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As we gain perspective on a summer of global protest, it is clear that the traditional narrative of British colonial history is being questioned by the public at large. The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in July represents a direct challenge to conventional histories of the beginnings of the British empire in the seventeenth century. But what of the end of empire?

Following the Second World War Britain declined as a world power, dwarfed by the bi-polar superpower colossi of the United States and the USSR and hamstrung by the inexorable disappearance of her imperial possessions. The sun of Empire, we are told, set across the world.[1]

From this perspective, British power and influence declined in relative terms. However, as recent research based on the ever-increasing release of official records has shown, this interpretation misses crucial discontinuities in the historical record. Recent scholarship by John Newsinger argues that Clement Attlee’s Labour government was as much a resurgent colonial warfare state as a domestic welfare state in the immediate postwar years.[2] Anne Deighton argues that Britain’s role in ideological battlegrounds of the nascent Cold War is demonstrably greater than traditional interpretations have suggested.[3] 

One concrete example of postwar Britain as a colonial Cold Warrior state is the Malayan Emergency of 1948-60. The conflict has been described by Malaysian-born anthropologist Yao Souchou as ‘a small, distant war’ not for its inconsequentiality in global affairs, but for its relegation to the side-lines of the historiography of the Cold War.[4] Bringing the conflict to the forefront of our attention, I believe, challenges the broad narrative of postwar ‘decline’ and demonstrates the continued international influence of the British state in the post-war period.

The ‘Emergency’ was the longest conflict fought by British forces in the twentieth century. With the aim of achieving national independence, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) fought a bitter campaign of insurgency against the British colonial government of Malaya and its local and Commonwealth allies. Despite their determined (and British-supported) resistance to wartime Japanese occupation, the MCP were ultimately defeated. More than just a decisive victory for the British empire, the campaign in Malaya was in fact the only conclusive military success by the Western powers in the entirety of the Cold War period.[5]

THE BRITISH ARMY IN MALAYA, 1957 (HU 51581) Men of the 48th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action against a terrorist hide-out near Segri Sembilan, Malaya. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205216100 [Accessed 22 November 2020]

Because of its abundant tin and rubber resources, Malaya, according to the British Colonial Sectary, was ‘by far the most important source of dollars in the Colonial Empire’.[6] With the British economy profoundly weakened by the loss of the former Indian territories, further capitulation in Asia was simply not acceptable. Although Marshall Plan aid chiefly funded Britain’s extensive (and expensive) programmes of urban revival and welfare reforms, a direct consequence of the economic recovery of ‘the West’ was the continuation of European colonialism for another two decades.[7]

The release of classified Foreign Office files has expanded our understanding of Britain’s propaganda machine in the early Cold War period. The intent of the Information Research Department (IRD) to promote Britain as a socialist ‘Third Force’ in world politics via its attacks on the Soviet Union and Communism is only now being adequately explored.[8] These offensive tactics were mirrored by a defensive approach to events in Malaya. Repeating the rhetoric used to describe the Jewish Irgun and Lehi in Palestine, British state propaganda relied on the dual euphemism of the ‘banditry’ of Malayan Communist rebels and the ‘emergency’ of their anti-colonial independence war in international representations of the conflict.[9]

The conflict was presented as arising from an international communist movement. It was done so with nuance: too strong a line could further align the Malayan Chinese ethnic group with the MCP; the opposite could have given the impression that the British were crushing a true nationalist movement. After the proclamation of American anti-colonial policy in the 1947 Truman Doctrine, the chief aim of British propaganda was to ‘manipulate the American colossus’ into thinking that political and economic support of an archaic colonial regime was ‘the corollary of [Communist] containment’.[10] To this, end, as the war continued, international British propaganda utilised the carefully chosen term ‘Communist terrorists’ in their representations of the MCP.[11]

In terms of national propaganda, a great deal of scholarly attention is often given to the figure of Sir Gerald Templer. Serving as Director of Operations and High Commissioner of Malaya from 1951 to 1954, his view that ‘the answer [to defeating the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle but in the hearts and minds of the [Malayan] people’ has dominated conventional historical analysis of the conflict.[12] A defining component of contemporary ‘cultural Cold War’ strategies, we must remain wary of attributing the ‘hearts and minds’ metaphor too much importance in Britain’s victory over the MCP. Indeed, the position of Templer as a semi-mythic figure in the historiography of the conflict simultaneously empowers the actions of the Western elite and obscures the reality of the counter-insurgency tactics the British utilised throughout the conflict.

THE MALAYAN EMERGENCY 1948-1960 (D 87947) Men of 22 Special Air Service Regiment practice carrying a casualty to a waiting helicopter during a training exercise in a jungle clearing at Ulu Langat, near Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212427 [Accessed 20 November 2020]

Based on racially motivated colonial attitudes exemplified by events of the 1948 Batang Kali massacre, Bennett argues that mass arrests, deportation and destruction of property corresponded to a deliberate British campaign of ‘counter-terror’.[13] The forced re-settlement of over 500,000 Malayans in ‘New Villages’ with the ostensible aim of removing Communist influence were in fact little more than concentration camps built to keep the rural Chinese population under strict surveillance and control.[14] The tactics employed by the British state against the MCP demonstrated a resolve to maintain dominance of the colonial periphery by often brutal means.

A colonial attitude of imperial retrenchment, implemented through and influencing a nascent Cold War framework, saw Malaya as a continued source of colonial power for the British state. Britain successfully re-imposed colonial order by armed intervention, protecting its markets and control of natural resources essential to economic recovery. An extensive and influential network of regional intelligence informed international and national propaganda strategies to manipulate public opinion with the objective of the furtherance of British colonial Cold War objectives. Brutal and systematic detention, deportation and violence facilitated the crushing of the MCP revolt.

The summer of 2020 has shown the power of challenging traditionally idolised historical figures from the beginnings of the British empire. Similarly, a revisionist interpretation of the Malayan Emergency makes it clear that in postwar South-East Asia, there was no gracefully setting sun.

Liam Raine is an MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, currently researching the metaphorical structures of the Cold War. This blog piece is based on an essay written in submission for the module HST674 ‘International Relations and the Early Cold War in Britain’. For those interested in the longer research project, please contact Liam at liamandrewraine@gmail.com.


Cover image: A Malayan guide passes tracking information to the British sergeant of an infantry patrol during the Malayan Emergency. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212424 [Accessed 22 November 2020].

[1] L. James, ‘Part Five: The Setting Sun’ in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York, 2006), pp. 523-622.

[2] J. Newsinger, ‘War, Empire and the Attlee government 1945-51’, Race & Class, 60.1 (2018), pp. 61-67.

[3] A. Deighton, ‘Britain and the Cold War’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), pp. 112-32.

[4] S. Yao, The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a small, distant war (Copenhagen, 2016).

[5] B. Z. Keo, ‘A small, distant war?’, History Compass 17.3 (2019), pp. 1-2.

[6] Memo, by Colonial Secretary, 1 July 1948, C.P. (48) 171, CAB 129/25.

[7] W. I. Hitchcock, ‘The Marshall Plan and the creation of the West’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), p. 162; O. A. Westad, The Cold War: A World History (New York, 2017), p. 265.

[8] H. Wilford, ‘The Information Research Department: Britain’s secret Cold War weapon revealed’, Review of International Studies 24.3 (1998), pp. 353-69.

[9] S. L. Carruthers, Winning Hearts and Minds (Leicester, 1995).

[10] J. Darwin, ‘Diplomacy and decolonization’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 28.3 (2000), p. 16.

[11] P. Deery, ‘The terminology of terrorism: Malaya, 1948-1952’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.2 (2003), pp. 241-47.

[12] R. Clutterbuck, The long, long war (London, 1967), p. 3; R. Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (London, 1966).

[13] H. Bennett, ‘“A very salutary effect”’, Journal of Strategic Studies 32.3 (2009), pp. 415-44.

[14] T.-P. Tan, ‘Like a concentration camp, lah’: Chinese grassroots experience of the Emergency and New Villages in British Colonial Malaya’, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies 3 (2009), pp.216-28.

Tags : MalayaMalayan EmergencypropagandaSingapore
Liam Raine

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