Malaysia’s Twisted Past

Nationalism is a complicated business. The cases of Mat Indera and Chin Peng prove Malaysia is no exception.

Luke Hunt

Nationalism in Malaysia is a peculiar thing. And, at the end of the day, it’s more about being Malay, Muslim and from Peninsula Malaysia as opposed to any of the other religious or many ethnic groups who have called this country home for centuries. Royal connections also help.

The West Malay Islamic influence permeates across the country, often reinventing history with its own spin. Anybody who questions this is to be cast aside with the Christians, Shiites, Buddhist and Hindus who struggle to believe Malaysia is a secular country.

In recent weeks, two people have emerged from the back rows of history to help recount that past. The first was pushed to the fore by PAS Deputy President Mohamad Sabu, or Mat Sabu as he's better known, who stirred up a hornet’s nest by portraying Mat Indera as some type of original freedom fighter.

It is, of course, nonsense. But PAS remains the voice of hard-line Muslim politics and many of them just don’t like the idea that Indera was indeed a Communist who in 1950 led an attack on a police station at Bukit Kepong, killing 25 colonial-era policemen and their families. He was loathed by the British and locals of all stripes. As such, the attack would be far more acceptable if Indera’s Communist bent could be replaced with something a little more worthy – like independence. This would make all those killings acceptable. But this would also be nonsense.

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No one knew this better than 86-year-old Chin Peng, Malaysia’s best known Communist, who has lived in Thailand for half a century, where he is currently in a coma and is unlikely to recover.

The family knows Chin Peng, who led the bloody 1948-1957 insurgency, is on his deathbed and would like the Malaysian authorities to overturn a previous ruling and allow him to return home. Should he die, they want him buried in his hometown alongside his parents.

Malaysians don’t like this idea because they fear his return will upset many. The truth is Malay leaders, particularly the Sultans, were happy to maintain the colonial status quo until Commonwealth troops had succeeded in quashing the Communist insurgency and the pre-ordained Malay leaders could take control of a fledgling independent country.

Independence was gifted in 1957, and a vote of thanks for the 70,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Gurkhas and Fijian soldiers who fought here and subdued the Malay enemy is unlikely. However, several attempts have been made to venerate Malaysia’s first leaders as those who fought and won independence for a grateful nation.

The reality is the likes of Chin Peng and Mat Indera were the only ones who fought, but they did this as Communists who wanted Malaysia transferred from the British Empire and brought under Beijing’s broader sphere of influence.Malaysia, like Vietnam and Cambodia, was a battlefield in the Cold War between East and West.

This wasn’t what the sultans had in mind. To twist this conflict into a battle for independence is also to pre-suppose the British were desperately clinging on to a Malaysia they cherished and couldn’t tolerate to see go.

Far from it, fearing the insurgency was not yet over, many Malays were initially reluctant to accept the days of colonialism were at an end in 1957. To pretend any different is to insult the memory of 10,000 people who died during the conflict, which had one act still to play.

Fearing the insurgency might reignite, and doubting their own ability to cope, the new government passed the Internal Security Act. This draconian law allowed for the detention – without much reason – of anyone the authorities didn’t like for the next 54 years.

This was one lasting legacy that can be traced back to Chin Peng, Mat Indera and the Communists who supported them. The repeal of that odious law has, thankfully, just been announced by current Prime Minister Najib Razak.