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.

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