The Malayan Emergency - Britain's Vietnam, Except Britain Won

How an army of '5,000 men and 50,000 trees' took on the British Empire and lost.

The Malayan Emergency was a conflict that lasted between 1948 and 1960 between the British Empire and communist insurgents on the Malayan Peninsula.

The conflict was one of the few successful counter-insurgency wars fought by a Western power during the Cold War.

It is often described as Britain’s Vietnam, except for one major difference – Britain won. However, victory came at a cost. Out of all the Post World War Two operations, the Malayan Emergency saw the most casualties – 1,442 British lives were lost.

Malaya, now Malaysia and Singapore, became a British Colony in 1867.

By 1910, Britain had established its rule over the Malayan peninsula and North Borneo. During the Second World War, Japan occupied Malaya from 1942 to 1945. The occupation left the Malayan economy in a dire state.

Unemployment was rife and the few that did have jobs were paid very little. Before the Japanese invasion, Malaya had been one of Britain’s most economically prosperous colonies.

Under British rule, two major industries had been developed in Malaya – rubber and tin. The colonial system exploited the natural resources of the region, exporting raw sap from rubber trees, as well as an immense amount of tin from mines.

As well as losing Malaya, the British had suffered a humiliating retreat in South East Asia in 1942.

It took Japanese forces 54 days to occupy the country, undoing the economic work of more than a century.  

As British rule in Malaya ended suddenly, the fight against the Japanese was taken up by the Communist Party who had grown accustomed to working in secret, as their activities had been banned under colonial rule.

An Unlikely Alliance

The need to overthrow the occupying Japanese forces saw an unlikely alliance between the communists and the British colonial rulers in Malaya.

A group of British Officers was sent deep into the jungle in 1943 to make contact with the communist fighters and form an alliance.

United by a common interest – the defeat of Japan – colonialists and communists joined together.

Representing the Malayans was the Director General of the Communist Party, a mysterious man of Sino-Vietnamese dissent called Lai Teck. He was accompanied by his right-hand man, 19-year-old Chin Peng.

They agreed to face the Japanese together, despite their differences. The Communist's priority after the war was Independence. But, in 1943, that had to be put aside to face a more pressing enemy – the Japanese invaders.

During the Second World War, the communist guerrilla army grew to 10,000 troops. The fighters wore caps with three stars to symbolise the three main ethnicities of Malaya – Chinese, Indian and Malayan.

However, the army was predominantly made up of Chinese soldiers.

The British supplied the communists with weapons. The plan was that after the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the return of the British, they would hand the weapons back.

That was not the case, many of the weapons remained hidden in the jungle and were eventually used against the British.

A Secret Army

In 1946 rumours began circulating that Lai Teck was a spy. Before a proper investigation could be launched, he took off to Singapore with the bulk of the funding of the communist party.

He escaped to Hong Kong and eventually Thailand where he was assassinated.

The young and charismatic Chin Peng replaced Lai Teck as Director General.

For his valiant fight against the Japanese invaders, Chin Peng was deemed a war hero by the British and received an OBE.

After the common enemy was defeated and the medals were handed out, the communist party, now under the command of Chin Peng, and the British colonial forces went back to being natural enemies.

The Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) –  the armed wing of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) had begun preparing to fight for independence from 1942 by devising a ‘secret army’.

The plan for the secret army was to take control of as much of the country as possible after the defeat of the Japanese before the British return.

As explained by Chin Peng in a BBC interview from 1998:

"In order to convince our people that we still had an army under our command, so he [Lai Teck] devised this ‘secret army’. And we readily accepted it, it seems a good clever policy.

"We didn’t ask the question but in our heart, I think we know … that eventually, we would have to fight British Forces."

After the Japanese surrender, the ‘secret army’ continued.

State Of Emergency Declared

Within two years after WWII, the industrial production of Malaya was restored to pre-war levels. Malaya was earning twice as much from the US as the rest of the British colonies put together.

While production was at an all-time high, wages were low and working conditions were deplorable.

The communists began campaigning legally for self-determination. Back in Britain, Labour was in power and Chin Peng was feeling optimistic. 

Without getting the results that they wanted, the MCP organised 300 strikes in 1947.

Civil unrest was combined with a policy of armed violence and in 1948 Trade Unions were banned. For Chin Peng, who had been preparing for an armed struggle, this was the last straw.

From April 1948 a draconian policy called to shoot anyone who opposed Trade Union strikes.

Although the insurrection in Malaya was relatively small, it was part of a much wider international fight against communism globally.

With Mao advancing in China and communist parties in Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines becoming more powerful, the communist takeover in Malaya was becoming a real threat.

According to Lee An Tong, who was on the Communist Central Committee:

“If we had not called for independence, we would have lost popular support.”

Communist guerrillas took to the jungle, digging up weapons they had buried after the war.

In June 1948 armed Communist Guerrillas shot dead three British rubber tree planters.

According to Chin Peng, European planters were “a symbol of colonial rule” that needed to be eliminated.

However, he regretted not setting a clear policy of not killing British industrialists because two days after the murder, the British Government declared a nationwide state of emergency and Peng was not ready for the “all-out assault”. It had come three months earlier than he had expected.

With the new emergency powers, the British authorities could arrest and detain as many people as they wanted.

British Intelligence documents on the eve of the Emergency stress that they believed there was a real threat that Malayans would join the revolt en masse.

More than 1,000 Malays were arrested.

“Dawn and dust” raids on the homes of political activists became a regular occurrence.

The communists at the beginning of the conflict were referred to by the British Forces as bandits. Many thought the rebellion would be crushed quickly and easily.

On the opposite side, the guerrilla fighters had great trust in their leaders, who had won the war against the Japanese not so long ago.

The Japanese were beaten within three years, and many on the Malayan side thought the British would not last as long as that.

Helicopters were an essential in the fight against Malayan Guerrillas who hid deed in the jungle. (Picture: Alamy)

The Undeclared War – Britain’s Vietnam

In line with Imperialist interests, the incentive to keep down the rebellion was economic. The guerrilla fighters were targeting British monetary assets such as tin mines and rubber tree plantations resulting in huge monetary losses.

The Malayan Emergency was a war in anything but name.

The reason why it is officially called an “Emergency” is because London-based insurers would not compensate the industrialists in an event of a war, so it had to be called it an emergency instead.

The “Emergency” lasted for 12 years. The fact it was called an emergency also helped the colonial forces bypass several Geneva Convention laws.

Britain was one of the major driving powers of the Geneva Conventions, signing it in 1949.

Eleven years after it was signed, several conventions were violated in Malaya. Reports of murdering and torturing of civilians who were thought to be working with the insurgency were common.

Punishment was up to the discernment of the soldiers at hand.

In the early years, security forces patrolling in the deep jungle were allowed to cut off the heads and hands of captured guerrillas for identification purposes.

A horrifying photograph emerged in the press of a Royal Marine Commander holding the decapitated heads of two guerrilla fighters.

The Colonial Office at the time noted that "there is no doubt that under international law, a similar case in wartime would be a war crime".

It was also common to put on display the bodies of people that were believed to be insurgents. Anyone who looked like they were grieving too much was called in for interrogation.

Many of the policies employed by the British in Malaya were imitated by the Americans in Vietnam with less success.

One of these strategies was the “Scorched Earth Policy” which saw the first use of Agent Orange – a herbicide designed to kill anything that it came in contact with.

In 1950, after two years of fighting, the situation was approaching a stalemate. Both sides had lost around 2,000 troops.

After that year the war took a different turn. The British came up with a new plan which would win them the war.

The New Villages

The British realised they needed to separate the guerrilla fighters from their support networks – the local population who were supplying them with food.

The Briggs plan forcefully relocated 10 per cent of the entire Malayan population into internment camps, referred to as “New Villages.”

The new policy focused mainly on the people that the local authorities referred to as “the squatters” - mostly the Chinese population who had fled from the urban areas during the Japanese occupation.

Without any civil or police authority in the rural areas where they lived, the squatters became the obvious support system of the guerrillas. Villages were mercilessly burned to smoke out them out.

With half a million people living on the fringes of the jungle, a New York Times article from 1951 quoted an officer describing the war as “an army of 5,000 men and 50,000 trees”.

At the time, most of the Malay Peninsula was covered in thick jungle that seemed almost impenetrable to the outsider.

At first, the policy backfired and recruitment increased.

The numbers expanded quickly because people thought the communists were their only hope.

Women, as well as men, joined the guerrillas. One of them was Siti Merian Idris who was still breastfeeding her nine-month-old child who she had to leave behind to join the insurgents.

The magnitude of the population control had rarely been seen before or since. 

More than 40,000 Chinese Malay were deported to China, as the new constitution banned them from having citizenship.

At first, the “New Village” policy was not enough to stop villagers determined to supply food to the guerrillas who would dig holes under the barbed wire fence.

They had to increase the layer of barbed wire from one to three then to five because people were so determined to keep helping the guerrillas. Finally, the fence was electrified. When that did not work, they started to carry out food in bags of manure.

However, eventually, more than one million people were moved into the new settlements and the policy began to work.

The Malayan economy stabilised. The Korean War meant that demand for rubber and tin was huge - the war was a financial success.

Winning Hearts And Minds

On January 22 1952, Winston Churchill appointed Sir Gerald Templer as British High commissioner in Malayan, taking over control from General Sir Harold Briggs.

With the new leadership, the tides of the war quickly shifted in Britain’s favour. Sir Templer believed that in order to win the war, they needed to get the local population on their side. He famously said:

“The answer lies not in pouring more soldiers into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the Malayan people… The shooting side of this business is only 25 percent of the trouble and the other 75 lies in getting the people of this country behind us."

He worked hard to change the conditions in the “New Villages”, transforming them from intermittent camps to comfortable and secure housing where families would actually want to live.

Templer understood that the main support of the guerrillas came from the disgruntled Chinese population who had historically been disadvantaged, having been previously barred from elections and denied citizenship. He fought to grant over a million Chinese people Malayan citizenship.

Although he was in favour of controversial strategies such as the use of chemical warfare, in the form of using herbicide on the crops used by the communists, on the whole, his policies were instrumental in winning the war.

Under the government of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaya became independent in 1957.

With a dwindled guerrilla force who no longer had a clear objective to fight for, the Emergency was declared over in 1960.

It took the British and Commonwealth Powers twelve years to crush the Communist Insurgency.

Chin Peng spend time in exile in Thailand before coming into the limelight in 1989.

The once wartime ally and OBE recipient, Peng gave a tell-all interview in a 1998 BBC Documentary, during which he was asked “do you regret starting the war?” His answer was:

“I never regret … It was the British Government who fired the first shot.

“It is the British Government and its colonial policy who should be responsible for all this.”

Ching Peng died in Bangkok, Thailand in 2013.

Today, Malaysia is a Commonwealth Member state and has one of the strongest economies in South East Asia, with tin and rubber remaining one of its primary exports.