assassinated High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney, the head of the British colonial government, on October 6, 1951, shattering national morale and throwing the war on communism into crisis.
The tide began to turn when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed Sir Gerald Templer as Malaya’s High Commissioner in 1952. British authorities identified years earlier that the CPM could be more effectively undermined if the Chinese population were persuaded to turn against it. The CPM’s ranks were, by some accounts, 90% ethnic Chinese.
Templer, with comprehensive powers over the civil and military administration, launched a campaign to get Malayans, especially the Chinese, to back the war effort against the guerrillas. He persuaded the Malay sultans to extend citizenship to a large number of ethnic Chinese and Indian residents to strengthen national cohesion against communism.
While many among the rural Chinese population supported the communists for their role in defeating the Japanese occupation, ethnic Malays – the country’s dominant ethnic group – took little interest in the CPM’s struggle, regarding communism as atheistic and anti-Islam. Malays at the time were known to be largely apolitical and loyal to the reigning Malay sultans, who then as now served as guardians of Islam.
Malays did, however, strongly oppose the 1946 formation of the Malayan Union, a British proposal for the post-war creation of a unitary state that involved the sultans of Malaya surrendering sovereignty over their individual states, as well as the mass extension of citizenship to Chinese and Indian immigrant communities.
Resistance to the Malayan Union campaign led to the formation of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which persuaded the British to replace the Malayan Union with a federation, one with more restrictive citizenship requirements that would safeguard the special position of Malays and the sovereignty of the Malay rulers.
By 1955, large numbers of guerrillas had been killed or captured and CPM attacks against estates and mines had dropped significantly. A general election that year saw the UMNO-led Alliance party – a predecessor of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that would dominate Malaysian politics for six consecutive decades – sweep the Legislative Council and began demanding independence.
The Alliance government offered amnesty to guerrillas willing to lay down their arms. UMNO leader Tunku Abdul Rahman, a Malay prince who would later become Malaya’s first prime minister, agreed to meet Chin for peace talks in December 1955, much to the consternation of the British. Negotiations held over two days in Baling, Kedah failed to secure a peace deal, however.
In his memoirs, Chin wrote that during negotiations he promised the CPM would cease its hostilities and lay down its arms if the Alliance government were granted powers over internal security and defense from the British government prior to independence. The Tunku, he says, had bargained heavily with the British on the basis of Chin’s promised concessions.
Chin argued his pledge compelled the British to concede those powers of internal security and defense, thereby expediting the arrival of Malaya’s independence by at least three years, a view not widely shared in either Malaysia or Britain. Though a peace deal was not realized in Baling, the Tunku declared Malaya’s independence on August 31, 1957.
Though the Malayan Emergency officially came to an end in 1960, guerrillas took refuge across the border in southern Thailand and continued to mount sporadic post-independence attacks. The insurgency finally formally ended in a 1989 ceasefire agreement forged by the government of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
UMNO, Britain’s preferred post-independence party, would never be felled by communism. It would, however, be toppled by Mahathir. Pakatan Harapan’s shock election victory in May 2018 defeated the governing coalition that had ruled since the turbulent days of the Malayan Emergency, returning Mahathir to the premiership.
The long-dominant BN coalition and the Alliance that preceded it were comprised of distinct ethno-communal parties with separate racial identities. Mahathir, writing in his 2011 memoir, noted how the Alliance provided “the most acceptable” formula for Malays and non-Malays to cooperate politically before and after independence.
Mahathir, having toppled the race-based alliance he once praised, now presides over a government led by Harapan, a pluralistic multi-ethnic alliance based on the equality of component parties, despite their unequal representation in parliament. The new ruling coalition has assembled one of the most diverse Cabinets ever seen in Malaysia.
Prior to the system of race-based party cooperation that arose during the Malayan Emergency, the British had attempted to persuade UMNO founder Onn Jaafar to allow non-Malays into the party. Onn, who supported non-Malay inclusion, brought the proposal to the party’s Supreme Council, which empathically rejected it. That prompted him to leave the party.
Decades later, UMNO is in the opposition for the first time in its history. Amid the soul-searching that has taken place since its ouster at the May 9 elections, some leading figures have once again mulled the possibility of opening UMNO’s membership to non-Malays. The race-based political compact of the emergency era, it seems, is being turned on its head.
The Harapan coalition is comprised of former political rivals who buried their many differences in order to form a united front in opposition to the scandal-plagued administration of ex-premier Najib Razak, who now faces breach of trust and abuse of power charges. But an issue that sharply divides those who now serve together under the Harapan government is the legacy of CPM’s leader Chin Peng.
Before his 2013 death in a Bangkok hospital at the age of 88, Chin expressed his desire to return from exile in Thailand to visit his birthplace in Perak and pay homage to his deceased parents. The 1989 ceasefire agreement signed by the CPM and the governments of Malaysia and Thailand explicitly allowed former guerrillas to return to Malaysia.
While many former CPM guerrillas returned, Chin’s claims to citizenship were disputed by authorities and he was barred from returning to his homeland. Malaysia’s government, then under Najib, also refused to allow Chin’s ashes into the country. The ex-premier even ordered a red alert at border checkpoints to prevent attempts to smuggle the guerrilla leader’s remains into Malaysia.
Najib government officials defended the move on the grounds that Chin’s guerrillas were responsible for the deaths of thousands of security forces and police personnel during the war, most of whom were ethnic Malays. The guerrilla leader’s passing prompted renewed debate across the political spectrum about his role in national history.
Mahathir, who likewise opposed Chin’s ashes being allowed into the country, considered it unforgivable that the CPM had continued their insurgency after independence in 1957, writing in his memoir that their fight was “not about achieving national liberation” but seizing power “from a sovereign country that was ruled and defended by its own people.”
During the emergency period, Mahathir was a student activist who agitated against the Malayan Union proposal. His memoirs do not delve deeply into his impressions of the CPM’s pre-independence struggle, though he notes how British forces repeated their “classic error” of underestimating “the strength of an opposing Asian force.”
Though a self-confessed Anglophile in his youth, Mahathir’s memoir describes how his perceptions of Caucasian infallibility were shaken by Britain’s humiliating surrender to Japan in 1942. The terms Britain intended to impose through the Malayan Union ultimately prompted his own “mental and emotional revolt” against British rule, he wrote.
Lim Kit Siang, a senior Malaysian politician whose Democratic Action Party (DAP) is now a major component of Harapan, takes a different view of Chin, calling for recognition of his role in Malaysian history irrespective of “whether one agrees or not with his struggle.” It’s a position echoed by opposition supporters and critics of Najib’s government.
Historians of the period are still divided over the exact number of causalities incurred during the emergency, the bloodiest conflict in the country’s modern history and still a sensitive subject for some. Historical sources indicate anywhere between 8,000-11,000, including combatants and civilians, were killed between 1948 and 1960.
The British government has long refused to hold an inquiry into the massacre at Batang Kali and has neither apologized for the incident nor offered reparations to families of the victims. Documents disclosed in recent years indicated that the UK’s Foreign Office attempted to thwart a criminal investigation into the killings in the 1990s.
Relatives of the unarmed rubber plantation workers slain in 1948 challenged a British government decision against holding an inquiry, but judges ruled against them in 2012. In November 2015, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled against holding a public inquiry into the killings, diminishing hope for a long-sought acknowledgement of a wrongdoing that set Malaysia’s independence movement in motion.