Memories of the Malayan Emergency


The Che Ahmad Kaya Kampong Bandar family, although not of the higher caste aristocracy – for there were degrees of class even among the Malay bangsawan – lived as friends of Datuks, District Officers and Penggawas (chieftains) within the feudal, structure of Kelantan society in the twenties as had their ancestors before that following their emigration from Petani to Kelantan when Petani became part of Siam sometime in the 19th Century.

Sixty-one years ago yesterday, I was born into the Che Ahmad Kaya Kampong Bandar family who lived in the upstream riverine Kampong Bandar, some 20 miles south of Kota Baru and four miles west of Kok Lanas in a pastoral society without a school or even a madrasah (religious school) except for a Koran class.

My world then could not have offered a secular education. I was tutored early to read the Koran by an uncle, Che Hassan Awang, and to read and write (in both Jawi and romanised Malay) and add, subtract and multiply by my father who had attended a pondok (religious monastery) and taught himself romanised Malay.

Pondok education was an is essentially Isamic and the medium of instruction was and is part Malay and part Arabic. There are still pondok scattered all over Kelantan, Southern Thailand and even Muslim parts of Cambodia.

As there was no school in Kampong Bandar (the village school was established only in 1950), I was despatched to Kota Baru (Padang Garong school) in 1947 and the following year I was selected to go to the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK).

I consider myself lucky to have become the most recognizable figure from Kok Lanas.

My father was called Che Ahmad Kaya Kampong Bandar because he made money from his rubber small-holdings totalling some 30 acres which was then sizeable by rural standards. He also owned sawah (rice fields) and dusun (orchards).

He ran a smoke house and had a licence to buy and sell rubber.

Che Ahmad’s good fortune and “education” impressed his fellow citizens and they made him their leader besides the imam and the penghulu. His house (part brick and part timber) became a station where visiting dignitaries would stop over during their visits to the kampung. One effect of this: I was “discovered” and off I went to Kota Baru for formal schooling.

Summer in New York this year is warm, the heat is still pleasant and bearable. My mood always changes in summer. I tend to become especially idle spending much time day dreaming, resurrecting memories, eating, drinking, reading (rarely) and visiting places and friends and, resting and sleeping.

As I idly read through a long letter from a friend about current issues at home and his postmortem of the 52nd Umno general assembly, I was taken back by his remark that anti-Mahathir forces within the party were waging a guerrilla warfare against him. They used, he claimed, a combination of communist-Islamic tactics of lies, innuendoes, character assassinations, fitnah (slander,) poison letters, half-truths and even inventing, chronicling and peddling fiction. He said he would not be, surprised if they would attempt to (politically) ambush Mahathir next year.

I had not heard nor used the word ambush for a long time. As I tried to conjure up what a political ambush might be and, cracking my brain, my memory raced back to June 16, 50 years ago when ambush was a common word, when the declaration of the Malayan Emergency by the British colonial government in Kuala Lumpur was made.

Wide powers were given that day to the colonial police and to other authorities by Emergency regulations covering four of the most-lawless areas in Malaya following the killing that day of three European rubber planters in Perak. The Emergency powers provided for the death penalty for the unauthorised possession of firearms, ammunition or explosives.

Police could impose curfews (which they often did), close roads (road blocks were common), requisition vehicles or boats and seize seditious documents. The Emergency later covered the whole of Malaya including Singapore. This was the genesis of the Internal Security Act (ISA). Once the British (General Sir Gerald Templer) even closed a town – Tanjong Malim.

I did not know what the Emergency was all about until that evening before lights out (bedtime: 9pm). The prefect in charge of “B” dormitory at the prep school of MCKK, Raja Azman bin Raja Ahmad (then in form three of form four), to about 24 10-year old pupils under his charge that a communist revolt against the government has started in Sungai Siput, some distance from out school and, as a result, we might have to face a rough time ahead (we did not, except that we were made to register ourselves and given identity cards).

Like most of my contemporaries, we did not lose much sleep over the announcement simply because none of us, I am sure, knew the significance of what was said until months later nor do I recall any one who knew who or what were communists and what they stood for.

Raja Azman was our ambassador in the Soviet Union in the seventies and retired as High Commissioner in London in the early eighties. He now lives quietly with his wife and a devoted daughter in Petaling Jaya. Who would have thought then that my prefect would be the Malaysian ambassador to the Soviet Union and I to be falsely accused of being a communist and detained for five years?

Indeed, then, even merdeka had rarely crossed the mind of our fathers and grandfathers.

The insurrection – “the Emergency”- the British euphemism for guerrilla war fare was a protracted three phase campaign by the Chinese-led and Chinese-majority Malayan Communist Party (MCP) which lasted 12 years. The three phases, following Mao Zedong’s successful patterns, were a terror campaign, raiding and killing European planters, tin miners and police officers; destabilizing the government by depriving it of effective control thus losing the confidence of the rakyat and faith in their colonial rulers; seizing control of villages and towns and turning them “into liberated areas” in order ‘to encircle bigger towns leaving the federal capital, Kuala Lumpur, for the final assault.

The communists, whom the British usually described as bandits, always claimed they were fighting “to rid the British imperialists and their lackeys, especially the group of feudalist and other running dogs headed by the Malay Sultans” and replace them With a Malayan People’s (Chinese) republic in which, I suppose, every one became inferior except for the communists.

In the communist scheme of things the “backward Malays” played little role, after all the MCP was, as is, a Chinese outfit. As the Emergency progressed, the MCP’s influence grew and the Malays whom the MCP was supposed to win over became progressively nationalistic when they realised that if the MCP won, their country would become no more and no less than a Chinese satellite state.

The 10,000 to 12,000 strong MCP guerrilla force often attacked the civilians and towns indiscriminately and at random with a view to making the rakyat lose faith in the government’s ability to maintain law and order.

The British who had been very dismissive and callous towards the Malays were forced to get Malay cooperation to combat the menace posed by the MCP and the Malays, not unsurprisingly, rallied behind them not so much because they condoned the British policy, rather that they saw, like the Japanese occupation, that the Emergency would hasten independence in which they would play a major role.

Dato’ Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia’s Special Envoy to the United Nations


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