Insurgencies in Malaysia and Vietnam: Boyhood Reflections

The Communist insurgency in British Malaya (as it then was before becoming Malaysia) started in 1948, which happened to be the year I was born, and ended in 1960. The country became independent in 1957.

My youthful recollections of the insurgency are confined to the episodic.

Travelling in our car to visit relatives in another part of the country and being bunched with other cars in a convoy escorted by military vehicles with machine guns.

Going on visits to my rubber-planter uncle and his family, where my brothers would always be car-sick on the narrow, winding roads.

My uncle’s rubber estate, with floodlights illuminating, nightly, the fenced compound where they lived.

This compound was guarded by a permanently-stationed military barracks.

Me pretending to drive the armoured vehicle (its equivalent today would be the British version of the military Humvee) used by my uncle– his predecessor had been killed by a bomb planted under a bridge on the plantation as he drove over it.

My two cousins and I being escorted by 3-4 of these soldiers when we went to fish in a stream outside the compound.

Being woken in the middle of the night at home in Kuala Lumpur (KL) by the sound of British air force bombers pounding presumed “terrorist” hide-outs in the nearby hills. I would go to my bedroom window to see the bombs being dropped and exploding like fireworks.

At that time I shared my parent’s view of what was happening.

Servants of the British colonial order, they were implacably opposed to the communist insurgency, despite the fact that the communists provided the only serious resistance to the Japanese in World War II after the British surrendered to Japan. The communists now believed they were fighting for the country’s independence from the British.

I had no inkling of this at that time. Then as today, “terrorists” are “terrorists”, in the approximative way that a rose is a rose, is a rose, is a rose.

It took the Vietnam war to complicate my acceptance of what my parents told me about these “terrorists”.

From 1962 to 1972, 60,000 Australian troops served in Vietnam.

KL, the capital of the nearest ex-British colony to Vietnam, was used as an R & R centre for the Aussie top brass from the early 60s. On these breaks they were given courtesy memberships of KL’s cricket, golf, and tennis clubs, still redolent (then and even today) with all the trappings of the colonial era.

My father belonged to one of these clubs.

The KL clubs were the fulcrum of the social life these Aussies had in their 2-3 weeks in KL.  Some knew Malaysia well—subalterns in the Pacific war against the Japanese, later on they were mid-ranking officers in the Malaysian communist insurgency (in which 39 Aussie soldiers died).

Now they were top-brass in Vietnam.

My father got on with an Aussie brigadier at his club, with pints of beer doubtless fuelling this acquaintanceship. The brigadier was invited to have dinner with us at home.

At one point the dinner conversation got serious.

The brigadier, having fought against “the Japs” (his words and my parents, my mother having being interned in the Changi concentration camp during the Japanese occupation), and the “terrorists” in Malaya, was asked by dad what was going on in Vietnam.

This young teenager was at the dinner table, agog, and this is what I heard.

The Aussie brigadier said “the Yanks” (his words) were probably not going to win the war.

The Yanks were pitting conscripts from Detroit, LA, West Virginia, Tennessee, for whom the ready availability of ice cream and Coca Cola came as a near-absolute feature of everyday life, against the most experienced military force in the world.

The “Cong” had fought “the Japs”, then driven out the French, and were now fighting the Yanks. The “Cong” had, almost without interruption, been at war for 30 years, and they were going to succeed in a jungle terrain in which no conscripted kid from Detroit or West Virginia, no matter how brave, could prevail.

This was accompanied by some boasting about the jungle-fighting prowess and fearsome-sounding training regimen of the Aussie soldiers in the jungles of New Guinea (“if only the Yanks could learn from us”), which given the brigadier’s own experience against “the Japs” and the “terrorists” in Malaysia, and now in Vietnam, may have been true rather than false.

There was a silent pause, and perhaps the Aussie thought he’d said too much.

The subject changed to something else—cricket, or the brigadier’s family back in Australia, or what was going to happen at the club in the next few days.

It was 1963, and I had my first inkling that stuff people like my parents and their friends said about “commies” had something unsaid in the background that I was going to have to figure out.

Incidentally, my uncle’s rubber plantation referred to above was flattened to make way for the new Kuala Lumpur international airport. I land at that airport every few years when I visit the country, and I try in vain to locate landmarks from my childhood as the plane descends.

I know they are no longer there, but I can’t help looking.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.