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The Malayan Emergency was a guerrilla war fought between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party, from 1948 to 1960.

The Malayan Emergency was the colonial government's term for the conflict. The MNLA termed it the Anti-British National Liberation War. The rubber plantations and tin mining industries had pushed for the use of the term "emergency" since their losses would not have been covered by Lloyd's insurersmarker if it had been termed a "war".

Despite the communists' defeat in 1960, Communist leader Chin Peng renewed the insurgency in 1967; it would last till 1989, and became known as the Communist Insurgency War. But although Australian and British armed forces had fully withdrawn from Malaysia years earlier, the insurgency still failed.


The withdrawal of Japanmarker at the end of World War II left the Malayan economy disrupted. Problems included unemployment, low wages, and scarce and expensive food. There was considerable labour unrest, and a large number of strikes occurred in 1946 through 1948. The British administration was attempting to repair Malaya's economy quickly, especially as revenue from Malaya's tin and rubber industries was important to Britain's own post-war recovery. As a result, protesters were dealt with harshly, by measures including arrests and deportations. In turn, protesters became increasingly militant. On 16 June, 1948, the first overt act of the war took place when three European plantation managers were killed at Sungai Siputmarker, Perakmarker.

The British brought emergency measures into law, first in Perak in response to the Sungai Siput incident and then, in July, country-wide. Under the measures, the MCP and other leftist parties were outlawed, and the police were given the power to imprison without trial communists and those suspected of assisting communists. The MCP, led by Chin Peng, retreated to rural areas, and formed the MNLA, also known as the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA), or the Malayan People's Liberation Army (MPLA). The MNLA began a guerrilla campaign, targeting mainly the colonial resource extraction industries, which in Malaya were the tin mines and rubber plantations.

The MNLA was partly a re-formation of the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), the MCP-led guerrilla force which had been the principal resistance in Malaya against the Japanese occupation. The British had secretly trained and armed the MPAJA during the later stages of World War II. Disbanded in December, 1945, the MPAJA officially turned all of its weapons in to the British Military Administration. However, many weapons were not returned, and were stashed for possible future use.

Guerrilla war

Identification portrait of a "communist terrorist", used by Commonwealth troops to help recognise insurgents.
The MNLA commonly employed guerrilla tactics, sabotaging installations, attacking rubber plantations and destroying transportation and infrastructure.

Support for the MNLA was mainly based on around 500,000 of the 3.12 million ethnic Chinese then living in Malaya. The ethnic Malay population supported them in smaller numbers. The MNLA gained the support of the Chinese because they were denied the equal right to vote in elections, had no land rights to speak of, and were usually very poor. The MNLA's supply organisation was called "Min Yuen." It had a network of contacts within the general population. Besides supplying material, especially food, it was also important to the MNLA as an information gatherer.

The MNLA's camps and hideouts were in the rather inaccessible tropical jungle with limited infrastructure. Most MNLA guerrillas were ethnic Chinese, though there were some Malays, Indonesians and Indians among its members. The MNLA was organized into regiments, although these had no fixed establishments and each encompassed all forces operating in a particular region. The regiments had political sections, commissars, instructors and secret service. In the camps, the soldiers attended lectures on Marxism-Leninism, and produced political newsletters to be distributed to the locals. The MNLA also stipulated that their soldiers needed official permission for any romantic involvement with local women.

In the early stages of the conflict, the guerrillas envisioned establishing "liberated areas" from which the government forces had been driven, and MNLA control established. They were unsuccessful, however, in establishing any such areas.

British response

The initial government strategy was primarily to guard important economic targets such as mines and plantation estates. Subsequently, General Sir Harold Briggs, the British Army's Director of Operations in Malaya, developed an overall strategy known as the Briggs Plan. Its central tenet was that the best way to defeat an insurgency such as the government was facing was to cut the insurgents off from their supporters amongst the population.

The Briggs Plan was multi-faceted. However one aspect of it has become particularly well known: this was the forced relocation of some 500,000 rural Malayans, including 400,000 Chinese, from squatter communities on the fringes of the forests into guarded camps called New Villages. These villages were newly constructed in most cases, and were surrounded by barbed wire, police posts and floodlit areas, the purpose of which was both to keep the inhabitants in and the guerrillas out. People resented this at first, but some soon became content with the better living standards in the villages. They were given money and ownership of the land they lived on. Removing a population which might be sympathetic to guerrillas was a counter-insurgency technique which the British had used before, notably against the Boer Commandos in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), although in Malaya, the operation was more humanely and efficiently conducted.

In the international scene, the emerging Korean War eclipsed the developing conflict in Malaya.

At the start of the Emergency, the British had a total of 13 infantry battalions in Malaya, including seven partly-formed Gurkha battalions, three British battalions, two battalions of the Royal Malay Regiment and a British Royal Artillery Regiment being utilised as infantry. This force was too small to effectively meet the threat of the "communist terrorists" or "bandits", and more infantry battalions were needed in Malaya. The British brought in soldiers from units such as the Royal Marines and King's African Rifles. Another effort was a re-formation of the Special Air Servicemarker in 1950 as a specialised reconnaissance, raiding and counter-insurgency unit.

The Permanent Secretary of Defence for Malayamarker, Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson, had served in the Chindits in Burmamarker during World War II. His vast experience in jungle warfare proved valuable during this period as he was able to build effective civil-military relations and was one of the chief architects of the counter-insurgency plan in Malaya.

In 1951, some British army units began a "hearts and minds campaign" by giving medical and food aid to Malays and indigenous tribes. At the same time, they put pressure on MNLA by patrolling the jungle. The MNLA guerrillas were driven deeper into the jungle and denied resources. The MRLA extorted food from the Sakai and earned their enmity. Many of the captured guerrillas changed sides. In comparison, the MRLA never released any Britons alive.

In the end the conflict involved a maximum of 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops against a peak of about 7–8,000 communist guerrillas.

British propaganda during the Emergency

British propaganda was distributed by the Psychological Warfare Section of the Emergency Information Service (EIS). The Chinese Assistant to the Head of the Service was C. C. Too, who became head of the Psychological Warfare Section in 1955. He believed that it was more important to propagandize the civilians, rather than the insurgents, as the insurgents listened to the masses.

The Psychological Warfare Section produced about six million leaflets each month, which were packed into bundles of 2,500 each at the Kuala Lumpur Royal Air Force Station. The majority of the leaflets were developed in light yellow sand or deep brown earth colors to blend in with the ground, in order to enable comrades to steal glances at them, without fear of undue attention—one of Too's novel ideas.

In addition to leaflets, aircraft equipped with loudspeakers broadcast propaganda over remote areas.

Control of anti-guerrilla operations

At all levels of government (national, state, and district levels), the military and civil authority was assumed by a committee of military, police and civilian administration officials. This allowed intelligence from all sources to be rapidly evaluated and disseminated, and also allowed all anti-guerrilla measures to be coordinated. Each State War Executive Committee, for example, included the State Chief Minister as chair, the Chief Police Officer, the senior military commander, state home guard officer, state financial officer, state information officer, executive secretary and up to six selected community leaders. The Police, Military and Home Guard representatives and the Secretary formed the operations sub-committee responsible for day-to-day direction of emergency operations. The operations subcommittees as a whole made joint decisions.

Nature of warfare

The British Army soon realised that clumsy sweeps by large formations were unproductive. Instead, platoons or sections carried out patrols and laid ambushes, based on intelligence (from informers, surrendered MNLA personnel, aerial reconnaissance etc.) A typical operation was "Nassau", carried out in the Kuala Langat swamp:
After several assassinations, a British battalion was assigned to the area.
Food control was achieved through a system of rationing, convoys, gate checks and searches.
One company began operations in the swamp about December 21, 1954.
On January 9, 1955, full-scale tactical operations began; artillery, mortars and aircraft began harassing fires in the South Swamp.
Originally, the plan was to bomb and shell the swamp day and night so that the terrorists (sic) would be driven out into ambushes; but the terrorists were well prepared to stay indefinitely.
Food parties came out occasionally, but the civil population was too afraid to report them.

Plans were modified; harassing fires were reduced to night-time only. Ambushes continued and patrolling inside the swamp was intensified. Operations of this nature continued for three months without results. Finally on March 21, an ambush party, after forty-five hours of waiting, succeeded in killing two of eight terrorists. The first two red pins, signifying kills, appeared on the operations map, and local morale rose a little.

Another month passed before it was learned that the terrorists were making a contact inside the swamp. One platoon established an ambush; one terrorist appeared and was killed. May passed without a contact. In June, a chance meeting by a patrol accounted for one killed and one captured. A few days later, after four fruitless days of patrolling, one platoon en route to camp accounted for two more terrorists. The No. 3 terrorist in the area surrendered and stated that food control was so effective that one terrorist had been murdered in a quarrel over food.

On July 7, two additional companies were assigned to the area; patrolling and harassing fires were intensified. Three terrorists surrendered and one of them led a platoon patrol to the terrorist leader's camp. The patrol attacked the camp, killing four, including the leader. Other patrols accounted for four more; by the end of July, twenty-three terrorists remained in the swamp with no food or communications with the outside world ...

This was the nature of operations: 60,000 artillery shells, 30,000 rounds of mortar ammunition, and 2,000 aircraft bombs for 35 terrorists killed or captured. Each one represented 1,500 man-days of patrolling or waiting in ambushes. "Nassau" was considered a success for the end of the emergency was one step nearer.

Resolving the Emergency

On October 6, 1951 the MNLA ambushed and killed the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney. The killing has been described as a major factor in causing the Malayan population to roundly reject the MNLA campaign, and also as leading to widespread fear due to the perception that "if even the High Commissioner was no longer safe, there was little hope of protection and safety for the man-in-the-street in Malaya." More recently, MNLA leader Chin Peng stated that the killing had little effect, and that the communists anyway radically altered their strategy that month in their "October Resolutions". The October Resolutions, a response to the Briggs Plan, involved a change of tactics by reducing attacks on economic targets and civilians, increasing efforts to go into political organisation and subversion, and bolstering the supply network from the Min Yuen as well as jungle farming.

Gurney's successor, Lieutenant General Gerald Templer, was instructed by the British government to push for immediate measures to give Chinese ethnic residents the right to vote. He also pursued the Briggs Plan, and sped up the formation of a Malayan army. At the same time he made it clear that the Emergency itself was the main impediment to accelerating decolonisation. He also increased financial rewards for detecting guerrillas by any civilians and expanded the intelligence network (Special Branch).

Government's Declaration of Amnesty

On September 8, 1955, the Government of the Federation of Malaya issued a declaration of amnesty to the Communists. The Government of Singapore issued an identical offer at the same time. Tunku Abdul Rahman, as Chief Minister, made good the offer of an amnesty but promised there would be no negotiations with the MNLA. The terms of the amnesty were:
  1. Those of you who come in and surrender will not be prosecuted for any offense connected with the Emergency, which you have committed under Communist direction, either before this date or in ignorance of this declaration.
  2. You may surrender now and to whom you like including to members of the public.
  3. There will be no general "ceasefire" but the security forces will be on alert to help those who wish to accept this offer and for this purpose local "ceasefire" will be arranged.
  4. The Government will conduct investigations on those who surrender. Those who show that they are genuinely intent to be loyal to the Government of Malaya and to give up their Communist activities will be helped to regain their normal position in society and be reunited with their families. As regards the remainder, restrictions will have to be placed on their liberty but if any of them wish to go to China, their request will be given due consideration.

Following the declaration, an intensive publicity campaign on a hitherto unprecedented scale was launched by the Government. Alliance Ministers in the Federal Government travelled extensively up and down the country exhorting the people to call upon the Communists to lay down their arms and take advantage of the amnesty. The response from the public was good. Public demonstrations and processions were held in towns and villages. Despite the campaign, few Communists surrendered to the authorities. It was evident that the Communists, having had ample warning of its declaration, conducted intensive anti-amnesty propaganda in their ranks and among the mass organizations, tightened discipline and warned that defection would be severely punished. Some critics in the political circles commented that the amnesty was too restrictive and little more than a restatement of the surrender terms which have been in force for long period. The critics advocated a more realistic and liberal approach of direct negotiations with the MCP to work out a settlement of the issue. Leading officials of the Labour Party had, as part of the settlement, not exclude the possibility of recognition of the MCP as a political organization. Within the Alliance itself, influential elements in both the MCA and UMNO were endeavouring to persuade the Chief Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman to hold negotiations with the MCP.

The Baling Talks

Realizing that his conflict had not come to any fruition, Chin Peng sought a referendum with the ruling British government alongside many Malayan officials in 1955. The talk took place in the Government English School at Balingmarker on December 28. The MCP was represented by Chin Peng, the Secretary-General, Rashid Maidin and Chen Tien, head of the MCP's Central Propaganda Department; on the other side were three elected national representatives, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Dato's Tan Cheng-Lock and David Marshall, the Chief Minister of Singaporemarker. The meeting was intended to pursue a mutual end to the conflict but the Malayan government representatives, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, dismissed all of Chin Peng's demands. As a result, the conflict heightened and, in response, New Zealandmarker sent NZSAS soldiers, No. 14 Squadron RNZAF No.41Squadron and later No. 75 Squadron RNZAF, and other Commonwealth members also sent troops to aid the British.

Following the failure of the talks, Tunku decided to withdraw the amnesty on 8 February, 1956, five months after it had been offered, stating that he would not be willing to meet the Communists again unless they indicated beforehand their desire to see him with a view to making "a complete surrender". Despite the failure of the talks, the MCP made every effort to resume peace talks with Malayan Government, without success. Instead, discussions began in the new Emergency Operations Council to intensify the "People's War" against the guerillas. In July 1957, a few weeks before Independence, the MCP made another attempt at peace talks, suggesting the following conditions for a negotiated peace:
  • its members should be given privileges enjoyed by citizens
  • a guarantee that political as well as armed members of the MCP would not be punished.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, however, did not respond to the MCP's proposals.

With the independence of Malaya under Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on 31 August, 1957, the insurrection lost its rationale as a war of colonial liberation. The last serious resistance from MRLA guerrillas ended with a surrender in the Telok Ansonmarker marsh area in 1958. The remaining MRLA forces fled to the Thai bordermarker and further east.

On 31 July, 1960 the Malayan government declared the state of emergency was over, and Chin Peng left south Thailand for Beijing where he was accommodated by the Chinese authorities in the International Liaison Bureau, where many other Southeast Asian Communist Party leaders were housed.

During the conflict, security forces killed 6,710 MRLA guerrillas and captured 1,287. 2,702 guerrillas surrendered during the conflict, while approximately 500 more did so at the end of the conflict. 1,345 Malayan troops and police were killed during the conflict, as well as 519 Commonwealth personnel. 2,478 civilians were killed, with another 810 recorded as missing.

Australian contribution

Australia was willing to send troops to help a SEATO ally and the first Australian ground forces, the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR), arrived in 1955. The battalion was later be replaced by 3RARmarker, which in turn was replaced by 1RAR. The Royal Australian Air Force contributed No. 1 Squadron (Avro Lincoln bombers) and No. 38 Squadron (C-47 transports), operating out of Singaporemarker, early in the conflict. In 1955, the RAAF extended Butterworth air base, from which Canberra bombers of No. 2 Squadron (replacing No. 1 Squadron) and CAC Sabres of No. 78 Wing carried out ground attack missions against the guerillas. The Royal Australian Navy destroyers Warramunga and Arunta joined the force in June 1955. Between 1956 and 1960, the aircraft carriers Melbourne and Sydney and destroyers Anzac, Quadrant, Queenborough, Quiberon, Quickmatch, Tobruk, Vampiremarker, Vendetta and Voyager were attached to the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve forces for three to nine months at a time. Several of the destroyers fired on Communist positions in Johormarker State.

Comparisons with Vietnam

The conflicts in Malaya and Vietnam have been compared many times and it has been asked by historians how a British force of 35,000 succeeded where over half a million U.S. soldiers failed in a smaller area. However the two conflicts differ in several key points.

  • The MNLA was isolated and without external supporters.
  • The MNLA was politically isolated from the bulk of the population. It was, as mentioned above, a political movement almost entirely limited to ethnic Chinese; support among Muslim Malays and smaller tribes was scattered if existent at all. Malay nationalists supported the British because they promised independence in a Malay state; an MNLA victory would imply a state dominated by ethnic Chinese, and possibly a puppet state of Beijing or Moscow.
  • Britain never approached the Emergency as a conventional conflict and quickly implemented an effective combined intelligence (led by Malayan Police Special Branch against the political arm of the guerrilla movement) and a "hearts and minds" operation.
  • Many Malayans had fought side by side with the British against the Japanese occupation in World War II, including Chin Peng. This is in contrast to Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) where French colonial officials often operated as proxies and collaborators to the Japanese. This factor of trust between the locals and the colonials was what gave the British an advantage over the French and later, the Americans in Vietnam.
  • In purely military terms, the British Army recognized that in a low-intensity war, the individual soldier's skill and endurance was of far greater importance than overwhelming firepower (artillery, air support, etc.) Even though many British soldiers were conscripted National Servicemen, the necessary skills and attitudes were taught at a Jungle Warfare School, which also worked out the optimum tactics based on experience gained in the field.


National Monument commemorating those who died in Malaysia's struggle for freedom, including the Malayan Emergency

The Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation of 1962–1966 arose from tensions between Indonesia and the new British backed Federation of Malaysiamarker which was conceived in the aftermath of the Malayan Emergency.

In the late 1960s the coverage of the My Lai massacremarker during the Vietnam War prompted the initiation of investigations in the UK concerning alleged war crimes perpetrated by British forces during the Emergency. One of such allegations is the Batang Kali massacre. However, no charges against the British forces were ever proven and were dismissed as vicious propaganda by the British government.

In popular Malaysian culture, the Emergency has frequently been portrayed as a primarily Malay struggle against the communists. However, this perception has been criticised by some, such as Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin, for not recognising Chinese and Indian efforts.

Cultural developments during the Emergency


See also

Further reading


External links

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