Small Wars Journal

Malaya: The Myth of Hearts and Minds

Mon, 04/16/2012 - 5:44am

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At a RAND Symposium on counter-insurgency held in April 1962, Brigadier-General David Powell-Jones cautioned allies that ‘too much in the way of generalities should not be deduced from the Malayan campaign’ (Symposium, p. 24).  His remarks were echoed by another participant Colonel John White who ‘stressed the relative simplicity of the problem there…thanks largely to the background of British rule and organisation, a loyal police force and the established policy that self-government would be granted as a soon as possible’ (Symposium, p. 61).  These observations were repeated by a US Army Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Bohannan who offered: ‘that the relative simplicity of controlling and influencing the Malayan population was atypical and to be explained by the fortunate circumstance that the British were able to count on the loyalty of the civilian as well as military government’ (Symposium, p. 74).   These views were prevalent amongst contemporary observers.  No less a luminary than the American historian Bernard Fall warned that making comparisons with Malaya was ‘dangerous delusion’ (Komer, p. 78). Indeed, a feature of this symposium, which attracted some publicity, was a mood of almost apologetic embarrassment on the part of the British.  It was recognised by participants that the Malayan Emergency had been ‘simple’ (an often used word) and could not be fairly compared to more intractable insurgencies faced by allies.  The British themselves entirely discounted the French counter-insurgency experience in Indochina (offered by a Lieutenant-Colonel David Galula, who would later become a sort of counter-insurgency god), which may at face value have offered lessons, appreciating with wisdom that the situation in Malaya was particular and unique and required its own answers. The ‘Emergency’, in passing, was coined to guarantee insurance payments by Lloyds, showing at least where British hearts and minds were focused.

We can go further.  None of the British participants (all military) spoke of winning Malay hearts and minds by military force.  In Colonel White’s words – one of the few interlocutors to comment on this aspect of the campaign – ‘it was the consistent show of reasonableness that won over the people of Malaya and the problem was still easier once the country became self-governing’ (Symposium, p. 61).  The British military officers did not offer views on hearts and minds largely because the British Army had no mission to win hearts and minds and did not attempt to do so.  Neither did the Army attempt to protect the population. This was the job of the police. There was limited contact with Malay civilians, other than jungle aborigines and Dayaks, used as scouts.  Good relations were maintained but this was a matter of pragmatic common sense, not doctrine.

It is altogether surprising then that the Malayan Emergency has totemic status in modern counter-insurgency; that winning hearts and minds is so central to the mythology; that modern counter-insurgencies cite Malaya as the exemplar of ‘how to do COIN’; and that this early post-war insurgency became one foundation stone of the Petraeus Doctrine which is the prevailing orthodoxy in modern Western armies. This article examines the Malayan Emergency, unpicks hearts and minds, and offers some conclusions.

The Chinese or Communist Terrorists (CTs)

The enemy was the self-styled MNLA (Malayan National Liberation Army), led by the Chinese Chin Peng OBE and Mentioned-in-Dispatches who fought for the British during the war.  The MNLA at its height was around 12,000 strong and fighters were more commonly called CTs – or ‘Chinese Terrorists’. In 1952, a British official changed the term to ‘Communist Terrorists’ to fit the wider Western narrative of the struggle against Communist revolution in the Far East. The worst period was the winter of 1950-51 (around 500 incidents per month), but this quickly collapsed to around 100 incidents per month (Komer, p. 10).

The British loosely categorised three layers in the CT structure: the HQ elements, the deep jungle ‘killer boys’, and the settlement-based ‘Armed Work Forces’ (AWF).  The AWF were essentially Chinese that still maintained contacts in villages, and even worked in the fields by day, hence the title.  The ‘killer boys’ were criminal gangs or old wartime guerrillas that had disappeared into the hills and no longer maintained regular contact with the villages (see the schematic in the RAND symposium report, p. 94). This active force was supported by the Min Yuen (People’s Movement), sympathisers that possibly numbered 11,000 (Komer, p. 8 from 1952 British reporting but notes that Miller in Menace in Malaya quotes a figure of 500,000, a number which seems ‘far too high’).

The CTs were weak, a point quickly recognised by the British. Major-General Boucher, the first British commander who actually made a bit of a hash of the job, still confidently reported that ‘that this is by far easiest problem I have ever had to tackle’ (Komer, p. 10 quoting Miller, Menace in Malaya, preface). The country was vast and largely inaccessible; CT pockets were isolated and strung out (officially there were 8 MNLA ‘regiments’) (Komer, p. 9); they lacked effective communications; they struggled to resupply; and they faced a Malay, Indian and Chinese population mostly indifferent to their cause. Crucially, the CT command struggled to impose its leadership.  Because of the many difficulties adumbrated above, bi-annual conferences were held to settle the strategy for the next six months.  The British exploited this by changing the rules of the game which the CT leadership could not react to until the next six-monthly conference (Symposium, p. 26).

The CT strategy hinged on a fantasy: namely, that the Communist victory in China would presage the march of Mao’s Red Army across South-East Asia ‘liberating’ the diaspora of ethnic Chinese.  In the middle of the campaign a young Graham Greene was commissioned by Life magazine to visit the front (“The War in Malaya,” Life, 30 July 1951).  He astutely observed that one reverse in the Korean War was worth one hundred successful ambushes in Malaya. The sacrifice of the Glorious Gloucesters at Imjin River was more than just a local punch-up in a desultory UN war – it sent signals as far away as Malaya that the Chinese were not going to win. When it became clear that a Communist China gobbling pieces of South-East Asia was a madcap fancy, CT morale collapsed.  Ironically, the fantasy persisted but in the minds of future American administrations, clouding judgements in Vietnam.  Greene also smartly observed that whatever the British did, a low-level insurgency was sure to persist after independence and he was right.  It took 22 years for the problem to finally die away. (The Emergency was declared over in 1960 but it is difficult to say when it actually ended because Peng was given refuge in Communist China from where he continued to mount subversive activities. In the early 1980s, under Deng Xiao Ping, China sought to improve relations and boost trade with Malaysia, which implied sacrificing Peng. A peace agreement between the Malay government and the CPM (Communist Party of Malaya) was finally signed in 1987-89.)

Winning hearts and minds

The phrase comes from a speech given by General Sir Gerard Templer. It was an appeal: ‘the answer lies not in pouring more soldiers into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the Malayan people.’ In fact, the British did not have to win many hearts and minds in Malaya. It should be recalled that London only directly governed two settlements in Penang and Malacca – the rest of the Federation was governed by Malays.  They had to persuade a proportion of the mostly ethnic Han Chinese to stop providing support to the CTs.  The label ‘Chinese Terrorists’, rather than ‘Communist Terrorists’, was exactly right – the British recognised the problem for what it was and never became obsessed with Communism in the way that the Americans would in South-East Asia. (An American commentator once famously remarked that his countrymen ‘went psycho’ at the mention of the word ‘Communism’ and seemed to lose all reason. The author believes this was Loudon Wainwright commenting at the time of the My Lai massacres in Life magazine.) They also had to settle the matter of the post-independence constitution which they bungled at first with the proposal for an unpopular Malayan Union, before back-tracking and eventually offering a political settlement agreeable to the majority of Malays.  Lastly, they had to fix the economy that had been battered by the war, and address appalling labour and union relations.

The ethnic Chinese represented 10-15 per cent of the total population.  The percentage that actively supported the CTs was much smaller (less than one per cent of the total population).  Most were indifferent, as long as they had ‘rice and peace’ (p. 73). Specifically, the British had to win over the plantation tapper and squatter communities, a disadvantaged lot, doubly so as a result of a post-war recession.  Chinese hearts and minds were won over after a fashion, but by way of their pockets.  This was not through modern ‘consent winning activities’, or reconstruction projects (the difficult nation-building in Afghanistan), but rather by offering them better economic prospects on better land and political voice (the vote).  There was little need to build schools, fix clinics, or lay roads – all these existed.  The problem was that the poorer ethnic Chinese were missing out.  The new villages included schools, clinics, and electricity, a novelty for many poor Chinese.

Templer’s hearts and minds was first an economic and social policy, laced with political promises that also served a military purpose. Arguably, the ‘silver bullet’ of the entire war was fired by Sir Henry Gurney when he persuaded the Malay government to grant title deeds to landless Chinese (which automatically entitled political votes as well). It took him 18 months.  His untimely assassination meant that he never saw the fruits of this enlightened policy. It was based on foundations already well established by his predecessor Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs. Sir Robert Thompson, the Permanent Secretary for Malaya was clear that his task was to ‘establish a free, independent, and united country which is politically and economically stable and viable’, not win wars. There is a strong revisionist camp argument that the hearts and minds campaign was actually greatly overblown and more a political slogan.  The main evidence is British internal reporting, well into the war, by Templer’s successor Lieutenant-General Sir Geoffrey Bourne, who judged that the Chinese had not developed loyalty towards the British-Malay government, despite the many generous civic blandishments, but were actually ‘won over’ by the simple fact that the CTs were clearly beaten. The bullet won hearts and minds. 

It was the press that seized on the slogan and promoted the myth. (Templer gained the nickname ‘Tiger of Malaya’, a direct steal of Japanese General Tomoyuki’s nickname and an unsubtle way of re-asserting and promoting British authority.  British Pathé film footage of the period gives a good flavour of this imperial, self-congratulatory drum-beating.)  Templer himself threatened to shoot anyone who made great claims for the campaign (qoted in Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces, 29 no. 4, 2003).  At least in his mind, success was being exaggerated by newspapers keen on delivering a ‘good news story’ (a modern commander can only dream about such a supportive media!). In Malay history, the ‘hearts and minds’ were not won by the British but by the Alliance Government (the precursor of the post-independence Barisan National). For example: ‘The turning point came when the Alliance Government, precursor of today’s Barisan National, was able to convince Malaya’s ethnic communities, especially the Chinese, that an independent and genuinely democratic nation where their rights and privileges would be protected was a better alternative to that which Chin Peng offered,’ a view expressed by Datuk Ignatius, formerly of the Malaysian Foreign Service in The Star (10/27/2011). There is some credibility to this view as it was Malays talking to Malays that swung opinion, although the British played an important role facilitating this dialogue and maintaining stability. Incidentally, for those who despair at the size of modern HQs, Templer ran the war with an HQ of precisely nine officers: one brigadier chief of staff, four primary staff of lieutenant colonel rank (civil servant, policeman, soldier, airman) and their deputies (Komer, p. 31).

The British had experience of corralling ethnic populations, most notably in the controversial concentration camps of the Second Boer War that caused a great scandal at the time.  This unhappy experience was not repeated in Malaya. The Briggs Plan that involved the forcible transplant of as many as 500,000 Chinese and other ethnic groups into New Villages was a success because it was basically a sound economic and social plan (500,000 is the commonly quoted number. A high figure of 600,000 is quoted by Barber, N. The War of the Running Dogs, 1971, p. 118).  This was not ethnic cleansing, although there were mass deportations and detentions (applauded by the Malays).  There was no great resistance because the transplanted communities recognised that they were getting a good deal, not least because the policy increased employment (Eventually, 582 new villages were constructed, of which only 6 were judged to have failed. The keys were: title to land, better quality of life, material and physical support, mutual support, and effective defence. Unclassified MOD Information Note 10/03 Historical Lessons in gated/protected communities in counterinsurgency operations.) The protected villages (kampongs) served the twin purpose of denying the CTs sanctuaries and food which was a central plank of the counter-insurgency.

Templer did not arrive in Malaya with the intention of winning hearts and minds.  He deliberately played the part of the stern imperial master tolerating no nonsense.  Only when this message got through did he reverse this persona and then start playing the part of the clement ruler.  There were peace negotiations with the MNLA – which Chin Peng attended in person (imagine Mullah Omar appearing on a British doorstep for talks) – but they led nowhere because the Malays themselves knew the British were going to win and saw little reason to compromise with the Chinese guerrillas that had acted in brutal ways.  Chin Peng eventually ended up in Thailand, miffed, and would write a book called ‘My Side of History’ but few Malays have bothered to read it. He is alive today and to his great chagrin, the Malaysian authorities will still not allow him to return home. Feelings against Chin Peng also run high amongst some British veterans with one old comrades association offering to transport him back to Malaysia ‘‘on a pole’ like a dead pig.’

There was no ‘transition’ or ‘exit strategy’ in the modern sense.  Neither did Templer face relentless media scrutiny or the factor of domestic electoral timetables that are features of contemporary counter-insurgencies.  A predetermined independence timetable was agreed with the Malays and met.  It was in the end a question of lowering one flag and raising another.

It’s a police problem

Thompson quipped that it seemed to him that the main job of an Army commander ‘in this kind of war’ was making sure that ‘the troops have got their beer.’ (This comment may in part have been a sideswipe at Army colleagues as Thompson was a former RAF officer.) As far as the British authorities were concerned, it was a police problem. The British Army operated in Malaya in a classic exercise of aid to a protectorate civil power.  Even in the very worst areas, authority was always vested in the civilian authorities, through a series of cascading appointments, ‘and, last of all, the soldiers’ (Symposium, p. 22). As one officer pointed out, he could take no military action without authority from the District Officer (a Malay); the local police chief (an Indian); and the village Special Intelligence Branch (SIB) officer (a Chinese) (Symposium, p. 61).  In ‘black’ areas (dominated by CTs), a British soldier had the right to shoot on sight but that permission had to be expressly sought from the relevant civilian authority before an operation. The permission could be denied and was on occasions.  Reciprocally, a British Army officer was entitled to turn down requests for military action from the Malays if he judged that it would be counter-productive. The four nationalities collaborated in a spirit of harmony which was typical of the 200 year old British involvement in this protectorate.  The British Army did not have to build relations from scratch – it joined a good and historic relation – even though it found ‘war by committee’ irksome at first.  It is too easily forgotten that until the recent past, the British presided over a model of multi-faith, multiculturalism.  Even allowing for the biases of a British author, and barring the outstanding example of the imperial Roman Army, no other nation has been quite so successful in persuading local subjects that it was in their best interests to don the King’s uniform and serve the wishes of a government of a damp island in the North Atlantic they had never seen.  Men of all colours and creeds died for each other in common and mostly just causes – a point too easily ignored by breast-beating, post-colonial histories.  There is a good story to tell.

The rule of law

The Malayan Emergency was fought under the rule of law – British rule of law.  This was both sophisticated and fair.  Captured CTs who had committed murders faced criminal charges.  In this respect, the insurgency was de-glamourized. Some faced the ultimate sanction, the death penalty, for particularly heinous crimes, and this acted as a deterrent to CTs who gradually desisted from predatory behaviour against innocent civilians.  For most Malays, the British rule of law was as respected and symbolic a pillar as other British institutions such as the monarchy.  This counted for an awful lot.  The British did not have to convince the Malays that they were fair – it was part of the fabric of imperial rule.  When Sir Henry Gurney the British High Commissioner was murdered, there was outrage amongst ordinary Malays which is very revealing of the respect with which the British were generally held. There were abuses, or ‘unfortunate incidents’ in the euphemism of the time (the slaying of 24 villagers in Batang Kali by Scots Guards in 1948), but these were an exception.  The survivors of Batang Kali continue to seek compensation but it is unlikely they will receive satisfaction.

The Home Guard

Where have the British not set up home guards?  It was almost inevitable that part of the solution would involve setting up local defence forces or home guards (and special constables).  There was a stern, almost public school draconian rigour to the Malay Home Guard which could not be compared to the Popular Forces in Vietnam, for example.  All work had to cease at 4pm, lights out were at 8pm and there was strict accounting of all equipment, down to individual bullets.  Losses resulted in heavy fines (any ammunition loss automatically attracted the docking of a month’s wages (Symposium, p. 49)) and minor infractions were jumped on.  This generated self-respect for the Home Guard which was not viewed as a second-rate ‘Dad’s Army’ but as a credible and serious militia.

Avoiding the locals

The British Army in Malaya not only did not attempt to protect the population – it deliberately avoided the local population.  The Army did undertake population control – stop-and-search, vehicle checkpoints and other internal security operations in support of the police – but this is a quite different thing. In the early days it also protected the plantations, but this was ‘protecting the population’ in the narrow sense of guarding vulnerable white families. In the uncommon cases where an Army operation was conducted in a populated area, authority had to be sought from the relevant civilian head, there had to be a Malay police presence, and the Army unit could only remain within the area for an agreed period. Even in jungle areas near settlements, the Army commander had to request permission from the local Malay authority to use a ‘free hand’ in an operation, and he had to warn if there was a likelihood of the use of heavy ordnance such as artillery. Artillery was used minimally – it took ten years for the Gunners reached the millionth shell fired milestone, compared to almost half a million shells fired in the first five and half hours at El Alamein (Komer, p. 51). A British Army officer serving in Malaya would have been puzzled if he had been told that his mission was ‘to secure the people’ in the words of the first commandment of the Petraeus Doctrine.  It simply wasn’t.  Civilians were a problem for the civil authorities. His problem was the enemy – the CTs. The British Army counter-insurgency manual drafted in 1952 by Colonel (later General) Walker could not have been more explicit on this matter. The preface, believed to have been co-authored by Templer, stated: ‘The responsibility for conducting the campaign in Malaya rests with the Civil Government…the job of the British Army out here is to kill or capture Communist Terrorists in Malaya.’

Units did interact with nearby settlements (the equivalent of the Afghan shura) and they were assiduous in respecting local custom and making an effort to learn the (difficult) language. One sultan refused to meet the local British officer until he spoke some Malay, which he promptly did (Symposium, p. 75).  But these were more ‘get to know your neighbour’ affairs.  One officer recalled how he would bring along the regimental band to entertain the natives before sitting down for a village feast.  There is a wonderful culture of hospitality in Malay culture which the British Army accepted and reciprocated.  Another remembered how he would be invited to civic events such as the opening of a new public building.

An exception was children.  As in Afghanistan, children are attracted by soldiers and the age-old game of handing out sweets and other presents was played deliberately – the one example where it may be stated that the Army indulged in winning ‘hearts and minds’.  In at least one case, a battalion set up much-prized scholarships for one Chinese, Malay and Indian child, which continued after the British withdrawal (Symposium, p. 63).  This was the empire at its benevolent best.

The operational picture

The Malayan Federation comprised of nine states (the sultanates), each governed by a Malay advised by a head policeman, the head of the Home Guard, a British brigadier and various civilian representatives.  Each state in turn was divided into districts with the same division of responsibilities (a lieutenant-colonel usually in the case of the Army representative).

The British operational plan developed in an ad hoc way – as they do. There were thirteen existing Army bases (battalions) and later a number of ‘jungle forts’ were built in especially remote areas. By the end, the Malay garrison was built up to a 30,000 strong force – 23 infantry battalions (Komer, p. 47). Broadly, the plan involved marching from west to east, cleaning up the bigger settlements and coastal areas and gradually tackling the more difficult areas.  The aim was to turn all ‘black’ areas into ‘white’ areas and to make the country ‘waterproof’ (never achieved) (Symposium, p. 20).  Mostly and pragmatically, the plan developed in opportunistic fashion – if there was good ‘contact information’ it was acted on.  If not, the British bided their time. Patience and persistence were virtues. This leisurely progress across Malaya served the unintended effect of down-playing the situation.  There was never a sense that the country was about to collapse (although 1950-51 were seen as bad years), or that some precipitate and drastic measure needed to be taken.  This was quite different to the claustrophobic atmospheres that developed in Algiers City or Saigon that led to many poor decisions.  It paid to light a cheroot and reach for a gin and tonic.

Tactics: as different as chalk and cheese

Afghanistan and (modern) Malaysia are completely different countries.  It should not surprise then that tactics in the latter were as different as chalk and cheese compared to tactics in the Afghanistan War.  Jungle time is slow time – this factor characterised the entire campaign.  It suited the ‘slightly mad chap’ who enjoyed spending days doing nothing much in a warm wood, and was probably hellish for the agitated and easily bored fellow.  A typical posting was three years compared to the relatively short operational tours served by modern soldiers.

The key was intelligence, or the ‘contact information’.  The best sources were the Chinese Special Branch (SIB) Officers at village level (Symposium, p. 107) but the Army also generated its own intelligence through patrols and aerial reconnaissance. For example, over one 6 month period, aerial reconnaissance with Auster IV detected 155 CT camps. Many commentators, and especially Brigadier Richard Clutterbuck, aver that the SIB was the key to security force successes, a point reinforced in the British Army’s current COIN manual (CS 5-3, PDF p. 207). This would be ‘HUMINT’ in modern terms.

Long range patrols typically lasted two weeks although some exceeded 100 days. One of the early SAS patrols under ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert reportedly remained in the jungle for 103 days, at the time considered a record.  The soldier carried a pack weighing around 90 pounds with all he needed for the duration of the patrol.  This would be dumped in a cache and patrols in light order would be mounted from the cache (Symposium, p. 50).  The basic unit was three men (it was reckoned that two were sufficient to carry a wounded comrade, a calculation that would be impossible today with the weights carried by an infantryman). After that, any multiple of three was possible although 12 was a popular number (Symposium, p. 34).  With the failure of large formation operations at the beginning of the campaign it was determined that company-level operations were optimal (Symposium, p. 20). On rare occasions an entire battalion would swamp an area. Due to the extreme communication difficulties (this was actually the biggest challenge faced by the British Army in Malaya and it provoked much debate and technological experimentation (Symposium, pp. 109-113)), companies enjoyed a degree of freedom that would be unimaginable today. ‘Mission command’ was not theory - it was just the way it had to be.  Company commanders were told to get on with it and report back when they could.  Some patrols disappeared for days on end before successfully re-establishing communications. SAS Donald ‘Lofty’ Large’s memoirs include stories of getting lost in the jungle (which would offer a good excuse for a smoke and a brew)!  It was a more relaxed age.

The favoured tactic was the ambush, which could be set for as long as ten days (always collapsing at night when there no requirement to maintain watch).  It demanded great self-discipline, especially given the near-universal smoking habit in British soldiers (this, along with Brilliantine was forbidden, but we know from anecdotal evidence that separating the soldier from his cigarettes was a tall order, and the fashion for gelling your hair was not easily broken). Despite the popularity of this tactic, ‘a surprisingly small number of Chinese casualties were inflicted’ (Symposium, p. 32). The overwhelming majority of ambushes yielded nothing. Most CTs were killed in chance encounters or when a camp was discovered. The biggest killers of CTs turned out to be the Gurkha battalions, not the white British regiments. This was perhaps inevitable as 17th Gurkha Division was the largest formation in Malaya. The top British regiment was not 22 SAS, as popularly believed, but 1 Suffolks who killed 196 CTs (a kill only counted if a body was produced unlike modern counter-insurgencies that are prone to exaggerate kill counts).  This regiment was awarded nine MCs over the course of its three and half year tour. The post-war SAS, as some may know, was almost disbanded because of poor discipline and soldiering.

The other tactic was the pursuit.  If a solid contact was established it was pursued, however long it took, until the CT gang had either been rounded up or killed, or the trail lost. As with the ambush, the truth was that the CT were ‘hardly ever caught’ (Symposium, p. 39) in pursuits because they were far more fleet of foot than their pursuers.  This was not viewed as total failure.  Part of the game was simply keeping the CT on the run.  Some pursuits lasted 20 days before being called off.  The lack of contacts was reflected in ammunition loads – the standard load was just three magazines (60 rounds), including in SAS patrols (Symposium, p. 51).  This compares with Vietnam where a GI carried a standard load of 32 magazines of 5.56mm. (The author found this standard Vietnam GI ammo load in an unrelated reading of My Lai testimonies in answer to the question how much ammunition was carried, the defendant answered the standard load of 32 magazines, with one loaded. The author cannot recall which testimony and there are scores of documents to search. If veterans can recall a different standard ammo load, the author is happy to be corrected.)  They were quite different wars.

No attempt was made to seal the border with Thailand (across which there was some infiltration), the British recognising the futility of trying to control jungle borders. Political pressure was put on the Thai government to close CT cross-border camps, with mixed success (Symposium, p. 42).

Dogs and Dayaks

The British made extensive use of dogs in the campaign: guard, ambush, pointer and especially tracker dogs (Symposium, pp. 38-39).  They also recruited Dayaks from Borneo as scouts with whom they formed close bonds (the relationship originated in the Second World War when the Japanese massacred Dayaks, pushing them into the arms of the British who offered protection).  The Dayaks had natural jungle sense but no human could rival the olfactory sense of a dog.  Alsatians and Labrador Retrievers were popular and some dogs gained great repute for the ability to detect and point to CT camps at considerable distances.  A typical sub-unit comprised one British officer, ten Dayaks and eight dogs.  The CT recognised the abilities of the tracker dogs and used techniques such as crossing water obstacles to try to throw the scent. The relationship with the head-hunting Dayaks only backfired once in 1952 when a Royal Marine unit somewhat over-enthusiastically embraced the practice, provoking a public relations backlash and a prohibition on head-hunting. The offending photograph appeared in the 10 May 1952 edition of the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the British Communist Party, keen to expose brutal, British imperialism. This then provoked a riposte from the right-wing Daily Telegraph.  There was not consensus on this matter: some argued that Western values should not be imposed on the Dayaks who should be allowed to continue lopping off the heads of enemies as was their custom.

The absence of aerial bombardments

RAF bombers and strike aircraft were primarily deployed to Malaya for political reasons: to send a signal to SEATO allies and potential enemies that Britain was serious about the wider security of South-East Asia (Symposium, p, 103).  There was limited bombing over the course of the campaign for several good reasons (operations like Operation Termite 1954 involving 12 Lincoln bombers stand out because they were uncommon). Aerial bombardments were forbidden anywhere near populated areas and restricted to fringe jungle areas (Symposium, p. 103).  The problem in these latter areas was target detection – the pilots could not see through the dense canopy, nor could they reliably determine friendly positions (although experiments with balloons and flares were attempted (Symposium, p. 54)).  Mapping was poor, communications were abysmal, the meteorology was unfavourable and airfields were few. Buzzing likely enemy positions was used (the modern ‘show of force’), and the bombing of potential escape routes was also occasionally practised, but after the war it was reckoned that a handful of CTs had been killed through aerial bombardment. The most successful missions came when CT camps were accurately identified but these could take weeks to set up for the reasons outlined above. The bombers and strike aircraft included Lincolns, Brigands and Hornets, and later the jet-engine Vampires, Venoms, Canberras and Australian Sabres. It was a romantic age for pilots but the Army view, disputed by the RAF that was keen to show off its new aircraft, was that bombing jungle was largely a waste of effort (Symposium, p. 103) – a stark contrast to the Vietnam War where around 7 million tons of bombs were dropped, or 600 kilograms of high explosives for every square hectare of South Vietnam. (US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (1971); US DOD release 17 Aug 1973: US and allied forces expended 14 million tons of ammunition between 1965-73 almost half dropped by air and about 65 per cent dropped in S Vietnam). This compared to 33,000 tons dropped in 12 years in Malaya (Komer, p. 52, quoting Air Commodore RE Warcup).

Aerial resupply was used although 22 SAS concluded that the disadvantage of compromise outweighed the advantage of convenience (Symposium, p. 54).  Light planes were also used successfully for reconnaissance.  The versatile Auster IV in fact flew more sorties than all the other 31 aircraft types deployed in Malaya (MOD: A Brief History of the Royal Air Force, p. 204). The helicopter became an increasingly important platform but casualty evacuation (the Dragonflies) remained poor, though not by contemporary standards and to a generation hardened by a world war. As in modern counter-insurgencies, the complaint of insufficient helicopters was common.

Chemical warfare

The British used Agent Orange in Malaya, but for the very British reason of cutting costs, but not especially trees (Connor, S., “How Britain Sprayed Malaya with Dioxin,” New Scientist, 19 Jan 84).  The alternative was employing local labour three times a year to cut the vegetation such was the fecundity of the Malay jungle.  British stinginess over this matter in one respect helped to avoid the controversies provoked by the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.  The original intention was to crop spray but even this was deemed too expensive by the protectorate authorities (helicopters were used and 88 suspected CT cultivations were sprayed).  Eventually someone struck on the idea of simply hosing the jungle from the back of bowser trucks and this is what the British did, in limited areas and to no great effect.  This happily amateur effort at chemical warfare undoubtedly saved future British governments from the litigation suffered by post-Vietnam US governments.  In 2010, a former New Zealand soldier won a compensation case for Agent Orange poisoning (in Sarawak). It is believed that this is the first such successful case from amongst former Commonwealth soldiers.

Psychological Warfare

British psychological warfare (modern ‘Influence Operations’) took a carrot-and-stick approach (Symposium, p. 74).  The carrot involved measures like sending out medical patrols that were greatly appreciated by jungle communities with little or no access to health care. Medical care was also offered to wounded terrorists through village intermediaries, which some accepted rather than face gangrenous deaths. The stick involved many ruses.  A popular ruse was taking emaciated CT prisoners and feeding them on a stodgy 50s British diet (one can only sympathise).  Leaflet photographs of the now plump guerrillas would then be distributed to former colleagues in air drops (Symposium, p. 79).  Photographing former CTs reunited with their families was another one – the family being central to Chinese culture.


The British Army was deployed to Malaya to support the civil authorities in the period leading to independence.  Hearts and minds was a civil, political and economic policy.  The Army had no mission to win hearts and minds, or to protect the population, and it did neither.  Its role was to kill and capture CTs.  By the end, it got pretty good at this.  If revisionist histories are accepted, then there is some doubt whether the British actually won hearts and minds anyway (any more than in Iraq or Afghanistan), or whether the phrase amounted to a political marketing slogan inflated by the press. Malay history stresses Malay political dialogue as the key, not British hearts and minds.

Debate over whether the British Army ‘won in Malaya’ is misleading.  It was a British political, economic and lastly military success. Mistakes were made in the beginning but corrected. The best British characteristics came to the fore: reasonableness, pragmatism and common sense. The best Malay qualities were also on display: industriousness, equanimity and patience. The advantages were almost all on the side of the authorities: British-Malay relations were harmonious; governance was good; the judicial system was fair; the police were loyal and competent; and the Federation was excited at the prospect of independence – in short, the Malays wanted the British to succeed.  Anti-colonial British sentiment stoked by some American commentators who sought to portray the insurgents as patriots and rebels (echoing the American War of Independence) was foolishness.  This narrative was soon abandoned anyway when the Korean War broke out and Communism became the global Beelzebub.  They were neither.  The CTs were a marginalised gang of ethnic Chinese who never enjoyed broad support and whose chances of success were remote. 

Regardless of whether or not it was ‘simple’, the British should still be proud of the Malayan Emergency (and not neglect to honour the over 500 soldiers who died securing the protectorate’s independence).  It was well handled. A twelve year war cost the Treasury £84 million, or £1.7 billion in 2011 prices (Komer, p. 23) – a snip compared to the cost of modern counter-insurgency wars. Modern day Malaysia (and Singapore) are two hugely prosperous Asian countries – they owe a debt to Britain for the gracious manner in which independence was managed. To this day there is a monarchy, a Westminster-style parliamentary system, and English Common Law (in a Muslim country). English remains the language of business and is embedded in the educational system as the language used to teach the sciences. These are not small achievements in a multi-ethnic country of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Christians and aboriginals. It was never going to be a Vietnam, or to express this more precisely, there was no realistic chance that the success of Malaya might be replicated in Vietnam which was an altogether different situation.

But Malaya as the exemplar for modern counter-insurgency is a dead letter.  The casual use and misuse of the phrase hearts and minds should be guarded against.  The unique conditions of the Malayan Emergency are unlikely to be repeated.


About the Author(s)

Sergio Miller is a former British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  For the last almost 20 years he has worked in defence industry as a military SME and he continues to support the Reserves. He is an occasional contributor to journals such as British Army Review.


From the first paragraph above:

"... Colonel John White who 'stressed the relative simplicity of the problem there ... thanks largely to the background of British rule and organization' ..."

Herein, is the Colonel suggesting that the British, who had operated in Malaya for over two centuries, had -- via this relationship -- long ago won the "hearts and minds" and the loyalty of the vast majority of the Malayan population? This being what made the defeat of the Malayan Emergency insurgency a much easier task?

Thus, not relatively recent actions taken by the British Colonial Office that wins the Malayan peoples' hearts and minds but, rather, actions taken by the British over a much, much longer time-frame?

New Understanding: Hearts and minds/loyalty are things that must be achieved via a relationship which spands a significant period of time. They are not something that one can hope to gain or achieve immediately and in a moment of conflict.


Tue, 05/15/2012 - 7:24pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

Batang Kali and the Emergency.

If I may, it is worth adding a few points on the trial and the 'rule of law':

1. The 'rule of law' was theoretically in place in Malaya in 1948-9, but in reality this period saw a virtual 'counter-terror'. There were frequent abuses of the law (eg shooting people fleeing, burning houses without specific evidence vs occupants, etc). That much has been clear for decades. But that approach increased insurgent numbers and civilian anger. The campaign switched from intimidating forest frontier villagers towards protecting and coercing in a controlled and more strictly lawful manner from 1950. Adherence to the 'rule of law' changed over time. It was stronger in the more successful phases.

2. Emergency Regulation 27A of January 1949 was intended to legalise past as well as future cases of using force to secure an arrest if this was resisted, or to prevent escape. However, it would only have covered Batang Kali if you accept the official version of 1949, that a warning was given. Statements by some of the patrol given in 1970 suggest that no warnings may have been given. Even if they were, some reports claim that at least one, and probably more, unarmed civilians were finished off when already prone or injured.

3. The case against the UK government is a very important one for another reason: that it counters government belief that allegations of serious abuse can be left unaddressed, for instance on the basis that securing a conviction might be difficult. The case is for a 'Judicial Review' of repeated UK decisions not to have a proper inquiry, or failures to effect such an inquiry, in 1949, 1970, and recently. The key issue is whether the UK Government can be forced to hold an inquiry into an event it could or should have known might have involved a war crime.

Case vs: few people alive, too late to learn lessons, no convictions likely, and claims the local Sultan not Britain had final responsibility in the state. Case for: some family of vicitms are alive, evidence new to UK recently discovered, lessons to be learned on how to reduce the chance of governments sweeping things under the carpet in future, and demonstrative value of outing government failure and potentially serious civilian abuse regardless of time lapse.

On a more positive note, the claimants received legal aid to pursue the case.

A decision on this case is likely in a few weeks.

I deal with some of these issues in two forthcoming pieces.
1) A chapter entitled 'Between Two Terrors' in Hannah Gurman (ed.), A People's History of Insurgency (forthcoming from NY, Free Press).
2) An forthcoming article in Small Wars and Insurgencies, entitled, ‘Everyone lived in Fear: Malaya and ‘The British Way of Counter-insurgency’.

However, neither really grapple with a topic I want to see receive greater academic and media attention. Not just 'dirty war' details, excesses or levels of coercion (see David French's recent book on The British Way in Counterinsurgency, and the SWJ issue forthcoming), but when and how COIN has managed to reduce excesses and abuses and achieve greater control: as happened in Malaya to some extent after 1950. That seems a subject that might deserve much more academic attention than it currrently receives.


Mon, 05/07/2012 - 7:37am

The author has a section 'The rule of law' and this opens with 'The Malayan Emergency was fought under the rule of law – British rule of law'. He also mentions a Scots Guards incident, as 'There were abuses, or ‘unfortunate incidents’ in the euphemism of the time'.

Today The Scotsman has an article 'Secret law to ‘protect’ Scots Guards killers in Malaysia uncovered' and refers to an allegation made by those waging a civil case against the UK government, based on documents found.

'BRITAIN rushed in new rules empowering troops to use “lethal force” in Malaysia just weeks after the massacre of 24 villagers in a remote jungle community by UK soldiers, campaigners have claimed.

Secret Foreign Office papers have been uncovered ahead of a High Court bid this week to secure a public inquiry into the 1948 Batang Kali killings.

Campaigners say they reveal that the emergency law, which could be applied retrospectively, was approved by Sir Alec Newboult, chief secretary of what was then Malaya, to “immunise those involved in the killings”.


Robert C. Jones

Wed, 05/30/2012 - 6:07am

In reply to by Bill C.

Insurgencies are all some form of apple.

Look, in the Cold War the US goal was to stem the tide of Soviet-Sino influence and expand our own. The Goal of the Soviet-Sino Block was to stem the tide of US-Western Influence and expand their own. The goal of many populaces caught up in this larger contest was simply to get to new forms of more legitimate governmnet free from excessive external influence. Many populaces in Asia and Latin America had land reform as top issue, and a Communist ideology nests well with that. So many chose, or were willing to accept the help of those applying, communist ideology to advance their larger nationalist aims.

This is not much different than what is going on in the Greater Middle East today in terms of populaces seeking new forms of governance that are more responsive to their rapidly evolving expectations and that are not excessively influenced by outside parties. Except in the Middle East land reform is not a hot topic due to the climate, and communism is also godless. Communist ideologies were attempted in Saudi Arabia and fell flat. Islam-based ideologies, however resonate well. To lead a successful insurgency, pick the ideology that resonates with the target populace and that takes a position the government in question cannot readily agree with. Thus the radical aspect applied to Islamist approaches.

In the Cold War the US was in a quandry. Our top interest was to stop the spread of Soviet Sino influence, but our top principle was self-determination. One had to go, so as interests trump principles, we threw self-determination under the bus and set out to freeze govenrance or shape governance in ways we felt would best support our interest instead.

Today in the Middle East we still operate under the Cold War idea that such shaping is the way to secure our interests. We were wrong in the Cold War, and we are still wrong today. This is the great lesson not learned from the insurgencies of the 50s and 60s because everyone wants to focus on the gunfight and what the military did or didn't do.

Such efforts by powerful outside parties worked for centuries, but was already falling apart with the advent of the telegraph. With modern communications I argue that it is over altogether. But we have inertia of thought and action behind us, and we are not showing much sign of slowing down in our old approaches.

Bill C.

Mon, 04/30/2012 - 4:08pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Insurgencies may happen because the local government threatens something that is important to certain population groups, such as, their preferred way of governance and/or preferred way of life; with the insurgents grasping at whatever "odd concept" is available at the time ("freedom" during the American Revolution; communism in the past century; AQ's ideas today?). This, simply because these "odd concepts" seem to provide the insurgents with the only means available to defend and preserve their interests.

The contention here is that threatened population groups adopt these "odd ideas" -- and rebel -- only because they have been offered no other option by their government.

Such thinking would seem to suggest that, once the desired thing was achieved (for example: the preferred way of governance/preferred way of life is saved and preserved), then the now-former insurgents could then easily abandon the "odd items" that they had used to achieve their purpose.

History suggests, however, that such is not always the case.

The former insurgents (the Americans, the communists, etc.) seem to cling to the "odd" revolutionary vehicles that they used to achieve their objective.

We should expect that AQ, the Taliban, etc. -- likewise should they prevail -- may do the same.

This knowledge and understanding makes for a compelling case -- and for a compelling argument -- that the local government should try, if it can, to accommodate the insurgents WITHIN the system that it (the local government) prefers, should such a system currently be in place.

The problem here, of course, is that this would seem to require that the local government -- or its opponents -- give up that which they were fighting for in the first place. For example: the local government must give up its goal of modernizing the state and society along western lines; or the insurgents must give up their goal of retaining their more-traditional, more-familar way of life/way of governance. Both parties it would seem -- whether via conference or via combat -- cannot prevail.

Bill M.

Sun, 04/29/2012 - 4:51pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.

Point taken, but I do think this is a case of apples of oranges. During the Cold War the world was described as bi-polar (though I think this was inaccurate description of the world, it was just the way we viewed it), and our foreign policy was largely defined by containing communism. As the author stated anytime someone mentioned the word communist the Americans went crazy. I assume that meant that we could discern the real issues that were driving the conflict because we were only focused on defeating communism, and by approaching the problem this way we often exacerbated the problem by reinforcing the bad governance that the communists were opposing.

While some communist insurgencies were defeated militarily, or more accurately suppressed, the drivers of the conflict were not addressed in those cases and the communist insurgencies often resurfaced (cases in point are the Philippines and Peru). In El Salvador the guerrillas in the end were allowed to become a political party, one that eventually won control of the government if I recall correctly. Prior to that they were suppressed militarily, but not defeated. The political left is making a come back throughout Latin America and I bet the same will happen in parts of SE Asia and Africa due to the growing economic disparity, but we won't see it until it already happens because we're now myopically focused on the Islamist Extremist threat (the new communism for foreign policy). In much the same way we tend to go crazy when we see an AQ flag waving in a foreign country, but also once again as during the Cold War the situation is rarely black and white. AQ is exploiting local conditions as the communists did as Bob has pointed out repeatedly, and while we should continue to seek out and kill AQ members globally (and do so quietly), the through, by and with approach we embrace too often relies on partnering with inept and corrupt governments and their security forces, which puts us in the position of being a villian to the people and creates long term security challenges for us that may have been mitigated if we took another approach. Instead of decisively defeating AQ over time we are creating propaganda havens for them. These are tough problems with no easy answers, but it is interesting to watch how the situation is developing in Egypt and other countries in the Arab world where the people tossed out, or are in the process of tossing out, their governments and replacing them with governments led by Islamists and our lack of policy for dealing with it. If we believe in self determination, then we're check mated, if we believe we need to transform these nation into our image, then we're struggling to find a way to do so without turning the very people we're trying to help against us.

As Bob as stated a new approach is needed.

With respect and hopefully accurate and relevant to this discussion:

If I read the comments below correctly, Bill M. and G. Gentile seem to agree with RCJ's contention that one way to end certain insurgencies generally and the insurgency in Afghanistan specifically would be to give the opponents a reasonable, fair and equitable role in governance.

Using this same logic, one might suggest that the manner in which certain insurgencies could and should have been handled during the Cold War would have been to give the communist insurgents, likewise, a similar reasonable, fair and equitable role in the governance of various countries.

But this, I believe, we did not do/did not allow. Why might that be?

Because "stability"/quelling the insurgency -- then as now -- was/is not our primary goal or concern.

Rather, as with Afghanistan today, our primary goal and concern during the Cold War was to ensure that the subject states and societies were organized, ordered and configured such that they (1) might not be used against us and (2) might better provide, instead, for the wants, needs and desires of ourselves and our allies.

Or am I somehow talking apples (insurgencies of the Cold War) and oranges (insurgencies today)?

Much enjoyed the article and the comments below, especially Bob's and Gian's. The COIN doctrine review in June will have a significant impact on shaping our future military operations and foreign policy for the next decade. Like many others, I believe our COIN doctrine to be deeply flawed, largely for the reasons that Bob Jones repeatedly points out. I suspect that the COIN conference in June will largely be a self-congratulatory meeting with specified and implied guidance stating that we got the doctrine right, so the goal is only to make happy to glad changes, not challenge the premises it is based on. We have a precedent for such guidance, because this was the guidance we were given during the Irregular Warfare Joint Operational Concept rewrite 2.0, so I suspect a contractor will lead the effort and keep everyone in line and ensure in the end the doctrine doesn’t change much, even if it is based on an inaccurate interpretation of history.

Sergio wrote a hard hitting sentence, “The best British characteristics came to the fore: reasonableness, pragmatism and common sense.” It is hard hitting to me, because these are three characteristics that we as Americans do not have in our modern foreign policy and Irregular Warfare doctrines.


Fri, 04/27/2012 - 7:03am

Great Work!
Given your study, I'd like to hear your take on an article from AFJ, "Slow Learners: How Iraq and Afghanistan Forced the British to Rethink COIN:"

Are these concepts moot because of your argument about the CTs, supported as a result of revisionist history, or does the legacy applied to Thompson counter your argument (notwithstanding the sense of hubris that resulted)?

Bill C.

Sat, 04/28/2012 - 6:51pm

In reply to by gian gentile

American COIN, at its roots I believe, is about transforming states and societies along western lines.

Herein, our ultimate goal would seem to be to cause outlier states and societies, and their subject region(s) generally, to become -- via westernization -- less troublesome and more useful.

It is within this specific context (to wit: our agenda to transform states and societies along western lines), that I believe we must come to view and understand, today, such terms and concepts as "insurgency," "counterinsurgency," "nation-building," "hearts and minds," etc.

Bill C.

Sun, 04/29/2012 - 12:08pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

A question:

If the four inches between the ears of the leader of the local government -- and the four inches between the ears of the local population -- neither have any significant wish or desire to see their state and society fundamentally transformed/modernized along western lines; and they do, instead and in fact, see such a development as a potential threat to the integrity, stability and wellbeing of their state, society and region, how then do we proceed?

Herein, I am suggesting that the fundamental problem with our foreign policy ideas generally and our counterinsurgency concepts specifically is that they are based on the belief that, post-the Cold War, all enlightened and virtuous leaders and people will see the offer of our political, economic and social systems as the means to their salvation. And such, it would seem, is not always the case.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 04/30/2012 - 6:47am

In reply to by gian gentile


Agreed, and I will be in Kansas because I agree with your, and Bill's assessment. I spoke to some of the USMC reps and they were frustrated with how certain Army parties were looking to advance current service agendas in the updated manual. Any COIN doctrine overly influenced by the tactics of a couple of specific operations or the service politics of a specific era is doomed to dangerous irrelevance.

As to Malaya, I always try to shift the focus away from what the British Military did over the course of the emergency to what the British civilian leadership did in that same period. The Malayan populace won, not because the british military "won" or the communist insurgents were "defeated," but rather because Britain gave up its inappropriate degree of control over the governance and also oversaw a significant program of reforms designed to include the very excluded populaces the insurgent instigators were feeding upon. Communist ideology was never the cause of insurgency, it was the perceptions of governance among those excluded populaces.

Step one for governments faced with insurgency is to honestly assess the impact of their own policies and actions on the rebellious segment of the populace. Step one for the military is to recognize that they are just a supporting arm in such conflicts, regardless of how violent or how reticient civilian leaders are to step up and take charge.



gian gentile

Sun, 04/29/2012 - 11:00am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I am with you Bob, and especially your expert and deep knowledge on the nature of insurgencies and revolutionary warfare. Your analysis makes sense.

My point has been at a different target if you will, and that is the American Army and its doctrine of Coin which has not (nor I doubt will it in its revised form) reflect such thinking.

Instead it will be premised on the notion (again to cite Cassidy) that any problem of internal revolution or insurgency can be won by providing the local population with things, reforming them as a society, and in so carrying out this process with the right general in charge the war will automatically be won, as long as we are given enough time.

Which is why I continue to harp on the myth that the British won the war in Malaya because their army was transformed under Templer and started doing hearts and minds coin correctly (Nagl, Stubbs, et al). It is this flawed historical understanding along with the misunderstood (in the same way) cases of Vietnam and Iraq that continue to convince folks that problems such as you describe in this post of internal revolution and insurgency can always be over powered by just doing the techniques and methods of pop centric coin directly. If one wants proof of this mentality read Bob Cassidy's new book on Afghanistan (it can be downloaded for free at the Marine Corps University web page) or Paula Broadwell's new biograpy on David Petraeus "All In."

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 04/28/2012 - 1:10pm

In reply to by gian gentile


I would shift fire from Bob C's target location to the four inches between the ears of the leader of the government being challenged by insurgnecy and fire for effect.

Until we stop seeing all insurgency as war, all COIN as military warfare, and all success as preserving some regime and defeating some challenger, we will continue to struggle.

Resistance insurgency is mostly war. A government and military have surrendered or succumbed to some external influence and only the populace is still in the fight. If that invader wants to win they must defeat the populace. Revolutionary insurgency, however, is internal illegal political action between some segment of a populace and a government they have come to believe they cannot persuade through legal means. This is largely civil emergency, regardless of how violent the clash may come, and must be treated as such. It is the relationship between the parties that is the critical factor in determining the appropriate response. Too often we focus on immaterial factors, such as degree of violence, tactics, or ideology in making that call.

I believe our #1 mistake in Afghanistan is not recognizing and addressing the difference between the Revolutionary movement between the Nothern Alliance-based GIRoA and those who they dispossessed of power with our assistance; and the resistance insurgency against the presence of ISAF and Northern Alliance forces in the territory of others. We wage war against the resistance, though we have no intent to "defeat" the populace and stay; and we ignore the revolutionary issues that drive the entire conflict to begin with.

Far easier for us to force Karzai to sit down and resolve the revolution by giving up this rediculous Northern Alliance monopoly on Afghan governance than it is to convince every Pashtun we've been waging war against for the past 10 years that we are "the good guys." "Winning" is not the preservation of some regime, nor the defeat of some challenger. Winning is expanding the percentage of the populace who perceive that government is not their obstacle to success and happiness. This is not done by "winning hearts and minds" while preserving the same old flawed system. It is by getting the system to work equally for every citizen, regardless of how inefficient that system might be.

It will be interesting to see what people are thinking a couple weeks from now in Kansas, but I suspect is just variations on the same old themes.


Bob J.

gian gentile

Sat, 04/28/2012 - 10:44am

In reply to by kahack


thanks for this excellent post. Folks should know that you are the leading scholar on the history of the Malayan Emergency. Your work has informed much of my thinking on Malaya and has helped guide me in a sense in my own primary research into British Army operations during the Malayan Emergency.

If I may, let me just add a few comments.

I think it is clear that an army can not just "get on" with killing the enemy in Coin and then be done with it. Of course you are right to say that the tactics of Coin--or whatever kind of war one finds oneself in--must be framed within an overall effective strategy. The British had that to be sure in Malaya, and the United States DID NOT in Vietnam. Yet writers like Lewis Sorley, John Nagl, Andrew Krepinevich, David Petraeus, and many more have come to believe in one form or another that if only the American Army on the ground in Vietnam would have done the tactics of population centric coin correctly (as these writers perceived the British in Malaya to have done so) then the war could have been won. It is the never ending mistake of elevating tactical excellence over good strategy.

Also Karl of course you are right to show the refinement of the operational framework of the British and specifically the British Army in Malaya from 1951 to 1954. However, and based on my primary research, at least in the way the British Army operated on the ground in terms of tactical action there was never a radical shift at a certain point in the army where the army was transformed from one mode of operations to another. In effect, and like the American Army in Vietnam, the overall operational framework for both armies throughout both wars was search and destroy. I spent a good deal of time last year in the archives in London going through British army tactical reporting and what one sees in these reports is much more continuity rather than discontinuity in operational method. What I am essentially arguing here (in similar ways to what you argued in your excellent JSS pieces of a few years ago) was the fallacy of the Nagl school (and many others) that there was some kind of radical transformation of the British Army once the savior general Templer rode onto the scene. Instead what one sees from the primary record is a learning process in each battalion as they role in, make mistakes early on then gett better as the year or two develop. In a sense it was like a cascade of learning and developing in the battalions as they rotated through getting collectively better as a whole as the years progressed. And within this of course is a different cascade of learning depending on the battalions: e.g., the commonwealth battalions and brigades like the Gurkahs which tended to stay in Malaya continuously for much longer periods than other British regiments. In short there was not on-off-switch that goes from a non "gets-it" British Army to one that did.

Lastly, with regard to the term “hearts and minds” that you and others have commented on in this post, well, at least with regard to FM 3-24 and American Coin that term actually describes it quite well. In the end, as the doctrine is written, it is about “winning” or “gaining” the trust and allegiance of local populations away from the insurgents through effective state building techniques. American Coin expert Bob Cassidy often quips that the primary objective in any Coin campaign is the “four inches between the ears of the population.” In so stating that American coin is at its root about winning hearts and minds this is not to say that it avoids killing and kinetic activity which it does not, but it certainly does place primacy as Cassidy says on “the four inches between the ears of the people” or their minds.

Thanks, looking forward to seeing you at that conference in early June.


First of all, I am grateful to the article for its perspective. I enjoyed it, especially read after David French's recent book 'The British Way in Counterinsurgency', which also takes a critical view.

The fact that 'winning hearts and minds' has been an abused term is, however,established.

So lets not go too far in the other direction (its all coercion and kinetics), and above all lets not rely on some dated and in places startlingly inaccurate American sources to do so.

First, the fundamentals. We should see the British Army role in Malaya as killing CTs, fair enough, but as doing so from 1950 by being deeply embedded in a wider population control policy. How so?

1. The army provided the muscle to ensure relocation in the first place.

2. Contrary to the idea that it did not 'protect' the population, from then on it switched emphasis putting lot of it into small patrols in the areas around New Villages. Eg the idea was to dominate the approaches/space between NVs and jungle edge, both to protect NVs, and to turn that area into a killing ground. The same was done for orang asli from jungle forts.

3. In 1951-54 the army gradually cooperated in increasingly refined joint operations based around NVs. The police SB would arrest hardcore CT suppliers, CT would rely on soft newer suppliers. Food control and patrols would increase forcing them to take risks, and some be identified and turned, providing live info on CT approaches etc. Then the army would use new info/soft spots in op to ambush. That and increased surrendered enemy ensured higher kills. Army cooperation (coordnated through executive cttees at every level which combined all services and admin) embedded its operations in population control. The idea that blind patrolling and ambushes were what worked best would be strange indeed, given you could patrol for days and see nothing. The country was 4/5 jungle.
4. But of course - why did we ever need to remind outselves - the army's main role had to be in providing military muscle, and 67% of eliminations were by 'kills'. Its just that to get those kills effectively it had to tie itself into the wider population control strategy, and hang many operations off it.

Finally, the army was therefore part of what I would call 'persuading minds', a British approach which deliberately maximised the gap between rewards for cooperation (literally, some ex-Cts earned thousands of dollars, cooperating Nvs got land title, amentities, lifted restrictions) and the consequences of noncooperation. Eg villagers would see ever harsher curfews, central cooking, even removal, and insurgents ever tightening operaitons, if they refused generous offers for surender and reward. Incidentally, in the Boer War the British also maximised the gap between possible bad and good outcomes.

So, please, lets not knock down a 'winning hearts and minds' straw man idea it was all aobut being nice. It was about persuasion environment and confidence created by coercion, and wielding the whip in one hand and the carrot in the other simultaneously (Stubbs' book explains this well). Apologies for the image. Can we argue over the real issues, next?

Why am I making a big thing of this? Because I fear the pendulum versus the 'H&M' term has gone too far the other way, and people are ignoring the way British COIN embedded the army in attempts to 'persuade minds', and the way 'winning confidence' was also key. Also the way the army ops were embedded, across different campaigns and using different methods, in attempts to achieve spatial and populaition control, as a way of creating both killing fields and denying the enemy regeneration space.

Second point, errors. These seem to stem from use of old US sources, and could easily be eliminated by using UK sources (A. Short's book, my articles in JSS 2009, JSEAS 1999 etc). I really apologise for pointing these out, its a bit unfair as your sources seem to be the problem. But I am anxious no false ideas get into ciruclation. So, with apologies:

1. The Chinese were c 38% of peninsular Malaya's population in 1948-60 (not 10-15%), and if you included Singapore (the communists considered Sngapore and Malaya as one) would be a majority in the earlier period. They were a majority in the most populous West coast states.

2.Boucher saying it was easy just proves he was naive. He also thought he would end the emergency by Christmas - 1948!

3. The CT maximum number (according to Director of Operations Report, 1957) was a bit under 8000, but an estimated 1 million sympathisers. There were a maximum of 12 Regiments (the Malay Regiment was the 10th: the '8' probably refers to the 1944-45 strength of anti-Japanese forces).

4. CT morale did not collapse, if at all, until c 1956-8, after failed talks.

5. The campaign cost the British Treasury 520 million from 1948-57 (see DOO Report, 1957, The National Archives, Kew, Air20/10377 - a great basic source).

6. The campaign was, in reality, over as a significant threat by 1960 if not before. The CTs started disarming from 1958 and only a handful remained at the border by 1961. The 'second' Emergency from 1968 consisted of very small scale flying columns sent over the Thai-Malaysian border, and killer squads. It was never above nuisance and publicity value, adn was a response to Chinese requests to do something.

7. British law? Sort of, yes. But 'Emergency powers' made this a quasi-legal situation in which people could be tried by a judge and 3 assessors, people detaned for 2 years without trial (and re-detained after), etc. Absolutely true that abuses were relatively lower here. Interesting that the British achieved a similar outcome with massive abuses in Kenya.

I do stress, though, that the errors all seem to come from old sources. I do find the article interesting, and look forward perhaps to more, oly this time using reliable modern works or UK archives.

Whatever we do, lets not fool ourselves that the army can just get on with killing, or even kill effectively (or find the right people to kill), without embedding itself in a wider strategy that dominates space, people, or both.

And ... other articles seem to take the attitude that Malaya was simpler/different/easier because independence was promised.In many ways this is right: the Chinese base was a real problem. However:

1. Isn't Afghanistan likewise divided with many groups anti-Taliban by instinct? Is the difference perhaps that the British worked better with Malaya's differences? The British ditched idea of true multiracial politics (Templer initially wanted British style parties) and accepted a coalition of ethnically based parties, because that what the locals wanted. The US/modern parties by contrast sometimes seem to have fairly rigid ideas of imposing western style norms and ideas of 'nation-building', as opposed to finding and working with the grain of local societies. I make no comment on right or wrong -or feasibility - just observe the difference.

2. Surely almost every modern COIN is premised on actual or eventual independence for the local authorities, and in addition on estabishing funcitoning if not quite liberal democracy? Are not the Taliban and MCP determinations not to play by normal democracy (because their ideology is to them superior) actually comparable? I don't see how the British willingness to grant independence makes Malaya entirely different.

Thank you again for a stimulating piece, which got me thinking.

Karl Hack, Open University, UK.

Thanks for contributing to my knowledge on this topic.

It is easy to be seduced by juicy catch phrases like "hearts and minds" This is free snake oil for our political leaders who need to justify their nation's involvement in a war to a public and latte literati quick to judge what is the right war to be involved in.

Is it anachronistic to compare the concerns of British & Commonwealth citizens involved in Malaya to citizens of today in how they may or may not feel about their men and women going to war in a distant and seemingly ambiguous fight? It seems that many influential members of Western society today certainly appear to have forgotten what it takes to defend our freedoms near and far. Ignorant to what it means to be an ally. Absent minded in what it means to be a soldier and what they are first and foremost trained to do. Therefore, politically correct justifications are required. Hearts and minds could not be more appropriate for how political leaders today describe the way we will win. The public care that our soldiers are being placed in harm’s way, but don’t want to know that this involves killing the enemy.

Hearts and minds in the modern era conveniently gave Western leaders a politically correct frame of reference to justify to their electorate’s involvement in recent wars. Unwilling to accept that war is, by its nature, a brutal endeavour influential commentators and policy makers have looked for a kinder, gentler approach to our enemies. As soon as it gets difficult, as soon as mistakes are made, those who have invested so little in those soldiers being there are the first to call our involvement immoral. Much of this is due to an omnipresent media and well-meaning advisors with a Western democratic mind-set.

I think you summoned it up best by saying “If revisionist histories are accepted, then there is some doubt whether the British actually won hearts and minds anyway (any more than in Iraq or Afghanistan), or whether the phrase amounted to a political marketing slogan inflated by the press. Malay history stresses Malay political dialogue as the key, not British hearts and minds.”

In 4 years in Iraq I never saw conventional units conducting COIN operations. I saw conventional units conducting what they termed COIN but their understanding and competence in this field is sub-par at best.

I observed that conventional unit concept of COIN revolved around SOF DA missions and CA missions. Furthermore, conventional units tended to not understand ISF accommodation and heavily weighted the number of SIGACTS in a given area as an indicator of security (SIGACTS normally occur in a contested area, if an area is under insurgent control or the government forces have sought an accommodation I would expect to observe a declining number of SIGACTS in that area and not therefore imply that an area is 'secure').

I am not saying that the current nation-building variant of COIN is not without flaws but I am saying that there are other variables to consider to include the competence of the forces executing a strategy. Again, the forces available to execute any strategy in an unconventional war are limited and the overwhelming majority of forces currently available are sub-standard at best in executing a COIN strategy in this type of war.

gian gentile

Wed, 04/18/2012 - 6:21pm

Colonel John McCuen (rest in peace) tried his best to argue that pop centric coin was not nation building, etc; but his essential point in his book and other writings was that the trick for the counterinsurgent is to "out govern" the insurgent. Well the way you out govern using this method is by building the institutions of state like governance, infrastructure, security forces etc. True believers of American style Coin dont like the term nation building or even hearts and minds, but that is exactly what it is.

The myth that has come out of the Coin narrative (built on cases like Malaya, Vietnam, and Iraq) is that it works, but it doesn’t unless we as a foreign occupying power are willing to stay in foreign lands for generations applying this method of coin which as Bob Jones so often and eloquently points out fails to really address the root problems of insurgencies and instead imposes our own structures on foreign lands.

How the American Army and many of its generals came to believe (and still does as evidenced by Bob Cassidy's new book on Afghanistan) that this method held the promise of working is still a mystery to me.

In his conclusion, I think Mr. Miller highlights the salient points of the Malayan Emergency, that there are a number of lessons to be taken from Malaya, and that these specifically deal with an organizations ability to do on-the-job learning, in country training and incorporating feedback from theater into home station and institutional preparations.

During the COIN debate of the last couple years, John McCuen, author of The Art of Counter-Revolutionary Warfare, penned a rebuttal to an article by Colonel Gian Gentile, published at on 4 December 2009. McCuen writes that “The purpose of such a strategy [counterinsurgency] is not ‘to win hearts and minds.’ The purpose is not ‘nation building.’ The purpose is to win the war against the strategy imposed upon us by our enemies who wage this type of war against us because experience has shown them that it is the only one by which they can defeat us--what Mao described as a ‘protracted revolutionary war.’ They wage this war within the population by using the population as a shield and weapon. Thus, the population becomes the ‘terrain.’ ‘Population terrain’ becomes just as critical to insurgent warfare as physical terrain is to conventional warfare. We must learn to clear, secure, stabilize and organize population terrain in insurgent or hybrid war as we must clear, secure, stabilize and organize physical terrain in conventional war.”

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 04/17/2012 - 7:19pm

An excellent counterpoint to the mythical warstories of the Malayan emergency that overly focus on the tactial operations of the British military, and that largely ignore the far more important efforts that completely transformed the governance of that region from the control of the British and a handful of locals, to a truely sovereign nation with a far more inclusive system than it had ever had before.

Winning is not preserving some government or defeating some foe; winning is when a greater percentage of the populace come to believe they are included in the system and respected as individuals and as members of larger collective groups. The insurgents and the British both 'lost' in Malaya; but the people of the Malaysian state that emerged won. That is the true COIN lesson here.

The political aspect was certainly not lost on American leaders; it was just not practical to adopt in the context of our strategy of containing China and preventing an ideological "domino effect" across South East Asia. We thought we were strong enough to leave that part out and just force a solution by applying the military part alone. We still think that, as judged by applying the same strategy in Afghanistan today that we applied in Vietnam. We were wrong then, and we are wrong now in that regard.

Mike in Hilo

Mon, 04/16/2012 - 11:50pm

Thanks for posting this article. Strikes me that the following observation from the article highlighted a lesson that was indeed highly germane to Vietnam; and which, I suspect, may be as succinctly relevant to the counterinsurgency campaigns with which I have had no direct involvement, including the current ones:

"Templar's successor, Lt. General Sir Geoffrey Bourne, judged the Chinese had not developed loyalty towards the British-Malay government despite the many generous civic blandishments, but were actually 'won over' by the simple fact that the CTs were clearly beaten. The bullets won hearts and minds."

And a quibble: I think the 15 percent of the population number assigned to the Chinese is quite low. Most accounts cite around one third of the total pop., although I've seen accounts (Sorry, can no longer quote where)saying as much as 50 percent, furthermore, with some suspicion of census fiddles to keep the proportion of Chinese low for political reasons, particularly under Malay Home Rule.