Caught between the crossfire: the grassroots experiences of violence during the Malayan Emergency of 1948-60

by Jacey Quah

As a strategic counter-insurgency paradigm, the Malayan Emergency was declared by the British in June 1948 to pre-empt the Malayan Communist Party (MCP)’s plans to launch armed conflict on a national scale. It derailed the political and social stability of Malaya, as the colonial administration enforced aggressive militant policies to fight the Chinese communists on the rural frontier. The British ‘counter-terror’  strategy emphasised population and spatial control, initiating ethnic-based violence, indirect violence through resettlement, and psychological warfare to consolidate power. As both a perpetrator of resistance and a victim of violence, the MCP’s retaliation can be interpreted as a byproduct of British colonialism, one cultivated under repression and desire for political representation. Under this violent political landscape, the Malayan people were inevitably caught between the crossfire of both sides.

MCP violence as resistance and a product of Malaya’s colonial context

Prior to the Emergency, limitations were imposed on MCP’s activities as part of British repression of  political opposition. With no hope in MCP’s constitutional endeavours, its radical faction proposed the resumption of armed rebellion as the inevitable solution. In April 1948, MCP strikes proliferated, as authorities were faced with a surge in violence and political murders. 

Upon the official declaration of Emergency on 16 June 1948, the leader of the MCP, Chin Peng, admitted that the party was ‘forced at the outset onto the defensive,’ driven underground to quickly devise a plan of active resistance. The British had expected such an armed revolt; in fact, they cultivated the situation by inciting MCP’s radical action. It can be argued that through constant state oppression, Britain had sharpened a double-edged sword – it fostered the communists’ desire to enact retribution and violence to achieve Malayan independence. The state of Emergency was also to British advantage, as MCP’s acts of violence justified the government’s escalation of their own barrage of arrests and exiles, and the enforcement of the death penalty. 

Due to the mass detention of communist insurgents and sympathisers, MCP intelligence eventually began to surface, aiding authorities in their communist crackdown. Early interrogation methods were performed without restraint, as ‘excessive strong-arm measures’ and ‘highly-vaunted truth drugs’ were used to extract information. 

However, the MCP refused to surrender to the British, fighting state violence with their own form of guerrilla violence. In response to the British ‘counter-terror’ strategy, the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) restructured its dwindling numbers into the Min Yuen ( Mass Organisation) established to function with rural squatters despite the rising presence of British army patrols. From late 1949, it initiated widespread attacks and acts of sabotage, aiming to disrupt and halt Britain’s exploitation of Malaya’s rubber industry. This led to the escalation of the British offensive, and Chen Xiuzhu, a member of the MCP guerrilla army, asserts that the eventual independence of Malaya ‘was won through our struggle [and suffering]… yet we were treated like criminals’ by official British discourse.

Struggle over control of Malayan labour unions: before and during the Emergency

Before 1948, the MCP had effectively consolidated its support base by rallying workers and harnessing their socio-economic grievances into political strikes for improved working conditions. The prior success of these initiatives informed Britain’s response to the Emergency – by launching state repression over trade unions to subdue the Communists, it led to the collapse of unions and overall union membership. Malcolm MacDonald, the British Commissioner-General, insisted that the Communists have been plotting for control since 1946, aiming to procure power ‘through violent means [and] infiltration into… trade unions.’ The ‘communist plot’ reports justified the government’s elimination of multiethnic trade unions, resulting in the establishment of separate, ethnic-based unions controlled by state apparatus. This widespread repression eventually subverted the unions’ influence and capacity to join forces with the MCP. Along with forced relocation and pervasive censorship, coercive large-scale violence severed the union ties forged among thousands of wage labourers involved in strikes against exploitative employers, causing a destructive regression in labour rights activism. Decisive control over Malayan workers was crucial for the government – the manipulation and proliferation of internal ethnic conflicts ensured the destruction of the organisational power of labour unions, thus circumventing potential class uprisings. By shifting class grievances onto a racialised, ethnic-based rhetoric, colonial acts of violence and the imposition of state terror was justified. 

British aggravation of ethnic tensions and racial targeting of the Chinese

During the Emergency, the British aggravated pre-existing ethnic tensions to consolidate control over Malaya. An estimated half a million workers were forcibly relocated in camps named New Villages, serving two main objectives: to concentrate Chinese workers together and to segregate the Chinese and Malay on ethnic grounds. The government deployed the manipulative, ‘invidious strategy’ of employing Malays as police to surveil and harass the Chinese people living in the camps. British tactics capitalised on this deep-rooted inter-racial friction which predated the Emergency, thus fracturing the working class into separate ethnic factions. 

Since Emergency regulations prohibited public discussion of class and class struggle ‘in favour of a dominant discourse of ethnic conflict,’ Malayan newspapers circulated the British-controlled narrative of their righteous battle against the senseless violence of the Communists. According to Chin Peng, the British ‘counter-terror’  strategy ‘began isolating us… dramatically from our mass support,’ as Chinese people were targeted by colonial authorities regardless of MCP affiliation. 

The British treatment of the rural population was largely dependent on ethnicity – this mirrored the period of Japanese occupation where policies favoured the Malays, and senseless violence targeted the Chinese. The military’s tendency to punish Chinese civilians for the insurgency was largely influenced by racist beliefs against the ethnic community. In 1949, Britain formed a heavily-armed police force to protect Malay villages from potential Communist ‘terrorist attacks’, whereas the rural Chinese were collectively accused of helping the guerrillas. Resettlement of the rural Chinese occurred irrespective of whether ‘they willingly or unwillingly had aided terrorists’, as part of British policies of population control. A Chinese villager recalled the day British forces raided his village and ‘rounded up’ villagers for detainment and relocation: ‘[we were] locked up like dogs.’ The exacerbation of Chinese alienation saw the burning of entire villages and the detainment of thousands of villagers, who were later relocated or deported to China. Thus, the conflict of the Emergency presented itself as more of a civil war: it forced the Malayan population to choose between support of the British or the Chinese communists – yet for many, this choice was already predetermined on the basis of their ethnicity.

The British employment of psychological warfare against MCP

British policy capitalised on conflicting ideologies prevalent in Malayan society at the time, exploiting the ethnic and economic terrain with their military ‘hearts and minds’ tactics. Not only did it incite inter-racial conflict, it also exhorted the commercially-oriented Chinese to turn on their own race. Despite the popularity of Communist ideology during the years of anti-Japanese struggle, the attraction of Communism had dwindled by the time of MCP’s insurgency. Thus, the government promised huge rewards to those who reported Communists, securing their rights to freedom through the resettlement scheme. Moreover, British tactics sought to sever the captured insurgents’ loyalty to the Communist cause: uncooperating Communists were threatened with execution, but traitors would survive and reap rewards. Imprisoned guerrillas supplied British interrogators with a wealth of internal information, revealing jungle paths and locations of ‘dead-letter boxes’ that comprised MNLA’s network of communication. 

General Templer, the Malayan High Commissioner, prominently employed psychological warfare against the MNLA, overseeing military operations, enforcing group punishment and controlling food distribution to threaten the guerrillas to surrender. His policies were known for being cruel yet effective in their suppression of the MCP – they diminished the MCP’s  food reserves and supply lines, forcing them to emerge from vantage points in the jungle to loot or to surrender. As the MCP publication, Red Star News warned in a 1957 issue: ‘a government [is] judged… by its concrete policies and… true nature.’, from MNLA’s perspective, Templer’s autocratic methods as military governor induced manipulative violence and collective punishment in order to entrench British rule over Malaya.

Effects of violence on the Malayan people: The Orang Asli and other communities

The Orang Asli, the Indigenous people of Malaya, were coerced into battle from both sides of the Emergency, as both the British forces and the MNLA sought to capitalise on their knowledge of Malaya’s deep jungle. As the jungle constituted the main offensive front of the campaign, the Orang Asli proved to be invaluable in non-combatant roles like guides and porters. In response to Britain’s mounting control over the New Villages, the MNLA intensified their use of the Orang Asli in efforts to expand their retreat into the deep jungle. The guerrillas targeted areas where authorities severely lacked intelligence, in order to intensify ambushes on British security forces. The MNLA was prepared to enact violence against the Orang Asli to achieve their aims, threatening or even killing those who refused to cooperate. British soldiers also did not hesitate to shoot at Orang Asli spotted with MNLA insurgents, and many were reportedly caught between the crossfire of both sides.

The Orang Asli were not the only ethnic group with claims to their land – some Chinese communities had lived in their ancient homeland for generations. One case was that of Pulai, a Chinese settlement established for over two hundred years, where the British initiated the first of many resettlement schemes to rid the area of ‘undesirable squatter[s]’ and illegal occupants. A Chinese Pulai villager reflected on their traumatic resettlement with grief:

We were resettled… far away from our homeland… surrounded by Malay kampongs and the sea. There was no way of escape. The British were not worried [as] we were traumatised after evacuation.

The extent of the British’s ‘counter-terror’ strategy was inconceivably cruel – in regions labelled as ‘bad’ by British intelligence, soldiers raided villages at dawn without prior warnings. Villagers had no time to recoil from shock or prove their innocence, as they were immediately forced to relocate, deprived of their rights and claim to their homeland and livelihood. Despite mounting civilian casualties, British policies prevailed as they were ‘militarily effective’ in intimidating civilians into supporting the government. Official British discourse was deceptive in their portrayal of the camps as symbols of ‘progress and modern life’, as emerging oral historical records of elderly locals depict an entirely different collective memory. Life behind the barbed wire was one rapt with a constant imposition of British state power. 

In the case of Pulai, even after forcing villagers to leave their sacred homeland, the region was declared a ‘Restricted Area’ and left to burn for days. British forces burnt their rice paddies and leftover agricultural tools so that Communists could not salvage them. An MCP member recalled watching his homeland burn from the distance:

For… a week, I could not do anything except watch the smoke go up. The fury only fueled my hatred and strengthened my will to fight against the British.

Although grassroots experiences of the Emergency varied between regions, families across the rural population were separated by resettlement. In one case, a grandmother recalled the fear and chaos that ensued from the resettlement scheme, remarking: ‘[The British] have guns, what else can you do?’ As Teng-Phee Tan elucidates, the enduring social impact on families remains largely unexplored in academia, as local experiences and perspectives are stifled by official British discourse on the events of 1948-60. Although resettlement constitutes a less direct form of violence, its impact is still as disastrous as direct violence, leaving an enduring mark of collective dispossession within the Malayan psyche.

Concluding remarks

The Malayan Emergency of 1948-60 began as a declaration of British state power but historically prevailed as a series of tactical campaigns enshrining varying forms of violence from opposing sides. To attain dynamic control over Malaya, Britain capitalised on the malleable loyalties of communist insurgents and Malayans to achieve their aims. The circulation of state-sanctioned propaganda exacerbated pre-existing racist rhetoric – pitting ethnic groups against each other in their bid to quell the civil insurgency. As victim and perpetrator, the dual role of the MCP emerged as a double-edged sword – a force cultivated by the manipulative British and driven by retribution and freedom for Malaya, yet also capable of inflicting violence on its own people like the Orang Asli. Under draconian colonial policies, the impact of the Malayan Emergency would endure through generations of families affected by mass resettlement and deportation, with the extent of its repercussions left largely unexplored in contemporary society. 

Image credit

British Army official photographer, Untitled, exact date unknown, around 1948-1960, courtesy Ministry of Defence Post 1945 Official Collection.

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