- The Special Operations Executive in Malaya:World War II and the Path to Independence
London: Bloomsbury, 2019; xiv + 254 pp., ISBN 978-1-78831-389-6
In The Special Operations Executive in Malaya: World War II and the Path to Independence, Rebecca Kenneison has produced a significant contribution to the study of Britain's activities in Malaya during and after the Second World War. While parts of this story have been told in contemporaneous accounts, academic research, memoirs, [End Page 151] and oral histories, no previous work has comprehensively covered this history nor made use of the sources that Kenneison consults in writing this book. The result is a book that brings to light British work with resistance movements in Malaya, the complex relationship between those movements, how the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) came to dominate them, and how the British failed to capitalize on their knowledge of the MCP in the lead-up to the Malayan Emergency.
Chapter 2 provides a detailed organizational history of Force 136, as well as its often complicated relationship with not only other parts of the British war effort but, for the first time, with the American Office of Strategic Services-led effort in Malaya. It also covers the recruitment of both Europeans and non-Europeans into Force 136, as well as the relationships between the European leaders of Force 136 parties and the Asian rank-and-file.
Chapter 3 examines British agreements with armed oppositions in Malaya, foremost among which are the agreements struck between Force 136 liaison officers in Malaya and MCP. Particularly noteworthy is the approach Kenneison adopts in examining both the 'explicit bargain' between Force 136 and the MCP (p. 60–3) as well as the 'implicit bargain' (p. 63-8), that is, how the agreements were understood by both sides (and particularly the MCP) at the time. Through this novel approach the book finds that even as the explicit agreements were narrow in scope, the MCP's implicit demands were more extensive: granting citizenship to ethnic Chinese in Malaya (which they did not previously possess), rescinding the pre-war Societies Ordinance that outlawed organizations like the MCP. Though these demands were never articulated to the British, the book shows that tensions emerged within the British command before the end of the war over how to handle anticipated MCP demands. In a particularly evocative quote, Innes Tremlett (the head of Force 136's Malaya Country Section) stated in frustration that he had 'never been able to assure the [MCP] or its leaders that they will not be treated as outlaws' as a result of prewar regulations against the MCP (p. 67). The chapter concludes that the MCP believed that
If help and assistance were given to the war effort, some form of payback was both deserved and expected. It was this sense of expectation, rather than Britain's betrayal of the explicit wartime promises it had made, that appears to have underlain the breakdown in the MCP's post-war relations with the British(p. 68).
Chapters 4 and 5 stand out as the most impressive in the book and tell the largely unknown stories of the non-communist resistance to the Japanese in Malaya. Ethnic Malays, usually painted as collaborators with the Japanese (eager or otherwise), were actually far from acquiescent during the occupation and Special Operations shows that they provided support to resistance groups established by and working with Force 136.
To the extent that non-MCP ethnic Chinese forces in Malaya have been examined in the past, the focus has been primarily on the Singapore Overseas Chinese Volunteer Army (Xinghua yiyongjun 星華義勇軍), better known as Dalforce. Drawing on Force 136 reports, memoirs, oral histories, and interviews, Special Operations reconstructs the history of the pro-Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist [End Page 152] Party, KMT) Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese Army (OCAJA) (Huaqiao kang-Ri jun 華僑抗日軍), showing that rather than gangs of robbers and bandits haunting the hills of interior and northern Malaya, the OCAJA was a well-organized guerrilla force that, like the MCP, controlled a considerable amount of territory and established state-like institutions that regulated various aspects of civilians' lives. What makes this chapter especially...