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The Malayan Emergency 1950 - 1960

The Malayan Army

The Malay States Volunteer Rifles (1915-1936) was the first military unit in Malaysia. The Malaysian Army was not formed until 1 March 1933, with the 1st Experimental Malay Company whose Commanding Officer was Major G M S Bruce of the Lincolnshire Regiment. By 1 January 1935, this experimental force had evolved into The Malay Regiment, totalling 150 men and by 1941, the Regiment was divided into two Battalions. The 1st Battalion became famous for its defence of Bukit Chandu (Opium Hill), Singapore (14 February 1942).

The Conflict

During World War II the Allies had supported and trained the Malayan Communist Party MPAJA (Malayan Peoples Anti Japanese Army) to become an organised resistance force against the Japanese. After Japan's army had retreated from Malaya, the economy was in ruins - problems included unemployment, low wages, and scarce and expensive food. The Malayan Communist Party called for independence. By 1947 they had started a campaign for the establishment of the Federation of Malaya. The MCP saw the British were reluctant to give up control, despite Britain's assurances that they were in agreement to the formation of The Federation of Malaya. Civil unrest ensued, with many strikes between 1946 to 1948. At the same time, the British authorities were trying to solve Malaya's economic problems quickly. The income from Malaya's tin and rubber industries was important to Britain's own post-war recovery too. As a result, strikers were dealt with harshly, even arrested or deported. These strikers became more militant, and resorted to violence which culminated in Malay Communists murdering two British plantation managers and an Assistant, at Sungai Siput (Perak) on 16 June 1948.

The British introduced emergency measures first in Perak and then, in July, across the whole country. These measures outlawed the MCP, and allowed communists to be imprisoned without trial. The MCP, led by Chin Peng, retreated to rural areas, forming the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), also known as the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA), or the Malayan People's Liberation Army (MPLA).

The "Malayan Emergency" was the British government's term for the war but the MNLA thought of themselves as freedom fighters in a war against colonialism. The companies owning the rubber plantations and tin mines had petitioned for the use of the term "Emergency" rather than "War" because their insurance (Lloyds) would not have covered their losses if this conflict had been declared a war.

Illustration (left) of Communist MNLA fighter. (Picture courtesy of Ted Harris,

Between 16 and 30 June 1948 the Malayan Communist Party contacted many old MPAJA (Malayan Peoples Anti Japanese Army) guerrillas and organised them into eight regiments. They armed themselves with old WWII weapons and ammunition that they had hidden in the jungle. Their campaign of terror, saw the murdering, butchering, torturing and terrorising of British and native inhabitants alike.

Terrorist forces, numbered about 10,000 were mainly based in the jungle. They drew support from many ethnic Chinese living in Malaya (about 3.12 million of them). The Chinese supported the MNLA because they were denied the equal right to vote in elections, had no land rights to speak of, and were usually very poor. The MNLA's supply organisation the 'Min Yuen' had already built up a network of contacts within the civilian population. As well as supplying food and weapons, these contacts gathered information and supplied intelligence.

During the first six months the MNLA averaged around 200 attacks a month. They employed guerrilla tactics, sabotaging installations, attacking rubber plantations and destroying transportation and infrastructure. The British strategy was to keep the terrorists continually on the move, whilst also relocating whole villages to safe areas in order to stop the flow of food and information to the terrorists.

On 7 October 1951, the MNLA ambushed and killed the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney. More than anything else, this murder caused the Malayan people to reject the MRLA. The Malayan people were terrified - if the High Commissioner wasn't safe, then the ordinary citizens of Malaya certainly weren't either.

The new Commissioner, Lieutenant General Gerald Templer had orders to push for immediate reforms to give ethnic Chinese residents the right to vote. He also sped up recruitment into the Malayan army, increasing the number of Battalions to seven. Templer made it clear that the economic and social instability caused by the conflict itself was the main barrier to independence. Templer began his "hearts and minds campaign" by offering reward money to any civilians detecting guerrillas and having British soldiers provide medical treatment and food aid to Malays and indigenous Sakai tribes. At the same time British forces stepped up the pressure on MNLA guerillas by increasing their jungle patrols. This drive the MNLA deeper into the jungle and cut them off from their supplies.

The Lincolns


The 1st and 2nd Battalions, the Lincolnshire Regiment were merged in 1948 and the new reformed 1st Battalion fought well in Malaya against the Communist terrorists. In the early years, the British Forces broke the back of the MCP by their jungle skills - so quickly learned by both the regular soldiers and the National Service men alike. There is no doubt that the British developed a high level of expertise in jungle warfare. One captured MCP guerilla spoke of the Lincolnshire Regiment as the most silent and the most feared of any soldiers in the jungle.


Was this a battle for freedom? The British had already volunteered to give Malaya its independence before the conflict began.

In Georgetown, at midnight on 30 August 1957, the British flag was lowered for the last time and the flag of an independent Malaya was raised. On 31 August 1957, the new government took control, led by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Independence robbed the guerillas of their rationale, they could no longer claim they were fighting for colonial liberation. The last large group of MRLA guerrillas surrendered in the Telok Anson marsh area 1958. The last of the MRLA fled over the Thai border and further east.

On 31 July 1960, the Malayan government finally declared that the Emergency was over. During the conflict security forces killed 6,710 MRLA guerrillas and captured 1,287. Of the total number of guerrillas, 2,702 surrendered during the conflict another 500 when it was over. A total of 1,346 Malayan troops were killed, 519 British military personnel and 2,478 civilians. There were 810 civilians recorded missing.

Earlier Revolt

Malays had been dissatisfied with British rule for a long time and, in fact, had revolted against the British as early as the 1870s. In Pasir Salak, on 2nd November 1875, Datuk Maharaja Lela killed James William Woodford Birch, who was the colonial Governor - "The First British Resident of Malaya". The place Birch was killed (which includes the site of his grave) is today the 'Pasir Salak History Complex'.

The last two photographs on this page are reproduced courtesy of