Ironically on the 50th anniversary of Malaysia Day, Chin Peng the exiled former communist leader has died in Bangkok.
Chin Peng’s legacy after his death in a Bangkok hospital remains a hot dispute in Malaysia today.
GOVERNMENT ministers, including Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad
Zahid Hamid, were quick to denounce Chin Peng as a criminal, while DAP
leader Lim Kit Siang and website bloggers have come out to acknowledge
the role and struggle of the clandestine Communist Party of Malaya
(CPM), which Chin Peng led against British rule, saying it hastened the
achievement of Malaya’s national independence in 1957.
Even before his death, while the Government had banned films on the
CPM and his return to Malaysia from exile, his role had been grudgingly
accepted by even those who once fiercely opposed him.
Since 1989, public controversy has swirled over the party’s role and
its real contribution to the achievement of Malaya’s independence in
1957. Some people have argued that while the party’s struggle for
independence was valid up to 1957, its continuation thereafter against
the popularly elected governments of Malaya and Singapore has been difficult to justify.
Nevertheless, first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in his memoirs, Lest We Forget
(1983), acknowledged the communists’ role in the struggle for
independence: “Just as Indonesia was ρghting a bloody battle, so were
the communists of Malaya, who, too, fought for independence.”
Chin Peng’s application to return to Malaysia to launch his memoirs
in September 2003 was rejected by the Home Ministry. He finally lost his
appeal against this ban in the Federal Court in 2009.
PAS leaders, including Mat Sabu, and its party organ Harakah
have recognised the role played by the CPM’s Malay leaders, Rashid
Maidin and C.D. Abdullah, in the CPM’s armed struggle in achieving
Malaya’s independence. Even former Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri
Rahim Noor has echoed this recognition.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who played a crucial
role in initiating the negotiations to end the CPM’s armed struggle,
half-heartedly recognised the role of Rashid Maidin and other Malay
communists in Malaya’s independence up to 1957, in a foreword he wrote
in a book on the CPM.
Ong Boon Hua, alias Chin Peng, was the CPM’s secretary-general for 42 years. Until his memoirs, Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History,
was published in 2003, much of his life and leadership of the party
remained shrouded in secrecy and he is best known for his wartime
(1942–45) exploits as a guerilla leader.
At the end of World War II, Chin Peng’s heroic role as an
anti-Japanese resistance leader was highlighted in Spencer Chapman’s
account, The Jungle Is Neutral (1952), in which he is portrayed
as the key link between the resistance movement in Malaya and the
British armed forces based in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Post-war Malayan newspapers called him “Britain’s most trusted man”.
For his wartime services he was awarded two military medals and an Order
of the British Empire (OBE), which was revoked when the CPM took up
arms against British rule in June 1948.
Born in Kampong Koh, in Sitiawan, Perak, on Oct 21, 1924, Chin Peng
became a communist at 15. He adopted the alias “Chin Peng” because all
secret cell members were required to conceal their true identities from
In the interwar period it took great intellectual and moral courage
to join the banned CPM as once its members’ identities became known, the
British police hunted them down.
Chin Peng found the communist ideology attractive as it stood for
social justice, the elimination of poverty, a new classless world order
and the end of imperialism.
His father from Fujian province, emigrated to Singapore where he met
and married Chin Peng’s mother. They moved to Sitiawan where they ran a
The second of 11 children, Chin Peng studied at the Hua Chiao
(Overseas Chinese) Primary School in Sitiawan, and later brieςy attended
a secondary school, the Anglo-Chinese Continuation School.
While there, the police discovered his communist activities and he disappeared underground to evade arrest.
Within the movement, he worked ρrst in 1940 as a probationary member,
in charge of members in the Sitiawan district, then transferred to Ipoh
to do propaganda work, and was subsequently appointed the party’s state
secretary in 1942, the year he married a party comrade, Lee Khoon Wah,
who was from Penang. They had three children.
In 1941, during the Japanese occupation, the British administration,
accepted the CPM’s offer of volunteers to ρght the Japanese behind enemy
In Perak, Chin Peng was responsible for establishing communication
and supplies lines between the urban areas and the guerrilla forces in
the jungle camps. He was the liaison ofρcer between the British special
operations group, Force 136, and top party ofρcials in the Blantan
highlands in 1943 and 1945, to discuss the airdrop of money and arms to
the guerilla groups.
At the end of the war, in recognition of his wartime services, Chin
Peng was awarded a military medal in Singapore and later in London he
received a second medal.
In 1947, the party’s central committee purged its secretary-general,
Lai Tek, after Chin Peng and another committee member, Yeung Kuo,
exposed him as a British agent.
Chin Peng was elected to replace him and the party began to adopt a “militant” line against the British administration.
After British intelligence uncovered information that the party was
planning an insurrection, the colonial government decided to seize the
psychological advantage by declaring an emergency in Malaya in June
This was in the wake of widespread labour unrest, including the
murder of white planters on rubber estates, which it blamed on the CPM.
The British put up a reward of 250,000 Straits dollars on Chin Peng’s
head. This offer was given wide publicity in the local and foreign
The Malayan Emergency lasted from 1948 to 1960, in the midst of which, Malaya secured independence on Aug 31, 1957.
In December 1955, Chin Peng and two CPM leaders, Rashid Maidin and
Chen Tien, attended “peace talks” in Baling, Kedah, with Tunku Abdul
Rahman, who was then Malaya’s chief minister, David Marshall,
Singapore’s chief minister, and Tun Tan Cheng Lock, the MCA leader.
At the Baling talks, Chin Peng rejected the offer of amnesty when he
failed to secure legal recognition for the CPM, and refused to accept
the condition that the police screen his guerillas when they laid down
However, he made the surprising offer that the party would cease
hostilities and lay down its arms if the Tunku secured the powers of
internal security and defence in his talks on Malaya’s independence with
the British Government in London.
It strengthened the Tunku’s bargaining position in the talks, which allowed him to win Malaya’s independence.
“Tunku capitalised on my pledge and gained considerably by this,”
claims Chin Peng in his memoirs. In 1960, the Tunku’s Alliance
government ended the Malayan Emergency. An ailing Chin Peng left for
Beijing to recuperate and reorganise the party’s struggle.
He remained in Beijing for 29 years and did not return until 1989 to
bring the CPM’s armed struggle to a close after negotiating a peace
agreement with the Malaysian and the Thai Governments in Haadyai.
Chin Peng, in his book, described himself as a nationalist and freedom ρghter.
He took responsibility for the thousands of lives lost and sacriρced
in the cause of the communist struggle. “This was inevitable,” he said,
in an interview with me in Canberra in 1998. “It was a war for national
- Contributed by Cheah Boon Kheng
> Cheah Boon Kheng was Professor of History at Universiti Sains
Malaysia until his retirement in 1994. He was a visiting fellow in
Singapore, Canberra and at USM. He is the author of several books,
including The Masked Comrades (1979) and Red Star Over Malaya (1983).
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