The death of Ong Boon Hua alias Chin Peng, the controversial leader of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), on Sept 16 in Bangkok at the age of 89, has generated a great deal of debate about his historical role.
Former British and Malaysian officials, soldiers and policemen who fought against him during the long counterinsurgency campaign known to posterity as the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960, regarded him as a menace to society, in a war that cost some 11,000 lives.
His supporters counter that, without Chin Peng, Malaya would never have achieved independence from British colonial rule. They argue that the Emergency was a war after all, and hence it was no surprise that atrocities occurred. Hence, they want to remember Chin Peng as a nationalist hero, a wily guerrilla strategist on a par with his great Communist contemporaries, Mao Zedong in China or Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Chin Peng’s commitment to upholding the “dignity of man” should be honoured, they say.
To be fair, Chin Peng was an extremely shrewd leader. Joining the CPM as a teenager in the late ’30s following the Japanese invasion of China, he rose quickly through the ranks. By mid-1943, due to heavy CPM losses during the Japanese Occupation, he found himself holding the dual appointment of State Committee Secretary in Perak and commander of the CPM’s Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) 5th Regiment.
Following the end of the war in 1945, after CPM Secretary-General Lai Tek was unmasked as a British agent, Chin Peng stepped into the breach. In March 1947, at the ripe young age of 23, he was elected Secretary-General.
SERIOUS ANALYTICAL MISTAKES
So Chin Peng was a highly capable young man. This did not mean he possessed sound judgment, however. His relative inexperience meant he made serious analytical mistakes.
First, he assumed — wrongly — that just because the rural Chinese population had been supportive during the Occupation, they would always be so. In fact, by 1948 when the Emergency began, economic recovery had begun and nobody wanted to get involved in yet another conflict.
Second, Chin Peng disastrously de-emphasised political education of the strategically important rural Chinese in favour of coercive tactics to secure compliance from them. Because he assumed that they would naturally be on the CPM’s side, he took any recalcitrance as a sign not of flawed thinking but of treachery deserving of the severest punishment.
Because the Communists had what historian JH Brimmell called an “elastic definition of treachery”, almost anyone became a suspect. Hence, CPM terrorism appeared not just horrifying but also indiscriminate.
In Johore, guerrillas shot dead a Chinese squatter, hacked his wife to death with a parang, set their hut alight and threw their eight-year-old daughter into the flames. In Perak, Chin Peng’s men hammered a nail through a Chinese girl’s head. At Pantai Seremban, two young men were battered to death by guerrillas wielding cangkuls. Even captured guerrillas admitted that the tortures were “too horrible for description”, while a late 1952 police report noted that this “senseless cruelty” was typical of “hundreds of similar incidents” throughout the country.
This is precisely why at the Baling Peace Talks in December 1955, Singapore Chief Minister David Marshall asked Chin Peng what he was fighting for. When the CPM chief replied the “dignity of man”, Marshall replied caustically that employing violence to secure public compliance with an ideology they did not want was not compatible with the “dignity of man”. Tellingly, Chin Peng’s only response was that they had different outlooks and he was not going to argue about it.
MEETING CHIN PENG
I met Chin Peng once: In June 1998 in London, where I was working on my doctoral thesis on the Emergency. The BBC had put together a documentary for the 50th anniversary of the Emergency and brought him out to meet academics and peruse records as he was hoping to write his memoirs.
He was 74 then, had a strong handshake, an amiable air about him and a remarkable memory. There were only five of us: Three history professors, a BBC producer and me. I came away from that three-hour meeting with the enduring impression that Chin Peng was a “true believer” in Eric Hoffer’s sense of the term: A fanatic who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
I distinctly recall how he told me then — years after the end of the fighting and following formal cessation of hostilities with Malaysia in 1989 — that the Asian Financial Crisis then ravaging South-east Asia was a chance for the CPM to regroup.
Little wonder that the legendary Malaysian government psychological warfare expert CC Too always maintained, with trademark sarcasm, that the Communists could never be trusted and that they were “a gang of half-educated, swollen-headed, power-mad adolescent demagogues trying to take over the country”.
THE ACTUAL RECORD
Chin Peng was no Mao Zedong. Historian and journalist Brian Crozier over 40 years ago concluded that Chin Peng contributed nothing to Communist theory.
The CPM — lest it be forgotten by today’s starry-eyed romantics — never stood a chance of winning in Malaya, partly because of their own massive doctrinal missteps but also because of other major reasons: First, they never succeeded in winning the strong support of the large Malay population; second, they never secured Chinese Communist support, unlike the North Vietnamese a decade later; third, they lacked wireless communications and could not coordinate their operations efficiently.
And the final reason — after initial missteps of their own, the British colonial authorities began to calibrate their own use of firepower; greatly strengthened their intelligence operations; honed food denial operations to a fine art; and developed a potent psychological warfare programme that broke the CPM’s back by the end of the ’50s.
Ultimately, even Malayan independence, which was what Chin Peng ostensibly took to the jungles for, was achieved peacefully by August 1957 through negotiations between Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and London. To say that Chin Peng’s actions were vital to the attainment of Malayan self-determination and dignity is flawed on two counts.
First: Closer British strategic alignment with the anti-colonial United States as the Cold War began meant that Malayan decolonisation was on the cards anyway. Second, David Marshall had a fundamental point: If Chin Peng was truly fighting for the dignity of man, then his means had to accord with that end. The historical record shows that this was patently not the case.
In 1998, when I asked a senior Malaysian academic colleague if she wanted to meet Chin Peng, her response said it all: “No. That b****** was responsible for the deaths of some of my family members.”
Certainly, Chin Peng was a capable, savvy leader who sincerely believed in his cause. But as social psychologist Roy Baumeister observed, one of the roots of evil is precisely such fanatical belief. It is this type of belief that produced the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the October 2002 Bali bombings and the recent Westgate Mall attack in Kenya.
Chin Peng was a sincere man, but he was sincerely wrong. Now more than ever, moral clarity is needed in the way we judge historical figures. We owe at least that to future generations.