The British Empire Library

Tales From The South China Seas: Images of the British in South East Asia in the Twentieth Century

by Charles Allen

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
My Charles Allen bookshelf not only furnishes a treasure-house of valued first-rate reading; it also comprises a valuable and first-class repository of source material for a project which surely generates the positive approval, if not always the practical enthusiasm, of the majority of readers of this journal, namely a history of Britain's overseas civil services. To Plain Tales from the Raj (India) and Tales from the Dark Continent (Africa), the skilled and sensitive Charles Allen has now added a South China Seas volume, subtitled "Images of the British in South-East Asia in the Twentieth Century" .

For those brought up on Lord Jim, with his never-to-be-forgotten "first sigh of the East on my face" , let me say straight away that Charles Allen's South China region has more to do with the soul of colonial Malaya (Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Henri Fauconnier and all that too-clever-by-half picture of "a first-rate country for second-rate people"). North Borneo and the extraordinary kingdom of Sarawak (Eric Linklater's Faithjnl Ally, Nicholas Monsarrat's The White Rajah and all that), with the world of "islands and archipelagos and casuarina-fringed sands backed by impenetrable rain forest" than with the treaty ports or concessions of Canton, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the Chinese coast. Here was the place, in the South China Seas, that the beginning of the end of the British Empire literally took place: Hong Kong's surrender to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941, followed by the ignominious surrender of 'impregnable' Singapore a few weeks later, likened by The Times to the greatest blow to the Empire since the loss of the American colonies in 1776.

Once again it is the imperial survivors who speak in prose and photograph - few ordinary, many outsize, and some, like Tuan Hubert Berkeley, "the uncrowned king of Upper Perak" , almost in the believe-it-or-not class. It is all great stuff, redolent of a bygone age of empire, inevitably nostalgic yet arguably of real historical importance and unarguably the stuff that fine writing and reading are made of. Once again Charles Allen, with his neat preface, his glossary and mini-Who's Who of contributors to accompany his and their superb text, has done the British Empire and its men and women proud. This has been achieved neither by deification nor damnation, but simply by setting down the record of the common round and daily task of those ordinary folk from these islands who, in the words of one of the contributors, "gave their hearts and very often their health and lives" to serving a rather extra-ordinary Empire.

Some Recollections on the People and Events described in the book by David Brent (Asst Superintendent of Police, Malaya 1952-58)
This is a book which I hadn't got around to reading until I returned to Penang in November 1990. And so, rather appropriately, I bought it in the book shop of the E&O Hotel in Penang [a far more charming sister hotel than the Raffles in Singapore, built by the same Armenian family, the Sarkies, who also built the Strand Hotel in Rangoon]. I read it in two evenings. Couldn't put it down as it revived so many memories of all kinds, and the environment was perfect as I was staying at the E&O Hotel at the time. Memories of my life as a young child in Penang and Cameron Highlands in the '30s before WW2 and in 1941 when the Japanese attacked and destroyed my family. And memories of my life and police service in Malaya during the Emergency, the long war against the communists - 1948-60.

Many of the characters in the book I knew well. Sjovald [pronounced Soult] Cunyngham-Brown was an old resident of Penang. I used to meet him on my return visits to Penang. He was a descendent of the Browns of Glugore who lived in and developed the southern part of Penang in the 19th Century. He used to describe his grandfather as the 'black sheep' of the family. Through marriage there was a French link in that side of the family which may have accounted for Sjovald's Francophile values, his fluency in French and the fact that he was the Honorary French Consul in Penang for many years until he died in about 1992.

Hugh Watts was the Company Sergeant Major of 'B' Coy, 3rd Battalion, Straits Settlements Volunteer Force in Penang, which my father, Lionel Brent commanded at the time of the Japanese attack in 1941. After the War Hugh became an extremely wealthy rubber planter and land owner in Penang where he died in early 1988 aged 91.

John Davis was the CO of Pekan Police District in Pahang on the South China Sea coast in 1931 [my time was later in 1953]. When I was CO Johor Bahru Police District he was the British Adviser [BA] to the Sultan of Johore. I recall he kept two tame otters which he took to the small beach on the Straits of Johore below his house every evening. There he released them to go fishing in the Straits. They always came back when they had finished and jumped into the car to be driven home.

Guy Madoc was Police Intelligence Director [Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police, Special Branch] at Police HQ, Kuala Lumpur in 1954 when I was new to Special Branch at the time. He was a very amiable person. I met him on the beach near the Swimming Club in Penang in December 1954 and he was very interested to know that the rocks nearby was where I and my father used to fish from when I was a small boy in the '30s before the War. He kindly gave me the use of his boat and boatman to go fishing out from the Swimming Club near Pulau Tikus island.

Tan Sri Haji Mubbin [Mervyn] Sheppard ['fufuf' as he was called because his initials actually were 'ff'] rose to eminence in the Malayan Civil Service, and retired and died in Malaysia later. He was a scholar in Malay culture and language and in 1954 examined my Malay language exam paper and gave me a pass, to my immense relief, as my promotion and salary increment relied on this success.

Bill Goode was Governor of Singapore in 1959 and briefly Singapore's first Yang di Pertuan Negara [President] at the time of Singapore's self government when the PAP Government came to power. At the time I was working at a Singapore advertising agency, having retired from my last police post as CO Johore Bahru Police District.

'Puck' Puckeridge was manager of Jenderak rubber estate in the Kuala Krau district of Pahang in 1953, a very bad area just north of my district at Triang which was even worse. Later, in 1956, he moved to an estate in Batu Pahat District in north Johore when I was the CO of the Police District at the time.

Claude Fenner was a very fine police officer who escaped from Singapore in 1942 and later parachuted back into the Malayan jungle to join Force 136 with John Davis and Chin Peng. He finally became Commissioner of Police and then the first Inspector-General of the Malaysian Police Force which then included Sabah and Sarawak. In 1956 when he was Chief Police Officer of Johore State he designated me to take a riot squad in an APC from Batu Pahat to support the Singapore Police during the destructive widespread communist inspired riots. He retired and lived in Kuala Lumpur.

Some observations and recollections are -

For some clarity of British intentions, on page 16 is reference to Queen Victoria's far-sighted instructions to Disraeli in 1874 regarding the Malay States - 'to bring the peoples of these countries to the stage where they can govern themselves.' And the exhortation by the School of Oriental Studies to its students training for Malaya that they were destined to 'bring on' the countries of the Malayan Peninsula to self-government. And as the writer states - 'Such things cannot be achieved by domination, but only by the closest and most friendly of working relationships.'

P26. Reference to Somerset Maugham's story "The Letter" about adultery and murder in Kuala Lumpur in 1911. The lady concerned was the wife of a school master at the Victoria Institute as related by Dr G.E.D. Lewis, later headmaster in the 1950s. Dr Lewis was also earlier headmaster at the Clifford School, Kuala Lipis in Pahang where I was later posted in 1952 and where my orderly, Awang bin Sulong, by an amazing coincidence, had been the previous house servant of Dr Lewis.

P61. A quote from Somerset Maugham. It reminds me of another quote by Maugham -"The Raffles Hotel stands for all the tales of the exotic East." My good friend, Frans Schutzman was the manager of the Raffles Hotel in the 1950s. He asked his hotel guest, Somerset Maugham, if the hotel could use this quote in its promotional literature. When Maugham kindly agreed as a courtesy, Schutzman waived his guest's hotel costs against the wishes and orders of the Chinese owners. There was a blazing row with severe repercussions, but I believe that Schutzman got his way.

P62. A reproduction of an advertisement for Sarkie's hotels, including the Sanitarium and the Crag Hotels on Penang Hill. During the 1930s our family would occasionally stay at both the Sanitarium bungalow and the Crag Hotel to enjoy the slightly cooler clime and the beauty of the lovely walks and views. Over the decades I have returned to Penang Hill to soak in the nostalgia. Sanitarium is well maintained in lovely surroundings including beautiful casuarinas. But sadly the old Crag Hotel is a desolate, ghost-like shell, crumbling to pieces, perched high on a ledge, viewed from the front garden of the Penang Hill Hotel which used to be a private home with spectacular views over Penang and Kedah.

P67. Kuala Lumpur Padang lay below my office at Police HQ on a high ridge where I was posted in 1955. Now an impressive, soaring, air-conditioned 'sky-scraper', Police Headquarters was then an old two-storied building built in the early 20th Century when the Police Force was small and times were peaceful and calm. In the evenings, on occasions of duty I would sometimes pause, quite transfixed by the sight below me of Kuala Lumpur town with its twinkling lights, a background of dark, distant hills, all framed by several coco-nut palms, their leaves shimmering with the reflected moonlight in the sultry, stillness of a warm evening mellowed with the faint, exotic scent of nearby frangipani blossoms.

Sadly, too, another tragic event occurred during this time at Police HQ, illustrative of how beauty and ugliness always potentially co-exist. I was duty officer, bunking on a camp bed in the signal office one evening in early 1955 when an urgent signal came in requesting medical help for someone in one of the police jungle forts. I contacted the Malaya Command military duty officer and a doctor and helicopter were soon on their way. The next signal came in from the fort. Tragedy! The young doctor, I never forgot his name - Dr Roy - had stepped out of the helicopter and walked straight into the rear rotary blade, killing him instantly. A tragedy for the doctor and his family. A depressing evening for me.

P74. The Tudor-styled Selangor Club on the Padang below nearby Police Headquarters, was nicknamed "The Spotted Dog" or "The Dog". It was also the scene of an unusual incident in the mid-30s when my predecessor as CO Police District of Pekan in Pahang, visited Kuala Lumpur on leave and arrived at the entrance to the Selangor Club with his pet tiger cub, Blang [belang - stripes in Malay] with collar and leash. Pandemonium broke out as staff and guests fled seeking shelter from the 'ferocious tiger'. The incident remained a talking point for many months after in Kuala Lumpur. The entirely re-built Club is now named The Royal Selangor Club, still with its traditional Tudor styling.

Curiously, Blang was the innocent culprit in another fiasco in Pekan when a visitor arrived at my predecessor's home, and hot, sweaty and exhausted made for the bathroom and turned on the tap for a cooling bath. What he didn't know was that my predecessor kept a tiger cub which loved the cooling enjoyment of having a bath. Naturally, at the sound of the cold water tap running in the bath, Blang's ears pricked up and he instantly rose from lying on the verandah and speedily made for the bathroom. The naked visitor, facing the bath, was suddenly shocked as a tiger leapt past his shoulder and landed in the bath. Residents of Pekan were astounded at the extraordinary sight of a pink and white naked human form streaking out of the police chief's house onto the roadway outside screaming "Tiger! Tiger!" at the top of his voice. The story was recounted with hilarity in Pekan and in the istanas [palaces] of the Sultan of Pahang for many years after.

Keeping some exotic animals was one of the enjoyments of living in the heartlands of Malaya. At different times I had two tiger cubs, several macaque monkeys, a slow lorris, a tarsir, a musang [mongoose], a baby goat, many baby crocodiles and a green tree snake. At various times the sighting of jungle animals was a thrill. The variety was prodigious as was the incredible variety of fish in the rivers and the sea. In Pekan District the river waterway areas were infested with crocodiles.

I never saw an elephant in the wilds of the jungles, a rare experience. However, in 1953 in Triang District in Pahang a rogue elephant broke down the perimeter fence at Kemayan new village in the south. We had a Bren-machine gun trained on it in case it endangered lives, but it contented itself to a few bananas from villagers' trees and went out the way it came in. I discussed this with the National Game Warden, Charles Ogilvy, a short while after. He explained that elephants travel in a large circle throughout the year, arriving at the same place at the same time each year. He recognized our intransigent elephant who was a loner and kept appearing at various places in Pahang.

Another elephant incident occurred in Batu Pahat district in North Johore. The Fijian Infantry Regiment was based in the district in support of the police. On one of their patrols in the northern area the platoon commander, Second-Lieutenant Paul Manueli was suddenly confronted by a large bull-elephant which picked him up with its trunk and threw him to the ground. Very fortunately something distracted the elephant and it turned and disappeared. Paul Manueli survived and got back to base with his patrol. Years later Paul Manueli became the Minister for Finance in the Fijian Government. On his office wall was a framed 'elephant cartoon' of the event which I sketched and sent to him in 1991.

P99. Suicides of planters In 1953 in Triang District I and my wife spent a night at the remote Bukit Mentri Estate to help keep up the morale of the special constables and their families there. The young manager had shot himself a little earlier and the absentee owners couldn't find a replacement manager, the dangerous reputation of the area was so bad. The local tappers continued to tap the trees and sold the proceeds independently. When we looked inside the manager's desolate concrete house strewn with broken pieces of furniture and smashed glass on the floors we saw the wall still covered with splashes of dried blood and some hair still stuck to the dried blood.

P101. Sultan Ibrahim of Johore was certainly the stuff of exotic tales of the East. I and my wife enjoyed several Sunday luncheons with his son, the Crown Prince - Tengku Mahkota - later Sultan Ismail, and were friends of grandson, Tengku Mahmud - later Sultan of Johore and Yang di Pertuan Agong - King of Malaya - and his wife at the time, Khalsom. Tengku Mahmud taught me to water ski on the Straits of Johore and in turn, I helped him with advice about SCUBA diving, a sport he had recently taken up. One of the last ceremonies I attended as CO of the Johore Bahru Police District was a reception at the Istana Besar [Main Palace] by the old Sultan Ibrahim in early 1958 when he returned to Johore Bahru from London where he lived. It was also one of the very few times that I wore full police dress uniform when I was presented to His Highness. Sadly Sultan Ibrahim died a few months later.

At the time of Sultan Ibrahim's ceremonial reception my wife and I were living nearby only about four hundred yards away from the main Palace in a lovely Spanish-style hacienda. Very coincidentally the earlier residents had been famous author, Han Suyin [A Many Splendoured Thing] who was married then to Leon Comber, a Special Branch officer, Chinese linguist and former Indian Army major during the return of British forces to Malaya. She had written another autobiographical book And The Rain My Drink during their residence in the house and many of the features of the house described in the book were easily recognizable. Dr Elizabeth Comber [her real name] was a friend and neighbour who lived in one of three houses she had built in Johore Bahru overlooking the Straits of Johore and ran medical clinics in Johore Bahru and Singapore. She also modeled some of my wife's fashion creations at shows in Singapore when my wife owned a fashion salon a year or so later.

In connection with royal ceremonies which are taken very seriously in Malaysia I recall a slightly humourous event in Pekan in mid-1954 at the birthday parade of the Sultan of Pahang. Traditionally, all sultans received a 21-gun salute commencing at the command 'Royal salute, present arms'. The saluting gun was a Royal Navy 1884 deck gun and ammunition blanks were sent to Pekan by the naval base in Singapore each year. The gun was sited in the front of my Police HQ about two hundred yards from the parade ground. A few weeks before the parade it was discovered that the plate in the firing mechanism had cracked [after 70 years!]. Contact with the Singapore Naval Base and other police sources could not locate anyone who could help with an 1884 naval gun. So, off to the local tin-smith who braised over the crack. It seemed to work. When the day arrived and timing for the gun salute was conveyed to the gun crew by a series of waved flags nothing happened. The braised plate didn't work. At the parade ground the State Secretary, Dato Abdul Razak, attired in his ceremonial finery, came hurrying over to me "Mr Brent, what happened to the Sultan's gun salute?" So I had to explain the predicament. That was the only year that the Sultan of Pahang didn't get his birthday gun salute. Dato Abdul Razak later became Malaysia's first Deputy Prime Minister and then the second Prime Minister, titled Tun Abdul Razak.

P 107. Flying foxes - giant fruit bats - were delicious. Local name - Kluang. The wife of my next-door neighbour colleague, the Special Branch officer in Batu Pahat in Johore, prepared grilled fruit bat in special sauces on occasions for me, A very palatable dark, gamey flesh. Definitely recommended. I recall memories of stunning evening sun-sets with golden-orange skies as the sun set in the West framing the many thousands of dark, slowly flapping flying foxes as they crossed the sky making for their feeding grounds.

P 113. Pulau Tioman is a most beautiful "Bali Hai" style of island with high peaks, rivers, waterfalls, stunning beaches and coral reefs which are all part of Pekan District in Pahang off the East coast, on the South China Sea, although the main sea access to it is from Mersing in neighbouring Johore State. In my time it was virginal with only a few fishing villages. Now it has an airport and many holiday resort hotels. Voted one of the ten most beautiful islands in the world.

P 128. Having lived through the East coast monsoon season with incessant, pelting, heavy rain, flooding rivers and pounding waves on the beaches, the accounts of experiences decades ago brought back many memories of the difficult times in East Pahang during Musim Hujan - the rainy season.

The main calmer season for the many fishermen in the villages along the coast was between February and November. In order to better understand their work and difficulties I went out with the prahus, big fishing sampans, and discovered many fascinating techniques for fish catching. The day's start was at 5 am before dawn in order to be out on the fishing grounds by sunrise. It was an enjoyable way of showing the official government face, to get to know the locals better and to also help add a little fish profit from my fish catches for their families.

P 131. The account of the jungles of Pahang by John Davis brought back memories of times in these areas and the rivers that flowed through them. Great beauty and fascinating animal life. Scenes never to be forgotten. But sometimes tough, exhausting work in places of belukar - thick, thorny areas needing much cutting to progress just a short distance. But a really moving and memorable experience, increasingly rare in our changing modern world of cities of concrete, glass, steel and alluminium.

However, the other side of the coin was not danger from any animals but the ever-present danger of a jungle-skilled, aggressive enemy, the communist terrorists, who could attack anytime from almost anywhere When I arrived at my first posting to Kuala Lipis Police District in Pahang state as second-in-command I found to my amazement that after experience as a platoon commander with NATO commanding 34 men I was now second-in-command of a district of nearly 1, 200 men - police, para-military police and operational military personnel. One of our 'top-gun' jungle fighters was Police Lieutenant 'Yorky' Dixon who commanded a 'tiger-squad' including surrendered communist terrorists now fighting on our side. The head Special Branch at State Police HQ had secured vital information of enemy presence in deep jungle a long way up the Jelai River in the Kuala Medang area of the district and Dixon's mission was to locate and intercept. Sadly, in spite of great care, an enemy scout reported their presence and in an ambush Dixon was killed together with two of his patrol. It was my sad duty to command the burial detail in Kuala Lipis of Dixon and two members of his patrol. In tribute to his skill, leadership and courageous service to Malaya, a large deep-jungle fort established a year or so later near Kuala Medang was named 'Fort Dixon'

P 135. In the early '30s John Davis had a predilection for arresting some of the Sultan's wives in Pekan in the State of Pahang on gambling charges. Subsequently he was selected to go to China on a language course as the Sultan did not want him in the State of Pahang. Almost exactly the same thing happened to my predecessor in Pekan in 1953 who arrested the Tengku Bendahara - Court Chamberlain - for allegedly conducting an illegal lottery at the Taman Hiboran amusement park in Pekan which he owned. The Sultan called the Chief Police Officer of Pahang in Kuala Lipis and demanded his immediate transfer from the state of Pahang. At the time I was the CO of the notorious Police District of Triang , a hot-bed of communist terrorist militant activities, and was selected to replace the unfortunate officer in Pekan, a somewhat less volatile district of large rivers and coastline.

P 138. Raja Charles Vyner Brooke was the last of the line of famous Rajas of Sarawak. In the mid-1930s Raja Vyner Brooke paid a visit to Penang and one evening threw a small private dinner party. My father and mother were among the guests. At the conclusion of dinner when Raja Vyner Brooke rose to leave the guests also rose and my mother reached for her evening purse at her place on the table. As she lifted the purse several brightly wrapped after-dinner chocolates rolled out onto the table. Embarrassed, my mother gasped. But the Raja's aide-de-camp who had been sitting next to my mother laughingly provided the explanation. He had been secretly slipping chocolates into my mother's purse during the evening's conversations. So a good laugh was enjoyed by all.

P169. Guy Madoc's experience of prosecuting court cases was identical to mine in Pekan Police District. A great range from simple cases to rape and other violent cases, robbery and operating opium dens. The courthouse was open on all sides for coolness with fans spinning overhead. All this followed hard work with investigations at scenes of crime, arrests and preparation of investigation papers with very limited resources. However, my most fascinating criminal investigation was the murder of a Sikh at a Sikh temple in Batu Pahat Police District. We had the culprit and we had his kirpan, a Sikh dagger. But unfortunately with only half the blade. The sharp, pointed end had snapped off and was missing and after repeated rigorous searches at and near the scene of the crime there was no sign of the blade anywhere. Two days later David Marshall, famous and controversial legal defence counsel and former Chief Minister of Singapore [Lee Kuan Yew's predecessor] arrived in Batu Pahat to discuss the matter of his client's charge and to see the murder weapon. He could hardly hide his delight at observing a blunt blade without any sharp end, and returned to Singapore no doubt elated. However, some ten days later we received an astonishing phone call from the doctor at the local hospital. The brother of the murdered man who had also been stabbed in the back and been stitched up at the hospital had returned complaining of discomfort in his shoulder. When he was X-rayed there on the X-ray picture was the missing sharp end of the dagger imbedded in the shoulder. Mystery solved! When extracted the sharp blade end fitted the murder weapon exactly and the case was 'sewn up' so to speak. A headache for David Marshall and his client. And an addition to Malaysia's record of famous criminal cases.

P176. Bribery. An almost identical case occurred with me when I arrived at my posting in Triang District in Pahang in 1953. On the very first day a case of Johnny Walker Scotch Whisky was delivered to my door. When I asked where it came from I was told that it came from the police canteen contractor. I ordered it sent straight back. The following week the new contract for the police canteen arrived on my desk at the office for renewal. The contractor got his renewal, but on merit, not for anything else!

P 209. The very grand Runnymede Hotel in Penang was the major competing hotel with the Eastern & Oriental Hotel [The E&O]. A little known fact is that it was on the site of Sir Stamford Raffles' first home on the outskirts of Georgetown at the turn of the 19th Century when he was assistant secretary to the Governor of Penang. It was on the waterfront and had a grand view across the Straits to the mainland of Kedah and was named Runnymede. It fell into disrepair long after Sir Stamford Raffles had departed, founded Singapore and returned to England where he died. It is now a military officers' mess.

A few further miscellaneous recollections of early times in Malaya -

Early childhood life in Penang in the 1930s was idyllic with all the colours, aromas and sounds and the ambience of the exotic East. Dangers though did lurk around any corner. When I was four years old I was nearly bitten by a king cobra at the front porch of our house. I was luckily pulled away in time by my mother and the cobra was killed by our Tamil gardener. If bitten death would have followed rapidly.

In the mid-30s in Penang our neighbours were the Wiltshires. He was a police officer, an ASP, and was interned during the Japanese occupation. After the War he became the Commissioner of Police in Singapore. Unfortunately, during his stewardship in 1950 extremely bad rioting broke out following the Hertogh Affair, a religious/ethnic altercation among the Malay Islamic community, resulting in serious loss of property and lives. Wiltshire was held responsible for not controlling the situation and deploying forces adequately to cope with the rapidly moving and changing situation, and dismissed from his post.

In 1937, aged six, I was sent to the Pensionat de Notre Dame convent boarding school in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya. The school was surrounded by deep jungle and the area was the location of Malaya's first tea plantations. The surrounds were very beautiful with rivers and waterfalls. It has now greatly expanded as Malaya's premier hill holiday destination with many hotels. Visitors enjoy the cooler climate as a welcome change from the sapping heat of the lowlands. In the original early years the pioneers curiously adopted a traditional Tudor style of architecture, an example of which is Ye Olde Smoke House Inn, still in operation. Now, with many new building erected, the same mock-Tudor style widely prevails and can be seen everywhere one goes. Curiously, too, while there are Chinese traders, there is a large domination of Indians in the Cameron Highlands, it seems in relation to the main agricultural economy of tea estates, originally inspired and derived from the success of tea growing in the highlands of Assam, in India.

While at boarding school in England in 1939 World War 2 broke out in September. By mid-1940 British forces suffered a humiliating defeat and evacuation from Dunkirk and there was a real threat of invasion by Germany. My parents in Penang arranged for my travel to Penang with some friends. On the voyage across the Atlantic the ship was attacked by a U-boat and struck by a torpedo, fortunately a 'dud' which did not detonate. On my return to Penang I was sent to a boarding school in Perth, Western Australia and during a ship voyage to Singapore for Christmas holidays on 22 November 1941 passed through the area where, unknown to anyone, the German raider, Cormoran, had sunk HMAS Sydney three days earlier on the 19th November. Our ship, the 'Gorgon' was sighted in the distance by lifeboat survivors from the Cormoran. A terrible disaster but not nearly as big a disaster as awaited us in Malaya and Singapore when the Japanese attacked on 8 Dec 1941. On the 9th Dec my mother and I watched in horror from the waterfront of Georgetown in Penang as the Japanese bombed Butterworth on the mainland with huge clouds of black smoke spiraling into the sky from the destroyed oil storage tanks. After repetitive bombing of Georgetown every following day all expatriate women and children were evacuated from the island on the night of 13 December 1941. The crew of the ferry had fled to the hills so survivors of the Prince of Wales and Repulse were brought to Penang from the naval base in Singapore to man the ferries to get us out, then by train to Singapore and by ship to Australia. Having left England in fear of an invasion by Germany I had walked into the Japanese invasion instead! Forever since the expression "Out of the frying pan into the fire" has held a special meaning to me! After the rapid Japanese advance on the mainland had cut off Penang island my father and his troops commandeered a ship in the harbour on the night of 16 December 1941 and got to Singapore. There my father was taken POW and transferred to the "Death Railway" in Thailand where he died in early 1943. A small and curious act occurred at this time. Deeply saddened by the tragic circumstances and on the impending evacuation from Penang on the night of 13th December I scooped up with a tablespoon some earth from our garden and placed it in an empty matchbox tied up with brown paper and string. This matchbox was kept in my journeys across the world until I returned to Penang in December 1952 when I visited our old home and returned the dried earth particles back to their exact original location in 1941. Could it be said that in Penang there is a very small part of the island that the Japanese failed to occupy in Malaya during the Second World War? A strange thought? But nevertheless quite true.

In summation, after completing my education in the UK and serving as a platoon commander in the defence of NATO and then special police training with the Metropolitan Police in London I returned to Malaya in May 1952 as an assistant superintendent of police. I commanded several large police districts in the states of Pahang and Johore and also served in the country's paramount secret service.

During the six years of police work and counter-insurgency warfare against the communist guerillas in the jungles and the secret Min Yuen communist underground cells in the community we finally secured a victory for the free world against communism and the freedom of the peoples of Malaya and Singapore. My recollections of this long conflict are featured in the 2005 book Smashing Terrorism in the Malayan Emergency - The Vital Contribution of the Police and also the BBC one hour television documentary in 2004 in which I appeared - Empire Warriors: 'The Intelligence War'

After leaving the police force I worked in market research and advertising in Singapore and Australia. In 1965/66 while working at Unilever in Sydney I conceived a revolutionary new specialist role in ad agencies with combined skills in marketing, market research, intelligence and advertising, later named the 'planner'. The role fortunately succeeded spectacularly and in due course became adopted by all good ad agencies globally due largely to the UK ad industry where a parallel role had also evolved. However, looking back, for whatever I may have achieved in commerce, nothing could ever match the style of experiences of my life and time in Malaya. I'm sure that the thoughtful reader may understand this sentiment after reading the very excellent 'Tales From The South China Seas.'

British Empire Book
Charles Allen
BBC Books


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