K. G. Ooi (Hrsg.): Malaysia and the Cold War Era

Malaysia and the Cold War Era.

Ooi Keat Gin
Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia
Andover 2020: Routledge
342 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ragna Boden, Berlin

Malaysia shares Cold War experiences with other Southeast Asian states, naturally with some specifics.* A former colony with British-instigated massive labour immigration from China and India to meet economic priorities in tin mining and rubber plantation, Malaya’s/Malaysia’s history was characterized by ethnic questions as well as disputes concerning the expansion to North Borneo. Topics such as de-colonization, the internal allocation of the country’s wealth, participation in political power and foreign policy between West, East, regional setting and non-alignment are crucial to understanding Malaysia’s history throughout the 20th century and beyond. Recent postponements of elections in combination with the first emergency status since 50 years recall fears of the state of emergency in 1969 which involved ethnic riots.1

This English language collection of articles by Malaysian authors aims to broaden the picture. It extends the Cold War period to the 1930s and to the 1990s, an important question being in how far communist impact can be attributed to “puppet master(s) from afar with non-local agendas” (ch. 1). This refers inter alia to at least three insurgencies involving leftist parties, groups and movements with more than 10,000 deaths (ch. 1).

Editor Ooi Keat Gin, author of the Historical dictionary of Malaysia 2, combines eleven contributions (including preface and introduction) to form a Festschrift. It is dedicated to Abu Talib bin Ahmad, recently retired professor of History at the Universiti Sains, Malaysia. Among the contributions by colleagues and former students, six are by the editor himself. In his introduction, Ooi depicts Abu’s path of educational and professional life, drawing the picture of an internationally trained intellectual: Abu was born in the Malayan state of Pahang, worked as a teacher, continued his studies on international relations and Southeast Asian history and languages, including Japanese and Burmese, at universities in Japan (Tsukuba and Osaka) and Australia (Melbourne), to develop his career at the Universiti Sains Malaysia. Hence the thematic focus of his Festschrift.

All articles seem to be original research, even if some have been published in earlier versions before (e.g. ch. 5). They deal with Chinese communist and Kuomintang influence and actions during the Second World War and beyond, including anti-Japanese movements and special forces, women’s role in the Malayan Communist party (MCP), the entanglement with London and Washington respectively of Malaysia and the Philippines in their particular claim over Sabah/North Borneo, the critical early post-war years leading to the first so-called emergency, and socio-economic policy in the 1970s-80s.

The authors use a variety of English, Malay and Chinese literature and sources, among them documents from the National Archives of Malaysia, the Sarawak Museum and State Archives, the Academia Historica and the Kuomintang (KMT) Party Archives, both in Taiwan, the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in the Netherlands, and the National Archives in Kew, UK. Published documents and unpublished literature are listed in the very detailed section “references”. Some more recent interpretive overviews from neighbouring Singapore like Ang Cheng Guan, Southeast Asia’s Cold War 3, are not included, though. The helpful index comprises names of persons, places and subjects.

The preface and to a certain extent chapters 1, 2 and 9 provide a general overview over socio-political and historical facts and interpretations of Malayan/Malaysian history. Ooi Keat Gin presents the book as a “case study” (p. xi) for the longue durée of Cold War history, and Malaysia as “the domino that did not fall” (p. 265). His statement, in contemporary Malaysia “with scores of ethnicities, religions and cultures juxtaposing one another in harmonious equilibrium” (p. 2) suggests that its development is a success story which suits as a model. In doing so Ooi presumes that periods of severe injustice as outlined in ch. 8 for the 1970s and 1980s have been overcome.

Tan Chee Seng in ch. 3 analyses Wu Tiecheng’s role in the British World War II intelligence organisation, Special Operations Executive, Force 136. The organisation operated in the Southeast Asian theatres of war in order to train and supply indigenous movements of resistance to Japanese occupation such as the KMT-related Chinese in Malaya. Wu Tiecheng held key positions like that of Secretary-General of the KMT Central Executive Committee (CEC) in 1941–1948 and is described as “the man behind KMT intelligence agency” (p. 96). The British expressed their satisfaction with him for the reason that he was “well disposed towards Great Britain” (p. 111).

Mahani Musa reveals women’s roles in the Malayan Communist Party. Drawing on memoirs and party documents she attributes “important” roles to them regarding their activities of propaganda and politics, including leading functions (ch. 4).

In ch. 5 Azmi Afrin balances the question for the “real target” of the British-declared state of emergency (1948-60), based on documents accessible since the 1990s in the British National Archives: it was directed less against the MCP (which was banned only one month after the declaration of the emergency status), but focused on Malay nationalist and religious movements that struggled for independence. The campaign by the British colonial administration was meant to vilify the leftist movements in Malaya and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) as being guided from e.g. Moscow, and discredited the entire anti-colonial movement. Even though the British motivation of protracting independence on pretext that communist takeovers had to be prohibited is fairly known 4, it is laudable to present the facts here.

In some parts, explicitly or subliminally, the collection is steeped in spirit of relief (chs. 6, 7, 8) of having had the chance to belong to the Western sphere of influence and to the supposedly victorious side of history, of having escaped the atrocities of a confrontation with the West (like in Vietnam or Korea) and also extremism in the name of communism like in Cambodia and the People’s Republic of China. This may explain why a reappraisal of colonial aspects of Malayan history is largely missing, with some exceptions. Ooi calls this the wisdom of Malay(si)an governments to choose for “the orbit of the UK; hence the US” as well as Malaysia’s role as “a prime mover for the creation of the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone” (ch. 6, p. 197).

One controversial territorial issue, the claim over North Borneo, reveals how multifaceted the Cold War could be. With the Malay(si)an-Philippine controversy two allies, Washington and London, found themselves on opposing sides (ch. 7), which involved Australian troops and communist units as well. Mat Zin Mat Kib argues that since the major antagonists belonged to the Western side of the Cold War, the conflict was rather a “storm in a teacup” compared to other battles in (South)East Asia.

Referring to domestic policy, Sivachandralingam Sundara Raja concludes that the socioeconomic policy of the 1970s-1980s had failed (ch. 8). Neither the U.S. model of “cultural inclusivity” nor communist ideas of shared property took effect to integrate Chinese, Indians, indigenous people (Orang Asli) and those Malays defined by ethnicity rather than by citizenship. The more urban-based Chinese originating populations contrasted with the rather rural based working-class Indians, land-owning Malays and Orang Asli often living in remote areas.

In his concluding ch. 9, Ooi repeats his praise from ch. 6 with regard to the changing policy of Malaysia’s cabinets as a success story of pragmatism superseding ideology. It started from the strictly Western-oriented beginnings (“rightly”, “understandably”, p. 263), turning to Prime Minister Abdul Razak’s (1970-76) more neutral stance with elements of non-alignment and approach to Beijing, to Mahathir’s (1981-2003) anti-British and pro-Japanese policy. Ooi sums up that “Malaysia navigated itself prudently and well through the cold War era confronting and overcoming obstacles and challenges thanks to its political leadership.” (p. 265). These clear-cut praises are fortunately counterbalanced by more critical chapters (such as ch. 5, 8).

The book would have gained by a stricter elimination of repetitive phrases (e.g. in the preface and in ch. 2, 9). Concerning the subjects discussed, political topics dominate socio-economic and gender aspects. The political dealings with the role of Islam, especially since the 1970s and then during Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s terms in office, is another point of interest, the closer analysis of which would have benefitted the collection. However, by making fruitful use of a lot of source material these Festschrift essays are a valuable contribution to Malaysian and Southeast Asian history.

A word on the usability of vitalsource.com: It does have helpful features of contemporary e-reading systems; major disadvantages, though, being the limited compatibility with portable devices and the poor printing performance. Printing is limited to a maximum of two (!) pages at a time, which then take up to a whole minute to load. This makes the e-copy a somewhat restricted alternative instead of one combining the best of both versions, electronic and paper disposability.

* The reviewer was confined to the much cheaper eBook (£ 29.59) compared to the paper version (£ 96). This is why this review refers exclusively to the electronic version accessed in Dec. 2020 and Jan. 2021 via https://online.vitalsource.com.
1 Malaysia ohne Parlament: Ausnahmezustand verhängt/”Politischer Schachzug”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 13th Jan. 2021, p. 5.
2 Ooi Keat Gin, Historical dictionary of Malaysia, 2nd ed., Lanham 2018.
3 Ang Cheng Guan, Southeast Asia’s Cold War. An interpretive history, Honolulu 2018.
4 See: Georg Stauth, Malaysia, in: Bernhard Dahm / Roderich Ptak (eds.), Südostasien-Handbuch, München 1999, p. 271-284, here p. 275.

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