Relocation & Regroupment (Part 2)

The Briggs Plan was a central piece of what is called the Malayan Emergency, a prolonged state of disruption coming off the back of WW2's end. And central to the Briggs plan was a strategy of Relocation and Regroupment. Relocation being the rounding up of people (mostly squatters) in a particular area and positing them into a new compact and secure place. Regroupment being the reorganisation of existing residences based around primary industry sites.

With the Japanese defeated and the British looking to remove themselves from their colonies and consolidate after the cost of the war, the largest armed force in the country was the communist guerilla force of the MPAJA. Pre-war the MPAJA (Malayan Peoples Anti Japanese Army) was originally an anti-British outfit named MPABA. Both versions of this group being the armed manifestation of the MCP political party.

The post war situation in Malaya was problematic on many fronts. Immediately following the wars end the British tried to create a united Malaya through the Malaya Union where all citizens would have equal rights, something rejected by many Malays and the territory rulers. The Union was abandoned by the British creating a sense of betrayal to the Chinese who had born the brunt of the Japanese occupation.  Economically the main industries that had driven the country were badly damaged. Tin and rubber production which had been a major supplier to the pre-war world had been strangled off during occupation due to only being able to export what ever of those commodities Japan might require and were able to ship. With plantations abandoned and mines closed or in disrepair, Malaya came to suffer from high unemployment, low wages and inflationary pressure on basic food items. As a result the increasingly difficult living conditions (including famine) provided the MCP a propaganda tool to use against the British. Mimicking their pre-war strategies, they turned again to industrial action in the countries labour force. Once again the British response was swift and direct with many agitators arrested and deported back to China, this of course only fuelling the growing unrest.

In the immediate aftermath of the war independence was being granted to countries throughout the Asia region including India, Indonesia and Vietnam. With this looming state of independence in Malaya, the MCP, fuelled by Chinese Malays concern that they would be squeezed out of a new Malaya, drove an armed programme of attacks against British interests led by the newest armed faction of the MCP, the Malayan National Liberation Army. The MNLA took up the guerilla strategies used against Japanese occupation and established themselves as a rural force that used the jungle to protect themselves. Central to the ability of the MNLA to conduct their activities were the rural Chinese civilian population who numbered around half a million at the time and were sympathetic to the cause given their lack of citizenship and voting rights, ability to own land and high levels of poverty. These rural Chinese were largely farmers and labourers squatting on land they didn't own around the jungle fringes, and they were an effective source of recruits, food and information to the MNLA. 

Come 1950 there were an average of over 100 attacks per month being carried out by the MNLA. In the same year General Sir Howard Briggs was appointed to Malaya and a plan bearing his name was implemented. The Briggs plan was founded on the belief that the best way to combat the MNLA was to erode their support base and the benefits they received from it. The Chinese squatters were identified as one of the main enablers of the MNLA and it's ability to sustain itself. As a result a "New Village" scheme was embarked upon which saw the forced Relocation of approximately 500,000 people (nearly 10% of the countries population) into 450 secure camps or "villages". Given these New Villages were designed to both keep the civilian population in, and the communists out, they were fenced with barbed wire, had controlled entry points with armed guards, were under curfew from 6pm to 6am and villagers were banned from leaving with any food least they be supplying the MNLA. 

My father and his family were relocated into one of these villages. In 1950 Serdang Baru was established 20km south of Kuala Lumpur city. Formed in proximity to the original small town of Serdang Lama, families living and working in the surrounding rubber plantations, tin mines and farms were all relocated into this New Village over a two to three year period. Like many of the New villages in the state of Selangor it was at the top end of the scale in terms of size with around 10,000 residents coming to live there. Some families relocated their dwellings into the New Village while basic houses were made for others. A few families held farms already within the New Village boundary and were unaffected by the relocation process, if you disregard the creation of hundreds of close quarter neighbours. Serdang Baru like many New Villages was located on land with a sandy base of little value. Electricity was supplied to the village and the occupants granted title of their residence and the land it sat on. While many inhabitants would have now for the first time been able to live with electricity and own land, the trade off was substantial when you consider the loss of freedom of movement and other impacts on personal sovereignty.  

The New Village scheme proved unpopular to both the Chinese and the Malays. The Chinese were subject to collective punishment, preventative detention and summary deportation aimed at weeding out communist supporters, while the Malays were upset that their kampungs and settlements went without the infrastructure spend and resource investment that accompanied New Villages. The dynamics within the New Villages, the effect the near overnight creation of these villages on it's residents, the loss of full autonomy. These are not so apparent and are much harder to gauge than the nature of the physical aspects of the New Village construct.

In the 60 plus years that have passed since it's creation Serdang is both different and seemingly unchanged. The fences have been removed, the guards disbanded and 3rd generation multi-million dollar rebuilds on-top of original house sites are underway. The population has swollen and in every direction around the village there is now concrete and development. As kids our grandparents house sat at the boundary, immediately adjacent to the original entry point into the village. There was still a sense of separation from city and development. The house was frequented by a range of exotic wildlife and at night there was an equal mix in the audio backdrop of motorbikes and nature. No trace of that remains and this is really just symptomatic of the meteoric growth of Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur in particular, growth that shows no sign of abating any time soon. The grandparents house has just been bowled and a new development is underway, only the back fence with its barbed wire and a solitary tree tucked away in a corner remain of what I knew.

 I stayed a couple of nights in the Serdang area last week, very close to the original Serdang Lama settlement in fact. During the 20 minute walk to the village for dinner I got talking to a young Indian man. He was a resident of the same building I was staying in. He asked where I was going, he could give me a lift as he was picking his car up from a mechanics just ahead of us. "To the village for dinner" I told him. "What village?" he replied. In amongst this mass of concrete, roading, townhouses, condominiums (but distinct lack of footpaths) sits a village whose story is largely now unknown to the tens of thousands of residents who live in sight of it. The village continues to move further from it's origins, you now hear largely Mandarin in which was an almost exclusively Hakka speaking village (the children have stopped learning it). The cottage industries which were both a necessity during the years of the emergency, and a cultural hallmark of the residents that were relocated here, are dying; the traditions of pancake makers, incense makers, wicker furniture makers, coffin makers, shoe makers and many more will be lost. 

There does remain a sense of palpable history however. Only it's not in regard to the upset and upheaval that lies in the founding of the village, its in the character of the community that was created there. Its in the people that still reside there. My own 93 year old grandmother is currently living in Auckland having moved there a number of years ago in her relatively advanced age. She is remembered in the village. My one chance point of contact who I happened to meet in Serdang took me to lunch at a restaurant down the street from my grandparents house. This restaurant is owned by an older Hakka man whose father used to make traditional Chinese coffins on the premises. The restauranteur remembers my grandmother, "she used to dress really well", "their house was always well maintained", "they had a Datsun with air-conditioning". His acquaintance grew up round the corner from my father, his mother still lives in the same house, a first generation hut. You can tell by the lack of brick work at the bottom of the walls, it's all wood. Apparently the termites found in the sandy base of the land where the village was built ate many houses requiring the rebuilds to make use of brick for the first few feet of wall coming up off the ground. In the market place the same hawkers or their sons and daughters, or grandchildren are selling the same produce and food stuffs in the same places on the same street as they were in the 1950's. The Chinese tradition of buying fresh produce every day is alive and evidenced in the plentitude of fruit, vegetable, preserves, proteins, spices, herbs and other items available. There has been talk of developing a new two story building to house the markets but the hawkers are strongly opposed to this. The street my father's family were first relocated onto has a run of houses in their mostly original (basic) state including the one where they lived. All through the village these old houses feature the deities chosen by that household for worship, painted in characters above the door. The inside altar is visible through the open front doors and the roofs are anywhere between 2nd to 4th generation with the thatched or zinc sheeting now replaced by iron.

Serdang has long since lost it's fences, checkpoints and guards. The communist threat was successfully addressed and the Malayan Emergency officially declared over in 1960. Today, other than the river that marked one edge of the village, no boundary exists that suggests this New Village was created almost overnight in the middle of a rural area dominated by rubber plantation and open face tin mines. Tin mines so vast that they were at one stage the largest in the world and that now, filled with water, host the palacial abodes of some of the cities most wealthy people on their shores. The area is now called Seri Kambangan and when you mention Serdang to the local people of Kuala Lumpur they may know it but only as a station on one of the infamously slow KTM train lines. A station that isn't even that close to the village itself. Serdang is a historic artefact in its own right. Evidence of a social experiment, arguably a social necessity. In that regard it is one of another 450 across the Malay peninsula. Each containing thousands of stories around their formation and the impact on the lives of those once held within them. 

Its an interesting space to occupy when you begin to consider the loss of heritage, tradition and identity occurring in Serdang Baru, against the disruptive and heavily interventionist approach of its creation. What was lost by those first inhabitants of New Villages? What was gained? What unintended outcomes came out of the making of these focus points of Chinese culture in Malaysia, and how has that come to inform contemporary Malaysian society? Contemporary Malaysian identity?