Communist Party of Malaya
The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), also known as the Malayan Communist Party, was a political party active in Singapore, the Federation of Malaya and later Malaysia. It was founded in 1930 and dissolved in 1989.
The origin of the CPM can be traced to Singapore sometime between late 1927 and early 1928 when a group of communists from the Communist Party of China set up the Nanyang Communist Party. In 1929, the Far East Bureau of the Communist International (Comintern) – an organisation controlled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which sought to spread communism globally – decided that the party needed to be reorganised. The Third Representatives’ Conference of the Nanyang Communist Party was then held secretly in Singapore in early 1930. This resulted in the dissolution of the Nanyang Communist Party and the Nanyang General Labour Union, as well as the formation of the CPM and the Malayan General Labour Union (MGLU) in April 1930. The CPM’s primary responsibilities were to install the communist order in Singapore and Malaya as well as to spread the ideology to Thailand and the Dutch East Indies.1
The CPM had an unfortunate start. In June 1931, a senior Comintern agent that was sent to Singapore was arrested by the police, which led to the arrest of prominent members of the CPM in Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Two years later, however, the Comintern managed to re-establish itself and resume contact with the CPM.2
Through the MGLU, the CPM infiltrated trade unions and exploited the labourers’ grievances. It engineered numerous strikes in 1936 and 1937, most notably at the coal mine in Batu Arang, Selangor, in March 1937 which saw some 3,000 Chinese workers going on strike. The clash with the police resulted in one dead, four wounded and many important members of the CPM and MGLU arrested. Subsequently, the strict actions by the authorities, couple with improving working conditions and wages in the labour sector, led to the decline of the CPM’s appeal.3
In order to restore confidence in the party, the CPM changed its strategy by focusing on anti-Japanese sentiments. The party established the Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese National Salvation Association, which saw the participation of many labours. The approach was successful, particularly after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War; by June 1937, the MGLU had become the largest subsidiary organisation under the CPM.4
Around this period, Lai Teck, a Vietnamese, joined the CPM. Formerly an agent of the French Intelligence before his cover was blown, he was recruited by the British to work for the Singapore Special Branch in 1934 or 1935. Lai Teck quickly won over the party with his Comintern credentials and organisation abilities, and rose through the ranks to become the CPM’s secretary-general in April 1938.5
World War II
At the outbreak of World War II, the CPM followed the general international communists’ line of opposing Western democracies and supporting Germany. It intensified its propaganda against the Malayan government and engineered further strikes in Singapore in 1940. In July, however, the Communist Party of China reached an agreement with the Kuomintang government to put aside their conflict and rally together against Japanese aggression. It instructed the CPM to cease its opposition against the British authorities and concentrate instead on anti-Japanese agitation.6
On 8 December 1941, the Japanese invaded Malaya. A few days later, the CPM offered their cooperation to the British authorities on condition that all CPM prisoners would be released. The British accepted the offer, and CPM members were then trained in military warfare and mobilised to defend Singapore. In Singapore, the communists formed the largest group of military volunteers. After Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and British troops were taken prisoners, the CPM was left to carry on alone in their wartime resistance against the Japanese. It organised its guerrilla army into units and was renamed Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). The MPAJA continued to oppose and sabotage the occupying forces, albeit with little success due to the lack of food, capable leadership and training.7
In early March 1942, Lai Teck was arrested by the Kempeitai (Japanese military police) and was then turned and recruited to work as their agent. After his release in end April, he rejoined the CPM as its secretary-general. He betrayed the CPM multiple times during the course of the Japanese Occupation. One of the most severe raids took place at the Batu Caves secret conference in September 1942, where many senior officials from the CPM and the MPAJA were killed and arrested. The success of the Kempeitai’s raids soon raised the alarms that there might be traitors within the CPM itself. Despite its attempts to identify and remove informers, however, Lai Teck’s betrayal was not uncovered and he continued as the party’s leader throughout the war.8
In 1943, Chin Peng, who was groomed as Lai Teck’s second-in-command, was appointed as a member of the CPM’s Central Standing Committee, a member of the Military High Command and a representative of the MPAJA to liaise with Force 136 officers. Together with Lai Teck, he met with Force 136, a special unit under the British South East Asia Command (SEAC), to assist with liberating Malaya. In return for arms, money, training and supplies to fight against the Japanese, the MPAJA cooperated and accepted orders from the SEAC. Despite the ostensible cooperation, the CPM made their own preparation to rebuild the MPAJA and seize power in Malaya once the Japanese were defeated. In April 1945, the CPM directed the MPAJA leaders to form secret units that were to hide in the jungle and remain incognito, whereas units that had been in contact with the British would remain “open”, or publicly known. The secret army was tasked to collect as much arms as possible to fight against the Japanese as well as the British in the event that a people’s republic was not established to their liking after the war.9
The Japanese Occupation ended on 2 September 1945. The CPM and the MPAJA quickly consolidated their position by setting up committees to run the local administration in the towns under their charge until the British troops returned. Although some of the CPM members were keen to overthrow the returning British, Lai Teck encouraged the CPM and the MPAJA to cooperate with them as he felt that it was not the appropriate time to start an armed struggle. The party announced its intention to work with the British on 27 August 1945 and the publicly known units of the MPAJA were demobilised in December the same year.10 The British allowed CPM to operate openly and also provided MPAJA guerrillas with money in recognition for their efforts during the war. On 6 January 1946, Chin Peng was awarded the Order of the British Empire, although this was later withdrawn when he launched an armed revolt in 1948.11
The CPM resumed their efforts to overthrow the British and establish a communist-controlled people’s republic. It gained substantial clout in the trade unions through the communist-controlled General Labour Union, which had been set up in October 1945 in Singapore and in all Malayan States. The CPM organised a large demonstration in Singapore in February 1946, and engineered strikes in Malaya. The British government then arrested many of the communist leaders in the unions, causing the CPM tremendous losses. In addition, the government introduced new legislation to reduce opportunities for the CPM to hold executive positions in trade unions, further crippling the party. The CPM itself also faced a period of internal strife. Lai Teck’s duplicity had been discovered and he later absconded with party funds in March 1947. Chin Peng, who had been Lai Teck’s right-hand man, was elected the new secretary-general the same year.12
The CPM carried out acts of violence and intimidation in April and May 1948, which intensified as the weeks passed. On 16 June 1948, three British planters were murdered in Perak. In response, the British government declared a state of emergency in Perak and Johor that same day. A state of emergency was subsequently declared in Singapore on 24 June, and the CPM was declared an illegal society on 23 July.13 The CPM remobilised the MPAJA and named it the Malayan People’s Anti-British Army (MPABA). The group was later renamed the Malayan Races Liberation Army in February 1949 in a bid to gain wider support from the Malays and Indians.14
Many CPM members went into hiding or were transferred to the MPABA in the jungles of Malaya following the imposition of Emergency. In Singapore, the CPM’s front organisations, such as the Singapore Federation of Trade Unions and the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions, were banned under the new Societies Ordinance and Trade Union Ordinance. Despite that, the CPM continued to infiltrate trade unions, student bodies as well as cultural and rural organisations, and was able to capitalise on industrial disputes and unpopular government policies to foment unrest. The CPM also carried out numerous acts of violence and sabotage, including the attempted assassination of then Governor of Singapore Franklin Gimson. In 1955, the Rendel Constitution paved the way for the CPM to enter politics in Singapore. The People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party were believed to have been penetrated by the CPM. However, attempts to capture political power by the communists were stymied by the security crackdown known as Operation Coldstore in 1963.15
The armed struggle, on the other hand, was beginning to stall. The CPM had not only underestimated the British, but their terror tactics had also alienated many people from their cause.16 Under the leadership of British High Commissioner and director of operations Gerald Templer from 1952 to 1954, government forces gained the upper hand against the communists. Templer enforced the resettlement of the Chinese squatters, thereby depriving the insurgents of support, food, money and information. More importantly, he embarked on a psychological campaign to win the people’s support, specifically the rural Chinese. Templer portrayed the government to be a provider for the people as it improved their living conditions and removed restrictions at designated areas that were no longer under the threat of the Malayan Races Liberation Army so that the people could live normally. In addition, Templer personally made numerous trips to visit the grassroots and attend to their requests. Templer’s tenure is said to be the turning point in the Malayan Emergency; by the time he left Malaya, it was clear that the communists would not be able to regain their foothold and succeed in their revolt.17
Eventually, the CPM realised their armed struggle was failing as the Federation of Malaya would achieve its independence, not by their efforts but by the peaceful negotiations of the elected political leaders. This new situation removed the CPM’s appeal of being a champion and saviour of the Malayan people. Believing that their position might be redeemed by reaching an agreement with the government, the CPM organised a peace talk in Baling, Kedah, on 28 and 29 December 1955. The meeting was attended by Chin Peng, Rashid Maidin and Chen Tien from the CPM, and Tunku Abdul Rahman and David Marshall – then the chief ministers of the Federation of Malaya and Singapore respectively. Chin Peng’s terms to end the war included recognition of the CPM by the Malayan government, assurance that none of its members would be detained and investigated, and that they would be free the moment they surrendered. However, both chief ministers rejected the demands and the negotiation failed.18
By the end of 1958, the CPM had completely withdrawn its armed units to South Thailand. On 31 July 1960, the Malayan government officially lifted the state of emergency. By then, the 12-year conflict had killed and wounded around 8,000 civilians and security personnel.19
Despite the setbacks, the CPM persisted in its quest to capture political power in peninsular Malaya. Believing that the Soviet Union and China were growing in strength, the CPM declared its return to armed revolt in June 1968. It re-established assault units in the Malaysian jungles, while underground groups emerged in Singapore and Malaysia to direct acts of violence and subversion. Between 1969 and 1976, there were 22 incidents of arson and 11 bombings by the CPM and their supporters in Singapore, while more deadly attacks and assassinations were carried out in Malaysia.20
The 1960s also saw internal conflict within the CPM, resulting in two breakaway factions: Communist Party of Malaya Revolutionary Front, which was formed in 1970, and the Communist Party of Malaya Marxist-Leninist, in 1974.21
The government of the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the government of Malaysia in 1974. This gradually reduced the Communist Party of China’s support for the CPM. Eventually, the CPM leadership in China began to seek peace terms. The CPM threat came to a formal end with the signing of the Hat Yai Peace Agreement on 2 December 1989.22
1. J. H. Brimmell, A Short History of the Malayan Communist Party (Singapore: D. Moore, 1956), 10–11 (Call no. RCLOS 329.9595 BRI-[RFL]); Aloysius Chin, The Communist Party of Malaya: The Inside Story (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Vinpress, 1994), 18–23 (Call no. RSING 959.51 CHI); Edgar O’Ballance, Malaya: The Communist Insurgent War, 1948–1960 (London: Faber, 1966), 20–23. (Call no. RCLOS 959.5 OBA)
2. Brimmell, Short History of the Malayan Communist Party, 12–13; O’Ballance, Communist Insurgent War, 23–24.
3. Brimmell, Short History of the Malayan Communist Party, 12–13; Chin, Communist Party of Malaya, 23–25; O’Ballance, Communist Insurgent War, 25.
4. Brimmell, Short History of the Malayan Communist Party, 12–13; Chin, Communist Party of Malaya, 23–25.
5. Cheah Boon Kheng, Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict during and after the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941–1946 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 83–84. (Call no. RSING 959.5103 CHE)
6. Brimmell, Short History of the Malayan Communist Party, 12–13; Cheah, Red Star over Malaya, 58–61.
7. Brimmell, Short History of the Malayan Communist Party, 13–14; Cheah, Red Star over Malaya, 58–61; O’Ballance, Communist Insurgent War, 40–43.
8. Cheah, Red Star over Malaya, 83–93.
9. Brimmell, Short History of the Malayan Communist Party, 15–16; Cheah, Red Star over Malaya, 66, 75–77, 93.
10. Cheah, Red Star over Malaya, 63–64, 97–99, 247–49.
11. Chin, Communist Party of Malaya, 26; Mohd Azzam Mohd Hanif Ghows, The Malayan Emergency Revisited 1948–1960: A Pictorial History (Kuala Lumpur: AMR Holding Sdn Bhd & Yayasan Pelajaran Islam, 2006), 21–24. (Call no. RSING 324.2595075 MOH)
12. Brimmell, Short History of the Malayan Communist Party, 18–21; Chin, Communist Party of Malaya, 28–29; O’Ballance, Communist Insurgent War, 69.
13. O’Ballance, O’Ballance, Communist Insurgent War, 76–82; Chin, Communist Party of Malaya, 28–29; “S’pore Now in State of Emergency,” Singapore Free Press, 24 June 1948, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Ghows, Malayan Emergency Revisited, 44–45.
15. Bilveer Singh, Quest for Political Power: Communist Subversion and Militancy in Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2015), 57–140 (Call no. RSING 335.4095957 SIN); “Red Murder & Arson Plot Bared,” Straits Times, 2 May 1950, 1; “Extortion Cases on the Increase,” Straits Times, 28 May 1950, 9; “A Record of Hard Work, Vigilance and Good Progress,” Straits Times, 30 August 1952, 11; “Red Menace Is Still with Us – Taylor,” Straits Times, 19 May 1954, 8; Felix Abisheganaden, “Colony Is Prize Red Target,” Straits Times, 27 January 1956, 2; “Midnight Bomb Attack on Gimson,” Straits Times, 29 April 1950, 1; “Singapore Communist Sent to Jail,” Singapore Standard, 12 October 1950, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Chin, Communist Party of Malaya, 29–31.
17. Kumar Ramakrishna, “‘Transmogrifying’ Malaya: The Impact of Sir Gerald Templer (1952–54),” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 32, no. 1 (February 2001): 79–92 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); O’Ballance, Communist Insurgent War, 166–70.
18. Chin, Communist Party of Malaya, 45–48; Harry Miller, “Chin Peng Gets His Answer,” Straits Times, 29 December 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Chin, Communist Party of Malaya, 55; “The End of the War,” Straits Times, 20 April 1960, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Leon Comber, Malaya’s Secret Police, 1945–60: The Role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2008), 6. (Call no. RSING 363.283095951 COM)
20. Singh, Quest for Political Power, 163–68; C. V. Devan Nair, ed., Socialism That Works… The Singapore Way (Singapore: Federal Publications, 1976), 12–25. (Call no. RSING 335.0095957 SOC)
21. Singh, Quest for Political Power, 180.
22. Chin, Communist Party of Malaya, 239–48.
C. C. Chin and Karl Hack, Dialogues with Chin Peng: New Light on the Malayan Communist Party (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004). (Call no. RSING 959.5104 DIA)
Chin Peng, My Side of History (Singapore: Media Masters, 2003). (Call no. RSING 959.5104092 CHI)
Fujio Hara, The Malayan Communist Party as Recorded in the Comintern Files (Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2017). (Call no. RSING 324.259507509 HAR)
Harry Miller, Jungle War in Malaya: The Campaign against Communism, 1948–60 (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1981). (Call no. RSING 959.5 MIL)
Rashid Maidin, The Memoirs of Rashid Maidin: From Armed Struggle to Peace (Malaysia: Strategic Information Research Development, 2009). (Call no. RSING 323.04209595 RAS)
The information in this article is valid as at 30 March2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.