Malaya—Britain’s forgotten war for rubber

Mark Curtis, Editor, Declassified UK 1

Between 1948 and 1960 the United Kingdom (UK) fought a counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya, conventionally called the Emergency. A guerrilla war waged by the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) sought to win independence from the British Empire and protect the interests of the Chinese community in the territory. The MNLA was largely the creation of the Malayan Communist Party, most of whose members were Chinese, but also included small minorities of Indians and Malays.

Presented in most British analyses as a struggle against communism during the cold war, the MNLA in reality received very little support from Soviet or Chinese communists. The major concern for British governments was protecting their economic interests in Malaya, which were primarily huge investments in the rubber and tin industries.

Most of the files on the guerrilla war that the British declassified were destroyed, perhaps to cover up crimes. Some files remain, however, at the National Archives in Kew, near London, and reveal that Britain resorted to very brutal measures to defeat the insurgency, including widespread aerial bombing and the use of a forerunner to modern cluster bombs.

British officials also established a vast 'resettlement' scheme that herded hundreds of thousands of Malayan ethnic Chinese into fortified camps and that provided a model for the United States' (US) devastating 'strategic hamlet' programmes in Vietnam. They also used chemical agents to reduce the forest cover for the insurgents, from which the US may again have drawn lessons in its later use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam war.

Economic interests

British planners' primary concern at that time was to enable UK businesses to continue to exploit Malayan economic resources. The territory possessed valuable mineral and natural resources, such as coal, bauxite, tungsten, gold, iron ore, manganese, and, above all, rubber and tin. A Colonial Office report from 1950 noted that Malaya's rubber and tin-mining industries were the biggest dollar earners in the British Commonwealth. Malaya was the world’s top producer of rubber, accounting for 75 per cent of the territory's income, and its biggest employer, with tin accounting for 12–15 per cent of the country’s income (Bayly and Harper, 2007, p. 409).

As a result of colonialism, Malaya was in effect owned by European—primarily British—businesses, with British capital behind most large Malayan enterprises. Most important, in the 1950s some 70 per cent of the acreage of rubber estates was owned by European—again primarily British—companies, compared with 29 per cent Asian ownership (Colonial Office [CO], 1952a).

Malaya was described by one British Lord in 1952 as the 'greatest material prize in South-East Asia', mainly due to its rubber and tin. These resources were 'very fortunate' for Britain, another Lord declared, since 'they have very largely supported the standard of living of the people of this country and the sterling area ever since the war ended'. 'What we should do without Malaya, and its earnings in tin and rubber, I do not know' (The United Kingdom Parliament, 1952, column 302).

The insurgency threatened control over this 'material prize'. The Colonial Secretary in Britain’s Labour government, Arthur Creech-Jones, remarked in 1948 that 'it would gravely worsen the whole dollar balance of the Sterling Area if there were serious interference with Malayan exports' (Kaplan, 1990, p. 204).

An influential big-business pressure group called Joint Malayan Interests was also warning the Colonial Office in London of 'soft-hearted doctrinaires, with emphasis on early self-government' for the colony. It noted that the insurgency was causing economic losses through direct damage and implored the government that 'until the fight against banditry has been won there can be no question of any further moves towards self-government' (CO, 1951a). 

British military forces were thus despatched in a classic imperial role, largely to protect commercial interests. 'In its narrower context', the Foreign Office observed in a declassified secret file, the 'war against bandits is very much a war in defence of [the] rubber industry' (CO, 1950a).
Rubber cultivation was a key economic driver of British rule in Malaya
Lees (2017).

Political reform

The roots of the war lay in the failure of the British colonial authorities to guarantee the rights of the Chinese in Malaya, who in 1947 made up 38.4 per cent of the population (Del Tufo, 1949). Britain had traditionally promoted the rights of the Malay community over those of the Chinese. Proposals for a new political structure to create a racial equilibrium between the Chinese and Malay communities and remove the latter’s ascendancy over the former had been defeated by Malays and the ex-colonial Malayan lobby.

By 1948 Britain was promoting a new federal constitution that would confirm Malay privileges and consign about 90 per cent of Chinese to non-citizenship. Under this scheme, the High Commissioner would preside over an undemocratic, centralized state where the members of the Executive Council and the Legislative Council were all chosen by him.

The political path to serious reform for the Chinese was therefore effectively blocked. The Malayan Communist Party, which was agitating for an uprising, either had to accept that its future political role would be very limited, or ‘go to ground’ and press the British to leave. An insurgent movement, the MNLA was formed out of the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army that had been trained and armed by Britain to resist the Japanese occupation during the Second World War; Malayan–Chinese had offered the main active resistance to the Japanese invaders.

In the words of the Foreign Office in 1952:
'The vast majority of the poorer Chinese were employed in the tin mines and on the rubber estates and they suffered most from the Japanese occupation of the country ... During the Japanese occupation, they were deprived both of their normal employment and of the opportunity to return to their homeland ... Large numbers of Chinese were forced out of useful employment and had no alternative but to follow the example of other distressed Chinese, who in small numbers had been obliged to scratch for a living in the jungle clearings even before the war' (CO, 1952b).

The MNLA was drawn almost entirely from disaffected Chinese and received considerable support and intelligence from poor Chinese peasant farmers or 'squatters', who numbered over half a million. Many were attracted to the insurgency because Malay politicians were threatening to evict them from the land they were living on to make way for replanting. Other squatters living in forest reserves were rounded up in mass arrests.

The reality of the war

To combat an insurgent force of around 3,000–7,000, British forces embarked on a war involving large-scale bombing, dictatorial police measures, and wholesale 'resettlement'.

Sir Gerald Templer, a former director of military intelligence and vice chief of the Imperial General Staff, was appointed High Commissioner in Malaya by the UK's prime minister Winston Churchill in 1952. Templer declared that 'the hard core of armed communists in this country are fanatics and must be, and will be, exterminated' (CO, 1952c).

Heavy bombers were brought into the Malayan war, dropping thousands of bombs of up to 4,000lb on insurgent positions (Carruthers, 1995, p. 109). Britain conducted 4,500 air strikes in the first five years of the war. Robert Jackson writes in his uncritical account of the war that one 'very viable weapon' used by Britain was the 500lb fragmentation bomb, a forerunner of cluster bombs. 'Since a Sutherland [aircraft] could carry a load of 190, its effect on terrorist morale was considerable' (Jackson, 1991, pp. 77, 82, 84). It is not known how many civilians were killed or maimed in such attacks.

British army conducting a jungle patrol in Malaya, 1957
UK National Army Museum,

In October 1951 the communist insurgents managed to ambush and kill the High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney. Atrocities were committed on both sides and the insurgents often indulged in horrific attacks and murders. A young British officer commented that, in combating the insurgents: 'We were shooting people. We were killing them ... This was raw savage success. It was butchery. It was horror' (Jackson, 1991, p. 45).

Running totals of British kills were published and became a source of competition between army units. One British army conscript recalled that 'when we had an officer who did come out with us on patrol, I realised that he was only interested in one thing: killing as many people as possible' (Allen, 1990, pp. 12, 21, 22, 26). British forces booby-trapped jungle food stores and secretly supplied self-detonating grenades and bullets to the insurgents to instantly kill the user.

The most infamous atrocity was committed at the village at of Batang Kali, north of the capital Kuala Lumpur, in December 1948 when the British army slaughtered 24 Chinese, before burning the village. The British government initially claimed the villagers were guerrillas, and then that they were trying to escape, neither of which was true. A Scotland Yard inquiry into the massacre was called off by the Edward Heath government in 1970 and the full details have never been officially investigated. The British government still refuses to hold a public inquiry. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (2007, p. 455) note that while Batang Kali was exceptional in the scale of killings, 'it was part of a continuing succession of killings on the estates, in the villages and along the roadsides'.

Decapitation of insurgents was also practised—intended as a way of identifying dead guerrillas when it was not possible to bring their corpses in from the jungle. A photograph of a Marine Commando holding two insurgents’ heads caused a public outcry in the British press in April 1952. The Colonial Office privately noted that 'there is no doubt that under international law a similar case in wartime would be a war crime' (CO, 1952d).

Dayak headhunters from Sarawak in Borneo were brought in to work alongside the British forces. Templer suggested Dayaks should be used not only for tracking 'but in their traditional role as head-hunters'. He 'thinks it is essential that the practice [decapitation] should continue', although this would only be necessary 'in very rare cases', the Colonial Office observed. It also noted that, because of the recent outcry over this issue, 'it would be well to delay any public statement on this matter for some months' (CO, 1952e).

Templer famously said in Malaya that 'the answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people'. Despite this rhetoric, British policy succeeded because it was highly repressive, and was really about establishing control over the Chinese population. The centrepiece of this was the Briggs Plan, named after General Harold Briggs, who was appointed Director of Operations in 1950. His 'resettlement' programme involved the removal of over half a million Chinese squatters into hundreds of 'new villages'. The Colonial Office referred to the policy as ‘a great piece of social development’ (CO, 1953a).

Brian Lapping describes, in his study of the end of the British Empire, what the policy meant in reality:
'A community of squatters would be surrounded in their huts at dawn, when they were all asleep, forced into lorries and settled in a new village encircled by barbed wire with searchlights round the periphery to prevent movement at night. Before the ‘new villagers’ were let out in the mornings to go to work in the paddy fields, soldiers or police searched them for rice, clothes, weapons or messages. Many complained both that the new villages lacked essential facilities and that they were no more than concentration camps' (Lapping, 1985, p. 223).
Model of a new village, designed as part of the Briggs Plan, 1950

'Resettlement' offered further opportunities. One was a pool of cheap labour for employers. Another was that, as a government newsletter said, it could 'educate [the Chinese] into accepting the control of government'. The colonial authorities declared that 'We still have a long way to go in conditioning the [Chinese] to accept policies which can easily be twisted by the opposition to appear as acts of colonial oppression'. But the task was made easier because 'it must always be emphasised that the Chinese mind is schizophrenic and ever subject to the twin stimuli of racialism and self-interest' (CO, 1949 and 1951b).

Collective punishment

Especially in the early period of the war, Emergency regulations that allowed for detention without trial, and police powers to impose curfews, were 'wielded with uncompromising ferocity'. There was a danger of 'allowing our regime to become purely one of repression', one colonial office official commented (Bayly and Harper, 2007, p. 441).

British detention laws resulted in 34,000 people being held for varying periods in the first eight years of the Emergency period 1948–1960. The Foreign Office explained that detention regulations covered people 'who are a menace to public security but who cannot, because of insufficient evidence, be brought to trial'. Around 15,000 people were deported. The High Commissioner’s view was that ‘the removal of all the detainees to China would contribute more than any other single factor to the disruption’ of the insurgency (CO, 1950b and 1951c).

A key British war measure was inflicting 'collective punishments' on villages where people were deemed to be aiding the insurgents. In March 1952, at Tanjong Malim, Perak, western Malaya, Templer imposed a 22-hour house curfew, banned everyone from leaving the village, closed the schools, stopped bus services, and reduced rice rations for 20,000 people. The last measure prompted the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to write to the Colonial Office noting that the 'chronically undernourished Malayan' might not be able to survive: 'This measure is bound to result in an increase, not only of sickness but also of deaths, particularly amongst the mothers and very young children'. Some people were fined for leaving their homes to use outside latrines (CO, 1952f).

Many British policies in the Malayan war were copied with even more devastating effect by the US in Vietnam in the following decade. 'Resettlement' became the 'strategic hamlet' programme. Chemical agents were used by the British in Malaya for similar purposes as Agent Orange in Vietnam. Britain had experimented with the use of chemicals as defoliants and crop destroyers from the early 1950s. From June to October 1952, for example, 1,250 acres of roadside vegetation at possible ambush points were sprayed with defoliant, described as a policy of 'national importance'. The UK chemicals giant ICI saw it, according to the Colonial Office, as 'a lucrative field for experiment' (CO, 1953b and 1953c).

Psychological warfare

In addition to describing the 'success story' of British intelligence, Brian Stewart, former British official in the Malayan civil service, has written of the UK’s psychological warfare during the conflict which involved a willingness to 'exploit any propaganda opportunities' (Stewart, 2000, p. 279). British officials established a Chinese newspaper 'to put across every form of government message', and pamphlets were distributed in villages to persuade insurgents to surrender. Stewart (2000, p. 281) refers to 'huge and successful psywar and deception operations'.

Academic Susan Carruthers has examined UK propaganda operations during the war, noting that 'a complex series of information and psychological warfare organisations gradually evolved' (Carruthers, 1995, p. 91). UK officials distributed some 50 million leaflets in 1949 alone, conducted 'continuous radio propaganda' and circulated 4 million copies of newspapers. By 1953, the number of anti-communist leaflets distributed was 93 million, of which 54 million were dropped by the Royal Air Force.

British information operations were run from its Department for Public Relations based in London which had a staff of 200. One key message was to counter the notion that 'Britain cares little for the people of Malaya, only the rubber she produces' (Carruthers, 1995, p. 90).

The Emergency was never described by the British authorities as a war, as was later the case in the Falklands, because to do so would have required the government, rather than private insurance companies, to compensate the rubber plantations and tin mines for the damage. Robert Heatlie Scott, Assistant Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, wrote about the insurgents in 1950:
'The decision to call them ‘bandits’ or ‘terrorists’ was taken originally because of the insurance implications of the words ‘insurgents’ or ‘rebels’ or ‘enemy’… It was only much later when our propaganda machine began to get going in South East Asia that the propaganda angle of the matter was ever considered' (Carruthers, 1995, p. 77).
British officials were also keen to avoid any words that might suggest a popular uprising, and always played down the political roots of the rebellion (Bayly and Harper, 2007, p. 436). 'On no account should the term ‘insurgent’, which might suggest a genuine popular uprising, be used', Colonial Office official J. D. Higham stated (Carruthers, 1995, p. 77). In 1952 a defence ministry memorandum stipulated that insurgents—previously usually referred to as bandits—would be officially known as 'communist terrorists' or CTs (CO, 1952g).


British planners feared that communism in Malaya might overturn British rule but there was never any question of military intervention by either the Soviet Union or China, and neither did Moscow or Beijing provide material support to the insurgents: 'No operational links have been established as existing', the Colonial Office reported four years after the start of the war. The British authorities were afraid that the Chinese revolution of 1949 might be repeated in Malaya. As the Economist described, the significance was that communists 'are moving towards an economy and a type of trade in which there will be no place for the foreign manufacturer, the foreign banker or the foreign trader' (The Economist, 1954).

At independence in 1957, the UK handed over formal power to the traditional Malay rulers and fostered a political alliance between the United Malay National Organisation, Chinese businessmen's Malayan Chinese Association, and the Malayan Indian Congress. Britain had achieved its main aims—defeating the insurgents and preserving its commercial interests.

That year, 85 per cent of Malayan export earnings still derived from tin and rubber. Around 70 per cent of company profits were in foreign—generally British—hands and were largely repatriated. Mainly European-owned agency houses controlled 70 per cent of foreign trade and 75 per cent of plantations. Even as late as 1971, 80 per cent of mining, 62 per cent of manufacturing, and 58 per cent of construction was foreign-owned, primarily by British companies (Dixon, 1991, pp. 183, 186).

References and further reading: 
Allen, C. 1990. The Savage Wars of Peace: Soldiers’ Voices, 1945–1989. UK: Michael Joseph Ltd.
Bayly, C. and Harper, T. 2007. Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire. UK: Penguin.
Carruthers, S. L. 1995. Winning Hearts and Minds: British Governments, the Media and Colonial Counter-Insurgency, 1944–1960. UK: Leicester University Press.
Colonial Office. 1949. CO 717/182/52928/4. ‘Monthly Review of Chinese affairs’, December 1949. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1950a. CO 717/203/52911. ‘Foreign Office to Washington on 26 October 1950’ Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1950b. CAB 21/1682. ‘Malaya Committee: Operation against Bandits, etc’ in Memorandum by the Colonial Secretary on 15 November 1950. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1951a. CO 1022/39/SEA/10/93/01 ‘Representations by British Business Interests in Malaya about the Effects of the Emergency’ in Memorandum to the Colonial Office on 15 November 1951. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1951b. CO 1022/148/SEA 75/167/01 ‘Assessment of Chinese Community Support in Combating Communism in Malaya’ in Memorandum by J. P. Biddulph on 6 June 1951. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1951c. CO 1022/2/SEA/10/03. ‘Information Supplied about the General Emergency Situation in Malaya’ in Foreign Office telegram on 22 March 1951. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1952a. CO 1022/267/SEA/192/469/01. ‘Malaya: Brief for Minister of State’ in House of Commons Debates on the Federation of Malaya. Kew: The National Archives.
______1952b. CO 1022/20/SEA/10/72/01. ‘The Squatter Problem in Malaya’, March 1952’. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1952c. CO 1022/2/SEA/10/03. ‘Information Supplied about the General Emergency Situation in Malaya’ in Broadcast Speech to Australia, 12 October 1952. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1952d. CO 1022/45/SEA/10/162/02. ‘Jerrom, T.C.’s memorandum to Higham, J.D. on 30 April 1952’. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1952e. CO 1022/45/SEA/10/162/02. ‘Jerrom, T.C.’s memorandum to Higham, J.D. on 6 May, 12 May and 19 May 1952’. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1952f. CO 1022/54/SEA/10/409/01. ‘Punishment of the Malayan Town of Tanjong Malim for non-cooperation with the Administration: Reconciliation with the town after the visit of the High Commissioner, General Sir Gerald Templer in August 1952’ in Letter to Colonial Office. Kew: The National Archives.
______ 1952g. CO 1022/48/SEA/10/172/01 Proposal that Bandits in Malaya be Known Officially as Communist Terrorists. Kew: The National Archives.
______1953a. CO 1022/2/SEA/10/03 ‘Brief for Selwyn Lloyd on 21 April 1953’. Kew: The National Archives.
______1953b. CO 1022/26/SEA/10/45/01 ‘Use of Chemicals in Clearing Under-growth near Ambush Points and in Destroying Terrorist Crops in Malaya’ in Humphrey, A., Federation of Malaya to Higham, J.D. on 19 January 1953. Kew: The National Archives.
______1953c. CO 1022/26/SEA/10/45/01 ‘Use of Chemicals in Clearing Under-growth near Ambush Points and in Destroying Terrorist Crops in Malaya’ in Kearns, H. and Woodford, E. “The Chemical Control of Roadside Vegetation” of 2 February 1953. Kew: The National Archives.
Curtis, M. 2003. Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World (London: Vintage Books).
______ 2010. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (London: Serpent's Tail).
Del Tufo, M. V. 1949. A Report on the 1947 Census of Population, Malaya (Comprising the Federation of Malaya and the Colony of Singapore) (London: The Crown Agents for the Colonies).
Dixon, C. 1991. Southeast Asia in the World Economy. London: Cambridge University Press, pp. 183, 186.
Jackson, R. 1991. The Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation: The Commonwealth’s Wars 1948–1966. London: Routledge.
Kaplan, T. 1990. ‘Britain's Asian Cold War: Malaya’ in Deighton, A. (ed.). Britain and the First Cold War. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 201–219.
Lapping, B. 1985. End of Empire. New York: St Martin Press, p. 223.
Lees, L. H. 2017. Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects: British Malaya, 1786─1941. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Stewart, B. 2000. ‘Winning in Malaya: An Intelligence Success Story’, in Aldrich, R. et al. The Clandestine Cold War in Asia, 1945–65. London: Routledge, pp. 267–283.
The Economist. 1954. ‘A Plan for Rubber’. 9 October 1954.
The United Kingdom Parliament. 1952. ‘The Situation in Malaya’ in Hansard Paper debated in the House of Lords on 27 February 1952, column 302.

1 Mark Curtis is the author of several books on UK foreign policy, the latest being Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (Curtis, 2010). This article is an edited and updated extract from his book, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Curtis, 2003). He is Editor and Director of Declassified UK (, an investigative journalism organization covering UK foreign policy.

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University of Malaya,
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