Chin Peng’s legacy after his death in a Bangkok hospital remains a hot dispute in Malaysia today.
GOVERNMENT ministers, including Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamid, were quick to denounce Chin Peng as a criminal, while DAP leader Lim Kit Siang and website bloggers have come out to acknowledge the role and struggle of the clandestine Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which Chin Peng led against British rule, saying it hastened the achievement of Malaya’s national independence in 1957.
Even before his death, while the Government had banned films on the CPM and his return to Malaysia from exile, his role had been grudgingly accepted by even those who once fiercely opposed him.
Since 1989, public controversy has swirled over the party’s role and its real contribution to the achievement of Malaya’s independence in 1957. Some people have argued that while the party’s struggle for independence was valid up to 1957, its continuation thereafter against the popularly elected governments of Malaya and Singapore has been difficult to justify.
Nevertheless, first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in his memoirs, Lest We Forget (1983), acknowledged the communists’ role in the struggle for independence: “Just as Indonesia was fighting a bloody battle, so were the communists of Malaya, who, too, fought for independence.”
Chin Peng’s application to return to Malaysia to launch his memoirs in September 2003 was rejected by the Home Ministry. He finally lost his appeal against this ban in the Federal Court in 2009.
PAS leaders, including Mat Sabu, and its party organ Harakah have recognised the role played by the CPM’s Malay leaders, Rashid Maidin and C.D. Abdullah, in the CPM’s armed struggle in achieving Malaya’s independence. Even former Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Rahim Noor has echoed this recognition.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who played a crucial role in initiating the negotiations to end the CPM’s armed struggle, half-heartedly recognised the role of Rashid Maidin and other Malay communists in Malaya’s independence up to 1957, in a foreword he wrote in a book on the CPM.
Ong Boon Hua, alias Chin Peng, was the CPM’s secretary-general for 42 years. Until his memoirs, Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History, was published in 2003, much of his life and leadership of the party remained shrouded in secrecy and he is best known for his wartime (1942–45) exploits as a guerilla leader.
At the end of World War II, Chin Peng’s heroic role as an anti-Japanese resistance leader was highlighted in Spencer Chapman’s account, The Jungle Is Neutral (1952), in which he is portrayed as the key link between the resistance movement in Malaya and the British armed forces based in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Post-war Malayan newspapers called him “Britain’s most trusted man”. For his wartime services he was awarded two military medals and an Order of the British Empire (OBE), which was revoked when the CPM took up arms against British rule in June 1948.
Born in Kampong Koh, in Sitiawan, Perak, on Oct 21, 1924, Chin Peng became a communist at 15. He adopted the alias “Chin Peng” because all secret cell members were required to conceal their true identities from the police.
In the interwar period it took great intellectual and moral courage to join the banned CPM as once its members’ identities became known, the British police hunted them down.
Chin Peng found the communist ideology attractive as it stood for social justice, the elimination of poverty, a new classless world order and the end of imperialism.
His father from Fujian province, emigrated to Singapore where he met and married Chin Peng’s mother. They moved to Sitiawan where they ran a bicycle business.
The second of 11 children, Chin Peng studied at the Hua Chiao (Overseas Chinese) Primary School in Sitiawan, and later briefly attended a secondary school, the Anglo-Chinese Continuation School.
While there, the police discovered his communist activities and he disappeared underground to evade arrest.
Within the movement, he worked ρrst in 1940 as a probationary member, in charge of members in the Sitiawan district, then transferred to Ipoh to do propaganda work, and was subsequently appointed the party’s state secretary in 1942, the year he married a party comrade, Lee Khoon Wah, who was from Penang. They had three children.
In 1941, during the Japanese occupation, the British administration, accepted the CPM’s offer of volunteers to ρght the Japanese behind enemy lines.
In Perak, Chin Peng was responsible for establishing communication and supplies lines between the urban areas and the guerrilla forces in the jungle camps. He was the liaison ofρcer between the British special operations group, Force 136, and top party ofρcials in the Blantan highlands in 1943 and 1945, to discuss the airdrop of money and arms to the guerilla groups.
At the end of the war, in recognition of his wartime services, Chin Peng was awarded a military medal in Singapore and later in London he received a second medal.
In 1947, the party’s central committee purged its secretary-general, Lai Tek, after Chin Peng and another committee member, Yeung Kuo, exposed him as a British agent.
Chin Peng was elected to replace him and the party began to adopt a “militant” line against the British administration.
After British intelligence uncovered information that the party was planning an insurrection, the colonial government decided to seize the psychological advantage by declaring an emergency in Malaya in June 1948.
This was in the wake of widespread labour unrest, including the murder of white planters on rubber estates, which it blamed on the CPM.
The British put up a reward of 250,000 Straits dollars on Chin Peng’s head. This offer was given wide publicity in the local and foreign press.
The Malayan Emergency lasted from 1948 to 1960, in the midst of which, Malaya secured independence on Aug 31, 1957.
In December 1955, Chin Peng and two CPM leaders, Rashid Maidin and Chen Tien, attended “peace talks” in Baling, Kedah, with Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was then Malaya’s chief minister, David Marshall, Singapore’s chief minister, and Tun Tan Cheng Lock, the MCA leader.
At the Baling talks, Chin Peng rejected the offer of amnesty when he failed to secure legal recognition for the CPM, and refused to accept the condition that the police screen his guerillas when they laid down their arms.
However, he made the surprising offer that the party would cease hostilities and lay down its arms if the Tunku secured the powers of internal security and defence in his talks on Malaya’s independence with the British Government in London.
It strengthened the Tunku’s bargaining position in the talks, which allowed him to win Malaya’s independence.
“Tunku capitalised on my pledge and gained considerably by this,” claims Chin Peng in his memoirs. In 1960, the Tunku’s Alliance government ended the Malayan Emergency. An ailing Chin Peng left for Beijing to recuperate and reorganise the party’s struggle.
He remained in Beijing for 29 years and did not return until 1989 to bring the CPM’s armed struggle to a close after negotiating a peace agreement with the Malaysian and the Thai Governments in Haadyai.
Chin Peng, in his book, described himself as a nationalist and freedom fighter.
He took responsibility for the thousands of lives lost and sacriρced in the cause of the communist struggle. “This was inevitable,” he said, in an interview with me in Canberra in 1998. “It was a war for national independence.
> Cheah Boon Kheng was Professor of History at Universiti Sains Malaysia until his retirement in 1994. He was a visiting fellow in Singapore, Canberra and at USM. He is the author of several books, including The Masked Comrades (1979) and Red Star Over Malaya (1983).