by Jeremy Tiang
I wanted to write a book about the Malayan communist insurrection of the 1950s, so I took a bus to the jungles of Southern Thailand, where the former guerrilla fighters all live these days. In the town of Betong, I went up to people in the street (fortunately, everyone in Betong speaks Chinese, so I didn’t need my Thai phrasebook, which is shockingly lacking in communist vocabulary) until I found someone willing to take me up the mountain on his motorbike. He didn’t have a spare helmet, but on such a steep mountain road a helmet probably wouldn’t have done me much good.
The Malayan insurrection, otherwise known as ‘The Emergency’, was one of the rash of communist rebellions that spread across South-East Asia in the decades after the second World War – it was never successful, largely due to the government’s tactic of imprisoning the rural population in concentration camps (“new villages”) to prevent them from supplying the insurgents with food and medicine. Donald Mackay’s book on this period calls Malaya “the domino that stood.” The insurrection began as a series of sabotage attacks on colonially-owned tin mines and rubber plantations, but quickly evolved into a guerrilla war between the communist Malayan People’s Liberation Army and British Commonwealth Forces.
Although the state of emergency was lifted in 1960, when the communist rebels had been contained in the northern jungles of Malaya, the fighting continued for three decades more, under the leadership of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). As a child, growing up in Singapore, I was serenely unaware of all of this – for all that it was a life-and-death struggle to its participants, the conflict was invisible to the bulk of the region’s population. By the last stages of the conflict, the combatants were holed up in their jungle fortress around Betong, largely ignored apart from occasional overhead bombing raids (not that you can see through the jungle canopy – pilots were instructed to drop their missiles at random, in the hopes of getting lucky).
I tried to explain to the people I met how odd it was that I hadn’t known of their existence, and they said yes, they knew, they’d found a way to receive television in the jungle. They knew that they were being removed from the public consciousness, but they felt it was important to go on – for their own integrity, for the sake of the mountain villagers who had come to rely on them for protection (‘When we told them we were leaving,’ one ex-guerilla told me, ‘they clung to us and wept.’), and because many of them simply couldn’t imagine any other way of life. This state of affairs went on until 1989, by which point the end of the cold war and collapse of the Eastern European communist bloc made the MCP realise that it was unlikely they would ever be able to form a communist government in Malaysia.
It boggles the mind to think of it now. All the time I was growing up in law-abiding Singapore, going on family holidays to the north of Malaysia, where my mother is from, there was a slow-burning guerrilla war taking place not very far away from us. It didn’t make it into the papers very often. And now, the government-sponsored narrative still prevails, the one of evil forces who wanted to take Malaysia down the dead-end route of communism, but failed where those in Vietnam succeeded. It’s only in recent years that people like documentary-maker Amir Muhammad have begun to challenge these ideas.
I’ve been trying to think of a word to describe Amir Muhammad that doesn’t make him sound demented, and the best I can come up with is ‘anarchic’. You should follow him on twitter (@amirmu). It’s a bit challenging, because half his tweets are in Malay, but worth it for the bracing insanity of his views. You probably do need to be a bit mad to successfully challenge orthodoxy quite so thoroughly.
Muhammad is best known for a pair of films about the aforementioned communists. The Last Communist is a sort-of biopic about Malayan Communist leader Chin Peng – I say sort of, because Chin Peng doesn’t actually appear in it. What we get instead is a tour of his life, starting with the small town in which he was born (best opening line ever: ‘This town used to be called Dead Elephant. Two elephants collided here and died, so we called it Dead Elephant.’)
This is one of the most bizarre documentaries you are ever likely to encounter. We are told how each individual place we see relates to Chin Peng’s life in a series of title cards (where he went to school, where he first encountered communism) – but the people Muhammad chooses to interview appear unrelated to his subject. A woman tells us about her pomelo farm; a man talks about his bicycle repair business. Now and then he blindsides us, as when a Muslim schoolgirl sweetly says to camera, ‘If I were Prime Minister of a country, I would get rid of the communists from the start. Because they have no religion.’ Mostly, though, it is a feast of deliberate bathos. ‘It was important to lie low,’ we are told, over footage of the animals in Taiping Zoo settling down to sleep.
Oh, and it’s a musical. The documentary sequences are interspersed with amateurish song and dance numbers which parody the over-earnest propaganda music of the communists. Around the time Chin Peng is bitten by a mosquito, which is the cue for a figure dressed as the grim reaper to sing “Malaria Massacres Malaya”, I turned off my critical faculties and just went along for a ride. It’s not all fun and games, of course, and by the end, when Chin Peng is living in exile in Thailand, his dreams of a Soviet Malaya long gone, the film has an elegiac feel in sharp contrast to the madcap energy of the early sections – an effect which mirrors the trajectory of the Malayan communist movement itself.
The Last Communist premiered at the Berlinale in 2006 (the year jury chairperson Charlotte Rampling affirmed the festival’s commitment to ‘politically ambitious film’). Muhammad followed it a year later with Village People Radio Show, which met with the same polite bafflement he surely expects by now. Both films were, incidentally, banned in Malaysia. I managed to track down copies in Singapore – you can view Village People in the National Library, but only after handing over your identity card and letting them take down your name.
Compared to The Last Communist, Village People Radio Show is a more sombre look at the tangled relationships between the Malayan Communist Party and the Malaysian villages they infiltrated. The title is not an accurate translation of the actual Malay title (which, being taken from a song, is probably not easy to find an equivalent for). It alludes to the mountain settlements where the communists now live – referred to incongruously as the “Peace” and “Friendship” Villages, under the patronage of the Thai royal family.
(Incidentally, the reason for the different names is that in the last decade or so, factions had begun appearing amongst the communists. They ended up not on speaking terms with each other, holding entirely separate negotiations with the authorities. The Communist Party of Malaya ended up in the Peace Villages; the Communist Party of Malaysia went to the Friendship Villages. The latter was further divided, between the “Revolutionary Faction” and the “Marxist-Leninist Faction”. No one could explain the difference to me, although apparently it was very important at the time. Everyone is friends again now, apart from Chin Peng, whom no one likes. He lives in Bangkok and does not give interviews, but has written a couple of fairly unpleasant autobiographies in which he muses about which of his killings were ‘justified’.)
Just to keep things compellingly odd, Muhammad intersperses the documentary segments with a reading of the first half of “A Winter’s Tale”, performed in Thai. I’m not sure why, unless Hermione is meant to represent the spirit of Malaya, torn between opposing forces – but it does mean that the last line of the film is, delightfully, ‘Exit pursued by a bear’.
Quite apart from what they have to say, the importance of these films is that they exist at all. The stories of these individuals, who spent decades of their lives fighting for an ideal, are rarely heard – and now they are all in their seventies and eighties, we may not have much longer to capture them. Village People Radio Show has some heartbreaking interviews with the inhabitants of the Peace Village, describing with great simplicity the hardships they have suffered, and how they still dream of a world where all are equal. It is possible to have sympathy for this point of view, whilst still thinking the movement was massively misguided – as with the Baader-Meinhof Gang, when you start killing actual people, you have perhaps lost sight of what you are fighting for. I think these are voices that need to be heard.
I am not a communist (though I am a socialist, which many people in Singapore seem to think is the same thing). Still, I think Muhammad has done something rather wonderful, in his inimitable way. Walking around these villages, talking to the communists (many of whom are still hoping the rise of China will bring a revolution), I realised that above all, they were desperate to be heard. Once a credible political force, they’ve been rendered invisible, particularly since the end of the Cold War, when even their services as stock villains were no longer needed. Amir Muhammad came into the strange, twilight world of the surrendered communists, and without judging or condescending, told their story.
I’m glad I went up the mountain, and got to speak to the remaining comrades. They all struck me as kind, resilient people, which I found impossible to square with what they had done in the past (an unwritten rule of these encounters is: you never ask an interviewee how many people they killed). The villages they live in are surrounded by farms, developed from land given to them by the government when they surrendered, and not far from the warren of tunnels that formed their defence against the government forces. Now they all have Thai passports, and their children speak Thai, but they refer to China as home; even the ones who have never been, talk about ‘going back’. The communists I met are the remnants of one of the oddest chapters in Malaysia’s history, one that I hope will not be forgotten.
Jeremy Tiang is an actor and writer. He has written novel about the Emergency, called “MacDonald House”. His website is here.