Robert Fisk’s World: Malaya 1948: another shameful episode in Britain's colonial past

Some 24 innocent villagers were killed by Scots Guards in a pre-Vietnam My Lai

Share
Related Topics

Tham Yong died 11 days ago. I bet there's not a single reader who remembers that name, unless they happen to live in Malaysia or, like me this week, happened to be in Kuala Lumpur and to read the disgracefully weak-kneed report of Tham Yong's demise in the capital's equally disgraceful daily newspapers.

A more grovelling, politically neutered, slovenly form of journalism outside Malaysia it would be difficult to discover, and it was typical that The Straits Times, once a serious journal of record (albeit of the colonial variety) decided to report the 78-year-old woman's death from advanced cancer on page 18.

A bit odd. Because Tham Yong was the only surviving adult witness to the massacre of 24 innocent Chinese Malay villagers by 14 soldiers of the Scots Guards during what the British called the "Malayan Emergency". This was when, in one of their very few successes in a guerrilla campaign, the British crushed the fighters of the Communist Party of Malaya who were struggling for 12 years to win what they called the "Anti-British War".

The slaughter at the village of Batang Kali – the victims were rubber tappers and tin mine labourers – took place on 12 December 1948. Our colonial authorities insisted that the unarmed Chinese Malayan men were guerrillas who had tried to escape their captors and, in the giveaway words of a British police officer in Singapore, "the Scots Guards had been well placed, and the bandits just ran into their guns. Everyone was killed".

Not quite. One villager played dead and escaped the massacre, which was described by The Daily Telegraph's staff correspondent at the time as "the biggest success in any one day's operation in one area since the declaration of the emergency". In fact, one villager was executed the night before the murders; on the following morning, the Scots Guards soldiers shot the rest in the back at close range. This little pre-Vietnam My Lai has long been acknowledged. The People broke the story in Britain in 1970. Several soldiers admitted they lied under oath at the original British inquiry – which had dismissed all charges against the Scots Guards.

Ironically, one of the best accounts of the killings comes from Chin Peng, the still living communist Chinese Malay guerrilla commander, who went to London to research British government documents at Kew. In his huge memoirs (My Side of History, published in Singapore), he recalls the extraordinary Second World War resistance movement he ran with British agents – one of them was Spencer Chapman of The Jungle Is Neutral fame – and of how he was turned into the "Butcher of Malaya" by the Brits the moment he turned against his wartime colonial masters.

In Kew, Chin – real name, Ong Boon Hua – diligently unearthed the records of Malcolm MacDonald, Britain's former colonial secretary and son of Ramsay, who turned out to have been quite an unpleasant man, stabbing successive British officials in the back after he became commissioner general for the Malayan Union and Singapore. I interviewed old MacDonald in 1978 – four years before his death – about his pre-Second World War handover of the Irish treaty ports to De Valera, and he seemed a gentle old man (they often do) as he fussed with a large teapot in his Sevenoaks sitting room. Churchill never forgave MacDonald for giving back the ports to the Irish three years before the start of the Battle of the Atlantic, and hated him almost as much for his Arab sympathies in Palestine before the war. At one point, MacDonald glowered at me, waved his finger, and said: "But you are living now in Beirut because I failed."

MacDonald's nemesis in Malaya, it turns out – and Chin's, too, by his own account – was General Sir Gerald Templer, the ruthless, communist-hating British hero of the Second World War – he was wounded in the 6th Armoured Division -- who was appointed to run the anti-insurgency war in Malaya. He was one of the supporters of Britain's outrageous security laws – inherited from his days oppressing the Jews and Arabs of Palestine as the War Office's 1946-48 director of military intelligence. Templer's legacy is Kuala Lumpur's Internal Security Act, which continues to neuter all Malaysian political life to this day.

I was delighted to discover from Chin that one of Templer's greatest hates was Louis Heren, South-east Asia correspondent of The Times, whom Templer slanderously described as "typical of all communist muck" after the brilliant Heren had exposed the humiliating failure of a British military operation in Malaya. Under Templer's poisonous influence, the British government tried to persuade Sir William Haley, editor of The Times, to move Heren – which Haley refused to do. And thank God for that – because more than a quarter of a century later, it was Heren – now foreign editor of The Times – who gave Master Fisk the job of Middle East correspondent on the same paper, encouraging me to accept the post because it would be "a splendid opportunity for you, with good stories, lots of travel and sunshine". I still sometimes tell the ghost of the Great Louis that he was right – especially about the sunshine.

Yes, the shade of Palestine – or "Palestine" as we must call it now – darkens so many of our lives, including, indirectly, Chin Peng. Now 85, he originally fled to China and lives today in exile in Thailand because the Malaysian government, with whom he signed a peace treaty, refuses to allow him home on the grounds that he can't produce his certificate of birth in Malaysia's Perak state; impossible, of course, because – as the Malaysian government well knows – the state's documentation was destroyed in the Second World War. The Internal Security Act, from Palestine to Templer's Malaya to Malaysia, allows the structure of occupation to continue to operate.

Up to 10,000 died in the Malayan "emergency", but even the Brits are still frightened of it. After the BBC took statements in 1992 from British soldiers who acknowledged the massacre at Batang Kali, there were calls for another public inquiry. No hope, of course. When the 15 surviving families of the dead sent the Queen a submission in 2008 – pointing out that the British soldiers' evidence of the massacre has never been disputed – the British high commissioner to Malaysia, Boyd McCleary, replied to them with Blair-like oiliness. "In view of the findings of two previous investigations ... and in the absence of any new (sic) evidence, regrettably we see no reason to reopen or start a fresh investigation." Not much point in Boyd trotting off to chat to old Tham Yong, of course, because she's now in her grave. "Regrettably", indeed!

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor’s Letter: The Sussex teenager killed fighting in Syria

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Actor Zac Efron  

Keep your shirt on Zac – we'd all be better for it

Howard Jacobson
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit