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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya

Author(s): A. J. Stockwell
Source: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Nov., 2006), pp.
279-297
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great
Britain and Ireland
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25188648
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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya*

A. J. STOCKWELL

Enemy Number One, 1948-55

"Fifty years ago, the name of Chin Peng was feared almost as much as Osama bin Laden
is today". So wrote the Hong Kong-based journalist, Philip Bowring, in 2003.1 Fifty years
ago the British empire, in the view of Field Marshal Montgomery, was locked in a struggle
"between the East and West, between Communism and Democracy, between evil and
Christianity".2 It was a time when Chin Peng was Britain's enemy number one in Southeast
Asia. A measure of his importance is the size of the reward offered in May 1952 for his
capture: M$250,ooo was equivalent to first prize in the Social Welfare Lottery and a huge
sum compared with the wage rates of Malayan workers.3 Chin Peng is Malaya's Ho Chi
Minh, but a Ho Chih Minh manque. Like Ho Chi Minh, Chin Peng was a communist who,
having played a key part in local resistance to the Japanese occupation, led the struggle against
the post-war restoration of European colonialism. Yet, whereas Ho Chi Minh established
the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Chin Peng was thwarted in his attempt
to create a socialist state in Malaya. Consequently, while the one became a national hero, the
other has been cast out from the land of his birth and until recently has been without a voice
in its history. The publication of his memoirs in 2003, however, enables us to reappraise
Chin Peng's part in the achievement of Malayan independence.4
Chin Peng is the best known of many aliases adopted by Ong Boon Hua. He was born
on 21 October 1924, one of 12 children of a relatively well-off Chinese who as a boy

* This article is a version of a lecture delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society on 16 December 2005. In revising
it for publication I have greatly benefited from the discussion that followed the lecture and also from subsequent
communications with Dr Russell Jones.
The Correspondent, Oct.?Nov. 2003, the on-line publication of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, Hong
Kong, http://www.fcchk.0rg/correspondent/corro-oct-novo3/chinpeng.htm.
2 Montgomery to Oliver Lyttelton (secretary of state for the colonies), 27 Dec. 1951, in A. J. Stockwell (ed.),
British Documents on End of Empire: Malaya (London, 1995), H? document 258.
3 For the reward offer, see CO 1022/152, The National Archives, Kew (TNA). The wages of unskilled field
workers (20-25% of the labourers on rubber estates) rose from M$i.43 per day in the first quarter of 1950 to a
record high of M$2.90 at the height of the Korean War boom in the second half of 1951 but dropped back in
1952 as the boom petered out. See, Richard Stubbs, Hearts and Minds in Guerrilla Warfare: The Malayan Emergency
1948-60 (Singapore, 1988), pp. in and 174, and Federation of Malaya Annual Report, 1953 (Kuala Lumpur), pp. 26-7
and 49ff.
4 Chin Peng, Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History, as told to Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor (Singapore, 2003).
See also C. C. Chin and Karl Hack (eds.), Dialogues with Chin Peng: New Light on the Malayan Communist Party
(Singapore, 2004). These works are subsequently referred to as My Side of History and Dialogues. The latter includes
valuable essays by C. C. Chin and Karl Hack on Chin Peng's life and the Malayan Emergency as well as transcripts
of conversations with him.

JRAS, Series 3, 16, 3 (2006), pp. 279-297 ? The Royal Asiatic Society 2006
doi:io.ioi7/Si356i863o6oo620i Printed in the United Kingdom

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280 A.J. Stockwell

had migrated from Fujian province to Singapore. At the time of Chin Peng's birth, his
father ran a bicycle and car-parts shop and was a respected community leader in Sitiawan
which is located in the Dindings district of the Malay state of Perak. The Dindings had
been ceded to Britain in 1826, a transaction that was confirmed by the Pangkor Treaty of
1874. The status of Chin Peng's birth place would have a bearing on his later application
to return home by virtue of Malaysian citizenship. In the 1930s, while Chin Peng was
attending Chinese-medium and English-medium schools, Malaya's export-driven economy
was hit by the world depression, though not as severely as other parts of Southeast Asia.
The British reduced the unemployment problem by repatriating thousands of Indian and
Chinese labourers, but deprivation amongst the rest of the workforce increased the appeal
of the Malayan General Labour Union and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP, founded
in 1930). Apart from general comments about "how dismissive the British colonials were of
our lot in the 1930s", Chin Peng's memoirs convey little sense of this hardship and one is
left with the impression that his conversion - or perhaps his drift - to communism was less
a visceral reaction to colonial exploitation than a romantic yearning of a Chinese patriot "to
die for my motherland, a land I had never visited". As a young teenager he was drawn into
the overseas Chinese Anti-Enemy Backing Up Society (AEBUS), which was formed when
Japan invaded China in 1937. In his own words, he "harboured dreams of going to China
and joining the Kuomintang Army" and it was only later, when he "was influenced by
communist doctrine", that he "planned to go and join Mao's forces". His mother dissuaded
him from this course but in July 1940, at the age of 15, Chin Peng left home (but not Malaya)
in order to avoid a police round-up of communist sympathisers. Soon afterwards he became
a full member of the Party.5
By December 1941 Chin Peng was a member of the Party's Executive Committee in Perak
and after the Japanese had invaded and occupied Malaya, he rose rapidly in the hierarchy. At
the end of 1943 he was secretary of the Perak State Committee and in this capacity was liaising
with the secretary-general of the Party, with the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army and
with British officers of Special Operations Executive in the Far East, known as Force 136.
Indeed, he provided the crucial link between the communist-led resistance movement and
Force 136, thereby preparing the way for the British reoccupation in September 1945. In
1946 the British awarded Chin Peng the Burma Star and appointed him officer of the
Order of the British Empire. Within a few weeks of the Japanese surrender, Chin Peng had
joined both the Central Military Committee and the Central Committee of the Malayan
Communist Party. In the first half of 1947, however, the Party was rocked by crisis. Lai
Teck, the secretary-general, was unmasked as a triple agent who had worked for both the
Japanese and the British. Assuming the name 'Mr Wright', Lai Teck fled with Party funds
to Bangkok where he was later eliminated. The way to the top was now open for Chin
Peng and he was elected secretary-general. Party policy, we used to be told, then became

5 My Side of History, pp. 133 and 510. For the effects of the world depression on Southeast Asia, see: Ian Brown,
'Rural distress in Southeast Asia during the world depression of the 1930s: a preliminary re-examination', Journal
of Asian Studies, 45, 5 (1986), pp. 995-1025; Robert E. Elson, 'International Commerce, the State and Society:
Economic and Social Change' in Nicholas Tarling (ed.), The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, vol. II (Cambridge,
1992), 186-193; T. N. Harper, The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 27-29.

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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya 281

markedly militant and in mid-1948 Chin Peng embarked on an armed struggle that would
last for four decades. He was not yet 24 years old.
Malaya was too valuable for the British to lose. It was the most profitable dollar-earner
in the Sterling Area and a front-line state in Asia's Cold War. By the early 1950s, however,
it was rapidly becoming too costly to retain. Far from being over within a few months,
the Emergency, as the British called this undeclared war, sucked in more and more British
(and later Commonwealth) servicemen; early in 1953 the number of infantry battalions
peaked at twenty three. In addition, since the Emergency was regarded as essentially a
civil operation, the overwhelmingly Malay police mushroomed in the three years following
1948 from about 10,000 to a ramshackle force of approximately 160,000 (including special
constables, part-timers and home guards).6 For the period from June 1948 to August 1957
(when Malaya became independent) the Emergency cost, at a conservative estimate, some
11,000 lives and ?700 million. ?520 million of this expenditure came from the British
taxpayer; it was five times the amount the United Kingdom would normally have expected
to allocate to Malayan defence.7 In the first three years of the insurgency the British were
baffled by the guerrillas, whom at first they had airily dismissed as mere bandits, and their
frustration was reflected in the thousands of Malayans whom they detained without trial.
When the secretary of state for the Colonies visited Malaya at the end of 1951, he described
the position as "intolerable": 200,000 persons had been detained for less than twenty-eight
days and 25,000 had been detained for twenty-eight days or more, of whom less than 800
had been prosecuted. "Even after deducting the numbers of those who had been released
or deported to China, there were at this time still 6,000 persons detained without trial".8
British fortunes plummeted to their nadir on 6 October 1951 when the high commissioner,
Sir Henry Gurney, was ambushed and assassinated on his way to a hill-station north of Kuala
Lumpur.
Within two years of Gurney's death, however, the tide had turned and, at a time when
Ho Chi Minh was driving the French out of Vietnam, Chin Peng was in retreat to the Thai
border. In December 1955, eighteen months after the Vietminh victory at Dien Bien Phu,
Chin Peng made a desperate bid to re-enter Malayan politics when he met the recently
elected chief minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, at Baling in northern Kedah. Chin Peng's
peace initiative failed either to secure him a place in democratic Malaya or to end the
Emergency since he refused to comply with the chief minister's stipulation that he lay
down his arms. The Tunku's implacable stance at Baling confirmed him as a statesman
in British eyes while he himself regarded the meetings as "epoch-making in the history
of our nation". Chin Peng, however, was dismayed by the Tunku's inflexibility and still
feels betrayed by the outcome.9 During the next two years the Tunku parried two further

6 'Malaya', Cabinet memorandum by Oliver Lyttelton, 21 Dec. 1951, 0(51)59, in Stockwell (ed.), Malaya, II,
document 257, paras 55?57. Lyttelton proposed a shake-up of the police, including changes at the top, and in
January 1952 Colonel W. N. Gray was replaced by Colonel Arthur Young, commissioner of the City of London
Police.
7 'Review of the Emergency in Malaya from June 1948 to August 1957 by the Director of Operations, Malaya
[Lieutenant-General R. H. Bower]', 12 Sept. 1957, AIR 20/10377, TNA.
8 Oliver Lyttelton, The Memoirs of Lord Chandos (London, 1964), p. 372. See also 'Malaya', 0(51)59, para. 60.
More precise figures for the period 1951-53 are given in CO 1022/132.
Tunku Abdul Rahman, Looking Back (Kuala Lumpur, 1977), pp. 6?14; Dialogues, pp. 171?185. The verbatim
record of the two-day talks is to be found at CO 1030/29, 1030/30 and 1030/31.

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282 A. f. Stockwell

attempts by Chin Peng to re-open discussions and offered instead final surrender terms
which the communists rejected. Thereafter, notwithstanding continuing sporadic violence
in towns as well as rural areas, the Malayan communists were a spent force and Chin Peng
disappeared.

Chin Peng's Side of History

Mystery surrounded Chin Peng's whereabouts. Rumours abounded that he was in southern
Thailand or in China, that he had been deposed as Party leader or had died. At the end
of 1989 Chin Peng re-emerged and on 2 December, a few weeks after the Berlin Wall had
been dismantled and as the Cold War came to an end, he reached a peace accord with
the Malaysian and Thai governments.10 The proprietor of the hotel in Haadyai (southern
Thailand) where the settlement was concluded, was said to have been so euphoric that
he vowed to transform the venue into a "peace ballroom" which would be adorned with
waxwork figures of the participants. By the Haadyai arrangements Chin Peng agreed to
end Party activities, disband his force of some 1,200 persons and dispose of arms caches.
But ? and he was adamant on this point - he did not surrender. As regards the future, he
and his followers would be resettled in villages in southern Thailand or, if they could prove
Malaysian citizenship, allowed to return south.
From that moment journalists sought out the lost leader of Malayan communism. Piece
by piece his past was reconstructed. For the first time we garnered information about
his family, his upbringing and about the books which influenced him (notably Mao's
On Protracted War and Edgar Snow's Red Star over China), on all of which government
records and the contemporary press had been silent or plain wrong. We also learned of
the missing years between the Baling Talks of December 1955 and the Haadyai Accord
of December 1989.11 We discovered how Chin Peng travelled to Beijing via North
Vietnam in i960 and something about how the MCP fared without Chin Peng at its
helm. Renamed the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), it was torn apart by ideological
splits and purges which reflected the collapse of the Russo-Chinese alliance by i960 and
the eruption of China's Cultural Revolution in 1966. Although the CPM revived its
military activities at the end of the Vietnam War it achieved no political gains. Yet, in
spite of the fact that factions had attacked him as a revisionist or accused him of leading
the good life safely to the rear, Chin Peng survived as leader and, by his own account,
steadfastly championed his comrades' interests during the bitter years that followed Malayan
independence.
One of the first interviews with Chin Peng was conducted by the British journalist,
Richard Collin, in January 1992.12 Six years later and after extensive conversations with
Chin Peng in southern Thailand, Robert Lemkin produced an hour-long documentary for
BBC2 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of the Malayan Emergency.
Chin Peng was the star of Lemkin's 1998 production, in contrast to his glaring absence from

For an early assessment of this agreement see K. S. Nathan, Asian Survey, 30, 2 (Feb. 1990), pp. 210?212.
11 This period is covered in My Side of History, chapters 24-30, and Dialogues, pp. 186?224 and 306-326.
Richard Collin, 'Interview ? Chin Peng ? Haadyai Southern Thailand ? Wednesday 22/Thursday 23 January
1992', library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya 283

Granada TV's film about Malaya which had been screened as part of Brian Lapping's series,
'End of Empire', in 1985. When Lemkin's programme was broadcast Chin Peng paid his first
visit to London. He now seemed as eager to meet journalists and historians as they him. On
18 June 1998 I was among a handful of historians who conducted a seminar with Chin Peng
in somewhat cloak-and-dagger circumstances at Royal Holloway's central London premises
in Bedford Square - cloak and dagger because there was concern in some quarters lest
publicity provoked a demonstration by veterans of the Emergency or sour government-to
government Anglo-Malaysian relations. It was clear to all who met him that Chin Peng was
now reading as much as he could find on the Malayan Emergency and, while he was in
Britain, he collected material from the Public Record Office (now The National Archives)
and Rhodes House Library, Oxford.
The following year, 1999, he spent three months as a visiting fellow at the Australian
National University (ANU). It was during his sojourn in Canberra that a two-day workshop
was held whose proceedings were published at last in 2004 under the title Dialogues With Chin
Peng. Attendance at the Canberra workshop was by invitation only in order to encourage
Chin Peng to speak freely. Participants included some who had served in the Emergency
as well as representatives of later generations of scholars. It was neither a judgmental
interrogation nor an exercise in peace and reconciliation. On the contrary, its primary
purpose was to establish dates, names, contacts, and to verify the networks, supporters
and decisions of the Malayan Communist Party. In responding to his interlocutors, Chin
Peng was impassive, measured and generally consistent. So far as could be checked, he was
impressively accurate, although sometimes he admitted to forgetfulness or to a dependency
on published histories, especially The Jungle is Neutral for the Japanese period.13 Ever
circumspect, he took time over his answers and on one occasion, when the workshop
addressed the turmoil within the communist world during the 1970s, he requested a six
month embargo on publication until he had had a chance to check his position.14 He need
not have worried; the account of the workshop would not appear in print for another
five years.
In 2000 Ian Ward a former Daily Telegraph journalist, contacted Chin Peng to start what
Ward has called "a complex and, at times, fiery collaboration". It resulted in the publication
of Chin Peng's memoirs under the title, My Side of History. Although it came out a year
before the publication of the Canberra Dialogues, My Side of History was written after the
Canberra workshop and in many ways grew out of that workshop. Indeed, one senses
that Chin Peng regarded the ANU colloquium as a test-bed for a full-scale autobiography.
They are complementary, though very different books. Dialogues consists of transcripts of
discussions supported by papers which had been prepared to provide a structure for the
occasion,15 whereas My Side of History is a continuous narrative ghosted by Ian Ward and
his wife, Norma Miraflor. In My Side of History Chin Peng elaborates episodes which

13 F. Spencer Chapman, Tlie Jungle is Neutral (London, 1949). Chapman remained behind enemy lines after the
British surrender in 1942 and later linked up with Force 136 officers.
14 Dialogues, pp. 222-223.
15 In addition to the editors, C. C Chin and Karl Hack, contributors include: C. F. Yong, Yoji Akashi, Cheah
Boon Kheng, Peter Edwards, Leon Comber, John Coates, Anthony Short, Richard Stubbs, Jamie Mackie, Hara
Fujio, and John D. Leary.

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284 A.J. Stockwell

were merely alluded to in the seminar sessions. Many of these incidents are exclusively
autobiographical, such as his scramble to evade capture a few hours after the Emergency
was declared in Perak on 16 June 1948 and his hazardous trek to China in i960. As we
shall see, he also expatiates on events which he did not witness at first hand. A further
difference between the two publications is that the large canvas of an autobiography (which
runs to over 500 pages) gave Chin Peng greater scope than was offered by the workshop to
develop a sustained critique of British colonialism and a plangent apologia for the armed
struggle.
In telling his story he rejects propaganda that portrayed him as a "callous terrorist which, of
course, I have never been". Indeed, Chin Peng's intention in participating in these publishing
ventures was to extirpate errors, bias and lies. For, mindful of the Chinese saying that "the
winners are kings and the losers are bandits", he set out to persuade students who have been
misled by the history of the victors "that we were truly convinced of the morality of our
position". He writes that his generation "dreamed of doing away with British colonialism in
Malaya. I am proud of this fact." Thus, swashbuckling and sentimental by turns, Chin Peng
records the journey of a man who opted to travel along a different road to pursue a dream
he had for his country'.16 What does he tell us about the outbreak and the outcome of the
armed struggle?

The Armed Struggle

Britain's declaration of a state of Emergency in mid-June 1948 was triggered by the murders
of three European planters at Sungei Siput in Perak. Yet, given that Malaya experienced
endemic violence throughout the immediate post-war years, it is difficult to pinpoint the
start of the armed struggle. Working from suspect intelligence the colonial authorities had
no doubt that the Malayan communists planned a rising and, in the febrile atmosphere of
the Cold War, it was easy to jump to the conclusion that the Malayan disturbances were
the culmination of a long-concocted plot orchestrated by the Soviet Union. Historians,
however, have long since abandoned the view that the Malayan Communist Party mounted
a revolution in obedience to instructions transmitted from Moscow via, first, a London
conference of Commonwealth communists in late 1947 and, then, the Calcutta Youth
Conference of February 1948. Some have argued that the MCP's decisions were shaped
primarily by Malayan circumstances; others have suggested that the Party reacted to events,
instead of determining them, and thus stumbled into revolution.17
Malayan circumstances in mid-1948 did not favour the Party In fact, Chin Peng suggests
that the chaotic weeks between the Japanese surrender in August 1945 and the Allied landings

16 My Side of History, pp. 5, 9, 279 and 392.


For the origins of the communists' armed struggle, see: Ruth McVey, The Calcutta Conference and the
South-East Asian Uprisings (Ithaca, 1958); M. R. Stenson, Repression and Revolt: The Origins of the 1948 Communist
Insurrection in Malaya and Singapore (Athens, Ohio, 1969); Anthony Short, The Communist Insurrection in Malaya
1948? ig6o (London, 1975), especially pp. 65?94, reissued as In Pursuit of Mountain Rats: The Communist Insurrection in
Malaya (Singapore, 2000); Stubbs, Hearts and Minds, pp. 42-65; A.J. Stockwell, '"A widespread and long-concocted
plot to overthrow government in Malaya"? The Origins of the Malayan Emergency', in Robert Holland (ed.),
Emergencies and Disorder in the European Empires after 1945 (London, 1994), pp. 66-88; Aloysius Chin, The Communist
Party of Malaya: The Inside Story (Kuala Lumpur, 1995); Harper, End of Empire, pp. 94-148.

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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya 285

in September would have been more propitious for a putsch.18 Although the communist
force at the end of the war amounted to only 5,000 fighters, it was well equipped and
looked forward to support from, firstly, significant numbers of Japanese soldiers who were
reluctant to lay down their arms and, secondly, Malay paramilitary organisations to whom
the Japanese regime had previously promised independence. Moreover, the returning British
discovered that control over rural areas depended on the communists' co-operation. As the
Deputy Chief Civil Affairs Officer (Malaya) reported: "There is no doubt that in all the
villages throughout the Malay States the Chinese Resistance Forces are in command and
it must be admitted that without their assistance in those places law and order could not
be maintained".19 It may be wondered, therefore, why the Party did not take advantage
of this interregnum to emulate Sukarno who proclaimed Indonesian independence on 17
August, some six weeks before Allied landings in Java, or Ho Chi Minh who inaugurated the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam on 2 September in advance of the arrival of the French.
Chin Peng explains what he regards as a missed opportunity, not in terms of the lingering
wartime alliance or "united front" against the fascist powers, but wholly by reference to the
treachery of Lai Teck, his predecessor as secretary-general. Like other comrades, he insists,
he was duped by Lai Teck who co-operated with the British Military Administration instead
of exploiting to the full the discontent engendered by what Chin Peng calls with some
justification its "graft, exploitation, fraud and general malfeasance".20 Treachery, however,
has its pragmatic edge and Lai Tek must have realised that the prospect of successfully
resisting the British in September 1945 was bleak since South East Asia Command (SEAC)
had assembled a force capable of invading a country under enemy occupation. Originally
over a quarter of a million men were allocated to this operation ('Zipper') and even after
Hirohito had capitulated Mountbatten still deployed as many as 100,000 for the assault. He
did so "in case there was any treachery". After all, as he put it, "I had no atomic bomb to
take its place!" The Supreme Allied Commander was convinced that these "overwhelming"
numbers had a salutary effect since they encountered no opposition, although his resources
would prove less than adequate to the challenges awaiting SEAC in Indonesia and Vietnam.21
It appears that the Party was no more ready for an armed struggle in June 1948 than it
had been in August 1945. By the middle of 1948 the British were strongly established and

18 See My Side of History, Chapter 8, 'To fight, or not to fight, the returning colonials'. The question was also
discussed at the Canberra workshop, Dialogues, p. iooff. Pace Chin Peng, who asserts that most of the accounts
have been written by "Caucasian authors, applying neat Western concepts of right and wrong, good and evil...
to the obvious benefit of the West's position in the region" {My Side of History, p. 127), the outstanding history
of the period is Cheah Boon Kheng's Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict during and after the Japanese
Occupation, 1941?1946 (Singapore, 1983).
19 'Report on the Military Government 12-30 September 1945', BMA/TS Com no. 58/9, Arkib Negara
Malaysia (National Archives of Malaysia).
20 My Side of History, p. 162. When drafts of the official history of the BMA were being checked in 1953,
Templer advised against publication on the grounds that the book, by resurrecting memories of an unsavoury
period, could aggravate tension during the Emergency. It appears, however, that publishing delays, rather than
censorship, held up the appearance of F. S. V. Donnison's British Military Administration in the Far East (London,
1956). See CO 1022/468.
Philip Ziegler (ed.), Personal Diary of Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander, South-East
Asia, 1943-1946 (London, 1988), p. 244, entry for 11 Sept. 1945. See also Peter Dennis, Troubled Days of Peace:
Mountbatten and South East Asia Command, 1945-46 (Manchester, 1987) and Richard McMillan, The British Occupation
of Indonesia 1945?46: Britain, the Netherlands and the Indonesian Revolution (London, 2005). Files on Operation Zipper
are to be found within the voluminous series for South-East Asia Command, WO 203, TNA.

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286 A.J. Stockwell

in the process of effectively dismantling the communists' front organisations, pre-eminent


among which was the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions. In order to prevent the
Party from suborning the work-force and to quell unrest on the rubber estates, the colonial
government was preparing draconian legislation which would fetter the trade unions. Chin
Peng confirms what historians have long suspected: the Party high command was caught
off-guard, firstly by this counter-revolutionary ordinance and then by the Emergency itself.
"Erroneously", he writes, "we estimated we still had several months up our sleeves before the
British made their move". Chin Peng also confirms that the Sungei Siput killings were the
work of local cadres acting without an order from the Central Committee ? even without
its knowledge. Chin Peng admits that the leadership was bewildered by events and driven
underground much sooner than expected. They were, he writes, "forced at the outset onto
the defensive" and lacked a clear plan of action.22
Nevertheless, the Party, its army and the Min Yuen (the Mass or People's Organisation that
supplied guerrilla fighters with provisions and information extracted from predominantly
Chinese areas) successfully defied British and Malayan attempts to restore law and order.
Indeed, for over three and a half years British counter-insurgency operations lurched from
one false dawn to another until February 1952 when General Sir Gerald Templer arrived
in Malaya. Templer replaced the late Sir Henry Gurney as high commissioner and also
took over as director of operations. Some eighteen months after Templer's installation, at a
clandestine gathering in Singapore communists commemorated the anniversary of the Party's
foundation.23 They toasted their leaders and looked forward to the day when they would be
celebrating in "Malaya's Red Square". After taking tea, they participated in poetry recitals
and the enactment of short plays. In one of the plays the ghost of a blood-soaked Henry
Gurney appeared before a shivering Gerald Templer and warned his successor of trouble
ahead. "Your fate will be the same as mine. Ha! Ha!.... Soon I shall have you to be my
companion!... We shall meet again in Hades!" The evening concluded with a game called
"Capturing Templer Alive". Reading a translation of this document, one Colonial Office
official wished it "had divulged the rules of the game of "Capturing Templer Alive"!" His
more lugubrious colleague commented: "I can't really believe that we have the technique
to win the hearts and minds of chaps like this".24
Yet Templer provided an answer to the armed struggle. During his short term as Malayan
supremo (February 1952 ?June 1954) he electrified every aspect of counter-insurgency. He
carried out radical reform of intelligence and psychological warfare. He ensured effective
liaison between military operations, policing and civil administration from district level
through state governments to the central institutions of the Federation. His control over
food distribution induced guerrillas to surrender and forced the Malayan National Liberation
Army (MNLA) to tighten its belt and lay off fighters. His "hearts and minds" strategy was
intended to win trust by demonstrating the effectiveness of government, spreading its benefits

22 My Side of History, pp. 208 and 222.


23 This commemoration took place on 1 July 1952; it was only later that Chin Peng's generation learned from
Ho Chi Minh, who had attended the inauguration in Singapore, that the MCP had been founded some time in
April 1930. Dialogues, pp. 61-62.
24 Translation of MCP document dated 1 Oct. 1953, published by the Singapore Freedom Press and enclosed
in A. E. G. Blades (director, Special Branch, Singapore) to commissioner of police, 3 Dec. 1953, and minutes by
R. Baxter, 31 Dec. 1953 and T. C. Jerrom, 1 Jan. 1954, CO 1022/46.

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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya 287

across all communities and committing more and more Malayans to the implementation and
ownership of its policies. Among the results were: a dramatic drop in incidents and casualties;
the establishment of "White Areas", freed from both communist threats and Emergency
regulations; an accelerated advance towards Malayan independence; and a model of counter
insurgency which would be applied elsewhere in the world, albeit with very mixed results.25
In approximate figures the recorded number of incidents dropped from 6,000 in 1951 (the
year before Templer's appointment) to 1,000 in 1954 (the year when he left). Over the same
period, annual casualties among security forces declined from about 1,200 to 240, civilian
deaths from around 1,000 to 185 and the estimated strength of the MNLA halved, from an
estimated high of over 7,000 to 3,400.26 Templer, it has been said, did for British Malaya
what General de Lattre de Tassigny might have done for French Indo-China.27
Templer's contribution was immense but it is by no means the complete explanation
for the arrest of the armed struggle.28 It should be noted, first of all, that the Emergency
continued for another six years after Templer's departure from Malaya. Secondly, although
Malaya was not placed under martial law, the appointment of a military governor caused
much resentment and some of his autocratic methods proved to be counter-productive, such
as the 22-hour curfew imposed on the townspeople of Tanjong Malim which failed in its
object to extract information. Although collective punishment became less frequent during
Templer's term, critics regarded the supremo as part of the problem rather than the solution.
Victor Purcell, a former Malayan Civil Servant who on retirement acted as honorary adviser
to the non-communist Malayan Chinese Association, attacked the regime as "a terrifying
combination of crassness and voodoo". Templer also feuded with journalists: he dismissed
Louis Heren (Singapore correspondent of The Times) as "one of the enemy" and "typical of
all communist muck", and he called Abdul Aziz bin Ishak (of the Singapore Standard and a
future Cabinet minister) "a rat and a rotten journalist whose name stinks in South East Asia".
He occasionally fell foul of MPs, too, but was stoutly defended by Lyttelton.29 Thirdly, key
aspects of his strategy were already in place when he arrived, especially General Briggs's plan

25 'Lessons' from Malaya were applied to wars of decolonisation in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, and to America's
war in Vietnam. Sir Robert Thompson, who worked closely with Templer and served as defence secretary in Malaya,
was later appointed to head the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam (BRIAM, 1961-5). Competing interests
in Washington and Saigon, however, neutralised BRIAM's influence. See Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist
Insurgency: Experiences in Malaya and Vietnam (London, 1966) and Ian F.W. Beckett, 'Robert Thompson and the
British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam, 1961?1965', Small Wars and Insurgencies, 8, 3 (1997).
26 Dialogues, pp. 10, 16, 20, 31 n.28, 378 and 379; Short, Communist Insurrection, pp. 507-508; 'Review of the
Emergency in Malaya', 12 Sept. 1957, AIR 20/10377. The number of detainees also dropped markedly from the
"intolerable" level noted by the secretary of state in December 1951 to approximately 2,000 by December 1953,
see CO 1022/132, item 52.
27 Jean de Lattre de Tassigny was a hero of the Second World War who, having served under Vichy, turned
against Germany in 1942. After he was posted to Indo-china as commander-in-chief in 1951 French fortunes
revived, but he was soon invalided to France and died in January 1952. Thereafter General Vo Nguyen Giap
regained the initiative. De Tassigny was posthumously made a Marshal of France. For comparisons between the
two generals, see John Cloake, Templer Tiger of Malaya: The Life of Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer (London, 1985),
pp. 219, 293 and 295ff.
28 For a balanced assessment, see Simon C. Smith, 'General Templer and Counter-Insurgency in Malaya: Hearts
and Minds, Intelligence, and Propaganda', Intelligence and National Security, 16, 1 (Autumn 2001), pp. 60-78.
29 Purcell, Malaya: Communist or Free? (London, 1954), p. 16 and review of Arthur Campbell's Jungle Green
(1954) in Pacific Affairs, 27, 1 (Mar. 1954), pp. 87-88; Cloake, Templer, pp. 291-292 and 307-309; Short, Communist
Insurrection, pp. 379?387; and Louis Heren, Growing up on 'The Times' (London, 1978), pp. 135?155; My Side of
History, pp. 316-318.

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288 A.J. Stockwell

for Resettlement Areas which were later re-named "New Villages". Finally, it should not
be forgotten that communist success was impeded by Malaya's particular circumstances. For
example, the Korean War boom in commodities helped pay for hearts-and-minds initiatives
(although prices were on the wane during Templer's time); the resilient colonial state thrived
on the demands of war; the narrow Kra isthmus virtually detached Malaya from mainland
Southeast Asia and contributed to the geographical containment of insurgency;30 and, most
significantly, communal divisions meant that the predominantly Chinese guerrilla force was
largely divorced from the bulk of the Malay peasantry.
Looking back, Chin Peng laments that the Malayan National Liberation Army was outgun
ned and outwitted by the enemy, but he denies that Templer posed his greatest problem.
One major difficulty was the lack of a "tactical blue print for battlefield success which",
he states, "had eluded us from the outset of hostilities".31 On i October 1951, ironically a
few days before the death of Gurney deflated British morale, the Party's Central Committee
moved onto the defensive. It issued a directive which, having identified achievements and
mistakes, switched the priority from prosecuting war to building up the "mass organisation"
and emphasised political activity amongst all ethnic communities.32 Since Chin Peng rejects
the charge that the communists had indulged in indiscriminate terrorism, he denies that the
shift in strategy emanated from a recognition of its futility.33 He does accept, however, that
the new course was a response to the effective methods of Templer's predecessors. Indeed,
although Chin Peng allows himself to muse on what might have been, had a successful
attempt on Templer's life followed the assassination of Gurney,34 he judges Templer's impact
on the course of the struggle as less significant than that of General Harold Briggs, director of
operations in 1950?1. It is noteworthy that Chin Peng endorses the generally accepted view
that the importance of the Briggs Plan is "difficult to overrate".35 'For all the kudos given to
Templer as the dominant military figure of Britain's Malayan Emergency campaign, he was
not, in my estimation, the man who determined the CPM's [sic] defeat on the battlefield.
It was the Briggs Plan that began isolating us so dramatically from our mass support.'36 The
plan was approved in mid-1950 and eventually resulted in the resettlement of at least half a
million, or roughly 25%, of Malaya's Chinese. These people were forcibly moved from forest
fringes to the protection and surveillance of specially constructed "New Villages". The plan
cut off the guerrillas' sources of food and information, and prevented them from moving

30 Determined not to repeat the error of 1941, when the British failed to launch Operation Matador in order
to pre-empt a Japanese attack from southern Thailand, ten years later the Chiefs of Staff drew up a contingency plan
to advance to Songkhla in Thai territory should Thailand come under communist domination, see: 'Preparations
for the defence of Malaya', Chiefs of Staff note for the Cabinet Defence Committee, 23 Feb. 1951, in Stockwell
(ed.), Malaya, II, document 231.
31 My Side of History, p. 294.
32 Dialogues, p. 169 note 13; see also Short, Communist Insurrection, pp. 309-321. When the Malayan government
eventually discovered the October directive, it decided on grounds of security to withhold it from the public. Louis
Heren acquired a copy of the translation and summarised it in The Times (1 Dec. 1952), thereby incurring Templer's
wrath although a CO official marked it as "a very good article". CO 1022/187.
33 Dialogues, p. 160.
34 My Side of History, p. 302. Chin Peng confirms that shooting Gurney was fortuitous, not planned, Dialogues,
pp. 155-8.
35 Short, Communist Insurrection, p. 250.
36 My Side of History, p. 299. A copy of the Briggs Plan is at CAB 21/1681, MAL 0(50)23, TNA, also in
Stockwell (ed.), Malaya, II, document 216.

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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya 289

through the people as easily as a fish through water. It also afflicted many innocents, since
not all were communist sympathisers or even squatters without legitimate claims to land.
In this respect Chin Peng's assessment concurs with the contention of the British historian,
Karl Hack, that the key to counter-insurgency lay more in "screwing down the people"
than in winning their hearts and minds.37
In spite of the directive of October 1951, the communists made little headway with their
bid for hearts and minds, as Chin Peng somewhat grudgingly concedes. In contrast to the
Vietminh (League for Vietnam's Independence), the MCP failed to develop a national,
non-communal appeal. The Vietminh had the potential to win the allegiance of the
majority of Vietnamese, whereas Chin Peng could rely on only a portion of Malaya's
minority Chinese community. This meant that, while Malayan communists might muster
sufficient forces to sustain prolonged resistance, they could never mobilise enough of the
populace to win outright. Unlike the Vietnamese, furthermore, they received negligible
assistance from China. In the early years of the Emergency the MCP was more aligned with
Moscow than with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), although Sino-Soviet differences
would not greatly trouble it until after the retreat to southern Thailand. Yet Mao's military
victories could not but inspire the Malayan guerrillas and the inauguration of the People's
Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949 boosted recruitment amongst overseas Chinese.
As for its impact on the British, the change of regime in Beijing, firstly, terminated the
arrangements whereby the Malayan government had repatriated thousands of Chinese
suspected of harbouring communist sympathies and, secondly, confronted them with the
dilemma of diplomatic recognition. Convinced (not least by Hong Kong's vulnerability) of
the necessity of recognition, British ministers realised that this decision might "make those
Chinese in Malaya who were still wavering come down against us" and also provide scope
for the PRC's overseas consuls to whip up support for insurgency. On the other hand, the
British government took heart from the fact that there was "virtually no evidence of direct
assistance from outside to the MCP" and that its links with the CCP were tenuous.38 Chin
Peng now confirms that this continued to be the case and that his struggle for Malaya was
severely hobbled by the lack of material support from the People's Republic or, indeed, from
anywhere else: "we didn't receive any foreign aid, any outside aid.... Without foreign aid,
we could not defeat the British Army".39
In addition to their dissimilar circumstances, there are significant personal differences
between Chin Peng and Ho Chi Minh. Before he launched his campaign for the
independence and re-unification of Vietnam, Ho had lived and worked in France, Russia
and China. He had even attended the inauguration of the Malayan Communist Party in
April 1930 when Chin Peng was less than six years old. By contrast, until his relocation to

37 Karl Hack, 'Screwing Down the People: The Malayan Emergency, Decolonisation, and Ethnicity', in Hans
Antlov and Stein Tonnesson (eds.), Imperial Policy and South-East Asian Nationalism 1930-1957 (Richmond, Surrey,
IQ95)- See also Harper, End of Empire, pp. 175-187.
'Attitude to be adopted in publicity towards communism in Malaya and China', joint note by the Colonial
Office and Foreign Office, Dec. 1949, and 'Political and economic background to the situation in Malaya',
memorandum by James Griffiths for the Cabinet Defence Committee, 15 Nov. 1950, 00(50)94, in Stockwell
(ed.), Malaya, II, documents 202 and 227; minutes of the Cabinet Malaya Committee, 4th meeting, 8 May 1950,
PREM 8/1406 pt II, TNA.
Dialogues, p. 150.

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290 A.J. Stockwell

China in i960, Chin Peng's contact with international communism had been limited to a
trip to Bangkok and Hong Kong (following Lai Teck's flight from Malaya) and encounters
with visitors to Singapore, notably a delegation of the Vietnamese Communist Party in
1946 and a meeting with Lawrence Sharkey on his return to Australia after the Calcutta
Conference in 1948. All this suggests the relative isolation of the Malayan struggle and
may cast doubt on the reliability of Chin Peng's memoirs as a source for understanding
its international dimension. As regards the foreigner, Ho understood the French colonial
mind, whereas Chin Peng misread the British. Now battle-hardened and wise in his old
age, Chin Peng confesses that as a youthful secretary-general he was politically naive.40
During the Canberra workshop he regretted that he had failed to realise in the 1940s
and 1950s that not all his British opponents were reactionaries.41 Yet, in addressing a wider
audience through his memoirs, he persists in misconstruing British objectives and equates the
ruthless conduct of counter-insurgency with an uncompromising commitment to perpetual
colonial rule. Indeed, at one point he compares Britain's record in Malaya unfavourably with
what he regards as the more progressive approach of the Dutch to the decolonisation of
Indonesia.42
Now it cannot be denied that the Emergency was shrouded in the twilight of "counter
terror", particularly in its first twelve months.43 One of several notorious incidents, which
Chin Peng describes in Chapter 15, occurred in December 1948 at the village of Batang
Kali in the state of Selangor. Twenty-two years later, following revelations of the "My
Lai massacre" in Vietnam, The People published a front-page story under the headline,
"British guilt revealed. HORROR IN A NAMELESS VILLAGE", in which former
Scots Guardsmen confessed to the killing of twenty-four unarmed Chinese civilians.44
Under pressure in parliament, Denis Healey (secretary of state for defence) announced that
he would consider whether to refer the matter to the director of prosecutions. Neither
a search of the files nor a visit to Malaysia by a team from Scotland Yard, however,
produced sufficient evidence on which to proceed. Indeed, an official in the Library
and Records section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reported in confidence
that the Colonial Office file on the Batang Kali incident had been destroyed under the
provisions of the Public Records Act 1958, since "it was apparently considered at the
time it was reviewed [probably in 1966] as not being worthy of permanent preservation".
The civil servant added: "This is, of course the fate suffered by most of the CO. files
on law & order in Malaya during the Emergency".45 Since then, however, the issue has

40 For example, he writes that at the Baling Talks "I should have been far more astute in my assessment of our
overall position at that critical time" and "it was, once again, political naivete on my part that had me accept the
Tunku's assurances of an all-important follow-up meeting". My Side of History, pp. 394?395
41 Dialogues, p. 237.
42 My Side of History, p. 369.
43 Short, Communist Insurrection, p. 160 ff; Stubbs, Hearts and Minds, pp. 72-77; Harper, End of Empire, p. 15 iff.
44 At My Lai on 16 March 1968, US forces killed over 500 unarmed Vietnamese. This episode was covered
up until the journalist, Seymour M. Hersh, broke the news in November 1969 but only one soldier, Lieutenant
William Calley, was found guilty. In March 1971 Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour but
was released, pending appeal. Under house arrest for three years, Calley was freed on bail in 1974 and later that
year was placed on parole, having completed but one third of a reduced sentence often years. In connection with
My Lai, George Brown (former British foreign secretary) risked the remark: "I suspect there are an awful lot of
spectres in our cupboard, too". In February 1970 The People rose to his challenge.
45 FCO 24/851, TNA.

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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya 291

been kept alive by the media in periodic interviews with Batang Kali's sole survivor and
relatives of its victims, as, for example, during the production of the Malaya programme
in Granada TV's 'End of Empire'.46 Moreover, in attempts to gain access to the files and
establish the truth, Malaysians have petitioned the Queen while the opposition Democratic
Action Party has pressed the Malaysian government in the federal parliament, but to
no avail.
Although the secretary of state and high commissioner resisted popular demands for
drumhead courts, records of the trials of prisoners under Emergency Regulations also
remain in the shadow-lands of counter-insurgency. Judicial conduct was briefly considered
during the final session of the Canberra workshop when John D. Leary, who had served in
the Malayan Scouts (later 22 Special Air Service Regiment) from 1950 to 1955, asserted:
"British behaviour during the Emergency was disgraceful. . . They treated their prisoners
as common criminals, and tried and hung thousands of them [at this point Anthony Short
interjected: "hundreds, not thousands"] after very farcical trials".47 According to Chin Peng:
"Some 200 of my followers were hanged, among them a number of women. The British
rather conveniently fail to provide statistics for this war category".48 One trial which received
immense publicity at the time and is described in Chapter 20 of My Side of History, was
that of Lee Meng. In 1952 Lee Meng was charged with being in possession of a grenade
and condemned to death under Emergency Regulations. It was not just the death sentence
but more especially the judicial process (since the verdict was reached after two trials, a
split decision by the Federal Court of Appeal and the rejection of her petition to appeal
to the Privy Council) that provoked a storm of protest in both Britain and Malaya. After
the Cabinet had turned down an offer from Hungary to exchange Lee Meng for Edgar
Sanders (a British businessman imprisoned for espionage), the Sultan of Perak, in whose
state the trials took place, commuted the death penalty to life-imprisonment.49 In 1964,
when Sino-Malaysian relations had improved, Lee Meng was released and sent to China.
She later married Chen Tien, the "trusted friend" who had accompanied Chin Peng to the
Baling Talks in December 1955.
Such accounts of misconduct and abuse of power do not amount to revelations. With
respect to Batang Kali and Lee Meng, they add little if anything to what has already been
published. Nor is it surprising that Chin Peng draws a veil over similar charges that have
been levelled at the communists and claims ignorance of the appalling reprisals inflicted by
his fighters upon defenceless Malayans. What is remarkable in his testimony, however, is his

46 See also Brian Lapping, End of Empire (London, 1985), pp. 168-169. Transcripts of interviews conducted for
the Granada TV series of 1985 have been deposited with Rhodes House Library, Oxford. Cf report from Malaysia
from BBC correspondent Jonathan Kent 'Past lessons for occupying forces', broadcast on 10 July 2004 and up-dated
on 17 July 2004, http://news.bbc.co.Uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/3897147.stm
47 Dialogues, p. 239. Cf. two important studies of British treatment of detainees during the Mau Mau Emergency:
David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London and New York,
2005) and Caroline Elkins, Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire (London, 2005); American edition Imperial
Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, (New York, 2005).
48 My Side of History, p. 9.
49 Unlike Batang Kali, files on the Lee Meng episode are open at The National Archives, Kew, particularly
with respect to representations in her support and Cold War ramifications, see:, CC4(53)7, 22 Jan. 1953, CAB
128/26/1; 0(53)52, 0(53)75, C(53)98, Feb.-Mar. 1953, CAB 129/59; CO 1022/2-6; FO 370/106275-106283;
PREM 11/454.

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292 A.J. Stockwell

frank admission that the immense courage, stamina and will-power of communist guerrillas
were insufficient on their own to win the struggle for Malaya. These qualities could not
effectively compensate for the fragmentation of the Party, the youth and inexperience
of its leadership, the dearth of food and intelligence, and the calamitously inadequate
communications between scattered forces. Indeed, reading Chin Peng's reminiscences, one
begins to marvel that such an apparently disorganised and ill-equipped jungle troop managed
to hold down so many British, Commonwealth and Malayan security forces for so long and
at such a cost.
Yet, for all their material advantages and ruthless determination to win this undeclared
war, the British objective was not, as Chin Peng then thought, to hang onto Malaya at all
costs and for all time. Rather they were looking for a way of escape from the burdens of
empire by transferring power to a reliable Malayan regime as soon as was feasible. In effect,
decolonisation was the stratagem adopted by Britain to prevent a communist take-over of
a much-valued country. The upshot was that, whereas in 1954 Ho Chi Minh went to the
Geneva Conference having defeated the French in battle, Chin Peng was in no position to
drive home a bargain when he sued for peace the following year.

A National Hero?

Since the 1989 settlement Chin Peng has publicly renounced his aim to achieve the
dictatorship of the proletariat. He even professed to admire the regime of Tun Dr Mahathir
bin Muhamad (prime minister of Malaysia, 1981-2003). Yet, while he now accepts that
"we failed to win the revolution", he insists that the Party did not "suffer the ignominy of
surrender". On the contrary, the Haadyai Accord secured "a reasonable conclusion to its
struggle - peace with dignity". It allowed combatants to wash the spears and anoint fratricidal
wounds, and it provided "the kind of peace for my people I can accept and with which
I can live with some satisfaction".50 Perhaps Cheng Pin has now come to accept that, in
Anthony Short's words, "the dead were all on the same side".51 If so, this would explain his
efforts during the 1989 talks to persuade the Malaysian government to replace the National
Monument (Tugu Negara) in Kuala Lumpur with one that included a communist figure in
the heroic tableau. Although he failed in this endeavour, he insists that Malaysian negotiators
at Haadyai came to recognise that the MCP had "made the British sit up and acknowledge
that they had to listen to the true owners of Malaya. We forced them to the bargaining table
long before they were prepared to sit there".52
Government archives corroborate the view that, without the armed struggle, Britain
would not have conceded independence as soon as it did. Of course, there were other
pressures forcing the pace of constitutional change, such as world opinion and the need
to retrench, but the fluctuating fortunes of the communists during the Emergency were
a major factor. Thus in 1945 the government envisaged Malayan self-government merely
at some unspecified point in the future when the time was right. At the end of 1948 the

50 My Side of History, p. 514.


51 Short, Communist Insurrection, p. 503.
52 My Side of History, pp. 10, 490, 493-494.

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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya 293

goal was felt to be a generation away, say the mid-1970s. In June 1950 (the month when
the Korean War broke out) ministers and senior officials were thinking in terms of fifteen
years (i.e. 1965). After less than twelve months as high commissioner, Templer suggested a
notional date of 1962. At last, early in 1956 the Cabinet was so relieved that Tunku Abdul
Rahman had resisted Chin Peng's peace offer at Baling that it agreed to the chief minister's
demand for independence by 31 August 1957.53 The communists certainly contributed to
the achievement of merdeka (freedom), even though they were fated to shake the tree while
others harvested the fruit.

The settlement of 1989 and Chin Peng's subsequent account of the Emergency have
provoked conflicting reactions. Some were nauseated by his attempts to disclaim responsibility
for thousands of casualties and to present himself as a man of peace. Cold war veterans
cautioned the Malaysian government against dropping its guard after Haadyai lest the
"revolutionary struggle" underwent a new twist. Amongst these, Tan Sri CO Too (head
of psychological warfare in Malaya/Malaysia, 1954-83) warned: "The CPM has learned
from bitter experience to become subtle and sophisticated, pragmatic and aware of its
limitations and to manipulate others to do their bidding".54 For the communist, it has
been said, the future is planned while the past changes every day, and the publication of
Chin Peng's memoirs was regarded by his opponents as an attempt to manipulate history:
having abandoned the sword, he was continuing the struggle with the pen. From a very
different perspective, the Committee for a Workers' International welcomed My Side of
History because the modern generation would learn from Chin Peng's mistakes to apply
more appropriate methods for the achievement of "the new socialist future".55 Yet others
cast doubt on the significance of both him and his book: he was a "failed revolutionary" in
"a sideshow to the great super-power contest", while his book was unreliable, unoriginal
and simply polemical.56
Notwithstanding these differences of opinion, nearly all those who have spoken with
Chin Peng since his re-emergence from obscurity discovered that the bogeyman of the
1950s had become a "benevolent, wise old gentleman".57 Peter Edwards, who attended
the Canberra workshop, found it hard to reconcile the description of Chin Peng in one
Australian newspaper as "fanatical" with "the softly spoken, conservatively dressed Mr Ong
who engaged. . . historians... in carefully worded and good-humoured discussions".58 Yet,
Chin Peng's "gentle and quiet manner" should not have surprised us; it is an enduring

53 For the changing timetable for self-government, see Stockwell (ed.), Malaya, II, documents 219, 283, and
III, documents 394, 399, 400, 404, 405 and 406.
54 Far Eastern Economic Review, 7 Dec. 1989, pp. 29-33. For C. C. Too, see: Kumar Ramakrishna, Emergency
Propaganda: The Winning of Malayan Hearts and Minds 1948-1938 (Richmond, Surrey, 2002) and 'The Making of a
Malayan Propagandist: The Communists and C. C. Too', Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,
LXXIII, 1 (June 2000), pp. 242-266.
Peter Taaffe, review of My Side of History, 4 March 2005, http://www.socialistworld.net/eng/2005/02/
04malay.html
56 The quotations are taken from Tim Hardy, 'Footnote Man', Newsletter of the Royal Malaysian Police Force
Officers Association [RMPFOA], 16 Jan. 2004, pp. 19-20.
57 Neal Ascherson, 'Finally I meet the man I was sent to kill 40 years ago - and he smiles' (profile of Chin
Peng), Observer (London), 14 June 1998. Ascherson served as a commando in the Emergency.
Peter Edwards, 'Public Enemy Number One', Wartime (Canberra, Australian War Memorial magazine,
Summer 1999), available online at: http://www.awm.gov.aU/wartime/8/articles/public_enemy.pdf. The collections
and publications of the Australian War Memorial cover Australia's military involvement in the Malayan Emergency.

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294 A.J. Stockwell

characteristic that over sixty years ago had impressed Frank Spencer Chapman, John Davis
and other officers of Force 136, and was even mentioned by the federal police at the height
of the state campaign to demonise him in the early 1950s. As for his sympathisers, they
credited Chin Peng with more than gentlemanly qualities; for example, in May 1952 the
Daily Worker argued that the reason why no one had betrayed him in order to claim the
M$250,ooo reward was because "he is a national hero".59
The publication of My Side of History has reignited the old controversy: was Chin Peng a
terrorist or a freedom fighter? Since the accord was agreed in 1989, the Malaysian authorities
have refused to acknowledge publicly his role in the attainment of independence. This is
not because they still regard Chin Peng as a danger to national security. On the contrary,
he has no option but to adopt a conciliatory approach while they are well protected by the
notorious Internal Security Act, which was passed in i960 as a successor to the Emergency
powers. The reason for their reluctance to associate the communists with the achievement
of merdeka lies in divergent interpretations of the recent past. The struggle for Malaysia has
been succeeded by a struggle over its history. It is conceivable, though unlikely in current
political circumstances, that Chin Peng's account could trigger the sort of "History Wars"
that have swept Australia, Japan and other countries where a long-accepted national story
has been questioned and accusations of disloyalty traded by contestants.
A small, articulate minority within Malaysia and a larger number who can comment
more freely from outside the country have welcomed the reappearance of "a great, unsung,
liberation hero of the 20th century". Recalling how the West had once identified him as
"the world's most dangerous terrorist leader", one paper (the Church Times no less) placed
Chin Peng's contribution to the dissolution of the British empire on a par with that of
Mahatma Gandhi or Colonel Nasser.60 Other commentators have identified parallels with
those Malays who had resisted British imperial expansion in the nineteenth century. For
example, a leading member of the Malaysian Socialist Party (Parti Sosialis Malaysia) compared
the assassination of Sir Henry Gurney in 1951 to the plot of the Maharaja Lela in November
1875 to murder James Birch, the first British resident in Perak.61 Maharaja Lela, who led
an armed rising against the British imposition of the residential system and was summarily
tried and hanged, is now a popular hero of Malay resistance. So, too, is Mat Kilau who rose
against the British presence in Pahang in 1891-95 and was lionised when he reappeared at
the end of 1969.62

59 Daily Worker, 22 May 1952.


60 See press cuttings on the publisher's website: http://www.mediamasters.com.sg/say_peng.htm.
S. Arutchelvan, Aliran Monthly, September 2003, http://wvvw.aliran.com/monthly/2003a/9e.html. Birch
was murdered while posting notices which proclaimed direct British control over state administration and thereby
departed from the Pangkor Engagement (Jan. 1874) between Britain and Malay chiefs.
62 The leaders of the rising were driven out of Pahang and Mat Kilau was believed to have died in Thailand
but in December 1969 an old man emerged in Pahang insisting that he was Mat Kilau. This revelation caused
much excitement since it occurred a few months after the "May 13 incident" ? the race riots that had rocked
the foundations of the nation-state. To be authentic, the claimant would have had to be well over 100 years old.
Subsequent investigations concluded, just before the old man died, that he was the revered warrior. A tradition
of Malay resistance lived on in central Pahang after the rising of the 1890s and, in contrast to the rest of the
Federation, during the Emergency Pahang Malays took up arms against the government and formed the MNLA's
10th Regiment. Today "Warrior Country" is a tourist attraction where trekkers can follow the "Mat Kilau Trail'
along the Tembeling River that borders Taman Negara (National Park) and leads to Trengganu.

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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya 295

In addition to the Maharaja Lela and Mat Kilau, Malaysia's hall of fame features leaders
of modern Malay nationalism, notably four former prime ministers and also Dato Onn
bin Jaafar, the founder-president of UMNO (United Malays National Organisation, the
dominant Malay political party). The Arkib Negara Malaysia (Malaysia's national archives) has
a department specifically dedicated to National Heroes, but non-Malays are not prominent in
the pantheon and it is unlikely that the inclusion of Chin Peng is under active consideration.
An insight into the way 'Malayan' identity was being determined as this multi-ethnic society
approached independence, was given by Tunku Abdul Rahman when, on becoming UMNO
leader in August 1951, he raised a sensitive but central question: "Who are these Malayans?"
His answer formed the basis of the post-colonial social contract between Malays and non
Malays: "it is not yet certain who they are; therefore let the Malays alone settle who they
are".63
Even by his own account Chin Peng's nationalist credentials are questionable. As we
have seen, it was Chinese patriotism that first fired his political aspirations; thereafter, he
was inspired by international socialism and dependent on Chinese communalism. Despite
his claim that the Party was the only political movement in Malaya capable of offering
a challenge to the imperialists, its indigenous roots were ever shallow. It is true that the
MCP assisted Malay radicalism, particularly the Malay Nationalist Party, and in turn received
support from some Malays, such as those in central Pahang who formed the MNLA's 10th
Regiment. In addition, a few Malay figures - notably Abdullah C. D, Musa Ahmad and
Rashid Maidin - attained prominent positions in the Party.64 Nevertheless, the appeal of
communism remained largely limited to disaffected Chinese and Chin Peng now accepts
that he recognised too late the failure of Marxist-Leninism to accommodate nationalism or
religion.65 When the communists reassembled in southern Thailand in the early 1960s, they
began to recruit locally. Chinese and Thais joined up. So, too, did some Patani Malays, who
were attracted to the Party by the prospect of secession from Thailand, but of the 1,188
Malayan communists left in 1989, only 77 were Malays.66 In short, Chin Peng's Malayan
Communist Party was essentially a Chinese movement in a Malay world.
Not surprisingly the Ex-Servicemen's Association of Malaysia and the Malaysian
government (which has been dominated by UMNO since independence) have taken a
dim view of attempts to rehabilitate Chin Peng. Although the authorities refrained from
proscribing the book and later allowed the sale of a Chinese-language edition, in September
2003 customs officers seized 900 of the first consignment of 2,000 copies which were
imported from its Singapore publishers, Media Masters. Officials from the Home Ministry's
censorship department pursued the others. They raided a bookshop in Kuala Lumpur,

63 Quoted in Cheah Boon Kheng, Malaysia: The Making of a Nation (Singapore, 2002), p. 1.
64 Both radical activists in post-war Malaya, Abdullah C. D. and Musa Ahmad were founders of the MNLA's
10th Regiment in May 1949, crossing into southern Thailand early in 1954. On the eve of the Baling Talks
(December 1955) Musa was made chairman of the Central Committee and the Indian, R. G. Balan, became
vice-chairman. Rashid Maidin was a member of the Central Committee and attended the Baling Talks, sitting at
Chin Peng's right hand. Musa later went to Beijing but in the 1980s he renounced communism and returned to
Malaysia. Musa was succeeded as chairman by Abdullah C D. who has written his own account, Perang Anti-British
dan Perdamaian [The anti-British war and reconciliation] (Hong Kong, 1998).
65 Ascherson, Observer, 14 June 1998.
66 Of the 1,188 members, 694 were Thai-born and 494 claimed origins in Malaysia. My Side of History, pp. 435
and 491.

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296 A.J. Stockwell

removing every copy. A further 600 which had been distributed throughout the country
were then voluntarily withdrawn from the shelves.67 My Side of History was a bestseller
elsewhere, however, and 17,000 sales were reported in its first two months.
The Malaysian government also blocked Chin Peng's return to the place of his birth and to
the graves of his family In spite of, or perhaps because of, the expressions of support that Chin
Peng has received from the opposition Democratic Action Party (led in parliament by Lim Kit
Siang), Aliran ("A Reform Movement dedicated to Justice, Freedom and Solidarity") and the
National Justice Party (set up to defend the deposed deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim), Chin
Peng's application to return home has been rejected, notwithstanding the fact that 330 of his
comrades were permitted to re-enter the country. The deputy information minister, Datuk
Zainudin Maidin, reminded those campaigning on Chin Peng's behalf: "Once a communist
always a communist. He is a rebel and a traitor to his country". Echoing the British popular
press, which at the time of Baling had described Chin Peng as a "man under whose command
women and children were butchered with bestial savagery",68 Datuk Zainudin asserted that
he was no hero struggling for the country's independence, but a terrorist who committed
murders in cold blood.69 In September 2005, speaking in the federal parliament after the
court had dismissed Chin Peng's legal application for Malaysian citizenship, Datuk Mohd
Nazri Abdul Aziz (a minister in the Prime Minister's Department) scorned his sincerity on
account of his alleged association with the opposition Democratic Action Party. Although
Chin Peng no longer presents a threat to the post-colonial state, the propagation of his side
of history is a potential source of embarrassment which the authorities use every opportunity
to reduce.
My Side of History may be politically contentious but whether it has radically changed
our knowledge and understanding of the armed struggle for Malaya is debateable. Certainly,
the publication of the memoirs of the principal participant is to be welcomed. We now
have a far fuller narrative of his life than we could previously glean from the meagre sources
available. On the other hand, as Chin Peng himself warns us, he has not produced "the
complete picture". There are significant gaps in the log of his personal journey. He does
not, for example, fully engage with some fundamental issues which must have exercised
him at the time and have long perplexed outsiders. One of these relates to the role of
the ultimately disgraced Lai Teck in his rise to power. He is similarly reticent about the
application of revolutionary principles to Malayan circumstances. It is a pity that he does not
tell us more about the wider post-war revolutionary struggle in South-East Asia, or about
his disenchantment with Marxist-Leninism, or about the way he adapted Mao's strategy for
peasant mobilisation to a society where the Malay rural community was alienated by the
communists who were themselves progressively cut off from core supporters amongst the
ethnic Chinese.

Alex Spillius (for the Daily Telegraph, London), 'Malaysia bans rebel leader's book on British "atrocities'",
8 Sept. 2003, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2003/o9/o8/wmalayo8.xml.
68 As quoted by Tim Hardy, RMPFOA Newsletter, 16 Jan. 2004, p. 20.
69 As quoted by Lim Kit Siang, DAP Chairman, 7 Oct. 2003, http://dapmalaysia.org/all-archive/English/
2003 /oct03 /lks/lks2672.htm.

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Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya 297

Chin Peng's attempt to provide "documented proof to accompany his chronicle is one
of its least satisfactory aspects.70 He and his co-authors cite papers at The National Archives,
Kew, but their critique of British aims and strategy is frequently unconvincing, while their
general thesis that the rising significantly accelerated Malaya's advance to independence is
scarcely original. The absence of archival underpinning for so many other aspects of the story
has forced Chin Peng to rely on memory. How far should we take on trust his uncorroborated
reminiscences? To what extent may his recollections have been re-shaped as he raked over
the coals during the years of exile and, having been starved of information for so long, as
he more recently scoured the accounts of others? While he quarries such publications for
information, he tilts at interpretations that have long been discarded and indiscriminately
dismisses previous studies of the Emergency as "western history". It is a technique intended
to strengthen his argument, for, like Oliver Lyttelton, Chin Peng embarked on his memoirs
fully committed to a particular interpretation of the Emergency. In so doing, however, he
appears to have neglected recent scholarship much of which has been produced by Asians.
For these reasons, one is tempted to conclude that, in the struggle for Malaya, Chin Peng
has come second with the pen as he formerly did with the sword.

70 My Side of History, p. 3.

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