From friend to foe: Britain and the communist party of Malaya in the contest for the federation
Koay Su Lyn, National University of Singapore

Barely three years after the end of the Japanese occupation, Malaya faced another conflict. On the morning of 16 June 1948, the country witnessed the death of three European planters, murdered on their estates in Sungai Siput, Perak. Two days later, another attack occurred in the village of Jeram Choh near Johore Bahru. On 23 June, the Malayan Emergency officially began. Although the protracted conflict officially ceased in 1960, the struggle persisted until Peace Accords between the Malaysian government and the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) were ratified in December 1989, ending a war that spanned 41 years. Declared against a former ally by a declining empire at its lowest financial ebb, the Malayan Emergency was not just an ideological conflict against the backdrop of the Cold War, but the ultimate contest for Malaya.
The Communist Party of Malaya—Britain’s Reluctant Ally
In the summer of 1941, seven years before the 1948 Emergency and six months before Japan’s invasion of Malaya, the CPM offered to cooperate with the British if war broke out. As the Chinese communists in South-east Asia foresaw that Malaya would not be spared from Japan’s expansionist strategy, the CPM—active financiers and supporters of the Chinese resistance—was more than anxious to ally with the colonial government (Hanrahan, 1979, pp. 61-63). But reluctant to deal with an outlawed body, the British refused their offer.

Yet in December 1941, the British changed their stance and accepted the CPM, albeit reluctantly, as their ally. The bargain took effect with over 300 CPM members trained at the 101 Special School for guerrilla warfare in Singapore. This batch of trainees subsequently formed the nucleus of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which became the most organized force in Malaya with regimental units in the deep jungles of the Malayan states of Perak, Pahang, Selangor, and Johore—states whose populations contained large shares of Chinese migrant workers and their families (Sultan Nazrin Shah, 2019). The MPAJA’s political and organizational skills worked on the masses and its effective propaganda generated support through both food supplied and intelligence (Hanrahan, 1979, pp. 70-71).

Founded in April 1930 on a Chinese rubber estate off Buloh Kesap, Johore, the CPM was a rebrand of the Nanyang Provisional Committee, rooted in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It was meant to ‘decentralize and break away from its Chinese mould’, since most of its rank and file were China-born, Chinese-educated, Hainanese figures; to appeal to other Chinese dialect groups and non-Chinese; and to form an ‘independent leadership of proletarian struggle through strikes, demonstrations and propaganda in trade unions controlled by the non-communists’ (Yong, 1997, pp. 128-133). However, having experienced harsh working conditions in China, the Hainanese were more susceptible to Marxist ideology. With the exodus of thousands of Hainanese communist agitators to Malaya after the breakdown of the Kuomintang–CCP alliance in April 1927, their domination in the local sphere of communist activities was inevitable (Yong, 1997, pp. 141-144). Even the Director of Political Intelligence Bureau in Singapore conceded that the Hainanese were the ‘chosen ones’ for the communist cause considering their clannishness and gift for organization (FO 321/13243, 1928).

Although the harsh working conditions in Malaya—with long hours of work, low wages, and exploitation—cut across the racial dimension, the colonial government’s ethnically divisive employment structure, as exemplified in the identification of race by economic activity, rendered multiracial workers’ solidarity far-fetched (Jomo and Todd, 1994, pp. 55-57). Still, the CPM was presented as the champion of the workers’ cause.

By establishing General Labour Unions (GLUs) in cities like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, the CPM scored tremendous success on the labour front. In 1934, it succeeded in planting cell groups in Kuala Lumpur’s railway unions, leading to a strike involving 1,800 workers. While the Singapore Red Trade Union and Traction Company saw massive strikes the following year, Selangor faced one of the most violent—yet most successful—strikes at the Malayan Collieries in Batu Arang in 1937 and 1938. This was followed by another strike in the Sungai Besi mines in 1939 and 1940 (Gamba, 1962, p. 7).

In March 1940, Sir Shenton Thomas, the last Governor of the Straits Settlements, reported at least 78 strikes in Singapore and 11 in the Federated Malay States since September 1939, ‘attributable to communist agitation’ (CO 273/662/50336, 1940). In July 1940, ‘no fewer than 201 leading GLU agitators in the rubber, pineapple-canning and aerated water factories’ were arrested (Yong, 1997, p. 232). Although the government responded by tightening existing legislation, it failed to stop CPM activities. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 only increased the CPM’s popularity in its cause against Japanese aggression under the All-Malaya Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese National Salvation. By the time the CPM was finally given a role to attack the Japanese, it was already a master of organization.

Plunged into preparations for British Liberation of Malaya, the abrupt termination of hostilities on 14 August 1945 on Japan’s unconditional surrender took the CPM and the Allied forces by surprise. Nevertheless, following a slow, three-week reoccupation by British forces, the period between the Japanese surrender and British reoccupation on 3 September presented the CPM with the chance of a lifetime for declaring Malaya a ‘People’s Republic’.
The ‘People’s Republic’—A Dream No More
In the wake of the Japanese surrender, the CPM and its MPAJA units found themselves the most powerful authority, with control over much of the country. In the absence of civil control, so-called ‘People’s Courts’ tortured and carried out summary executions against collaborators, informers, and local members of the Japanese Kempeitai (military police). Oddly enough, the CPM made no effort to seize power and control Malaya, largely owing to the controversial leadership of Lai Teck, the CPM’s Secretary-General.

Elected to the CPM’s leadership in April 1939, Lai Teck’s reputation as a fearless communist earned him considerable prestige (Hanrahan, 1979, pp. 106-107). He had convinced the party of having represented the Comintern Third International, and of his membership in the CCP’s Shanghai Town Committee. As a Vietnamese-Chinese national who had assisted the Vietnamese communist party in its resistance against Japan, Lai Teck’s story proved more than plausible. In reality, however, he was a secret agent, planted first by the United Kingdom’s Special Branch and later, the Japanese Kempeitai. While his leadership meant that the Special Branch had managed to plant a spy at the very heart of the CPM, the damage done to its leadership by Lai Teck’s treachery stemmed mainly from his association with the Kempeitai. Not only did he betray many of his CPM comrades for his own survival, he masterminded the August 1942 Batu Caves massacre where 29 CPM senior members, MPAJA political commissars, and their bodyguards were killed by the Japanese (Comber, 2010). Aware of his precarious position after the war, Lai Teck sought to appease the British government—his former employers.

Despite disturbing rumours of his treachery, Lai Teck managed to direct the CPM towards a moderate line of facilitating the restoration of British rule and to allow it to operate within an open and legal framework until it was prepared to embrace the struggle for an independent republic. Reluctantly, MPAJA disbanded and disarmed during the official ceremony where their wartime role was acknowledged. It was not until Lai Teck’s disappearance in March 1947 that the CPM would resume its radical cause, from which point its alliance with Britain was bound to wane.

The Showdown and the Prelude to the Emergency

The immediate post-war years encapsulated an unprecedented atmosphere of openness in Malaya, with most legal restrictions on trade unions and political parties suspended. This ushered in a brief moment of political and cultural experiment (Harper, 1999). Nevertheless, this euphoric atmosphere served to reconsolidate British interests by restoring her prestige in rebuilding Malayan society, while re-establishing control over Malaya’s rich tin and rubber resources to help dig the United Kingdom out of her financial abyss.1 However, by October 1945, the unpopularity of the British Military Administration (BMA) was rising owing both to soaring prices of goods—of several hundred per cent from pre-war days—and to the BMA’s decision to increase wages of most labourers by a maximum of only 33.5 per cent. Such moves prompted a massive public outcry. Singapore’s first post-war strike began on 21st October 1945 when 7,000 wharf labourers refused to work on ships in the Tanjung Pagar docks. This was followed a strike at the Singapore Traction Company two days later. Across the Causeway, hunger marches and mass demonstrations demanded higher wages.

The CPM resumed its method of operation via trade unions as the GLUs rapidly extended their influence among workers. By this time, the CPM was less a ‘Chinese front’ but a multiracial force, having established good ties with the Malay Nationalist Party through the All-Malayan Council for Joint Action coalition in staging an Anti-Federation move after the Malayan Union was scrapped,2 with support from other radical, left-wing Malay organizations like Angkatan Pemuda Insaf and Angkatan Wanita Sedar. By the time it retreated underground, the CPM would have a 10th Malay Regiment in Temerloh, Pahang led by C.D. Abdullah (Abdullah, 2005), with Rashid Maidin as adviser to Chin Peng, the CPM’s Secretary General (Maidin, 2005). The CPM also had Indian leaders in its trade unions, like P. Veerasenan, one-time president of the Singapore Harbour Board Labourers’ Union; V. Muthu, former president of Batu Pahat Rubber Workers’ Union; and A. Ganapathy, who later became president of the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) (Mohd Azzam Mohd Hanif Ghows, 2007).

Fearing a rebellion, the BMA responded with repressive measures, targeting many trade unionists and workers. The biggest face-off came with the trial of Soon Kwang, a senior CPM official with an impressive wartime guerrilla record.3 His conviction in October 1945—widely seen as a miscarriage of justice—engendered revulsion at the BMA’s selective justice and intimidation, as demonstrated by a 24-hour general strike in January 1946 by GLUs demanding his release. Two weeks later, a rally was held in Singapore to coincide with the anniversary of the fall of Singapore, at which the BMA intervened aggressively with further arrests. Still, strikes, protests, and rallies continued. Between April and October 1946, for example, strikes caused the loss of over a million working days in Singapore and 713,000 working days in the peninsula (CO 537/1579, 1946). By March 1947, GLUs had ‘organised branches or affiliates in every major industry and even among hawkers and trishaw men’ (Stenson, 1970, p. 124). The CPM’s foothold in Malaya was also immensely strengthened through the PMFTU, which by 1948 boasted a membership of 263,598, representing a significant proportion of Malaya’s organised workforce (Hector, 2017).

Recognizing a serious threat to its authority, the government ended the political and cultural experiment by enforcing the Trades Unions Ordinance of 1940, making it compulsory for all unions to be registered. It refused to recognize CPM-dominated unions, instead promoting the development of unions under its control (Stenson, 1970, pp. 190-193). Trapped by these legalities, the CPM launched a direct confrontation against the authorities. In fact, upon Lai Teck’s sudden departure and the election of 26-year-old Chin Peng to its leadership in May 1948, the CPM urged an armed rebellion towards Malayan independence at its Fourth Plenum in March 1948, in line with the international communist movement. Impending communist victories in China inspired other such struggles in South-east Asia: the Viet Minh in Indochina and the Hukbalahap guerrillas in the Philippines intensified their military operations by early 1948 (Hanrahan, 1979, pp. 105-107). Some 179,539 and 117,154 working days were lost in May and June respectively throughout Malaya, with many incidences of intimidation, assault, and dismissals (Jomo and Todd, 1994, p. 84).
Retaliation—An Emergency Declared
The British authorities retaliated by declaring a nationwide Emergency on 23 June 1948, granting the authorities vast powers of arrest, detention without trial, and deportation under Emergency Regulations. Strikes virtually ceased after 1,954 people were deported in January and February 1949 (Jomo and Todd, 1994, pp. 82-85). With stricter regulations on the possession and use of firearms, on curfews, and on identity cards, as well as tighter food rationing, the government worked all out to eliminate the CPM. Following the May 1949 conviction and subsequent execution of the PMFTU’s former president, 23-year-old A. Ganapathy, amid international protests,4 the now-outlawed (under the Emergency Regulations of 1948) CPM took its fight into the jungles, and reorganized itself into the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) in an armed rebellion against the government.

Nevertheless, Britain, with substantial business assets in Malaya, had refused to refer to the Emergency as a war at all. As insurers would not compensate for losses incurred as a result of war, the rebellion was termed an ‘Emergency’. In fact, the Emergency also enabled Britain to generate extraordinary income while defending its commercial interests in Malaya. Its declaration saw Malaya’s contribution of US$650 million to the sterling reserve. At the height of the Emergency, Malayan exports of rubber and tin were to hit US$226 million, only to increase to US$406 million during the Korean War boom between 1950 to 1953. Malaya became the biggest dollar earner among all Commonwealth nations throughout the 1950s, and Britain’s resolve never again wavered (Schenk, 1994; You Souchou, 2016).
Emergency resettlement of the people
Source: National Archives Malaysia, No. 2001/0027608

Britain’s defence of Malaya from the MRLA’s widespread sabotage and attacks on mines, estates, villages, road convoys, and heavy vehicles similarly boosted its image among anti-communist states worldwide. Among its most successful strategies was the Briggs Plan, devised in June 1950. The Plan sought to deprive the MRLA of its main supply of food, medicine, intelligence, and recruits, which it had obtained from squatters living on and cultivating the land along isolated

Emergency resettlement of the people Source: The National Archives of Malaysia jungle fringes ever since its MPAJA days, by relocating these squatters into ‘New Villages’. Initiated by Lieutenant-General Harold Briggs, then Director of Operations, the Plan began northwards from Johore (Department of Information, Malaya, 1950; ‘Ambush: Official Story’, Straits Times, 8 October 1951, pp. x-xi), and saw the relocation of 573,000 squatters (about 85 per cent of whom were Chinese5) into heavily guarded New Villages with security checks, roadblocks, and curfews, in an attempt to prevent contact with the MRLA. Alongside the provision of lawful tenure of land in these villages, the scheme also gave allowances and grants for squatters to build new homes on plots of land allotted to them, as well as piped-water supply, electricity, schools, and community halls, which were never enjoyed by the villagers before. By the end of 1951 alone, the government had spent $41 million on the resettlement scheme.

The Templer Era

On 6 October 1951, the assassination of Henry Gurney, British High Commissioner, off the winding paths up Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, shook Malaya. Chin Peng had maintained that Gurney’s murder was accidental, having learned about the attack after it had occurred, and that the attack on his armed convoy only had the intention of seizing weapons and ammunition rather than being a deliberate attack to kill the High Commissioner (Chin Peng, 2003, pp. 287-289). Gurney’s death brought a turning point in the Emergency, with Gerald Templer’s arrival as new High Commissioner and as Director of Operations in Malaya, in February 1952.

A tough soldier and Britain’s youngest Lieutenant-General at age 44, Templer directed the Emergency into an offensive against the ‘Communist Terrorists’ (CTs) (CO 1022/48, 1951-52). Templer promptly reorganized the police force, and searches intensified with support from the Malayan Navy and the Royal Air Force, based on better intelligence. Psychological operations were reinforced through revised incentives for killing or capturing CTs (CO 1022/152,1952),6 as well as rewards for CTs themselves who surrendered and then volunteered information, or coaxed another CT into surrendering (C01022/49, 1952-53). Templer even broadcast surrender appeals in Mandarin.7

Alongside the construction of jungle forts in severing aboriginal contact with the MRLA (CO 1022/475, 1953), civic courses were conducted in New Villages, followed by an improvement in medical assistance by volunteers from the Red Cross and St John Ambulance (CO 1022/29, 1951-53; CO 1022/31, 1952-53). As participation in the workings of government was crucial in winning the hearts and minds of the local population, the Local Councils Ordinance 1952 was passed to provide New Villages with elected local councils, moving towards democracy as a way of life. By 1958, Malaya had 302 local councils with the power to collect, levy, retain, and spend their rates and fees, subject to the approval of their state governments.8
National Service men in Malaya with E-Troop 48 Field Regiment Royal Artillery 1955-1957
Source: National Archives Malaysia, No. 2011/0016146
Punishment was, however, heavy for those not cooperating. In March 1952, the residents of Tanjung Malim in Perak were subjected to a 22-hour curfew and to further reductions in their rice ration for their ‘crime of silence’, which had contributed to several ambushes. Present in Tanjong Malim some months later, Templer demanded that information be given anonymously, or the punishment would persist. The curfew was only lifted 14 days later in August 1952 after the arrests of 40 CTs (CO 1022/54, 1952).9 Later, another severe penalty was meted out in Permatang Tinggi, where all residents were sent to detention camps and their village destroyed. Regardless, Templer’s unrelenting measures worked. By September 1953, a large area in Malacca became the first to be declared ‘white’, a benchmark for other states to emulate, which later saw the entire Federation turning ‘white’.10 When Templer’s term came to an end in June 1954, the MRLA retreated to Betong in Southern Thailand.
Malaya—A Fait Accompli
In 1955, the Baling Talks were held in Kedah between the new Malayan government and the CPM front following an amnesty offer by Chief Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, in the hope of ending the rebellion pending independence. However, negotiations had failed by December on Chin Peng’s insistence that the CPM be recognized as a legal political party—a term that Tunku could not agree to—and led the CPM into resuming its armed fight. However, Malaya’s independence in 1957 sealed a victory for Britain by effectively terminating the CPM’s justification for an armed struggle with a fait accompli. Although the CPM succeeded in several armed acts even after the Emergency officially ended in 1960, including the murder of Perak’s Chief of Police in 1975,11 the contest for Malaya was long over. It was not until 1989, the year that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, that the CPM finally acknowledged this accomplished fact. The Peace Accords were signed, ending all existing rebellion and securing the CPM’s resettlement in Southern Thailand. By then, the strife in Malaya had become a distant conflict, fresh only in the memories of those who had been in it, willingly or otherwise.
Baling Talks, the government side at the meeting, 28:12:1955
Source: National Archives Malaysia, No. 2001/0026707

Abdullah, C.D. 2005. The Memoirs of Abdullah C.D.: The Movement until 1948 (Part One). Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, pp. 92, 125, and 139.

Chin Peng. 2003. My Side of History. Singapore: Media Masters Ptd Ltd.

Colonial Office (CO). 1940. CO 273/662/50336. ‘Labour Unrest in Malaya’. Governor of Straits Settlements to Malcolm MacDonald, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Colonial Office, 29 December 1935, p. 5.

———. 1951-1952. CO 1022/48, South East Asia (SEA) 10/172/01, ‘Proposal that Bandits in Malaya be officially known as “Communist Terrorists”.’

———.1952. CO 1022/152, SEA 75/447/01, ‘Rewards for Death or Capture of Communist Terrorists in Malaya’.

———.1952-1953. CO 1022/49, SEA 10/172/02, ‘Surrendered Communist Terrorists: Fed of Malaya, Campaign to Encourage Groups of Communists to Surrender’.

———. 1953. CO 1022/475, SEA524/1/01, ‘Aborigines in the Federation of Malaya, Extract from High Commissioner Budget Speech’.

———. 1951-1953. CO 1022/29, SEA10/72/01, ‘The Resettlement of Squatters in Malaya, New Villages’.

———. 1952-1953. CO 1022/31, SEA10/72/03, ‘Medical & Health Services in New Villages’.

———. 1952. CO 1022/54, SEA10/409/01, ‘Punishment of the Town of Tanjong Malim in Malaya – Non-cooperation with authorities’.

Comber, Leon. 2010. ‘Traitor of all Traitors – Secret Agent “Extraordinaire”: Lai Teck, Secretary-General, Communist Party of Malaya (1939–1947)’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, V. 83, No. 2 (299), December, pp. 7-13.

Foreign Office (FO). 1928. FO 321/13243. Supplement to the Malayan Bulletin of Political Intelligence Singapore, No. 63, 31 August, p. 3, F5518/154/61.

Department of Information, Malaya. 1950. Report on Malaya under the Emergency by Sir Harold Briggs, pp. 1-5.

Gamba, Charles. 1962. The Origins of Trade Unionism in Malaya: A Study in Colonial Labour Unrest. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press Ltd, p. 7.

Hanrahan, Gene Z. 1979. The Communist Struggle in Malaya. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press.

Harper, T.N. 1999. The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 75-92.

Hector, Charles. 2017. History of the Labour Movement in Malaysia, 11 October,,, accessed on 20 November 2019.

Herring, George C. Jr. 1971. ‘The United States and British Bankruptcy, 1944-1945: Responsibilities Deferred’. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 2 (June), Academy of Political Science, p. 261.

Jomo K.S. and Patricia Todd. 1994. Trade Unions and the State in Peninsular Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Maidin, Rashid. 2005. Memoir Rashid Maidin: Daripada Perjuangan Bersenjata Kepada Perdamaian. Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, pp. 77-79.

Mohd Azzam Mohd Hanif Ghows. 2007. The Malayan Emergency Revisited, 1948–1960: A Pictorial History. Kuala Lumpur: AMR Holding Sdn Bhd, p. 51.

Nyce, Ray. 1973. Chinese New Villages in Malaya: A Community Study. Malaysian Sociological Research Institute Ltd.

Schenk, Catherine, R. 1994. Britain and the Sterling Area: From Devaluation to Convertability in the 1950s. London: Routledge, p. 25.

Shennan, Margaret. 2007. Our Man in Malaya. Monsoon Books Ltd, p. 174.

Stenson, Michael R. 1970. Industrial Conflict in Malaya: Prelude to the Communist Revolt of 1948. London, New York:Oxford University Press, p. 124.

Sultan Nazrin Shah. 2019. Striving for Inclusive Development: From Pangkor to a Modern Malaysian State. Selangor: Oxford University Press.

Yong, C.F. 1997. The Origins of Malayan Communism. Singapore: South Seas Society Monograph No. 40.

You Souchou. 2016. The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a Small, Distant War. Singapore: NIAS Press, pp. 15-17

1 A nation heavily in debt after the war, Britain had accumulated external liabilities almost five times her pre-war totals and her liabilities were 15 times greater than her available reserves. See Herring, 1971.
2 The Malayan Union Plan was introduced by the British government in October 1945 and implemented in April 1946, incorporating the British settlements of Penang and Malacca with the Federated and Unfederated Malay states in a single political entity; and with Singapore as a separate Crown Colony. The Plan faced widespread protests from Malays, rallied by Onn bin Jaafar, who went on to form the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in opposing the granting of equal rights in citizenship to immigrants and the stripping of the Sultans’ sovereignty. The Union was eventually scrapped and replaced with the Federation of Malaya in February 1948.
3 Soon Kwang was arrested by the Royal Air Force in October 1945 for alleged extortion. Having been twice pronounced innocent before a bench of two local assessors and a BMA official, Soon Kwang was re-tried and convicted at the third attempt by three BMA officials. See Chin Peng, 2003, pp. 143-144 and Shennan, 2007, p. 174.
4 ‘Ganapathy Protest’, The Singapore Free Press, 19 April 1949, p. 1.
5 Of the total population of New Villages by 1954, 86 per cent were Chinese, 9 per cent Malays, 4 per cent Indians, and 1 per cent aborigines. See Nyce, 1973, pp. xxxviii-xli.
6 Accordingly, Chin Peng was worth $250,000, Politburo members $150,000, and State and Regional Committee Members $120,000. A CT was worth $2,500 whether dead or alive. Also see ‘Now it’s $250,000 for Public Enemy No. 1 – if brought in alive’, Straits Times, 1 May 1952.
7 ‘Sir Gerald Talks to Reds – in Chinese’, Straits Times, 23 January 1954.
8 Report of the Royal Commission Enquiry to Investigate into the Workings of Local Authority in West Malaysia (The Athi Nahappan Report), 1970, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, pp. 19-21.
9 Also see ‘Sir Gerald Punishes Town of 20,000 Cowards’, Straits Times, 28 March 1952; ‘Secrets sent to Sir Gerald’, Straits Times, 7 April 1952.
10 A policy introduced by Templer, a ‘white area’ was one free of CTs and therefore free of Emergency Regulations. ‘No Curfew and No Food Control: 160,000 are Free’, Singapore Standard, 4 September 1953.
11 ‘Reds shoot Police Chief’, Straits Times, 14 November 1975, p. 1.


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