PETALING JAYA: Thanks to the local history syllabus, Malaysians, both young and old, have a basic understanding of Malaya’s Emergency period.
Most people would say that the Emergency was an attempt by the Malayan Communist Party to seize control over British Malaya and create a communist state.
Simple and straight to the point, right? Not so, said one local historian who believes the conflict was not so morally clear-cut.
Academic and professor Gary Lit Ying Loong said he believed that the ugly truth of this tumultuous period must be reviewed. “The Emergency was probably the longest-running war in the world at the time, from 1948 to 1960,” he said.
And what is this ugly truth? Lit said many Chinese new villages remain scattered throughout Malaysia, their buildings often ramshackle and their inhabitants destitute.
“When you talk about ‘new’, people think of something shiny, glamorous, a paradise.” In reality, he said, these new villages were heavily-guarded concentration camps, fenced off with multiple layers of barbed wire under constant surveillance of armed guards.
“The Briggs Plan, by General Harold Briggs, was probably the biggest relocation exercise at the time, with about 600,000 people being moved into these new villages, or concentration camps,” he explained.
Their residents were often innocent civilians who were uprooted from their comfortable lives to stay in an unfamiliar, hostile environment. “They had to face daily harassment and deprivation, restrictions, curfews and body checks.”
These villages were often infiltrated by British informants, causing a sense of fear and paranoia even among neighbours. “Sometimes, these spies didn’t even give accurate information. They served their own selfish purpose. They could give wrong information and innocent people suffered.”
This was something Lit’s late father saw with his own eyes as villagers falsely accused were severely punished for alleged wrongdoings.
It was a dark period in Malayan history, said Lit, where one wrong word could have frightening consequences.
Lit found that the British’s claim of winning the hearts and minds of Malayans were far from the truth. Instead, the British weakened, even destroyed, the “soul and spirit of the people”.
According to him, female villagers were subjected to harrowing treatment at checkpoints. “These poor girls faced the danger of having their modesty insulted as male guards would conduct body searches on them.”
One of his aunts, said Lit, declared the checkpoints to be gates of hell and compared the guards to the mythological Chinese guardians of hell, Ngau Tau and Maa Min (Ox-Head and Horse-Face).
While the new villages were supposed to be well-built settlements with modern amenities, Lit said that this was only the case for a few model villages.
Lit said that British officials and their reporters often toured these model villages, staying ignorant about the deplorable conditions in the majority of the other villages.
“Many of these villagers had no proper water, sewage systems or electricity. If they were lucky, they had kerosene lamps.”
Some villagers were even killed while breaking curfew, said Lit, for the “crime” of using the outhouse at night.
These curfews also resulted in poor health, he said, and possibly, some deaths were related to them.
One forgotten story of the Emergency, however, was the use of Agent Orange, a deadly biological weapon, on Malayan soil.
“Mind you, Agent Orange was not first used in Vietnam by the Americans, but by the British in Malaya.” he said. “British General Templer ordered the use of Agent Orange in Malaya!”
Lit explained that under General Templer’s orders, the British used Agent Orange to destroy the food supplies and forest cover of the insurgents.
In the name of public safety, Lit has called on the Malaysian government to investigate the areas where the effects of the neurotoxin may still linger. “The British Empire may be gone, but the consequences of that legacy are unfolding until today. Every Malaysian is a potential victim.”
In 1948, 24 unarmed civilians, accused of being communists, were killed by British troops in the Batang Kali Massacre.
Despite British courts later ruling that Britain was responsible for the massacre, no one was ever brought to justice.
Like the victims of the massacre, the new villagers deserve to have their stories told and remembered, he said.
“We need to remember the struggles and sacrifices the new villagers went through. They had their lives turned upside down. History has done them a disservice,” he said, adding that more must be done to bring awareness to the sufferings of those who lived in the concentration camps under the British colonial administration.