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The Jews of the Orient

European prejudices can take root among Asian elites. Take for example the short book ‘The Jews of the Orient’. Its author was Vajiravudh, King Rama VI of Siam who succeeded King Chulalongkorn in 1910. Vajiravudh had been educated at Sandhurst and Oxford. He was a passionate Anglophile and a prolific author: he translated both Agatha Christie and three plays of Shakespeare, including ‘The Merchant of Venice’.  In ‘The Jews of the Orient’, which had a powerful impact on the development of chauvinist Siamese/Thai nationalism, the King claimed that the Chinese exhibited all the notorious (and mythological) traits of European Jews: they cultivated clannish international networks; were reluctant to assimilate; they were clever and greedy financiers; they despised their hosts…   ‘The Jews of the Orient’ invested Asian anti-Sinitic tropes with European stereotypes of Jews.  A century after the Siamese King published his poisonous tract, and six decades after the European Holocaust, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad addressed the Islamic Conference on 16 October 2003: Jews, he proclaimed, ‘ruled the world by proxy’: he called for a ‘final victory’ by the world’s 1.3 million Muslims – we cannot, he told the Conference, be defeated ‘by a few million Jews’. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed […]
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The Anthropologist who Disappeared – the Solution

In 1953 General Gerald Templer, the new High Commissioner and Director of Operations appointed Richard Noone as ‘Protector of Aborigines’. His job had little to do with ‘protection’. His task was to break the bond between the MNLA communist guerrillas and the Orang Asli, the aboriginal tribes who supported many guerrilla platoons in the deep jungle. Richard’s brother the anthropologist Pat Noone had studied the Temiah (Senoi) tribe in northern Perak and married a Temiah woman called Anjang. Pat had disappeared a year after the Japanese invasion of Malaya.  One evening in December, 1953, Noone was working late, puzzling over his missing brother Pat’s old research papers about the Temiah, the ‘Dream People’, to try and ferret out some psychological advantage that might help win over the Senoi tribes to the government side. It was more than a decade since Pat had vanished, but Richard was obsessed with solving the tormenting puzzle of his disappearance. The telephone shattered his concentration. It was the duty office at the 22 SAS headquarters.  ‘We’ve just had an urgent signal. I can’t discuss it over the phone, but the colonel would like to see you straightaway.’ When Noone walked into the SAS ops room, […]
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The Pretty Communist, and a Hollywood Star

What could possibly connect Hollywood movie star George Sanders with the Malayan Emergency and the communist government of Hungary? On 24 July, 1952 Special Branch officers raided a house in the Lahat Road in Ipoh and arrested two women. They were held in custody and ‘rigorously interrogated’. One of the women Cheow Yin ‘committed suicide’ in her cell. The other twenty four year old Lee Ten Tai, known as Lee Meng (photographed here in 2007) was eventually charged with possession of a pistol and a grenade and consorting with persons armed with weapons and ammunition. Under Emergency regulations, these charges all carried the death penalty. The assessor system in Perak, where Lee Meng was arrested, provided for her trial by a European judge assisted by two assessors. There was, of course, no jury. The judge had to agree with only one other person to convict and sentence a prisoner to death. Lee Meng faced her accusers in style. She was, according to the leering journalists in court, exceedingly pretty and her navy blue slacks and checked blouse showed off her prison diminished frame. The Straits Times headline declared: Pretty Girl Gave Murder Orders! (The same edition lamented the fall in […]
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Greene Propaganda

It seemed appropriate this week to post some notes about a rather more impressive BBC DG than the unfortunate George Entwistle.  For the first few years of the Emergency war, propaganda efforts had been confused and paltry. By the beginning of the 1950s, with the arrival of General Briggs, a root and branch reform of both intelligence gathering and propaganda objectives was underway. Briggs had repeatedly stressed the importance of breaking down communist morale through targeted propaganda. Investment in the psychological battlefield was ramped up when it became clear that Briggs’ other proposed strategies had begun to harm the MNLA. For Briggs, resettlement would be a blunt weapon without rigorous food control. The aim was simple – starve the MNLA to defeat or death. The typical resettlement camp was a hunger machine. Each camp was encircled by barbed wire, with just two entrances which were stringently patrolled. The district authorities purchased every kind of food supply in controlled quantities. Food was secured in silos and could be purchased only by holders of ration cards. Rice was rationed. Store holders were required to keep a meticulous record of every item sold. Foodstuffs arrived in the camps at strictly controlled times; supplies […]
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Assassination!

The first two post war British High Commissioners of the Federation of Malaya had fatal bad luck. Sir Edward Gent was flying back to London – to be sacked – when his aircraft collided with a Swedish passenger plane near RAF Northolt. His successor Sir Henry Gurney was assassinated approaching Fraser’s Hill in Malaya. This is a draft of my account of this incident – comments, additions etc very welcome. In early October, 1951 High Commissioner Gurney reflected on the ‘Chinese problem’. He lamented that the new settlements and trade union organisations were under communist attack: the rural Chinese, the peasants, who are the real targets must first be protected… If [the communists] are allowed to [continue penetrating] unopposed by any Chinese initiate whatever, the whole of the Chinese rural population will soon come under communist domination. These people are looking for leaders to help them resist…’ Gurney then listed all the many ways that the Chinese obstructed government efforts. ‘They can spend $4 million on celebrations in Singapore but can spare nothing for the MCA anti-communist efforts.’ Many Chinese, he complained, lived in luxury, and expended a great deal of energy criticising the police and security forces. They did nothing […]
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Did the atom bombs end the war with Japan?

Many historians assert that the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945 forced Emperor Hirohito to surrender – thus saving tens of thousands lives that would have been lost had the war continued for longer. This argument, that has been reiterated time and again, provides a moral justification or rationale for the use of these new weapons to murder civilians. In the ruined German city  of Potsdam, six thousand miles from occupied Southeast Asia, American President Truman had something important to tell his Soviet counterpart: ‘On July 24 I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force. The Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make ‘good use of it against the Japanese.’’ His apparent indifference to the new American weapon was, of course, a sham.  Stalin had already made plans to abandon the ‘Neutrality Pact’ signed in 1941 and join the war against Japan. He had in fact promised to ‘come in’ two years earlier at the Tehran Conference.  At the same time, Soviet diplomats continued to hold out the […]
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August 1945, the Malayan revolution cancelled

The unexpected and at the time unexplained power vacuum that followed the announcement of the Japanese surrender should have handed the Malayan communists a unique historical opportunity. This surely was the dawn of the Malayan republic? What we now know is that the MCP’s treacherous Secretary General Lai Tek had very different ideas. In his memoir, published in 2003, Chin Peng revealed what happened. In August, a mood of ‘fevered expectancy and high morale’ swept through the camps of the MPAJA. On 16 August, Chin Peng chaired a routine meeting of the MCP’s Perak state committee in Ayer Kuning near Kampar. Soon after midday, his secretary burst into the meeting room with the astonishing news of the Emperor’s speech, which he had picked up on the All-Indian broadcasting network. Chin Peng recalled: ‘I promptly switched our meeting’s agenda to a review of how best to implement Lai Te’s [sic, alternate spelling] previous October directives.’ The message of these directives, it will be recalled, that in the aftermath of a Japanese defeat, the MPAJA would launch a new struggle against the British. The MPAJA commanders had been busy transforming the MPAJA into a ‘national liberation movement’: now with the stunning news […]
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In memorian Eric Hobsbawm

All good historians and decent people will mourn the passing of Eric Hobsbawm – a very great historian. I remember reading ‘Age of Empire’ at school – it was revelatory. The importance of Hobsbawm’s work is acknowledged even by right wing historian Niall Ferguson. This is simply because, whatever his political views, Ferguson fully understands the values of Hobsbawm’s remarkbale body of work. No doubt the parsimonious shallow minded inhabitants of Dailymailworld will excoriate his life long commitment to Marxism and membership of the Communist Party. The people who make this kind of judgement are pygmies. Hobsbawm who was Jewish grew up in Vienna and Berlin: he experienced at first had the rise of the Nazi Party – his commitment to communism was a value system that rejected the destructive forces of fascism. The Daily Mail of course was a ‘fellow travelling’ paper that advertised the delights of Hitler’s Germany to its readers. That’s a pretty skewed morality isn’t it? Hobsbawm did not deny the horrors of Stalin’s Soviet Union – for him the moral values of Communism remained incorruptible. He denounced Soviet attacks on freedom and democracy – and rejoiced in the Prague Spring. Much  narrow mind anti Hobsbawmism […]
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Batang Kali – the judgement

This has just appeared on the Bindmans web site: Sir John Thomas, President of the Queens Bench Division, and Mr Justice Treacy today gave judgment on a judicial review of the Government’s position on the killing of 24 civilians by British troops in 1948. The Court ruled that, given conflicts between European Human Rights Convention and UK law, there is no legal obligation to hold the public inquiry into the killings that the family members of those killed have campaigned for.  But the Court’s 176-paragraph judgement examines the current documentary evidence in forensic detail, concluding it “can no longer be permissible” for the “official account” of events given to Parliament to be maintained.  Ministers’ attempts to evade legal responsibility for the killings by arguing a Malayan Sultan commanded the troops involved are also firmly rejected: “given that what is in issue is the actions of the Scots Guards in shooting civilians, on ordinary principles those responsible for the command of the troops who did the shooting, ultimately the Army Council, have the responsibility for their actions.” On what those actions involved, the judgement continues:  “[t]here is no evidence, 63 years later, on which any of the 10 key facts relating […]
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The end of Lai Tek

The Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) Lai Tek had smoothed Chin Peng’s ascent to power in the Party. Now his downfall allowed Chin Peng to seize complete control of the MCP. The Central Committee was purged and Chin Peng elected as Secretary General. He was just twenty three. But the Lai Tek crisis was not over. For one thing, Chin Peng realised that Lai Tek must have been planning to pass on information about the location of secret weapons caches to the British. He had cunningly streamlined the Party organisation to create autonomous Organisational Bureau that functioned independently of the Central Committee. Lai Tek had sent a stream of messages to the Bureau, which were never seen by Central Committee members, demanding information about the arms caches and who controlled them. None, however complied. It was simply inconceivable for the old MPAJA fighters to consider putting such high value information in writing.  On this at least, Lai Tek had been foiled – but the MCP wanted and needed their money back – and no doubt hungered to enact revenge. At a meeting on 6 March, the Politburo agreed that their newly elected Party leader Chin Peng should […]
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