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The origins of the Asian Cold War: Malaya 1948

  • Karl Hack


From the 1970s most scholars have rejected the Cold War orthodoxy that the Malayan Emergency (1948–60) was a result of instructions from Moscow, translated into action by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). They have instead argued that local factors precipitated violence, and that the MCP was relatively unprepared when the Emergency was declared. This article puts the international element back into the picture. It shows that the change from a ‘united front’ to a ‘two camp’ international communist line from 1947 played a significant role in deciding local debates in favour of revolt. It also demonstrates how the MCP had plans for a graduated build-up to armed revolt before an Emergency was declared. This article therefore offers a model for a dynamic, two-way relationship between the international and local levels of Cold War.



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1 Hack, Karl, Defence and decolonisation in Southeast Asia (Richmond: Curzon, 2001), p. 116, citing Annual Report of the Federation of Malaya, 1948 (Kuala Lumpur), pp. 8 and 124–5.

2 See Oxford University, Rhodes House Library (henceforth RHL), MSS Indian Ocean s251, Malayan Security Service (MSS) Political Intelligence Journal (PIJ), Supplements for Jan.–Mar.1948. MCP plans started to change radically only from 20 March, hence impacting on subsequent monthly reports. For some background on the MSS, see Comber, Leon, Malaya's Secret Police: The role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency (Singapore: ISEAS, 2008).

3 Hack, Defence and decolonisation, p. 116, citing Annual Report of the Federation of Malaya, 1948 (KL), pp. 8 and 124–5. Historians often seem to assume violence and strikes were at a peak or increasing in early 1948, whereas this most obvious of sources – the Annual Report – shows the surge in violence was consequence not cause of the MCP's March decisions. Despite the Emergency, some categories of crime (housebreaking, theft) still fell in 1948 as a whole. The MCP's problem was not rising violence they had to tap, but declining postwar disorder.

4 Hack, Defence and decolonisation, p. 117.

5 These two conferences were the South East Asia Youth and Student Conference hosted by the World Federation of Democratic Youth, a Moscow-inspired movement (19–24 Feb.), and the Second Congress of the Indian Communist Party (28 Feb.–6 Mar.). Both were attended by representatives from a range of Southeast Asian communist parties.

6 Stockwell, A.J., ‘A widespread and long-concocted plot to overthrow government in Malaya’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 21, 3 (1993): 6688, discusses the British debates over how far the Emergency which commenced in 1948 was locally rooted, and how far internationally.

7 See, for example, the 1957 report on the Malayan Emergency issued under the name of the British Director of Operations held in The National Archives (henceforth TNA): Air20/10377, ‘Review of Emergency in Malaya June 1948 – August 1957’, including the quotation on p. 3; and for a secondary source of the era, Brimmell, J.H., Communism in South East Asia; A political analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 255–63. This was the predominant line from the late 1940s to the 1950s at least, though even then there were sceptics. For example, see below for a discussion of the doubts of scholars such as Ruth McVey from the late 1950s.

8 Stockwell, Anthony, ‘Chin Peng and the struggle for Malaya’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 6, 1 (2006): 279–97; Stockwell, ‘A widespread and long-concocted plot to overthrow government in Malaya’.

9 Harper, Tim, The end of empire and the making of Malaya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 94114. See also Hack, Defence and decolonisation, p. 153, fn. 42 for analysis of the claim. Harper's theory is plausible, but not borne out by government statistics for the period prior to the crucial MCP decisions.

10 See Deery, Philip, ‘Malaya, 1948: Britain's Asian Cold War’, Journal of Cold War Studies, 9, 1 (2007): 2954, and review of same by Karl Hack, last accessed on 31 Oct. 2008 at The parent URL for both pieces is:

11 Short's book (Short, Anthony, The communist insurrection in Malaya, 1948–60 [London: Frederick Muller, 1975]) was written some years earlier, but delayed when the Malayan government, who commissioned it, declined to publish it. It was reissued as In pursuit of the mountain rats (Singapore: Cultured Lotus, 2000). See pp. 46–9 for Calcutta sounding ‘an uncertain note’ with ‘a lot of hard matching’ to be done locally.

12 Stubbs, Richard, Hearts and minds in guerrilla warfare: The Malayan Emergency, 1948–1960 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 60. Even in 1989, Stubbs presented as novel his downgrading of the Calcutta factor, even though Short had already shifted the ground.

13 See earlier footnote for the full reference to this.

14 A.J. Stockwell, ‘A widespread and long-concocted plot to overthrow government in Malaya’.

15 Hack, Defence and decolonisation, p. 116.

16 McLane, Soviet strategies, pp. 388–9.

17 Stenson, M.R., Industrial conflict, or repression and revolt: The origins of the 1948 communist insurrection in Malaya and Singapore, and ‘The Malayan Union and the historians’, Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10, 2 (1969): 344–54. See also M.R. Stenson, ‘The 1948 communist revolt in Malaya: A note on historical sources and interpretation’, and ‘A reply’ by Gerald de Cruz, both in the Institute of South East Asian Studies, Occasional Paper No. 9, 1971.

18 Notable amongst these was a front (All Malayan Council of Joint Action-Putera, Putera representing leftwing Malay groups) against the new Malayan Federation constitution, which launched a widespread hartal (strike/business closure) on 20 Oct. 1947. This was in support of a more democratic ‘People's Constitution’.

19 Chin Peng, with Ward, Ian and Miraflor, Norma, Alias Chin Peng: My side of the story (Singapore: Media Masters, 2003). For a more critical view and a reliable, short biographical chapter, see also Dialogues with Chin Peng, ed. C.C. Chin and Karl Hack (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004), specifically p. 121 for the above point.

20 Dialogues, p. 117.

21 Ibid., p. 121.

22 Ibid., p. 134.

23 It is interesting to read Chin Peng ‘against the grain’. On the one hand, the internal situation was overwhelmingly decisive, on the other hand he – as did some Surrendered Enemy Personnel (SEP) – describes the Central Committee as ‘divided’. It was divided, but the external communist line, detailed first and in full in the Central Committee's March decisions and seemingly validated by events in Czechoslovakia, would usually have been one source of authority in deciding such issues.

24 See Dialogues, pp. 135 and 136–7 for the plans.

25 Stockwell, ‘A widespread and long-concocted plot’, pp. 80–3, dealt with such issues.

26 TNA: FO371/69695, Commissioner-General's Office (Singapore) to Southeast Asia Department of FO, 24 November 1948, including 10 Nov. 1948 memorandum and attachments.

27 The shorthand ‘plan for an armed revolt’ could mislead: what it produced was a plan for defensive labour action, which it was believed would also help prepare the ground for an eventual, inevitable armed struggle.

28 RHL: MSS13/1948, 15.7.48, p. 500, and MSS Supplement 7/1948, 15.7.48. MSS Supplement 7/1948, 15.7.48, has one secret source saying an MCP representative went to Hong Kong (this would presumably be Chin Peng) and saw Liau Sen Tzu. Liau cabled Chou En-lai who replied that for a communist revolt in a colony bloodshed was the only means of success. The informant supposedly heard this at a meeting of Perak officials in May when reorganisation plans were discussed.

29 TNA, UK (TNA): FO371/69695, Commissioner General's Office (Singapore) to Southeast Asia Department of FO, 24 Nov. 1948, including 10 Nov. 1948 memorandum and attachments.

30 RHL, Brewer papers, interrogation of Leong Yat Seng on 23 Nov.1948, section on ‘Influence of Foreign Communist Parties’. Leong Yat Seng was a rather talkative (English-speaking) surrendered communist. He made no attempt to hide his efficiency as a communist organiser, using this to provide ferocious levels of detail.

31 RHL, MSS Supplement 7/1948, 15.7.48.

32 TNA FO371/69694, SIFE paper of 23 Apr. 1948, ‘Review of communism in Southeast Asia’, no. 12, 15 Apr. 1948.

33 Lee Soong, the NDYL (New Democratic Youth League) leader who attended the Calcutta Youth Conference, did not attend the March CC meeting, and is on this matter a red herring not worth further space. The SIFE paper did not detect any similar change in Malaya. With Lai Teck gone, it seems it sometimes took some time for communist directives to be uncovered. The same paper noted the Indian and Burmese parties had changed policy dramatically and simultaneously. This led to the banning of the CP in West Bengal, and strikes and then the banning of the BCP on 27 March.

34 Charles McLane, Soviet strategies in Southeast Asia, p. 387, summarises.

35 McVey, Calcutta Conference, pp. 1–24.

36 See, for instance, Harper, Forgotten wars, pp. 379–80; McLane, Soviet strategies in Southeast Asia; and TNA, FO371/69695.

37 Chin and Hack, Dialogues, pp. 133–4, 142 n25.

38 Smith, Ralph B., ‘China and Southeast Asia: The revolutionary perspective, 1951’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 19, 1 (1988): 97110.

39 See ‘The Cold War in Indonesia’ by Harry Poeze in this issue.

40 See ‘Did the Soviet Union instruct Southeast Asian communists to revolt?’ by Larisa Efimova in this issue.

41 Chin and Hack, Dialogues, pp. 135–6, passim. The Dialogues have three advantages. First, in them Chin Peng is questioned, allowing more than one viewpoint. Secondly, at Canberra (where the conversations which the Dialogues record took place) Chin Peng tried out parts of a first draft for his memoirs, and seems to have included insights from those sessions (and background papers) in revising them for Alias Chin Peng. Thirdly, Alias Chin Peng not only builds on Canberra, but integrates work by Ian Ward as co-writer. However, Alias Chin Peng is detailed. The two books should be understood as part of an ongoing process of creating and critiquing Chin Peng's version of the events.

42 Ibid., p. 121.

43 Chin Peng, with Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor, Alias Chin Peng. See also, Dialogues with Chin Peng.

44 RHL, MSS Indian Ocean s251, MSS PIJ, Supplement 11/1948, 15 Aug. 1948, pp. 3–4.

45 RHL, Brewer papers, interrogation of Leong Yat Seng on 23 Nov. 1948, section on ‘Influence of Foreign Communist Parties’.

46 RHL, MSS Indian Ocean s251, MSS PIJ, Supplement 11/1948, 15 Aug. 1948, pp. 5–7. A grenade was thrown into a coffee shop near the Singapore Harbour Board on 26 Apr. a tactic later popular in the Emergency to terrorise MCA supporters.

47 Selection of MCP documents and related intelligence attached to TNA F0371/6843845, Commissioner General's Office (P.S. Scrivener) to South East Asia Department, FO, 24 Nov. 1948, Enclosure on ‘Re-orientation of communist policy in South East Asia – Sequence of events’. The interpretation here fits with Chin Peng's discussion of Sharkey, and the March decision to adopt a ‘scab’ policy.

48 RHL, Brewer Papers, Interrogation of Tan Ah Leng, 1948.

49 RHL, MSS Supplement 7/1948, 15. 7, 48, A2 source on kongchak. See also TNA: CO537/4246, ‘Senai Documents’, found on detainee Tan Siew Hoe when arrested at Senai, Johor.

50 RHL: MSS supplement 15/1948, p. 14.

51 RHL: MSS PIJ 12/1948, 30.6.48, p. 12, in a document dated 29 May 1948.

52 RHL: MSS PIJ 12/1948, 30.6.1948, Appendix A, p. 3.

54 RHL: Brewer papers, interrogation of Leong Yat Seng on 23 Nov. 1948.

55 RHL: MSS PIJ 12/1948, 30.6.1948, Appendix A, p. 4 and 7.

56 Ibid., Appendix A, p. 5.

57 TNA: CO537/4246, Translation of Min Sheng Pao editorial of 15.6.1948, signed by ‘Ng Khin Gee’. The British fell into the MCP trap by failing to ensure minimum force when responding to MCP and worker organisation, with deaths resulting from police intervention on estates in early June. See also translated Min Sheng Pau editorial 4 June 1948. Interestingly, though, a sub-theme in this and other MCP documents was that of the imperialists dropping their ‘gentlemen-like masks’.

58 RHL: MSS PIJ 12/1948, 30.6.1948, Appendix A, p. 5.

59 RHL: MSS 13/1948, PIJ, 15.7.48, p. 479.

60 Deery, ‘Malaya, 1948: Britain's Asian Cold War’, p. 48.

61 Hack, Defence and decolonisation, p. 116. See also RHL, Supplement 8/1948, 31.7.48, p. 21.

62 Smith ‘China and Southeast Asia: The revolutionary perspective, 1951’.

63 This area needs much more research. How much opposition was there, who by? It is mentioned in the Special Branch ‘Basic Paper on the MCP’ of 1950, as cited by John Coe, ‘Beautiful flowers and poisonous weeds’ (D. Phil., Queensland, 1993), p. 153. One section apparently argued armed revolt would fail. See also Chin Peng, My side of history, p. 206, which mentions Yeung Kuo and one other as having doubts.

64 Statement issued by the Central Committee of the Malayan Communist Party in April 1948, later published in Voice of the People, 20 Apr. 1948, supplied and translated by C.C. Chin.

65 Chin Peng, Alias Chin Peng, p. 206. Deputy Secretary General Yeung Kuo walked into the Queen Street headquarters in Singapore just after the key decisions and according to Chin Peng said ‘I'm still doubtful. Are we really prepared for this? Perhaps we should reconsider our position’ before questioning whether ‘conditions’ were ‘ripe’ for armed struggle. Yeung Kuo and a second CC doubter ‘finally accepted’ Chin Peng's position on sticking to the decisions. See p. 201 by contrast for CC member Ah Dian supporting change.

66 Chin Peng, Dialogues, pp. 225–32.

67 TNA: CO537/4246, Third Conference under the Chairmanship of His Excellency the Commissioner-General for the United Kingdom in South East Asia, held at Bukit Serene, 16 May 1948. This listed 10 points of evidence behind the committee's formation including ‘The growing strength of Communist dominated world organisation such as the World Federation of Democratic Youth’, communist successes in China, a new Russian legation in Bangkok, Czech events.

68 Ibid. Some measures, such as removing communists from sensitive posts (something announced for the UK in March 1948) were merely following more general, emerging, ‘Cold War’ practices.

69 RHL MSS PIJ 12/1948, 30.6.1948, Appendix A, p. 2, information based on intelligence. This stated that the campaign was ‘probably inspired from outside (MSS reports tended to waver on this), but that reasons given locally included: (i) No political progress over three years; (ii) Members losing revolutionary spirit and needed to act immediately or fail; (iii) British economic problems with Malaya, its last dollar-earning asset. Malaya could help wreck this money-earner, bring Britain to its knees, and prevent it entering any third world war; (iv) The British Labour government being weak; and, possibility of help via pressure from communist parties of other governments.

70 RHL MSS PIJ 12/1948, 30.6.1948, Appendix A, p. 3 describes Chin Peng as ‘one of the few moderates remaining on the CEC’.

Karl Hack lectures in History at the Open University, United Kingdom. He specialises in insurgency, imperialism and decolonisation in modern Malaysia and Singapore, and on Singapore's history in general. His email address is . The author would like to thank the British Academy for their support, which made possible the Asian-based travel, research and networking on which the writing of this paper was dependent.

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The origins of the Asian Cold War: Malaya 1948

  • Karl Hack


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