During the Malayan Emergency, sixty-five years ago on 11th December 1948, Tham Yong then aged 17, watched as British troops surrounded the rubber plantation where he lived, near Batang Kali. Men of the Scots Guards, were then ordered to round up the civilians and separate the men from the women and children. That evening one of the male unarmed villagers was killed and the next day 23 others were murdered. One of the victims was found headless.
Subsequently, a number of the soldiers involved have admitted their part in the killings. When news of the massacre leaked out, however, the authorities claimed that the victims were ‘bandits’ and ‘terrorists’ and had been shot trying to escape. In 1957 ‘five lorry loads of papers [about the Emergency]… were driven to the navel base at Singapore, and destroyed … discreetly.’
The first investigation into the killings, in 1970, was stopped when the Conservatives came to power. With the MoD stating: ‘If no reaction is forthcoming, the matter will probably now remain buried in the public mind … and quietly forgotten.’ In the 1990s an investigation by the Malaysian Police was also blocked, following the intervention of the British Government.
Relatives of those killed, their hopes lifted by the British Government’s admittance that torture had been used against the Mau Mau in a similar conflict in Kenya, still strive for justice and for the truth to be told. In 2010, Tham Yong, the last adult eyewitness to the massacre, died aged 78.
Veterans For Peace, an organisation of ex-forces personnel who have served their county, call upon the British Government to at last play fair, admit the wrong done and grant the relatives of the Batang Kali massacre victims the truth and justice they have struggled 65 years for.
Just three years after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, British troops were engaged in a bitter ‘Emergency’ in Malaya. The people of Malaya, then a colony of the British Crown, had been promised self-government because of their fight against the occupying Japanese troops. That promise was renewed in October 1945 by the Labour Government in Westminster and the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army laid down their arms. For the next three years a Malayan independence movement strove by peaceful means to achieve their freedom.
Successive British Governments, however, wanted to retain control of the country’s rubber and tin: ‘In 1950, Malaya produced 37% of the world’s natural rubber (and 25% of total world rubber production, including synthetics). In the same year, rubber (61%) and tin (12%) accounted for 73% by value of all exports from the colony.’ i
The British colonial elite had done very well in Malaya, exploiting the country’s resources and using the native people as cheap labour. In its May 1926 edition, British Malaya expounded on the white role in the Far East: ‘The function of the white man in a tropical country is not to labour with his hands, but to direct and control a plentiful and efficient supply of native labour, to assist in the Government of the country, or to engage in opportunities offered for trade and commerce, from an office desk in a bank or mercantile firm.’
Ironically, while the Welfare State was being constructed in Britain and workers here were gradually managing to win concessions of better wages and working conditions, the exploitations of native workers abroad was ruthlessly increased. In Malaya, while great wealth was made from rubber, the native labourers lived poverty-stricken lives. In 1948, Patrick O’Donovan wrote about their living conditions in the Observer:
Several times I have been shown with pride coolie lines on plantations that a kennelman in England would not tolerate for his hounds … There is little consciousness [among the plantation owners] of the poverty and illiteracy that exists in this country. And, too often, it is a foul, degrading, urine-tainted poverty, a thing of old grey rags and scraps of rice, made tolerable only by the sun.ii
Across Malaya trade unions started to demand wage increases and better living conditions. Bitter disputes occurred in which detained Japanese troops were often released and used to take the places of striking workers. The whites in Malaya, who controlled the production of rubber and tin, demanded that the British administration stay in control and that the trade unions and independence movement be suppressed. The Labour government complied and an ‘Emergency’ was declared in mid-1948.
One of the first measures was to declare the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions illegal and force it to be disbanded. All forms of constitutional protest or reforms were effectively blocked off and the situation soon escalated into violence. British military and counter-insurgency experts now took control – setting in motion an all-out conflict. The Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) led by Chin Peng, a communist who had been awarded an OBE while fighting for the Allies against the Japanese, launched guerrilla actions against the government.
A scenario, that was to become familiar, began to unfold as local ‘loyal’ forces were greatly increased and reinforcements of British troops were rushed to the area. General Sir Harold Briggs took charge of military operations and ‘suspect’ members of the native population were ‘resettled’ into fortified hamlets that were little more than mass prison camps, with guards, barbed wire and searchlights at night. The idea was to deprive the guerrillas of their source of food, shelter and recruits:
The war could not have been won without ruthless government control over the totality of the population. The most conservative and pro-British observers are agreed upon this. … the whole operation formed one whole, dedicated to physically separating the non-combatants from the combatants among the Malayan masses – or, in the terminology of the administration, separating “the people” from the “communist terrorists”.iii
Over 500,000 natives were ‘resettled’ in the camps, euphemistically called ‘new villages’, where they were forced to labour on plantations for barely subsistence wages. They were also often ‘punished’ by detentions and food reductions and were subjected to constant controls, including curfews and searches.
The build up of the security forces was on such a large scale that the British Survey of June 1952 stated that ‘in some areas there is an armed man to police every two of his fellows, and more than 65 for every known terrorist …’ The British High Commissioner, General Sir Gerald Templer, stated in his report for 1953 that a ‘main weapon in the past four years has been … the sevenfold expansion of the Police and the raising of 240,000 Home Guards and of four more battalions of the Malay Regiment.’
Between 1948 and 1957 some 34,000 people out of a population of 5 million were imprisoned without trial, with another 20,000 being deported. The police were a typical colonial style force, who operated mainly through fear and intimidation. Victor Purcell, a former colonial civil servant, observed:
There was no human activity from the cradle to the grave that the police did not superintend. The real rulers of Malaya were not General Templer or his troops but the Special Branch of the Malayan Police. What General Templer had ordered was virtually a levy en masse, in which there were no longer any civilians and the entire population were either soldiers or bandits. The means had become superior to the ends. Force was enthroned, embattled and triumphant. iv
Despite this overwhelming concentration of security forces, the British administration was not secure. Templer’s predecessor as High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, had been killed in an ambush in 1951, and few areas were safe for colonial administrators or agents.
‘A Handful of Bandits’
Concerned voices about Malaya were raised in Britain, including The Times which stated in its editorial columns: ‘The cost in human life has been considerable; in money it is counted in millions … Several able and resourceful men have tried their hands at solving the problem, but none of the recent news has appeared to hold out better hope for the future.’v
A few weeks later, The Times reported on the trip to Malaya of Oliver Lyttelton, the Colonial Secretary just appointed by Churchill’s newly elected Conservative Government: ‘At no time were there fewer than 1,000 troops and police on guard, and when Penang was visited about 2,000 were directly involved. Outside Kuala Lumpur, Mr Lyttelton was compelled to travel in an enclosed armoured car and one observer remarked that his progress was rather like that of a Nazi leader travelling through occupied Europe.’vi Lyttelton had been educated at Eton and Cambridge and served in the Brigade of Guards. In 1937 he had been chairman of the London Tin Company, which had extensive mining interest in Malaya.
In contrast, communists in Britain, like Harry Pollitt, campaigned in support of Malayan independence. Pollitt wrote the pamphlet, Malaya – Stop the War!, in which he set out his forthright views. He outlined the size of the security forces and their repressive use against the Malayan people by the administration. Then Pollitt went on to state: ‘And all this, we are told, “against a handful of bandits”! This must surely be the biggest and most persistent handful that has ever existed in human history.’ Pollitt continued:
The British lads who are being sent thousands of miles away to Malaya are not defending Britain or safeguarding democracy. They are there to defend the corrupt colonial system under which two-thirds of the children receive no schooling, the workers’ own trade unions have been suppressed, and real wages are only a third of their pre-war starvation level. Despite all the official propaganda about Malaya being the most prosperous British colony, for the Malayan people conditions are appalling.
… This is the degraded Police State for which the Tories want to sacrifice more British lives. Already hundreds of British lads have lost their lives in Malaya. It is time for the British people to put an end to this cruel and ghastly war. … For the Tory rubber and tin profiteers there is plenty to gain, but for the British people the only dividends are death, more taxation, cuts in social services, and attacks on wages and working conditions.
Mr Churchill has already confessed that the British Government is spending £50 million a year on the Malayan war … Now fresh burdens are to be added. It was no coincidence that Lyttelton’s tour of Malaya and the announcement of his six-point plan for an intensified war came at the same time as the employers’ rejection of the claims put forward by the dockers, miners and other British workers … the Government’s announcements of £15 million cuts in education, and further cuts in rations and rises in prices.
The British Defence Secretary then issued a directive stating that those called ‘bandits’ should now be referred to as ‘communist terrorists’ (CTs). But Pollitt’s Stop the War campaign had more positive effects, with even the establishment paper, The Times, in its edition of 30th November 1951, stating that: ‘Together with the usual colonial suspicions is a growing belief, hastened by the statements of rubber producers, that Malaya is regarded first as an investment area to be made safe for British capital.’ As Pollitt had indicated, guarding that capital were young British soldiers, often doing their national service, who fought a bitter war in the jungle areas.
Massacre at Batang Kali
In 1960, Anthony Short, who had completed his national service in Malaya, was commissioned by the Malayan government to write the official history of the Emergency. They sat on his work for three years, then rejected it. Short omitted various contentious parts, but the book was continually turned down. Eventually, seven years after its completion, the book was published in London. As the writer Malcolm Caldwell stated, in his book Short had tried to come to terms with ‘the problems of waging a “counter-insurgency” war against a hostile population, deemed to be “friendly”’:
In the early stages of the campaign, and indeed wherever contact took place…, how, in the few seconds of confusion when figures are running from huts into jungle does one decide to open fire or not? … unless they are uniformed or obviously armed, there is no guarantee that the people who are running are guerrillas or wanted criminals rather than very frightened men and women who may or may not be willing or unwilling guerrilla supporters.
Almost every other situation report at the beginning of the emergency recorded the shootings of men who ran out of huts, were challenged and failed to stop. Too often, no weapons, ammunition or anything else in the least way incriminating, either materially or oral evidence, was ever found … the CPO (Chief Police Officer) Johore was particularly concerned with the situation in which suspects were shot while attempting to escape: ‘I can find no legal justification for the shootings, whether under the normal laws or the emergency regulations, unless the incident occurs in a protected place or during curfew hours.’ So far it seemed that the magistrates had brought in verdicts of justifiable homicide; but the CPO thought that would not always be the case and that some major scandal might occur. vii
Short also recorded that it was seriously suggested in the British parliament that a force of ‘Black and Tans’ be recruited to send to Malaya.
That was the situation, when on 11th December 1948, a unit of the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards entered the rubber plantation, near Batang Kali in the Selangor area of Malaya. The soldiers then rounded up and massacred 24 Chinese villagers and burnt many of the dwellings:
There matters rested until, 20 years later, The People, a London newspaper, challenged a statement by George Brown, a leading Labour Party politician, discussing revelations of the My Lai massacre [by Americans in Vietnam], that … “there are an awful lot of spectres in our cupboard too…”
… Among those who read this challenge was a Scots Guardsman who had been a member of the patrol. Eventually, he and three other members of the patrol swore statements on oath to the effect that the 24 Chinese had been massacred and that they were not trying to escape. The victims, moreover, were all civilians, and “this is just one of the many British My Lai’s in Malaya”.viii
The soldiers’ statements provoked new public interest and, under pressure, the government instructed Scotland Yard to undertake an ‘Official Inquiry’. But this was quietly shelved later after interest faded, so the details of this colonial atrocity have still to be fully revealed.
In 1952, soon after being appointed High Commissioner, General Templer had said ‘the hard core of communists in this country are fanatics and must be, and will be, exterminated.’ That same year the Daily Worker carried a photo of a smiling Royal Marine commando in Malaya, holding the severed head of a dead guerrilla. Shortly after, a second photo was shown, with another marine holding two severed heads. The authorities claimed that heads and hands were taken from the bodies of ‘terrorists’ for identification purposes. But many soldiers regarded them as trophies, which showed their unit’s effectiveness: ‘Other photos reproduced in British papers showed severed hands propped next to severed heads in mock salute and dead guerrillas stretched out like tiger skins in front of the units that had “bagged” them.’ix
The ‘Emergency’ did not officially end until 1960, but by the mid 50s guerrilla numbers had dwindled and those who were still active could only operate from the deepest jungle. The MPLA had launched their campaign from the Chinese community, who, while being the main labour force, were a 45 per cent minority of the Malayan population. This proved a fatal flaw for although the guerrillas tried to broaden their appeal, Britain used ethnic and religious divide and rule tactics against them to keep them separated from the Malay and Muslim majority.
For years the authorities had also been cultivating the native political and commercial elites, especially the United Malay National Organisation and the Malayan Chinese Association – and convincing British businessmen that it was safer to exert economic control over a neo-colony, than continue with direct rule. ‘Independence’ was declared in August 1957 and British companies had good reasons to be happy at the outcome: ‘At independence 75 per-cent of all rubber plantation acreage was in European (mostly British) hands, along with 61 per-cent of all tin production, and 75 per-cent of all services and trade.’x For them the expense and the ferocity of the ‘Emergency’ had paid off.
Written by Aly Renwick of Veterans For Peace UK, he served in the British Army for 8 years during the 1960s.
Aly, thanks for such a comprehensive and in-depth narrative on this shameful episode. ‘Pollitt’s’ surmising of the situation is of particular interest and very telling; it demonstrates that in the 21st century, it’s still just business as usual. Policy in Malaya reads something like the movie, ‘Avatar’ and indeed it serves as a fitting allegory. It seems every time I revisit the history books that I thought I once knew, I discover that they’re complete works of fiction; a depressing realization but as the veil lifts, a liberating one.
All credit to you,
Nice article Aly,
I was in Malaya back in 96, we stayed in a para base on the west coast not too far from mallaca.
Whilst their I remember seeing photo`s in the mess of times gone by, some of them pretty graphic, displayed like they where something to be proud of?
They reminded me of the crimes committed by the US in Vietnam which also seem to forgotten about or brushed to one side.
The truth will come out
peace and love
A very courageous article and one that no doubt will be hard for some of us Brits to swallow. However, incidents like these must be told to the wider British public who are being corralled into this current state of military worship, which only serves our Government’s greedy economic ambitions abroad.
Keep up the good work.
Kieran (Ex Royal Engineers)
Great artlicle Aly, we need to study the past to help prevent the same from happening in the future. Unfortunately the days of the British Empire are still considered by many (and glorified by the state) as Britain’s golden age. Only awareness of the crimes that the British Empire committed will help people understand that the imperialism that Britain conducted was brutal and in no way “Great”.
Thanks. A part of history I never knew about. Enlightening.
Veterans for Peace, Board of Directors