The Malayan Emergency (1947-1960)

Malaya in 1947 was made up of various ethnic groups; to understand many aspects of the emergency it is helpful to understand the background of these groups.

The first group was the indigenous Muslim Malays. The made up a large proportion of the population and generally accepted British rule but their loyalty was first and foremost to their Sultans. The Malay Federation was made up of 9 states each ruled by a Sultan, Johore, Pahang, Negri, Sembilan, Selangor, Perak, Kedah, Perlis, Trengganu and Kelantan.  The Sultans had limited powers but retained the trappings of power and the wealthy lifestyle.

The second ethnic group was the Aborigines. This group refused to recognise the power of the sultans and lived an isolated existence following a traditional way of life deep within the Malayan jungles. Their population was estimated to between 50 and 100,000 in 1948.

The Chinese population was also strong with around two million Chinese living in Malaya in 1948. Many were second generation that is born in Malaya but their loyalty was generally to China with whom they identified culturally. Their population had increased drastically with the Japanese occupation of China during World War Two and although many generated income for Malaya there was also over half a million Chinese squatters by 1948. The Chinese ethnic group represented about 10% of the Malayan population.

The Indian ethnic group were also well represented in Malaya with about half a million in 1948. They were predominantly mobile labour for the rubber plantations as the wages were much higher than in India. They were mainly Tamil speaking from the Madras area of India.

The British were also a large ethnic group in Malaya and certainly the most powerful with political power far beyond the size of their population numbering only 12,000 being mostly Civil Service, Police, rubber planters, Doctors and businessmen.  Malaya had been effectively under British control since 1874.

The biggest problem facing the Malaysian government following the end of World War 2 was the restoration of civil government.  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 favouring 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, know as the Malayan Union. 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.

The Insurgents

Some have argued that the Malayan Emergency was part of a wider communist plan to gain power in South East Asia. Certainly the Malayan communist party leaders attended various international conferences in Europe and India during 1947/48. Apart from this there is little evidence to support the theory it was part of a co-ordinated plan. More likely is the fact that the Malayan communist party was actually on the verge of collapse having failed in any legal attempts or to gain widespread popular support, insurrection may have been their last hope and it was a case of now or never. A former  very popular leader of the party Loi Tek had disappeared and his successor Chen Peng was trying to make a name for himself (in fact Loi Tek had fled taking much of the parties funds with him not only this he was in fact working as a British agent).

By 1948 they were ready to go to war. Chin Peng had in fact learnt his jungle warfare skills from the British.  After Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942 several British officers harassed the Japanese from the jungle including the famous Colonel Spencer Chapman and his ‘Force 136’.  Eventually supported by the Chinese the force swelled to over 5,000 and was known as ‘The Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army’.  The British trained them in jungle warfare and modern weapons, knowing they were mainly communist but figuring the enemy of my enemy is my friend at least in the short term.  This gave the rebels a handy striking force that easily just changed the name to the ‘Malayan peoples Anti –British Army’.  The fighters were paid out of money extorted from the local population following the Leninist principle that a small force by the infliction of terror can conquer a nation. They were split into 8 regiments spread across the country. Each would then split down further into small groups who would carry out traditional Maoist style guerrilla warfare in the rural areas to keep the element of surprise.

The Rebels also had another organisation, the Masses Movement (Min Yuen) These had no uniform, no wages but were the support network spread across all levels of Malayan society.  The Communist party linked the two parts with a highly organised chain of command.

The plan

The communists planned for 3 distinct phases;

Phase 1;

The guerrilla fighters already being battle hardened in combat against the Japanese would raid isolated estates, tin mines and police and government buildings in rural areas to drive the British into the cities

Phase 2;

The areas abandoned by the British would be renamed ‘Liberated areas’ and guerrilla bases would be established to train new recruits drawn from the Min Yuen as the Army expands

Phase 3

The new expanded army would move from the ‘Liberated areas’ to attacking towns, villages and railways with the Min Yuen acting as saboteurs to cripple the economy. Once the country was on its knees the Army would face the British on the open battlefield.

The attacks started at 8.30am on 16th June 1948 in the northern state of Perak, with the shooting of Arthur Walker on his estate followed by other attacks on the same day on other estates sometimes involving the shooting of unarmed people taken prisoner, who they referred to as ‘Running dogs’  meaning British supporters. Murders became more frequent and the plantation owners became alarmed especially when their calls for armed protection fell on deaf ears.  Eventually protests forced the High Commissioner Sir Edward Gent to declare a state of emergency, police were granted greater powers and quickly armed. The rebels continued to target mines and plantations as if the Malaya economy collapsed then the country would soon fall.  At first the government was defensive with small groups protecting mines etc but police recruitment was soon stepped up with new ‘special constables’ , by  September 1948 there were 24,000.

The Empire Strikes back, the ‘Briggs Plan’

In 1949 there was a sudden change in the political climate in Malaya mainly due to the appointment of Lt General Sir Harold Briggs as director of operations. Briggs realised that one of the major sources of recruitment for the communists were the large numbers of vagrant Chinese mentioned earlier so he decided to do something about it,  The Briggs plan was to resettle these squatters into new villages surrounded by fences and police posts cutting the communists off from their source of food, supplies and manpower.  It also gave the settlers more faith in the Malayan government and made them less prone to support the communists.  500 new villages were created forcing the communists out of the jungles where the British forces could defeat them more easily.

Secondly Briggs introduced War Executive Committees at federal, state and district level, this improved planning and cooperation drastically especially between civil, police and military. The focus was always on defeating the insurgents and not going to a war footing.  The communists still remained on the offensive well into 1951 and in that year assassinated Sir Henry Gurney the high commissioner at the time. This backfired as his replacement was General Sir Gerald Templer who was able to co-ordinate both military and civil authority easily.  Templer restored morale by ensuring some military successes and was ruthless towards anyone who didn’t cooperate gaining him the nickname the ‘Tiger of Malaya’.  A new military push aided by the arrival of new troops from commonwealth countries like Fiji, East Africa, Australia and New Zealand.  The communists started to realise that their policy of terrorizing supplies from the local population was just breeding hostility, facing renewed military opposition they pulled back into the deep jungles and stopped the random attacks. By 1953 the communists had lost the initiative and were never to regain it.

British military tactics also advanced using close air support and helicopters to force the guerrillas deeper and deeper into the jungles including constructing jungle forts and deep patrols some by Special Forces like the SBS and 22 SAS Regiment. It is worth remembering that deep jungle is a hostile environment to live and operate in regardless of the skill and training of the troops involved, this meant the guerrillas were also operating in a very difficult environment.  Templer introduced ‘white areas’ which were free of terrorist activity and had relaxed restrictions on food and travel.

In 1955 negotiations with the communists were tried but broke down, but by this point they had ceased to be a real threat.  The emergency had been costly, costing the Malayan Government around $200 million a year between 1948 and 1955 and the British government about $500 million a year.  By 1957 the Emergency was still ongoing despite the fact Malaya became independent that year, by 1960 most of the country was free of terrorist activity with the few remaining lurking near the Thailand border.

The Malayan Emergency offers many interesting lessons most of which were then ignored by the US in the conflict in Vietnam shortly afterwards.  Malaya managed to repel an organised communist insurrection mainly due to the authorities getting organised, the influence of people like Briggs and Templer and the communists thinking they could win by military means.

The Jungle Is Neutral (Paperback), Spencer F. Chapman.    If you are interested in jungle warfare or jungle survival this is the book for you.  It is the sometimes harrowing tale of British troops operating in the deep jungles of Malaya against the Japanese.  Many thought that the Japanese had an advantage over European troops in jungle warfare , what Spencer Chapman points out is the jungle is neutral it doesn’t take sides in a conflict and is hostile to all parties operating in it. Highly recommended cover cover cover
The War of the Running Dogs: Malaya 1948-1960 (Cassell Military Paperbacks), Noel.  A classic book which looks at the Malayan Emergency a really good read, gripping and not easy to put down. Has some excellent black and white photographs cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (26 August 2007), The Malayan Emergency (1947-1960), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_malaya.html

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