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The Malayan Emergency 1948-1960

National History - The Malayan Emergency

Background to the Emergency: MCP Trade Unionism

The MPAJA movement disbanded in 1945, but upon the assurance of the British, communists were granted the right to political involvement in post-war Malaya. The pinnacle of the MCP’s legal activities was the establishment of the General Labour Unions (GLU) in Singapore and all Malayan states, which staged several strikes and protests against unemployment, low wages, scarce food and stringent British laws controlling labour. At the height of its power, the pan-Malayan GLU, renamed the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) directly controlled 80-90% of Malaya’s unions. Committed party members were mainly drawn from Chinese and Indian workforce.

In 1947, the disappearance of Lai Tek, the MCP secretary-general who was post-humously revealed to be a double agent working for the federation, galvanized the party to adopt a new radical stance. Under the new hard-line successor, Chin Peng, calls for an armed insurrection materialized. Throughout 1947, there was a marked increase in communist propaganda and violence associated with industrial disputes, as well as attacks on mining and estate personnel. On 16 June 1948, the first overt act of the war took place when three European plantation managers were killed at Sungai Siput, Perak. Two days later, a State of Emergency was declared throughout Malaya and membership of the MCP was declared illegal a month later.

The MCP Stratagem

Emergency Regulations empowered the government to arrest and detain suspected communists without trial, so that by the end of 1948 a total of 1779 known communist sympathizers were held in detention and hundreds of others had been deported. The MCP decided to lay aside earlier plans for a popular uprising and retreated to the deep jungle to establish permanent bases. Furthermore, they developed strong popular support through the Min Yuen, or People’s Movement. In the early stages, these civilians provided supplies, intelligence and auxiliary combat units, although they were to become more involved in fighting in later years. The Min Yuen was especially active in the Chinese squatter settlement areas, whose inhabitants owed a debt of gratitude to the MCP for championing their cause against the British civil government’s efforts to evict them. Food, shelter and recruits were supplied to the guerrilla fighters within these areas.

British Response

The initial British policy of coercion and enforcement did little to stem the tidal wave of communist activity, and ineffectiveness was underscored by the poor organization and morale of the British-led police. In March 1950, a new initiative was introduced with the appointment of Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs as the new director of operations. His plan involved establishing complete security within populated areas so as to eliminate the Min Yuen and thus cripple the communist main forces (the Malayan Races Liberation Army). The communists would then be forced to evacuate the jungle areas and so be destroyed by security forces fighting on their own grounds.

Implementation of the plan was facilitated by wide-ranging security measures announced by the High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney in late1950. Chief among these was the resettlement programme, where Chinese squatter communities deemed to be infested with Min Yuen were relocated to guarded camps called ‘New Villages’ in order to isolate the guerillas from their main source of support. By the beginning of 1952, the programme was four-fifths completed with some 400 000 resettled in new areas.

In the face of setbacks, the communists put up a determined resistance. In 1951, they struck a severe blow to the morale of the government first by assassinating the high commissioner Henry Gurney on the road leading up to the small resort of Fraser’s Hill. This was followed up by a heightened spate of attacks on the civilian population in the following month. The retirement of Briggs in December, followed shortly by his death, and the departure of the commissioner of police, further contributed to the demoralization within the country.

However, the MCP itself was undergoing severe internal strains over questions of leadership and interpretation of the Communist Party line. In the 1951 October Resolutions, the Central Committee adopted a new policy that focused more on achieving political goals, raising morale, spreading propaganda and securing arms instead of militarist activities. This amounted to a loss of momentum, accentuated by Lieutenant-General Sir Gerald Templer’s announcement of a new approach that aimed to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of the general population in 1952.

The government’s renewed promises of total decolonization, achievement of which was hampered only by the Emergency, influenced a move away from communist support. Furthermore, the concept of ‘White Areas’ introduced in September 1953 rewarded districts free of guerilla influence by relaxing food restrictions and curfews as an inducement for people to co-operate with the government. Support for the communists was also undermined by the establishment of MCA branches in New Villages to promote its party image as a representative of the Chinese interest. Coupled with increasingly effective propaganda efforts, the government now had the upper hand in psychological warfare and by July 1954, guerrilla numbers had markedly declined and the Min Yuen were largely dismantled.

Towards Independence: The UMNO-MCA Alliance

An important part of Templer’s campaign to destroy communist forces included his public declaration to form a united Malayan nation. To this end, he introduced local elctions, village councils and Chinese citizenship to over half the Chinese population; merged the War Council with the Executive Council; and enabled the Chinese for the first time to enter the Malayan Civil Service. In April 1954, the British government confirmed that an election for a majority of Federal Council seats would be held in 1955 as a forerunner of national independence.

Political developments within Malaya itself began to blossom under the auspices of looming independence. For a time, efforts were made by the leaders of the MCA and UMNO, Tan Cheng Lock and Datuk Onn, for joint action between Malays and ‘law-abiding’ Chinese in the fight against communism. Ambitions to form a truly multi-ethnic party were however dashed, for Datuk Onn could not persuade UMNO to open the party to non-Malays, and his founding of the non-communal Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) in 1951 (and in 1954 the more pro-Malay Party Negara) received little grassroots Malay support. Likewise, Tan Cheng Lock’s proposal to incorporate non-Chinese into his part was also rejected by the MCA GEnreal Assembly.

Nevertheless, this did not prevent the Selangor branches of the UMNO and MCA from collaborating in the 1952 municipal elections. Both parties retained their separate identities and political objectives while acting as one body in determining the candidates and the party to contest a particular seat. Winning 9 seats, this coalition seemed to envision a possibility of a workable Malayan government.

Between the end of 1952 and 1954, the Alliance won 226 of 268 municipal and town council seats. Accepting political realities, the MIC allowed itself to be integrated into the Alliance after several years of opposition to the Federation Agreement, further validating the Alliance’s role in the eyes of the electorate as a viable candidate for government. Through a carefully worded manifesto and a strategic campaign that focused on gaining independence, the Alliance candidates gained a sweeping victory in the 1955 elections, obtaining 81% of the vote and 51 of 52 contested seats.

The Amnesty Declaration and Baling Talks

On September 8, 1955, the Government of the Federation of Malaya issued a declaration of amnesty to the Communists. The terms of the amnesty were as follows:

  • Those of you who come in and surrender will not be prosecuted for any offense connected with the Emergency, which you have committed under Communist direction, either before this date or in ignorance of this declaration.

  • You may surrender now and to whom you like including to members of the public.

  • There will be no general "ceasefire" but the security forces will be on alert to help those who wish to accept this offer and for this purpose local "ceasefire" will be arranged.

  • The Government will conduct investigations on those who surrender. Those who show that they are genuinely intent to be loyal to the Government of Malaya and to give up their Communist activities will be helped to regain their normal position in society and be reunited with their families. As regards the remainder, restrictions will have to be placed on their liberty but if any of them wish to go to China, their request will be given due consideration.

Intensive campaigning was launched following the declaration. Alliance Ministers in the Federal Government traveled extensively up and down the country exhorting the people to call upon the Communists to lay down their arms and take advantage of the amnesty. Public response was good, yet despite the efforts, few Communists submitted to the authorities. Having had ample warning of its declaration, they conducted intensive anti-amnesty propaganda in their ranks and among the mass organizations, tightened discipline and warned that defection would be severely punished.

Critics felt that that the amnesty approach was overly restrictive and advocated a more realistic and liberal approach of conducting direct negotiations with the MCP to work out a settlement. Within the Alliance itself, influential elements from both the MCA and UMNO endeavoured to persuade the Chief Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman to hold negotiations with the MCP to explore the possibility of a ‘peaceful co-existence’.

In December 1955, Chin Peng and MCP leaders, Rashid Maidin and Chen Tien, representing the Communists, met with Tunku Abdul Rahman, the new chief minister; Tan Cheng Lock, leader of the MCA; and David Marshall, chief minister of Singapore in a English Government School in Baling, Kedah. The meeting was intended to pursue a mutual end to the conflict but the Malayan government representatives dismissed all of Chin Peng's demands. The Tunku insisted that MCP members would have to abandon the party’s goals and activities in order to re-enter Malayan society, a stance that the MCP leaders were unable to accept. Thus, a political settlement was never reached.

The MCP lived out its eventual demise as the Alliance gained political strength in the final months leading up to total liberation from colonial rule. With the independence of Malaya under Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on 31 August 1957, the insurrection lost its rationale as a war of colonial liberation. The last serious resistance from MRLA guerrillas ended with a surrender in the Telok Anson marsh area in 1958. The Malayan Races Liberation Army ended its existence as an organized military unit and remaining guerillas fled to the Thai border and further east.

On 31 July 1960 the Malayan government officially declared the state of emergency over, and Chin Peng left south Thailand for Beijing where he was accommodated by the Chinese authorities in the International Liaison Bureau.


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