Public Private Knowledge: The Last Communist

This image that I take to be a plastic diarama efigy of a Malaya Communist Party cadre from the 1940s is from a film I have been reading about with interest as a controversy rages over its banning in Malaysia. The film is Lelaki Komunis Terakhir aka The Last Communist.

It deals with Chin Peng, who’s autobiography a few years ago (My Side of History 2003 Media Masters) was pretty informative, and now this film could add more to a tale that is strangely present but not present in Malaysia. I have long been interested in the reds, whom the director of TLC recalls as those that were considerd ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ during his youth. This routine of demonisation is prevalent, as documented in earlier offerings such as Malaya: the Undeclared War, which examines anti-communist ’emergency’ of the 1940s-early 50s, back to the early writings of Anthony Burgess (see below), who was a colonial era teacher…

What I mean by the comment that the communist struggle is present but not present in Malaysia is illustrated in the ongoing fools attempt to censor and silence on the part of the UMNO government, but also in curious public presence-absences. For example, I’ve always been amused by one of the exhibits at the Museum in Georgetown.

[This from a piece written in 2002]: Outside the Penang Museum in Malaysia today you can still see an old bullet ridden Rolls Royce that once was used to ferry Viceroys about the Malayan Peninsula. The explanation offered for this exhibit, however, is somewhat vague. The bullet holes were earned at the assassination of the High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney in October 1951. What is not noted is that this was the highest level kill achieved by Communist insurgents during the so-called Malayan Emergency – curiously enough, a dramatised version of this event can be found in the 1956 novel of a certain Anthony Burgess of Clockwork Orange fame, see his Time for a Tiger, part of his Malaya Trilogy, The Long Day Wanes (Burgess 1964). Burgess was appointed to a post as colonial teacher at the Malay College in Perak, quite near to the reputed Communist headquarters in the village of Sungai Siput (Lewis 2002:203). It is what happened to villages during the ‘Emergency’ that should be of concern – wholesale detentions that set the model for strategic Hamlets in Vietnam…

Malaya was the most profitable part of the Empire in the years between the first and second Imperialist World Wars. According to the Commonwealth historian Anthony Stockwell, British colonial administrators distinguished between Malays and Chinese in terms of how they ran the colony, with the Malays entrusted with ‘junior partner’ status and the bulk of positions in the police and Civil Service while the Chinese were infiltrated by the ‘menace’ of communist and Kuomingtang elements and were thought to be in need of strict discipline (Stockwell 1992:105-7).

It was this need for discipline that led to a Police force numbering 10,000 before 1940, mostly Malays and Sikhs, only 250 British Officers learnt to speak Malay, but only a handful knew any Chinese. Postwar, with grave shortages of rice and cloth, malaria epidemic, collapsed plantation and mining infrastructure, the once most lucrative colony became the most difficult to rule – the Chinese led communists joined with the Malay community in a mass non-cooperation movement. The straggling and war weary British (with disgruntled soldiers who wanted demobalisation rather than a new colonial adventure) considered putting down this movement with the use of Indian soldiers but found this difficult because of the legacy of Nataji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (see Bose 1982, for discussion of the formation, and subsequent defeat, of Bose’s army in Malaya and Burma – largely due to a miscalculated and unsupportive alliance with Imperial Japan).

Out of the mass non-cooperation movement developed support for the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) and in reaction, according to Stockwell, to the British declaration of a state of emergency in June of 1948, an insurrection began, under Chin Peng known as a revolutionary war but on the government side characterised as ‘the emergency’ which is clearly a calculated reference (non-War, non Geneva Convention, cf Guantamo Bay and the US failure to extend any rights to captured combatants) and alibis the declaration of special Police powers above and beyond conventional law.

Under Colonel W.N. Gray, direct from Palestine and appointed as Commissioner of the Malay Police, the force expanded to 73,000, plus 17,000 ‘Auxiliaries and Kampong guards’ by 1952 (Stockwell 1992:110). Gray oversaw the introduction of resettlement and gave the Malay Police the major role in defence of ‘New Villages’ in order to separate the people from the communists, and food and information.

Stockwell writes:
‘the Emergency regulations gave the police extraordinary powers of search and arrest, control of the movement of persons and traffic, and the authority to impose curfews … in late 1951 it was estimated that some 6,000 persons were being held in detention without trial’ (Stockwell 1992:113, citing Oliver Lyttelton’s memoirs of 1962:372).

The insurgency was a war of attrition which effectively drained the colony’s profitability. The combination of communist insurgency and the international climate of anti-colonial pro-Independence negotiations meant the British played their old divide and rule routine even in the run up to an inevitable independence.

In July 1955 the Malay leader Tunku Abdul Rahman headed a coalition of Umno, Mca and MIC to victory in the first ‘federal’ election of the Malay colony. As the British debated handing over internal security and policing to the new Chief Minister, Tunku Rahman suggested an amnesty for the communists and with Chin Peng opened talks (Stockwell 1992:120). Chin Peng wisely offered peace as soon as independence, and control over security, was achieved. The British moved to forestall such alliance making by granting Tunku immediate control of internal security through a ‘guided’ Police Service Commission….

[That lot above is extracted from: ]

…its a matter of record that Malaysia did not adopt its promising Red Domino option. Instead, years of neo-colonial plunder, and the continued repression of dissidents and opposition under the detention law called the Internal Security Act, now universally applied across the world, with Chin Peng exiled (still) in Thailand. The Rolls outside the museum – count the bullet holes – is testiment to an unspoken but quite visible presence. The banning just maintains this transparent puppetry-ventriloquy and since the story should be told out loud, let’s see the film. Red Salute.


One thought on “Public Private Knowledge: The Last Communist

  1. Hullo John – and thanks. Your post has more historical data than the entire movie! If you are in London in late October do try to catch The Last Communist at the London Film Festival. I might be there as I may need to research something else at those fine London libraries.


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