P. Ramasamy is the Deputy Chief Minister of the State of Penang, Malaysia
The former secretary general of the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP), Chin Peng alias Ong Boon Hua died at the age of 88 in a private hospital in Bangkok on September 16, the day Malaysians celebrated their national day. It was on this same day, the Minister Mentor of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, celebrated his 90th birthday. According to his aide, Chin Peng will be cremated at Bangkok’s Wat That Throng temple in a week’s time. The news of Chin Peng’s death was carried in all the media in the country as well as abroad. Yet in Chin Peng’s own hometown of Sitiawan in the state of Perak, the people could only merely whisper about the passing away of this legend. Even though the MCP is gone, folks here are reluctant to talk openly about Chin Peng.
Like Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia, Malaya had its share of anti-imperialist/anti-colonial struggles in the 1940s and 1950s. In Vietnam it was led by the guerilla freedom fighter and communist Ho Chih Minh; in Indonesia it was led by (later President) Sukarno; and in Malaya it was under the leadership of Chin Peng. The MCP formed in the early 1930s first fought the Japanese and later the British. It is well known and acknowledged that without the contribution of the MCP, the British would have delayed the granting of political Independence in 1957. Today in Malaysia, the mention of Chin Peng’s name brings about mixed feelings. While his foes think that he was a traitor and a murderer responsible for so many deaths during the civil war, others regard him as a freedom fighter, a patriot and a nationalist.
Chin Peng’s – who fought the Japanese, British and later the Malayan/Malaysian authorities – last wish was to have his ashes buried near the graves of his parents. The Malaysian government turned down this request that came from the relatives who were there to attend the funeral. In fact, before his death, Chin Peng always harboured the desire to return to his hometown to pay his last respects to his deceased parents. His parents and his family members are buried at the Kong Hock Kong Lumut Pundut burial ground. The caretaker when interviewed said that Chin Peng’s brother and relatives would come and pay their respects every Qing Ming (All Souls Day). But the government, apprehensive about reactions from rightist Malay organisations and former servicemen associations, refused his entry. Chin Peng even took the matter to court but he was unsuccessful because he could not produce evidence of his birth in Sitiawan. Even an international campaign that was launched to garner support for his return failed to materialise.
Chin Peng and the MCP
Chin Peng was born in 1924 in Sitiawan, Perak. His parents had a shop that sold bicycles and spare parts. He was educated in Chinese in Nan Hwa High School before continuing his education in English at Anglo-Chinese School. The MCP had an organsed presence even before Chin Peng joined the party. Under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), cells were established in Malaya to get the support of the overseas Chinese for the communist cause in China. Before the invasion of the Japanese, the MCP supported the cause of the Chinese revolution and at the same time laid the grounds for the eventual communist takeover of Malaya. In doing so, the party carefully created and sustained networks especially among the urban poor, plantation and port workers. It was only a matter of time, before a considerable section of the urban working class came to be sympathetic towards the cause of the MCP and its affiliates.
Sitiawan, the birth place of Chin Peng, is not a very impressive town. In the early days, it was surrounded by rubber and coconut plantations and small-holdings. Later, rubber was replaced by oil-palm. Only with the establishment of a naval base in nearby Lumut port in the 1970s that there was urban development in Sitiawan. The interesting thing about the state of Perak is that it had produced a number of prominent individuals who had played a role in the MCP and left-wing organizations. Apart from Chin Peng, Rashid Mydin and CD Abdullah were prominent Malay MCP leaders from places such as Parit and Ipoh. During the Emergency, in Sungei Siput, another town in Perak, a Tamil by the name of Perumal organised plantation workers very often defying and challenging European planters. In the town of Slim River, R.G. Balan was the main labour organiser who later was promoted to be the vice-chairman of the MCP. One Panjang (tall) leader Muniandy who died some years back was a prominent MCP commander in the Sitiawan area.
I also come from a village called Kampung Baru, a few kilometers away from Sitiawan town. My father who migrated from South India had rubber and coconut small-holdings. Chin Peng’s father was known to my father. In the mid-1950s, I was around six years old; he took me to Sitiawan town and purchased a small bicycle for my use from the bicycle shop owned by Chin Peng’s family. This episode is still vivid in my memory!
It was the Japanese invasion that provided the opportunity for Chin Peng to rise in the hierarchy of the party. The British withdrawal from Malaya provided an opportunity for the MCP to enter into close collaboration with the former. The withdrawing British agreed to assist the MCP and its anti-Japanese front, the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) during the course of the occupation. Apparently, the British also agreed to recognise the MCP as a legitimate political organization on the withdrawal of the Japanese from Malaya. Much later, after the failure of the Baling Peace Talks, Chin Peng criticised the British for not honouring their commitment to the party!
With the end of World War II and just before the British arrived to re-occupy Malaya, the MCP was not certain as to what exact strategy it should adopt towards the British. Lai Tek, the party’s secretary general, later to be executed for being an agent of both the British and the Japanese, formulated a policy of limited agitation and cooperation with the British. This explains the reason why the British were able re-enter Malaya with relative ease and without resistance from the MCP. Some historians have lamented that just before the arrival of the British, the MCP was the most powerful organization in the country but it was not prepared to take power. Before the MCP could act against Lai Tek for his betrayal, he fled the country, first to Thailand and later to Hong Kong.
With the exit of Lai Tek, Chin Peng was elevated to the post of secretary general of the MCP. With his rise, the MCP abandoned its earlier strategy of limited agitation and cooperation and decided to adopt a more aggressive posture towards the British. With the support of his affiliates, the MCP decided that the time had come to evict the British from Malaya once and for all. Directives were given to his affiliates and trade unions to launch massive strikes and demonstrations against the British. With the assassination of three European planters in Perak, the British launched an all out attack against the MCP and its affiliates. In 1948 the British declared an Emergency and brought in Australian, New Zealand and Gurkha troops to engage the communists in a long and protracted struggle. After 12 years of armed struggle, the MCP, unable to put up an effective resistance withdrew its troops to southern Thailand. Emergency rule was effectively ended in 1960. However, guerrilla struggle waged by the MCP was not totally over. In states like Perak and Pahang, the traditional strongholds of the MCP, occasional guerrilla warfare was undertaken. The Malaysian government introduced selective emergency measures to root out the remnants of communists even during the early 1980s.
The Decline of the MCP
The British counter-insurgency measures comprised of force, administrative procedures and psychological tactics considerably weakened the MCP. By the 1970s and 1980s, a number of international developments dented the relevance of the MCP. For instance nationalist rivalry in communist camps, the animosity between USSR and China, the tensions between China and Vietnam and the pragmatic thrust of Deng Hsiao Ping’s economic policies led to the weakening of the ideological basis of the left. At the domestic level, one of the greatest weaknesses of the MCP was the lack of Malay/Muslim support. Furthermore, the party’s close identification with the Chinese community and its outward orientation towards the Chinese Communist Party were factors that did not endear the party to the local population.
Given the impossibility of launching a communist revolution in Malaysia under changed international circumstances, Chin Peng decided to end the armed struggle. On December 2, 1989, at the Haadyai Peace Talks in Southern Thailand with both the Thai and Malaysian governments, the party decided to lay down its arms and to disband its armed units. In return, both the governments agreed to provide financial assistance for their respective nationals for re-settlement in accordance with their laws and regulations. The Malaysian government also promised that Chin Peng would be allowed to come into the country just like his comrades Rashid Mydin, CD Abdullah, Shamsiah Fakeh and many others. However, Chin Peng was in for a rude shock. Following the Haadyai Peace Accord, the Malaysian government broke its promise and refused to allow Chin Peng into the country.
Chin Peng has died. Although his role in Malaysian politics is a controversial one, it must be remembered that without the MCP, the British would not have quickened the pace of Malaysia securing Independence. In India, without the impact of the Indian National Army (INA) under Subhas Chandra Bose, it is unlikely that Independence would have been granted in 1947. Political, social and economic developments in post-war Malaysia would make no sense without any reference to the MCP. The formation of trade unions amongst urban and plantation workers was largely initiated by the MCP. The fight against plantation capital for the improvement of the lives of Tamil workforce was directly inspired by trade unions that came under the influence of the MCP. It was the MCP which promoted and respected Indian leaders. R.G. Balan of Perak became the vice-chairman of the MCP. It also gave recognition to Malay leaders. The famous Malay Regiment in Pahang operated was under the control of the MCP.
For the Indian community in Malaysia, especially those who had involved in trade unions activities both during the British colonial days and the post-independence period, the MCP had a clear positive impact. After the INA’s debacle at Imphal, many Indians returned and joined trade unions that were affiliated to the MCP. Since they could not liberate India from the British, joining the left-wing trade unions meant not only getting back at their oppressor–the British–but also improving their socio-economic lot. It was the tremendous sacrifice of the left-wing trade unions that emboldened Indians in the plantations and urban areas. Indians labourers especially Tamils described by the British capitalists as “meek” and “docile” were organised, trained and mobilised by the MCP affiliated unions to emerge as a force to assist the MCP in its war against the oppressors.
Chin Peng might not have succeeded in organising the communist revolution in Malaysia. Malaysians might not have convinced that communism was the real solution to the myriad problems of the society. But the fact remains that he was less a communist than a left-wing nationalist. In fact, those who joined the party were not inspired so much by the lofty ideals of Marxism-Leninism, but practical necessity to change the oppressive nature of the political and economic system. During his times, it was the British colonialism and its naked oppression of the masses that was something that that any decent human being could not tolerate. Tamil plantation workers joined the MCP led trade unions not for any abstract ideological reasons, but to end the exploitative nature of the merchant capitalism in plantations. Many Malays joined left-wing nationalist organisations that came to be affiliated to the MCP not because of their love for communism, but for the sheer necessity to end the system that was oppressive and feudal in nature. Poor Chinese villagers and workers joined the movement for reasons of economic justice and for the simple reason that MCP was the only fighting force against the Japanese imperialists who massacred members of the Chinese community. For the Chinese, Malays and Indians who readily participated in the activities of the left, the MCP provided a vision for the future.
perversely,it may have been chin peng n his commie forces that forced the brits to let malaysia have an earlier independence. if their presence were not so much of a thorn for the brit imperialist,and they wud rather the locals kill locals instead of sacrificing their own kind, the brits may been reluctant to let go of the cash cow so soon before bleeding malaya dry. Who can say How long Merdeka may have been put on hold then ?
Love him or Despise him and his struggles. At least understand what he was struggling for and what it was about in the proper context from a Malaysian historical perspective. .
Even if one decides to hate Chin Peng and what he stood for, at least be able to justify the sentiment with factual accounts that transpired in history leading to the formation of our independent nation.
Blind hate without understanding is foolish. Mature discerning mindsets ought not be spoon fed selective propaganda and be easily incited to despise that they know nought about.
That will be akin to be led by the nose like a buffalo..!
Chin Peng, born Ong Boon Hua, 21 October 1924 to 16 September 2013
The passing of Chin Peng in Bangkok on 16 September 2013 brings to an end one of the longest of Asian political biographies. Chin Peng became the Secretary General and effective leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), the country’s oldest political party, in 1947 when he was only 22. He retained that position for the next 60 years, indeed until his death, even though the party became divided, moribund and irrelevant around him. Long after communism ceased to be a threat to Malaysia he was refused permission to return to the country of his birth (unless he publicly recanted all his views) and so he remained an exile.
The scars of that period have not healed. The role of communists in fighting first Japanese and later British for control of Malaya is scarcely recognised in Malaysian textbooks and public memory. Many Chinese and a few radical Malays remain unnecessarily alienated from the Malaysian establishment, and it from them, while an important but polarised chapter in Malaysia-China relations remains off the table, unable to be discussed by either side. Chin Peng himself spent much of his later life attempting to explain and defend what he called ‘My Side of History’. One hopes that his removal from the scene, after having his say, may make the integration of a very divided history a little easier.
Just why Chin Peng came to lead Malayan communism so early in his life has much to do with accidents of his family upbringing and schooling. Although essentially educated in the Chinese medium like the overwhelming majority of Malayan communist recruits, he had just enough English education at the beginning and end of this period to be comfortable, if a little hesitant, in English. His elder brother and his equally committed communist wife were English-educated. In the crisis that endangered the party in 1947, when its long-term Secretary General Lai Tek was discovered to have worked for both Japanese and British and was assassinated by the Party, Chin Peng was well placed politically to succeed, not least because his English enabled him to talk to other communities. Indeed the early years of his leadership marked a striking reorientation of the Party to being ‘Malayan’, and looking for non-Chinese recruits, rather than a branch of the Chinese party.
As a teenager he had already taken a leading part in the communist-supported Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), the most effective armed resistance to the Japanese in Malaya. With a half-dozen other communists in the resistance he was decorated by Mountbatten in 1946. But in May 1948, as the Federation of Malaya structure disappointed non-Malay hopes for a post-war democratic order, as the British increasingly cracked down on left-wing activists, and as both sides in what became the global Cold War hardened their international stance, Chin Peng led the communists back to the jungle in armed insurrection. The Malayan Emergency which followed was a long and ruinous guerilla struggle, involving troops from Britain, Australia and New Zealand as well as Malaya. Progress to independence was speeded to deprive the communists of their most powerful anti-colonial argument. Once the government that would carry the Federation of Malaya to independence was in place, led by the genial prince Tunku Abdul Rahman, a meeting was arranged at which the Tunku could try to persuade Chin Peng to give up the struggle since its nominal object of independence was achieved. Chin Peng proved clear and persuasive at the 1955 Baling talks in Kedah, but insisted that he could only bring his men out of the jungle to lay down their arms if they were allowed to enter the political process as a legal party. Under British advice the Tunku would not agree to this, or indeed to any significant concession to the communists once they surrendered. The talks failed, and all they had changed was to provide the Malayan/Malaysian public with an image of their “enemy”–a slim soft-spoken figure who vanished from sight as suddenly as he arrived.
Malaya duly became independent in 1957, to be followed in 1963 by a broader Malaysia involving also Chinese-majority Singapore and the multi-ethnic British Borneo territories. The fortunes of the MCP in the jungle gradually declined in face of an effective containment strategy, and an increasingly prosperous independent Malaya. The MCP withdrew its central operations base to the Thai border region in 1953, to ease the military pressure. At the end of 1960, with his force shrunk from over 7,000 to fewer than 2,000 men, Chin Peng left his jungle hideout for a mammoth journey to Beijing via Thailand, Laos and northern Vietnam. There he was an honoured guest of the Chinese government for almost 20 years, though still controlling the Party’s radio station in Hunan and by proxies the party on the Thai border. This was a troubled time, including the Cultural Revolution in China and its counterproductive extremism in relations with the rest of the world. Chin Peng survived, but the unity of his party did not. The internal purges in the party became severe in the late 1960s especially, with perhaps 200 executions of alleged spies and traitors. In 1970 two factions broke away from the Chin Peng mainstream, forming the Revolutionary Faction and the Marxist-Leninist Faction respectively. In 1983 they merged to form the Malaysian Communist Party, recognising the new politics of Malaysia as the older party would not. China’s growing warmth towards Malaysia after diplomatic relations were established in 1974 meant that the MCP no longer had real support from Beijing for its armed struggle. Reconciliation should have occurred then, but each of the three parties –Chin Peng and the Chinese and Malaysian governments—had their own reasons for preferring a frozen status quo to any public change of position. Only in December 1989 did the Thais broker a peace agreement between the Malaysian Government and the MCP, whereby the few hundred remaining communists laid down their arms and settled as cultivators in southern Thailand. Chin Peng was no longer an asset to China, and lived thereafter primarily in Thailand.
Long-standing MCP habits of illegality and clandestinity were gradually overcome in the 1990s as governments lost their fear of communism, and Chin Peng himself sought to make his case. Some international journalists found their way to him through Thai military contacts, and articles began appearing from 1997. One of the enterprising journalists was Bangkok-based Australian Tony Paul. He finally managed to meet Chin Peng at the British Club in Bangkok in 1997, and encouraged his interest in writing his memoirs, in a place better served with libraries than his normal residence near Haadyai. On his behalf Tony Paul contacted David Chandler at Monash, and then Merle Ricklefs at ANU, who delegated the matter to me. As a result Chin Peng made his first visit to Australia and New Zealand (having nephews both in Sydney and Auckland), in the course of which I took him to lunch in Canberra on 3 February 1998. He was remarkably affable, charming and thoughtful, revealing nothing of the steely side that must have enabled him to survive the lurches in the Chinese and Soviet lines over his time in charge of Malayan communism. I invited him to return for a month as a visitor at ANU working on his memoirs, in return for which we would hope for a rather intense seminar working over the history of the MCP with some experts.
A year later he was installed in the Coombs Building at ANU behind a door discreetly labeled Mr B.H. Ong. The ANU did not fund his visit, so he stayed with Mr C.C. Chin, omniscient chronicler of the MCP, who at that time was hoping to write an ANU PhD on the subject under my supervision. He charmed both his old antagonists and the students who gathered to hear him reminisce about “Why I became a communist”. On 22-23 February we organised a workshop under the auspices of the newly-formed Centre for the Study of the Chinese Southern Diaspora, where some 20 scholars grilled him about the key decisions and turning points of his long career. Everything would be on the table, he agreed, except the two most sensitive areas for him – the internal disputes of the party and its relations with the Chinese Party. Among those gathered for this remarkable occasion were not only the leading historians of the Malayan Emergency and the MCP –Cheah Boon Kheng, Yoji Akashi, Peter Edwards, Hara Fujio, Anthony Short, Richard Stubbs and Yong Chin Fatt—but several participants who had fought against him, notably Lt.General John Coates of the Australian Army, Leon Comber of the Special Branch, Malayan Police, and John Leary of the Malayan Scouts. The exchanges were cordial and fascinating. On the whole his memory was better that most of those in the room, and his thoughtfulness in reflecting on the issues was second to none.
At the end of a remarkable two days of exchanges, revelations, and critiques, Chin Peng made some interesting personal observations.
Since the beginning of the ‘90s I think and think it over whether I made mistakes or not, whether my belief in communism is wrong or not. …. At least I think my conviction to seek an equal society, that was what communism meant—to seek an equal and just society—I think that is not wrong. …And I think that human society will move on. It will take perhaps another millennium to achieve this fully, or to fundamentally achieve this.
Secondly, about the military defeat…
We were defeated in a sense, we did not realise our goal to set up a government dominated by communists. Or, in our terms, a people’s democracy. But we didn’t [experience] defeat in forcing the British to grant independence to Malaya. Without our struggle, I don’t think the British would grant independence to Malaya. Or it will be many years later…. I don’t think we were humiliated. At least I never surrender, and at least I feel proud, not for me, for our movement, for all those supporters. We can carry on a struggle, a military struggle for twelve years against a major power…This is the longest, the largest scale guerilla warfare in the British Empire, in the twentieth century.
Chin Peng had shown that he was as adept at handling a group of expert academic antagonists as his own hardened guerrillas and the international forces ranged against him. Although the transcript of this exchange was eventually published, he also sought a more controlled version of his story, as related to Ian Ward and Norma Miraflow in My Side of History (Singapore: Media Masters, 2003). In October 2004 he was able to visit Singapore, to give a seminar and quietly meet the next most enduring regional politician, Lee Kuan Yew. That was also the last time I would see him. But despite several attempts he was never able to return to Malaysia.
Anthony Reid is Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political & Social Change, School of International, Political & Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.