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Reading Room: The Malayan Emergency

18 Sep 2017
Reviewed by Robert Lowry

This book reminds us that the political structures and practices of today’s Malaysian politics were heavily shaped by what is called the Malayan Emergency.

The Malayan Emergency was declared by the British in mid-1948 after the Malayan Communist Party commenced its insurgency. The back of the insurgency was broken by 1954 but it continued at a lower intensity until the Emergency was lifted in 1960; it was politically extinguished with the signing of a peace agreement in 1989.

Dr Souchou Yao is a Malaysian Chinese by origin. He took his first degree in economics at the University of Adelaide and later specialised in anthropology. He spent many years teaching anthropology at the University of Sydney with a special focus on the Chinese Diaspora in Southeast Asia. As he said in an interview about the book, his world view and analysis is coloured by a life-long interest in Freud and Marxism.

The book comprises nine essays, some of which are only loosely related to the central issues; they are included to provide a broader anthropological view of the Emergency, especially of the Malaysian Communist Party and its motivations and failures.

Unsurprisingly, much of the first part of the book is devoted to bursting the balloon of British triumphalism at having won the war against the Malayan communist insurgency. Nevertheless, students of counter-insurgency and Malaysian politics will find much of interest in this book. It is both a personal journey and a clear-eyed assessment of the motivations and actions of both sides in the conflict. It is a reminder that each conflict has its own context; making comparisons and deriving selected lessons for application in other conflicts can be a nugatory activity. He also reminds us that the political structures and practices of Malaysian politics that we see today were heavily shaped by the Emergency.

Souchou Yao, ‘The Malayan Emergency:  Essays on a Small, Distant War’, Nias Press, Copenhagen, 2016.

Bob Lowry is president of the ACT Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.