Relocation & Regroupment (Part 1)

I am not an academic, nor do I want to be. However some of the background research conducted for this residency probably warrants some degree of rigour. I am more focussed in building some personal context around how my family came to be in Malaysia and as a result I have no doubt that the below summary of the founding of modern Malaysia holds its share of both inaccuracies and ignorance. If you are so inclined to apply the aforementioned rigour then by all means do, you can share it with me via the Contact page of this website. Critique, criticism and condemnation all welcome. ;)


The British presence in Malaya arose through the British East India Company taking the island Penang in 1786. In the early 19th century Singapore was established as a major port and in the ensuing years Britain became more and more involved in Malay affairs as their traders continued to expand their operations and relationships with the different ruling Sultanates throughout the region. Colony status was officially delivered in 1867 and as the British lent support to the Sultans through a particularly bloody period of fratricidal war, they were able to gain concessions that effectively delivered them legislative, judicial and administrative control of Malaya.

Unlike some of the other colonial powers the British interest in their colonies seemed driven by economic betterment of the Empire, not the governance of far flung lands. In their efforts to maximise production of both tin and rubber through the 19th century they encouraged large scale recruitment of Indian and Chinese* labour, often based on a 'coolie' (indentured labour) scheme or similar 'credit ticket' systems where workers paid off their passage over time. The influx of Chinese was such that by the late 19th century the towns of Singapore, Penang and Ipoh, as well as the states of Perak and Selangor had Chinese majorities.

*(Chinese movement into Nanyang (South East Asia) had been occurring since the late 1700's. Most of these were Hakka people from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces who were typically uneducated, landless and oppressed. The prospect of settling a new land was an attractive opportunity despite the hardships of the journey and settlement.)

While the Chinese arrived poor they were relatively successful at establishing prosperity. Moving into trade and initiating the banking and insurance industries, they came to hold substantial wealth and influence through their business operations. Business ventures were often funded in partnership with London based firms and much like the British achieving leverage with the Sultans through provision of military strength, the Chinese managed to gain their own political clout through provision of loans to the Sultans who apparently tended to spend more money than they raised. Chinese cultural capital was aided by their strong clan based identity, mutual aid societies, entrepreneurial nous and creation of their own schools including the recruitment of teachers from China.

Through this period of the late 19th century to early 20th century, Malay nationalism rose in response to a number of factors including anti-colonial sentiment, resent towards the Sultanates for their alliances with the British and Chinese, the growing Indian and Chinese presence, economic dominance by the Chinese and the arrival of Christianity. 

This was the environment into which my grandfather landed in Malaya, sometime in the late 1920's or early 1930's. A toddler on arrival, his family (most likely from the Guangdong province in China) clearly had an unsuccessful attempt at settlement in Malaya as he was soon sold to another family to raise the fare for their passage back to China. The sale of children was not an uncommon practice and this transaction appears to be unremarkable in that regard.

My grandfather, now named Liew Kon Chin would have been about 15 years old when the Japanese invaded Malaya during WW2. Under British rule a policy of "Malaya belongs to the Malays, other races are temporary residents" can be attributed as a seed for trouble to come, a seed watered by the Japanese. With the Sultans collaborating with the occupying force on the premise of being delivered a united Malaya, including Borneo and Indonesia, the Japanese acknowledged the Malays as sovereign people. The Chinese however were considered 'alien enemies' and in February and March of 1942 the Japanese occupiers embarked on the Sook Ching (purification through suffering), a large scale 'purge' that started in Singapore and spread up the peninsular. Figures for those executed in the Sook Ching range from a Japanese tally of 5,000 to a Singaporean count of 70,000. In addition to the executions, Chinese schools and business' were burnt down and closed. While I do not know about the conditions in which my grandfather lived during occupation, being a Chinese teenage male, his safety would not have been guaranteed. I have heard a story about him hiding from the Japanese in ponds using a reed to breath through, but if this is true or just a good story I don't know.

Upon the Japanese invasion British Colonial authorities found an ally in the (formerly illegal organisation) MCP, and prior to being defeated they freed all communist political prisoners and trained 165 MCP members in guerilla warfare.  These 165 MCP members in turn formed the basis of the MPAJA, the Malayan People's Anti Japanese Army. This force was responsible for the armed resistance of the occupying forces and numbered over 4000 fighters. Its efforts were also the cause of increasing reprisals towards Chinese civilians by the Japanese. This in turn led the migration of many Chinese (including my grandfather) away from urban centres and into the rural areas on the fringes of the jungles becoming squatters. These locations while providing some sense of safety from the Japanese forces, also provided the MPAJA with a source of shelter, food and recruits as they operated from their jungle bases.

The wars end in 1945 caught the players in Malaya by surprise. The British had actively been supplying arms and direction to the MPAJA and with the sudden withdrawal of the Japanese, the MPAJA being the largest armed force in the country with 6000 members, was left to fill the void. 

Malay nationalism, evidenced in 1938 by the founding of the Young Malays Union (KMM) and stoked pre-war by a number of factors had grown during occupation, and in the post war environment began to shape into an independence movement. Meanwhile British policy, dictated by their now bankrupt state, centred around the withdrawal from the colonies. As a result Malays became more concerned about the mostly Chinese MCP and the armed MPAJA appearing ready to occupy the position of the British once they left. The British negotiated a reluctant disbandment of the MPAJA, with may weapons returned and members paid and hailed for their resistance efforts during occupation. The MCP were able to operate without suppression and went about organising themselves politically around a coalition to achieve independence within legal means. While the moderate faction of the party had prevailed at leadership level, the 1947 discovery of a longtime British operative having infiltrated their senior leadership resulted in a distinctly more anti-British position.

In search of an operational governance model, a British proposal around a Malayan Union was opposed by Malays on the basis it weakened Malay rulers and granted citizenship to Chinese and other minorities and in 1946 the United Malays National Organisation was founded on the basis of an independent Malaya run exclusively by Malays. This was in direct opposition to the MCP who wanted independence with full equality for all races. 

In 1948 the still British government responded to an environment of rising tensions by outlawing trade union federations, an antagonistic move towards the union aligned MCP, then four days later declared a national state of emergency following the murder of three European planters on an estate in northern Malaya. Police now had powers to search, hold and execute without trial. In the following two weeks hundreds of MCP members were arrested and the party outlawed.

Party members regrouped in the jungle and reformed the MPAJA, calling themselves the MPABA (anti-British) before once again renaming themselves the Malayan Peoples Liberation Army (MPLA) and drawing on the unreturned weapons left over from Japanese occupation. They worked closely with the civilian population (displaced to the jungle fringe by the Japanese occupation) who had a sympathisers organisation called the Min Yuen. Guerilla attacks on the British and civilian sympathisers averaged 17 a month come February 1950, escalating to over 100 a month by October the same year.

I know nothing of my grandfathers life between the wars end and 1950. I do know that the British response to the escalating attacks in the form of the Briggs Plan, had direct impact on my grandfathers family which now included his wife and two sons. The family being subject to the implementation of the plan's dual strategies of Relocation and Regroupment.

Part 2 to follow.