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Women in the Malayan Communist Party, 1942–89

  • Mahani Musa


Women's involvement in the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) since its establishment in 1930 until they laid down their arms in 1989 contributed much to the strength of the party. Women in the MCP have been presented largely as nurses, cooks, seamstresses, couriers, and wireless/radio operators, but they went through hardship and danger and fought the same battles as the male guerrillas. A few even climbed to the top party posts through hard work, intelligence and personal sacrifice. This paper recovers the role of women in the Malayan communist movement during the Second World War, the Emergency and after by tracing the careers and lives of party heroines / female role models as well as some ordinary cadres. Major questions include the motivations of women who joined the MCP and the challenges they faced in their roles as propagandists, comrades, guerrilla fighters and in the communist villages. This investigation provides more insight into how the revolutionary struggle transformed these Malayan women.


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1 These include Short, Anthony, The communist insurrection in Malaya 1948–1960 (London: Frederick Muller, 1975), based partly on Short's military service in Johor in 1948–49; in 2000 it was republished as In pursuit of the mountains rats: The Communist insurrection in Malaya (Singapore: Cultured Lotus). Other studies are Stubbs, Richard, Hearts and minds in guerilla warfare: The Malayan Emergency 1948–1960 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989); Miller, Harry, Jungle war in Malaya: The campaign against Communism 1948–1960 (London: Barker, 1972); Kheng, Cheah Boon, The masked comrades: A study of the Communist United Front in Malaya, 1945–1948 (Singapore: Times Books) and Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and social conflict during and after the Japanese Occupation, 1941–1946 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1983).

2 They include Leng, Yuen Yuet, Operation Ginger (Kuala Lumpur: Vinpress, 1998); Chin, Aloysius, The Communist Party of Malaya: The inside story (Kuala Lumpur: Vinpress, 1995); Raj, J.J., The war years and after (Subang Jaya: Pelanduk, 2000); Navaratnam, A., The spear and the kerambit: The exploits of VAT 69, Malaysia's elite fighting force, 1968–1989 (Kuala Lumpur: Utusan, 2001).

3 Khoo, Agnes, Life as the river flows: Women in the Malayan anti-colonial struggle (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information Research Development [SIRD], 2004). These four villages were set up with official Thai assistance after 1989. Thailand played an important role in the negotiation between Malaysia and the MCP. For further details, see, Ratanachaya, Kitti, The Communist Party of Malaya, Malaysia and Thailand: The last role of Chin Peng (Bangkok: Sahadhammika, 2007).

4 See articles in Women as warriors in Asia’, Special issue, IIAS Newsletter, 48 (2008), (last accessed on 15 Feb. 2013). Adriana Tan, in ‘The forgotten women warriors of the Malayan Communist Party’ (ibid.: 12–13) outlines the extraordinary achievements and personal lives (marriage, divorce and parenthood) of ex-women MCP cadres. Her work is based solely on Khoo's Life as the river flows, however. A study by Roziyati Komar highlights the role of three top women leaders — Shamsiah Fakeh, Lee Meng and Suriani Abdullah. Komar, Roziyati, Berdayung mudik: Kisah 3 wanita dalam Parti Komunis Malaya [Paddling upstream: Stories of three women in the MCP] (Kuala Lumpur: eSastera, 2011).

5 Moser, Caroline O.N. and Clark, Fiona C., Victims, perpetrators or actors: Gender, armed conflict and political violence (London: Zed Books, 2001), p. 4.

6 Hilsdon, Anne-Marie, Madonna and martyr: Militarism and violence in the Philippines (St Leonard's: Allen & Unwin, 1995), pp. 51–5.

7 Beckett, I.F.W., Encyclopedia of guerilla warfare (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1999).

8 Macdonald, Sharon, ‘Drawing the lines — gender, peace and war: An introduction’, in Images of women in peace and war: Cross-cultural and historical perspectives, ed. Macdonald, Sharon, Holden, Pat and Ardener, Shirley (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education with Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 34.

9 Jayawardena, Kumari, Feminism and nationalism in the Third World in the 19th and early 20th centuries (The Hague: Institute of Social Studies, 1982), pp. 210.

10 The Chinese revolution of 1911, the Young Turks revolution of 1908 and the Russian revolution of 1917 all left a deep impact on Asian nationalism.

11 Manderson, Lenore, Women, politics and change: The Kaum Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945–1972 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 202.

12 See, Dancz, Virginia H., Women and party politics in Peninsular Malaysia (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1987).

13 C.D., Abdullah, Memoir Abdullah C.D.: Zaman pergerakan sehingga 1948 [The memoirs of Abdullah C.D.: The movement until 1948] (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2005), p. 228.

14 Leith, Suzette, ‘Chinese women in the early Communist movement’, in Women in China: Studies in social change and feminism, ed. Young, Marilyn B. (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1973), p. 57. Women in the labour force made for fertile recruiting ground because of the wage and other forms of discrimination they faced.

15 Women's welfare and equality was included in the right to vote for all workers and peasants, and freedoms of speech, assembly, publication, association and strike in the CCP's first manifesto (10 June 1922) and in the manifesto of the Second National Congress of the CCP (July 1922). See further, Brandt, Conrad, Schwartz, Benjamin and Fairbank, John K., A documentary history of Chinese Communism (New York: Atheneum, 1966), pp. 5465.

16 Jayawardena, Feminism and nationalism, pp. 192–3.

17 Eng Ming Ching is better known as Suriani Abdullah, the name she adopted upon her marriage to Abdullah C.D.

18 Abdullah, Suriani, Memoir Suriani Abdullah: Setengah abad dalam perjuangan [The memoirs of Suriani Abdullah: Half a century of struggle] (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2006), pp. 912. See also, Ru-Hong, Shan, Gold in the south: The story of an immigrant (Kuala Lumpur: Penerbitan Abad Dua Puluh Satu, n.d.), p. 58. The areas covered include Menglembu, Lahat, Papan, Pusing, Siputeh, Tronoh, Batu Gajah, Kampar, Tapah and Tanjong Tualang in the south. In the north, the area included Silibin, Kepong, Ampang, Chemor, and Sungai Siput. Ipoh remained the nerve centre of these activities.

19 Fakeh, Shamsiah, Memoir Shamsiah Fakeh: Dari AWAS ke Rejimen ke-10 [The memoirs of Shamsiah Fakeh: From AWAS to the 10th Regiment] (Bangi: Penerbit University Kebangsaan Malaysia [UKM], 2004), p. 45.

20 Khoo, Life as the river flows, p. 11.

21 Ibid., pp. 86–104.

22 Ibid., pp. 50–64.

23 See further, Mahmud Embong, ‘Perkembangan Rejimen ke-10 Melayu, Parti Komunis Malaya dari 1949 hingga 1989’ [The development of the MCP's Malay 10th Regiment, 1949–89] (Ph.D. thesis, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, 2009).

24 Abdullah C.D., Memoir Abdullah C.D., pp. 192–223.

25 Short, In pursuit of the mountain rats, p. 208. See also Mutalib, Jang Aishah, Pemberontakan Pahang, 1891–1895 [The Pahang Rebellion, 1891–1895] (Kelantan: Pustaka Aman, 1972); Gopinath, Aruna, Pahang 1880–1933: A political history (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Monograph no. 18, 1991).

26 Lubok Kawah in Temerloh became a hideout for former PKMM, API and AWAS leaders like Shamsiah Fakeh and Zainab Mahmud. It was here that their lives as guerrillas began.

27 See Lamry, Mohamed Salleh, Siti Norkiah Mahmud: Srikandi dari Pahang Utara [Siti Norkiah Mahmud: Heroine from North Pahang] (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2011), pp. 146.

28 One of these productions was entitled ‘Children of Pahang river’. See Chin, The Communist Party of Malaya, p. 100.

29 Khoo, Life as the river flows, pp. 253–80.

30 See the web page, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, ‘The Cold War in Asia (1945–90)’, ‘1956 Report of the MCP as a force in Singapore’, (last accessed on 15 Feb. 2013). Among the schools actively involved in the campaign were Chinese High School, Chung Cheng High School, Chung Hwa and Nanyang Girls' High School.

31 Harper, T.N., The end of empire and the making of Malaya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 294–5.

32 National Archives United Kingdom (NAUK) Public Records Office (henceforth PRO) 2 153/53 (Confidential) Singapore review of imported publications 1953. Most of the publications which were confiscated in Feb. 1953 were for children and youth. The highest number of books confiscated was in Oct. 1953 with 161 titles (out of 176) declared prejudicial to the state while 334 packets (out of 1,659 packets) of second-class mail were placed in a similar category.

33 Straits Times, 22 Sept. 1956.

34 PRO 27 330/56 Anti-yellow culture campaign. The British authorities were not only concerned with the direct attacks on the colonial government, but alarmed that the Chinese leftist group had successfully dragged Malay and Indian organisations into their campaign; 444 associations and unions (197 Malay associations, 234 Chinese organisations and 13 Indian bodies) were invited to participate in the proposed ‘Anti-Yellow Culture Convention of all races’.

35 Hui, Lee Ting, The open United Front: The Communist struggle in Singapore 1954–1966 (Singapore: South Seas Society, 1996), pp. 95–6. In May 1955, SWF applied for registration which was approved the following year despite the fact that there was little doubt that this organisation was another communist front. For further details, see, Kartini Saparudin, ‘Colonisation of everyday life in the 1950s and 1960s: Towards the Malayan dream’ (M.A. thesis, National University of Singapore, 2005).

36 Lim Yew Hock was chief minister of Singapore from June 1956 to June 1959.

37 PRO 27 330/56 Anti-yellow culture campaign.

38 The banishment of Linda Chen to China was given wide coverage by local newspapers. See ‘Send me to Britain says banished teacher’, Straits Times, 15 Nov. 1956; ‘Britain won't have you, Linda Chen is told’, Straits Times, 9 Feb. 1957.

39 PRO 27 330/56 Anti-yellow culture campaign.

40 ‘A stooge is born’, Fajar, 30 Sept. 1956.

41 Khoo, Life as the river flows, pp. 65–85.

42 Ibid., pp. 120–8, 148–63.

43 Stubbs, Hearts and minds, pp. 90–91.

44 Hui, Lee Ting, The communist organization in Singapore: Its techniques on manpower mobilization and management, 1948–66 (Singapore, ISEAS, Field report series no. 12, 1976), pp. 1213.

45 Khoo, Life as the river flows, pp. 207–13.

46 Noriza bt. Said, ‘Projek dokumentasi sejarah lisan: Tokoh pejuang nasionalis Melayu kiri (Siti bt Nong Ishak)’ [Oral history documentary project: Nationalist fighters of the Malay Left] (Bangi: Pusat Kajian Sejarah Lisan, Fakulti Sains Sosial dan Kemasyarakatan, UKM, 1992).

47 Sahari Bulan bt. Nuhung, ‘Regimen Ke Sepuluh Parti Komunis Malaya’ [The 10th Regiment of the Malayan Communist Party] (Bangi: Pusat Kajian Sejarah Lisan, Fakulti Sains Sosial dan Kemasyarakatan, UKM, 1993).

48 Xiulan’, I want to live: A personal account of one woman's futile armed struggle for the Reds (Petaling Jaya: Star Publications, 1983), p. 39.

49 Chik, Ibrahim, Memoir Ibrahim Chik: Dari API ke Rejimen ke-10 [The memoirs of Ibrahim Chik: From API to the 10th Regiment] (Bangi: Penerbit UKM, 2004), p. 181.

50 Muna aka Mek Pik, 60, living at the Khao Nam Khang Historical Tunnel, Sadao, formerly an 8th Regiment base (interviewed 1 Jan. 2009); born in Pattani, she joined the guerillas in Nathawee in 1978 at the age of 29. Chang Li Li, 55 (interviewed 1 Jan. 2009 at Betong Peace Village-Chulaporn Village No. 10, Yala; born in Betong, Thailand and joined the guerillas in 1971 at the age of 17. Rokiah, 58, a Thai national living in Narathiwat (interviewed 4 Dec. 2010); she followed some friends and joined the guerillas in 1966 at the age of 12 because of poverty. Khatijah Daud, 68, was born in Pattani and joined the MCP in the 1970s (interviewed 25 Feb. 2009).

51 Khatijah Daud, Muna, Suti, Maimunah, Wayah, and Rokiah are second generation MCP cadres and cited poverty and the influence of friends as reasons for joining the guerillas. Several women interviewed by Khoo also claim poverty as one of the reasons they joined the MCP. See Suria or Atom (born in Thailand in 1951) who cited poverty and the desire to escape from a domineering husband as her reasons for joining the guerrilla movement although she did not understand much about the movement; Khoo, Life as the river flows, pp. 35–49.

52 Khoo, Life as the river flows, pp. 207–8.

53 Short, In pursuit of the mountain rats, p. 208.

54 Utusan Malaysia, 30 May 2009.

55 Interview with Munah bt. Husin, 24 May 2009 at her house in Kampong Malau, Kenering, Gerik, Perak.

56 See, Leith, ‘Chinese women in the early Communist movement’, p. 49.

57 Van der Kroef, Justus M., Communism in Malaysia and Singapore (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1967), p. 20.

58 Abraham, Collin, ‘The finest hour’: The Malaysian–MCP peace accord in perspective (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2006).

59 Fernando, Joseph M., The alliance road to independence (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 2009), p. 5.

60 Van der Kroef, Communism in Malaysia and Singapore, p. 22. In the 1930s, the MCP experienced a surge in new membership. By 1931 its membership was estimated at around 1,500, supported by some 10,000 organised labourers and a smaller number of women agents.

61 Freedom News: The untold story of the communist underground publication, intro. by Ramakrishna, Kumar (Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, 2008), p. 6.

62 Ling, Ho Hui, Darurat 1948–1960: Keadaan sosial di Tanah Melayu [The Emergency 1948–1960: Social conditions in Malaya] (Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 2004), pp. 1213. Between December 1947–May 1948, the MCP managed to control 130 out of 335 labour associations while another 70 were under its influence.

63 Harper, The end of empire, p. 66.

64 Cheah, The masked comrades, p. 26.

65 Short, In pursuit of the mountain rats, pp. 148, 206.

66 NAUK Colonial Office (henceforth CO) 717/205 52932 1951, Association of British Malaya, Malayan Bulletin, vol. 5, no. 55, dated 25 July 1951. The food denial campaign started much earlier in states with certain areas that were under communist threat classified as ‘food restricted areas’. See: National Archives of Malaysia (NAM), Kedah/Perlis Branch, Kedah Secretariat 1295/1369 Anti-bandit month: Control of the movement of commodities and medical supplies; NAM, Johor/N.Sembilan/Melaka Branch (henceforth JNSMB) J/SUK 1 State Secretary Johor 2009/49 Denial of foodstuffs to bandits; JNSMB J/PD SG 1 Segamat District Office AOS 10/50 Anti-bandit month Segamat. See also Straits Echo and Times of Malaya, 18 Aug. 1950.

67 Short, In pursuit of the mountain rats, p. 472. By 1955 the number of MCP armed guerillas had gone down to 3,000 from a high of 8,000 in 1951. For state by state figures on the strength of the MCP in the federation until Oct. 1955, see, ‘Report on the Malayan Communist Party in the Federation of Malaya’, (last accessed on 15 Feb. 2013).

68 An open courier travelled by road, rail, bicycle, on foot and so forth and always able to avoid military or police checkpoints.

69 Comber, Leon, Malaya's secret police 1945–60: The role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency (Singapore: ISEAS, 2008), pp. 219–37.

70 Peng, Chin, My side of history; as told to Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor (Singapore: Media Masters, 2003), p. 336. See also Straits Times, 10 Mar. 1952.

71 CO 1022/210 Pan-Malayan review of political and security intelligence, No. 5, May 1953 (top secret).

72 CO 1022/207 Political situation report from Singapore: Fortnightly reports prepared by the Singapore Intelligence Committee; Political report for the period 17th to 30th Oct. 1953.

73 Ibid., Political report for the period 2nd to 16th Oct. 1953.

74 Suriani, Memoir, p. 69.

75 Ibid. See the preface by Rashid Maidin.

76 For details of Suriani's achievements, see her Memoir. See also, Suriani, Serikandi Suriani Abdullah [The heroine Suriani Abdullah] (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2005).

77 Suriani, Memoir, p. 150.

78 Rashid Maidin, an important figure in the 10th Regiment, had married Selamah, a Chinese guerilla, in 1959 at the Sadao camp, Thailand. See, Maidin, Rashid, Memoir Rashid Maidin: Daripada perjuangan bersenjata kepada perdamaian [The memoirs of Rashid Maidin: From armed struggle to peace] (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2005), p. 77.

79 Suriani, Memoir, pp. 165–8.

80 Suriani, Serikandi Suriani Abdullah, pp. 46–7.

81 Suriani, Memoir, p. 12. Ah Yen was responsible for the underground network in the Pusing area.

82 For details on the detention of spies in the 12th Regiment, see, Bei Ma Ju Po Huo Di Jian Zhen Xiang [The truth behind the detention of spies by the Northern Peninsular Department] (Sadao: Committee of the Khao Nam Khang Historical Tunnel, 1999). See also ‘Xiulan’, I want to live, pp. 40–41.

83 Chin, The Communist Party of Malaya, p. 101.

84 The festivals celebrated included Party Day on 30 April, Labour Day on 1 May, the anniversary of the formation of the 10th Regiment on 21 May and the major festivals of the Malays, Chinese, Indians and Thais. See, Suriani, Memoir, p. 134.

85 Harper, The end of empire, p. 48.

86 Chapman, Spencer F., The jungle is neutral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1963), ch. 7. See also, Thatcher, Dorothy and Cross, Robert, Refugee from the Japanese (Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS, 1993, Monograph no. 24), pp. 74, 89. Nona Baker, an Englishwoman who had lived in an MPAJA camp in Sungai Lembing during the Occupation, claims at one time she was the only woman in the camp. She saw five women at the Sungai Riau camp; they worked in the kitchen, nursed the sick/injured and mended the soldiers' clothes.

87 Chapman, The jungle is neutral, pp. 149–51.

88 Chynoweth, John, Hunting terrorists in the jungle (Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2005), p. 73.

89 Ibid., 17 May 1949.

90 Ibid., 22 May 1949.

91 Straits Echo and Times of Malaya, 10 Oct. 1949.

92 JNSMB Johor State War Committee 1601/1955 Medical treatment to captured C.T.

93 The danger and where it lies (Kuala Lumpur: Information Services, Federation of Malaya, 1957), p. 6.

94 C.D., Abdullah, C.D., AbdullahMemoir Abdullah C.D: Penaja dan Pemimpin Rejimen ke-10 (Petaling Jaya: 2005), pp. 300302.

95 Suriani, Memoir, ch. 13.

96 Mohammed Salleh Lamry, Siti Norkiah Mahmud, pp. 92–3.

97 Zhongren, Quan, Jianku Douzheng Suiyue [The years of difficult struggle], (Sadao: Committee of the Khao Nam Khang Tunnel, 2000), pp. 1747.

98 Aishah alias Suti, 47 years old, interview, 7 Jan. 2009, Yarom village, Yala.

99 ‘Xiulan’, I want to live, p. 12.

100 Siti Zamiah Abdul Latif, 68 years old; Interview, 28 May 2011, at her house in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur.

101 Freedom News, 35, 15 Mar. 1953; cited in Freedom News, pp. 123–4.

102 Dialogue with Chin Peng: New light on the Malayan Communist Party, ed. Chin, C.C. and Hack, Karl (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004), p. 7.

103 Mohamed Salleh Lamry, Siti Norkiah Mahmud, pp. 88–9. Other camps seem to have followed a similar policy, as did those involved in party broadcasts in China. For details, see ‘An expose of the MCP's Secret radio transmission station in Hunan China’, In Asia/2000 (last accessed 15 Feb. 2013).

104 Ibrahim Chik, Memoir Ibrahim Chik, p. 135. Ibrahim and Rahmah agreed to separate after Rahmah was caught by Thai security forces in 1955. She was handed over to the Malayan government. Ibrahim later married Siti Zamiah Abdul Latif.

105 Ibid., pp. 137–9.

106 Apa khabar orang kampong, DVD, directed by Amir Muhammad (Singapore: Objectives Films, 2007). This documentary focuses on the lives of former Malay communist guerillas who now live in Sukirin village, south Thailand. See also Rohani binti Mat, ‘Projek Dokumentasi Sejarah Lisan’.

107 Mohamed Salleh Lamry, Siti Norkiah Mahmud, p. 83.

108 Information from Mat Amin, former 10th Regiment member, email communication, 18 Mar. 2012. See further, his blog, (last accessed 15 Feb. 2013).

109 ‘Xiulan’, I want to live, pp. 18, 22.

110 ‘Reds use women as sex objects’, Straits Times, 8 May 1979.

111 JNSMB J/PD SG 1 Pejabat Daerah Segamat A.O.S 13/51 Bandit Baby.

112 Ibrahim Chik, Memoir, p. 202.

113 Bei Ma Ju Po Huo Di Jian Zheng Xiang.

114 Suriani, Memoir, p. 160.

115 Bei Ma Ju Po Huo Di Jian Zhen Xiang, see report by Ma Ren.

116 ‘Xiulan’, I want to live, pp. 26–40.

117 Ibid., p. 157.

118 Rohani bt. Mat, ‘Projek dokumentasi sejarah lisan’.

119 Khadijah Daud, interview, 25 Feb. 2009.

I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments that greatly improved the essay. I am also grateful to USM for financial support under a grant entitled ‘Re-examining the 1946–1957 period in Malaysian history’ and to the National Library, Singapore, for a Lee Kong Chian Research Fellowship (July 2009–Jan. 2010) which enabled research on this essay.

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Women in the Malayan Communist Party, 1942–89

  • Mahani Musa


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