In the 1940s, Malaya was a divided country. Split between an indigenous population of Malays and migrant communities of Chinese and Indians, Malaya had been ruled by the British for over a century – but it was built by Indians, industrialised by Chinese, and fed by Malays. In 1948, after a failed initial attempt in the face of nationalist Malay outrage, a new Malayan constitution was formed. To secure its future position, Britain curated a right-wing political sphere which became increasingly threatened by the prospect of left-wing unity across the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities. In response to militant trade unions, inter-ethnic killings, and Communist-sanctioned murder of employers, Britain outlawed the most effective trade unions and declared a state of emergency, identifying the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) in particular as their enemy. Operating out of the jungle, they formed a guerrilla force of roughly 10,000 and began a series of targeted attacks to strike fear into the hearts of predominantly British business owners and the state security forces alike, aiming at tin mines, rubber plantations and key infrastructure to bring the government down. To conduct their war on colonialism, the guerrillas relied on rural Chinese workers, who supplied them with food, information, and hiding places. Those who refused to cooperate would receive a bullet to the head.
For the British, the first few years of the Emergency were primarily defensive. They were also the deadliest, with British military deaths peaking in 1951 at 197 and insurgent deaths peaking the following year at 1,155. From 1950, in order to separate the guerrillas from their supporter base, up to a million Chinese ‘squatters’ displaced by the Japanese were indiscriminately and forcibly relocated into ‘New Villages’, which were essentially open-air internment camps, surrounded with barbed wire fences and guarded round the clock. Further to this, 40,000 Chinese Malayans, many of whom had little to no ties to their destination, were deported to China for aiding the Communists. The authorities also hired tribal assassins to decapitate the bodies of killed enemies for counting purposes. It was argued, however, that as it was an ‘Emergency’ and not a ‘war’, this did not constitute a war crime. More difficult to obfuscate was an incident in 1948 which foreshadowed US atrocities in Vietnam, where British soldiers rounded up and massacred 24 civilians in the village of Batang Kali. In addition, the conflict saw the first use of 2,4,5-T – a herbicide identical to Agent Orange – in a military context, to clear undergrowth which guerrillas would use as cover. When a cheaper alternative was found, the entire supply was taken up in helicopters and unceremoniously dumped across the Malayan jungle, causing irreversible damage in its wake. These strategies in combination eventually defeated the Communist insurgency, as guerrilla forces slowly filed out of the jungle, starving and demoralised, over the course of several years. Despite a peace attempt by Chin Peng, leader of the MCP, that year, and the establishment of an independent Malaya in 1957, the Emergency would not end until 1960.
One interested observer to these events was the United States. Heavily concerned with stemming the tide of Communism in Vietnam, the US relied heavily on what the British found in Malaya, as Wen-Qing Ngoei asserts: ‘with growing intensity into the 1960s, U.S. officials nurtured a fantasy that Britain possessed a magic bullet to kill revolutionary communism; that, with conscientious study, the United States could appropriate it for Vietnam, the rest of the interconnected region, and elsewhere’. By the early 1960s, ‘some iteration of Malaya’s New Villages’ was appearing in US Army handbooks, while the Kennedy administration praised forced resettlement as ‘one of the wonders of the war’. Now, Anglo-American policymakers sought to export British success in Malaya to its neighbour in the north. Officials blamed the failure of the South Vietnamese government on it not matching the New Village policy exactly; once the government fell in 1965, the US could fully implement strategies out of the Malayan playbook. However, Britain possessed something in Malaya that the Americans did not in Vietnam: prior control. The US had entered the region very recently, knowing little about its people, geography, or its political structures. It had to share space with the currently governing powers in South Vietnam. The British were the only governing party in Malaya and had been for 130 years. As such, they had established an entire socioeconomic system which they exploited to their own ends at home. For its part, the US had ultimately embroiled itself in a war it could not win, and pulled out in defeat in 1973, failing to grasp that what worked in Malaya could not work in Vietnam.