A Plan and a Man
- 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.
Vol. 36 No. 5 · 6 March 2014
Neal Ascherson doesn’t describe the overall situation in Malaya leading up to the Emergency (LRB, 20 February). In 1946 the colony’s rubber and tin industries brought the UK Treasury $118 million; the rest of the empire altogether yielded only a further $37 million. Without Malaya, the postwar British welfare state would have been unthinkable. Rubber was also key to the eventual defeat of the Malayan communists, who could not compete given the economic growth brought about by the huge spike in demand from the Korean War.
Ascherson wonders what might have happened if the British had ‘recognised the Malayan Chinese as human beings with rights instead of a featureless migrant workforce’. That’s a little naive. From the start of the Emergency in 1948 until Mao’s victory the following year, the authorities deported tens of thousands of Chinese to China. Immigration control has been a mainstay of imperial counterinsurgency up to the present ‘war on terror’. This deportation policy was one of the main reasons the Communist Party of Malaya never became a mass party.
Although the Emergency created a ‘steely, authoritarian’ state with ‘totalitarian features’, the man who drafted the legislation (which is still in place in Singapore and was only recently repealed in Malaysia) was a genial civil servant called Hugh Humphrey. When the communist leader Chin Peng came to London in 1998 for a BBC2 film we made together, The Undeclared War, both men attended a BBC cocktail reception. Humphrey said to Chin Peng with genuine admiration: ‘I must say, you fought a very good Emergency.’ Chin Peng smiled phlegmatically: ‘Yes, but you fought a better one.’
Immigration controls continued to keep Chin Peng at bay even after his death last September. Throughout the final decade of his life, he fought a legal battle for the right to return to Malaysia. Such was his potency as a symbol of Chinese political assertiveness that this request was repeatedly turned down. The Malaysian government then refused the burial of his ashes at his birthplace in Ipoh on the grounds that he was a ‘traitor’.