Oral History and People's Memory of the Malayan Emergency (1948-60): The Case of Pulai

By Tan, Teng Phee | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Oral History and People's Memory of the Malayan Emergency (1948-60): The Case of Pulai


Tan, Teng Phee, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


The British colonial government declared "a state of Emergency" after the murder of three European plantation managers at Sungai Siput in Perak state on 16 June 1948. For the British, these events marked the outbreak of an armed communist insurgency in Malaya. Life in colonial Malaya was irrevocably changed by the onset of the "Emergency", which did not end until 31 July 1960. During these twelve years, one of the most important social impacts of the Emergency was the "regroupment" and "relocation" of nearly 1,200,000 rural dwellers and squatters in British Malaya: 573,000 people were resettled into 480 so-called "New Villages", while another 650,000 people were also displaced and relocated, mostly to rubber estates and tin mines (Sandhu 1973, pp. 24-35).

The underlying purpose of this "great social development project", perceived as a major counter-insurgency strategy, was to isolate and defeat the communists and to simultaneously win the "hearts and minds" of the rural populace. (2) From a purely military standpoint, the colonial government won the "shooting war" in the late 1950s. After Malaya gained its independence in 1957, however, the Alliance government took another three years to finally end the Emergency in 1960. Since then, the regroupment areas have been dismantled and disappeared, whereas the New Villages continue to exist on the sites where they were first established. (3) Set against this background of counter-insurgency and mass displacement and resettlement, this article focuses on Pulai as a case study of a forced resettlement programme and its impact on the local community and history.

According to official accounts, a "standard" New Village usually possessed basic amenities such as a police station, a school, a dispensary, a community hall, piped water, and electricity supply (Corry 1954). However, in practice, there was usually a gap in the provision of such amenities owing to the lack of resources (money, staff, and materials) and the rapid strategic demands made by the Emergency government. In addition, the villagers were both confined and "protected" by a barbed wire fence and placed under a strict control and surveillance regime, including curfews, body searches at checkpoints, communal kitchen arrangements, food restrictions, and identity certificate registration. (4) What occurred on a daily basis behind barbed wire among the New Villagers largely remains an untold story. We know little from the perspective of those hundreds of thousands of rural people who were most directly affected by the anti-Communist campaign. These people have remained silenced and their stories buried by official reports and government statistics.

By using the oral history approach, this article challenges the state-oriented discourse on the success of the Emergency. (5) The colonial government even claimed that a "New Village" was a safe haven providing sanctuary, security, and a modern way of life for "alien Chinese squatters" (CO717/167). In contrast to state interpretations, what emerges from the oral recollections of the elderly residents of Pulai contradicts much of the official narrative, detailing mostly success stories. Furthermore, these oral testimonies proved particularly valuable because of the absence of specific files detailing Pulai's resettlement process in either the national or state archives. Relying on the memories and accounts of the Pulai people, this article, based on interviews with seventeen individuals affected by the resettlement programme targeted at the Pulai people (see Appendix for details on informants), aims to represent their hidden history and the legacy of their difficult past. While on the one hand, the article demonstrates the breadth and depth of state intrusion and the vulnerability of ordinary people caught between hostile opponents, on the other, the most striking finding of this research is the resilience of the Pulai people themselves--a resilience that was especially evident during the Emergency rule and that can only be recaptured through the recording of oral history. …

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