Saturday Snippet: the Malayan Emergency, and what it can teach us about today’s American Emergency


The signs of impending disruption, civil unrest, even a renewed attempt at secession in some states, are all around us.  We’re seeing our formerly United States torn by identity politics, setting groups against each other instead of working together to achieve a united future.  Our Founding Fathers would be aghast, and rightly so.  They had united the nation to achieve independence.  Our current powers that be are doing their best to divide our nation – and, in the process, all of us stand to lose our independence, our value as individual human beings.  They want to make us all cogs in the oligarchical machine.

This has been a tactic of Communism and its extremist offshoots for more than a century.  By provoking dissent and division, they can take advantage of the subsequent upheaval to seize power – and once they seize it, they never let go of it willingly or democratically.  The Biblical warning that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” remains as true today (and as applicable to groups as small as families to as large as nations) as it ever was.  It’s a tactic we’re seeing in our midst today.  Few people realize the truth (openly admitted by its leaders) that Black Lives Matter was founded on Marxist and Communist principles, and operates according to them to this day.  It’s not the only such group working to divide us.

One of the very best analyses of how Communists tried to “divide and rule” a nation is the late Noel Barber‘s classic book “The War of the Running Dogs“.

It’s a political, social and military history of the Malayan Emergency from 1948-1960, when Chinese Communist-inspired terrorists and community organizers (seen that term anywhere else recently?) tried to destroy, and thereafter take over, what had been a patchwork quilt of many communities, all living in relative harmony.  It’s an enthralling read, not just in terms of history, but from the perspective of how the groups concerned had to come together to resist attempts to “divide and rule” them.  In the end, the Communist insurgency created a stronger, more united Malaya.

This morning I’d like to bring you part of the opening chapter of the book, not only to set the scene for what I hope you’ll go on to read for yourself, but to illustrate Noel Barber’s exceptional descriptive abilities.  His many books have given me pleasure from my teens until today, and remain standouts in their fields.

Above all else, and from the earliest moments of history, one primordial force has dominated the life of every man, woman and child in Malaya – the gentle Malays themselves, the industrious Chinese, the listless Indians, the perspiring British alike. It is the jungle; the jungle which none can escape, the jungle which reaches to the back of every compound, to the back of every mind; the jungle which blots out the sun over four-fifths of Malaya’s 50,850 square miles. Harsh and elemental, implacable to all who dare to trifle with its suffocating heat or hissing rains, the jungle alone has remained untamed and unchanged.

Here the tall trees with their barks of a dozen hues, ranging from marble white to scaly greens and reds, thrust their way up to a hundred feet or even double that height, straight as symmetrical cathedral pillars, until they find the sun and burst into a green carpet far, far above; trees covered with tortuous vines and creepers, some hanging like the crazy rigging of a wrecked schooner, some born in the fork of a tree, branching out in great tufts of fat green leaves or flowers; others twisting and curling round the massive trunks, throwing out arms like clothes-lines from tree to tree. In places the jungle stretches for miles at sea level – and then it often degenerates into marsh, into thick mangrove swamp that can suck a man out of sight in a matter of minutes. In the heart of the country the giant trees cover the great north-south mountain range that rises to 7,000 feet, virtually bisecting Malaya from north to south.

In an evergreen world of its own that will never know the stripped black branches of winter, elephants, tigers, bears and deer roam the thick undergrowth; flying foxes, monkeys and parrots chatter and screech in its high places; crocodiles lie motionless in the swamp; a hundred and thirty varieties of snake slither across the dead leaves on wet ground; the air is alive with the hum of mosquitoes ferocious enough to bite through most clothing; and on the saplings and ferns struggling to burst out of the undergrowth thousands of fat, black, bloodsucking leeches wait patiently for human beings to brush against them. Only on the jungle fringe is there colour and light and a beauty unmarred by fear. Here, when the sun comes out after a tropical shower, thousands of butterflies hang across the heat-hazed paths in iridescent curtains. Brightly coloured tropical birds dart like jewels between clumps of bamboo, giant ferns, ground orchids, flame of the forest trees, bougainvillaea, wild hibiscus, in a countryside heavy with the scent of waxen-like frangipani blossoms, where the occasional monkey watches suspiciously from the heights of a tulip tree with its clusters of poppy-red flowers.

This is the jungle and this was, for twelve years, to be the battlefield for a strange and terrible war, as relentless and as cruel as the jungle itself; one in which Communism for the first time in history launched an all-out guerrilla war with the avowed aim of conquering Malaya for the disciples of Mao Tse-tung.

Malaya is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Pear-shaped, hanging like a five-hundred-mile-long pendant below the narrow Kra isthmus which links it to Thailand – its only land frontier – it is a little larger than England without Wales, a little smaller than the State of Florida. To the south lies Singapore and, below the equator, the scattered spice islands of Indonesia; to the west the still, hot waters of the Indian Ocean stretch to Africa; to the east the China Sea swirls westwards to the Philippines and the Pacific, northwards until its breakers dash against the shores of countries whose very names are evocative of blood spilled in racial wars – Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea.

In 1948 Malaya was not only beautiful; it had achieved a rare distinction: it was a contented paradise in which men of many skins and creeds lived in harmony, enjoying the highest standard of living in all Asia as the country moved quietly but firmly – and without any strife – to the day when it would be granted independence from the British who had ruled it for nearly a century.

Perhaps it was the prosperity brought about by the booming rubber and tin markets that made it easier for people of many races to live cheek by jowl; perhaps it was the catalytic qualities of the British, who (whatever their faults) loved the country passionately and on the whole ruled it wisely. Perhaps the reasons went deeper – to the fundamental differences in outlook and aspirations of each race, so markedly different that no one was likely to tread on anyone else’s toes; to religions and cultures so widely divergent that Malays, Chinese and Indians – whether politicians, businessmen or rubber tappers – could work together by day and then return each evening to their separate communities, to their own ways of life.

The Mohammedan Malays, whose country this was, numbered just over half the population of 5,300,000 and were distinguished by qualities of dignity rare in this world, by impeccable manners, by love of an easy-going life and consequently a lack of interest in making money. To the ordinary Malay, life revolved round his kampong, preferably near the sea or the brown rivers that laced the countryside, where all a man needed was a plot of land. Palms produced oil, roofing, coconuts – and even strong drink, for when the juice of the coconut bark was squeezed out, the fermenting toddy became as lethal as whisky. A paddy field provided enough rice; breadfruit, golden breast-shaped papayas clustering beneath parasol-shaped treetops, the evil-smelling but nutritious durian, grew in every kampong. On the roadside wild ginger, cinnamon, figs waited to be picked. A dazzling array of tropical fruits – mango, rambutan, dikku, pomelo, starfruit – flourished in every compound, while the waving green wands of sago formed a fence – if such a thing were needed – to mark off one man’s property from his neighbours. Fish was so abundant in the sea or rivers that the simplest traps enabled a household to eat well without the chore of actually fishing. And if a man wanted a little pocket money, then a few rubber trees provided him with enough strips of latex, for which there was always a ready demand.

For the most part the Malays accepted British authority with polite indifference and reserved their reverence – and that is not too strong a word – for their Sultans. These were the rulers of the nine Malay States which formed the basis of the Federation of Malaya and though they were ‘assisted’ by British Advisers, each Sultan, despite his limited powers, still maintained a royal court magnificent in its oriental splendour. For all formal occasions, the Sultan sat under a giant state umbrella (a royal monopoly), immobile since immobility was a sign of divinity, his person so sacred that it was forbidden to touch him. Around him lay his insignia of office handed down over the centuries – the jewel-studded kris, or dagger, the seal of state, the sceptre, the betel box; while in front of him at formal levees, vast throngs gathered to see the chiefs of his state arrive to make their formal submission of loyalty, each chief approaching the dais, sitting cross-legged, laying his hands on the earth in front of him, and drawing his body forward painfully until he reached the throne.

Of course the Sultans with their panoply had no more political significance than the Queen making her ceremonial speech at the Opening of Parliament, but the Sultans took good care that their subjects should not forget this was their country. In private, however, they were very different. Educated, sophisticated, they were also fun-loving. Indeed, the Sultan of Johore, the most southerly state in Malaya, was so wealthy that he dined off gold plate, gave £500,000 to the British in World War Two – and was so fond of the ladies that the Governor once had to ask him to limit his ‘raids’ on the taxi-girls of the local Great World dance hall.

Only one indigenous race in Malaya refused to bow to the power of the Sultans: the Aborigines. They had never been counted but by 1948 they were estimated at between fifty and a hundred thousand. Anthropologists believe that some tribes were descended from Indo-Chinese who migrated southwards a thousand years ago. Shy and gentle, they dwelt in unexplored areas, a pale brown race of long-haired people left alone to live; the men naked but for a loincloth, the women dressed in sarongs of bark. Expert with their bamboo blowpipes, they hunted small game, often lived in communal houses built on piles driven into the edge of a river near their plots of land. Once they had worked out the soil – on which they grew rice, vegetables, sugar-cane – they moved on.

Mostly animists who believed that every object from a stone to a stick had its own living spirit, they were more advanced than the Aborigines in Australia and New Guinea and could on occasion be quite hard-headed. Despite the fact that they never ate any of the pigs, chickens or dogs reared in their village (because they believed it would be like eating a member of their own family), they happily traded their dogs, pigs or chickens for those raised in a neighbouring village, so that each settlement could have a feast without a twinge of conscience. But all attempts to ‘civilize’ them had failed.

No contrast could have been more extravagant than the regal splendour or the simple lives of the Malays with the lives of the two million industrious Chinese, many born in Malaya but still aliens, their deepest loyalties being rooted in China, which they had never seen but from which they had brought their women, religion and customs. Certainly it was the Chinese (who had come to Malaya in the sixth century) who provided the industry and wealth to make Malaya prosper.

Every city, almost every village in Malaya, had its Chinatown, and as one turned a corner from the prim British government buildings or a padang with Malays playing their favourite sport of badminton, it was like turning into another country, another world. The easygoing walk of the Malays gave way to the bustle of Chinese hawkers loping along, their food containers dangling from bamboo poles arched across bony shoulders. Whole families – the men in vests and shorts – pecked at their meals with chopsticks on the street kerbs under canopies of coloured laundry hanging from poles jutting out of the windows above. Black-haired, black-eyed children, like exquisite dolls, played ball on the roadside, dodging the taxis, trishaws, bicycles and the large American air-conditioned cars of their richer compatriots. In the shops, lacquered ducks as flat as boards, birds’ nests, sharks’ fins, hung from every window, while the cheaper restaurants blared with neon signs and music. Even the smells changed. In ‘Malayan’ Malaya, they had seemed to be of the earth, of fruits, in Chinatown they were compounded of spices and the continual frying of assorted lumps of scraggy meat which had hung, covered by flies, for days in the oppressive heat. This was the hectic frenzy of every Chinatown in every settlement in Malaya. They were foreign enclaves living entirely separate lives from the Malays, rarely inter-marrying, but each race tolerating the foibles and whims of the other – for while the Mohammedans were horrified at the thought of eating pork, never worked on Fridays, and fasted at Ramadan, the Chinese reared and ate pigs, worked seven days a week if necessary, and celebrated every festival by guzzling all they could eat – those who could afford it, for 600,000 of the Chinese in Malaya belonged to a rather different category.

These were the squatters, families who lived in ramshackle home-made huts on the jungle fringe, on land to which they had no title, diligently toiling on plots where they raised pigs, ducks, chickens, and grew vegetables. The number of squatters had increased alarmingly during the Japanese Occupation as starving Chinese fled the cities to try and eke out a living as far removed from the Japanese as possible.

They had nothing in common with the West’s idea of squatters. They were not migrants, nor were they motivated by antipathy to the government. They had just lived here for so many years – and now numbered one out of every ten in Malaya – that no government had even dared to consider ordering them to move.

In the suburbs of some cities the scene abruptly changed. The poles of washing vanished, the bustle, the noise, the frenetic pace of Chinatown gave way to the languid world of the Indian, for half a million Indians lived in Malaya, providing a floating labour force, mostly on the rubber estates. They came mainly from the Madras area, spoke Tamil (and were therefore usually called Tamils), and earned twice as much as they could have done in their own impoverished country. They worked, they saved until they had enough to return home and buy a plot of land, and meanwhile they were absorbed into the polyglot fusion of races that made up the country, living quietly in areas where the streets were filled with men in flapping shirt tails, often squatting on their hams as they talked, the women sauntering by in vivid saris, the pavements daubed with the scarlet stains of betel nut, the air choked with the scent of chillies and hot curries cooking.

And then there were the British, whose influence had started when Raffles of the East India Company took over a trading post in Penang in 1805, and who ‘acquired’ the vital island of Singapore in 1824. After that, British influence spread rapidly across the country of Malaya, and though the Sultans always retained certain rights and privileges, the country was in effect British by 1874.

Now, the British numbered 12,000 – members of the Malayan Civil Service, policemen, rubber planters, tin miners, doctors, businessmen – all with a prestige slowly declining in the postwar resurgence of Asia; but each one of them in love with a wondrous country as diverse as its people, and, to the best of their ability, putting Malaya on its feet after the Japanese Occupation. By 1948 tin was booming and so was rubber – natural rubber which had been grown originally from seedlings smuggled out of Brazil, germinated at Kew Gardens, and which now supplied more than half the world’s needs – of which ironically Communist Russia was in 1948 Malaya’s largest customer.

This was Malaya in 1948, a country in the distant marches of the Commonwealth, so beautiful that no man could wish to live in a better one; and this was the country to which violence, terrorism and war came at twenty-five minutes past eight on the morning of June 16.

I hope you’ll go on to read the rest of the book for yourself.  It’s very affordable in e-book format, and not too expensive in a paper edition.  I regard it as one of the classic studies of terrorism and Communist tactics, one that applies to many other countries where similar struggles were endured.  Certainly, in my involvement with anti-Communist efforts in a number of African countries, it provided significant and ongoing insight into what the enemy was likely to do, and helped me and others figure out how to counter them.  Over and above that, it’s so well-written that it’s a pleasure to read, as I hope the opening chapter above illustrates.

Who knows?  It might help those of us seeking to stem the tide of totalitarianism, identity politics and oligarchy in this country, too.



  1. This looks like a good book, thank you! And the kindle version was certainly affordable enough to just grab. I do enjoy these snippets as introduction to books I might never see otherwise.

  2. The Founding Fathers united the nation by driving out the Tories who moved on to Canada, the Bahamas, or back to the U.K.. George Washington had to vouch for some of his spies who were in danger of being set upon as Tories after the peace.

    It looks like a good book as to how to successfully counteract a Communist insurgency as opposed to how the French and the U.S. failed in Indochina.

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