Articles
The Emergency 1948–1960: Malayan communist party strategies

Karl Hack, Professor of History, The Open University, United Kingdom

This article first outlines the course and impacts of the Malayan Emergency as background for then discussing a less well-known aspect of the communist campaign against the British colonialists between 1948 and 1960: Malayan Communist Party (MCP) strategies and intentions. What were they? And how did they shape the Emergency and Malaya’s path to independence?

The Malayan Emergency

The British-led authorities in Malaya declared an Emergency nationally on 18 June 1948. This was in response to rising MCP-inspired violence targeting labour contractors, strike breakers, and Kuomintang supporters. This MCP violence reversed the trend of 1947 to early 1948, when violence had been declining from postwar highs. It followed British abandonment of proposals to vastly expand citizenship, and replacement of the April 1946 Malayan Union with a February 1948 Federation that entrenched Malay sovereignty and special rights. It also followed British curtailment of trade union activity. These changes helped persuade MCP leaders, in March and May 1948 Central Committee meetings, to gradually increase targeted violence.

The MCP aimed to prepare for full insurgency when the British further intensified arrests or banned the MCP and satellite organizations—something it expected by September 1948. It helped their decision that international communist policy was also moving away from peaceful coexistence with other parties in 1948, as the international Cold War gathered pace (Chin, 2003, pp. 195-207; Hack and Wade, 2009; Hack, 2021, pp. 26-56). It also helped that the MCP’s Secretary-General Lai Teck, the architect of the postwar ‘united front from above’ (hereafter called ‘united front’), was unveiled as a traitor in early 1948.

The choice of the term Emergency stemmed from the British and colonial practice of declaring Emergency powers at times of unrest (CO, 1948a). This allowed the authorities to preserve civil law, while issuing exceptional ‘regulations’ covering matters such as detention without trial. Emergency regulations would eventually grant wide powers over arrest, detention, deportation, residence, movement, and access to food.

The Malayan Emergency lasted until 31 July 1960, and was limited thereafter to border areas. Remnants of the MCP’s Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) continued to operate from the southern Thai border until December 1989, when peace accords were signed. There was a period of incursions and assassinations during a second, smaller Emergency, around 1968–1975 (Ong, 2015; Hack, 2021, pp. 459-465).

By contrast, during the peak of the first Emergency between 1950 and early 1952, up to 40,000 local and Commonwealth soldiers, 67,000 police, and 250,000 Home Guard faced around 7,000 to 8,000 insurgents who were backed by multiple mass organizers (Min Yuen) and up to a million sympathisers. Insurgents and supporters remained over 90 per cent Chinese, with significant minority support from Indians and Malay nationalists and trade unionists. Malay support included the all-Malay 10th Regiment, founded in Pahang in 1949, whose leaders included prominent left-wing Malays (The National Archives, UK, 1957a and 1957b).

But the ‘nationalist’ issue, or more bluntly the MCP and MNLA’s deficit in non-Chinese adherents, would remain a challenge for the MCP. Pre-existing Sino–Malay tensions, due to greater Chinese economic wealth, a Malay fear of being politically eclipsed, and Sino–Malay violence after the MCP briefly occupied many towns following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, all helped to limit broader MCP recruitment.

The struggle against Malaya’s Japanese occupiers from late 1941 to 1945 had made MCP-led anti-Japanese fighters’ heroes for many Chinese. But demands for recruits and support, and punishment of ‘collaborators’ led to violent Malay responses in some areas. Racial violence flared sporadically from April 1945 to March 1946, especially in parts of Perak and Johor, with several hundred killed (Cheah, 2012, pp. 170–239). This ended when some Malay sultans helped establish interracial goodwill committees, while the MCP and Chinese Chambers of Commerce appealed to Chinese for calm. After 1948, many wartime fighters, having previously demobilized (Figure 1) returned to arms.

Figure 1 Members of the wartime Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army march before demobilizing in December 1945
Source: Imperial War Museum.


The British authorities for their part had multiple reasons for pouring substantial resources into the Emergency and for preventing Malaya from becoming a communist state. Foremost was that Malaya’s tin and rubber exports earned up to one-third of the Sterling Area’s dollar income, even as late as 1950 (Hack, 2001, pp. 23). The Sterling Area comprised Britain, its empire, and a few countries that maintained their trade balances at the Bank of England. British companies also owned much of Malaya’s plantation sector and trading houses (White, 2021). In addition, Singapore was intended to be Britain’s main naval and military base east of Suez, with British and Gurkha forces stationed in Malaya to act as its main strategic reserve. Malayan security was, in addition, viewed as essential in the Cold War (Hack, 2001, pp. 22-6).

British commitment to winning was—like MCP’s motivation for turning to violence in 1948—unwavering such that, at the Emergency’s peak, Britain made all-out efforts to provide the extra resources Malaya needed, even with austerity at home.

Impacts of the Emergency

Over 10,500 people were killed in 1948–1960, or about 1 in 500 of a population that rose from around 5 million to 6 million in this period. Of the dead over half, or 6,711, were insurgents and supporters (Hack, 2001, pp. 456-457).

Tens of thousands were detained without trial, and over 30,000 people (including 29,287 Chinese, representing more than 1 per cent of the Chinese population) deported. The vast majority were deported before the end of 1952 (Hack, 2021, pp. 156; Low, 2016; The National Archives, UK, 1957b, p. 35). In 1952, an extension of citizenship to most people born in Malaya and having at least one Malayan-born parent vastly reduced the number who were non-citizens and thus could be deported.

The Emergency accelerated urbanization, especially in the west-coast states. Forced resettlement from late 1949 to 1954 moved over 560,000 people to what were, from 1952, called ‘New Villages’ (Hack, 2021, p. 199). Many New Villages had over 1,000 people, and/or adjoined existing settlements (Map 1). A similar number of mining and plantation labourers were clustered into more defensible labour lines, so the total involved in both types of movement was over 1 million. Most of those resettled were wrenched from jungle fringes.

Map 1 Spaces of confinement in the Malayan Emergency, 1954
Note: On ‘Black Areas’, see text below.
Source: Baillargeon, 2021. ‘The Malayan emergency: Digital Map’. Courtesy of David Baillargeon. 
See also: https://cotca.org/blog/the-malayan-emergency-digital-map/



What began as a trickle of facilities—including schools, static or visiting medical teams, community halls, and recreational fields—gradually expanded, with the eventual introduction of local elections (Tan, 2020; Hack, 2021, pp. 116-119, 157-163, 253-258).). By 1954, almost one-third of New Villages had ‘local authority’ status, enabling them to raise their own rates (a local tax on property) (Corry, 1954). Thus, spartan huts, barbed wire surrounds, dawn gateway searches as people departed for work, and miserable conditions that led the MCP to dub the villages ‘concentration camps’, slowly improved.

While critics rightly excoriate the worst early conditions, many of the resettled had previously enjoyed few facilities, and even acquisition of shared standpipes for water was something that some Malay villages would see only later. Gradually, restrictions and fences would disappear. At the peak, New Villagers made up almost 10 per cent of the population, with New Villages by the early 2000s containing over 1.65 million people, with some having been absorbed into towns (Hack, 2021, pp. 199, 227). Others, such as Sagil New Village, remain rural even today (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Sagil New Village in Johor looking toward Gunung Ladang (Mount Ophir), 2015

Source: Karl Hack.


Resettlement strategies

Resettlement was pivotal in turning the tide in the Emergency in 1950–1952 by facilitating broader geo-demographic control—linked control of space and people. Their impact varied by periods of the Emergency: Terror and approach to counter-terror, 1948–1949; Coercion and control, 1950–1952; and Optimization, mid-1952–1960.

Terror and approach to counter-terror, 1948–1949
In this first period there was no systematic resettlement, and many rural Chinese remained ‘squatters’ (residing without title) near the jungle edge. So, security forces, who lacked intelligence on the enemy, exerted ‘pressure’ on those rural populations believed to be aiding the communists most (Hack, 2021, pp. 108-28)—what Anthony Short dubs ‘the approach to counter-terror’ (Short, 2000, p. 160). At worst this resulted in huts burned, and some civilians shot when patrols opened fire at people who ran. There were even a few cases of several to up to 24 people being shot in one go, most notoriously at Sungei Remok near Batang Kali, north Selangor, in December 1948. A patrol of Scots Guards detained rubber tappers and families, used mock executions to try to terrify them into confessions, and finally shot most of the unarmed male villagers. We will never know for sure precisely how or why this happened—calculated murder or one shooting leading other soldiers to follow suit—but we do know this was the extreme result of viewing rural Chinese as potential communist supporters to be coerced (Ward and Miraflor, 2009; Hack, 2018).

In 1949 this pressure on rural Chinese, and especially on squatters along the jungle fringe, was brought under control but also extended in scope, in what can be termed ‘bureaucratic counter-terror’. In January, troops were ordered to ‘shout before you shoot’ when people ran, and to avoid shooting—other than young males—those deliberately evading cordons or capture. Registration of the population was now mostly complete, which made identification easier, as did improvements in Special Branch, and the expansion of the Home Guard, regular police, and military forces (Hack, 2021). But under 1949’s Emergency Regulation 17D (ER17D), people in 16 rural areas were rounded up en masse and their populations shipped off to detention in 1949; from December 1948, large numbers were deported (CO, 1950, and Hack, 2021, pp. 143–148).

So, where 1948 saw information-short and frightened police and young British conscripts sweep large areas and shoot at running people who might not be insurgents, 1949 was increasingly ‘bureaucratic’. Where in 1948 people were moved, arrested, sometimes deported, or shot, all on sparse information, in 1949 the process was more targeted. Instead of lives ended, ‘structural harm’ was more typically inflicted on suspects—namely the arrest, detention, and deportation of themselves or their family (Hack, 2018).

Coercion and control, 1950–1952
In 1950 to early 1952, things again transformed, as a second main period began. Resettlement had begun in late 1949 but exploded under the plan of Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs—the Briggs Plan. Arriving in Malaya for the new post of Director of Operations in March 1950, Briggs supercharged resettlement from a trickle to a flood, with most completed in 1950–1951. He also tied it into an overall scheme of control of people, place, food, and movement.

Expanded resettlement would make insurgent movements more predictable, killing zones possible, and allow punishment and reward to be targeted. This brought incidents to a peak in 1951 (Table 1), as the insurgents desperately sought to obstruct the new policy and its erosion of their logistics, but during 1952 incidents slumped. By now, a Special Branch that in 1948 had had few Chinese speakers was also turning into an effective organization, able to plot insurgent movements and to ‘turn’ selected insurgents who had surrendered against their former comrades (Comber, 2008).

Table 1 Number of incidents
Source of data: The National Archives, UK, 1957a. The National Archives, UK, 1957b.


Optimization, mid-1952–1960
With General Sir Gerald Templer’s February 1952 arrival as supremo—joint High Commissioner and Director of Operations—new energy flowed through the administration. With a maturing resettlement programme, he gradually instituted the third period, of ‘optimization’. Police were retrained in 1952–1953, the trickle of amenities to New Villages accelerated, and experimentation showed how whole areas could be ‘cleared’ of insurgent committees. Refined in Pahang in 1953–1955, the new approach gradually pushed insurgents northwards in that state.

From September 1953, areas with few incidents were declared ‘White Areas’ and controls eased but selected ‘Black Areas’ now experienced months-long and large operations. The initial subperiod saw intelligence gathering, the second arrests of insurgent helpers and tightened food and other restrictions to isolate them, and the third intensified military and police operations as insurgents were forced to come out of the jungle to secure food and support from villagers and tappers. Then, as more insurgents surrendered, MCP committees could be targeted and destroyed. Once the operation ceased, forces could be released from it, and a new large operation opened elsewhere (Clutterbuck, 1984, pp. 211-260; Hatton 2004, pp. 200-222; Hack, 2021, pp. 349-367). Thus, operations in Pahang cleared most of the state of MCP committees by early 1955, when propaganda expert Osman China (Chinese but raised by a Malay family) surrendered (Figure 3). Such ‘surrendered enemy personnel’ represented around 20 per cent of those lost by the MNLA yearly until surrenders spiralled in 1957–1960.

Figure 3 The January 1955 surrender of Osman China and his leaflet appeal to comrades to surrender
Source: National Archives Malaysia, Accession No: 1972-0001407W; ‘Leaflet No. 3467: Osman China to Sg. Plus Comrades’.

Throughout 1953–1960, these large operations moved from one area to another and the number of White Areas increased, while those surrendering started to include more and more higher officials. At the same time, decolonization accelerated.

Decolonization

The MCP would later argue that its actions helped to force Britain to accelerate decolonization, but this claim remains highly contested. The core driver of the pace of decolonization lay elsewhere, in intercommunal relations. After the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) forced Britain to reconsider its Malayan Union plans to strip Malay Sultans of their sovereignty and grant most people citizenship, in 1946–47, intercommunal relations were strained. It took several years, from meetings of a Communities Liaison Committee— encouraged by the British authorities and comprising political leaders—in 1948–1950 through to early 1952, for a viable solution to arise. When it did, it was one that contradicted both the British and MCP desires for ‘Malayan’ intercommunal politics, that is, one based on intercommunal parties. The MCP, despite its own non-Malay deficit, remained committed to that ‘Malayan’ ideal, including through promoting non-Chinese to senior party positions.

The British authorities had initially slowed decolonization plans because of violence. They then tried to provide space for intercommunal parties to arise through the Communities Liaison Committee, then through town elections, starting with Penang in December 1951. Their hope was that intercommunal politics would emerge from the ground up. But the opposite happened: communally based parties’ reactions to the elections would set the pace of decolonization. Specifically, UMNO and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA, founded in 1949) feared that Dato Onn’s new Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) might win Kuala Lumpur town elections in February 1952. Onn, the charismatic founder of UMNO, had now put IMP on a multicommunal platform, after he failed to persuade UMNO to allow in non-Malay members.

Local UMNO and MCA leaders forged the initial alliance which, after triumphing in February’s Kuala Lumpur elections, spawned the national Alliance that would win the first federal elections of 1955. Even after that victory, and the resulting formation by Tunku Abdul Rahman of an Alliance-led government, the pace of decolonization accelerated only slightly. The key to such acceleration was Alliance partners showing that they could maintain unity and forge compromises over tricky issues, such as citizenship and Malay rights.

So, although Chin Peng would claim that ‘Without our struggle, I do not think the British would grant independence to Malaya. Or it will be many years later’ (Chin and Hack, 2004, pp. 234–235), it seems that insurgent influence was mostly indirect. Such influence may have helped to ensure that UMNO was the main Malay contender because left-wing parties were banned or dispersed, and that the MCA was the main Chinese party owing to the MCP’s own banning. In addition, this influence gave UMNO and the MCA a common enemy.

The ‘Revolution’: MCP strategies

The MCP decided to up violence and prepare for eventual full insurrection in March–May 1948. That reversed Lai Teck’s 1945–1948 policy of seeking a united front (cooperating with other anti-imperialist parties), along with the moderate 8 Points of the MCP’s February 1945 manifesto. That manifesto had abandoned the earlier policy of seeking both independence and a Malayan Democratic Republic. Instead, the 8 Points sought full self-government, along with far-reaching freedoms of assembly and rights to education and reforms, such as an 8-hour day and paid holidays (MCP, 1946).

From 1945 to 1947 the MCP’s aim had been to unite with other parties in a united front to pressure the British authorities, while strengthening its own position by organizing squatters and trade unions.

Just as the Federation of Malaya was being inaugurated, on 1 February 1948, the MCP Central Committee decided that this united front policy had failed, by not preventing Federation or the restoration of earlier, more generous citizen proposals. The MCP was also faced with tightening trade union legislation, and the squatters were starting to be moved out of jungle fringes, and off company and state land. At a time when international communism was moving towards a united front via more violent support of people’s demands, the MCP followed suit with two sets of decisions:
  • March 1948 Central Committee meeting: to increase selective violence and killings against people frustrating MCP policies and strikes, such as Kuomintang officers, and labour contractors and strike breakers.
  • May 1948 Central Committee meeting: to begin preparations for eventual full insurgency, to start if the British further tightened controls or banned the party and its institutions; and gradually to move key figures underground.

Theoretically, these decisions should have prepared the ground for revolt over several months, including recruiting more Malays and Indians (Indians notably on rubber plantations). But the British responded faster than expected, declaring the Emergency in June. The MCP then had to scramble to accelerate mobilization, which up to that point had involved no more than groups of a dozen or two armed men per state. For the first few months of the Emergency, its state committees operated semi-independently in sabotage and attacks, in effect ‘nine separate insurgencies all running at the same time’ (Chin, 2003, p. 226).

Even before the dispersed Central Committee could meet again, the overall strategic thinking of the MCP shaped its early campaign: namely that of Central Committee member and military thinker Lau Yew (killed by security forces in July 1948). He argued that in the Japanese occupation, guerrillas had gone too deep into the jungle. Now they should concentrate near its edge, to give strong support to rural dwellers and build support areas there. He believed that they should be a true ‘people’s army’. Hence in some rural areas insurgents now lived in or near supportive villages, sometimes openly meeting. This intermingling in turn intensified security forces’ perceptions that these areas were acting as communist ‘bases’, which explained the forces’ tendency to shoot those who ran, and later to ‘pressure’ or sweep areas, or in 1949 to use Emergency Regulation 17D operations to detain the populations of some villages (The National Archives, UK, 1948; CO, 1948b, Hack, 2021, pp. 89-94).
There was also an additional longer-term aim of gradually building up at least two liberated areas and main bases—notably one south and one north—and then expanding areas under control. So, in Maoist style, there were to be three main phases:
  • establish mobile and irregular guerrilla forces;
  • set up main bases and liberated areas; and
  • surround the towns and take power.

But with each state in effect running its own mini-campaign, some insurgents jumped the gun on moving from the first to second phase. Notably, in July 1948 a force in Kelantan briefly seized the isolated northern village of Pulai and town of Gua Musang, only to be driven out a few days later. Likewise, a July 1948 daylong attack at the coal-mining town of Batu Arang proved of dubious value. Some equipment was damaged, and it provoked a government sweep of a nearby area identified as supporting insurgents.

By then, however, the MCP had instituted its new, December 1948 strategy. In fact, it would rapidly run through two strategies: December 1948’s ‘Strategic Problems in the Malayan Revolutionary War’ and an associated strategic plan; and December 1949’s ‘Supplementary Opinions’ on the above (CO, 1948c and 1948d; Chin, 2003, pp. 237–238; Hack, 2021, pp. 171-175).

December 1948 Strategy
The December 1948 strategy called for concentrating some ‘main strength forces’ in 1949, to prepare the way for a base each in the north near Gua Musang, and the south, and possibly a supplementary one near the Thai border. Perak’s MCP sent MNLA forces northwards to Kelantan to seed a new 12th MNLA Regiment in 1949. But the regiment far outran logistics, suffered severe hunger, and soon had to reduce its size.

A second, temporarily more successful concentration was attempted in the central state of Pahang. MNLA forces were diverted there from north Johore, and Malays were sent from other states to help expand the 10th Regiment. These forces then launched company-size attacks (100–200 strong) in 1949. But, determined to stymy growth in Malay insurgent strength, the British concentrated large forces and mauled the Pahang insurgents. By year-end the 10th Regiment was, temporarily at least, in a very bad way, with many surrendering. The December 1948 strategy failed. And despite realizing there was a political problem by mid-1949, the MCP would fail to seriously push for a wider united front again for a couple more years.

December 1949 Supplementary Opinions
Given 1949’s setbacks, the Central Committee issued December 1949’s ‘Supplementary Opinions’, based on the MCP’s realization that it had tried to move faster than its logistics would allow. The new orders therefore recommended a slower approach to establishing main bases, and so moving to the second phase.

The new plan was to slowly build up more dispersed stores in each state, such that each state or area could support at least one force of one to two companies initially (over 100 fighters), even if many dumps were found by the British. In this way stronger forces would coalesce, attacking remote police posts and creating mini semi-liberated areas. That would force government forces to disperse so, as insurgent forces accumulated, the ground would be prepared for a transition to having one or two larger main forces later.

The MCP’s December 1949 plan now drove a new pattern of incidents. The big Pahang attacks subsided from late 1949. But in some states, one or two platoons targeted isolated outposts. The most infamous attack was the overrunning of the police post at Bukit Kepong, inland on north Johor’s Muar River, in February 1950. This more dispersed upsurge, including Bukit Kepong, convinced the British authorities that they must appoint a Director of Operations, with Harold Rawdon Briggs arriving to take up this post in March.

The Briggs Plan

The Briggs Plan and its vastly accelerated resettlement started in earnest in June 1950. MCP strategies played a major part, alongside British decisions, in shaping developments. Things that have more usually been seen in isolation, such as the Bukit Kepong attack and the rising incidents of early 1950, need to be contextualized against shifting MCP strategies.

What drove the pattern in the Emergency from June 1950 to early 1952 was the competition between the MCP’s December 1949 plan for a slower preparation for the second phase, and the Briggs Plan for intensified and generalized geo-demographic control. The MCP quickly recognized that Briggs’s intensity of resettlement would undermine its plan—which required large-scale supplies from rural inhabitants, not the more restricted flow they could smuggle out of resettlements. Hence, it issued the August 1950 ‘Guide to the Anti-Resettlement Campaign’, which called for determined action against resettlement, and led to resistance to early resettlement attempts and to killings of those who collaborated with the British authorities.

These MCP and British plans drove violence in 1950–1951 (see Table 1), peaking in late 1951. The question became: which side would scale back first? The answer came in September–October 1951, when Emergency incidents were still near peak levels. By now the Central Committee felt resettlement was seriously affecting supplies, and that it had to forestall this intensifying. The MCP’s resistance to resettlement was also affecting support, as what it now recognized as ‘excesses’ of violence, especially widespread sabotage, and public killings of ‘running dogs’, harmed people’s livelihoods. The MCP had failed to prevent resettlement, so what should it do now?

The long war

Above all, however, the MCP leadership decided that the December 1949 plan to reach the second phase (setting up main bases) could not now work, nor could its forces destroy resettlements. It therefore switched to what might be termed a ‘long war’ plan. The ‘October 1951 Resolutions’ (actually two main resolutions and several practical sets of instructions) called for:
  • Consolidating mass interests, above all. For instance, calibrating demands on the resettled so as to retain their support, and minimizing actions that hurt people’s interests, and doing more to support better livelihoods; and moving a share of forces from the MNLA to closer support of the Min Yuen. 
  • Strengthening the MNLA by moving away from big attacks and working on new logistical measures. For instance, moving to mainly platoon-strength (12 and under) attacks, and restricting targets mainly to military forces, to maintain survivability, efficiency, and morale. They also called for strengthening security, and increasing supplies from outside the resettlements. The latter included a key plan for jungle farming, and moving command and other key units deeper into the jungle, with more reliance on aboriginal tribes—the Orang Asli. 
  • Strengthening the united front, so neglected since 1948, in line with Chinese ‘united front’ theory, thus distinguishing between ‘incorrigible enemies’ and ‘potential allies’ in the ‘bourgeoisie’ (business and intelligentsia). For instance, the new instructions stipulated that forces should not automatically attack lower-level MCA officials, even if the main leaders remained legitimate targets; and should put more emphasis on support in the towns, and cooperating with trade unions. The Central Committee also recognized that Malay and Indian work needed to be led by Malays and Indians wherever possible.

Much has been written about these resolutions having either political or military causes; and as having mainly political or military consequences (see, for example, Short, 2000). In fact, a review of the MCP documents, Chin Peng’s enlightening but sometimes partial account, and British documents, suggests deep intermeshing of all these areas. Mass organization, the military, and the political were intertwined as cause, and especially as intended consequence, but the primary concern was to strengthen mass organization that underpinned the struggle in all its forms.

Overall, the October 1951 plan was to put the military effort on a lower but persistent level, build up logistics and support around New Villages and in the jungle fringes, and slowly rebuild the long-neglected broader united front, so that, at an unspecified future point, possibly when international events also moved in their favour, the MCP could again scale up and seek the ever more distant second phase (Colonial Office, 1951; Chin, 2003, pp. 279-85; Hack, 2021, pp. 247-86). The MCP had gone from December 1948 plans for a quick move to the second phase, through December 1949 plans for a medium-term build-up via multiple-state forces, to a long-war recognition that the second phase would be postponed for the foreseeable future (Chin, 2003, p. 319).

Such were the MCP orders issued, ironically just as High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney was assassinated on 6 October 1951, and the British authorities went into crisis mode, too. The MCP’s new orders would send incident levels plummeting in 1952, especially from around March–May (Hack, 2021, pp. 274–279).

The October 1951 Resolutions also represented a rejection of internal critics’ claims that the leadership was undemocratic and had made mistakes (Lam, 1951), and that the ‘offer’ to people should be extended, for instance to distributing plantation land to workers, while the military side of revolution ought perhaps to be stopped or reduced.

The Central Committee rejected these approaches (Too’s notes, undated, pp. 93–95; Hack, 2021, pp. 257-261). By contrast, its October 1951 Resolutions envisaged a long-term return to larger-scale forces, and the MCP stuck to its policy that big industry only should be nationalized, and large enterprises kept together. The offer to, say, Malay peasants remained much as it had been from December 1948: distributing more state land, and establishing a rural bank with low-interest loans. For non-Malay citizens the offer still included citizenship for those who regarded Malaya as their home, together with equal ‘Malayan’ rights for all in Malaya and Singapore combined, plus extended labour rights (Imperial War Museum, 1950; Colonial Office, 1951).

Conclusion

This exercise in tracing MCP strategies and how they combined with British counterinsurgency plans to shape events merits further research. We limit ourselves here to outlining what followed the October 1951 Resolutions:

  • The long-war plan to revert to the second phase of setting up main bases failed. The MCP Central Committee retreated to the Thai border by 1953, and the security forces moved into the jungle to destroy planting there and contest Orang Asli support from new ‘jungle forts’. The mass organization did make eradicating insurgent support in any one area incredibly difficult, but the insurgents nevertheless suffered a slow, deadly squeeze by security forces—incidents plummeted in 1952 and continued falling, so that by 1955 MCP military activity was under increasing strain. 
  • The united front expansion after 1952 had some success, but more in Singapore than Malaya. Even the knowledge that the MCP was aiming at such increased subversion and united front activity—however baldly stated in the October 1951 Resolutions—would further shape British and Alliance responses, and made them hyper-alert to anything that might conceivably be communist influenced. 
  • In December 1955 at Baling, Chin Peng with two colleagues tried to negotiate an end to the Emergency with Alliance leaders. These leaders’ refusal to compromise on recognition of the MCP that he desired, or its fighters coming out without some sort of initial screening, aborted the talks but also won British confidence and so further accelerated decolonization. In early 1956, internal security control passed to Alliance ministers, and they were promised independence in two or more years’ time depending on negotiations on details (Chin and Hack, 2004, pp. 171-185; Chin, 2003, pp. 387-396).
  • In 1958, after independence in August 1957, with optimized large operations gradually ‘clearing’ remaining Malayan areas of MCP committees, and with increasing numbers of communist cadres surrendering, the MCP finally decided to downscale operations and demobilize much of its border force. That in turn accelerated the path to the formal end of the Emergency on 31 July 1960.

Though the MCP at the Thai border, inspired by Chinese support, would again seek to build up forces from 1962, it would never again threaten Malaya or Malaysia in the way it had in the 1940s and 1950s. MCP policies, combined with British actions and other Malayan political players, helped to shape Malaya’s history in those two decades. The Emergency contributed to the emerging pattern of politics and to urbanization, leaving a society sensitized by insurgent violence and state counter-coercion.

***

After the December 1989 peace agreement with Thailand and Malaysia, Secretary-General Chin Peng visited archives and met historians. This eventually resulted in his memoirs (Chin, 2003) and the ‘Dialogues with Chin Peng’ (Chin and Hack, 2004) (Figure 4). Combined with reading government archives ‘against the grain’, such insurgent writing can help others to piece together the communist strategies.

Note: Chin Peng is top in the photograph, gesturing towards Anthony Short (in yellow shirt) and to the author (in off-white shirt).
Source: Karl Hack.
Further reading:

Baillargeon, D. 2021. ‘Spaces of the Malayan Emergency, Digital Map at Cultures of Occupation in Twentieth Century Asia (COTCA)’, https://cotca.org/blog/the-malayan-emergency-digital-map/. Accessed 26 August 2023.

Cheah, B. K. (2012), Red Star Over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation, 1941–1946 (4th edn., Singapore: NUS Press).

Chin, P. 2003. My Side of History as told to Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor. Singapore: Media Masters.

Chin, C. C. and Hack, K. (eds.). 2004. Dialogues with Chin Peng: New Light on the Malayan Communist Party. Singapore: NUS Press.

Clutterbuck, R. 1984. Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia, 1945-1983. Singapore: Graham Brash.

Colonial Office (CO). 1948a. CO 717/210/2. Malayan Union and Singapore: Law and Order’. Minute by CO official O.H. Morris, 8 June 1948, and comments on it; and telegram no. 625, Federation of Malaya (Gent) to CO, 15 June 1948. Kew: The National Archives.

______ 1948b. CO 537/4246. Communism: Federation of Malaya and Singapore. Kew: The National Archives.

______ 1948c. CO 537/4766. Translation of ‘Strategic Problems in the Malayan Revolutionary War’. Kew: The National Archives.

______ 1948d. CO 537/4775. Strategic Plan, MCP. Special Branch translation. Kew: The National Archives.

______ 1950. CO 717/210/1. Appendix A to Federal Legislative Paper No. 14 of 1950, ‘The Squatter Problem in the Federation of Malaya in 1950’. Kew: The National Archives.

______1951. CO 1022/187. Functions and Activities of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), 1951–1953, including the October 1951 Resolutions and Commentary on them. Kew: The National Archives.

Comber, L. 2008. Malaya’s Secret Police 1945-1960: The Role of Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency. Singapore: ISEAS.

Corry, W. C. S. 1954. A General Survey of New Villages: Report to H.E. Sir Donald McGillivray. Kuala Lumpur: Government Printers.

Hack, K. 2001. Defence and Decolonisation in Southeast Asia: Britain, Malaya and Singapore, 1941–1968. Richmond: Curzon.

______ 2018. ‘Devils that Suck the Blood of the Malayan People: The Case for Post-Revisionist Analysis of Counter-insurgency Violence’. War in History, 25(2) pp. 202–226.

______ 2021. The Malayan Emergency: Revolution and Counterinsurgency at the End of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hack, K. and Wade, G. 2009. ‘Introduction: The Origins of the Asian Cold War’ in the ‘Asian Cold War Symposium’, Special Edition of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 441–448.

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