(1948-1960) Defeating Leftist Insurgency
Gurkhas disembark from a Sikorsky Whirlwind HAR.21, WV192 ‘D’, of No 848 Naval Air Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, at a jungle landing zone.
Armourers of the Royal Air Force attach rockets to a Bristol Beaufighter aircraft of 45 Squadron prior to its flying a strike operation on a communist terrorist target in the Malayan jungle. © IWM (DM 160)
A convoy of vehicles of the Malayan Armoured Corps, escorted by a pair of Daimler scout cars, move along a road through the jungle, circa 1951.
The Malayan Emergency, which lasted from 16 June 1948 to 31 July 1960, began when the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the government of Malaya. The MCP primarily drew support from the Chinese community, whereas the Malay community actively opposed it. Led by Chin Peng (1921-), the MCP appeared to have the initiative in the Emergency’s early years. However, its support base was eroded by the resettlement of half a million Chinese squatters under the Briggs Plan. From 1952 to 1954, Lieutenant General Gerald Templer (t. 1952-1954), as high commissioner and director of operations, galvanized the government resources into victory. His “hearts and minds” strategy integrated social issues, politics, and the economy into the counterinsurgency campaign against which MCP responses proved inadequate. Under increasing military pressure and denied material support, the MCP’s insurgency became increasingly untenable. By 1961, remnants of the MCP finally withdrew to the Thai border area.
The MCP had emerged from the Pacific War (1941-1945) with a committed guerrilla force of over 6,000 and a strong support base among rural squatters. Overwhelmingly Chinese in membership, the MCP had little appeal to Malays, who were fearful of a Chinese takeover.
The MCP gained support during the turmoil of the postwar period, with an economy troubled by shortages of goods, corruption, poor wages, and high prices. Supporters included squatters in forest reserves who resisted, sometimes violently, British attempts to restrict their activities and many Chinese who felt alienated at the defeat of the Malayan Union proposals that had promised them easier citizenship. Under its moderate secretary-general, Loi Tek (Lai Tek), the MCP worked through mainly urban-based front organizations and industrial action, controlling the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU).
After Loi Tek was exposed as a Japanese and British agent in March 1947, leadership passed to Chin Peng, and the MCP adopted a more militant industrial strategy the following November. This change in policy coincided with increasing militancy outside Malaya, with the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Zhdanov declaring the world divided into two ideologically hostile camps. The government reacted with arrests and increasing control of trade union activity.
Early in 1948, the MCP realized that armed struggle was inevitable. At the same time, the government’s intelligence network was downplaying the MCP threat. Nevertheless, in June, the government outlawed the PMFTU. Fearing further crackdowns, the MCP commenced preparations to decamp to the jungle. On 16 June 1948, armed elements of the MCP killed three European estate workers at Sungei Siput, Perak. Two days later, the government declared a state of emergency.
The MCP was caught by surprise, and several senior members were arrested. Nevertheless, jungle camps were established within reach of the group’s support network, the Min Yuen (People’s Movement), among some half million Chinese squatters who provided recruits, food, supplies, and intelligence. They obtained arms and ammunition from hidden Pacific War caches or captured from the security forces and relied on couriers or the regular mail for communication. The MCP’s military arm, the Malayan People’s Anti-British Army (MPABA), which was renamed the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) in February 1949, rapidly gained prominence in western Malaya.
The MCP’s strategy was to establish “liberated areas” from which to capture towns and instigate a general revolt. During the ensuing campaign of economic disruption, MCP members slashed rubber trees and destroyed equipment, and they assassinated estate managers, police, and others. In 1948 and 1949, MPABA/MRLA incidents totaled 2,716, rising to 4,739 in 1950 (Short 1975: 507). Recruitment of new MRLA members more than offset the loss of 2,842 individuals from 1948 to 1950 (killed, captured, or surrendered) (Short 1975: 507), and MRLA strength rose from 5,000 in 1949 to 8,200 in 1951 (Coates 1992: 73, n. 46).
Malaya’s rubber and tin industries were Britain’s largest earners of foreign exchange, vital for both Britain’s and Malaya’s postwar economic recovery. This fact ensured Britain’s active resistance to the MCP’s threat. However, the government’s response was initially indecisive and hampered by insufficient resources. The new high commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney (t. 1948-1951), was criticized for failing to realize the gravity of the Emergency. The army and police were unprepared to fight a counterinsurgency war. Poor intelligence and a weak police-army liaison seriously limited the ability to make an effective military response.
The government resorted to coercion, detention, and deportation to China. The bulk of this work fell to the police. The Malayan police force, however, was too small and inadequately armed and equipped to fully meet the MCP threat. A new force of over 40,000 special constables (mostly Malays) was established to guard estates and mines, but inexperience and inadequate training limited their effectiveness. The government also recruited police with experience in Palestine, but their methods alienated many. The MCP appeared to have the initiative.
It was not until 1950 that a director of operations, Lieutenant General Sir Harold Briggs, was appointed. His plan (the Briggs Plan mentioned earlier) addressed the Emergency’s underlying social, political, and economic causes and laid the basis for the government’s eventual victory. The plan aimed to ultimately starve out the MCP members by eliminating their support base. Squatters were resettled en masse in secure “New Villages”-by 1952, over 300,000 were resettled (Stubbs 1989: 102)-and estate and mine workers were similarly “regrouped.” The Police Special Branch was enlarged, and the Joint Intelligence Advisory Committee was established. However, the security forces continued to be hampered by the paucity of high-quality intelligence. Militarily, tactics now avoided broadsweeping operations in favor of concentrated ones. Briggs’s control, however, was frustrated by an indirect command structure.
As the Briggs Plan took effect, reactive MRLA attacks increased markedly and in October 1951 caused the MCP to adopt a major new strategy. The MCP also found its original terror tactics had alienated potential supporters. In order to increase their popular support, MCP members emphasized political work through front organizations above the military struggle (MRLA incidents fell from 564 in October 1951 to just 99 in April 1953) (Coates 1992: 193, 197). They countered the government’s operations to deny them food by cultivating food at bases deep in the jungle. They were also able to win over the support of the Orang Asli, various aboriginal groups. The MCP utilized the Orang Asli as a source for food and natural medication, safe havens deep in the forest, and intelligence.
In 1951, after 504 deaths among the security forces and with the MRLA seemingly unchecked, public confidence in the government plummeted. On 6 October 1951, Gurney was ambushed and killed. Briggs retired in November, and both the director of intelligence and the police commander departed Malaya. The fortunes of the government had now reached their nadir, and the British government needed to drastically change its approach.
The British government appointed Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Templer (1898-1979) as both high commissioner and director of operations, duties he commenced in February 1952. Templer’s forceful and inspirational personality injected a new sense of purpose and confidence into the antiguerrilla struggle. By the time he left in May 1954, government forces had secured large areas of Malaya, and complete victory was in sight.
Fortuitously for Templer, the Malayan economy in 1952 was booming. The Korean War (1950-1953) had caused tin prices to almost double and rubber to rise by over 400 percent. The resulting increased revenue helped fund the antiguerrilla campaign. For the general population, rising incomes and low unemployment diminished their sense of dissatisfaction.
Templer considered the “hearts and minds” battle to be even more important than the military battle, and he succeeded in largely neutralizing potential support for the MCP. Conditions in the New Villages greatly improved. Villages that supported the government were rewarded, and recalcitrant ones were punished. The institution of elections for village councils and higher levels of government aided in the building of a united nation of Malaya and eventual independence.
All civil and military resources were coordinated to defeat the MCP. Efficient decision-making bodies and processes were established. A revitalized Police Special Branch provided military planners with high-quality intelligence. Sustained, systematic operations against the Min Yuen complemented smaller-scale patrolling against an increasingly fragmented MRLA. Radio, films, leafleting, and aerial broadcasting disseminated sophisticated propaganda. Constant pressure caused increasing guerrilla surrenders and subsequently more intelligence and further inroads against the insurgent forces. From December 1952, a permanent security force presence was maintained in a system of forts deep in the jungle in order to win over the Orang Asli who still supported the MRLA. Positive contact, security from the MRLA, medical facilities, and trading stores were real inducements that the MCP could not match.
In September 1953, Templer announced the first “White Area” (in Melaka), wherein restrictive Emergency regulations would be lifted. This return to normalcy was a major psychological boost and provided a very good reason to support the government. By 1956, almost half of Malaya’s population lived in White Areas.
The MCP now faced some serious dilemmas. Min Yuen support was removed, the deep jungle cultivations were being destroyed, and difficulties with north-south communications had caused the MCP to split its command between Chin Peng on the Thai border and Hor Lung in the south. As well, the electoral dominance of the Alliance Party and its promotion of independence had robbed the MCP of its political initiative.
With the wider communist world extolling peaceful coexistence, the climate for negotiations was ripe. On 28 and 29 December 1955, Chin Peng and Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903- 1990) met at Baling, Kedah. However, with Chin Peng’s insistence on legal recognition of the MCP and Tunku Abdul Rahman’s equal insistence on an MCP surrender, the talks broke down.
By 1957, the MRLA, though numbering over 2,000 (Short 1975: 489), was split into isolated groups, and their guerrilla existence was increasingly untenable. This led to a rapid increase in surrenders, which rose from 134 in 1956 to 209 in 1957 and 502 in 1958 (Short 1975: 508), including that of Hor Lung, the MRLA’s southern commander.
By 1958, the military conflict was effectively over. Only 868 guerrillas remained with Chin Peng, who had retreated to the Thai-Malayan border area or southern Thailand. The security forces began a protracted mopping-up campaign. On 31 July 1960, the government declared the Emergency at an end. Throughout the Emergency, 6,711 insurgents were killed and 3,993 were captured or surrendered; 1,346 police and 519 soldiers were also killed, and a further 3,283 civilians were either killed or missing (Coates 1992: 202). Finally, on 2 December 1989, Chin Peng signed a peace agreement with Malaysia and Thailand.
The Malayan Emergency quickly became a model for successful counterinsurgency campaigns. In postcolonial Malaya (Malaysia after 1963), the Emergency presaged the formation of a nation-state that denied a role for left-wing politics but had unprecedented authority throughout Malayan/Malaysian society. Communalism retained its importance, but new sociopolitical institutions constrained its potential for divisiveness. The opening of the archival record has allowed historians new insights into the Malayan Emergency, including its influence on nation building, the government’s use of sociopolitical initiatives in counterinsurgency, and the paramountcy of the internal causes of the Emergency.
References: Aldrich, Richard J. 2001. The Hidden Hand: Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence. London: John Murray. Coates, John. 1985. Templer Tiger of Malaya: The Life of Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer. London: Harrap. —.1992. Suppressing Insurgency: An Analysis of the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1954. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Harper, Timothy N. 1999. The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Heng Pek Koon. 1988. Chinese Politics in Malaysia: A History of the Malaysian Chinese Association. Singapore: Oxford University Press. Jackson, Robert. 1991. The Malayan Emergency: The Commonwealth’s Wars 1948-1966. London and New York: Routledge. Leary, John D. 1995. Violence and the Dream People: The Orang Asli in the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies. Short, Anthony. 1975. The Communist Insurrection in Malaya, 1948-1960. London: Frederick Muller. Stockwell, A. J. 1993.”`A Widespread and Long- Concocted Plot to Overthrow the Government in Malaya?’The Origins of the Malayan Emergency.” Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 31, no. 3: 66-88. Stubbs, Richard. 1989. Hearts and Minds in Guerrilla Warfare: The Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960. Singapore: Oxford University Press. White, Nicholas J. 1996. Business, Government, and the End of Empire: Malaya, 1942-1957. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.