Fallacy of the British Having Learned Nothing

Guest writer Larry Hughes on the British experience in Malaya

Just in case anyone may believe the fallacy that the British have learned nothing from all their colonies and almost countless invasions of other nations, a book by Richard Stubbs, Hearts and Minds in Guerilla Warfare, the Malayan Emergency 1948-1960, Oxford University Press (New York 1989) gives a fascinating account of British tactics in Malaya and the reasons behind their behavior there. Far from learning nothing it would appear the British not only employ tried and tested counter insurgency tactics, but are generally well ahead of the game. If any characters happen to bear any similarity of any kind whatsoever to any persons from Northern Ireland either alive or dead in this article, it is absolutely ‘unintentional’.

In 1945 the British behaved atrociously upon returning to Malaya. The Japanese had exploded the myth of European white superiority and no-one had forgotten the indecent haste with which the British abandoned the peninsula and capitulated in Singapore. The Malayan people also had the problem of trying to undo the widespread damage to the rubber and tin industries caused by the British scorched earth policy as 130,000 British, Indian and Australian troops fled from the 30,000 Japanese troops who were cycling down the peninsula on push-bikes. After the two nuclear bombs and the Japanese unexpectedly swift surrender in 1945 the Chinese Communist resistance fighters, later the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) had emerged from the Malayan jungle looking like the victors to the local population who were unaware of the over-all story in a global context in a time before sky TV and mass literacy. When they returned to their pre-war colony the British were effectively viewed locally as coming back with their tail between their legs.

When the campaign now known as the Malaya ‘Emergency’ finally began in 1948, the British, whilst insisting they were restoring law and order, burned villages, committed rape and mass murder in broad daylight and brutally assaulted people at random as a matter of policy. It was a policy the British officially termed ‘Coercion and Enforcement’. Assaults were deliberately perpetrated in public by police and army with the aim of instilling terror so that the entire population would ‘fear’ the British more than the so-called insurgents. People were shot in the street and had bullets placed on their person and prisoners were brutalised as a matter of procedure. The worst attack came in December 1948 at Batang Kali where a large number of Chinese rubber plantation workers were rounded up by British troops and murdered and the village burned. In spite of young communist militants from the resistance campaign during the Japanese occupation having desired armed struggle well before 1948 and the fact that the British upon their return after the Japanese surrender in 1945 had immediately alienated the entire Malayan population, the young militants had been deliberately restrained by the CPM leadership.  Why?

Britain required Malayan tin and rubber resources to bolster their devastated post war economy. They utilised these resources to such an extent that locals and Europeans alike were left on the brink of prolonged starvation in Malaya from 1945 onward. The Malayan resources played a huge part in regenerating the British economy in the years after 1945. The unrest in the tin mines and on the rubber plantations found ready recruits for the CPM and the population in general loathed the British during this period.  So, with the conditions ripe for armed struggle in Malaya, why did the CPM hesitate in the face of demands within the party for armed struggle? One reason for this delay may also be why the British ‘took the gloves off’ from the ‘get-go’. The reason stemmed to a large degree from the exposure and absconding of one man, Lai Tek; or Mr. Wright as he was also called.

Lai Tek was General Secretary of the Communist Party of Malaya. Prior to the 1948 ‘Emergency’ in Malaya some in British political circles were surprised that the Communist Party of  Malaya’s political ‘shopping list’ was extremely close to the British policy in the region. Later disclosures from Government papers and Japanese records would show that Lai Tek had served the French as a spy in Indo-China. He was later recruited by the British security services and brought to Singapore to infiltrate the CPM. Remarkably between 1934 and 1939 he managed to ascend to the position of General Secretary of the Malayan Communist Party. This was achieved by using the British police to pick off his rivals within the Party. He then set the Party on a course of non-confrontation with the British. Stubbs asserts that Lai Tek was successful because of his forceful personality, the assistance of the British Special Branch in eliminating his political rivals and the creation of a ‘myth’ around his personality.

Decision making within the CPM was highly centralised and Lai Tek had been built up as a ‘superman’ figure whom those within the party would obey and follow blindly. F. Spencer Chapman, who had lived with the communist guerillas during the Japanese occupation stated, “All the guerillas knew the name of the Secretary General, who was credited with innumerable attributes, being able to pilot an airplane, drive a tank, speak many languages and hoodwink the Japanese in any way he desired”.  He was also said to have cycled around Singapore on his red bicycle right under the noses of the Japanese. (wonder where the British concocted that story from!). Although many of the CPM's top personnel managed to escape Singapore before it had fallen, Lai Tek didn’t and was arrested by the Japanese. Although most communists were executed by the Japanese, Lai Tek walked free. Based on later evidence, including documents in Japanese archives, it now appears that Lai Tek saved his life by promising to act as a Japanese agent.

On 1 September 1942, more than 100 senior CPM members had gathered at the Batu Caves just north of Kuala Lumpur for a secret conference. The Japanese were aware of the event and staged a surprise raid.  Most of the CPM high command were killed or arrested. Lai Tek, who should have been at the meeting, wasn't. He later claimed that he had been unable to attend because his car broke down. In 1946, faint rumors which had been circulating within the party about disloyalty on the part of Lai Tek began to be taken much more seriously. This unrest was intensified by the restlessness of the rank and file, especially the younger more militant members who were eager for armed action against the British and the hardships they were imposing in Malaya. Lai Tek was eventually removed from some sensitive posts, and an investigation was begun into his activities. A full meeting of the Central Executive Committee was scheduled for 6 March 1947 at which the complaints against Lai Tek were going to be made in his presence. Lai Tek did not attend this meeting but instead absconded with the bulk of the Party's funds, hiding first in Singapore, then going to Hong Kong and later Thailand. With Lai Teck gone, the party elected a new leader, Chin Peng. According to Chin Peng, Lai Tek was later assassinated in Bangkok when Thai Communists tried to take him prisoner and he resisted.

With great foresight, the British, far from merely reacting to events, had the skill to implant an agent coming from Vietnam where the French had been engaged in colonialism before the war. They successfully imbedded Lai Tek into the CPM in Singapore in the 1930s. Within a short period of time the agent was elevated to the highest level within the CPM by creating a ‘myth’ around his personality and by the removal of anyone seen as a threat to his position and politics by British Special Branch.

Such was the damage caused to the CPM internally that even though the organisation eventually ‘sussed’ Lai Tek and he fled, the CPM was effectively on its knees when the ‘Emergency’ began in 1948 and the campaign, when it finally did get under way, went off half-cocked at best. The CPM had been left lacking both funds and leadership personnel. This let the British, who were held in extremely low regard in Malaya in 1945, wage its campaign of pure terror after the unexpected Japanese surrender. A campaign of terror which the Sultans of Malaya and the general population of all ethnicities declared was worse than anything the Japanese had inflicted upon the people during their occupation in WW2. All the while the wealth and resources of Malaya were going to rebuild Britain leaving the local population in starvation immediately after the war.


  1. Really interesting piece.

    So did Lai Tek have a beard too?

  2. Belfast Bookworm,

    I hope you are not comparing him with out very own Lie Tek.

    I thought it a great article too.

  3. Lai Tek in Malaya Lie Tech' SF....certainly NOT to be confused with 'hight tech'.

  4. As if I would.

    Lie Tek! Very funny.

  5. Larry-

    Enjoyed reading that but Malaysia Achieved independence from those smart brits on 31 August 1957 years after their peace talks first started-so it does sound similar to another time and place-

  6. Quite a lot of similarities to here – but I would argue that the British approach to the situation here was somewhat reversed….they didn’t implant a single Lai Tek but multiple Lai Teks at all levels except the figure head and their objective was to be agents of influence – the think tank…thus leaving the figure head to be pushed and pulled in the direction that they so wished all under the guise that he was leading and forming party policy…..why else has there been no substantial internal unrest at his leadership similar to Malaysia or even rumblings of any substantial nature…..the Lai Teks are in control and are a buffering zone to it all…..remove the think tank and the figure head will flounder….

  7. Michael Henry; 1957 years? Jesus, they'd a quare long wait!

    We've only another 3 or 4 to go for our independence. Can't wait.