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Chin Peng, anti-colonial revolt and Merdeka

In his death, as in his life, Chin Peng stirred up controversy. At the  height of his influence, he was branded Malaya’s ‘Most dangerous Man’ and ‘Public Enemy Number 1'. There was a $250,000 reward on his head. The amount may not seem a lot now. But in the early fifties, it was a princely sum. A teacher with Form 5 Cambridge examination qualification was paid $150 per month then.

In his time, Marx said the spectre of communism haunted Europe. Now, the ghost of Chin Peng haunts his beloved homeland. Some people are afraid of his dead body. Others fear his ashes. So they do not want either back in Malaysia.

Whether we like Chin Peng, agree with his ideas or support his methods, there is no denying that he and the anti-colonial revolt are part of Malaysia’s history. They cannot disappear just because some people wish it so. The events that took place then are factual. They definitely impacted the subsequent political developments in this country and the South-East Asia region.

When the Japanese ruled Malaya, the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and Chin Peng worked with the British to challenge the Japanese. The party’s objective was to secure Malaya’s independence.

When the British returned after the Japanese surrender, it was quite clear that they did not have the intention of moving in the direction of independence for Malaya. Despite giving Chin Peng and some of his comrades medals for their valiant struggle against the Japanese, the colonial government made very decisive moves to constrain the influence of the CPM.

Newspapers which were thought to be sympathetic to the communists were closed down. Activities and events organised by the communists, particularly, those demanding food, jobs, better wages and democratic rights were all crushed by force and violence, killing some participants in the process. Many party members were arrested, imprisoned or banished from Malaya.

The civilian governments that succeeded the British Military Administration were no better. The same attitude, policies and action were adopted against any form of activities deemed to be led by the communists.

It was obvious why the British were so singular-minded in the continuation of their colonial rule in Malaya. Malaya was a jewel in the crown for the British. This became more important in the light of the political changes that were unfolding in other parts of Asia.

The British were on their way out on the Indian sub-continent. In Burma, the demand for independence had become much stronger. In China, the communists were already in the ascendency in the civil war. Whitehall had decided that it could not afford to “lose” Malaya.

Communists forced against the wall

Through a combination of persecution, legislation and state violence, the British not only checked the MCP’s advance, but forced the communists against the wall until they had no choice, but to resort to militant struggle. One must not forget that the revolution was directed against British colonial rule in the 1940s.

Despite earlier expectation that the anti-colonial revolt could be crushed  easily by the force of arms and state terror, this assessment proved to be inaccurate. By 1950, the British government had to admit that the “situation had deteriorated”.

Attacks on police stations, rubber estates, tin mines and railways increased from 82 in September 1949 to 290 in March 1950 and 558 in October 1950.

The seriousness of it can be seen in the war expenditure. It rose from $24 million in 1948 to $120 million in 1950. This was a third of the total expenditure for the whole country. In 1950, the British had 130,000 armed personnel in the country. This rose to 380,000 in October 1951.

In relation to the population in Malaya then, the proportion of armed troops to the population would far exceed that of the American troops in Vietnam at the height of the war in the 1970s. By mid-1950, London was so worried over the war in Malaya that it sent the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the War Secretary for an on-the-spot inspection.

The inability of the British to defeat the anti-colonial revolt made the government reassess its strategies. It is in this context that the subsequent reforms that were introduced in Malaya must be seen. The British colonial government realised that the revolt led by the communists did have support among the people. Therefore, some concessions had to be made.

London also realised that it had to promote and work with some people who were sympathetic to British colonial interests in Malaya. Thus Onn Jaafar and members of the Communities Liaison Committee became the blue-eyed boys of the British High Commissioner. These people were promoted as alternatives to the communists.

If the CPM had not existed and there had been no revolt in 1948, it is likely that the British would have delayed the political reforms that subsequently led to the granting of Merdeka in 1957.

Chin Peng and the anti-colonial revolt led by the communists did play a critical role in expediting Merdeka in 1957.

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