The Malaysian racial riots of May 1969 are a well-researched and discussed event that is often brought up to remind Malaysians of the fragile race relations, specifically between the Malays and Chinese in the country. However, the 1969 riots were not the first inter-ethnic clash in the country. In Red Star Over Malaya, Cheah Boon Kheng points to an earlier episode of Sino-Malay clashes that occurred in the interim period between the surrender of the Japanese and the return of the British forces in 1945.
The book, now in its fourth edition, is a study of politics and race relations in Malaya during the Japanese occupation. Updated with research materials recently made available, the book claims to capture the voice of 'the local people who were the major actors' (p. xvi) of the history of that tumultuous period.
Retaining the format of the previous edition, the book has two sections with eleven chapters. Section One, 'Roots of the Conflict', contains four chapters covering the period 1941-45. Chapter 1 provides a socio-economic background of the three main ethnic groups in the country at the start of the Japanese occupation, with each group holding on to their individual ethnic identities rather than a collective pan-ethnic Malayan nationalist identity. The absence of the latter, the author claims, is the 'starting point of this study' (p. xxiii). Chapter 2 discusses the impact of the Japanese administrative policies on the different races and the beginning of inter-racial and inter-class tensions between the Malays and Chinese is highlighted. The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and its anti-Japanese movement are discussed in Chapter 3, while its rival, the left-wing Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM),which adopted a pro-Japanese strategy, is dealt with in Chapter 4. Together these chapters highlight the growth of both communism and radical Malay nationalism in the country as well as the movement for Malayan independence sought by both parties.
Section Two focuses on the post-war years (1945-6), with details of interethnic strife, chaos and disorder as well as the resurgence of Malay nationalism in the last months leading to the Japanese surrender and the return of the British forces. The guerrilla attacks on Japanese troops and Sino-Malay clashes in Johor, Perak and elsewhere in the country depicting the lawlessness that occurred in this period are elaborately discussed in Chapter 5. The activities of the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) led by the MCP and their atrocities towards the people when the party took over the country in the two-week power vacuum after the Japanese surrender are highlighted in Chapters 6 and 7. The brutal Red Campaign by the MCP alienated the Malays, resulting in the withdrawal of their support towards the party and its goal of attaining Malayan independence. [End Page 130]
In Chapter 8 Cheah adopts a multi-perspective approach by providing various interpretations to the inter-racial clashes. Apart from his insightful presentation of the Malay perspective, his inclusion of the Japanese and British viewpoints is commendable. Chapter 9 examines the fall-out between former allies the MCP/MPAJA and the British. The transition from friends to foes was largely due to British fear of a communist takeover of the country and this is likely the reason for the British delay in granting Malaya its independence, a point the author seems to gloss over.
In Chapter 10, the escalating conflict between Malay nationalists/people and the British, riled by the British Military Administration's proposal to introduce the Malayan Union scheme, is discussed. The traditional Malay elite resumed their leadership of the Malay community, while support for the Malay left-wing group aspiring for a Malaya in Indonesia (the Indonesia Raya entity) declined. Many questions arise at this point: why did the British eventually support the traditional Malay elite despite their opposition to the Malayan Union scheme and why was the left-wing KMM in favour of...