ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Chin Peng: A Left wing Nationalist

Chin Peng should be remembered in Malaysian history as an ardent freedom fighter whose party – despite its failures in succeeding in its guerilla warfare against the British and the Malaysian state – sowed the seeds for labour organisation and resistance. 

The former secretary general of the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP), Chin Peng alias Ong Boon Hua died at the age of 88 in a private hospital in Bangkok on September 16, the day Malaysians celebrated their national day. It was on this same day, the Minister Mentor of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, celebrated his 90th birthday. According to his aide, Chin Peng will be cremated at Bangkok's Wat That Throng temple in a week's time. The news of Chin Peng’s death was carried in all the media in the country as well as abroad. Yet in Chin Peng’s own hometown of Sitiawan in the state of Perak, the people could only merely whisper about the passing away of this legend. Even though the MCP is gone, folks here are reluctant to talk openly about Chin Peng.

Like Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia, Malaya had its share of anti-imperialist/anti-colonial struggles in the 1940s and 1950s. In Vietnam it was led by the guerilla freedom fighter and communist Ho Chih Minh; in Indonesia it was led by (later President) Sukarno; and in Malaya it was under the leadership of Chin Peng. The MCP formed in the early 1930s first fought the Japanese and later the British. It is well known and acknowledged that without the contribution of the MCP, the British would have delayed the granting of political Independence in 1957. Today in Malaysia, the mention of Chin Peng's name brings about mixed feelings. While his foes think that he was a traitor and a murderer responsible for so many deaths during the civil war, others regard him as a freedom fighter, a patriot and a nationalist.

Chin Peng’s -  who fought the Japanese, British and later the Malayan/Malaysian authorities -  last wish was to have his ashes buried near the graves of his parents. The Malaysian government turned down this request that came from the relatives who were there to attend the funeral. In fact, before his death, Chin Peng always harboured the desire to return to his hometown to pay his last respects to his deceased parents. His parents and his family members are buried at the Kong Hock Kong Lumut Pundut burial ground. The caretaker when interviewed said that Chin Peng's brother and relatives would come and pay their respects every Qing Ming (All Souls Day).  But the government, apprehensive about reactions from rightist Malay organisations and former servicemen associations, refused his entry. Chin Peng even took the matter to court but he was unsuccessful because he could not produce evidence of his birth in Sitiawan. Even an international campaign that was launched to garner support for his return failed to materialise.

Chin Peng and the MCP

Chin Peng was born in 1924 in Sitiawan, Perak. His parents had a shop that sold bicycles and spare parts. He was educated in Chinese in Nan Hwa High School before continuing his education in English at Anglo-Chinese School. The MCP had an organsed presence even before Chin Peng joined the party. Under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), cells were established in Malaya to get the support of the overseas Chinese for the communist cause in China. Before the invasion of the Japanese, the MCP supported the cause of the Chinese revolution and at the same time laid the grounds for the eventual communist takeover of Malaya. In doing so, the party carefully created and sustained networks especially among the urban poor, plantation and port workers. It was only a matter of time, before a considerable section of the urban working class came to be sympathetic towards the cause of the MCP and its affiliates.

Sitiawan, the birth place of Chin Peng, is not a very impressive town. In the early days, it was surrounded by rubber and coconut plantations and small-holdings. Later, rubber was replaced by oil-palm. Only with the establishment of a naval base in nearby Lumut port in the 1970s that there was urban development in Sitiawan. The interesting thing about the state of Perak  is that it had produced a number of prominent individuals who had played a role in the MCP and left-wing organizations. Apart from Chin Peng, Rashid Mydin and CD Abdullah were prominent Malay MCP leaders from places such as Parit and Ipoh. During the Emergency, in Sungei Siput, another town in Perak, a Tamil by the name of Perumal organised plantation workers very often defying and challenging European planters. In the town of Slim River, R.G. Balan was the main labour organiser who later was promoted to be the vice-chairman of the MCP. One Panjang (tall) leader Muniandy who died some years back was a prominent MCP commander in the Sitiawan area.

I also come from a village called Kampung Baru, a few kilometers away from Sitiawan town. My father who migrated from South India had rubber and coconut small-holdings. Chin Peng's father was known to my father. In the mid-1950s, I was around six years old; he took me to Sitiawan town and purchased a small bicycle for my use from the bicycle shop owned by Chin Peng's family. This episode is still vivid in my memory!

It was the Japanese invasion that provided the opportunity for Chin Peng to rise in the hierarchy of the party. The British withdrawal from Malaya provided an opportunity for the MCP to enter into close collaboration with the former. The withdrawing British agreed to assist the MCP and its anti-Japanese front, the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) during the course of the occupation. Apparently, the British also agreed to recognise the MCP as a legitimate political organization on the withdrawal of the Japanese from Malaya. Much later, after the failure of the Baling Peace Talks, Chin Peng criticised the British for not honouring their commitment to the party!

With the end of World War II and just before the British arrived to re-occupy Malaya, the MCP was not certain as to what exact strategy it should adopt towards the British. Lai Tek, the party's secretary general, later to be executed for being an agent of both the British and the Japanese, formulated a policy of limited agitation and cooperation with the British. This explains the reason why the British were able re-enter Malaya with relative ease and without resistance from the MCP. Some historians have lamented that just before the arrival of the British, the MCP was the most powerful organization in the country but it was not prepared to take power. Before the MCP could act against Lai Tek for his betrayal, he fled the country, first to Thailand and later to Hong Kong.

With the exit of Lai Tek, Chin Peng was elevated to the post of secretary general of the MCP. With his rise, the MCP abandoned its earlier strategy of limited agitation and cooperation and decided to adopt a more aggressive posture towards the British. With the support of his affiliates, the MCP decided that the time had come to evict the British from Malaya once and for all. Directives were given to his affiliates and trade unions to launch massive strikes and demonstrations against the British. With the assassination of three European planters in Perak, the British launched an all out attack against the MCP and its affiliates. In 1948 the British declared an Emergency and brought in Australian, New Zealand and Gurkha troops  to engage the communists in a long and protracted struggle. After 12 years of armed struggle, the MCP, unable to put up an effective resistance withdrew its troops to southern Thailand.  Emergency rule was effectively ended in 1960. However, guerrilla struggle waged by the MCP was not totally over. In states like Perak and Pahang, the traditional strongholds of the MCP, occasional guerrilla warfare was undertaken. The Malaysian government introduced selective emergency measures to root out the remnants of communists even during the early 1980s.

The Decline of the MCP

The British counter-insurgency measures comprised of force, administrative procedures and psychological tactics considerably weakened the MCP. By the 1970s and 1980s, a number of international developments dented the relevance of the MCP. For instance nationalist rivalry in communist camps, the animosity between USSR and China, the tensions between China and Vietnam and the pragmatic thrust of Deng Hsiao Ping's economic policies led to the weakening of the ideological basis of the left. At the domestic level, one of the greatest weaknesses of the MCP was the lack of Malay/Muslim support. Furthermore, the party's close identification with the Chinese community and its outward orientation towards the Chinese Communist Party were factors that did not endear the party to the local population.

Given the impossibility of launching  a communist revolution in Malaysia under changed international circumstances, Chin Peng decided to end the armed struggle. On December 2, 1989, at the Haadyai Peace Talks in Southern Thailand with both the Thai and Malaysian governments, the party decided to lay down its arms and to disband its armed units. In return, both the governments agreed to provide financial assistance for their respective nationals for re-settlement in accordance with their laws and regulations. The Malaysian government also promised that Chin Peng would be allowed to come into the country just like his comrades Rashid Mydin, CD Abdullah, Shamsiah Fakeh and many others. However, Chin Peng was in for a rude shock. Following the Haadyai Peace Accord, the Malaysian government broke its promise and refused to allow Chin Peng into the country.

Chin Peng has died. Although his role in Malaysian politics is a controversial one, it must be remembered that without the MCP, the British would not have quickened the pace of Malaysia securing Independence. In India, without the impact of the Indian National Army (INA) under Subhas Chandra Bose, it is unlikely that Independence would have been granted in 1947. Political, social and economic developments in post-war Malaysia would make no sense without any reference to the MCP. The formation of trade unions amongst urban and plantation workers was largely initiated by the MCP. The fight against plantation capital for the improvement of the lives of Tamil workforce was directly inspired by trade unions that came under the influence of the MCP. It was the MCP which  promoted and respected Indian leaders. R.G. Balan of Perak became the vice-chairman of the MCP. It also gave recognition to Malay leaders. The famous Malay Regiment in Pahang operated was under the control of the MCP.

For the Indian community in Malaysia, especially those who had involved in trade unions activities both during the British colonial days and the post-independence period, the MCP had a clear positive impact. After the INA’s debacle at Imphal, many Indians returned and joined trade unions that were affiliated to the MCP. Since they could not liberate India from the British, joining the left-wing trade unions meant not only getting back at their oppressor--the British--but also improving their socio-economic lot. It was the tremendous sacrifice of the left-wing trade unions that emboldened Indians in the plantations and urban areas. Indians labourers especially Tamils described by the British capitalists as "meek" and "docile" were organised, trained and mobilised by the MCP affiliated unions to emerge as a force to assist the MCP in its war against the oppressors.

Chin Peng might not have succeeded in organising the communist revolution in Malaysia. Malaysians might not have convinced that communism was the real solution to the myriad problems of the society. But the fact remains that he was less a communist than a left-wing nationalist. In fact, those who joined the party were not inspired so much by the lofty ideals of Marxism-Leninism, but practical necessity to change the oppressive nature of the political and economic system. During his times, it was the British colonialism and its naked oppression of the masses that was something that that any decent human being could not tolerate. Tamil plantation workers joined the MCP led trade unions not for any abstract ideological reasons, but to end the exploitative nature of the merchant capitalism in plantations. Many Malays joined left-wing nationalist organisations that came to be affiliated to the MCP not because of their love for communism, but for the sheer necessity to end the system that was oppressive and feudal in nature. Poor Chinese villagers and workers joined the movement for reasons of economic justice and for the simple reason that MCP was the only fighting force against the Japanese imperialists who massacred members of the Chinese community. For the Chinese, Malays and Indians who readily participated in the activities of the left, the MCP provided a vision for the future. 

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