Behind the mask of an emergency

Winner, 2016 Walkley Young Journalist of the Year Awards – Student Journalist of the Year category

THERE WERE MANY things I didn’t understand. I grew up in Melbourne with my Anglo mother and didn’t have much exposure to the Chinese–Malaysian side of my heritage. Then, when I was eight, my mother took me to visit Malaysia for the first time. My first trip overseas was at an age when all the sights and smells of a foreign place are taken in with open-eyed wonder. I developed an addiction to both egg roti and Milo ice with sweet condensed milk that was a world away from what I was allowed at home. We visited the night market at the end of my father’s family village and the lights and colours were like a cinematic carnival, though the language and the smells were foreign. My extended family were overly accommodating, spoiling me and my brother with gifts, treats, excessive yum-cha meals and trips to the theme park in Kuala Lumpur.

In those days my grandmother still got up early in the morning before the sun rose, power walked around the block of my auntie’s house in Ipoh, then got on her old motorbike to go tap the rubber trees on the plots they owned at the base of the stunning limestone mountains that surrounded the valley. Already in her old age, most of the rubber tapping was done by labourers, but she stuck to her work routine.

I continued to visit Malaysia with my brother throughout my adolescence. Gradually, things changed. We still visited for Chinese New Year, though as my grandmother got older the meals were no longer all home-cooked but eaten instead at the local restaurants. Her memory started to fade and instead of beating us at mahjong and scolding us on the technicalities of the rules, she sat back in one of the cane chairs and watched my cousins and I play, unable to keep track of the tiles anymore. As my grandfather aged he hunched further and further over the wheel of his old ’70s Datsun, peering forward to see the traffic, though driving was a practice he wouldn’t give up.

On one of those long, lazy days – maybe the third or fourth day of New Year celebrations – when the adults were dozing under the fan and we kids played majhong with five-sen coins, my grandfather took me into the small room behind what used to be their general store. The room was dark and dusty and he fiddled with his keys for a long time until he found the right one to open the small wooden drawers, all the while his false teeth swishing around in his mouth. Inside the drawer, among old family photos and documents, he pulled out two thin folded notes and laid them on the counter for me to look at. ‘Japun,’ he said as he pointed to the dark blue note with pictures of banana trees on them. They read: ‘The Japanese Government Promises To Pay The Bearer On Demand Ten Dollars.’ I didn’t understand. Not then.

KUALA LUMPUR IS a much busier place than Melbourne. The population is twice the size, high-rises dot the skyline out to the suburbs and when it rains, which is much of the time, the streets flood and traffic slows to a halt. After high school I took a year off to travel South-East and South Asia and did a three-month internship at Malaysian news website Malaysiakini, wanting to be sure journalism was the right choice before I pursued a full degree. Malaysiakini is the oldest and largest online news portal in a country where all the traditional forms of media are government-restricted through licensing, and the papers are all owned by government parties or their allies. The politics of the place was at first immensely confusing for me, coming from a country where the number of political parties with any significance can normally be counted on a couple of fingers. However, it didn’t take long to get a grasp of the three coalition parties that made up the opposition movement against the United Malay National Organisation. UMNO had ruled the country as the dominating force in a governing ‘coalition’ since independence in 1957.

Today, Malaysia’s political scene is a strange pendulum that the government swings between freedoms and crackdowns. Opposition politicians, activists, NGOs, journalists and those who attend street rallies are all caught up in this constant flux. Running around Kuala Lumpar reporting on day-to-day politics, I experienced a constant rush of adrenaline, learning from senior journalists and seeing my by-line for the first time. Press conferences, street rallies, a hospital after an anti-police-corruption activist was shot, Indian temples Malay police were trying to tear down, political corruption, activists arrested for the old colonial-era law of sedition after flying a pre-independence flag, the Election Commission gerrymandering the seats even further to favour the government… Each event seemed so important and dramatic that I thought it would have some effect on the bigger picture, shake the power structure, though of course it never did. Despite the excitement, the inevitable monotony of daily politics also crept in. Then, in September 2013, someone called Chin Peng died. I sensed this moment went beyond the daily.

Much like the country I grew up in, Malaysians have an official narrative of their history that simplistically glosses over much of what happened. Chin Peng was the leader of the long defeated Malayan Communist Party and died in exile in southern Thailand after many years of applying to return home following the peace. Watching the government’s absurd sensitivity around his death, including its refusal to allow even his ashes to come back, I grew interested in learning the story. The official narrative goes, essentially, that after the British armed Malaysians to fight a guerrilla war against Japan during World War II, armed groups – mainly from the Chinese-dominated MCP – fought against the British after the war and sought to establish a communist state. The war raged from 1948 until the communist defeat in 1960, although the British declined to term the conflict a ‘war’, calling it instead the Malayan Emergency.

I read about the conflict, but the narrative lacked background without a broader understanding of Malaya in the context of the British Empire. British influence in Malaya had grown throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after they ousted the Dutch from their trading port of Malacca. While local sultans still ruled parts of the country, they came increasingly under British control. Malaya was rich in tin and rubber, and as the twentieth century wore on Malaya became the most profitable territory for the British in their empire. Following World War II and the Japanese defeat, the British sought to re-establish full control over the colony. With unrest and the push for independence in British India – soon to be successful – Malaya became even more important economically for Britain’s postwar reconstruction at home. They wanted to keep the golden goose.

To fight the Malayan insurgency, British and Australian forces trialled brutal tactics, many of which, such as the first ever use of Agent Orange, went on to the next guerrilla war in Asia – Vietnam. The Batang Kali massacre of twenty-four unarmed civilians in 1948 is publicly known, though relatives of the victims are still today going through a long process in the British courts to get an independent inquiry into the killings.

Reading through the different strategies of the Commonwealth troops in putting down the insurgency, there was one that grabbed my attention. It’s estimated around half a million people were forcibly relocated from villages in conflict areas and put into camps called ‘New Villages’ – Kampung Baru. The purpose of relocating people was to remove any potential for villagers to provide food or other support to the insurgents. The New Villages were essentially prison camps, set on cleared flat plains and surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. Entrances and exits were controlled, with strict curfews enforced and food rationed. The British also regularly used collective punishment against whole villages, such as slashing rice rations if any individual was suspected of supporting the insurgents.

These New Villages didn’t disappear after the war. Though the barbed wire is gone they are still scattered across the country and lived in today, including the one that my grandparents live in. The whole state of Perak, where my grandparents live, was one of the fiercest areas of fighting. As an ‘incentive’ for the forced relocation, the British gave land rights to the houses they had built in the New Villages. The vast majority of people relocated were Chinese who didn’t have the right to own land at the time.

It was strange going back to visit the house where my father grew up, aware now of the history. In all the villages with ‘baru’ on the end of their name I couldn’t avoid noticing things that hadn’t struck me earlier. Each street system is laid out in a grid across the long flat open plain, in a way reminiscent of new housing estates in suburban Australia. Odd that I hadn’t noticed this at first, as nowhere else in Asia did old villages look like this: grid
streets, not close to any natural water supply. The village is laid out around a central market and food stalls. Driving through now I was aware of how planned it was. I pondered the old family house differently, seeing its role in a colonial struggle.

MY GRANDFATHER IS in his eighties now, which makes him much older than independence and means he would have been a young man during the tumultuous years of the Emergency. His memory is very keen and, despite his old body, his mind keeps pace. He once told me he still remembered the old Japanese songs he had to learn in school during the occupation. I asked once if he remembered the relocation? What it was like? He paused for a long time, pushing his false teeth in thought. ‘We used to live in a village near the mountains back there, then we moved here, that’s all I remember,’ he said definitively. I sensed a hesitation and an uneasiness that wasn’t there when I asked him about the Japanese – a safer topic in the Malaysian narrative.

I didn’t push him, but what was running through his mind as we sat on small bamboo chairs outside the house? A grandson with a different accent, from a different place. I could see the memories churning. He was generations removed from mine, the younger generation of Chinese–Malaysians who join Malays and Indians and march together at political rallies and vote for the same opposition parties.

Before the last election my grandfather lined up outside the office of the Malaysian Chinese Association. With many other old people from the village they were there to receive a cash handout in return for a vote for the government. The MCA was once a major player but is now a micro-party inside the ruling coalition, as most Chinese–Malaysians have thrown their support behind the opposition. Despite my father trying to convince him that he didn’t have to vote for the government just because he took the handout, that they wouldn’t know who he voted for, when the election came he cast his ballot faithfully as paid for.

My father told me later that during the Emergency my grandmother had a job tapping rubber on one of the colonial estates outside town, meaning she was allowed out of the New Village before evening curfew. It was rumoured she was running food and messages to the communists in the mountains to earn extra money. I wanted to ask her, but her memory had long faded.

The Chinese make up around a quarter of the population in Malaysia, while Indian–Malaysians make up around 7 per cent, and Malays around 55 per cent. Orang Asli (the indigenous population) form around 10 per cent, though the Malay government has long sought to remove their identity through financially incentivised conversions to Islam and the use of the term Bumiputera (‘sons of the soil’) to refer to both Malays and Orang Asli as a single group. Just as the British sought to divide and conquer, much of the political rhetoric today remains around race. Earlier in the decade attempts were made by the government to win back and hold Chinese and Indian votes. The current prime minister, Najib Abdul Razak, came to power in 2009 promising wide-ranging reforms, the scrapping of colonial laws used to crackdown on the opposition, and pushing the slogan ‘1Malaysia’ as one of ethnic unity. But as the flood of Chinese and Indian voters abandoning the government continued in the following election, Najib was pushed by internal hard-righters in UMNO to abandon talk of ethnic unity and political reform. Instead, he fell back on the Malay supremacy and anti-Chinese and Indian rhetoric of his party.

My grandfather remembered the Emergency and the Malay–Chinese racial violence of May 1969 that left hundreds dead. Like many Chinese of his generation he remembered enough to know that politics was bad news for them. Things didn’t change and life was easier if they stayed out of it.

THE MORE I read, the more connections I drew, seeing the building blocks of the Malaysia that I knew today. Merdeka is translated either of two ways: as ‘independence’, or ‘freedom’. Leading up to Merdeka in 1957, the British negotiated handing over power to UMNO, which had formed as a Malay nationalist organisation in response to fears Malays would miss out under the previously British proposed Malaya Union. Tunku Abdul Rahman, who had studied at Cambridge and served in the British civil administration, emerged as UMNO president and went on to become the first prime minister of Malaya. After negotiating independence peacefully, he stood proudly before a massive stadium crowd in Kuala Lumpur, with the British looking on, and raised his right hand to the sky, famously shouting, ‘Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!’

Many people in the government now try to paint Merdeka as a struggle undertaken by Malays and UMNO alone. The reality is that the British realised they couldn’t hold power forever. Just across the Strait of Malacca, the Dutch had already failed to re-establish power following the Japanese withdrawal and, after a long, bloody defeat, withdrew and acknowledged the newly declared Republic of Indonesia. The British encouraged an alliance between MCA, a Chinese business association and UMNO at the time of independence, and through a stable handover of power were able to ensure their economic interests remained protected. The British also addressed many of the qualms of the Chinese population as a way to remove insurgent support. Among the ways they did this was to grant the right to Malaysian–Chinese to own land and allow them a political body in the MCA. British and Australian troops, with the locally trained force, continued fighting the guerrillas and stayed on in the country for stability after the war ended in 1960.

The early years of independence were tumultuous, with the formation of ‘Malaysia’ to include the British colonies of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, until Singapore’s subsequent expulsion as leader Lee Kuan Yew sought to challenge the UMNO status quo. However, since the early years, widespread political stability has been the norm. Malaysia’s economy has grown astoundingly; it is now the second richest nation in South-East Asia, after Singapore, though inequality remains high. There was no single independence moment when everything changed, no Gamal Abdel Nasser seizing the Suez canal. In the years following independence, Malayan tin and rubber export industries remained largely in the hands of the British.

A short film made a few years ago by Fahmi Reza called Ten Years Before Independence tells the story of the huge union and political movement that emerged following the Japanese occupation. Including interviews with many involved, Fahmi tells the story of the movement, mostly led by Malays but with multiracial participation, that grew across Malaya in the late 1940s. The movement showed their strength through a nationwide strike that brought businesses across the country to a halt in October 1947 with the demand for independence. This growing political challenge worried the British, who declared an ‘Emergency’ to ‘fight the communists’, but also cracked down hard on the nationalist unions.

Understanding the story of the early Merdeka push gave me a greater understanding of the Emergency and explained why, sometimes, the response of the British seems out of step with the violence. The nationwide Emergency law was declared after three white plantation managers were killed by individuals from communist-led unions during an industrial dispute. The British declared the Emergency because they could no longer control the industrial conflicts. The declaration caught the MCP, only in the early stages of planning their insurgency, off guard and put them on the defensive. It was an Emergency announced to control not just the communists but the whole country. Understanding the anti-British movement makes the narrative less about the Chinese seeking control than the official story. Though the former communist leader Chin Peng admitted one of the greatest faults of the party was its failure to gather the same level of support across all races.

History doesn’t have clear lines and neat chapters, so perhaps understanding Malaysia pre- and post-independence is a fraught exercise. When does independence begin if the colonial government keeps its influence over its successor? And when does real ‘democracy’ begin, when the one political party maintains government for almost sixty years?

AUSTRALIA PLAYED A faithful role in the Commonwealth, sending troops to support the British in fighting for colonial control over Malaya in the ’50s. Stuck between Korea and Vietnam, the war has little place in the Australian psyche and our historical narrative. Communism was linked with the nationalist independence struggle. However, despite British rhetoric of Malaya as a Cold War conflict, the insurgency was localised, without Soviet or Chinese backing, and the British refused American military aid fearing it would internationalise the conflict. I wondered if Kevin Rudd was aware of this history when he visited Malaysia in 2008, praising the government and calling Malaysia ‘a flourishing democracy’. Today, Australia and Malaysia’s joint narrative is that of ‘friends’ and ‘allies’ – a narrative of equals – and it is to the US more than Britain that Malaysia now turns.

Ipoh is the main city near my father’s village. Each time I visited I caught the train from Kuala Lumpar and waited out the front of the impressive railway station, a huge limestone British structure, looking for my grandfather and his old Datsun. Somewhere online I found an old photo of a small force of Australian troops holding an Anzac Day ceremony outside that station in Ipoh, dated 1956. The image of such a familiar space with an Australian army parade in front stuck in my mind. We Australians, as a nation, do little to understand our role in an empire, our role as colonisers both at home and abroad. Back home in Melbourne, old buildings like Flinders Street Station and the Exhibition Building give us a sense of tradition and history, without many of us giving any thought to their built intent, their representations of British wealth and power and the brutal violence that was inflicted on the First Peoples to establish the colony. Yet they touch on this history, even engender sentiment that we proudly call ours.

In Melbourne I began looking for those with firsthand experience fighting in the Emergency. I wanted to learn what it was like from this side as I drew links between the two countries.

The man I met was George Logan, who served two separate two-year tours in Malaya, mostly around the state of Perak and near the Malay–Thai border, before going on to do a tour in Vietnam. He met me in the hallway of Anzac House in Melbourne dressed in an old suit and walking slowly, leg supported by a cane. He laughed about his ‘crook leg’ and the word ‘bloody’ slowly crept its way to the start of all his sentences. George played an active role in the RSL, and his small cramped office at Anzac House had many photos on the walls, mostly black-and-white of him serving, while others of the older man were in colour. He started by using his cane to point to one of the black-and-white photos: in it a young man in uniform walks through the jungle, an assault rifle in his hands held down near the waist with a strap over the shoulder, a floppy broad-brimmed hat hung over his eyes shading his face from the sun. ‘That’s me in 1957. I’d just come back from the jungle from a two-week operation, north of Ipoh, and what isn’t shown is that on my left leg I had sixty-two bloody leeches,’ he said with a laugh.

George talked fast and answered questions quickly without pause. He told me about his time in Malaya and the operations he worked on, mostly long jungle treks, often laying ambushes for communist units or individuals returning to the villages to visit family.

‘It’s nonsense, but forgive me using CTs as habit, because it’s what we called them then,’ he said. He’d told me at the start of our conversation that CTs stands for ‘communist terrorists’.

George was twenty when he first went over to Malaya. I asked him how much he knew about the war and what he was told. ‘I knew very little. At that time, like most youngsters, I thought I’m fighting for the nation and quite frankly when I think of it in reflection, I don’t know what the hell I was wasting my time with. Frankly, what Chin Peng and his group were trying to do was establish independence away from the Brits,’ he said. ‘It went back to the British, it went back to…you know: “We will rule them because blah blah blah”,’ George said, slipping out of his old hoarse voice and into a low British aristocratic one. ‘And philosophically, when I think of it, on reflection I probably shouldn’t have been involved in it. That’s just my personal perspective,’ he said, before pausing and adding, ‘You do what your country asks of you.’

I asked why he thought there was little recognition of the war in Australia and he suggested that as there was no conscription it didn’t ‘feel like the nation fighting’. Even at the time, George said, there was little knowledge of the war – the country was finally in post-World War II ‘peace time’ and the papers had no interest in covering it.

‘I remember when I came back and I went to an RSL. I was twenty-two at the time and just back from two years of operations and I was wearing what we call the Return from Active Service badge. Someone asked, “what are you doing wearing that?” I said I had just got back from Malaya and he said “what were you doing there?”’

After our talk George lent me a couple of books that are records of the operational details of Australia’s troops in Malaya. The language is dry and official and I try to look past the language and imagine what it meant, what it looked like on the ground. Successful ambush roughly twenty kilometres north-west of Kuala Kangsar base, small group of CTs. Four killed, several escaped. Further on were the chapters that caught my eye again: In February 1957 it was decided that much of the focus of our operations would be around Perak, because of the high concentration of MCP networks and sympathisers in the region. I found the sentence, We began food deprivation programs south of Ipoh, and tried to imagine what had happened.

I tried to imagine my grandparents in their early twenties, forced out of their village home. Did they go peacefully when the soldiers came? Packing up what they could carry and leaving behind the place they had lived their whole lives. Did they resist? Was there violence? What of their neighbours? Friends? What was churning behind my grandfather’s eyes when I asked him? What was the story that my grandmother had long forgotten?

THE WAR MEMORIAL in Melbourne is an imposing place. The hill it stands on just outside the city, the huge grounds and the eternal flame create the unmistakable impression of something beyond any individual, beyond a group – a collective nation. The dark corridors of the gallery contain audio and visual details of various battles, artefacts and accounts of individual soldier’s stories. The galleries are segmented, and I find the small section on Malaya in the ‘Conflict and Peace-keeping’ section post-World War II. There is one small display on the Malayan Emergency, which is a glass cabinet with a soldier’s jungle uniform and a board with four paragraphs summarising the war’s official narrative. ‘They started resettling the rural population into “New Villages”, separating them from the Communists and their supplies… Australia wanting to combat Communism in Asia sent RAAF troops to Malaya in 1950.

Each conflict is segmented in different cabinets – Korea, the Emergency, the Konfrontasi war with Indonesia, Vietnam. There is a distinct lack of continuity: each of the wars seem random and independent, removed from the next. There is a no narrative to the overall story, the context and history, that all these wars we fought were to maintain our allies’ colonial interests.

How important is the official narrative in tutoring about such things? Even in the early sections of the memorial, depicting young Victorian men sent to fight in the Boer War, the word ‘colonialism’ never comes up. There’s no discussion of what an empire is. There is the history of our wars abroad, but not the long frontier wars at home. Where to draw the lines, between wars fought to maintain the British Empire and wars fought to maintain British and American interests? What about the new ones – Iraq, Afghanistan and now Iraq again – how will we segment and tell these stories in
the future?

For Malaysia, the history is important because it is the story of how the nation was formed, the dynamics of politics, the relations between different races and religions outlined in the constitution. It is also the
story of a political party, the story of the government, from where it derives
its legitimacy – and what it might fall back on as that legitimacy is increasingly challenged.

It’s hard to think about how I fit into all these stories. Growing up in Australia I never thought of myself as ‘Malaysian’ or ‘Asian’. Ethnicity was that pesky question I was asked all the time and to which I would answer, ‘my dad’s Malaysian’, hoping to quickly move on. In high school, despite not wanting to think about it, there were questions, racist nicknames, jokes in the yard, getting called a ‘chink’ on the sporting field. All based around something I couldn’t understand because I was Australian, wasn’t I? I wasn’t like those Korean international students at my high school who couldn’t even speak English. I was Australian. I find it interesting to think about how much racial identity is influenced and learned from those around you.

After many visits to Malaysia I learnt that when asked about my ethnicity I wasn’t supposed to say, ‘my dad is from Malaysia and my mother Australia,’ because that didn’t mean anything. I was meant to add ‘orang Cina’, ‘Chinese’. For me, I began associating and identifying with that side of my heritage more, probably partly because of my appearance and my experiences of othering in Australia. But to boil identity down to that would also be to grossly simplify. Words like ‘Asian–Australian’ came into my consciousness and felt right to explain some of my experiences in this country that boasts of its multiculturalism but continues to label. However, I also felt isolated from the term. The migrant experience wasn’t my own, neither was the typical ‘children of migrants’ story because I grew up in a white household. Most of the other ‘Asian–Australians’ I knew spoke a mother tongue other than English, negotiated the often different cultural values of their parents, and knew that you’re meant to wash rice first. In each identity (Australian and Malaysian) I found acceptance and isolation, an uncertainty that I had to navigate.

I called George to ask when I would be able to drop the books I’d borrowed back to him. I wanted to talk to him again, maybe get deeper into the story. He told me he was unwell and wasn’t able to come into the office much these days, though he still sounded in high spirits. I dropped the books off at the reception and walked back out on to the busy Collins Street footpath. It was just after work and people rushed past me as I walked slowly. Young men in military uniforms stood collecting money for Legacy. They might have just returned from Afghanistan or Iraq. Everything had more symbolic meaning than the last time I looked – the streets named after men who’d committed frontier violence, monarchs of an empire, the statues celebrating brutally violent conquest.

Our story, like Malyasia’s, is one that is hard to separate into neat chapters. Despite, often, being made to feel not a part of this story – feeling that this story is a white one with only appearance roles for others – I still use ‘we’ and ‘our’ when I talk and write of Australia. All the lines we hope to draw – a line between us and Asia, a line between our present and our ugly past, lines drawn to neatly segment – blur the larger story. Chapters with headings, so that we can now turn the pages without having to read.

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