Behind Barbed Wire: Chinese New Villages During the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960

This book’s main contribution to the wide variety of existing scholarship on the Malayan Emergency is that it centres the voices who were affected most but featured least in previous accounts: the Chinese communities in the New Villages. The author achieves this by combining the vast collection of archival materials with over 80 interviews of residents to paint a insider’s picture of Britain’s anti-communist war in Malaya.

Existing works on the Malayan Emergency have either highlighted the perspectives of outsiders with their own agenda. For example, the resettlement schemes to cut off rural support and influence from the rebels were “New Villages” to High Commissioner General Sir Gerald Templar, who envisioned them as modernised communities; as “resettlement areas” to be encircled by barriers and cut off from corrupting communist influences by Director of Operations General Sir Harold Briggs; and unsurprisingly as “concentration camps” by the communist rebels themselves. 

Separated into two distinct parts, this book offers a detailed look into the lives and experiences of the residents themselves, and shows that far from being passive internees, they engaged in a constant tug-of-war in pushing boundaries and cooperating with the authorities. In Part 1, Tan sketches an overview of the Emergency’s gestation and the core policies that made up the British response. The physical environment of a New Village is described, along with the myriad of social and security institutions supporting the communities.

The chapter “Remaking the Unknown Subject” reveals the effectiveness of radio, cinema and drama units dispatched to the New Villages as part of the propaganda war. Public lectures on welfare, healthcare and sanitation were also useful in convincing people that the British were committed to their well-being and demonstrated they remained in control despite the insurgency.

The chapter “Discipline and Resistance” as well as most of Part 2 are where Tan’s oral history interviews sparkle in their originality. For example, some interviewees described their methods of smuggling items past village guards, going as far as hiding messages in their hair, mouth and even in their undergarments. Gossip and jokes served to cushion them from the political and ideological battles being waged with their livelihoods, 

In Part 2, Tan takes the reader through a tour of four New Villages out of the 150 he visited for his research: Bertam Valley, Gunung Hijau, Pulai and Tras. Bertam Valley is an example of the rapid evolution of British policies in the Emergency’s early years from punishment to resettlement to consolidation. He also details the traumatic removal and detention of Tras New Village’s population, an action so controversial that archival records remain sealed to this day. Nevertheless, Tan’s interviewees fill this gap with their accounts of harsh treatment, interrogation and helplessness at being collectively punished under Emergency regulation 17D.

While the case studies may be extreme examples given that many of the harshest policies were only implemented for a short period in select locations, they still provide valuable insights of villagers’ experiences of being corralled, controlled and punished in a campaign “to win hearts and minds”.

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