By John Newsinger
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Blood, tin and rubber—British rule in Malaysia

A bloody British regime exploited Malaysia for its tin and rubber, but faced strong resistance from Communist guerrilla forces.
Issue 2913
Police question a civilian during the Malayan state of emergency (Photo: wikimedia commons)

Police question a civilian during Malaysia’s state of emergency (Photo: wikimedia commons)

Clement Attlee’s Labour government was determined to hold onto the Malaya colony after the Second World War.

During the war, the British cooperated with Malaya’s Communist-led resistance to defeat the Japanese. But after their surrender, the Communists made the mistake of expecting a Labour government to dismantle colonialism.

The Communists fell to the British re-occupation of the Malayan colony, voluntarily disarming and even taking part in a victory parade in London.

Incredibly, the leader of the Communist-led resistance, Chin Peng, was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

But by the 1950s, the British would have cheerfully hanged him if only they could have found him.

Once the British regained control, they made clear their intention—to ruthlessly exploit Malaya, taking advantage of its rubber and tin exports to bolster British capitalism. By 1947, Malayan rubber was the Empire’s biggest earner.

The Communists set about building a nationalist movement uniting Malays, Indians and Chinese alongside a militant trade union movement, the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU).

British troops at one military base actually joined a general strike in January 1946.

The Labour government responded by allying with those who had collaborated with the Japanese. They removed the political rights of Chinese and Indian communities and cracked down on trade unions.

Employers used brute force to break the strikes. On one rubber plantation, police beat eight strikers to death. When a fight-back developed in 1948, the British responded by banning PMFTU and on 19 June declaring a state of emergency.

Police arrested over 600 people within days—not just Communists, but trade unionists and anyone on the left. By the end of August some 4,500 people had been detained, effectively breaking the trade union movement.

Those Communists still at large retreated to the jungle and launched a guerrilla war. This point must be insisted upon—the British did not declare a state of emergency in response to a Communist insurrection.

Instead, the Communists took up arms in response to British repression that closed off any hope of peaceful change.

A brutal counterinsurgency campaign followed, which is still hailed as a British success. But they took twelve years to defeat a poorly armed insurrection.

The British imposed a police state, detaining over 30,000 people and deporting another 31,000 to China and India. The British hanged 226 people.

S A Ganapathy, the general secretary of the banned PMFTU, was among those hanged despite international protests and the assumption that a Labour government would not hang a trade union official.

Against the Communist guerrilla attacks, the British burnt down villages, beating and shooting villagers.

In December 1949 at Batang Kali, the Scots Guards massacred 24 civilians. They covered up the war crime for years. In May 1952, the Daily Worker newspaper published photographs of British soldiers proudly displaying the severed heads of Communist guerrillas.

The British also routinely used torture. Decisive in defeating the Communists, the British herded communities suspected of rebel sympathies into heavily policed camps, the so-called “new villages”.

By early 1952 over 400,000 people had been “resettled”, rising to half a million by 1960. The British also subjected workers at the tin mines and rubber plantations to police state conditions.

The brutal police regime of resettlement ultimately defeated the guerrillas. It cut the Communists off from their supporters.

The rebels finally admitted defeat and the Emergency ended in July 1960, with Malaya already safely handed over to a regime of collaborators.

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