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Malayan Emergency
Part of Cold War and British decolonisation
Australian Avro Lincoln bomber dropping 500 pound bombs on Communist targets in the Malayan jungle. circa 1950
Date June 1948 – 12 July, 1960
Location Southeast Asia

United Kingdom United Kingdom
Australia Australia
New Zealand New Zealand
British colonies
Federation of Malaya Federation of Malaya
Southern Rhodesia Rhodesia
Fiji Fiji

Hammer and sickle.svg Malayan Communist Party
Hammer and sickle.svg Malayan Races Liberation Army
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Harold Briggs
United Kingdom Henry Gurney
United Kingdom Gerald Templer
Australia Henry Wells
Hammer and sickle.svg Chin Peng

250,000 Malayan Home Guard troops
40,000 regular Commonwealth personnel
37,000 Special Constables

24,000 Federation Police

up to 8,000 MRLA (peaking in 1951)

up to 150,000 Min Yuen (30,000 to 40,000 likely)
Casualties and losses

Killed: 1,346 Malayan troops and police
519 British military personnel
Wounded: 2,406 Malayan and British troops/police

Civilian casualties: 2,478 killed, 810 missing
Killed: 6,710
Wounded: 1,289
Captured: 1,287
Surrendered: 2,702

The Malayan Emergency refers to a guerrilla war for independence fought between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) from 1948 to 1960; some have gone as far as to characterise it as a civil war. The resulting state of emergency entailed the revocation of civil rights, the granting of special powers to the police, and other measures aimed at the suppression of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), of which the MNLA was the military arm. Despite the communists' defeat in 1960, MCP leader Chin Peng would renew the insurgency in 1967, which would last till 1989, and become known as the Communist Insurgency War.

Malayan Emergency was the colonial government's term for the conflict. The MNLA termed it Anti-British National Liberation War.[1] The rubber plantations and tin mining industries had pushed for the use of the term "emergency" since their losses would not have been covered by Lloyds insurers if it had been termed a "war".


The withdrawal of Japan at the end of World War II left the Malayan economy disrupted; problems included unemployment, low wages, and scarce and expensive food. There was considerable labour unrest, and a large number of strikes occurred in 1946 through 1948. The British administration was attempting to repair Malaya's economy quickly, especially as revenue from Malaya's tin and rubber industries was important to Britain's own post-war recovery. As a result, protesters were dealt with harshly, by measures including arrests and deportations. In turn, protesters became increasingly militant. On June 16, 1948, three European plantation managers were killed at Sungai Siput, Perak.[citation needed]

The British brought emergency measures into law, first in Perak in response to the Sungai Siput incident and then, in July, country-wide. Under the measures, the MCP and other leftist parties were outlawed, and the police were given the power to imprison without trial communists and those suspected of assisting communists. The MCP, led by Chin Peng, retreated to rural areas, and formed the MNLA, also known as the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA), or the Malayan People's Liberation Army (MPLA). The MNLA began a guerrilla campaign, targeting mainly the colonial resource extraction industries, which in Malaya were the tin mines and rubber plantations.

File:CC Terrorist.jpg
Identification portrait of a "communist terrorist", used by Commonwealth troops to help recognise insurgents.

The MNLA was partly a re-formation of the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), the MCP-led guerrilla force which had been the principal resistance in Malaya against the Japanese occupation. The British had secretly trained and armed the MPAJA during the later stages of World War II. Disbanded in December, 1945, the MPAJA officially turned all of its weapons in to the British Military Administration. However many weapons were not returned and were stashed for possible future use.[citation needed]

Guerrilla war[edit]

The MNLA commonly employed guerrilla tactics, sabotaging installations, attacking rubber plantations and destroying transportation and infrastructure.[2]

Support for the MNLA was mainly based on around 500,000 ethnic Chinese then living in Malaya (there were 3.12 million Chinese in total); the ethnic Malay population supported them in smaller numbers. The MNLA raised the support of the Chinese because they were denied the equal right to vote in elections, had no land rights to speak of, and were usually very poor. The MNLA's supply organisation was called "Min Yuen." It had a network of contacts within the general population. Besides supplying material, such as food and weapons, it was also important to the MNLA as an information gatherer.

The MNLA had its hideouts in the rather inaccessible tropical jungle with limited infrastructure. Most MNLA guerrillas were ethnic Chinese, though there were some Malays, Indonesians and Indians among its members. The MNLA was organized into regiments. The regiments were considerably smaller than a regiment would usually be in a modern national army; the term was largely a geographical designation: each regiment operated in a different area of the country. The regiments had political sections, commissars, instructors and secret service. They also had lectures about Marxism-Leninism, and had political newsletters to be distributed to the locals. MNLA also stipulated that their soldiers had to get official permission for any romantic involvement with local women.

In the early stages of the conflict, the guerrillas envisioned establishing "liberated areas" in which the government forces had been driven out and MNLA control established. They were unsuccessful, however, in establishing any such areas. The initial government strategy was primarily to guard important economic targets such as mines and plantation estates. Subsequently, Director of Operations General Sir Harold Briggs developed an overall strategy known as the Briggs Plan. Its central tenet was that the best way to defeat an insurgency such as the government was facing is to cut the insurgents off from their supporters amongst the population. The Briggs Plan was multi-faceted; however one aspect of it has become particularly well known: this was the forced relocation of some 500,000 rural Malayans including 400,000 Chinese into guarded camps called "New Villages". These villages were newly constructed in most cases, and were surrounded by barbed wire, police posts, and floodlit areas, the purpose of which was both to keep the inhabitants in and the guerrillas out. People resented this at first but some soon became content with the better living standards in the villages. They were given money and ownership of the land they lived on. Removing a population which might be sympathetic to guerrillas was a counter-insurgency technique which the British had used before, notably against the Boer Commandos in the Second Boer War (1899–1902).

In the international scene, the emerging Korean War eclipsed the developing conflict in Malaya.

Jungle service dress of the 1st Battalion Somerset Light Infantry used in the emergency.

At the start of the Emergency, the British had a total of 13 infantry battalions, comprising seven partly-formed Gurkha battalions, three British battalions, two battalions of the Royal Malay Regiment and a British Royal Artillery Regiment being utilised as infantry.[3] This force was too small to effectively meet the threat of the "communist terrorists" or "bandits", and more infantry battalions were needed in Malaya. The British brought in soldiers from units such as the Worcestershire Regiment, Royal Marines and King's African Rifles. Another effort was a re-formation of the Special Air Service as a specialised reconnaissance, raiding and counter-insurgency unit in 1950.

The Permanent Secretary of Defence for Malaya, Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson, had served in the Chindits in Burma during World War II, which meant that his vast experience in jungle warfare proved valuable during this period as he was able to help build effective civil-military relations and was one of the chief architects of the counter-insurgency plan in Malaya.[4][5] In 1951, some British army units began a "hearts and minds campaign" by giving medical and food aid to Malays and indigenous tribes. At the same time, they put pressure on MNLA by patrolling the jungle. Units such as the SAS, the Royal Marines and Gurkha Brigade drove MNLA guerrillas deeper into the jungle and denied them resources. The MRLA had to extort food from the Sakai and earned their enmity. Many of the captured guerrillas changed sides. In comparison, the MRLA never released any Britons alive.

In the end the conflict involved up to a maximum of 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops against a peak of about 7–8,000 communist guerrillas.

British Propaganda during the Emergency[edit]

British propaganda was distributed by the Psychological Warfare Section of the Emergency Information Service (EIS). The Chinese Assistant to the Head of the Service was C. C. Too, who became head of the Psychological Warfare Section in 1955. He believed that it was more important to propagandize the civilians, rather than the insurgents, as the insurgents listened to the masses.

The Psychological Warfare Section produced about 6 million leaflets each month, which were packed into bundles of 2,500 each at the Kuala Lumpur Royal Air Force Station. It is estimated that 350 million tonnes worth of propaganda leaflets were dropped throughout the 12 year Emergency period. The majority of the leaflets were developed in light yellow sand or deep brown earth colors to blend in with the ground, in order to enable comrades to steal glances at them, without fear of undue attention - one of Too's novel ideas.

In addition to leaflets, aircraft equipped with loudspeakers broadcast propaganda over remote areas.

Resolving the Emergency[edit]

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On October 6, 1951 the MNLA ambushed and killed the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney. The killing has been described as a major factor in causing the Malayan population to roundly reject the MNLA campaign, and also as leading to widespread fear due to the perception that "if even the High Commissioner was no longer safe, there was little hope of protection and safety for the man-in-the-street in Malaya."[6] More recently, MNLA leader Chin Peng has, by contrast, said that the killing had little effect, and that the communists anyway radically altered their strategy that month in their 'October Resolutions'[7]. The October Resolutions, a response to the Briggs Plan, involved a change of tactics: by reducing attacks on economic targets and civilians, increasing efforts to go into political organisation and subversion, and bolstering the supply network from the Min Yuen as well as jungle farming.

Gurney's successor, Lieutenant General Gerald Templer was instructed by the British government to push for immediate measures to give Chinese ethnic residents the right to vote. He also pursued the Briggs Plan, and sped up the formation of a Malayan army. At the same time he made it clear that the Emergency itself was the main impediment to accelerating decolonisation. He also increased financial rewards for detecting guerrillas by any civilians and expanded the intelligence network (Special Branch).

Australia was willing to send troops to help a SEATO ally and the first Australian ground forces, the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR), arrived in 1955.[8] The battalion would later be replaced by 3RAR, which would in turn be replaced by 1RAR. The Royal Australian Air Force contributed No. 1 Squadron (Avro Lincoln bombers) and No. 38 Squadron (C-47 transports), operating out of Singapore, early in the conflict. In 1955, the RAAF extended Butterworth air base, from which Canberra bombers of No. 2 Squadron (replacing No. 1 Squadron) and CAC Sabres of No. 78 Wing carried out ground attack missions against the guerillas. The Royal Australian Navy destroyers Warramunga and Arunta joined the force in June 1955. Between 1956 and 1960, the aircraft carriers Melbourne and Sydney and destroyers Anzac, Quadrant, Queenborough, Quiberon, Quickmatch, Tobruk, Vampire, Vendetta and Voyager were attached to the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve forces for 6-9 months at a time. Several of the destroyers fired on Communist positions in Johor State.

Realizing that his conflict had not come to any fruition, Chin Peng sought a referendum with the ruling British government alongside many Malayan officials at Baling in 1955. The meeting was intended to pursue a mutual end to the conflict but the Malayan government representatives, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, dismissed all of Chin Peng's demands. As a result, the conflict heightened and, in response, New Zealand sent NZSAS soldiers, No. 14 Squadron RNZAF and later No. 75 Squadron RNZAF, and other Commonwealth members also sent troops to aid the British.

With the independence of Malaya under Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on August 31, 1957, the insurrection lost its rationale as a war of colonial liberation. The last serious resistance from MRLA guerrillas ended with a surrender in the Telok Anson marsh area in 1958. The remaining MRLA forces fled to the Thai border and further east.

On July 31, 1960 the Malayan government declared the state of Emergency was over, and Chin Peng left south Thailand for Beijing where he was accommodated by the Chinese authorities in the International Liaison Bureau, which was where many other Southeast Asian Communist Party leaders were housed.

During the conflict security forces killed 6,710 MRLA guerrillas and captured 1,287. Of the total number of guerrillas, 2,702 surrendered during the conflict and about 500 at the end of the conflict. There were 1,346 Malayan troops and police[9] and 519 British military personnel killed. 2,478 civilians were killed and 810 recorded missing as a result of the conflict.


The conflicts in Malaya and Vietnam have been compared many times and it has been asked by historians how a British force of 35,000 succeeded where over a half million U.S. and others soldiers failed. However the two conflicts differ in several key points.

  • The MNLA was isolated and without external supporters.
  • The MNLA was politically isolated from the bulk of the population. It was, as mentioned above, a political movement almost entirely limited to ethnic Chinese; support among Muslim Malays and smaller tribes was scattered if existent at all. Malay nationalists supported the British because they promised independence in a Malay state; an MNLA victory would imply a state dominated by ethnic Chinese, and possibly a puppet state of Beijing or Moscow.
  • Britain never approached the Emergency as a conventional conflict and quickly implemented an effective combined intelligence (led by Malayan Police Special Branch against the political arm of the guerrilla movement)[10][11] and a 'hearts and minds' operation. At national, state, and district levels, command was through a committee of army, police and civilian administration officials, which allowed intelligence to be rapidly evaluated and disseminated. The State War Executive Committees, for example, included the State Chief Minister as chair, the Chief Police Officer, senior military commander, state home guard officer, state financial officer, state information officer, executive secretary and up to six selected community leaders. The Police, Military and Home Guard representatives and the Secretary formed the operations sub-committee responsible for day-to-day direction of emergency operations. The operations subcommittees as a whole made joint decisions.[12]
  • Many Malayans had fought side by side with the British against the Japanese occupation in World War II, including Chin Peng. This is in contrast to Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) where French colonial officials often operated as proxies and collaborators to the Japanese. This factor of trust between the locals and the colonials was what gave the British an advantage over the French and later, the Americans in Vietnam.
  • In purely military terms, the British Army recognized that in a low-intensity war, the individual soldier's skill and endurance was of far greater importance than overwhelming firepower (artillery, air support, etc.) Even though many British soldiers were conscripted National Servicemen, the necessary skills and attitudes were taught at a Jungle Warfare School, which also worked out the optimum tactics based on experience gained in the field.[13]


In the late 1960s the coverage of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War prompted the initiation of investigations in the UK concerning alleged war crimes perpetrated by British forces during the Emergency. One of such allegations is the Batang Kali massacre. No charges arose however, and it has been suggested that the incoming government of Edward Heath acted improperly in terminating the investigations.[citation needed]

In popular Malaysian culture, the Emergency has sometimes been portrayed as a primarily Malay struggle against the communists. However, this perception has been criticised by several, such as Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin, for not recognising Chinese and Indian efforts.[14]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Stubbs, Richard (2004). Hearts and Minds in Guerilla Warfare: The Malayan Emergency 1948–1960 Eastern University, ISBN 981210352X.
  • Hack, Karl and Chin, C.C. (2004), Dialogues with Chin Peng: New Light on the Malayan Communist Party.
  • Hack, Karl (1999), 'Corpses, Prisoners of War and Captured documents: British and Communist Narratives of the Malayan Emergency, and the Dynamics of Intelligence Transformation;, in Intelligence and National Security.
  • Comber, Leon (2006), "Malaya's Secret Police 1945–60. The Role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency", PhD dissertation, Monash University, Melbourne (to be jointly published by ISEAS (Institute of SE Asian Affairs, Singapore) and MAI (Monash Asia Institute)in early 2007.
  • Jumper, Roy (2001), Death Waits in the "Dark": The Senoi Praaq, Malaysia's Killer Elite, Greenwood Press, [[[International Standard Book Number|ISBN]] 0-313-31515-9]
  • Leon Comber, "The Malayan Special Branch on the Malayan-Thai Frontier during the Malayan Emergency", Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 21, No. 1 (February 2006), pp. 77–99.
  • Leon Comber, "The Malayan Security Service (1945–1948)", Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 18, No. 3, (Autumn 2003), pp. 128–153.
  • Nagl, John A (2002). Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam University of Chicago, ISBN 0226-56770-2


  1. ^ Mohamed Amin and Malcolm Caldwell, ed's. The Making of a Neo Colony; 1977, Spokesman Books, UK., footnote, p. 216.
  2. ^ Rashid, Rehman (1993). A Malaysian Journey, p. 27. Self-published. ISBN 983-99819-1-9.
  3. ^ Karl Hack, Defense & Decolonization in South-East Asia, p. 113.
  4. ^ Joel E. Hamby Civil-military operations: joint doctrine and the Malayan Emergency, Joint Force Quarterly, Autumn, 2002, Paragraph 3,4
  5. ^ Curtis Peoples. The Use of the British Village Resettlement Model in Malaya and Vietnam, 4th Triennial Symposium (April 11-13, 2002), The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University
  6. ^ Ongkili, James P. (1985). Nation-building in Malaysia 1946–1974, p. 79. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-582681-7.
  7. ^,M1
  8. ^ AWM.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Leon Comber, "Malaya's Secret Police 1945–60. The Role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency", PhD dissertation, Monash University, Melbourne, 2006 (to be jointly published by ISEAS (Institute of SE Asia Studies, Singapore and Monash Asia Institute)).
  11. ^ Clutterbuck, Richard (1967). The long long war: The emergency in Malaya, 1948–1960 Cassell. Cited at length in Vietnam War essay on Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya, eHistory, Ohio State University.
  12. ^ Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya, Director of Operations, Malaya, 1958, Chapter III: Own Forces
  13. ^ Analysis of British tactics in Malaya
  14. ^ Kaur, Manjit (Dec. 16, 2006). Zam: Chinese too fought against communists. Malaysia Today.[not in citation given]

External links[edit]

Category:Wars involving Australia Category:Insurgencies

id:Kedaruratan Malaya ms:Darurat Tanah Melayu ru:Война в Малайе