This weekend I visited the newly opened Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore. It was good to see so many actual specimens on display, something that is becoming rarer in today’s museums.  

Photos taken by me -  Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Singapore. 


Communism-Socialism Week!

Leaflet dropped on Malayan insurgents, urging them to come forward with a Bren gun and receive a $1,000 reward.
Malaysia (1953)

Contentment and Revolt
Malaysia (1952)

A wounded insurgent being held and questioned after his capture
Malaysia (1952)

So let’s talk about something fairly close to home for me: the Malayan Communist Emergency (1948-1960).

Malaya is the old British colonial name for the Malay Peninsula (now part of Malaysia) and Singapore. It’s been a very multiethnic place for the last two hundred years, with a large Chinese minority.

Back in 1925, the Communist Party of China extended its reach into this community by establishing the South Seas Communist Party, which in 1931 became the Malayan Communist Party. It was illegal under British rule, but when the Japanese invaded in 1941, it played a pretty active rule in fighting a guerrilla war against them.

Malaya Peoples Anti Japanese Army cap badge
Malaysia (early 1940s)

This became kiiiinda inconvenient when the Brits returned in 1945 and were astonished to discover villages liberated by the Communists, flying the Communist flag instead of the Union Jack. (Malayans had lost a lot of faith in the white man after their defeat in the war.)

The MCP (Malayan Communist Party) began a campaign against the Brits, calling for independence and equality. There were strikes in rubber plantations and tine mines, and the like. The Brits retaliated with force, and by 1948, the MCP decided to launch another guerrilla war - the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army became the Malayan People’s Anti-British Army, the British military administration declared a State of Emergency and began to hunt them down.

Sergeant R Beaumont of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, attached to the Malay Regiment, instructs a Dyak tracker in the use of modern firearms.

(Yep, the Brits were working with Dayak trackers from Borneo, who were far more familiar with jungle warfare.)

The Brits also responded by forcing rural Chinese to be resettled into what they called New Villages:

The plan aimed to defeat the communists, who were operating out of rural areas as a guerrilla army, primarily by cutting them off from their sources of support amongst the population. To this end, a massive program of forced resettlement of Malayan peasantry was undertaken, under which about 500,000 people (roughly ten percent of Malaya’s population) were eventually removed from the land and housed in guarded camps called “New Villages”.

By isolating this population in the “new villages”, the British were able to stem the critical flow of material, information, and recruits from peasant to guerrilla. The new settlements were given around the clock police supervision and were partially fortified. This served the twofold purpose of preventing those who were so inclined from getting out and voluntarily aiding the guerrilla, and of preventing the guerrilla from getting in and extracting help via persuasion or intimidation. The British also tried to win the hearts of the new settlers by providing them with education, health services and homes with water and electricity.

Gombak New Village

These might look okay now, but back then they were crowded, with security guards strip-searching plantation workers and schoolchildren (male and female) every morning and evening and explosions and gunfire on the edges of the jungle. Also, the poet Wong Yoon Wah, who grew up in a New Village, described them as “concentration camps”.

Oh, and the Brits also once massacred an entire village of 24 unarmed people. It’s called the Batang Kali Massacre. (Although that kinda pales in comparison to the US’s current drone program.) 

Strangely enough, I can’t find a centralised info dump about the war crimes of the Communists during the Emergency. I understand they blew up a lot of infrastructure - train stations, plantations, schools - but that was at night, when no-one was around. They did also kill non-combatants, but the prominent cases of this were British officials, such as the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney (and I’m not even sure if he counts as a non-combatant). Anyhow, Gurney’s murder alienated the majority of Malayans - killing such a high-ranking person gave them the sense that no-one was safe anymore.

Eventually, the Emergency wound itself down:

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 remaining MRLA forces fled to the Thai border and further east. On 31 July 1960 the Malayan government declared the state of emergency was over, and [MCP leader] Chin Peng left south Thailand for Beijing where he was accommodated by the Chinese authorities in the International Liaison Bureau, where many other Southeast Asian Communist Party leaders were housed.

And the Communists are still there in Thailand, installed in the so-called “Friendship” Villages or “Peace” Villages. They laid down arms in 1989, but many of them are still exiled from Malaysia or Singapore.

Chulaphorn Peace Village
Thailand (2013)

And of course attempts to document them still get banned in Singapore. Alas.