British Empire Article

by David Brent
(Asst Superintendent of Police, Malaya 1952-58)
Here is the other side of the story, The horror and the mayhem of a twelve year bloody conflict by the CPM - the Communist Party of Malaya – to take over Malaya and Singapore. Ruthless and without humanity, they brutally terrorized the rural communities, killing, torturing, extorting and subjugating the impoverished fringe squatter population to gain support and finance for their aims. They ambushed and destroyed police stations and posts, assassinated planters and police officers, burned busses, derailed trains, slashed rubber trees and created economic havoc. The following is a simple itemization of planning and events which finally led to victory and lasting peace and prosperity in Malaya and Singapore and the immediate region.
“The War Of The Running Dogs”
A simple outline of the Malayan Emergency and the solutions applied to achieve lasting success


After WW2 in 1945, the Japanese surrendered in Malaya and the British forces returned to the country under a British Military Administration. During the occupation by the Japanese bands of Chinese, led by a young Communist, Chin Peng, established deep jungle hide-outs from which to carry out harassing attacks on small Japanese units in the countryside. These were mainly small skirmishes and ambushes, followed by rapid retreat back into the jungle. The guerilla bands were named the Malayan Peoples Anti Japanese Army – MPAJA. At the same time a number of British military and administrative officers had also remained behind after the fall of Singapore to form a guerilla group to harass the Japanese. These officers eventually joined up with the Chinese guerillas and helped to train the Chinese guerillas in jungle warfare and guerilla tactics. Eventually contact was made with the British Far East Command HQ in Ceylon and a number of volunteers were parachuted into the jungle to join the British and Chinese guerillas. In addition, large drops of arms, ammunition and equipment were also made to strengthen the capability of the combined jungle forces, designated as Force 136.

After the surrender of the Japanese in 1945 members of the MPAJA returned to civilian life in the Malayan community and surrendered their arms to the British forces. However, this was only a token surrender as they had buried most of the arms and ammunition in secret jungle locations, some still in the unopened canisters which had been parachuted to them during the war. Also a small secret underground organization remained in the jungle to form the nucleus for a post-war rebellion.

The country was in a debilitated state after the Japanese occupation when food production had fallen and general productivity was at an all time low. However, with the welcome return of the British confidence and productivity picked up and rubber estates and tin mines began to come back on stream to meet the upsurge in worldwide demand for raw materials.

In 1947 the British Government granted independence to India and Burma and there was an affirmation by the British Government that Malaya and Singapore would also achieve independence at the earliest possible date.

In the post-occupation period, the Malayan Secret Service – MSS, a forerunner of the role of Special Branch in CID in the re-formed Malayan Police Force, commenced surveillance over Chin Peng and other key communist members of the Communist Party of Malaya – CPM – who were engaged in fostering strikes, violence and disharmony in labour forces of rubber estates and tin mines, paralyzing these industries. There was evidence of a greater plan by the Communists and it was suspected that the intention was afoot to mount a rebellion against the British administration. Political unrest and violence fostered by Communists was also rife in many parts of South-east Asia. It was a dangerous time.

The leaders of the Malayan Communist party were planning an insurrection by organizing all the former members of the MPAJA and other recruits to return to the jungle and commence a military war against the government supported by an underground Communist organization, the Min Yuen "9"masses movement"9", in the community in order to take over Malaya as a Communist state. And subsequently, Singapore also.

British Empire Article
Malaya Planter
However, before the police could carry out a sweep to pull in the leaders of the CPM some renegade members of the CPM ‘jumped the gun’ in 1948 and murdered several British planters and tin mine managers. Alerted to this Chin Peng and the CPM immediately knew that ‘the balloon had gone up’ prematurely and the order was given to immediately divert to the pre-arranged jungle locations across the country and to commence hostilities against the government. They were thus able to escape by a hair's breadth the planned arrests by the MSS.

The CPM formed into military regiment units across the country. The name Malayan Peoples Anti-British Army was chosen – MPABA. Later this was changed to the Malayan National Liberation Army – MNLA. They recovered the arms and ammunition buried in the jungle and wore khaki uniforms with the red star on the caps. A military and political hierarchy was established with a National Central Committee, State Committees and District Committees. Units of companies and platoons were also organized and allotted territories. Political commissars were also appointed and were responsible for political development and discipline. In some locations there were quite elaborate camps with buildings and parade grounds. Practically all the MNLA were Chinese. There were a very few individual Malays and Indians as a token to the multi-racial posture of the MCP. This rebel force was loosely referred to as bandits. The official designation became ‘Communist Terrorists’ – CTs.

Throughout the country CPM underground cells of the Min Yuen were activated to establish secret contact with the jungle military forces of the MNLA and to provide support with equipment and supplies, food, intelligence, recruits and to engage in intimidation, extortion, assassinations, espionage and sabotage.

An onslaught of terrorism was commenced with attacks on rubber estates, tin mines, police stations and government installations. Thousands of acres of rubber trees were slashed and destroyed and machinery on mines was smashed in order to cause the greatest possible harm to the economy. Vehicles were ambushed on the roads and trucks and busses were stopped and burned, trains were blown up and derailed, telephone lines were cut. Ruthless campaigns to terrorize the community into subjugation and cooperation with the MNLA and the Min Yuen were vigorously imposed. Most vulnerable to these tactics were the hundreds of thousands of Chinese squatters in the rural areas on the fringes of the jungle who eked out a living off the land growing vegetables and rearing livestock. Many of these were initially sympathetic to the Communists. However, when the MNLA terrorists believed that a squatter-farmer was being uncooperative, not paying his subscription to the cause or failing to provide food or supplies, he would be assassinated, sometimes cruelly and slowly, with disemboweling, hacking off limbs and other mutilations. At times the assassination squads carried out these acts in front of wives and children. And at times wives and children also became the victims. Min Yuen operatives also engaged in assassinations.

Initially, although not large in numbers, the CPM had wide popular Chinese support throughout the countryside. It adopted the Maoist strategy of ‘Liberated Areas’. The objective was to be able to seize and ‘liberate’ selected hinterland areas and then to link them together into ‘Liberated Regions’ under a Communist administration. The main towns of Malaya and Singapore were to be taken over later. The communists believed that a sudden onslaught would break the will of the Government, already exhausted by war, and that similar revolts in progress in South-East Asia added to their own would bring the whole region under Communist rule.

British Empire Article
Estate Managers Under Guard
The entire country was thrown into turmoil. The early response by the government was too slow. The police force was undermanned and under-equipped, the military was poorly equipped and trained and the British Government was too far away and unconcerned to be of sufficient help initially. The CPM had the upper hand. It attacked when it wanted and where it suited and withdrew when there was a response. It called the tune on when and where it attacked. It held the initiative. The morale of the general community was at an all time low. There was a grave danger that the CPM could succeed and achieve its aim to ‘liberate the country’ and that there would be a spread of Communism to Thailand and Indonesia and the further spread throughout Asia.

The Status at that time was that the communist terrorists – CTs – had a large organization of jungle military units spread north and south in Malaya which were well-armed and equipped and well-organized, many experienced in jungle warfare from previous jungle year during the Japanese occupation with the MPAJA. They were supported by a well-trained subversive underground organization in the Malayan community and also in Singapore. They had the initiative – could strike when and where they pleased. A terrorized population was in fear of any opposition to the Communists and many were forced to supply food and money to avoid assassination or harm. All this in an era when the growth of international communism was the world’s greatest problem. The Russian bloc in Europe and the Mao Communists in China were powerful forces and cCommunist underground cells and Communist subversion and propaganda penetrated every corner of the globe. It was a dangerous and precarious era.

The main disadvantage for the Communist forces in Malaya was that the jungle units had no radio communication and were forced to transmit instructions and intelligence via couriers carrying concealed and coded messages from one destination to another. They also resurrected their old ‘post boxes’ in jungle and rural areas [used in the war years] where messages were collected and dropped off on a chain of secret ‘post boxes’ across the country. The slowness of communications became an increasing problem as the years passed and as Special Branch penetrated and detected the couriers and the ‘post boxes’ to advantage. The other disadvantage was that the CPM was isolated on the Malayan peninsula and not able to obtain support externally by land or sea, other than from Singapore where there was a strong underground Communist presence.

The main problems confronting the government and the country at that time were -

  • Lethargy and slow realization at top government level and by the British Government.
  • A small and poorly-equipped police force.
  • A small and inexperienced military.
  • A demoralized population.
  • Inadequate protection for exposed rural industries – rubber planters and tin mine staff who provided the economic life-blood of the country.
  • An administration and economy still recovering from the Japanese occupation.
  • Measures Taken Over Time

    Administration and Policy

    Replacement of the High Commissioner with an effective and well-briefed incumbent. Later arrival of a military general as High Commissioner, General Sir Gerald Templer.


  • Increase in the effective size of the police force from about 9,000 to about 70,000, including the recruitment of large numbers of special constables to supplement the regular force, and officers from the UK.

  • Re-equipping of the police with armoured transport and better armaments and equipment.

  • Formations of police military units in rural areas – Police Field Forces – organized into companies, platoons and sections – operating on purely military lines to carry out counter-insurgency operations in deep jungle areas.

  • Formation of smaller Police Jungle Squads of section strength to carry out counter-insurgency operations in or near jungle fringe areas

  • Formation of Police Area Security Units – ASUs – based in selected police districts to carry out patrols in rural areas adjacent to their locations.

  • Formation of police deep jungle forts at strategic locations in order to maintain contact with aborigines – orang asli – to break their contact lines with the CTs and establish a flow of intelligence about CT movements.

  • Establishment of new police stations and posts with generators and VHF radio equipment to improve communications.

  • Armed police special constables were provided to rubber estates, tin mines and other valuable sites for security.

  • Formation of secret armed police ‘Q’ squads based in selected districts – surrendered enemy personnel – SEPs – led by police officers, all dressed as CTs – to pose as the enemy and penetrate the enemy CTs and the Min Yuen organization and subvert and destroy the local CT and Min Yuen organizations.

  • Establish jungle warfare training camps for police and military personnel.

  • Establish Chinese language courses for police and administrative officers

  • Establishment of joint police/military operations rooms at all police state and district HQs where complete and detailed records were plotted on large scale maps of all information and incidents and where all secret reports, signals and records were maintained and briefings carried out for operations. Ops rooms were staffed by a police lieutenant, sometimes assisted by an army officer or sergeant.

  • Special Branch was separated from CID to form the nation’s first dedicated secret service.

  • Great increase in the training, equipping and size of Special Branch at all levels – national HQ, states and districts with a highly effective and professional network – resulting in a huge increase of successful intelligence. Great importance was placed on the penetration of the CPM, particularly the Min Yuen and the underground courier system; also via skilled interrogation of surrendered enemy personnel and leading to penetration of higher levels of the Party. In turn this all led to vital intelligence of changes in tactics and alterations in their political and military strategy, often before the orders got to the Communist formations in the Min Yuen or in the jungles.

  • In due course these intelligence skills were further refined with highly specialized courses, up-dated techniques and equipment in order for SB to provide Government with a broad range of political, security and subversive information, not only on the current threats from militant communism but on longer-term dangers as well.

  • Establishment of the Holding Centre – technical services for Special Branch clandestine operations.


  • Rapid increase in the size of the military – expansion of local battalions – arrival of many units from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, Kenya, Fiji and the Gurkhas. Increase from about 6,000 to about 40,000. This included air force units for regular air surveillance to detect enemy presence in the jungle and to carry out bombing raids and air drops.

  • Special selection of officers for training as Military Intelligence Officers. These MOs were seconded to district and state SB offices and worked under the direction of the senior SB officers in their respective areas.

  • Many lessons were learned from earlier errors in terms of military formation and effective operational size and also tactics which required considerable modification over time.


  • Emergency Regulations were enacted with heavy penalties for giving aid to the enemy, including the death penalty for being in possession of firearms/ammunition or consorting with armed terrorists. The Regulations also included the power to detain without trial for offences or suspicion of aiding the enemy. All such cases were processed through civilian courts. The CPM became a proscribed organization.

  • Establishment of combined operations war executive committees at all levels – national, states and districts. District War Executive Committees – DWECs – were chaired by the District Officer with key members – the police district commander, the police district SB officer, the police district operations staff officer, the military OC, Military IO. Other government officers could be co-opted for special occasions. Meetings were regularly conducted, usually at Police HQ in the secure operations room where the entire history of all events in the district were plotted on large scale maps and daily updated. Meeting minutes were recorded and sent to the State War Executive Committee –SWEC, and thence to the national body. National policies and directive also flowed from the national body to states and districts. This was a vital aspect of the manner in which Government’s campaign was conducted. First, it made it quite clear that the civil government was in charge, rather than the military. Second, it established that the civil government was carrying on its normal role in an organized and well-administered manner, with confidence and clear objective – to win . Third, it made sure that the police, the military and all the civil departments in the districts worked together as a team – for increased effectiveness and to avoid misunderstandings and errors/casualties.

  • As the SWECs and DWECs became more effective large scale carefully planned and coordinated operations with strategies and tactics sometimes covering many months were mounted to deny and demoralize the CTs and force them into errors and exposure and movement into dangerous areas where surrenders could be encouraged or kills made.

  • New Villages – A major problem was the exposure of huge communities of scattered rural Chinese squatter/farmers in jungle fringes who made a meagre subsistence living off the land. Many were sympathetic to the Communist’s cause, but some were reluctant. These poor peasants were exposed to intimidation by the CTs who extorted food and money from them and exacted terrible penalties if they failed or were suspected of aiding the government in any way.

  • The High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, with the assistance of General Briggs, developed the technique of protected hamlets – new villages. In effect, this meant that across the country hundreds of thousands of exposed squatter/farmers and their families were moved off their squatter holdings which was government land to specially prepared villages which were surrounded by barbed wire and later chain-link fences, flood-lit at night with police guards at the entrances. In one single swoop, the government had executed one of the most controversial and most successful decisions in the Emergency. What did it achieve?

    1) It cut off the main source of food, supplies, intelligence and finance from the CTs in the jungles and made their lives more difficult and dangerous, forcing them to expose themselves more in the quest for food, supplies and intelligence

    20 It protected the new villagers from harassment and intimidation – they were not able to take food or supplies from their new protected locations when they went out to work on their holdings.

    Initially, the shock of such a radical move aroused considerable resentment and antagonism. It caused some younger Chinese to leave and join the communist forces. However, as things settled down it was realized that it improved the lot of the poor Chinese population and gave them a more secure future and prospects and encouraged greater cooperation with the Government.

  • It gave the new villagers their first ownership of land near the new village – and – citizenship of Malaya.
  • Well-built homes instead of decrepit shacks.
  • A community with shops and a community hall.
  • Running water and electricity.
  • Schools for their children.
  • A cash bounty to assist them resettle

    It was not only hugely successful for all concerned – the new villagers and the security forces – it was a tremendous boost for the government’s prestige in the Malayan community.

  • Resettlement officers were appointed to help administer the new village operation.

  • Curfews were imposed after dark on all main roads so that vehicles could not drop off food and supplies under cover of darkness.

  • Check points were set up on roads to control any movement of food or supplies.

  • Prohibited areas were designated so that any person found in these areas could be shot.

  • Food restricted areas were designated – towns and villages, etc, where communities lived – to prevent food from being taken out of these areas. This also included medicines.

  • A number of articles were designated prohibited articles – such as khaki or jungle green cloth.

  • Food had to be transported between destinations in vehicle convoys escorted by police or military armoured vehicles.

  • The community was rationed to a certain amount of rice per capita in the household. Surprise raids were made on communities by police escorted food control staff who weighed the household rice supplies and confiscated any surplus – with payment. Rationing was later extended to edible oils and sugar. In new villages, canned food had to be punctured at time of sale. During special operations restrictions were extended in other ways in new villages, including central cooking of rice by government-employed cooks. No raw rice was sold providing complete control over rice.

    British Empire Article
    Surrendered Enemy Personnel Leaflet

  • A national identity card system was introduced, making it impossible for a CT to be safe in any community without an identity card.

  • A home guard organization was established in selected villages and townships and shotguns were provided.

  • A Department of Information was formed with a psychological wing. A propaganda campaign was orchestrated to the community to continually encourage confidence in the government to defeat the enemy and to encourage support of the security services. When special measures were taken in or near a community the Information Services were there to explain any restrictions and the purpose behind them. All part of the campaign to win the hearts and minds of the community. Propaganda leaflets were dropped in the jungle to the CTs encouraging surrender. Voice aircraft [with loudspeakers] were also used to encourage surrenders mentioning comrades who had surrendered and were enjoying a happy life in the community once again – compared to the miserable existence of the remaining doomed CTs in the jungle.

  • A highly successful system of rewards was offered to the public which provided substantial cash rewards for information which led to the capture, surrender or death of CTs with larger sums designated for higher-ranking CTs.

  • Strict censorship of the media was enforced to prevent any security forces operations being compromised.

  • British Empire Article
    Malacca, 1950s
    The government provided further incentive to the communities in Malaya by declaring areas as “White” where terrorist activity was practically eliminated. The first such area was Malacca. Others followed. It relieved the communities from onerous measures such as curfews and other restrictions and made life easier. It was also excellent propaganda to emphasize the progress in winning the war.

  • The British Government had made it quite clear that independence was just around the corner for Malaya – just a soon as the communists were defeated. In fact progress was so good that the date was brought forward to September 1957, a symbol of success for everyone and a great fillip for public morale while the conflict still continued.

  • The strongest emphasis was placed upon very careful treatment of captured enemy personnel, surrendered enemy personnel or detainees. It was of paramount importance that the enemy be encouraged to surrender. All CEPs and SEPs and detainees were treated very well so that they would realize the foolishness of following the path of Communism and would be willing to help the government to persuade the remaining CTs in the jungle to surrender and return to a fruitful life in the community. This policy strengthened the reputation of the government as just and fair and was highly successful in speeding up the defeat of the MCP in Malaya. By the end of the Emergency there were probably more ex-Communists working for the government than there were communists fighting in the jungle

  • Government departments all carried out their duties with care and diligence in order to maintain a feeling of community confidence in the government and to make sure that the community believed that they were on the winning side. This particularly applied to the police whose standard tasks were onerous – protection of life and property and the preservation of law and order – in addition to the huge organization and operational responsibility for counter-insurgency. All part of winning the hearts and minds of the people.
  • In Summation
    As a result of all the above measures the CPM was defeated and the Emergency declared as officially ended in 1960 after 12 long years.

    Many measures were taken to defeat the communists, but the most important were:

  • Sound, well-developed policies and strategies.

  • Winning the hearts and minds of the community.

  • Superb, hard-won intelligence.

  • Denial of food, supplies and intelligence to the terrorists.

  • To which one could add an excellent and harmonious relationship between all races in the security forces and in government who dedicated themselves and sometimes gave their lives in the cause of achieving victory for the nation.

    All these key winning measures were absent when the Americans fought in Vietnam. They interpreted a political, social, economic and military problem as a purely military problem. Someone once said that defining a problem correctly is half way to solving the problem. The Americans didn’t even get to half way! They continued to compound one mistake with another and the American politicians contributed even more problems. Thus a winnable conflict was lost and a great tragedy befell the Vietnamese people and the free world!

    The Malayan victory over Communism was a shining beacon in the world of conflict between the Western free world and the huge and expanding Communist aligned bloc. It was the first such victory against militant and subversive communism and it gave heart to all Western nations and particularly the governments of nations in the Asia-Pacific region who viewed the unsettled and dangerous situation in Asia with concern. They had viewed the remorseless expansion of Communist territorial ambition across the world where in each and every country underground Communist organizations already existed.

  • Colonial Map
    Malaya Map
    Colony Profile
    The Author
    [David Brent was an assistant superintendent in the para-military Malayan Police Force. He served as a police commander of several large districts in the hinterlands of Malaya and was also an intelligence specialist during the Malayan Emergency. He participated in the BBC 2004 TV documentary, Empire Warriors: ‘The Intelligence War’, with views and recollection of the Emergency and also contributed to several publications on Malaya and the Emergency.]
    Also by the Author
    Jungle Patrols
    Malayan Tales
    Malaya - A Magical Experience
    Colonialism and Empires: A natural evolution of civilizations
    The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond: Real Truths, Hidden Truths and Forgotten Truths
    Further Reading
    Operation Sharp End: Smashing Terrorism in Malaya 1948 - 1958: Memories of the Malayan Police
    Edited by Brian Stewart


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