The Historical Discourse on the Malay Communists and Its Limitation

Guat Peng Ngoi. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. Volume 16, Issue 1. March 2015.

The voluminous literature and writings on the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in both Malaysia and Singapore in recent years, coupled with the fact that the academia, civil society and even the CPM itself have begun to explore the CPM’s history and thoughts, has not only broken the taboo on many questions, but also exposed the limitation of these discourses. The historical imagination about CPM either remains monolithic, or is placed under the grand narrative of nation-building. Discourses about CPM’s history are ideal mediums to understand how the Chinese and the Malay academia, as well as civil society enter and construct history, and to uncover limitations thereof. Be that as it may, the Chinese academia rarely pays due attention to the Malay regiment within CPM. For this reason, this article seeks to address several key issues in discourses about Malay CPM’s history, using mainly the three memoirs of Abdullah C.D., a leading figure of CPM, while making reference to other writings and literature on the Malay regiment within the party, so as to catch a glimpse into Malay CPM’s principal thoughts and ethos, and to contemplate further on how the interpretation of CPM’s history and the related knowledge production form various limitations in the Malaysia society.


History is a scrutiny of one’s conscience by time, and measuring the width of history calls for one to face up to human weaknesses and mistakes. Still, certain histories are designated as a taboo, the knowledge of which is not permitted for public discussion. Not only may historical memories that have been disciplined for too long render one numb to, and slow in understanding, the past, they may also give rise to a lack of diverse experiences and references when it comes to searching for a way to critique historical memories while examining the potentially concealed historical facts and the differences in historical imagination. In Malaysia, certain historical memories always touch a raw nerve of the authorities, the May 13 race riots in 1969 for instance (Kua, 125-126), or the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist history of the independence movement by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). More often than not, the powers-that-be are silent on these issues on the “legitimate” or “proper” pretext of avoiding ethnic and religious hatred. As times go by, it strikes a strange fear into people’s hearts and squelches the motivation for uncovering historical truths. Tan Sri Rahim Noor, a former Special Branch director who handled the CPM issue, once stated that “public discussion on the CPM issue is not constructive to the country,” and that “public debate may reopen old wounds while causing other sensitive issues” (Liew, 110). These views are reflective of the official position as well as the opinion of mainstream society.

The CPM, from its founding in 1930 through to 1989, the signing of tripartite peace accord in Hatyai which led its members out of the jungles, represents a chapter that cannot be glossed over when it comes to discussing Malaysia’s history of anti-colonialism, nation-building and even post-colonialism, for the party has led an anti-colonial, anti-Japanese invasion, anti-British independence movement that lasted for nearly six decades. For a long time, CPM has invariably been “ethnicized” as an Chinese party, with its struggle portrayed as a political expression/representation of the Chinese (Liew, 110-111), generating an imagination on the part of the general public that “CPM members are all Chinese”; CPM has also been “demonized,” through which CPM members are labeled as “traitors” or “terrorist,” depicting CPM as being made up of “tyrants,” “mobs” or “bad guys.” All of these stereotyped portrayals dominate people’s historical understanding of the CPM. Still, what has long been confronting the CPM is more than just a debate on historical propriety and justice, for it entails also how it should be re-evaluated historically in regard to its anti-Japanese invasion, anti-British and independence movement; on the other hand, how “official” and “people’s” discourses wrestle with and restrain each other, and the binary frameworks of thinking between “Communist phobia” and the “Communist philia,” are also issues of concern to both the academia and society. What I am concerned about in this article is how the way of inquiring into history, together with how history may coexist with contemporary society, could led us to find a historical interpretation that allows an insight to the intertwined relationship between human consciousness and the time. In other words, how are we to formulate a discursive approach with which to understand CPM’s own existence and identification, especially in terms of how its principal thoughts and spiritual consciousness may demonstrate a kind of spiritual power and a form of existence? In the era CPM members lived in, how can such spiritual power be generated and delivered? Would these ideas and ethos be regarded as an extension or limitation of social thought? Furthermore, how are we able to make use of such discourses about history and knowledge to interpret certain phenomena in contemporary society?

There are, however, also realistic motivations behind these questions. The emergence of voluminous “CPM literature” (mostly written in Chinese, Malay and English) in the forms of documentaries, memoirs, autobiographies and oral histories since 2000 jostled the “silent knowledge” that had remained as discourses inside the academia, which, some scholars believed, imply “rewriting the history of Malay(si)an independence” as well as a dialogue with the official history (Choong, 4). In particular, The Last Communist, a 2006 documentary by Amir Muhammad, a Malay film director, has challenged the legitimacy of the official discourse by expressing sympathies and understanding towards CPM. The documentary is filmed as a road movie rather than an orthodox historical documentary, as an attempt to subvert typical historical narrative as such. Through intertwined memories of people who are not related to the CPM, it seeks to examine prevailing historical memories towards CPM and colonialism in the post-colonial context from the perspective of ordinary people and daily life.

In The Last Communist, a Malay girl stated in an interview that although CPM is generally viewed as a group of terrorists, she is of the opinion that CPM’s contributions in terms of its anti-colonial struggle and fight for independence ought to be acknowledged. She however also stated that “I would reject CPM members if I became the prime minister, because they have no religious belief.” This Malay girl believes that a ruler must have a strong religious belief—the underlying principle to run a country—and people would be as loyal to the ruler as they were piously to Allah. But is this true in reality? Have the CPM members been devoid of a strong religious faith or have they forsaken Islam? Village People Radio Show (Apa Khabar Orang Kampung), another documentary by Amir Muhammad, designates Malay CPM members as the main characters in its narrative. One Malay CPM member bemoaned “why reject us?” revealing in one sentence the existence of CPM has been hidden in the back of history. There are, however, scholars who contend that the resistance of Malay CPM members carries a local legitimacy, arguing that “Malay CPM is a necessary addendum to the myth of the state” (Ng, 93), whereas Chinese CPM members are the “remnant” pushed out of history (Ng, 96). What does all this illustrate?

A pursuit as such invariably generates more questions. With the publication of voluminous CPM literatures and writings, along with the fact that the academia, civil society and the CPM itself have been exploring CPM’s history and thoughts, it seems more taboos are being broken, while the limitation in these discourses are also exposed. It is not hard to find the historic imagination of CPM remains a one-dimensional one, or that it is placed under the grand narrative of nation-building. Insofar as discourses about CPM’s history is concerned, it is indeed a good way to understand how the Chinese and the Malay academia as well as civil society enter and construct history, and to uncover the limitations of history. By and large, academic interests in CPM’s history include: CPM’s contributions in terms of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, the relations between CPM and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), CPM’s military strategies, CPM’s female membership, as well as Chin Peng’s historical status. Among them lies a dilemma that, be it the official narrative or the general public’s impression, CPM membership was predominantly Chinese, making it a political organization dominated by an ethnic minority. It is therefore easy for the Malay government, with its political domination, power of interpretation in regard to historical events as well as of speech, to exclude CPM as an “other,” while the Malay CPM members, being a minority in the party, were nothing more than “one of us” that had been instigated and influenced by the Chinese in CPM.

In the Chinese intellectual circle, the Malay CPM has rarely been given due attention. This article seeks to address several key issues in discourses about the Malay CPM’s history mainly through the three memoirs of Abdullah C.D., a leading figure of CPM, while referencing other writings and literature on the Malay division within the party, so as to gain an insight into thoughts and ethos of the Malay CPM, and to contemplate further on how the interpretation of CPM’s history and the related knowledge production formed various restrictive relations in Malay society.

Discourses about Malay CPM’s History

The significant rise of consciousness among colonial subjects in the twentieth century, including people in Southeast Asia, created waves of independence movements and gave rise to anti-colonial revolutions around the globe. The new consciousness was seen in the Malay people too, as revolutions in Indonesia, Russia, China and other countries impacted on independence movements in this region (Abdullah C.D., 293). In the 1930s, there were three political choices among the Malays: nationalism, religion and socialism. Although people’s political ideals might be dissimilar, their ultimate goal was, however, the same; that is, the pursuit of Malayan independence through anti-colonial struggles (Abdullah C.D., 293). On 30 April 1930, the CPM (Parti Komunis Malaya) was founded as a party representing the working and the oppressed classes. In its early days, the CPM was comprised of mostly Chinese. Meanwhile, the Malays too began to organize themselves politically by forming Kesatuan Melayu Muda (the Malay Youth League, or KMM) in 1938, asserting the principles of democratic socialism and independence. The KMM is considered by the academic community as the first Malay nationalist activist organization. Interestingly, its founder, Ibrahim Yacoob identified himself as a left-wing nationalist (Sani, 9). Later on, many of the KMM members joined the CPM in their resistance against Japan, becoming the first among the Malays to join the CPM, Abdullah C.D.—a leading Malay figure in the CPM—being one of them. His sentiments were aroused and ideals stirred when he first listened to a moving speech by Ye Bi Hong, a representative from the CPM’s mass movement organization, and he decided resolutely to support the CPM, firm in the belief that the Malays and the Chinese must fight shoulder to shoulder. A turnaround such as this is worth pondering. Research by Professor Cheah Boon Keng of University Science Malaysia, for instance, indicates that both the KMM and the CPM had their respective projects for the independence, with the former pursuing a unification between an independent Malaya and Indonesia, while the latter sought to establish a multi-ethnic communist republic (Cheah, 101-102). Seen in this light, it was a complex and conflicting process for CPM Malays to ascertain their identity and position, as they were caught in a world of different imaginations and identifications in search of a “future state.” It was also a process of various selections and negotiations they made.

By retracing the sources of anti-colonial revolutionary ideas or knowledge of the Malays, one can see that the Malayan people’s acceptance of the Communist ideology and progressive revolutionary ideas was made possible mainly by two different cultural and intellectual channels: one was the Chinese communists who, impacted by the split between the Nationalists (Kuomintang) and the CCP in China, went south to seek support and, as a result, called for resistance in Southeast Asia in the name of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, targeting the Chinese as their main base of support. The other was Indonesia’s communist revolution and thoughts, which provided Malay CPM with the knowledge and military training they need. After the end of the Pacific War, the Malay CPM felt itself lagging behind the Chinese in terms of their anti-Japanese invasion, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist consciousness, and thus they began to proactively attend the Malayan Marxist School (Sekolah Marxist Malaya), set up libraries and so on, so as to obtain progressive knowledges related to the anti-imperialist revolution and the independence of their motherland. Malaysia’s socio-political scholar Rustam A. Sani once pointed out that, the lethargy and immaturity of the pre-Second World War Malayan Malays towards politics did not mean that political consciousness was wanting. From 1876 to 1941, roughly 147 Malay newspapers had been published in the Malay Peninsula and the Straits Settlements. A newspaper entitled Al-Imam, in particular, had rallied the Muslim intellectual youths. Al-Imam was profoundly influenced by the Islamic reform movement in Egypt, and had a widespread impact on the Malay-Arab communities in Malaya (Sani, 5). This illustrates that the religious reform movement is an important component of Malay’s political culture. Abdullah C.D., a key leader of the Malay CPM, once disclosed that his political and intellectual enlightenment was closely related to Indonesian revolutionaries:

In fact, several factors have impacted on the development of my political thoughts in my early years; one of them was my knowledge about history, and another being my close relationship with friends and relatives who shared with me common ideals and aspirations. There was also the close relationship between me and the freedom fighters who had fled Indonesia for Malaya, and I count myself rather fortunate. These early experiences generated the anti-British spirit in me, propelling me into the anti-British struggle. In 1939, I joined the KMM. (Abdullah C.D., 16)

Pak Inu had been significantly instrumental in the growth of my political consciousness. He had a big collection of books from Indonesia, and among them were Tan Malaka’s works. I borrowed the books from him, read them hungrily, and return them to him the soonest. More than just lending me the books, he even analyzed them for me, explaining to me what does independence mean, what is colonial rule and revolution. Moreover, he explained to me the status of Malaya as a British colony, as well as the role of the KMM as a Malay organization fighting for independence from the British colonial rule. (Abdullah C.D., 18)

When he was still a student at Clifford School in Kuala Kangsar, Abdullah C.D. had begun to read books on the history of the Malay Peninsula. The school principal at Clifford also had a good selection of books on Marxist thought. Abdullah C.D. later came to know Pak Inu, a revolutionary and independence fighter who had fled Indonesia to be a rubber-tapper in the Malay Peninsula following a failed uprising, and whom Abdullah C.D. would regard as his political mentor. Since then, he began to be concerned about Malayan independence as well as the issue of the Malay struggle (Abdullah C.D., 18). That the Indonesian independence movement would become an important spiritual and intellectual resource in the Malay CPM’s anti-colonialist and independence movement was due to the similar worldviews and values shared among people of Malay. Abdullah C.D. once said, “Malayan and Indonesian peoples are brothers, originating from the same people of Malay and living in the same Malay world” (Abdullah C.D., 160). The “Malay world” (Alam Melayu) refers to a vast region encompassing the “Malay Archipelago” (Nusantara). In those days, the Malays living in the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia and the Philippines were known as “Malays” or “Malayu-Indonesians” due to their shared languages and cultural traditions, and they were the major ethnic group living in the Malay Archipelago (Syed Husin Ali, 1). Such a “same-race” and “same-language” identity in terms of culture and language engendered a community with societal culture or linguistic ties. Later, the colonizers redrew the boundaries and placed the above-mentioned Malays from different islands into different territories, resulting in the misunderstanding that “Malays” only meant those living in the Malay Peninsula.

What’s also noteworthy was the phenomenon right before the Second World War that some religious teachers (ulama) in the Peninsula and Malay nationalists had became important leaders in the anti-colonial and nationalist struggle. They promulgated the concept of “Greater Malay” (Melayu Raya), so as to include Indonesia in their fight for independence, with a politically pro-Indonesia attitude (Syed Husin Ali, 16). Thus, after the end of the Second World War, “full independence” and “Indonesian unification” were the two goals that the Malay nationalists were enthusiastically working towards. However, since Malaya achieved independence in 1957, differences in the political imaginations in Malaya and Indonesia started to surface. In the 1960s, Soekarno vehemently opposed the formation of “Malaysia,” and proposed in its place a politically ambitious regional framework in the form of a “Greater Indonesia” (Indonesia Raya) (Abdullah C.D., 6), in the hope of creating a political territory covering the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, southern Thailand, Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei and the Philippines (Liew, 85). In fact, “Greater Indonesia” had long been an “envision of nation” on the part of the KMM (regrouped and renamed later as Kesatuan Rakyat Indonesia Semenanjung, the Indonesia-Peninsular Youth League). But the project wasn’t carried out in the end due to the competition over who should have a dominant position as well as “who should include whom.” Since then, Malaya and Indonesia entered into a period of confrontation.

A historical background as such is conducive to understanding the various envisions of and competitions over a community on the part of the Malayan people since the 1930s. The different Malay political forces might share a grand objective of independence, but they differed in terms of the goals and interests that really mattered to them. For the majority of the Malays, the pursuit of “full independence” and “Indonesian unification” was an ultimate goal. If we take the prevailing knowledge about history in the Chinese community into consideration, the Chinese community in the 1930s was caught in an imagination of and identification with Nanyang (South Sea), while their political and cultural identifications were inclined towards China. As stated by Chin Peng, CPM’s General-Secretary, in his My Side of History:

Throughout the 1930s, you could tell the political leanings of the Chinese in Sitiawan—or indeed throughout Malaya—by the photographs displayed in their homes and shophouses. Soon after the Mukden Incident in September 1931, photos displayed on the wall were people’s responses to events happened in China. … In the early 1930s, some households regarded Kuomintang’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek as the true leader of China. His photograph dominated walls and hallways of these homes. But nearly every shophouse carried a picture of Sun Yat Sen, whom everyone considered the founding father of the Republic of China. (Chin, 41)

If anything, Malaya in the 1930s was already a “plural society.” Analyzing Malaya’s demographic composition from the 1930s onwards, Rustam Sani pointed out that the Malay population stood at 49.2%, the Chinese at 33.9%, Indians at 15.1% and other ethnicities at 1.8%, and therefore there existed a plural society (Sani, 13), with different social envisions and diverse ideologies competing and coexisting with one another. As described above, although the Chinese who came to Southeast Asia in the 1930s might not have had the idea of putting down roots there yet, there has always been a strong anti-colonial consciousness among them. Entering the 1950s, their identification with Malaya only became stronger as time went by (Ngoi, 170-171). As for the Indian community, the situation was even more complex. From the 1920s to the 1930s, the majority of the Indians were silent in terms of their political attitudes towards Malaya; it was not until after 1940-1945 that the Indian community became more visible in Malaya, as it began to speak out through organizations or newspapers and to fight for its own rights. The class differences within the Indian community during the Malayan era were rather huge and the awareness of divisions strong. Not only did they divide themselves along the lines of Hindu-Muslim, English-educated and non-English educated, there were even four classes within the community: the elite, the upper class, the lower class and the laborers (Tate, 21, 25).

This article will further analyze several dimensions that concern the current discourses about Malay CPM’s history: (1) the Malay CPM in the Cold War framework; (2) the relations between the Malay CPM and the Malay left; (3) Malay people’s support for the Malay CPM.

CPM in the Cold War Framework

Abdul Rahman Haji Ismail, a scholar at the College of Humanities and Social Science in University Sains Malaysia, is of the view that the majority of the Malays during the Malayan period were not alert and attentive enough to the Cold War framework and the ideological conflict between the East and the West; they were more concerned about the “land” issue—the sovereignty, ownership of the land called Malaya, as well as protecting the identity of the natives. Meanwhile, they too were concerned about whether, after the independence, the Malay government would still be able to maintain political advantage and the right to rule, as a result of which they did not appear too enthusiastic about foreign affairs (Ismail, 155, 196). “Land” is a historical source with which the Malay people declare their sovereignty, and also a basis from which the indigenous populations obtain their legitimacy. A historical construction of a “theory of indigenousness” as such (Khor, 238), constitutionally buttressed, became an ethno-political structure that was hard to break. Under the 1948 Malayan Union Agreement, the British colonial administration not only “acknowledged” the legitimacy of Malay sovereignty, but also the special position of the Malays, including making Malay the national language, Islam the state religion, as well as the establishment of a monarchy made up of the Malay rulers, to name a few. As for the non-Malays, they too could claim citizenship, freedom of religion as well as the right to preserve their mother-tongue. All this illustrates that the post-independence Malaysia has continued to make use of the ethnic structure constructed during the colonial period to strengthen the privileges of the Malays. The non-Malays have been unable to dismantle the unequal structure caused by such “historical negotiations” when it comes to resisting the predominately Malay privileges (Cheah, 45).

Looking back on colonial history, one will understand the ambivalence on the part of the Malay government and the Malay community towards decolonization, for while the Malays may not be said to have enjoyed the fruits of colonialism, there is no denying that their ethnic interests were nonetheless assured during colonial rule. However, the Malay CPM devoted itself to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movement and was deeply cognizant of the exploitation of the capitalists. They were keenly aware that, especially after independence, the British still owned a huge amount of land property and rubber plantations at a time when Malaya was transitioning from a feudal to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society (Abdullah C.D., 305). Even under the New Economic Policy in the 1970s, the British remained in control of the capital of Malaysia’s major enterprises.

The Relations between CPM and the Malay Left

Mohamed Salleh Lamry, a social science and humanities scholar whose research focused on the history of the Malay left-wing movement, once pointed out that there existed in Malay political culture a political difference between the left and the right, and also warned that one must not seek to explain the leftist and rightist political thoughts of the Malays in a western sense. As such, it is necessary to first understand the meaning of “Left Wing” in the Malay politico-cultural context. Khoo Kay Kim, professor of history at University Malaya, divides the Malay Left of the 1950s into five categories: the first includes the Malays who joined CPM and were hence the “extreme left”; the second includes those who had supported socialism in a broad sense, but joined the extreme-left during the Malayan Emergency; the third includes the “Islamic left,” many of whom later joined the Islamic Party; the fourth includes the “transient left,” quite a few of whom joined the right-wing UMNO (United Malays National Organization) when the government carried out Acts of the Emergency; the last category includes the staunchly nationalistic people, who were opposed to both the British and the UMNO (Mohamed Salleh, 18-20).

Rustam A. Sani agrees that there were two political lines in Malay politics. One was that of UMNO, which was based on traditional Malay politics and was acknowledged by the British colonial authorities. The other was that of the left-wing school, and Rustam A. Sani (7-9) attempted to elaborate from the perspective of its “social origin,” rather than “ideology,” that the Malay left was rooted in Malaya, so as to rebut what William R. Roff had argued, that it was “influenced” by the leftists in Indonesia. Such a perspective allows us to examine the power of the so-called “left-wing” by way of social change, so as to understand the emergence of the left-wing political power through factors such as transformations in the demographic composition of ethnic groups, Malay leadership crisis, as well as the Malay cultural identity crisis.

While the Malay left and CPM differed in their overall nation-building project, they had been cooperating in many ways in their anti-colonial struggles, and together they even formed an alliance. The turning point, however, was the declaration of the Emergency by the British in June 1948, under which progressive democratic parties and organizations were banned, and scores of Malay leftists were arrested, prompting many Malay left-wing activists to join the CPM and carry out the armed struggle. One of these was Wahi Anuar, leader of the left-wing organization Pembela Tanah Air (the Protector of the Motherland, popularly known as “the Malay Front of CPM”). Because of such development, some scholars consider it hard to tell if these Malay members of the CPM were nationalists or communists (Mohamed Salleh, 189).

Malay People’s Support for the Malay CPM

In re-examining the CPM’s defeat, General Secretary Chin Peng attributed it to the failure to garner support from the Malays and the Indians. Furthermore, Indonesia, its communist and revolutionary thoughts being the inspiration for Malays in the 1930s, became a lot less active since the revolutions in Java and Sumatra failed. As a result, the CPM was unable to tear down the barrier between ethnic groups, and its inability to rally Malay farmers and Indian workers was the dilemma obstructing its development. Rahim Noor in an interview, too, has emphasized the following:

Considering the transformation of society, the Malay people at large have lived for generations in a traditional peasant society, extricated from the influences of major external thoughts. During colonial rule, the British portrayed themselves as a guardian who maintained Malay traditions, customs, sultanates and the Islamic faith, bringing about relative stability to Malay society. The Malays and the Indians were spared the severe impact caused by social development and changes. At the same time, the middle class during the colonial era were mostly civil servants appointed by the British, and their interests were in line with those of the British authorities. As such, they were immune to the influence of radical revolutionary thoughts.

In terms of people’s thoughts, many of the Malay leaders in the early days had studied in Egypt, where they learnt about religious doctrines. Upon return, they involved themselves in religious teaching and proselytization rather than in social reform. They supported tradition, feudalism and Islamic ethics, and were willing to receive protection offered by the British.

Even though a certain number of Malay intellectuals were dissatisfied with British rule and intended to devote themselves to social reform and establishing a new society, Malaya’s historical development proves however that it is the traditional leaders who have been able to garner greater public support, rendering communism unable to create a powerful impact within Malay society. (Liew, 102)

Religion is often considered the most crucial factor behind Malays’ support, or the lack thereof, for the CPM. Would joining the CPM or embracing communist thought run counter to one’s own religious beliefs? Researchers pointed out that communism was less attractive to the Indians during the Malayan period mainly due to its alleged anti-religious stance (Tate, 82). It is necessary to clarify the relations between communist thoughts and Islamic beliefs, otherwise it would be difficult to explain how Indonesia, with Muslims making up 85% of its population, came to be the third largest communist country in the world.

On the other hand, the British colonial government had also emphasized an identity based on religion and fermented narratives about how the communist thought was incompatible with religion. The post-independence Malay government, too, sought to fight against communist thoughts with Islamic doctrines. The Third Malaysia Plan of the 1970s stated that “An additional source of strength is that Islam and other religions practiced in this country continue to provide a strong bulwark against insidious communist propaganda” (Syed Hussein Ali, 59). Abdullah C.D. the Malay CPM leader was once stopped by a stranger after he prayed at the mosque and was warned that “you need to re-embrace the Malay religion.” Full of emotion, he said after this event that:

Why on earth did they ban me from the communist movement? In the anti-Japanese war, I met people from all walks of life and with various positions, but only those who would sacrifice everything bravely and fearlessly for their motherland could truly inspire me. I saw that, among the Malays, only the true communists and nationalists who were full of democratic and patriotic spirit could do that. On the other hand, those who blew their own horn with their deep religious knowledge chose to be dictated faithfully by the Japanese fascists. What did all this mean? Wasn’t safeguarding our nation, religion and motherland part of the faith? (Abdullah C.D., 111)

As described above, there were a good number of well-known religious leaders among the Malay CPM members. Abu Samah, for instance, mentioned that the Imam at the Temerloh mosque also joined the CPM and became an underground cadre (You, 78). As the Malay fighting group Tenth Regiment he led expanded its influence in 1960, Abdullah C.D. proposed the formation of a progressive party made up of Malay Muslim youths so as to connect all the patriotic young Muslims and religious leaders. Such a move triggered strong criticism from the government, which accused the CPM of exploiting Islam (Abdullah C.D., 114-118). Even after the CPM came out of the jungle, this “communist phobia” continued to be stirred up by some for certain political purposes, and CPM became a bogeyman to stimulate a sense of unification among Malays. Malay leaders often stressed the need to fight against communism with a strong Islamic faith, and played up the argument that “the communists are Chinese and the Chinese are communists.” Regarding this, Mohamed Salleh Lamry once expressed a succinct view:

 … while they followed the communist path of struggle and fought shoulder to shoulder with the communists, the fact is they were using CPM to achieve their objectives as nationalists. In other words, they remained nationalists staunch in their Islamic faith while adopting the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought as their theory and strategy in political struggle. Hence, they retained simultaneously the characteristics of the communists, Islamists and nationalists. (Mohamed Salleh Lamry, 191)

To put it simply, the CPM under the framework of the Cold War took in communism as a strategic move, rather than taking it on as a belief or ideology. Only an understanding such as this can explain how the CPM could have properly managed the relations between communism, Islamism and nationalism. Meanwhile, patriotism, nation and democracy became the key factors that enabled the CPM to ally or cooperate with other left-wing forces. As part of the left-wing forces in Malay’s political and cultural scenes, Malay CPM’s involvement in the CPM’s struggle evolved subsequently into one of the schools in Malay’s local political spectrum.

The Principal Thoughts and Ethos of Abdullah C.D. as a Malay CPM Leader

Until now, I have focused on key issues in discourses about the Malay CPM. The following sections touch on the historical memories presented in the memoirs of Abdullah C.D., an important Malay CPM leader. These memories give us a glimpse into his principal thought and ethos, as a supplement to the above mentioned discourses, and provide us with a more elaborate understanding of the interactions between the people and the time. It ought to be stated that although memoirs contain mainly autobiographical elements, one can choose what to and what not to say, therefore memoirs may display an individual’s attitudes toward history, as well as how memories of the past are “patched” together. Paradoxically, what one disclosed could unintentionally expose what one didn’t want to. Be that as it may, Abdullah C.D.’s memoirs are not only a set of memories or narratives, but a combination of discourses and narratives that can serve as another dimension to CPM’s history.

Abdullah C.D. joined the KMM in 1938 and then CPM in May 1945, shortly before he was appointed in 1946 as the secretary at the Malay section of CMP central leadership, in charge of works relating to the Malay section in CMP and mass mobilization among Malay people. Following the declaration of the Emergency in 1948, he went into the jungle to take part in the armed struggles and founded on 21 May 1949 the Malay-based Tenth Regiment of the Malayan People’s Liberation Army (Suriani Abdullah). In 1987, Abdullah C.D. wrote a letter to the then UMNO deputy chairperson Ghafar Baba, paving the way for the later Hatyai Peace Accord. After he came out of the jungle, Abdullah C.D. and his wife have been living in the Peace Village. In 2004, Abdullah C.D. began to write a trilogy of memoirs, published in 2005, 2007 and 2009 respectively. Book One is mainly about the beginning of his political consciousness and how he joined CPM, with a detailed account of his involvement in the resistance of Japanese invasion, CPM’s activities, as well as his relations with members of Communist International. The book ended with the Emergency of Malaya in 1948. Book Two focuses on the Tenth Regiment under his leadership, including the Regiment’s strategic deployments in various places and the difficulties it encountered, as well as the sacrifices of its Malay fighters. Book Three recounts the many political interactions that took place along the Malaysia-Thai border, the relations between the CPM and the Communist Party of Thailand, several important battles, and ends with a review of the conditions for, and the process of, the signing of the Hatyai Peace Accord. There is a wealth of materials in the memoirs, including drafts of speeches, analytical articles, as well as the names and stories of the Malay CPM heroes. The memoirs are regarded—as opposed to Chin Peng’s My Side of History—as having an intention of rewriting and reinterpreting the CPM’s history, and can be said to be an account of “the historical development of the Malay Leftist Movement” (Choong, 17).

As described above, not only was the political awakening of the Malays in the 1930s influenced by the independence movement in Indonesia, equally crucial was the demographic changes, especially due to the large-scale influx of Chinese and Indian workers under the British colonial policy, as Rustam A. Sani has pointed out, the sharp rise in the non-Malay populations caused the Malays to feel that they had become an “ethnic minority” (Sani, 14). There were readers of the Malay newspaper urging that there should be a “Malaya for the Malays,” or that “Malaya is not for the Malayans.” These views, to some extent, reflected the sentiments of some left-leaning nationalists who wanted the traditional status and interests of the Malay people to be safeguarded. Compared with other leftists, Abdullah C.D. had a more balanced attitude toward ethnic issues, and was one of the few Malay leaders who asked others to “follow the example of the Chinese”; he also studied the histories of other ethnic groups, and eventually proposed to unify the nation on the basis of equality and anti-oppression (Abdullah C.D., 248). With regard to the Malay people’s status and basic interests, Abdullah C.D. once stated that “CPM proposed to respect the special position of the Malays in terms of politics, economics and culture” (You, 28), including an acknowledgement of Islam as the official religion, the support for a constitutional monarchy, setting up Malay reserved land and keeping Malay culture as a major form of state culture. His statement as such was aimed at rebutting the arguments that “the Malay leaders in CPM are merely a tool” and “CPM is against the Malays.”

Abdullah C.D. had been a Malay CPM member who was keenly aware of the importance of history. He had penned many articles on the Malayan people, nationalism and Malayan history while leading the Tenth regiment or surveying the sites for battle. He even started his research into the history of CPM’s founding as early as the 1940s, while displaying a keen interest in the cultures of other ethnic groups. For instance, his memoirs contain a good portion of his reviews on the social structure and customs of the indigenous communities (Abdullah C.D., 223, 313-316). Hence, his memoirs are more than simply “documenting” or “writing” on certain subjects, for they also carry a wealth of reflections. Throughout the book, one constantly encounters Abdullah C.D.’s in-depth understanding of the meaning of “independence” (merdeka), his emphasis on the historical conditions when making analytical statements, and the need to look for reasons from facts. Although Malaya declared independence on 31 August 1957, he considers it an “incomplete independence” (Abdullah C.D., 82). Since its colonization in 1511 by the Portuguese, Malacca went from a feudal society to a colony. After independence, the British continued to maintain a formidable control of economic capital, and Malaysia was turned into a semi-feudal and semi-colonial state; there was no independence in a substantive sense. Not only is Abdullah C.D. against colonialism and imperialism, he was also against hegemonisme (Abdullah C.D., 149).

Precisely because of his profound understanding of the progressive thoughts and spirits embodied in concepts such as independence, progress and liberation, Abdullah C.D. was willing to join the CPM, which was made up largely of the Chinese.

I believed the Malays ought to follow the example of the Chinese, just like the Indonesian people that were united in their anti-Dutch revolution, and be united in our struggle for independence. Seeing that the communists had successfully revived the revolutionary spirit of the Chinese, I was determined to arouse the Malay consciousness to carry out the revolution, to fight shoulder to shoulder with other peoples for independence. It was at this juncture that I decided to join CPM’s struggle against Japanese invasion. (Abdullah C.D., 43-44)

In May 1945, Seman and I were accepted by CPM, and we were the first two Malay CPM members in Lambor … The entrance ceremony took place in Seman’s house. … The living room was lit up brightly by the petrol lantern, with the portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong hung on the wall, while to the right and left of which was the party flag of the hammer and sickle. The hammer symbolized the workers, while the sickle the peasants, indicating the alliance of workers and peasants that formed the mainstay of the revolutionary movement. (Abdullah C.D., 55)

After I joined the anti-Japanese invasion movement, my determination to secure independence for the motherland and the nation became more rooted. CPM provided me with many books on the proletariat and the proletariat revolution, from which I received newer inspirations: not only did I have to fight for independence, but also strive for liberation. Independence means to achieve national independence from the colonial rule, while liberation means to be freed from oppression and exploitation. The capitalist class, especially that of the British who took hold of big capitals, had been oppressing and exploiting the proletariat class, the workers and the peasants mercilessly. I also came to know the proletariat, working and peasant classes are the driving force behind the proletariat revolution. (Abdullah C.D., 130)

Another important Malay member of CPM is Rashid Maidin, who mentions in his memoirs that “only the leftists stressed the pursuit of independence” (Rashid Maidin , 26). A main slogan at UMNO’s founding was “Long Live the Malays,” which was changed to a declaration of independence due to the circumstances at the time. Abdullah C.D. was fully cognizant that “independence means achieving national independence from the colonial rule, and liberation means being free from oppression and exploitation,” hence his deep sympathies for the oppressed and exploited classes. Abdullah C.D.’s concerns for the workers and peasants were not just confined to those of the Malays, for he once received an enthusiastic welcome by members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) when he attended an international conference in New Delhi as a CPM delegate. He presented a report on Malaya’s independence movement, and the Indian communists were particularly interested in CPM’s guerilla warfare. Abdullah C.D. also used the opportunity to visit CPI’s printing house and library, as well as the railway workers’ and agricultural districts, as he sought to understand the issues faced by Indian workers and peasants through talking to them. In Book One of his memoirs, he recounts the CPI’s worker-mobilization work. The CPI had in 1939 sent its cadres to mobilize Indian workers in Malaya to fight for a pay rise and to improve their status, with many unions being formed. Still, all this did not prevent the British authority from cracking down on them in a general strike (Abdullah C.D., 150-151).

Also noteworthy in Abdullah C.D’s memoirs is his view on “the Malay CPM and religion,” which he mentions in many occasions. Prior to independence, the British colonial authority and UMNO often cited the powerful pretexts that communism was against religion, the CPM was exploiting Islam and the Malay CPM rejected Islam, in order to stop the Malays from joining the anti-colonial struggle. However, as far as Abdullah C.D. was concerned, communist thought and Islam shared a common ground in that they both sought to grasp the essence of true “faith.” Chin Peng has said in his My Side of History that “Conversion to communism is as strong as a religious conversion. It provides a faith and trust in a system, with the former, at least to the convert, appears as the incontrovertible true path to a place where human beings would enjoy rights and equality they deserve” (Chin, 43).

Meanwhile, Abdullah C.D. includes nation, religion and motherland in his understanding of “faith” (Abdullah C.D., 88-89). Thus, the religious faith of the Malay CPM members only served to strengthen their different understandings of faith, and how to differentiate between “religion” and “faith” is a dimension worthy of further study.

For me, Marxist philosophy is the best weapon we could use to fight for the independence of our motherland and the advancement of humanity. We did not see Marxism as a “doctrine,” or a set of fixed and unchangeable principles. Rather, we made use of it according to the conditions and circumstances in Malaya. Still, some are of the view that we became someone without religious beliefs or anti-religious because of our application of Marxism. Such view was in fact a result of the poisonous propaganda initiated by the colonialists. What CPM had been promoting are religious freedom and the respect for each community’s custom and tradition. I was born as a Muslim and was raised in an Islamic environment. Wherever I go, my faith will remain unchanged. (You, 12)

Karl Marx stressed that the working class people were most revolutionary-minded, and they underwent a revolution in order to liberate the human soul. The 1917 Soviet Revolution transformed the Soviet Union into a socialist country. In Malaya, peasants had become workers—an indication of the powerful influence of socialist thoughts. (Abdullah C.D., 70)

Abdullah C.D. even went a step further by likening the anti-colonial struggle of the Tenth Regiment to a “holy war” (jihad), for jihad is a just war sanctioned by God according to Islam.

Communism is the enemy of capitalism. Anti-communist thought was therefore formulated by the colonialist, capitalism’s begetter. After the end of the Second World War, I saw in Malay people’s struggle taking place in 1945-1948 that, by and large, progressive Malays who called for independence were not opposed to communism. Only those who were closely related to the colonialists, those who represented UMNO, were fiercely opposed to communism. … In the anti-colonial armed struggle, especially the Tenth Regiment. They consider the Tenth Regiment fighters’ struggle a holy war fought for their motherland and religion. (You, 13)

If anything, the naming of the Tenth Regiment has its own religious significance, as it was formed on the tenth day of the last month in Islamic calendar. It is argued that Chen Ping also considered the name itself as appealing to young Malays, for it implied a holy day when people sacrificed and devoted themselves to justice (Mohamed Salleh, 107). As a predominantly Malay regiment, the Tenth Regiment enjoyed certain privileges in the CPM, such as having its own military beret and New Year allowances, as recollected in Abdullah C.D.’s (249) memoirs.

Conclusion: Reflections on the Limitations

In Malaysia’s intellectual circle, some argue that in order to analyze 60 years of CPM history in a real sense, it has to “be contextualized in the history of international communist movement, the Cold War framework, and the history of Sino-Soviet relations” (Phoon Wing Keong). Such a call is a response to the Chinese academic circle’s focus on Chin Peng, and how the evaluation of the CPM’s achievement has been based on Chen’s contribution. Be that as it may, the history of the Chinese CPM and their Malay counterparts are rarely juxtaposed for mutual reference. Hence, by analyzing discourses about the history of the Malay CPM, its principal thoughts and ethos, while tracing the Malay cultural and historical roots as well as the Malay cultural identity and object of identification, a vortex of histories may be created to break through the parallel worlds of different ethnic historical discourses, and make a dialogue possible.

Driven by the patriotic spirit, a formidable left-wing nationalist force has been accumulated in Malay’s political and cultural circle. The colonial government had attempted to restrain this opposing force through the right-wing forces (such as UMNO) and the traditional Malay political system of the sultanate. The Malay CPM is one of the original Malay leftist forces, and its rise was deeply rooted in the historical conditions and had a broad social base. This is precisely the reason why quite a few Malay researchers do not consider ideology a suitable point of departure to study the Malay CPM. The Malay CPM in its early days was deeply influenced by the Communist Party of Indonesia. Be it independence fighters or books from Indonesia, all this had aroused profoundly the patriotic and anti-colonial consciousness on the part of the Malays. With the founding of CPM’s Tenth Regiment, China’s revolutionary thought and theory became the major intellectual resources for the Malay CPM (Abdullah C.D., 18). How in the later stage did CPM, driven by nationalism and patriotism, choose to pursue a suitable political and social ideal of their own while taking various resistances and struggles of the colonial period into consideration? In addition, whether or not such choices were based on the domestic circumstances or influenced by the global communist movement—especially under the instruction of the Chinese Communist Party—thereby the CPM was caught in an “involuntary” dilemma and restriction? Questions as such can only be addressed after more multi-dimensional researches are done. By situating discourses about Malay CPM’s history in a wider perspective of historical interpretation and re-examining their limitations, the inner dilemma in the production of knowledge about Malaysia’s CPM history could be uncovered.

For a long period of time, the Chinese and Malay CPM, together with the minuscule, almost “invisible” Indian CPM, appear to be a legacy of the divide-and-rule policy under colonial rule, which produced profound impacts and, to name a few, the following results.

  • Influenced by the impression that CPM is a predominantly Chinese party and its members are Chinese—an impression confined by the discourses and knowledge about CPM’s history, the general public has perceived CPM as a highly racialized organization.
  • Influenced by a binary concept of “majority versus minority,” people thought CPM membership was made up mostly of Chinese who dominated CPM’s movement and took the minorities as peripheral, thus the Malay CPM’s impact on the domestic political process has been overlooked.
  • Still others focus on the religious factor and believe firmly that CPM is anti-religious, while it is a view contrary to the historical facts that there were indeed Muslim intellectual youths who chose to join the CPM and that the CPM itself is a strong believer of faith.

In other words, “ethnicity and religion” have been tightly inter-connected and become the primal internal limitation in discourses about the Malay CPM or CPM’s history. Furthermore, they became the handiest leverages whenever politicians want to play up ethnic issues or to satisfy their own political interests. Meanwhile, the diversity and differences within CPM has often been covered up by way of “totalization,” while the legitimacy of its oppositional movements is determined from an ethnic perspective, resulting in an overly emphasized “us versus others” binary that produces historical narratives that are deviated from or inconsistent with historical facts.

Therefore, to go beyond the limitations in these discourses, we may tackle the issue from both “inside” and “outside.” From the “inside,” we may explore the interaction, competition, negotiation and cooperation between various political forces during the Malay’s and the Chinese’s struggle for Malayan independence, along with how, under different conditions, Malaya’s destiny has been considered and imagined through contesting envisions of a community for all peoples. Secondarily, we may understand the thoughts of Malays in a deeper spiritual and intellectual level, including their ethnic identity, visions for the nation, cultural identity and even their view on sovereignty, while tracing the basis with which the underlying legitimacy is constructed.

From the “outside,” we may explore how “global trends, domestic politics and society, and personal thought” restrain, impel, intersect or infuse with each other, so as to reveal the mutual restriction between people and time. The “inside” and “outside” I talk about here are only a strategic division, because the mission of an analysis is not about solving the problem but about revealing the intricate interactions between various complex relations, outlining mutual effects and impacts between contexts, so as to grasp the process in which they come to be fixated in a historical structure. Only then can one identify a law of historical development among various inter-connected relations, and thereby one is able to correct, rectify or rebuild the fixed historical structure of the past and to provide a different context of interpretation for the production of historical knowledge.

On 31 August 1957, when Tunku Abdul Rahman, known as the “Father of Malaysia’s Independence,” declared Malaya’s independence in Merdeka Square, he chanted “Merdeka” (independence) seven times:

Merdeka Merdeka Merdeka Merdeka Merdeka Merdeka Merdeka

Still, has Malaysia truly freed itself from the colonial mentality and achieved the independence in terms of its people’s thought?