British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Brian Stewart (Malayan Civil Service 1945 - 1957
I had just left hospital in late 1944 after an unequal fight with a tank in Normandy and was told to report to the Colonial Office for an interview with Sir Ralph Furse, the legendary recruiter of many Colonial Service cadets. It went as follows:

British Empire Article
Sir Ralph Furse
Furse: So you want to join the Colonial Service. Why?
Stewart: Well, Sir, it sounds like an interesting and worthwhile job.
Furse: Quite right! Would you like Kenya or Malaya?
Stewart: Malaya, Sir, since I am going there in the Army.
Furse: Right! Good luck in Malaya.

His system was roughly to read the applicant's face rather than reading the file and it worked well as far as I could see. My colleagues were a pleasant, hardworking, sensible bunch and we had no traitors.

About a year later in September 1945 I found myself still in the uniform of a Black Watch Officer and officially a Staff Officer, wending my way east on slow Dakotas. Then by train across India, troop ship to Singapore and finally puffing up the railway line to Penang, stopping frequently to gather wood for our hungry engine. It was a better way of entering Malaya than the previous plan which had assumed an opposed landing on a beach on the west coast. Fortunately the atom bombs had been dropped and the Japanese had surrendered.

British Empire Article
Pulau Jerejak
It was late at night when we reached Penang so we went to sleep on the jetty under the stars. The next morning I was off on a retired Japanese motor torpedo boat to take command of the Refugee and Displaced Persons camp on Pulau Jerejak, an island close by. I knew little about the island or the job. It had been an immigration station before the war and was now the temporary home for thousands of Asians who had been displaced by the Japanese and were anxious to get back to their own countries.

There could not have been a more idyllic posting and a better introduction to the varied peoples of Asia. But it was also a magical experience of rural Malaya. I still remember vividly the beauty of the velvety nights with moonlight laying a silver highway across the sea and phosphorescent droplets showering from the paddle blade as I canoed around my little kingdom. But it was no use pretending that OC Refugee Camp was likely to gain me a reputation in the Civil Service and so, sadly, I asked for a normal posting and said farewell to my paradise.

I had a spell as a District Officer (DO) and then as Secretary to the Resident Commissioner in Johore. In both places the local staff were immensely kind and tolerant to the new boy but I was soon posted to the Chinese Secretariat in Singapore to study Cantonese. It was a major step which affected the rest of my life. My Resident Commissioner was displeased. "It would", he said, "ruin my career", and he might well have been right had it not been for the imminent Emergency when Chinese speakers became greatly in demand. By the time I had been to China and passed my Chinese exams the Emergency was in full swing. I never had a normal administrative job for the rest of my time in Malaya and was seldom to be found in an office. My in-trays were lightly burdened and I became in effect a political intelligence officer with responsibilities more akin to those of the Indian Political Service than to those of a DO or Secretariat wallah.

This was not the North West Frontier, however. I had lost my fodder allowance when I left the payroll of the Indian Army and I travelled by boring car, but the job was paramilitary and I kept my revolver handy, remembering the fate of my predecessor who had been ambushed and killed on a back road in Malacca. It was called the Emergency but it was of course a war.

I shall write about the sort of life we led and the work we did later but I want first to describe the organization to which I was very loosely attached for the rest of my Malayan Civil Service career. It was known officially as the Chinese Secretariat, and more colloquially as the Chinese Protectorate. There has not, I think, yet been a historical account written about this curious colonial institution. By the time I joined, it was no longer an influential department wielding power under several Ordinances, considered to be an important liaison link to the Chinese community, but had become a tiny rump of specialists with its tentacles gone and its authority questionable. The Colonial Office had all but abolished the Protectorate as part of constitutional changes undertaken during the war. In effect I spent my years in Malaya trying to revive our prestige and rebuild the links to the Chinese population, which had been so thoughtlessly destroyed but were now needed more than ever, since the Emergency was basically a Chinese insurrection in a territory where almost half the population were of the Chinese (Han) race and rarely English-educated.

In my view the Colonial Office had been seriously at fault In the way It tinkered with the constitution during a time when most of the Chinese specialists were either in the jungle fighting the Japanese or in prison. Our first priority should have been restoration of the status quo and restoring our "face" after the disgraceful defeat at the hands of the Japanese. The Mandarins in Whitehall were unfortunate In the timing of their decision to abolish the Chinese Protectorate just as the Malayan Communist Party was preparing to move from subversion to armed struggle. Their approach to intelligence seems to have been singularly unsophisticated and it was extremely naive to expect that an effective Security Service could be created simply by promoting the Director of the CID and seconding a few police officers.

To return to the Chinese Protectorate. It had originally got its name from an old Ordinance entitled "Protection of Women and Girls", which was a law aimed above all against the pimps and brothel keepers who made their living by exploiting women and girls coming from China. This Ordinance was still In force and young Chinese girls would be brought before me and my job was to persuade them that to go on the streets or be in a brothel was a bad idea. The alternative was to enter our Po Leung Kuk (Institute for the Preservation of Virtue) where they learnt housewifely arts and crafts and were eventually introduced to respectable young men who could not afford the cost of bringing a bride from China. This was a worthwhile endeavour but I remember one girl sobbing her heart out because she did not want to change her ways since she was making so much money "on the game". The pre-war Protectorate had also been engaged in immigration work and Chinese Education but had in addition the much more vital function of combating the Chinese secret societies or triads and this battle continued.

British Empire Article
William Pickering
The triads were, like the Mafia, responsible for a wide range of criminal activities. They had accompanied the growth of the Chinese population when immigrants rushed in to take the tin-mining jobs which the Malays did not fancy, and since they did not have their families with them there was inevitably a growing sex industry. The triads battened on this rapidly increasing Chinese immigrant community, running opium and gambling dens, the sex industry and protection rackets. When the triads had originally progressed from crime to gang warfare the Malayan Government sought help from Hong Kong, and Mr Pickering, a Chinese specialist, was posted from Hong Kong towards the end of the Nineteenth Century. He undertook an enquiry into the problems caused by the triads and made recommendations as a result of which the Registration of Societies Ordinance was born. The triad problem had roots in Chinese Imperial customs at the end of the Ming dynasty. Mr Pickering had started his work from the proposition that they had their origins in patriotic societies formed against barbarian invaders and had developed into benevolent societies. He changed his direction later when, as he was working on an Ordinance which would register these apparently virtuous societies, an enraged Chinese, who presumably objected to his interference in Chinese affairs, charged into his office with a meat cleaver and hacked at him. The final version of the Ordinance made it a criminal offence to participate in an assembly of more than six people and put the onus on those present to prove that they were not members of a secret society.

The Chinese Secretariat worked with the police against the triads and provided expert evidence of the esoterica of these secret societies. "Grass sandal", I remember, was the title of a secret society's "Chief Detective". There was plenty of mumbo-jumbo, spilling of cocks' blood and so on in ritual oath-takings.

But although the courteous Chinese still addressed us by fancy titles, such as dai yan (great man) derived from Imperial China, and flattered us with reminders that we were their "father and mother" officials, we were in fact toothless tigers. The work was interesting: secret societies; banishment enquiries and adjudication over Chinese disputes, but it was hardly at the centre of government and I felt distinctly uneasy about the validity of our advice on Chinese affairs when our official contacts were so limited.

The adjudication function was not governed by any Ordinance. We were mainly faced with Chinese piaintiffs wrangling over rights to a share in the estate of some deceased millionaire. They were mostly Chinese ladies all claiming to be widows and might be principal wives (tsai)] secondary wives; concubines (tsip) or even mistresses, all alleging they were entitled to a share in the estate. The chaos was caused by the fact that the Chinese in Imperial times had no marriage law or marriage certificates. The proof of marriage, in whatever degree, lay not in a register but in the evidence that appropriate ceremonies and rituals had been carried out.

It was not surprising this situation led to very acrimonious disputes. I don't suppose a Scot in his twenties without any legal training was any less likely to arrive at the truth than a Privy Council Judge. It was not legal niceties but the facts that were at issue and at least, unlike the Western lawyers, I knew some Chinese. My bible was a collection of studies going back to Captain Eliot RN's time in Hong Kong in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. It made clear that there was little agreement among lawyers, but since the Privy Council had decided in 1922 that six Chinese ladies were each entitled to a share in one contested case, it seemed to me that common sense, not legal training, was what was required. None of my cases ever got anywhere near a court of law. The only serious problem that arose was when a Cadet standing in for me was foolish enough to try to separate three Chinese ladies engaged in a scratching match in front of his desk: he got badly scratched for his pains. The best evidence of all was a photograph of a bride (of whatever title) and bridegroom, appropriately dressed and surrounded by family on the day of their union. Unfortunately such evidence was seldom available and principal wives tended to have highly selective memories about the status of the other plaintiffs. I found, however, when I was a Registrar of Marriages that great importance was given to my being in photos of the couple being married as a safeguard for the future.

Part 2
British Empire Article
Malaya Planter
I was finishing my Chinese language studies when the Emergency started and the rest of my Malayan Civil Service (MCS) time was dominated by it, with my knowledge of Chinese at a premium in the fight against a predominantly Chinese rebellion. By the time I sailed sadly away in 1957 the insurgents had been thrashed and had mostly retired across the border to southern Thailand. Three years later, in 1960, the Emergency officially ended.

Our victory was the only case in Asia of a colonial government beating off a local insurgency and departing with honour. It showed that it was possible for a western power to bring a colony successfully to independence, and that the end of an Asian empire did not have to be the sad mess which it had been for the Dutch in Indonesia and the French in Vietnam. The Malayan story remains an important case study in many staff colleges with serious attempts to learn lessons from it. Unfortunately, however, although the main ingredients in our successful counter-insurgency campaign are not difficult to identify, the formula is an almost impossible one to transplant to other places where culture and society are bound to be different.

The problems were highlighted when Malaysia sent a small advisory mission of former police and MCS officers to Saigon to advise the United States after they had Intervened in Vietnam, where they tried for over ten years with vast military and intelligence forces to defeat the Vietnamese communists there. The two countries were very different. Both were In South-East Asia, had been western colonies, and were battling Chinese-influenced communists, but there the similarities ended. Malaya was predominantly a monarchic, Islamist, traditional Malay society, and the insurgents were mostly atheist, immigrant Chinese. The government was stable and the British back in command after the Japanese occupation. In Vietnam, on the other hand, there had been civil war since 1941; the enemy were ethnically Vietnamese, not immigrant Chinese, and the US were only advisers to the ever-changing and corrupt governments. There was no effective body to whom the Malaysian mission could impart its experience. In these circumstances the chances of replicating the Malayan success story were indeed slim, and the communists duly won. Few international interventions in the post-colonial world have had much success, however well-intentioned the foreign invaders and whatever their military prowess and resources. Only a strong local government has a chance of finding a satisfactory long-term solution.

The twelve years of the Malayan Emergency took place in stormy times when the Dutch and the French had been forced ignominiously out of their South-East Asian dependencies, and the Chinese Communists, having won in China, were competing vigorously with the Soviet Union for leadership of the Third World. Non-communists feared a domino effect with the smaller Asian countries succumbing one by one to communism.

But the Malayan Government in 1948 was worried not about communism but about Malay extremists, egged on by religious zealots from newly independent Indonesia. The Malayan Communist Party's (MCP) move from political action to armed struggle came as a complete surprise; even though it was a continuing nuisance and causing industrial unrest, it had not been seen as a serious problem. The minute, inexperienced, understaffed Malayan Security Service (MSS) remained convinced until the day when the first assassinations (of two British rubber plantation managers) occurred that the only serious threat was from nationalist extremists. The MCP never rated more than a paragraph in the MSS fortnightly summaries.

British Empire Article
Estate Managers Under Guard
Strangely enough I have seen no reference in the history books to this egregious failure., which is reminiscent, though on a far smaller scale, of the obstinate refusal of the US Government to act on the 1941 assessment that the Japanese might go to war and even attack Pearl Harbour, or of Stalin to accept that Hitler had actually invaded the Soviet Union. There were several reasons for the failure. One was that the Malayan Communists had been our allies in the war against the Japanese, which had ended only three years before. More importantly, the MSS no longer had a high level source within the MCP while previously, up until 1947, the Party Secretary-General, Loi Tak, had been on their books. Had he still been in position, the fact that the MCP planned to move from agitprop to armed struggle would have been known immediately. In 1947, however, Loi realised that he was in danger of discovery and, taking with him his mistresses and the Party funds, absconded to Thailand - where, however, he soon met a sticky end at the hands of the local communists at the behest of their Malayan comrades - and the MSS had not yet found a replacement.

I am not sure that any historians have seen the record of a somewhat less than impressive meeting summoned by the Commissioner-General, Malcolm Macdonald, to discuss threats to the country just before the start of the Emergency. I found the minutes, among a complete set of MSS summaries, in a shoe box in Rhodes House, Oxford. They were labelled as private papers of Colonel Dailey, the Director of the MSS, with whom I myself had worked on Secret Societies and on the demands for back payment by the Chinese, many of whom were Communists, who had been recruited in 1941 to fight the Japanese. The nearest the august body of senior officers at that meeting came to discussing the MCP was a proposal by the senior Admiral present that it should be banned, as it had been before 1941. Macdonald, son of a Labour Prime Minister, gave that suggestion short shrift and reminded the old sea dog that Britain was a democracy.

I had by chance had dealings with some of the leaders of the MCP in 1946-47 and heard their complaints that the British Government owed them money for their military service against the Japanese in the jungle alongside Force 136. They were a nuisance, parading and gesticulating outside my office, but I had no idea that they would soon return to the jungle this time to fight against us. I was only concerned with their claims for back pay and one day, saying that I seemed to understand the problem, they invited me to lead them on a march to Government House. It was an amusing notion but I had to explain that I did not want to lose my job.

British Empire Article
Malacca, 1950s
There were perhaps twelve thousand armed terrorists In the jungle at the beginning of the Emergency, among whom some who had been trained and armed by us during the war against the Japanese had successfully concealed many of their weapons when disbanded. The Communist Terrorists (CTs) augmented their armoury with weapons captured In ambushes, but there is no evidence that they ever received arms from outside the country. The situation was dire, since although we had many more armed forces the terrorists could choose the time and place for ambushes or attacks on isolated posts and estates, roads and railways. It took time to build an intelligence machine that could provide our jungle patrols with the information they needed to bring the enemy to battle. Until then superiority in numbers was no use, since fighting patrols might spend weeks in the jungle seeking blindly for the wills-o-the-wisp with the only enemies manifesting themselves being leeches, malaria, extreme humidity and vast discomfort.

Although I was badged as an officer in the Malayan Civil Service and wore the starched white linen MCS uniform on occasion, my duties were more often of a para-military rather than civilian nature. This became even more the case when General Templer arrived to take over the leadership of the Malayan Government. Many New Villages, as the fortified settlements to which most rural Chinese were eventually moved were designated, had already been established. Night curfews, food controls and routine searching of travellers and workers were already having some effect on the morale and operations of the CTs. It was Templer, however, who brought government, security forces and the loyal population together in concerted action against the guerrillas. The New Villages were not, as some critics and fanciful novelists averred, concentration camps but nor were they paradises. They did, however, protect the Chinese rural population against the predatory and cruel CTs.

General Templer Imported outstanding talent and an Emergency Information Service was established. We worked all hours to enlist the public and I, for instance, built twelve new schools, which would have won no prizes for architectural excellence but did the job and one or two were still in existence when I revisited them thirty odd years later. Great efforts were made to encourage CTs to surrender and the invitation was delivered in a variety of ways, including broadcasts from lorries and aircraft (using very loud hailers) and leaflets dropped in the jungle.

British Empire Article
Surrendered Enemy Personnel Leaflet
The most successful pamphlets were probably those showing a beaming, well-dressed Surrendered Enemy Personnel (SEP) carousing with his family and inviting his comrades in the jungle to give up and join their families too. They were a death warrant for any CTs caught by their leaders with them, but many a tired, hungry, perhaps sick and certainly uncomfortable, terrorist would have paused to think if he saw them, particularly if the person portrayed was a senior cadre who had previously preached undying loyalty to the communist cause. Soon the trickle of SEPs became a stream and then a river.

My very independent life as Secretary for Chinese Affairs, Malacca, was hugely satisfying and I spent my time plotting and planning with the police and the army, or at some ungodly hour interpreting for a Special Branch officer faced with a Chinese who wanted to confide in a British officer rather than a local one. I had tied myself closely to Sir Cheng Lok Tan, the leader of the Malayan Chinese who lived in Malacca, so whenever General Templer visited Sir Cheng I was present and could put ideas directly to the Commander-in-Chief, who in common with many outstanding officers liked to deal with juniors as well as with the hierarchy.

British Empire Article
General Templer
Ideas which were usually too strong meat for the local committees always found favour with the General and became directives and I won several rounds with the hierarchy in this fashion. The most exciting example was his backing of my proposal that we should nominate the Malacca Central District as a "White Area", praising it as helpful to the government and sparing it the discomfort and Inconveniences of the Emergency Regulations, which were much disliked. General Templer, unlike my Malacca colleagues, saw the point immediately: "tell the silly b........ to get on with it". So I did and soon the map of Malaya was peppered with white areas. The Communist high command was perturbed by the claim that the population were beginning to side with the government and the people were encouraged to help us.

Historians have not always given sufficient credit to Templer but I still believe that without his drive and inspirational leadership the struggle might have dragged on for much longer. His acerbic style and insistence on immediate action must have been uncomfortable for many of those around him, but he was the right man for the job. Lady Templer's contribution must also be celebrated. When I brashly asked whether I could bring my Malacca Civics Course students to their home. King's House, for tea, she agreed enthusiastically and fully understood the importance of winning hearts and minds. These tea parties were doubtless highlights in the lives of the people who were bussed in to Kuala Lumpur, which may have been their first ever visit.

Those were the days! Anyone interested in more personal memories will find some good stories in the collection I published called Operation Sharp End: Smashing Terrorism in Malaya 1948-58. Memories of the Malayan Police., (Acorn Publications, 2003, ISBN 978 1903263761) which was a tribute to the Malayan Police who bravely fought the good fight to its successful conclusion.

British Colony Map
Malaya Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal: April and October 2014
Further Reading
Operation Sharp End: Smashing Terrorism in Malaya 1948-58. Memories of the Malayan Police.
by Brian Stewart

Scrapbook of a Roving Highlander: 80 Years Around Asia and back
Autobiography by Brian Stewart


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