Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Terminology of Terrorism: Malaya, 1948-52

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Terminology of Terrorism: Malaya, 1948-52

Article excerpt

In so far as the Cold War was a psychological war for the 'hearts and minds' of populations at home and abroad, the language used by combatants on both sides of the ideological divide assumed immense significance. Those fighting on the front line of Cold War propaganda devoted considerable attention to nomenclature believed to be the most appropriate, evocative or efficacious. 'In political and ideological struggles', Conor Cruise O'Brien has observed, 'words are weapons, not analytical tools. That has always been so.' (1)

It is surprising, therefore, that the literature on the language of the Cold War is so sparse. None of the numerous recent studies of America's propaganda offensives and 'cultural cold war' against the Soviet Union, for example, has discussed the role of political language in the projection of Western values or the dissemination of anti-Communist propaganda through written and spoken word. (2) This omission repeats the pattern of earlier studies. (3) Similarly, despite the Soviet claim that propaganda generally and radio in particular constituted 'the most important peacetime weapon of psychological warfare,' analyses of sociolinguistics behind the 'Iron Curtain' are absent. (4) Even in the vast literature of US counterinsurgency and psychological operations (or 'psyops') during the Vietnam War, this dimension remains missing. (5) It is almost entirely overlooked in analyses of the Malayan Emergency, with which this article is concerned, that have dealt with propaganda, psychological warfare or 'the war of words'. (6) In the most recent study of propaganda during the Emergency, the question of political language is relegated to less than one paragraph. (7) Even in a rare analysis of the political uses of the word 'terrorism', the focus is so narrow, the extrapolation so limited and the historiographical clothing so threadbare that its tantalising title--'the logomachy of terrorism'--delivers less than it promises. (8)

The article therefore aims to fill a partial historiographical gap in studies of both the Malayan Emergency and the Cold War generally. I have chosen the Emergency as a case study since it clearly shows the British government grappling with this issue of political terminology within the broader context of anti-Communist propaganda. (9) Whilst the article is not located within any conceptual framework of linguistic or communications theory, it accepts as a starting point that language has a political function; it is not only determined by political institutions and interests but is itself a determinant of political perceptions and behaviour. (10) By charting the shift in the language used to depict Communist insurgents in Malaya, this article seeks to throw some new historical light on the use of political language during the early years of the Emergency. The focus here is not the domestic reaction to such language--from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or the jungle--on which the documentary record is silent in any case, but on its formulation and dissemination by the British government.

One of the agencies responsible for coordinating anti-Communist propaganda activities in Malaya was the Information Research Department (IRD), a top secret semiautonomous unit created within the British Foreign Office in early 1948. (11) Until this time the Foreign, Colonial and Commonwealth Relations Offices were still largely autonomous and the responsibility for British propaganda within the colonies lay with the Information Policy Committee of the Colonial Office. From 1948 this changed and the IRD became the directing arm of anti-Communist propaganda. Soon it was the key instrument in Britain's clandestine ideological offensive against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In June 1948, almost immediately after the Malayan Emergency commenced, an IRD base was established in the compound of Phoenix Park, the Singapore residence of the Commissioner-General for the UK in Southeast Asia, Malcolm MacDonald, and by August the following year it was fully operational. …

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