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Sunday November 30, 2008

The officer who loved Malaya

Leon Comber is one of the few surviving British officers who served with the Malayan ‘secret police’ during the difficult years of the Emergency.

FOR a man who has fought two wars and lived to tell his tales, Leon Comber is surprisingly coy when it comes to ... his age.

Former Special Branch officer Leon Comber.

“I’m ridiculously sensitive about my age, so let’s just say I’m in my 80s,” he says.

You’ll have to draw your own conclusions given that Comber served as an officer in the Indian army for much of World War II (having left his native London for India in December 1940), before coming to Malaya and playing a critical role in the formative years of our police force’s Special Branch.

Indeed, Comber was at the forefront of the British colonial forces’ battle againt the communist-led Malayan Emergency which began in 1948. Now, a full 60 years on, he finds himself back in Malaysia on a fleeting visit as a speaker at the Caux Round Table Malaysia at the Commonwealth Club in Kuala Lumpur.

Far from resting on his laurels, Comber has just published an extensive account of his time at the heart of one of Malaysia’s greatest crises, titled Malaya’s Secret Police, 1945-1960: The Role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency.

“After World War II, I quit the British Indian Army as a major, thanks to the rapid advancement which was quite common during the war,” he recalls, “I had come over to Malaya as part of the re-occupying forces that took over as the Japanese surrendered. In 1946 I was appointed to the police force in Malaya.”

An only child, he was drawn to this region and had little family in England to pull him back. “I was interested in the sheer colourfulness of Malaya. I liked the people. In India, there were only Indians, but Malaya had this wonderful mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian. I found the people very friendly and felt at ease.”

Initially Comber served as “commissioner” for Kelantan before coming down to KL as OCPD for KL South (at that time KL was divided into North and South zones for policing). As the threat of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) increased, he decided that learning a Chinese dialect might be crucial to the success of his mission.

“I realised the importance of Chinese in combating the communist threat so I hired a Cantonese teacher. But still, who knew the Emergency was coming? In 1945 no one had any idea that the communists would turn against the government and begin an armed uprsing.

Comber (second from right) with Tunku Abdul Rahman during the launch of the latter’s book, Viewpoints. Also present was Tunku Osman Tunku Mohamed Jewa.– File photo

“The Malayan Security Service (a sort of pre- Special Branch) was looking more at the Malay nationalist movements. By the general strike of 1947, however, we could see how well the CPM had penetrated the unions.”

Over the next few years, Comber was in the thick of action. As such he has a unique perspective on the personalities of the British officials of the era.

“I was the honorary ADC to (High Commissioner) Sir Henry Gurney but I was in Johor when he was murdered. Gurney was liberal and a nice man, whereas his successor , (Field Marshal) Sir Gerald Templer, was much more dictatorial.

“I do feel that Templer is given too much credit for winning the war against the communists, because the brilliant plan that defeated them was devised by General Sir Harold Briggs. It was he who combined military, police and civil administration in a way that could effectively counter the CPM.”

Another point that Comber emphasises is that the Emergency could not have been won by the British if the British had not won the hearts and minds of the locals who also made sacrifices. The latter is one reason for his book.

“The books on the Emergency are British-centric, and the Asian input is largely forgotten. I want to try to give credit to the many brave Asian officers who fought this battle.”

The Emergency was no picnic. It was a savage war in which an estimated 12,000 people died. I asked Comber if he ever had to do anything he was ashamed of?

“Personally I didn’t, nor did I order any men under my command to do so. But I certainly heard rumours about dubious interrogation techniques. Apparently the head of the Special Branch, Richard Craig, issued a pamphlet which referred to undesirable methods of obtaining information. I was taken aback when I heardthat. But if my fellow colleagues knew anything, they kept it to themselves.”

Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, president of the Caux Round Table Malaysia believes that Comber’s role is an important and perhaps undervalued one.

“It is very important for people to understand that the fight against the communists hinged on the quality of intelligence gathered by the Special Branch.

“Men like (Tan Sri Sir) Claude Fenner and Comber formed a small nucleus that trained a lot of our own officers. Both British and Malayan, particularly Malayan Chinese officers, took great risks and were very courageous. Leaders of the Special Branch were vulnerable because they were specially marked by communists for assassination,” he says.

Given that six decades have passed, most of Comber’s contemporaries are no longer with us.

“I’m afraid my former Special Branch colleagues have all been falling off the branch,” he says wrly. He did, however, meet an old adversary, the former CPM secretary-general Chin Peng himself.

“I met Chin Peng in 1999 at a conference at Canberra. There was no animosity. He was like a towkay. He spoke English, Malay and Chinese. He seemed forthright but who knows what he held back,” says Comber. “In retrospect, he was probably gathering information for his so-called history (Chin Peng’s book, Chin Peng: My Side of the Story was published in 2003).

“The problem with him coming back is that he is still adamant that he is a Marxist and unapologetic over the Emergency. My own view is that he just wants a place in history.”

(Chin Peng lost his bid to be allowed to return to Malaysia when the Court of Appeal in June upheld an earlier ruling that he had to show documents to prove his citizenship, something he is unable to do as he claimed his birth certificate was seized in a 1948 police raid.)

On a personal note, Comber is matter-of-fact about the time he spent married to novelist Han Su Yin, famed for her 1952 novel A Many-Splendoured Thing (which itself inspired an Oscar-winning movie Love is a Many Splendoured Thing starring William Holden and Jennifer Jones).

“She is alive and living in Switzerland but not in good health I believe. We haven’t been in touch for many years. We met in Hong Kong and she followed me back to Johor Baru. We were married in 1952. We were married for seven years before divorcing.”

During that time Comber’s career suffered partly as a result of Han’s novel, And the Rain My Drink, and he left the police force in 1956.

“The novel portrayed the British security forces in a rather slanted fashion, I thought. She was a rather pro-Left intellectual and also a doctor. I understood the reasons why the communists might have felt the way they did, but I didn’t agree with them taking up arms.”

His second marriage has proven to be far more satisfying.

“It was initially very difficult to adjust to civilian life after so many years first in the army and then police force. Fortunately, book publishing suited me. It took me first to Singapore and then to Hong Kong where i met and married Takako. Our daughter is a medical doctor working in Monash University.”

Comber is actually a Malaysian citizen and contemplated settling down here. “I moved to Australia from Hong Kong in 1991. I love returning to Malaysia which has so many memories for me and I actually wanted to live in Penang.

“I was hoping my daughter could study medicine there but she ended up at Monash so we went there to keep an eye on her.”

When asked how many languages he speaks, he replies: “Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, a little English, a little Japanese. Trouble is I don’t have much practice speaking Japanese because my wife’s English is so damn good, partly because her father was in the foreign service!”

Comber is not done with writing and has two more books in the pipeline.

“I have an interest in secret societies of the 1950s which I might write about.

“I wish I could have done more but I can’t complain. Army, police, book publishing and academia are all interesting in different ways. My health is quite good, although my left knee is titanium after replacement surgery. Still you have to be active ... at my age if you stop pedalling you fall off the bike!”