The Malayan Emergency
was a guerrilla war
fought between Commonwealth
armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation
(MNLA), the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party
, from 1948
The Malayan Emergency
was the colonial government's term
for the conflict. The MNLA termed it the Anti-British National
. 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
insurers 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
although Australian and British armed forces had fully withdrawn
from Malaysia years earlier, the insurgency still failed.
withdrawal of Japan at the end
of World War II left the Malayan
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
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
(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
. However, many weapons were not returned, and
were stashed for possible future use.
Identification portrait of a
"communist terrorist", used by Commonwealth troops to help
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
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
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.
The initial government strategy was primarily to guard important
economic targets such as mines and plantation estates.
Subsequently, General Sir Harold
, 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
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
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
In the international scene, the emerging Korean War
eclipsed the developing conflict in
At the start of the Emergency, the British had a total of 13
infantry battalions in Malaya, including seven partly-formed
battalions, three British battalions,
two battalions of the Royal Malay
and a British Royal
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
and King's African Rifles
. Another effort was a
re-formation of the Special Air Service in 1950 as a specialised reconnaissance, raiding
and counter-insurgency unit.
Permanent Secretary of Defence for Malaya, Sir Robert
Grainger Ker Thompson, had served in the Chindits in Burma during World
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 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
In the end the conflict involved a maximum of 40,000 British and
Commonwealth troops against a peak of about 7–8,000 communist
British propaganda during the Emergency
was distributed by the
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
which were packed into bundles of 2,500 each at the Kuala Lumpur Royal Air Force Station
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
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
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
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
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:
- 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.
- You may surrender now and to whom you like including to members
of the public.
- 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.
- 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
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
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 Baling 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
The meeting was intended to pursue a mutual
end to the conflict but the Malayan government representatives, led
by Tunku Abdul Rahman
all of Chin Peng's demands. As a result, the conflict heightened and, in
Zealand sent NZSAS soldiers, No. 14 Squadron RNZAF No.41Squadron
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
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 Anson marsh area in 1958. The remaining MRLA
forces fled to the Thai
border 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.
was willing to send troops to
help a SEATO
ally and the first Australian
ground forces, the 2nd Battalion, Royal
(2RAR), arrived in 1955. The battalion was
later be replaced by 3RAR, which in turn was replaced by 1RAR.
Royal Australian Air
bombers) and No. 38
Squadron (C-47 transports),
operating out of Singapore, 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
force in June 1955. Between 1956 and 1960, the aircraft carriers
Melbourne and Sydney and destroyers Anzac, Quadrant, Queenborough, Quiberon, Quickmatch, Tobruk, Vampire, Vendetta and Voyager were attached to the
Reserve forces for three to nine months at a time.
of the destroyers fired on Communist positions in Johor
Comparisons with Vietnam
The conflicts in Malaya and Vietnam
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.
confrontation of 1962–1966 arose from tensions between
Indonesia and the new British backed Federation
of Malaysia which was conceived in the aftermath of the Malayan
late 1960s the coverage of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War
prompted the initiation of investigations in the UK concerning
alleged war crimes perpetrated by British forces during the
National Monument commemorating those
who died in Malaysia's struggle for freedom, including the Malayan
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
, for not recognising Chinese and Indian efforts.
Cultural developments during the Emergency