Lessons to be learned from the Emergency

Police officers question a civilian during the Malayan Emergency.
Police officers question a civilian during the Malayan Emergency.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 16 — A state of emergency was declared in colonial Malaya in 1948 after the death of several Europeans at the hands of communists. Sixty-eight years on, Datuk Abdul Mutalib Mohamed Razak recalls the black moment in the country’s history.

The murder of A.E. Walker in Elphin Estate, Sungai Siput, Perak, on June 16, 1948, changed the political landscape of Malaya. The killings of another two European planters soon after culminated in the declaration of the Emergency in Perak on June 18 and subsequently, on June 23 for the entire country. It was imposed by British High Commissioner Sir Edward Gent.

As the years went by, memories of the tumultuous times of the Malayan Emergency grew dimmer except perhaps in the memory of the older generation. But it is important the Emergency, which began 68 years ago this month, should not be forgotten. It represents one of the most important events in Malayan and Malaysian history.

The Emergency was the name given by the British to the armed uprising of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) from 1948 to 1960. The CPM aimed to overthrow the government and establish the Communist People’s Democratic Republic of Malaya. The Emergency was a bloody, internecine war.

The British colonial government called it an “Emergency” and not “war” so that London commercial insurance rates, on which Malayan commerce and industry relied upon, would not be adversely affected.

But it was nothing less than an outright war.

The Emergency affected the country as the atrocities committed by the bandits (later called communist terrorists) were enormous. The economy was in tatters, people were killed and infrastructure damaged.

Parts of the country were placed under frequent curfew, buses and lorries were ambushed and burned, and the mail train between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur was often attacked and derailed. Coming so soon after the end of World War II and the Japanese Occupation, the Emergency shook the country to its foundations.

During this period, military action was carried out by the Malayan forces and police together with Commonwealth Forces from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Kenya, Nyasaland (Malawi), Uganda and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Gurkha units under the British Command were also mobilised. The sacrifices made by all these people, including civilians, were huge.

There were several factors contributing to the defeat of militant communism in Malaya including the country never being placed under military law and the civil government running the show.

Another was action taken by Director of Operations, General Sir Harold Briggs, in his famous Briggs Plan which saw the need to break the connection between the communists and supporters in the countryside. This culminated in the establishment of new villages where the majority of the Chinese were resettled.

The arrival of Briggs’ successor, General Sir Gerald Templer, brought a fresh approach to the defeat of the communists where he adopted the “hearts and minds” campaign which ultimately gained the support of the people.

Soldiers search a cyclist for supplies he could possibly be smuggling to the communist guerillas.
Soldiers search a cyclist for supplies he could possibly be smuggling to the communist guerillas.

Apart from the military campaign, the part played by political leaders of the period also contributed to the defeat of militant communism as the country took the road to nationhood and the cry for Merdeka was beginning to take root.

In an interview with the BBC in the documentary titled Jungle Green Khaki Brown aired over TV3 during the 50th anniversary of independence, Templer said “if Malaya can defeat militant communism, then independence can be considered”.

Though the Emergency officially ended on July 31, 1960, the insurrection continued.

It only ended when peace was signed between the government of Malaysia and the CPM to “terminate hostilities” on Dec 2, 1986 at the Lee Garden Hotel in Hatyai, Thailand.

It is important to note the peace agreement did not state the communist surrendered or capitulated.

Perhaps, the authorities should think about placing this event in the annals of our history and commemorating it on a scale befitting its impact on the road to Merdeka as fifth prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in his forward to the book The Malayan Emergency Revisited 1948-1960.

This episode still has relevance for us today, as we see terrorism being waged in many parts of the globe. We must assure the people violence can never be justified and that terror has no place in the world. 

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