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The strange story of Lai Tek 1

With thanks to Dr. Leon Comber…

Sometime in 1935, a stocky, dark skinned man with a
narrow face and a thin slit of a mouth entered a shabby Chinese grocery store
in Hong Kong owned by one Wu Si Li. In the course of a violent and colourful
career, the stranger would make use of at least thirty eight different aliases.
 He would become notorious as Lai Tek.[1] His
real name was probably Pham Van Dac. He was as protean and treacherous as his
many identities. That day in 1935, Lai Tek was travelling as an agent of the
Comintern. Wu Si Li’s store was a front used by the CCP and the Malayan
Communists. Lai Tek was provided with funds and purchased a boat ticket to
Singapore. As soon as he arrived, he made his way to the kongsi house of the
Singapore Vegetable Growers’ Association, which was another MCP front address
where he met someone calling himself Chen Liang. Lai Tek informed his contact
that he was a ‘senior Comintern liaison officer from Hong Kong’. He had been
sent to Singapore as a trouble shooter to ginger up the battered MCP. He had
impressive credentials. He had studied communist theory in France and Russia,
and had been a member of the CCP Shanghai Town Committee. He was of
Chinese-Vietnamese origin and also claimed to have connections with Ho Chi
Minh. There was no one in Singapore who could disprove Lai Tek’s account – and
his international connections gave him immediate prestige. He rose quickly.
Although the MCP was an illegal organisation, its members provoked a number of
strikes and walk outs. In March, 1937, Lai Tek took a prominent role when the
MCP backed striking miners at the Batu Arang coal mine in Selangor. The miners
set up a ‘Soviet’ – the first ever in Malaya. The strike and the ‘Soviet’
swiftly collapsed. But Lai Tek had made his mark. At the 6th Central
Extended Conference of the Central he was elected Secretary-General of the
Party.  His appointment was a spectacular
coup – not for world communism, but for the British Special Branch. For Lai Tek was
a double agent. After the Japanese conquest of Malaya, he would sell his
political soul once again – to the notorious Kempeitai. Lai Tek would do untold damage to the communist
cause in Malaya.


[1] The most
detailed recent account of the career of Lai Tek is Leon Comber’s 2010 ‘Traitor of all Traitors’—Secret Agent Extraordinaire:
Lai Teck, Secretary-General, Communist Party of Malaya (1939–1947), published
in JMBRAS, VOL. 83, Part 2 (2010), pp. 1–25. ‘The Masked Comrades: a
Study of the Communist United Front in Malaya, 1945-48’ (1979) and ‘Red Star
over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese
Occupation of Malaya, 1941-1946’ both by Cheah Boon Kheng discuss the case of
Lai Tek in detail. Not a single Special Branch file appears to have survived.

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