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  • Behind Barbed Wire: Chinese New Villages during the Malayan Emergency, 1948–1960 by Tan Teng Phee
  • Karl Hack
Behind Barbed Wire: Chinese New Villages during the Malayan Emergency, 1948–1960, by Tan Teng Phee. Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2020. 24, 318 pp. ISBN 9789672165798

Behind Barbed Wire looks behind the façade to ask what it was really like to be moved to, and live in, a 'New Village'. Tan, who himself lived in New Villages growing up, combines archival sources and oral history to give us a rounded account. Part 1 frames the story, covering themes such as control (Ch. 3 'Behind the Barbed Wire'), and civic life (Chapter 4, 'Remaking the Unknown Subject'). Part 2 provides four case studies which, though not entirely typical of New Villages as a whole (I discuss this further below), are wide-ranging and fascinating. More than that, it provides compact 'life stories' of the four settlements, ranging from their origins to post-resettlement changes.

We need Tan's book, because up to now the outsider's view has predominated, and outsiders have their own agenda. To the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) resettlement areas were 'concentration camps'. To Director of Operations (DOO) Lt-General Sir Harold Briggs they were 'resettlement areas' to be separated from insurgents by fences, police posts and Chinese Home Guards. To DOO and High Commissioner General Sir Gerald Templer they were 'New Villages' which needed Village Councils, Scouts, medical facilities and schools and community centres. They would become the very model of modern democratic villages. When they did not cooperate, by contrast, they needed a good verbal lashing, 22-hour shop closures, and 'Operation Questionnaire', by which every family had to fill in a form with information, for these to be put in a sealed box. Assuming they provided information, they could then have controls relaxed and, after a time, be offered the assistance of multiple government departments. Over time amenities increased, though Tan shows that some only received direct piped water (as opposed to standpipes) and electricity in the 1960s. But wherever the local MCP District Committee was targeted, attention to the New Village ratcheted up, with increased curfews, decreased 'operational' rice rations, and sometimes swoops to arrest cell members, who in turn might betray more.

However, you look at it, Malaya's—from 1963 Malaysia's—'New Villages' played a vital and disputed part in the Malayan Emergency of 1948–60, and in urbanizing half a million people. They were the preferred solution for protecting and controlling half a million Chinese squatters. The Government's Squatter report of early 1949 recommended most have 'closer settlement', that is a move close to their existing location, but more tightly clustered. 'Resettlement' initially meant longer moves, something early experiments had shown were best avoided. Over time everything came to be dubbed 'resettlement', though in reality the former model predominated. 'Resettlement' only really took off from June 1950, under the Briggs Plan. About 18,500 had been resettled when he arrived, 26,000 by August, but 401,698 in 353 resettlement areas by the end of 1951. A year later the total reached 461,822 in 410 'New Villages', as they were rebranded in May 1952.

The New Villages also remain, though the fences and gate posts have long gone, just as the Min Yuen cells and people willing to give the government information [End Page 191] for money have. You can still visit Sagil New Village in the shadow of Mount Ophir (Gunung Ledang) in Johor, with its grid pattern and rich mix of greenery. Or rural Broga (Beroga) on the Selangor–Negeri Sembilan border, once slammed as a black village. You can see why, too. How do you separate insurgents from other people when the treeline descends from the foothills of the main ranges almost to the New Village? There are still around 450 'New Villages' of great variety, with some now the suburbs of towns. They reached a peak population of round 1.65 million in the 1980s, since when they have declined as the young left for towns and cities.

The book's two parts are quite different in feel and...


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