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International Socialism, January 1975


John Newsinger

Riot and Revolution in Singapore and Malaya


From International Socialism, No.74, January 1975, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Riot and Revolution in Singapore and Malaya
Richard Clutterbuck
Faber, £3.95.

RICHARD Clutterbuck is one of Britain’s foremost exponents of anti-guerilla warfare and counter-revolution. He has been a serving Major General as recently as 1972 and is at present a lecturer in International Politics, Political Violence and Revolution at Exeter University. This book is not therefore another innocuous account of the Malayan Emergency, but is a case-study written by an expert with first-hand knowledge of his subject for the benefit of military and civil authorities confronted with similar situations.

By the end of the Second Wortt War, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), which was almost exclusively Chinese in composition, had built up an army of some 10,000 guerillas hiding out in the jungle. This force was the only serious opposition to the Japanese occupation and had widespread support among the Chinese who made up over a third of the total population in Malaya and three quarters in Singapore.

When the British reoccupied the country in 1945, the MCP was faithful to Stalin’s policy of alliance with the Western Powers and offered no resistance. The opportunity to confront British Imperialism from a position of relative strength was let slip: the guerilla army was demobilised, each man receiving a £45 gratuity and two campaign medals from the British Military Administration. Relations were so close that two Communists were appointed to the Advisory Committee that the Military Administration established.

The MCP oriented itself towards winning the leadership of the reviving working-class movement, particularly in Singapore. By 1947 the party had won a controlling influence in over 200 of the 247 registered trade unions. In that year there were over 300 major strikes, the majority involving Communist-led unions. These successes were not consolidated.

With the onset of the Cold War, the policy advocated by Moscow changed from one of uneasy alliance with the Western Powers to outright opposition. At a secret meeting in Calcutta in February 1948, the MCP, along with the other Asian parties, was urged to launch an armed struggle. The party began to build up its guerilla army once again, but whereas in 1945 the British had not so much as a foothold in the country, by 1948 they were well entrenched.

The guerillas started operations in May when they were still largely unprepared. In June the High Commissioner declared a State of Emergency, and in July the MCP was banned.

In this book Clutterbuck does not detail the early years of the guerilla war (which he has already done in his earlier book, The Long, Long War), but instead concentrates on describing MCP activity in the great urban centre of Singapore and the methods that were used to defeat it, and as a subsidiary theme describes the hunt for the remnants of the guerilla army in the last years of the emergency.

With the launching of the guerilla war and in the wake of the repression that followed, MCP influence in the trade unions in Singapore seriously declined. By the end of 1948, 1,779 people had been interned without trial and a further 637 had been deported to Kuomintang China where they could expect littly mercy. In December 1950 Special Branch arrested the Singapore Town Committee and altogether disrupted party organisation in the city. Not until 1954 was the organisation restored, by which time the party leadership was seriously alarmed at the failure of victory to materialise in the jungle and was calling for greater activity in the towns.

The Communists found a large audience for their militant policies and were quickly able to regain their influence within the trade-union movement. They grouped together a loose federation of unions known as the Middle Road Group around the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers Union. They also won a considerable following among Chinese secondary school students, and were able to mobilise thousands of young people against conscription, in support of strikes and against British colonialism.

By the autumn of 1956 the authorities were determined to crush the MCP in Singapore and moved to dissolve the Chinese Middle School Students Union. In October, the students at two schools barricaded themselves inside and when the police moved against them fighting broke out.

Twelve people were killed by police and troops before ‘order’ was restored. Hundreds more were beaten and arrested. In particular Special Branch raided the offices and branches of the Middle Road unions and arrested 618 trade unionists of whom 234 were subsequently interned without trial. This ruthless crackdown broke the back of the movement.

As Clutterbuck writes,

’The farsighted contingency planning for 1956 ... paid big dividends, and in the execution of the Operation the joint police/army control, the police radio car system, the timely deployment of military roadblocks and roof top observation posts, the use of helicopters and the handling of Public Relations were all excellent Many of these techniques developed in the Singapore riots of 1956 were clearly recognizable in the British Army’s handling of the initial disturbances in Northern Ireland in 1969-70.’ (page 270)

These same techniques, modified in the light of the Ulster experience, are ready for use in Britain today.

The war in the jungle, once the initial guerilla offensive was held, involved isolating the guerillas from their supporters among the Chinese village population and then painstakingly hunting them down. Altogether 740,000 villagers were forcibly resettled in guarded camps. This was a counter-revolution of massive proportions.

At the height of the Emergency there were 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops, 60,000 police, and 250,000 overwhelmingly Malay Home Guards pitted against some 8,000 guerillas. They were ruthlessly hunted down. Eventually the survivors abandoned this unequal struggle and withdrew to the comparative safety of the border with Thailand. The MCP was defeated and the Emergency came to an end after twelve years in July 1960.

Clutterbuck considers the MCP to have been a dangerous opponent that did everything possible to achieve victory and that lost not because of any mistakes on its part, but because of the superior forces available to the British and the skill with which they were used. This is not altogether satisfactory. While no one can question the courage and self-sacrifice of the Communists, the fact remains that the launching of the guerilla war in 1948 was itself a mistake. It was a response not so much to the objective situation in the country where support for the party was still confined to the Chinese, but was rather a response to changes in the policy of the international communist movement and to the subjective militancy of the Communist cadres who wanted to to hit out at the British regardless of the circumstances. This laid the basis for their defeat.

The political strategy of the British, and Clutterbuck has remarkably little to say about this, was the tried and trusted policy of divide and rule. The support of the Malay population was enlisted in the war which was portrayed as an attempt to establish a Chinese Ascendancy. The MCP took no real steps to overcome this fear and instead put its faith in a military solution. With their political base among the Malays secure, the British were able to defeat the Communists by sheer weight of men and material. It is here that the case of the Communist failure is to be found.

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