The death of Chin Peng has created a buzz about the relevance of the Red spectre in Malaysia, especially among Malaysian Gen Yers.
IT has been an educational week for finance manager Rita Wong* as she tried to find the answers for her 10-year-old son’s questions.
“He’s always curious and this week it has been all about Chin Peng,” Wong relates. “‘Who is he, mum; why can’t he come home; why do we have to be scared of his ashes?’”
Wong, a 40-something working mother, says she has had to recall her history lessons in school but even then “most of the answers he is asking for are hard to give as I don’t really understand it myself.”
Chin Peng, the Malayan-born guerilla who led a fierce Communist insurgency against the British in the peninsula after World War Two, and later against the government after independence, died early last week after living in exile in Thailand for more than two decades. He had fought alongside the British during the Japanese military occupation, but had started a fight to establish an independent Communist state here in 1948.
Thousands were reportedly killed during the insurgency, tagged by the British administration as the Malayan Emergency, that lasted until 1960.
Hence, even in death, his name still evokes much bitterness in Malaysia, as seen during the week in the media and social media network.
“I can never forgive him because the Communists killed my grandfathers and uncles,” says a marketing manager in his 30s.
But for over 80% of the Malaysian population aged below 55 (some 25,610,000 Malaysians) who would have been in their diapers or not born when the Emergency ended, Chin Peng remains a distant grandfather story or, at the most, an answer to an examination question.
With his death, many are saying it’s time to also put the CPM ghost to rest, as can be seen in the comments in cyber space.
“Does Chin Peng’s death really matter?” writes secondary school student Tianqian Tong. “I thought he had died for years actually…”
Like many young people, Tong does not see Chin Peng and communism as a security threat any more.
“Chin Peng and the CPM are in the past, not in the present, neither will they be in the future. We are now free and independent,” notes Tong.
“Anyway, history is a lesson for the future – every single thing will be remembered. It will be good for us to learn that ‘In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher’.”
A number of the comments in cyber space are also quite light-hearted and related to a topic that’s very popular among Gen Yers these days.
“His ashes could spread around the country and invade the body of every Malaysian. This could be worse than an alien invasion …” says one in a long line of zombie jokes about the “Chin Peng ashes – to return or not to return” debate.
A budding entrepreneur who only wants to be known as Amin admits that he finds the issue a tad confusing. “We all now want to ‘make friends’ with communist China and break into their market,” he observes.
Chin Peng and the CPM have not been a valid bogeyman for a long time, local theatre director and lecturer Mark Teh says.
“Bogeymen are ghosts or phantoms. The reason we have them is to create an irrational fear in people,” he opines.
For many young people, the Emergency and communists are lumped together with the Japanese Occupation and fight for independence under the topic of “War in History”, Teh points out.
“Many do not know the difference. But it is not completely their fault that they are confused. It’s because the history books present it in a sketchy manner. It is presented in a linear way that does not add up sometimes and discussions are not encouraged.”
This may have led to a thirst for information on communism among some, but not to the point where they want to stage a revolution, he adds.
“They are intrigued by it because of the gaps in history but I don’t think they are interested in the ideology or to embrace communism.”
Teh, who used to teach Culture and Society in Malaysia, had organised an “Emergency Festival” with a loose collective of young artists in 2008 to mark the 60th anniversary of the insurgency.
It was an attempt to re-examine the documents, images and narratives of the Malaysian Emergency from the younger generation’s perspective, he explains.
“We saw many students participate because they wanted to create alternative spaces for themselves and answer the questions they have about this part of Malaysian history.”
Teh feels this is the underlying issue in the debate on Chin Peng and the CPM’s role in the struggle for independence.
“The argument is contemporary because it is really about people fighting for their own version of Malaysia now – and they are reclaiming a past, whether it includes the CPM, Chin Peng or a past that excludes their contribution or labels them only as terrorist,” he says.
Writer Zedeck Siew, in his 20s, agrees, saying that any interest in communism among the young is mainly due to the suppression of communism’s place in history.
“In the classroom, we had the impression of the communist as an evil, grimacing Chinese fellow creeping through the jungle, killing cops and citizens. People have realised that this is not a complete picture.
“Those who want to learn about the CPM and Chin Peng are merely trying to find out more about the country’s past,” he reasons.
Crucially, interest does not equal participation, he stresses. “Frankly, I just can’t see my peers leaving their iPad, artisanal cupcakes and comfortable suburban warrens to join a people’s Armed Struggle and subsist on rations.”
Women rights activist Smita E concurs, saying that young people now seem to be largely anti-ideological. “I base this statement on my observation that people don’t read enough and don’t have time to read big books and think big thoughts.”
What is true, however, is that young people are starved for local histories, she adds. “It’s about alternative histories, not communism per se.”
Postgraduate student Ahmad Z also feels ideology rarely survives these days. “The grand narrative is history, though I believe young people see communism as a symbolic representation of change.
“If there is a resurgence in interest, it is a romantic interest of communism in Malaysia but not in the sense that people are trying to revive it and to suddenly pick up arms,” he says.
Putting the academic input into the issue, Boon Kia Meng believes that for many young people, the communist armed struggle belongs in the annals of history now.
“As Chin Peng mentioned in his memoirs, he was a man of his time and circumstances, where the world, in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese occupation, was overtaken by nationalist and anti-colonial movements and liberation struggles,” explains the academic.
“The armed resistance of the CPM was conditioned by those wars and the realistic options before them, in the context of British detention of firstly the Malay anti-colonial Left (a thousand were detained before the Emergency) and the crackdown on labour unions and political groups. The Emergency in 1948 was the culmination of British desire to secure their economic and geopolitical interests in the region.
“The CPM, rightly or wrongly, decided on armed struggle in the face of such challenges.”
Today, conditions are very different, says Boon. “A measure of formal democratic institutions has prevailed, and capitalism is triumphant globally, including in so-called communist China. As such, the bogeyman of communist terror in Malaysia is no longer a plausible claim.”
In fact, he highlights, most left-wing political movements today are democratic grassroots movements or parties.
“Just look at the elected governments of Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador, or even the growing popularity of the Greek radical left, Syriza (a likely winner in the next Greek elections) and the Occupy Wall Street movement. They are all non-violent, popular struggles.”
Ironically, even Chin Peng had noted the change of the times. Writing in his 2003 memoir My Side of History, he said: “A revolution based on violence has no application in modern Malaysia or Singapore… The youths who have known only stable governments and live in an independent age of affluence will find the choices I made as a teenager deeply puzzling… I was young in a different age that demanded very different approaches.”
He also stated that one of his final wishes was to “exchange views with young Malaysians nowadays to understand how history is shaped, exchanging ideas about how things move the world.”
Open dialogue and reconciliation
For many young people, an open dialogue on Chin Peng and communism is something they hope will happen now.
Student Nik Zurin Nik Rashid says it might be difficult for them to feel the victims’ experience but it will not hamper them from empathising.
“To ask the current generation that live in ignorance of such an experience is like asking a Malaysian what it feels like to be at Auschwitz: they can’t answer, and neither should they,” says the 19-year-old who is currently an undergraduate in a university in Texas.
The fact is that in the modern context, any way you look at it, the CPM is no longer around, she says.
“The CPM is no longer the enemy for the simple fact that it does not, for all intents and purposes, exist as a cohesive force that mobilises the masses since it signed the armistice with our government in 1989. By that alone, they are no longer the “Number One Enemy” as much as the Russian Federation is no longer a de facto enemy to Nato or the US since the Soviet Union collapsed.”
Nevertheless, she does not believe the CPM deserves any form of pardon.
“If Hitler is still unforgiven for his crimes, then I don’t see why Chin Peng needs to be forgiven for his Red Terror campaigns during the Emergency.
“To many, Chin Peng and his Commies will not be forgiven, and that is understandable.”
Alternative musician A. Nair feels that an open dialogue will help reconcile our nation with its painful past.
“If we try to be politically correct all the time, we will not get any idea across. If the older generation gets upset about us not caring or being insensitive about what they went through, it is something we need to learn to understand.
“But they also need to understand that it is not relevant to us now. We are moving towards a developed society, so we need to be more open and less sensitive.”