Wade makes a number of illuminating points. He argues, rightly I think, that the matter of Chin Peng reflects social fissures and political cleavages in modern Malaysian society. The torrent of vilification has been mixed with hagiography. Was Chin Peng a traitor or freedom fighter? Should he be erased from history – or regarded as Malaysia’s Aung Sang?
Wade’s article goes a long way to revealing Chin Peng as a real historical agent, rather than spectral bogey man or nationalist hero.
I was especially impressed by Wade’s analysis of how the Malayan communists reacted to the failure of the Malayan Union. This narrative is perhaps not as well known outside Southeast Asian departments of history as it should be… The Union plan had been hatched up in London not long after the fall of Singapore when much of Southeast Asia was occupied by the Japanese. Its authors were members of the ‘Malayan Planning Unit’. In some respects, the Union plan was a means to harmonize the different semi colonial entities of Southeast Asia – in short as a single colony. It is important to realize that ‘End of Empire’ also meant retrenchment. While the Indian nationalists would at last get their way, Malayan rubber and tin were too valuable as dollar earning commodities to give up… So the Union plan can be seen as a means to streamline a crucial colonial resource. The other ingredient of the Malayan Union that Wade highlights is that the British were hoping to engineer a ‘peninsula Malayan polity’ and eschew a Malay dominated one. (Remember that it was British colonial administrators who had created these divisions in their modern form in the first place.)
This was naturally anathema to the new Malay nationalist movement that was spearheaded by UMNO – and to the Malay rulers. Although British indirect rule had long rested on the political exploitation of the Malay sultans by British advisers, the experience of the Japanese occupation had hardened colonial minds against the Malays. After all it was the Chinese dominated communist party that had inspired armed opposition to the Japanese. In the immediate post war period UMNO’s demand for ‘special rights for Malays’ looked impertinent.
Wade points out that the Malayan Union was politically congruent with Malayan Communist Party’s policy of ‘open democratic struggle’ by ‘the unity of the three races’.
When UMNO and the Malay Rulers brought the Union crashing down (to be replaced by a federal concept that reassured the rulers) Chin Peng and his comrades were almost as dismayed as the humiliated British colonial administrators… Wade makes this intriguing point:
Whether it was mainly this which led to the CPM under Chin Peng planning and launching a rebellion (aka revolutionary war) in mid-1948 is unclear, but the degree to which British failure to include Chinese and Indian aspirations in the 1948 Constitutional arrangements precipitated the rebellion or encouraged the assistance it was to receive from the Chinese and Indian communities and the Left from all communities remains a key issue for further research.