Sunday, September 11, 2011


The British Empire dominated South and South East Asia, maintaining its power through the cynical manipulation of ethnic and religious division, alongside brutal repression. It could not, however, hold out against rising workers’ and nationalist movements, particularly after the Second World War.
(British rule in Asia: the poisoned legacy by PETER TAAFFE at
British planners’ primary concern was to enable British business to exploit Malayan economic resources. Malaya possessed valuable minerals such as coal, bauxite, tungsten, gold, iron ore, manganese, and, above all, rubber and tin. A Colonial Office report from 1950 noted that Malaya’s rubber and tin mining industries were the biggest dollar earners in the British Commonwealth. Rubber accounted for 75 per cent, and tin 12-15 per cent, of Malaya’s income.
As a result of colonialism, Malaya was effectively owned by European, primarily British, businesses, with British capital behind most Malayan enterprises. Most importantly, 70 per cent of the acreage of rubber estates was owned by European (primarily British) companies, compared to 29 per cent Asian ownership. Malaya was described by one Lord in 1952 as the “greatest material prize in South-East Asia”, mainly due to its rubber and tin. These resources were “very fortunate” for Britain, another Lord declared, since “they have very largely supported the standard of living of the people of this country and the sterling area ever since the war ended”. “What we should do without Malaya and its earnings in tin and rubber, I do not know”.
(The war in Malaya, 1948-60, 13Feb07 by Mark Curtis at
European trading in the Far East began with the Portuguese in the 15th Century and they were the first to establish a base in Malaya, then compromising many warring fragmented states. They took Malacca by force in 1511, after a previous expedition in 1509 came to grief. There they settled until the Dutch, with the help of neighboring Johor, took control in 1641.
The British presence began in the Eighteenth Century, when the East India Company started to extend their influence beyond India, seeking a route to China. In 1771, the Sultan of Kedah gave them an opportunity, asking for help in defending his territory. By 1786 he was desperate enough to offer useful land, the island of Penang, and it finally came fully under the Company's control in 1800, along with a strip of the mainland. Sir Francis Light was made superintendent; Penang became Prince of Wales Island and the mainland territory Province Wellesley. Free trade was established and the area thrived. The British also took Malacca from the Dutch in 1795, whose monopolistic view of trading rights had made them increasingly unpopular.
The British came to the area in three waves - the pioneers who opened up the country and established the first trading areas, the civil service of residents, administrators, police and so on. Those who came after them were consolidators - law-givers; teachers; planters; mining engineers; builders of roads, railways, bridges and municipal buildings; many of the second wave were civilians. In the introduction to Charles Allen's Tales from the South China Seas the third wave are described as the 'polishers', making as efficient as possible the groundwork begun by their predecessors. What all three waves had in common was their insistence that their children be sent to England for their education (although there were a few schools in Singapore for those who could not afford to send their children away) and the fact that most of them returned home to retire - to 'go native' was unthinkable.
The following table of dates summarizes the main events of importance:
1786 Penang ceded to the East India Company by the Sultan of Kedah.
1819 Singapore founded on land leased from the rulers of Johor.
1824 Malacca becomes British and Singapore ceded to the East India Company in perpetuity.
1826 Three amalgamated as the Straits Settlements (SS).
1867 SS become a British Crown Colony.
1870 Tin mining increases in importance and first experiments begin with rubber trees.
1896 Formation of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang into Federated Malay States (FMS) 1900 Rubber plantations begin to take over the country.
1904 Kelantan, Kedah, Perlis and Terengganu (the Unfederated Malay States or UMS) accept British Advisors.
1914 The last state without a British Advisor, Johor, joins the UMS and accepts one.
1941 Japanese invaded of Malaya.
1942-45 Singapore was occupied by Japanese.
1948-60 The 'Emergency' declared, as a Communist Resistance Movement sweeps the country.
1957 Federation of Malaya achieves independence.
1959 Singapore also becomes independent.
1963 Malaysia was born (Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo).
1965 Singapore withdraws and becomes an independent city-state.
(The British in Singapore and Malaya by Alex Glendinning at
By 1910 the pattern of British rule in the Malay lands was established. The Straits Settlements were a Crown Colony, ruled by a governor under the supervision of the Colonial Office in London. Their population was about half Chinese, but all residents, regardless of race, were British subjects. The first four states to accept British residents, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, were termed the Federated Malay States: while technically independent, they were placed under a Resident-General in 1895, making them British colonies in all but name. The Unfederated Malay States (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu) had a slightly larger degree of independence, although they were unable to resist the wishes of their British Residents for long. Johor, as Britain’s closest ally in Malay affairs, had the privilege of a written constitution, which gave the Sultan the right to appoint his own Cabinet, but he was generally careful to consult the British first. (WIKIPEDIA)

Tomoyuki Yamashita
From Wikimedia Commons

Japanese troops disarming captured British soldier
Malaya circa Dec 1941-Feb 1942
Added by C. Peter Chen at

In 1940 the Japanese had taken over French Indochina by agreement with the collaborationist Vichy government, and it was from Indochina that Japan launched its surprise blitzkrieg attack down the Malay Peninsula. The unprepared British forces were forced into a rapid southward retreat, withdrawing to the supposedly impregnable fortress of Singapore. However, Singapore's defenses were all directed towards the sea, and the Japanese came by land. The British in Singapore, recently reinforced by the arrival of many Australian troops, were forced to surrender on 15 February 1942, leaving Japan occupying the whole of Malaya. The defeat of the British at the hands of an Asian power opened the eyes of many Chinese and Malays to the myth of European superiority. However, the Japanese occupation was not generally welcomed, and armed resistance to the Japanese was conducted by pro-communist Chinese guerrillas. (
Japan’s victories were swift: "One might have to look back as far as Alexander the Great’s lightning destruction of the Persian Empire of Darius to find anything like it". Moreover, such was the degree of hostility of Britain’s colonial slaves to their masters that, initially, Japan did not receive the hostility of the peoples in the region, which is the version that pro-imperialist historians of the past have presented. That came after the experience of the bestial methods employed by the Japanese generals. In fact, Japan saw itself in the role of leader of the ‘Asiatic peoples’, which was to be realized through Japanese occupation. During the war, some nationalist forces joined the Japanese – Aung San, ‘father’ of Burma, as well as Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the most radical nationalist group outside of the Communist Party of India, the Forward Bloc, and founder of the Indian National Army (INA). Bose demanded an immediate disobedience movement against the British when the latter declared war on India’s behalf without consulting the Indian people or politicians in 1939. The leader of Congress, Mahatma Gandhi, was horrified by the prospect of a major campaign, which he declared would lead to "anarchy and red ruin". Bose, who had been elected president of Congress against Gandhi’s wishes, was forced to resign. On the principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, Bose left India, made contact with the Germans and subsequently the Japanese, and organized the INA.
(British rule in Asia: the poisoned legacy by PETER TAAFFE at
The Japanese regarded the Malays as liberated from British imperialist rule which gained them some cooperation from the Malay civil service and intellectuals. The Chinese however were regarded as enemies and received harsh treatment from the Japanese. Thousands were killed in Malaya and Singapore and Chinese schools were closed. This led to the setting up of resistance group such as the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), which was the backbone of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which was assisted by the British so as to fight the Japanese.
In August 1945, when the Allies were preparing for a campaign for the liberation of Malaya, the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. In September 1945 a British military administration was established under the Supreme Allied Commander, Southeast Asia, whose headquarters were in Singapore.
Because the Japanese had been removed with violence Malaya had suffered little loss of life or damage to its towns and cities but many of its tin mines and plantations had been destroyed to prevent the Japanese using them, so the Malayan economy was slow to recover after the war. The Japanese occupation had also sown the seeds of future unrest. They had pursued a policy of divide and conquer by favoring the Malays while persecuting the Chinese who were already anti Japanese due to the Japanese actions in China. This resulted in some violence in the period between the Japanese leaving and the British returning.
Another potential cause for unrest was the British plan for a new constitution for Malaya, known as the Malayan Union (Singapore would be a separate crown colony). This had been devised in Britain with little thought to the feelings of the local population and no consultation. The plan would wipe out the power of the Sultans effectively. Take Malaya from a protectorate to a Colony, it would also grant citizenship to anyone who had been born in Malaya in the last ten years regardless of race or ethnicity. This raised concerns among the Malay population that they would be swamped by the millions of ethnic Chinese and Indians living in Malaya. A huge outcry resulted and the British government relented and eventually after consultation a new constitution was developed which formed the basis of the Federation of Malaya Agreement in 1948 and is the basis of the modern Malayan constitution today.
These post war events sowed the seeds of rebellion in other ways; they showed that the British could be made to back down if pushed and that the British promises of protection weren’t always fulfilled. For many it was clear that a post War Britain had other priorities, domestically and internationally and Malaya was low on the list.
Nationalism was stirring within Malaya for the first time and the Malayan communist party thought the time was right to push and they saw the real chance of winning for the first time.
(Dugdale-Pointon, T. (26 August 2007), The Malayan Emergency (1947-1960), at
The British military was dispatched in a classic imperial role – largely to protect commercial interests. “In its narrower context”, the Foreign Office observed in a secret file, the “war against bandits is very much a war in defense of (the) rubber industry”. Britain had traditionally promoted the rights of the Malay community over and above those of the Chinese. Proposals for a new political structure to create a racial equilibrium between the Chinese and Malay communities and remove the latter’s ascendancy over the former had been defeated by Malays and the ex-colonial Malayan lobby.
By 1948 Britain was promoting a new federal constitution that would confirm Malay privileges and consign about 90 per cent of Chinese to non-citizenship. Under this scheme, the High Commissioner would preside over an undemocratic, centralized state where the members of the Executive Council and the Legislative Council were all chosen by him. The war was essentially fought to defend commercial interests. It was not that British planners believed there was no “communist” threat at all – they did. But the nature of this threat needs to be understood.
Communism in Malaya – as elsewhere in the Third World during the cold war – primarily threatened British and Western control over economic resources. There was never any question of military intervention in Malaya by either the USSR or China, nor did they provide any material support to the insurgents: “No operational links have been established as existing”, the Colonial Office reported four years after the beginning of the war. Rather, the British feared that the Chinese revolution of 1949 might be repeated in Malaya. And as the Economist described, the significance of this was that communists “are moving towards an economy and a type of trade in which there will be no place for the foreign manufacturer, the foreign banker or the foreign trader” – not strictly true, but a view that conveys the threat that the wrong kind of development poses to the West’s commercial interests. British policy – then and now – cannot be presented as being based on furthering such crude aims as business interests. So the official pretext became that of resisting communist expansion, a concept shorn of any commercial motives and simply understood as defending the “free world” against nasty totalitarians. Academics and journalists have overwhelmingly fallen into line with the result that the British public have been deprived of the realistic picture.
(The war in Malaya, 1948-60, 13Feb07 by Mark Curtis at
Meanwhile Malayan nationalism was growing. The first Malay organization was the Kesatuan Melayu Singapura, or Singapore Malay Union, which was formed in 1926. Others quickly followed it. In 1946 Malay organizations joined together to form the Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu, the United Malays National Organisation. The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was founded in 1930. In 1948 they began to attack European estate managers. As a result the government introduced a state of emergency. However communist activity declined after 1949 when the British parliament promised independence. The insurgency continued for some years but it was less of a threat. Communist activity flared up again in the mid-1970s then died down. In 1955 the Reid Commission was formed to prepare a constitution for Malaya. Malaya became independent on 31 August 1957.
(Tim lambert at

How the British put down rebellion in Malaya

End of Empire: Memoirs of a Malaysian Communist Guerrilla Leader, Socialism Today No.91, April 2005 reinforces the potential for the MCP and also for revolutionary change in Malaya at this stage. This would only have been possible through a policy of uniting all workers and peasants on the basis of class and not ethnicity, with correct perspectives, programme and tactics. The strength of the MCP and its military wing, the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), was shown after the capitulation of the Japanese when "in many areas they (MPAJA and MCP) began to set up skeleton administrations in the form of ‘people’s committees’: according to one estimate, 70% of rural towns were under their control".
The British officer, Major HH Wright, who at one time liaised with the MCP, commented that these committees "were all-powerful in those small towns" in which the MCP were concentrated. Wright, with some experience in Albania and the successful guerrilla struggle there against the German army during the Second World War, declared: "They (the MCP) were the masters and not me". The task of cementing class unity, cutting across ethnic divisions, would not have been easy at this stage – nor is it today – but was possible in an ethnically and racially divided country such as Malaya.
The Malay sultans and their hangers-on, and nationalists like Tunku Abdul Rahman, who went on to help found the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), furthered the British policy of fostering divisions. However, if the MCP had consistently pursued a policy of uniting all the races and ethnic groups in a war of national liberation, it could have seized power even in 1945 when there was a gap of three weeks before the British were able to reoccupy the country. This would only have been possible through a policy that broke with the idea of ‘stages’, which the MCP was wedded to, and the adoption, in effect, of Leon Trotsky’s idea of the permanent revolution.
With majority Chinese supporters, would the MCP have been able to hold power if it had taken it? There are no a priori guarantees in a serious struggle for power. But the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh successfully occupied the whole of Indo-China, including the cities of Saigon and Hanoi, for a period in 1945. They then retreated under the military onslaught of imperialist troops – in which British forces played a key role. However, the example that they set of proclaiming an ‘independent’ republic sowed the seeds for the successful eviction not only of French imperialism but also of US imperialism later in 1975. Events would turn out differently in Malaya, not least because of the weaknesses in the MCP’s position.
Malaya was not Vietnam: its population of 3.97 million in 1931 was made up of 49% ‘Malays’, 34% Chinese and 15% ‘Indians’. But if the overwhelmingly Chinese city of Singapore had been included, the Malays would have been reduced to only 44% of the population. The fact that they were "a minority in their own country" was played upon, both by the British and the developing Malay capitalist nationalists.
(British rule in Asia: the poisoned legacy by PETER TAAFFE at

Chin Peng

Chin Peng, the leader of the MCP, later conceded that the slogan of a ‘Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Malaya’ – with its echoes of what was initially established in China under Mao Zedong – was not capable of reaching out to the Malay population. He wrote later: "Our battle cry should have been: Independence for Malaya and all Malayans who want independence". The British, of course, resorted to ruthless repression, including the outlawing of the trade union confederation. In fact, a ‘white terror’ was unleashed not just against Chinese members of the MCP but also radical Malays who were in alliance with the MCP or were open to it. As Chin Peng revealed in his memoirs, the decision to take to the countryside in a classical guerrilla war and effectively abandon the urban struggle was made under the influence of an Australian Communist Party leader, Lawrence Sharkey. It was a mistake which the MCP and the Malayan revolution were to pay dearly for.
(British rule in Asia: the poisoned legacy by PETER TAAFFE at

No comments: