A Plan and a Man

Neal Ascherson

  • BuyMassacre in Malaya: Exposing Britain’s My Lai by Christopher Hale
    History Press, 432 pp, £25.00, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 7524 8701 4

The first thing to know about this big book is that it’s not really about the ‘massacre in Malaya’, the crime the media sometimes call ‘Britain’s My Lai’. Only a few pages deal in detail with the Batang Kali killings in December 1948, when a Scots Guards platoon executed 24 perfectly harmless Chinese plantation workers. Instead, Christopher Hale – a journalist with long experience reporting from Germany and South-East Asia – has put together a massive history of the British presence on the Malay peninsula. He tries to explain the outbreak of the jungle guerrilla war which began in 1948 (‘the Emergency’), to look at the politics behind that war and to identify the dire, lasting effects of the Emergency on independent Malaysia. That’s not to say that Hale has simply pasted ‘Massacre’ on the cover to help the book sell. This is a pungently hostile history of British colonial strategy and tactics in the region, and he obviously feels that Batang Kali is somehow representative of that history. Hale sees behind that crime a sequence of ignorance, short-sighted callousness and anti-Chinese ethnic prejudice which he believes distorted British colonial policy in Malaya.

In the narrow sense, Batang Kali was not representative at all. As a conscript soldier in that war, which certainly led to some atrocities and many cruelties, I can say that the massacre remains unique and mysterious. It was so entirely deliberate. The soldiers went to the village and stayed overnight, and in the morning separated the men from their families and shot them all dead. Which officer ordered this insane act, and why, remains unclear. No other British unit did anything comparable in the 12 dirty years of jungle war that followed. All the same, Hale isn’t wrong to see in Batang Kali some obscene reflections of older failures. The British authorities and the Colonial Office knew that a stable ‘Malayan’ nation could not be created and brought towards self-government while the enormous Chinese immigrant population was excluded from citizenship – treated as if it did not exist. And yet they themselves shared much of the anti-Chinese prejudice.

The British entered South-East Asia in the wake of the Portuguese and the Dutch in the 18th century. They found a vaguely defined Malay world, reaching culturally from the Thai border down the peninsula and across the immense archipelago that is now Indonesia, divided into a multitude of Muslim ‘sultanates’. After establishing coastal colonies at Penang and Singapore, the British moved slowly into the interior of the peninsula, deftly exploiting local disputes to establish ‘Residents’ at the courts of the Malay sultans.

In the mid-19th century, the British began to exploit the enormous alluvial deposits of tin, and by 1900 rubber estates (the Hevea variety brought from Brazil) were spreading across the lowlands. This new and fabulously profitable plantation and mining economy required armies of unskilled and docile labour, imported from southern China, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India. (The local Malay peasantry was thought to be too independent, mentally and economically, for the discipline of plantation work.) The immigrants were supposed to go home when their labour was no longer required. But as usually happens – see apartheid South Africa, West Germany in the 1960s – they eluded their contractors and settled. The labour pump leaked. Within a few decades. Malaya had developed a huge immigrant proletariat.

By 1945, the Chinese formed almost half the population, a mass with no rights and almost no sense of being Malayan. The British recognised the dangers of this absurd situation. But they were in the country only by virtue of old treaties with the sultans, and the Malays – rulers, politicians and people alike – refused to contemplate sharing statehood or national identity with these detested aliens. As for the European planters and miners, their opinions were often primitive even by colonial standards. One mine-owner wrote that ‘the Malay is an idler, the Chinaman is a thief and the Indian is a drunkard. Yet each, in his special class of work, is both cheap and efficient when properly supervised.’

Hale claims that the British deliberately encouraged racial separation and mistrust in colonial Malaya. It suited them, he argues, to ‘reinforce communal divisions’. That seems a bit too schematic. It is true that, for a long time, fear of the Chinese minority inhibited Malay dreams of independence; the British, accordingly, could be tolerated as unpleasant but necessary protectors of Malay privilege. But the British also saw – or came to see – that Chinese/Malay hostility kept their colonial policy in a trap.

Once London governments accepted that self-government and ultimate independence were inevitable, it became crucial to make certain that the new state – especially one as formidably rich in export produce as Malaya – remained stable and friendly. Hale, on decolonisation: ‘The point was to somehow ensure that the way the empire was wound up served the interests of the departing power. The new owners of Britain’s overseas properties had to be the right sort of people.’ But nothing could be ensured in Malaya unless the two main communities found a way to live together.

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