A Plan and a Man

Neal Ascherson

  • Massacre 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.

The pieces of this deadlocked chess game were scattered by the Japanese conquest and occupation of Malaya and the rest of South-East Asia in 1942. The arrogant white colonialists, the ‘master race’, were seen to be utterly humiliated. Malay nationalists disliked the invaders, but often accepted invitations to collaborate, taking seriously hints that the power which had chased out their colonial masters would soon offer them independence. Nothing of the kind materialised. Instead, in 1943, the Japanese ceded Malaya’s four northern provinces to Thailand, temporarily leaving the peninsula with a non-Malay majority. But when it became obvious that Japan was going to lose the war, the Malay politicians were too weak and too divided to do what Aung San and Ne Win did in Burma: change sides, and launch armed resistance against the Japanese.

The British, preparing to return, simply regarded these Malay nationalists as traitors to the Crown. But their approach to the Chinese community was different. Driven more by identification with China’s long struggle against Japan than by any Malayan patriotism, let alone by loyalty to King George VI, young Chinese militants went into the jungle to fight the Japanese. The core of this resistance was the Malayan Communist Party, overwhelmingly Chinese in membership. Before the war, the MCP had been the main target of Special Branch surveillance. But now the British recognised that it was forming the only effective armed resistance to the Japanese occupation, and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) organised support for the guerrillas. Weapons and equipment were air-dropped to them, and they were joined by a group of young, intrepid British officers. This was the legendary Force 136, most of whose members had experience of prewar Malaya and knew how to survive in the mountainous rainforest that still covered most of the country. The resistance was strenuous and brave, and produced some good books after the war (Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle Is Neutral was the best, used as a jungle warfare manual for British forces during the Emergency). But in military terms it achieved little. There were several reasons for this failure. One of them was a man called Lai Tek or Lai Te, born Pham Van Dac, who must rank among the most terrifying and lethal shape-shifters in the history of conspiracy.

Lai Tek (to settle for one of his 38 aliases) seems to have been born near Saigon, to a Vietnamese father and a Chinese mother. As a young left-wing activist, he was arrested by the French Sûreté in 1925 and apparently ‘turned’ as an informer. Ho Chi Minh, ignorant of this, knew and trusted him, and supported him when in 1935 he moved to Singapore and began to rise through the ranks of the Malayan Communist Party, claiming to be a secret agent of the Comintern – ‘the Asian Lenin’. He helped to organise a dramatic Soviet at a striking coalmine in 1937. This was no surprise to the colonial Special Branch for the simple reason that he was already working for them as a double agent, probably passed on to them by the French in Saigon. A little later, ‘Mr Wright’ (his Special Branch codename) became the secretary-general of the MCP. Soon after that triumph for British intelligence, the police arrested several of his rivals in the party and deported them to China, where the Kuomintang regime almost certainly shot them.

His British minders fled as the Japanese arrived in 1942. Lai Tek was arrested, but fluently offered the new masters his services. And, once again, they were invaluable. As MCP leader and head of the jungle resistance, he was soon in touch with Force 136 and even managed to contact his old Special Branch paymasters in Ceylon. The communist senior cadres and the rank and file continued to idolise him. Meanwhile the Japanese security police, somehow dreadfully well informed, were able to arrest the entire MCP leadership in Singapore, Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca and Selangor. In 1942, Lai Tek was unable to reach a clandestine meeting of the MCP central committee because ‘his car broke down’. The meeting was raided and 29 delegates killed. And still nobody suspected.

At the end of the war, when his MCP comrades hoped for a ‘Malayan revolution’, a broad alliance with the ‘Malay masses’ and the defeated Japanese who still retained their weapons, Lai Tek suddenly changed tack. He ordered the party and its army to support the Allies instead of resisting the reimposition of colonial rule. His deputy, the young Chin Peng, was staggered. But it was not until 1947 that doubts crystallised and Lai Tek’s multiplicity – rather than mere duplicity – was exposed. Condemned to death, he fled, and was strangled by a Thai Communist hit squad in Bangkok later that year.


How much did the British know? John Davis, the Force 136 man who was closest to Chin Peng, Lai Tek’s successor as MCP leader, had been in the prewar Special Branch. He knew the secret of Mr Wright, but did not tell his comrade. Anyway, the end of the war brought a new situation. In Indochina and Indonesia, ‘national liberation’ wars were raging against the French and the Dutch, while the British – hoping for a peaceful process towards self-government – made plans for a Malayan Union in which the non-Malay communities would be given civil rights, including the vote. But this idea brought Malay xenophobia to a boil of long-delayed but at last coherent nationalism. The present Malaysian state and its dominant party really date from that refusal to accept the Chinese, above all, as equal partners. Today, the dominant Barisan Nasional and its predecessor the Alliance, formed in 1952, represent a deal in which the Malayan Chinese and Indian Associations were admitted to a discreet share of power in return for accepting Malay cultural and political supremacy.

The British were forced to retreat from their plans for a union in the face of furious opposition from the Malay sultans, and to accept instead a design for the federation that dropped the notion of non-Malay citizenship. Hale, tracking this struggle in detail, comments acidly that ‘the colonial power now embraced the most reactionary and chauvinist defenders of Malay rights – and it was this united front that would wage war on communism and forge the political identity of an independent Malaysia.’ By accepting the federation scheme and abandoning Chinese emancipation, the British had put themselves in a position in which they could only stabilise the new Malaya by suppressing Chinese dissent. They rapidly abandoned their wartime allies, although a group of Chin Peng’s guerrillas marched in the London victory parade with red stars glittering on their caps. In the aftermath of war, the British Military Administration that took charge of Malaya targeted the MCP as the main threat to stability and struck fiercely at all ‘communist activities’. The MCP, adroitly misled by the Special Branch via Lai Tek, had missed its chances (slim at best) of building a common anti-colonial front. Now the party prepared for armed struggle on its own.

As Chin Peng himself admits in his fascinating memoir, My Side of History (2003), the outbreak of fighting took his party by surprise. On 16 June 1948, a gang of over-excited young comrades murdered three British rubber planters near Sungai Siput, in the state of Perak. While the European miners and plantation managers roared for martial law, the governor declared a state of emergency almost as soon as he heard the news. Chin Peng was now leading the MCP, and a police raiding party missed capturing him by minutes. He hopped over a wall and ran for it with no idea of what had happened. The MCP was banned. Its young men and women headed for the jungle and retrieved their weapons from concealed arms dumps. The Malayan Emergency had begun.

‘The Emergency would be a war of skirmish and attrition,’ Hale writes. ‘It would be won by starvation and the cultivation of disloyalty. There would be no climactic confrontation: no jungle Waterloo. Victory was a continuously receding mirage.’ That is very much the way I remember it. The version later sold to envious Americans prosecuting the Vietnam War – recited as an impeccable British demonstration of how to suppress a communist insurgency – did not really fit my own experience. For one thing, a few thousand poorly armed guerrillas were able to resist a British and Commonwealth force ten times as large, equipped with heavy weapons and a powerful airforce, for 12 years (and the remnants of the Malayan People’s Liberation Army did not surrender in 1960 but retreated across the Thai border to live in exile). Second, the Malayan example was not relevant to the Americans in Vietnam, who faced not only the most expert and battle-hardened army in Asia but a fairly homogeneous population inclined to accept communism’s claim to be fighting for national independence.

It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that the MPLA didn’t have a hope of winning the war. They started optimistically by trying to create ‘liberated areas’, as prescribed by Mao Zedong, but brief occupations of Batu Arang and Gua Musang ended in defeat. Within a couple of years, the war had slowed to a stalemate. The guerrillas remained in the jungle. They sallied out to murder informers or lay ambushes, but mostly to gather food and medicines from the open country round the forest fringe where hundreds of thousands of Chinese ‘squatters’ lived as illegal small farmers.

The security forces sent patrols into the jungle, where it could take a day of hacking, sweating and ant-swatting to travel four miles. But their main purpose became to deny the guerrillas access to supplies, by controlling the ‘debatable land’ where the squatters lived. The Briggs Plan, with brutal simplicity, eventually cleared the whole zone by uprooting some 500,000 Chinese squatters and dumping them in resettlement camps behind barbed wire and watchtowers.

It became an endurance contest. The MPLA slowly began to starve. They received no help whatever from China, even after Mao’s victory in 1949. Their only hope was that Britain would tire of the contest first. The communists had failed to make themselves the ‘party of independence’; even though they had learned to think in terms of a Malayan nation deserving liberation, their ferocity with ‘class enemies’ had alienated a good part of the Chinese community. So the initiative passed to the Malays. The Emergency was providential for Malay politicians such as Dato Onn bin Jaafar and Tunku Abdul Rahman (‘the Tunku’), who skilfully extorted concessions from the British by brandishing Cold War threats of communist expansion. As Ernest Bevin said when he was foreign secretary, ‘Our support of nationalism in South and South-East Asia provides the best possible counter to communist subversion and penetration.’ Merdeka – independence – was finally granted in 1957, well before the fighting ended.


‘Dear Lyttleton, Malaya. We must have a plan. Secondly, we must have a man. When we have a plan and a man, we shall succeed: not otherwise. Yours sincerely, Montgomery, Field-Marshal.’ It should be borne in mind that when Monty wrote that note to Oliver Lyttleton, Colonial Secretary, late in 1952, the British thought they might be losing the war. The governor, Sir Henry Gurney, had been ambushed and killed a few months before. Lyttleton visited Malaya soon afterwards; I remember watching a sergeant shoving his big, bald head down into a scout car so that the hatch lid could be slammed: no more Gurneys, please. Lyttleton thought the situation ‘appalling … I have never seen such a tangle as that presented by the government of Malaya.’

Then came the man, whose plan was someone else’s. General Gerald Templer is now supposed to have won the Emergency by clearing the squatters into resettlement camps. In fact this had been the idea of the self-effacing Sir Harold Briggs, who launched his scheme and then went home to die. Hale describes Templer as an intelligent bully. He disliked the Chinese, imposed unnecessary collective punishments, exploded at criticism (when the expert Victor Purcell suggested that he was acting dictatorially, Templer called him a ‘fat white pig’), quarrelled with the Tunku and announced that he could find ‘no desire for self-government in this country today in any community whatsoever’. But he hammered the conduct of the Emergency into a much tougher, harsher and more efficient machine. And here Christopher Hale puts forward the real argument underlying his book: ‘Under Templer, the Emergency war in Malaya became an instrument of state formation.’ That embryonic state acquired a ‘steely, authoritarian armour’ with totalitarian features. Hale refers to the spreading use of sinister euphemisms in Templer’s propaganda: resettlement camps became ‘New Villages’ while the MPLA were already labelled ‘CTs – communist terrorists’ or simply ‘bandits’. Templer’s first priority was to expand and invigorate the intelligence and propaganda services, sending the Special Branch and its surveillance apparatus into every area of dissent. ‘The panoptic security state that the colonial government built has never been dismantled.’

It’s depressing to see how many Commonwealth countries have retained the repressive laws passed by panicky colonial governments as they began to lose control. Malaysia is no exception. ‘It is a startling fact,’ Hale writes, ‘that during 43 years of independence, there has been just one short spell of four years … when the country has not been subject to an Emergency.’ As a panel of Commonwealth judges and lawyers noted in 2000, ‘We suggest that the Malaysian malaise may be due in no small measure to the gradual acceptance of a state of emergency as the norm of government.’ A state of emergency means a battery of statutes muzzling the media and restricting the right of assembly and free debate, in a society which is still ethnically divided with the privileges of one community entrenched by the constitution. Hale concludes: ‘Here in a nutshell is the inheritance of the British wars in Malaya.’

Chin Peng died a few months ago, an exile in Thailand. Some years earlier, I had interviewed him in London. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and this smiling, reserved, curiously ‘British’ old man was doing exactly what so many communists of his generation were doing: asking himself ‘Where did we go wrong?’ He had reread Lenin to see if he had misunderstood his teaching, ignored some precept. But perhaps the world communist movement had overlooked something in the writings of Marx himself. He would visit more libraries, study more texts. A group of elderly left-wingers and scholars was waiting to take him to lunch at the Athenaeum Club.

It was hard to recognise the small, spare young man who had spent 15 years leading an army in the jungle. He, like me, must have listened to the gibbons whooping in the dawn, sniffed leaves for the scent of enemy tobacco and enemy shit, marked the foresight of his carbine with a phosphorescent twig as he lay in night ambush. Unlike me, he bore responsibility for starting an impossible conflict which cost thousands of lives and disfigured a nation’s future.

He maintained to the end that the insurrection was not hopeless, that Malaya between 1945 and 1948 was ‘ripe’ for revolution, that Britain was restoring colonialism with a violence that could only be met by force. And yet the Emergency did not have to happen. That’s the lesson of Hale’s long, baggy, digressive but endlessly interesting book (why on earth does it not have any maps?). If the British imperial imagination had seen beyond the treaties with the sultans, if it had recognised the Malayan Chinese as human beings with rights instead of a featureless migrant workforce, if in 1948 the British had used the Emergency powers and the ‘communist threat’ to force through and entrench a Malayan Union of all the communities, then this beautiful country could have reached a better sort of independence.