The war in Malaya, 1948-60

By Mark Curtis

An edited extract from Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World

“The hard core of armed communists in this country are fanatics and must be, and will be, exterminated”. (Sir Gerald Templer, High Commissioner in colonial Malaya)

Between 1948 and 1960 the British military fought what is conventionally called the “emergency” or “counter-insurgency” campaign in Malaya, a British colony until independence in 1957. The declassified files reveal that Britain resorted to very brutal measures in the war, including widespread aerial bombing and the use of a forerunner to modern cluster bombs. Britain also set up a grotesque “resettlement” programme that provided a model for the US’s horrific “strategic hamlet” programmes in Vietnam. It also used chemical agents from which the US may again have drawn lessons in its use of agent orange.

Defending the right of exploitation

British planners’ primary concern was to enable British business to exploit Malayan economic resources. Malaya possessed valuable minerals such as coal, bauxite, tungsten, gold, iron ore, manganese, and, above all, rubber and tin. A Colonial Office report from 1950 noted that Malaya’s rubber and tin mining industries were the biggest dollar earners in the British Commonwealth. Rubber accounted for 75 per cent, and tin 12-15 per cent, of Malaya’s income.

As a result of colonialism, Malaya was effectively owned by European, primarily British, businesses, with British capital behind most Malayan enterprises. Most importantly, 70 per cent of the acreage of rubber estates was owned by European (primarily British) companies, compared to 29 per cent Asian ownership. Malaya was described by one Lord in 1952 as the “greatest material prize in South-East Asia”, mainly due to its rubber and tin. These resources were “very fortunate” for Britain, another Lord declared, since “they have very largely supported the standard of living of the people of this country and the sterling area ever since the war ended”. “What we should do without Malaya, and its earnings in tin and rubber, I do not know”.

The insurgency threatened control over this “material prize”. The Colonial Secretary remarked in 1948 that “it would gravely worsen the whole dollar balance of the Sterling Area if there were serious interference with Malayan exports”. One other member of the House of Lords explained that existing deposits of tin were being “quickly used up” and, owing to rebel activity, “no new areas are being prospected for future working”. The danger was that tin mining would cease in around ten years, he alleged. The situation with rubber was “no less alarming”, with the fall in output “largely due to the direct and indirect effects of communist sabotage”, as it was described.

An influential big-business pressure group called Joint Malayan Interests was warning the Colonial Office of “soft-hearted doctrinaires, with emphasis on early self-government” for the colony. It noted that the insurgency was causing economic losses through direct damage and interruption of work, loss of manpower and falling outputs. It implored the government that “until the fight against banditry has been won there can be no question of any further moves towards self-government”.

The British military was thus despatched in a classic imperial role – largely to protect commercial interests. “In its narrower context”, the Foreign Office observed in a secret file, the “war against bandits is very much a war in defence of [the] rubber industry”.

The roots of the war lay in the failure of the British colonial authorities to guarantee the rights of the Chinese in Malaya, who made up nearly 45 per cent of the population. Britain had traditionally promoted the rights of the Malay community over and above those of the Chinese. Proposals for a new political structure to create a racial equilibrium between the Chinese and Malay communities and remove the latter’s ascendancy over the former, had been defeated by Malays and the ex-colonial Malayan lobby. By 1948 Britain was promoting a new federal constitution that would confirm Malay privileges and consign about 90 per cent of Chinese to non-citizenship. Under this scheme, the High Commissioner would preside over an undemocratic, centralised state where the members of the Executive Council and the Legislative Council were all chosen by him.

At the same time, a series of strikes and general labour unrest, aided by an increasingly powerful trade union movement, was threatening order in the colony. The colonial authorities sought to suppress this unrest, banning some trade unions, imprisoning some of their members and harassing the left-wing press. Thus Britain used the emergency, declared in 1948, not just to defeat the armed insurgency, but also to crack down on workers’ rights. “The emergency regulations and the police action under them have undoubtedly reduced the amount of active resistance to wage reductions and retrenchments”, the Governor of Singapore – part of colonial Malaya – noted. In Singapore, the number of unions “has decreased since the emergency started”. Colonial officials also observed that the curfews imposed by the authorities “have tended to damp down the endeavours of keen trade unionists”. Six months into the emergency the Colonial Office noted that in Singapore “during this period the colony has been almost entirely free from labour troubles”.

Britain had therefore effectively blocked the political path to reform. This meant that the Malayan Communist Party – which was to provide the backbone of the insurgency – either had to accept that its future political role would be very limited, or go to ground and press the British to leave. An insurgent movement was formed out of one that had been trained and armed by Britain to resist the Japanese occupation during the Second World War; the Malayan Chinese had offered the only active resistance to the Japanese invaders.

The insurgents were drawn almost entirely from disaffected Chinese and received considerable support from Chinese “squatters”, who numbered over half a million. In the words of the Foreign Office in 1952: “The vast majority of the poorer Chinese were employed in the tin mines and on the rubber estates and they suffered most from the Japanese occupation of the country… During the Japanese occupation, they were deprived both of their normal employment and of the opportunity to return to their homeland…Large numbers of Chinese were forced out of useful employment and had no alternative but to follow the example of other distressed Chinese, who in small numbers had been obliged to scratch for a living in the jungle clearings even before the war”.

These “squatters” were now to be the chief object of Britain’s draconian measures in the colony.

The reality of the war

To combat an insurgent force of around 3,000-6,000, British forces embarked on a brutal war which involved large-scale bombing, dictatorial police measures and the wholesale “resettlement” of hundreds of thousands of people. The High Commissioner in Malaya, Gerald Templer, declared that “the hard core of armed communists in this country are fanatics and must be, and will be, exterminated”. During Templer’s two years in office, “two-thirds of the guerrillas were wiped out”, writes Richard Clutterbuck, a former British official in Malaya, which was a testament to Templer’s “dynamism and leadership”.

Britain conducted 4,500 air strikes in the first five years of the Malayan war. Robert Jackson writes in his uncritical account: “During 1956, some 545,000 lb. of bombs had been dropped on a supposed [guerrilla] encampment…but a lack of accurate pinpoints had nullified the effect. The camp was again attacked at the beginning of May 1957…[dropping] a total of 94,000 lb. of bombs, but because of inaccurate target information this weight of explosive was 250 yards off target. Then, on 15 May…70,000 lb. of bombs were dropped”.

“The attack was entirely successful”, Jackson declares, since “four terrorists were killed”. The author also notes that a 500 lb. nose-fused bomb was employed from August 1948 and had a mean area of effectiveness of 15,000 square feet. “Another very viable weapon” was the 500 lb. fragmentation bomb, a forerunner of cluster bombs. “Since a Sutherland could carry a load of 190, its effect on terrorist morale was considerable”, Jackson states. “Unfortunately, it was not used in great numbers, despite its excellent potential as a harassing weapon”. Perhaps equally unfortunate was a Lincoln bomber, once “dropping its bombs 600 yards short…killing twelve civilians and injuring twenty-six others”. Just one of numerous examples of “collateral damage” from the forgotten past.

Atrocities were committed on both sides and the insurgents often indulged in horrific attacks and murders. A young British officer commented that, in combating the insurgents: “We were shooting people. We were killing them…This was raw savage success. It was butchery. It was horror.”

Running totals of British kills were published and became a source of competition between army units. One British army conscript recalled that “when we had an officer who did come out with us on patrol I realised that he was only interested in one thing: killing as many people as possible”. British forces booby-trapped jungle food stores and secretly supplied self-detonating grenades and bullets to the insurgents to instantly kill the user. SAS squadrons from the racist regime in Rhodesia also served alongside the British, at one point led by Peter Walls, who became head of the Rhodesian army after the unilateral declaration of independence.

Brian Lapping observes in his study of the end of the British empire that there was “some vicious conduct by the British forces, who routinely beat up Chinese squatters when they refused, or possibly were unable, to give information” about the insurgents. There were also cases of bodies of dead guerrillas being exhibited in public. This was good practice, according to the Scotsman newspaper, since “simple-minded peasants are told and come to believe that the communist leaders are invulnerable”.

At Batang Kali in December 1948 the British army slaughtered twenty-four Chinese, before burning the village. The British government initially claimed that the villagers were guerrillas, and then that they were trying to escape, neither of which was true. A Scotland Yard inquiry into the massacre was called off by the Heath government in 1970 and the full details have never been officially investigated.

Decapitation of insurgents was a little more unusual – intended as a way of identifying dead guerrillas when it was not possible to bring their corpses in from the jungle. A photograph of a Marine Commando holding two insurgents’ heads caused a public outcry in April 1952. The Colonial Office privately noted that “there is no doubt that under international law a similar case in wartime would be a war crime”. (Britain always denied it was technically at “war” in Malaya, hence use of the term “emergency”).

Dyak headhunters from Borneo worked alongside the British forces. High Commissioner Templer suggested that Dyaks should be used not only for tracking “but in their traditional role as head-hunters”. Templer “thinks it is essential that the practice [decapitation] should continue”, although this would only be necessary “in very rare cases”, the Colonial Office observed. It also noted that, because of the recent outcry over this issue, “it would be well to delay any public statement on this matter for some months”. The Daily Telegraph offered support, commenting that the Dyaks “would be superb fighters in the Malayan jungle, and it would be absurd if uninformed public opinion at home were to oppose their use”. The Colonial Office also warned that, in addition to decapitation, “other practices may have grown up, particularly in units which employ Dyaks, which would provide ugly photographs”.

Templer famously said in Malaya that “the answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people”. Despite this rhetoric, British policy succeeded because it was grossly repressive, and was really about establishing control over the Chinese population. The centrepiece of this was the “Briggs Plan”, begun in 1950 – a “resettlement” programme involving the removal of over half a million Chinese squatters into hundreds of “new villages”. The Colonial Office referred to the policy as “a great piece of social development”.

Lapping describes what the policy meant in reality: “A community of squatters would be surrounded in their huts at dawn, when they were all asleep, forced into lorries and settled in a new village encircled by barbed wire with searchlights round the periphery to prevent movement at night. Before the ‘new villagers’ were let our in the mornings to go to work in the paddy fields, soldiers or police searched them for rice, clothes, weapons or messages. Many complained both that the new villages lacked essential facilities and that they were no more than concentration camps”. In Jackson’s view, however, the new villages were “protected by barbed wire”.

A further gain from “resettlement” was a pool of cheap labour available for employers. Following the required framing, this was described by Clutterbuck as “an unprecedented opportunity for work for the displaced squatters on the rubber estates”.

A government newsletter said that an essential aspect of “resettlement” was “to educate [the Chinese] into accepting the control of government” – control over them, that is, by the British and Malays. “We still have a long way to go in conditioning the [Chinese]”, the colonial government declared, “to accept policies which can easily be twisted by the opposition to appear as acts of colonial oppression”. But the task was made easier since “it must always be emphasised that the Chinese mind is schizophrenic and ever subject to the twin stimuli of racialism and self-interest”.

A key British war measure was inflicting “collective punishments” on villages where people were deemed to be aiding the insurgents. At Tanjong Malim in March 1952 Templer imposed a twenty-two-hour house curfew, banned everyone from leaving the village, closed the schools, stopped bus services and reduced the rice rations for 20,000 people. The latter measure prompted the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to write to the Colonial Office noting that the “chronically undernourished Malayan” might not be able to survive as a result. “This measure is bound to result in an increase, not only of sickness but also of deaths, particularly amongst the mothers and very young children”. Some people were fined for leaving their homes to use outside latrines.

In another collective punishment – at Sengei Pelek the following month – measures included a house curfew, a reduction of 40 per cent in the rice ration and the construction of a chain-link fence 22 yards outside the existing barbed wire fence around the town. Official explained that these measures were being imposed upon the 4,000 villagers “for their continually supplying food” to the insurgents and “because they did not give information to the authorities” – surely far worse crimes than decapitation.

British detention laws resulted in 34,000 people being held for varying periods in the first eight years of the emergency. The Foreign Office explained that detention regulations covered people “who are a menace to public security but who cannot, because of insufficient evidence, be brought to trial”. Around 15,000 people were deported. The laws that enabled the High Commissioner to do this detainees extended “to certain categories of dependants of the person concerned”. The High Commissioner’s view was that “the removal of all the detainees to China would contribute more than any other single factor to the disruption” of the insurgency.

Jackson comments: “Templer’s methods were certainly unorthodox but there was no doubt that they produced results”. Richard Allen, in another study, agrees, noting that “one obvious justification of the Templer methods and measures…is that the course he set was maintained after his departure and achieved in the end virtually complete success”. The ends justify the means.

Many British policies in the Malayan war were copied with even more devastating effect by the US in Vietnam. “Resettlement” became the “strategic hamlet” programme. Chemical agents were used by the British in Malaya for similar purposes as agent orange in Vietnam. Britain had experimented with the use of chemicals as defoliants and crop destroyers from the early 1950s. From June to October 1952, for example, 1,250 acres of roadside vegetation at possible ambush points were sprayed with defoliant, described as a policy of “national importance”. The chemicals giant ICI saw it, according to the Colonial Office, as “a lucrative field for experiment”. I could find nothing further on this programme in the declassified files.

The convenient pretext

As noted above, the war was essentially fought to defend commercial interests. It was not that British planners believed there was no “communist” threat at all – they did. But the nature of this threat needs to be understood. Communism in Malaya – as elsewhere in the Third World during the cold war – primarily threatened British and Western control over economic resources. There was never any question of military intervention in Malaya by either the USSR or China, nor did they provide any material support to the insurgents: “No operational links have been established as existing”, the Colonial Office reported four years after the beginning of the war.
Rather, the British feared that the Chinese revolution of 1949 might be repeated in Malaya. And as the Economist described, the significance of this was that communists “are moving towards an economy and a type of trade in which there will be no place for the foreign manufacturer, the foreign banker or the foreign trader” – not strictly true, but a view that conveys the threat that the wrong kind of  development poses to the West’s commercial interests.

British policy – then and now – cannot be presented as being based on furthering such crude aims as business interests. So the official pretext became that of resisting communist expansion, a concept shorn of any commercial motives and simply understood as defending the “free world” against nasty totalitarians. Academics and journalists have overwhelmingly fallen into line with the result that the British public have been deprived of the realistic picture.

Let us take a couple of examples of how the required doctrine has been promoted. One of the most reputed analysts of early postwar British foreign policy, Ritchie Ovendale, asserts that Britain was “fighting the communist terrorists to enable Malaya to become independent and help itself”. Motives of straightforward commercial exploitation do not figure at all in Ovendale’s account. Later, he only quickly mentions that Britain is “dependent on the area for rubber, tea and jute” and that “the economic ties could not be severed without serious consequences”. Ovendale writes that Britain’s long term objective in Southeast Asia was “to improve economic and social conditions” there. How this is compatible with Britain’s ciphoning off profits from Malayan rubber and tin exports at the expense of the poverty-stricken population is left unexplained. Overall, Ovendale contends, Britain’s “immediate intention” in the region was to “prevent the spread of communism and to resist Russian expansion”.

An equally disciplined approach is by Robert Jackson who, in a book-length study of the war, also makes no mention of Britain’s exploitation of rubber and tin resources for British purposes. Again, Britain was simply resisting communist expansion. “Even by April 1950, the extent of the communist threat to Malaya was not fully appreciated by the British government”, Jackson comments. Things changed, he claims, with the election of Churchill as Prime Minister in 195l: “Churchill’s shrewd instinct grasped the fact that if Malaya fell under communist domination, the rest of Asia would quickly follow”. Note how this contention, often repeated in the declassified files, is presented as a “fact”.

Other aspects of the war are dealt with within the official framework. In 1952 a memorandum by the British Defence Secretary stipulated that, from now on, the insurgents – previously usually referred to as “bandits” – would be officially known as “communist terrorists” or CTs. Subsequent scholarship concurred. Richard Allen contrasts the “CTs…as they came to be known” with the Malay and British security forces, the “defenders of Malaya”, in his term.

Former Sunday Times correspondent James Adams notes in his book that since Malaya was a British colony “responsibility for the conduct of the war fell to the British government”. Saying that Malaya – subjugated by Britain for its own economic ends – was a British “responsibility” is perhaps like saying that the former East Germany was a Soviet “responsibility”.

Britain achieved its main aims in Malaya: the insurgents were defeated and, with independence in 1957, British business interests were essentially preserved. Britain handed over formal power at independence to the traditional Malay rulers and fostered a political alliance between the United Malay National Organisation and the Chinese businessman’s Malayan Chinese Association.

At independence, 85 per cent of Malayan export earnings still derived from tin and rubber. Around 70 per cent of company profits were in foreign, mainly British, hands and were largely repatriated. Largely European owned agency houses controlled 70 per cent of foreign trade and 75 per cent of plantations. Independence hardly changed the extent of foreign control over the economy until the 1960s and 1970s. Even by 1971, 80 per cent of mining, 62 per cent of manufacturing and 58 per cent of construction were foreign-owned, mainly by British companies. The established order had been protected.


  1. Hallo Mark Curtis. Hi from down under, and a Happy New Year to you and yours,
    I served alongside the British Army in ‘1st Bn Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment’ (1RNZIR) in the Confrontation in Sarawak, Borneo 1965, and also did a 2nd TOD 1966 at Balai Ringin. In NZ 2008 a 40 year case by our Vietnam veterns was won in the NZ Parliment over their grevence about Agent Orange exposure in the VN War. This long fight was led by our NZ hero, Lt Col (Retd) John Masters ONZM,MC,JP.
    My submission was made to our Govt’s Veterans Affairs on the 19th Dec 2009, and as yet, nothing heard, but apparently I may have a fairly black and white case that maybe rather difficult for them to manage,or at least reply to, according to me veterans association. They claim I might have spoilt their Christmas.
    Using, evidence from your website kindly provided by you, it has assisted me in making, what I believe, medical and military history for perhaps the Brotish Commonwealth in being the first case for the Commonealth, certainly New Zealand, to be medically exposed to Agent Orange in the British Malay Conflicts.
    Many thanks, and please, if there is any help you may wish to provide it will be most appreciated.
    Colin J. Andrews

    1. Jar says:

      Hi Collin, I am a journalist who is currently working on a piece about the Malayan war, from somewhat of a personal discovery position as a half Chinese-Malaysian and half Anglo Australian. I am interested to talk to people about their experiences. If you would be able to email me at [email protected] we could talk further. thanks. Jarni

  2. Edwin Pelle says:

    Fantastic insight throughout this write-up, anime takes up an excessive amount of of my own work-time.

  3. An absolutely superb, very pointed over-view of the subject.

  4. c.robinson says:

    I served in Malaya 56 to 59 British army….Those “conentration camps” as you call them I believe they were called kampongs …I can tell you they were not that bad they had a community centre they had a large hut where they showed movies they also had little shops ,,ok the food was controlled…But the children were happy and they had medical care ,,usally by british military doctors …they had a better life than they had as “squatters”

  5. Colin Andrews says:

    On the 20 August 2010 was telephoned by my Government Case Manager Dianne Scott, and advised that the New Zealand Government has accepted my medical claim for having been rxposed to Agent Orange while serving in 1RNZIR Balai Ringin, Sarawak during the British Commonwealth campaign in the Borneo Konfrontasi 1966.

    Therefore, it is believed that I am the first Government established proven case in the Commonwealth to have been found exposed to Agent Orange in the British Malay Conflicts of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

    Many thanks Mark for your most enlightning, Web site evidence, especially your published declassified British Government files that I believe was so helpful in supporting my case.


    Colin J Andrews
    Veteran 28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade 1965-66.

  6. Colin Andrews says:

    On the 20 August 2010 was telephoned by my Government Case Manager Dianne Scott, and advised that the New Zealand Government has accepted my medical claim for having been exposed to Agent Orange while serving in 1RNZIR Balai Ringin, Sarawak during the British Commonwealth campaign in the Borneo Konfrontasi 1966.

    Therefore, it is believed that I am the first Government established proven case in the Commonwealth to have been found exposed to Agent Orange in the British Malay Conflicts of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

    Many thanks Mark for your most enlightning, Web site evidence, especially your published declassified British Government files that I believe were so helpful in supporting my case.


    Colin J Andrews
    Veteran 28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade 1965-66.

  7. Stephen Carthew says:

    I was drafted into the Royal Air Force in 1953 and sent to Singapore, and then up to the island of Penang, where I spent almost two years, from 1953 – 1955. Penang was largely unaffected by what was going on on the mainland. We were a small contingent of about 30 men trained in Radar operation, and we lived in a large house in the heart of Georgetown, with civilian cooks. For an 18 year old from a working class family in England this was paradise. Our main mission was training the Malayan Auxiliary Air Force (MAAF) The worst part of my stay there was going out every two weeks or so to an airfield we maintained at Byon Lepas, and spending the night there on guard all alone to fend off communist terrorists, in the middle of nowhere.

    We traveled down to Singapore, a couple of times, always on a troop train with an engine pushing two cars loaded with concrete preceding, in case the train track had been mined with explosives. Every military person on board would do a stint of guard duty at the end of each carriage. Most of mine were done in the middle of the night as the train chugged slowly through the jungle.

    1. Sheila Minifie (nee Davie) says:

      I know this is a thread that’s a bit old, but I’d really like to talk to you Stephen if possible. I was in Penang in 1954 – 7 and would dearly love to swap information. My father was training the MAAF – name Jimmy Davie – and we lived in Peel Avenue.

      I’m on Facebook too.

    2. I the same as you spent almost 2 years with M A A F at 15, Peel Avenue 1953 -1955 training the Malayan Auxiliary’s. I think I was the only wireless operator on the camp at that time which as you recall was mainly Radar I had some wonderful times there the same as you and I seem to remember your name from my time there. It would be nice if we could make contact again

    3. Hi, I am the daughter of Flt Lt Jimmy Davie who was the CO in Penang in 1954-1957 and teaching the Malays how to fly. Although I was a child, I remember quite a bit of the time (though wish it was more).

      I lived mostly at Peel Avenue, (next door to Reddifusion Radio) a house which was supposed to have been occupied by the Japanese leadership.

      The people of Penang were wonderful, kind, generally relaxed people, even while we had the odd curfew. Neither of my parents seemed threatened by the political situation, nor were we at the end of any hostility at all. I had 3 Amahs altogether (there might have been more actually), one each – Chinese, Malay (Moslem) and Hindu.

      We went on holiday to the Cameron Highlands, through fairly dangerous areas with soldiers around to protect everyone against the terrorists. I’m horrified to learn about abuses of chemicals, which people would associate more with Vietnam and America, not the Uk. At one time when my father was out flying over that area I was mortified that he might have been bombing, but he said he was just helping to chuck out loads of political ‘Surrender now and you’ll be ok’ leaflets over the jungle aimed at the communists.

      In about August/Sept 1957 I was presented to Tunku Abdul Rahman (hope I’ve spelt that correctly) straight after Malaysian Independence and his inauguration as Prime Minister as my father was showing him the work of the MAAF at the station (in Georgetown I think). (also remember Prince Philip coming earlier) but it was the Tunku who impressed me. Even as a child, I could feel he was special.

  8. Emma Nixon says:


    Im an the daughter of an ex Royal Navy Petty Officer and on October 26th 2010 im going to collect a Medal on my Dad’s behalf for his taking part in that war. Not knowing much about the Malayan War I wanted to know more and this has given me all I need to know, so thank you very much. I will be very proud to collect his medal. It is being presented by Brig Offman, Malaysian Defense Advisor, the British Government dont want anything to do with it, now I know why.


    MARK have you any information or web links on the guerrilla war in Sarawak 1962 to 1990?

    There is just not enough historical detail available apart from academic studies which are very predictable.

    How about stories from the “other side” from the guerrillas themselves?

  10. Colin J Andrews says:

    Hi Mark,
    Have just recieved ’29 Sept 2011′ proof documentation from the HQ of the RNZRSA, New Zealand’s returned services association, provided by the National Archives UK, reference: WO 291 2517 C467958 that states that 2-4-D and 2-4-5-T (Agent Orange) along with other chemical defoliants were trialed and experimented with by the British Army in Balai Ringin in 1966 during the Indonesian Confrontation. The official UK Govt report is under the header ‘Operational Requirements & Analysis HQ FARELF Memorandum No. 2/66 by R.I. Herbert, dated July, 1966.

    Colin Andrews
    Borneo Veteran, 1RNZIR, 28 Commonwealth Brigade, 1965-66

  11. Maureen says:

    I was a child growing up during The Emergency; your perspective is most probably correct, although written with the benefit of a lot of hindsight. I remember, to this day, being terrified one New Year’s Eve when my father and several of his peers, attending a party in the Officer’s Mess in KL, had to leave the festitivites to deal with an imminent attack by bandits who were concealed behind bushes at the end of the garden.
    And of coming face-to-face with ‘bandits on the Road to Port Dickson, the memory of my father sleeping every night with his Sam Brown gun in it’s brown leather holster, under his pillow…….. it was War, in an insidious and brutal form.
    It shaped my childhood, and I didn’t know what the life of a carefree child could be like until we left Malaya in 1959.
    When I returned to KL 25 years later, bringing my own children to “see where Mummy was born “- I could sense the hostility to the British accent, and I was relieved to leave for the final time.
    I will not return to my childhood places again.

    1. aravind says:

      Hi Maureen! I was a bit surprised with that statement “could sense the hostility to the British accent”. We have high regards and respects for foreigners esp. the Aussies and British since they were part of our formative years way back in the 60s and 70s. I wonder what triggered you to say that. Was it a particular incident during your 2nd visit? I like to hear from you Maureen if not for anything but just to see how i can help redefine your perspective of Malaysia (as she is known now).


  12. Bill Allison says:

    I also was a child,during the Malayan war years,and my Mother’s next door neighbour was a Seargant-Major posted out in the jungle during the conflict.
    His Son was my friend,[we were in our very young period of growing up,from 4yrs old to about 12 yrs old],and it always fascinated me when he took me into his house to play.
    The walls of the sitting room were adorned with all manner of primitive jungle Native weaponry,such as blow-pipes and darts.shields,spears,broad-bladed “Ghurka” knives [as we called them..]and loads of stuff like this also kept in large metal boxes what we called “cabin-trunks”[correctly or incorrectly!…we were still just little kids!].
    I cannot remember seeing any firearms amongst all the stuff in the trunks,which were kept in a cupboard,while he was out in Malaya.
    He brought these things back as souvenirs,when he came on leave for a few days.
    Now,even as a child,i was very inquisitive,and wondered how and where he had got all this weaponry,my friend used to let me play with the bamboo blow-pipes,although i didn’t have any wind in my little lungs to make the dart come out of the end of the pipe!
    These memories are very vivid,and after my friend’s Dad died,while on leave,his family moved house,and i’ve wondered all these years,whatever happened to all these “souvenirs”.
    As i grew older,[i am now 67 yrs old],i started thinking about how these weapons were gained…..brute force?….slaughtering natives like animals?
    I don’t think there were any tourist shops in the jungle,in 1948-on,during a war,selling two-foot long ,broad-bladed curved ghurka machete’s,and traditional native fighting tools…………………..
    I also thought it was a criminal offence to retain any items of warfare as souviners,or were our senior officers exempt from this law?[or was it a case of what the eye doesn’t see-the heart doesn’t grieve over?…]
    He took his family out there to live in his jungle house,for six months,in around 1953-ish,and his Wife and family,on thier return,used to keep us entertained for hours on winter nights,[before television came alomg…..]
    with tales of thier experiences..the one which always stuck in my mind being the one how my friend’s Mother went to help the female servant to wash up the dishes after dinner,and the servant was terrified she would be beaten
    for allowing Master’s Wife to do any housework,as this was her duty to do it.
    So Mrs C…. had to retreat back into the lounge,disgusted,being from a close
    knit mining community in a small Northumberland “Geordie ” village,where everbody helped everybody else,and THIS was definitely NOT her scene!!
    I wonder if anyone else has similar memories?

  13. Paula says:

    Hi Folks

    My Grandfather served in the Malyian conflict from around 1951-52. We have been able to find very little reg the conflict around this time and this is one of the best sites/articles I have across. I am looking to find out more reg the chemical issues around this time as my grandfather suffers from various health issues and is having serious issues getting answers or even diagnosis. He went in front of the army to try and get help and information however he was brushed off. I know its a long shot but if you have or anyone else reading this has any info, please get in touch. Likewise if you are or know anyone who served around this time we would also be interested to hear from you as my grandfather has had great difficulty tracking down his troop, Cameronians Scottish Rifles. Thanks.

  14. Edward Quinn says:

    I Was a national service soldier in the loyal reg 1957 to 1959,and i thought the malay people where a lovely race .it was tough going for them in the new villages,but the kids would always come out and salute us as we drove past,it was tough going on ops into the jungle as an 18 year old,but i would not have missed it,and wish i could only go back,even though i am 73. so good luck to the lovely people of malaysia.and thank you all for the memories i have. and may you live in peace for ever. i was in A coy 3 platoon

  15. B D Phillips says:

    I served in Singapore 1951-2 S’PORE Dist Signal Regt at
    Calcutta Camp – Pasir Panjang – Our unit was composed of BORs and MORs IMalayan Other Ranks) – In all my time there I can say that I never
    encountered the slightest hostility from any of the nationalities – Malay Chinese Indian Eurasian. Brian Phillips

  16. Lachlan Gunn says:

    Great post Mark, well researched and very illuminating. I have just written a novel called ‘Merdeka’ set in Malaya in 1957. It is military themed and spans independence with key protagonists from both sides. I suppose the Brits can’t be blamed for engaging in relapolitik, after all it would be hard to find a government that didn’t shpae its foreign policy for the national interest. If anyone is interested to rewad ‘Merdeka’ (which means independence or freedom in Malay) information on the book can be found at or

  17. Do any of you know the names and locations of the various Detention camps [Centres] set upduring the Emergency period?

    1. Yes. there was a Military Corrective Establishment, at a place named Kinrara, not all that far from Kula Lumpa

    2. john howse says:

      The only thing I can think of was CHANGI PRISON. When we went on opps we took a J.L.O jungle liaison officer with us.

  18. Graham Barton says:

    I was in Malaya from 1955 to 1957, in Ipoh and the Cameron Highlands, its nice to hear about the people who had a Penang Island posting, the only leave I got in 2 years was a weekend on Penang, I could have managed that for a few years no complaint. I was sent to an Island off Singapore for 2 weeks it was run by the Army padres I was told you were sent there when you were judged to be on the edge, I can’t trace it something like Mati Blakan.
    I note a difference between the people who served there and the people who research it and then write about it.
    We won because of the New Villages, it helped us starve the terrorists of weapons and food and it protected the villagers from the terrorists. Regular patrols check them at night to make sure the home guard were ok, the Malayan chaps would sometimes leave
    all their weapons outside the hut and lock themselves in, they are lovely people who like a relaxed life. When we started to trust the Chinese’s and got then involve in the home guard etc. that things really turned around.
    All villagers where checked in and out and everything checked including toilet drums stabbed to make sure no food was smuggles out.
    The other important area was identification of terrorist that why heads and hands were brought out from deep in the jungle it was for practical reasons, not nice and bound to be turned back on the army.
    A lady who lived as a child on Penang commented about asking her Dad if he was dropping bombs. Up in the Cameron highlands the RAF regularly bombed the Blue Valley and the artillery shelled it night and day with 5.5 “ pieces such that if the shelling stopped you woke up. SAS blokes were dropped in and often to never be seen again, the Blue valley was the terrorist stronghold during the war and the Japanese couldn’t clear then out.
    It has been said that Malaya is the only campaign we have won since the last world war.
    It’s a long time ago and memory fades so possible some of my statements may be slightly inaccurate.
    Yes the Malayan people and the Chinese Malay always treated us as friends as did the all races. I haven’t made it back to Malaya although I have travelled the Far East and have always found people very friendly, of all races you couldn’t get friendlier than the Malays.

    1. poacher says:

      My uncle was killed in Malaya in, I think, 1955. I’ve actually been to see his grave in Kranji cemetery in Singapore, but reading Neal Ascherson’s article in the most recent LRB (Feb 2014) and subsequently coming here, I realise I know next to nothing about which regiment he was in, why he was serving, or indeed how he died – let alone the sinister nature of what was going on in Malaya post-WWII.

      Which is to say, thank you for an excellent article and for the spur to do some more investigating.

  19. Dick Brookes says:

    Well said! It appears to me that the RAF are always the first to collect medals and first with the tales of ‘daring do’ but equally the first to be as far from anything dangerous as possible, the quote above is typical, the scariest thing was being outside at night ! ‘Mummies little warrior.’
    Dad was in Malaya, around ’58 I believe, with Kings Royal Rifles/Green Jackets and had the pictures of his first two kills of insurgents (he said they were both young men, he was armed so was I, my Father was fortunately quicker.) and he always felt that Chemical Defoliant were to blame for his eldest daughters growth deformities (Turner Syndrome) and the death after 4 weeks of his second daughter (Lymphatic issues.) Dad died early also, with Cancer, at 55 years old. I served for 30 years in the RN, and in answer to another comment about, I think my Falklands campaign can also be seen as a British success.
    Any info anyone has ref. defoliants used in the 57 – 60 era would be great.
    R B Brookes

  20. ali says:

    I am malay born in Singapore 1948 near kranji war cemetery. I saw many british soldier near my house but I don’t know why. now I understand. they sacrifice their life. I can only say THANK YOU VERY VERY MUCH. hope they go to heaven. in school 1955 I sing God Save The Queen every morning. still remember the song.

  21. Jarni Blakkarly says:

    Hello to everyone on this post. I am a journalist who is currently working on a piece about the Malayan war, from somewhat of a personal discovery position as a half Chinese-Malaysian and half Anglo Australian. I am interested to talk to people about their experiences. If anyone would be interested in talking to me they can email me at [email protected] wand we can talk further. thanks. Jarni

  22. Sally Nunn says:

    I was born in Penang in 1953. My father has recently died and I found his RAF pilot’s log book where I was amazed to discover that he had been seconded to the Malaysia Air Force right up to my birth. It makes fascinating reading listing leaflet drops, bombing missions, acrobatics and fly pasts to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, escort duty to the Sultan and also a lot of missions which are just a list of numbers. Growing up in Malaysia, North Borneo and Singapore I heard a lot of stories but this episode in my father’s life was a complete surprise and something he never spoke about to any one including his old Penang friends who I still see.

  23. Pauline Cant says:

    My Uncle Arthur was conscripted and sent to Malaya, I was too young to understand, but feel that he was seriously affected by his experiences there. Rarely do we hear anything about the ‘ troubles’ there. At this time of remembrance and celebration for the end of world war 2, where are the thoughts for this piece of history?

  24. john goucher says:

    I was joined the British Army in 1947 at 17 and 1/2 served in Palestine and posted to Malaya in 1948 when the conflict started, i was posted to 2 squadron Royal Signals in Taiping age 18 I left in in Jan 1951 I was attached to many different units like the Royal Hussars.the Gurkha the 45 marine commando the K.O.Y.L.l I was Mentioned in Dispatches in 1949 .Most of the terrorists were Chinese and believe it or not a lot of children too including females young and old. You did not know was who. Nerves where on edge all the time; Nobody knew were they hiding I was 18 when i arrived in Malaya and 21 when i left

  25. john howse says:

    I served in Malaya in 1959-1961 at the end of the emergency with the 1/3rd East Anglian regt .We were based at IPOH .A lot of our Opps were up on the Thai border. The Opps lasted 10 days to two weeks approx.Air drops after 7 days to re supply . It’s certainly a memory I will cherish . We are looking for old comrades who served with us . Our website is quite extensive ,photos ,comments, letters etc .1/3rd east Anglian Malayan vets group,click on letters and e-mails .

  26. Thank you so very much for this background history- my father was a sailor in the Royal Navy and was sent inland to fight gureillas but he never spoke of it-perhaps this is why.

Comments on this entry are closed.

17 pingbacks