- The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a Small, Distant War by Souchou Yao
The Malayan Emergency of 1948–60 pitted communist-led insurgents against a British Empire determined not to lose prematurely Malaya's dollar-earning tin and rubber. British officials and officers led a miscellany of Malay police, Chinese Special Branch detectives, a 250,000-strong Home Guard, and troops from all over the empire to victory. By 1960, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was holed up at the Thai border, never to return to more than high nuisance status. That victory has been trumpeted in a myriad of works as a counter-insurgency paradigm, a model mix of coercive pressure and persuasive wooing of "hearts and minds", and a case study on how resettlements could blend rigid control with schools, community centres and basketball courts, to eventually produce real communities.
Given the tsunami of works on the Emergency, why read this one? The answer is, in part, that it is a series of interlinked intellectual "essays", each reflecting, in a lively way, on how the Emergency story has been told, as well as what actually happened. In addition, it uses a blend of techniques to combine analysis with an attempt to bring the experience of the conflict alive, and to see it from the viewpoint of the MCP and its supporters. It uses ethnographic reflection on interviews, deploys Marxist-style class analysis to assess why the MCP struggled to keep villagers united behind it, and delves into culture and fiction.
In this vein, Yao presents us with nine chapters, each on a different topic: communism, violence, revolutionary warfare, and so on. For me, the most enjoyable was chapter 2 "On Communism" (pp. 20–39), which weaves an analysis of how people experienced communism around two individuals Yao talked to at a Peace Village for ex-insurgents in Southern Thailand. These individuals capture two broader types of insurgents; the relatively poorly educated fighter from a rural background, and the Chinese-educated idealist. The former is represented by the pragmatic, farming and jungle-edge [End Page 730] based revolutionary family of "Uncle Luo", the latter by the Chinese-educated Xiao Hong, who joined the fighters as a young woman. Yao uses the latter, in particular, as a departure for a discussion of the progressive atmosphere in post-war Malaya. He sketches in the types of Chinese modern classics, Western classics, socialist-realist works translated into Chinese, and left-leaning supplements in newspapers that influenced Xiao Hong's generation. With reference to this, he quotes the poem "Girls in White Skirts", which evokes youth and its yearning for the practical pursuit of progressive ideas, making them ready in the poet's eye to "walk the glorious path of martyrs" (pp. 36–37). He shows how the vision of seeking justice of the Chinese-educated overlapped with the more "rice-bowl" (p. 38) orientation of men such as "Uncle Luo", who had admired the wartime anti-Japanese forces. Both sought modernity, albeit from different starting points, and the communists offered it to both.
The author's tone is at times almost elegiac and melancholic in its evocation of the lost passion and idealism of his and others' youth of that era; when "violence and bloodshed [seemed] redeemable by the rightness of their causes" (p. 39). Yet the author is not naïve, noting how the pursuit of a socialist Malaya might have meant repressing those who clung to racial and feudal instincts (pp. 133, 160). The almost filmic descriptions of people interviewed might be seen by some as indulgent—although for me they are honest—doing away with the pseudo-objective veneer of blander historical and social science works, and, instead, reminding us that the causes, experience and aftermath of revolution are also about deep emotion and raw feelings. In a sense, the approaches here, the filmic quality, the microhistory, the evocation of the literature of the time, reminds us that for many, joining a revolution was a cocktail of adherence to a pursuit of justice and of romance; romance in...