COMMUNISM made its way into Peninsular Malaysia in the 1920s through the efforts of Indonesian agents, such as Tan Malaka, Alimin and Musso.
Its ideas were first formally introduced in Asia in 1914, in Dutch-ruled Indonesia, with the founding of the Indies Social Democratic Association (ISDA), led by the Dutch Marxist and trade unionist, Hendricus Sneevliet.
The association later became the Perserikataan Komunist Indonesia, or Indonesian Communist Party, on May 23, 1920 – the first communist party in Asia.
The China Communist Party (CCP) was not founded until May 1921 and the Indian Communist Party, not until December 1925.
Of the Indonesian agents, Tan Malaka was the most outstanding and impressive. He was the South-East Asian representative of the Moscow-based Communist International (Comintern), and operated widely in Bangkok, Manila, Penang and Singapore. As he successfully evaded arrest, his secret activities won the respect and admiration of Western intelligence officials who described him in their reports as, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”.
Tan Malaka’s dismal assessment of communism’s future in Malaya, in a coded message dated Nov 25, 1925, which was intercepted by British Special Branch, said the agents’ work so far had not been successful among Malays and Indians, and any success could only come from the Chinese “whatever sort of movement it may be”.
On his recommendation, CCP agents were invited over to Malaya to win over Chinese workers and to address Chinese schools and night classes. In 1925 they succeeded in forming an “overseas branch of the CCP”, which later became the Nanyang (South Seas) Communist Party under the leadership of Fu Ta Ching.
It was around this time, too, that CCP agents arrived as teachers and spread their wings in Chinese schools in Sarawak, which joined Malaysia in 1963, and where a Chinese-led communist movement grew but was never acknowledged by the Comintern as being in Malaya. (An amorphous body, the Sarawak Communist Organisation, emerged in the 1960s, launched an uprising in 1962 but disbanded itself in 1972-73.)
The Nanyang Communist Party was the forerunner of the Communist Party of Malaya, which was established in 1930 by the Vietnamese Nguyen Ai Quoc (better known as Ho Chi Minh), who had replaced Tan Malaka as the Comintern representative in South-East Asia.
Ho reportedly criticised the poor record of CCP agents in Malaya, especially their failure to make headway in recruiting Malays and Indians, and urged the CPM to resolve the racial question.
Not a registered body, the CPM worked underground. It was constantly harassed by the British police, which raided its meeting places and printing presses and carried out arrests, detentions and banishments (of those who were Chinese nationals) to disrupt their activities.
The party established new cells in both urban and rural areas, but its support never extended into the Malay and Indian population, making more headway among Chinese workers and their trade unions. Its documents were usually issued in Chinese.
According to British intelligence, its membership for the period 1934-1940 remained around 1,500 to 1,700 owing to its own stringent conditions. This was the same even for the post-World War II period when membership rose slightly. The ratio of Chinese to Malays in communist-front organisations was said to be 15:1 and as high as 50:1 in the CPM itself.
In 1932 and again in 1935, the CPM suffered schisms, which led to purges. This gave the police an opportunity to plant Lai Tek, a British agent, in the party. A Chinese-speaking Vietnamese, he was passed on to the British Special Branch from the French Surete in Saigon and worked his way up to become secretary-general by a claim of Ho Chi Minh’s friendship and support after the latter’s arrest in Hong Kong in 1932.
Lai Tek secretly passed on information to the police, which allowed them to disrupt the organisation. His collaboration continued until the outbreak of war, when he was captured by the Japanese Army and he collaborated with them as well.
Before Malaya fell, he concluded an anti-Japanese front with the British authorities, under which CPM members were trained, armed and sent out to conduct guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines in the last few weeks of the war.
Fortuitously, the CPM thereby acquired a 7,000-strong guerrilla force, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), during the Japanese Occupation as well as British official recognition of the party.
Although Lai Tek collaborated with the Japanese in an extensive destruction of the CPM, he kept the MPAJA intact to assist the British Army. He was keeping his options open.
After the war the party disbanded the MPAJA, but did not relinquish all its arms, adopted a moderate policy of cooperation with the British, scaled down its goal of a “Malayan People’s Republic” to self-government, and, not surprisingly, did not demand independence due to Lai Tek’s continuing role as British agent.
But in 1947, he was unmasked and ousted. He managed to escape with the party’s funds to Hong Kong, but it eventually tracked him down and he was killed.
Post-war industrial unrest, caused by unemployment, low wages, employers’ intransigence and trade union militancy in which communists were involved, culminated in a series of murders of employers and plantation managers, which were blamed on the CPM.
The British administration, unable to control the situation, declared a State Of Emergency, closed down communist-dominated trade unions and arrested their leaders.
The CPM’s rank-and-file scattered underground, and the party issued a call to them and to former MPAJA comrades to take up arms again and flee to the hills and jungles.
Clearly taken by surprise, the CPM’s decision to revolt was made in panic, accelerated by and partly in response to the severity of government action. A month later, the CPM was proscribed.
The declaration of the State of Emergency had far-reaching unintended consequences. It led to draconian Emergency laws, the rise of communalism, and an initial military regime (under General Sir Gerald Templer) to combat communist subversion and terrorism, ethnic urbanisation, the end of colonial rule and the birth and building of a new nation.
But, until it laid down its arms in 1989, the CPM had by-passed the mainstream of politics, nation-building and major developments in Malaysia. It failed to stop the formation of Malaysia, her rapid social and economic development since the May 13, 1969, riots, and Malaysia’s turn to a non-aligned and neutral foreign policy and rapprochement with Soviet Russia and Communist China, which undermined their support of the CPM’s struggle and which led to its isolation and final disarmament and dissolution.
CHEAH BOON KHENG was professor of history at Universiti Sains Malaysia until his retirement, and until recently was a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore. He has written several books, including ‘The Masked Comrades: A Study of the Communist United Front in Malaya’ (1979) and ‘Red Star Over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation, 1941-1946’ (1983).