Exhumed and abused: the sorry fate of the Malayan Emergency

The Malayan Emergency is back in the news – again. And once again, bloggers and pundits are invoking this British campaign from the 1950s to say something new about the wars of today. If one were to anthropomorphize the campaign, one would have to feel sorry for the Malayan Emergency: buried only to be repeatedly exhumed and used, in the most simple way, as ammunition for arguments largely unrelated to it. Held up by some as the paragon of counterinsurgencies, it is more frequently derided by others for failing to meet frankly ridiculous standards. All too often missing in this never-ending carousel of a polemic is a genuine interest in the campaign on its own terms.

Exhibit A is the recently penned review of the campaign by Sergio Miller, posted at the Small Wars Journal. To be fair to Miller, he appears to be genuinely interested in the Malayan Emergency and has done some solid research on the case. The text is in many ways good. The trouble is his ‘lede’, or the use to which he puts his research. When Miller titles his article ‘Malaya: The Myth of Hearts and Minds’, he unwittingly or deliberately enters the fray between counterinsurgency proponents (who use the Malaya campaign to validate their doctrine) and counterinsurgency critics (who think the doctrine is frankly suspect). He also picks his side, as dismissing ‘hearts and minds’ and dismissing the Malayan Emergency’s historiography are key hobbies of those who resent the U.S. Army’s adoption of counterinsurgency and want to use the doctrine as a punching bag.

It would be one thing if the article proved that hearts and minds in Malaya was a myth but the author actually ends up arguing something else, leaving some confusion about what is actually being said. First, Miller notes that, at a symposium examining the Emergency, ‘none of the British participants (all military) spoke of winning Malay hearts and minds by military force’ (emphasis in original). But as he goes on to explain, this related to the division of labour in Malaya, which left the police in charge of community engagement. For the Army, ‘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’.

From this, the conclusion could be drawn that the military should not be used to ‘win hearts and minds’; that this is a civilian task. Still, this division of labour was possible in Malaya only because the British had a full colonial presence there, something modern states typically lack when going to war. Thus, the military has become the main muscle of expeditionary operations, where they are forced to chase insurgents all while engaging with the population and honouring other traditionally ‘civilian’ duties. This is a serious conundrum of modern counterinsurgency but it cannot be solved by basing our division of labour on a colonial infrastructure that no longer exists.

The second implication might be that winning hearts and minds did not occur at all, either by the military or the police and that it was therefore irrelevant to the success of the campaign. If this is Miller’s meaning, he ends up arguing against himself. He writes that ‘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’. He continues by explaining that ‘Templer’s hearts and minds was first an economic and social policy, laced with political promises that also served a military purpose’. The British gave the local population, even the transplanted communities ‘a good deal, not least because the policy increased employment’.

From all this and other statements in the article, the conclusion that ‘hearts and minds’ is a myth seems somewhat puzzling. A cynic might suggest that Miller used this lede to sell what would otherwise have been a mere account of what happened in Malaya – a far less interesting story to a bloodthirsty audience. I wouldn’t want to impugn Miller in this way. Instead there appears to be some confusion – or at least disagreement – on what hearts and minds really means.

Miller does not appear to see the many examples of goodwill included in the article as proof of a hearts and mind effort; in fact he explicitly excludes them from consideration. For example, Miller writes that ‘units did interact with nearby settlements… and they were assiduous in respecting local custom and making an effort to learn the (difficult) language’. But this, he argues, was not about ‘hearts and minds’ but ‘more “get to know your neighbour” affairs’. Similarly, Miller appears to see no tension between the broader argument of the piece and his anecdote of one officer ‘bring[ing] along the regimental band to entertain the natives before sitting down for a village feast’.

The reader is left puzzled, then, about what winning hearts and minds might look like. The one instance that Miller paints as such is the ‘handing out [of] sweets and other presents’ to local children – ‘the one example’, Miller writes, ‘where it may be stated that the Army indulged in winning “hearts and minds”… If that is the test by which we understand ‘hearts and minds’, I wonder about the utility of our findings. First, what distinguishes handing out sweets from the other, more serious examples of constructive civil engagement in the article? Second, has it not been firmly established by this point that ‘winning hearts and minds’ entails much more than simply ‘being nice’? Assessing the importance of hearts and minds can no doubt be fruitful, but we must first be clear about what is meant by this term.

Miller later refines his argument: the campaign did in fact win hearts and minds, but they were won ‘not by the British but by the Alliance Government’. Again, this thesis seems to contradict the many anecdotes of community engagement in the article but even if it didn’t, what does it matter that support was won by the local government rather than intervening forces? Isn’t that the way it is supposed to be in counterinsurgency, where the legitimacy of the local government is under threat? It would be one thing if the Alliance Government and the British authorities were operating at cross-purposes, but as Miller himself points out, in the process of getting ‘Malays talking to Malays’, ‘the British played an important role facilitating this dialogue and maintaining stability’.

All this talk of hearts and minds leads nicely to exhibit B: a Guardian article detailing recently unearthed Colonial Office files on the Emergency. The article leads with the revelation that the counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya included the ‘elimination’ of guerrilla leaders. Well frankly I am shocked! In a war, no less! Yet on Twitter and elsewhere, this article has been leapt upon to show, again, just how little the British and its partners cared about hearts and minds.

The new files are interesting from a historical perspective and the Guardian should be commended for covering the recovery of these long-lost documents. But on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, these files do not say anything particularly new or surprising about the campaign. Yes, lethal force was used in Malaya, as it always is in armed conflicts. And yes, there were instances of abuse in Malaya, as there are in all conflicts. The question left unanswered by this article is whether abuse marked the campaign as a whole or was an exception to the rule.[1] So to read this article in isolation and to conclude that hearts and minds was a sham, that the campaign was one of terror and abuse and that counterinsurgency doctrine is therefore entirely bogus, reveals a very parochial mindset that says very little about Malaya.

The point of this post is not to say that winning hearts and minds is strategically decisive, fantastic, and should always take place. Those are separate debates. What is worrying is the hurry with which historical material is weaponised to score points in more recent yet unrelated debates. Of course analytical shortcuts are sometimes necessary but they should always be faithful to fuller accounts that treat the past on its own merits.

By ways of conclusion, let’s quickly deal with one more Malaya-related argument currently in circulation: that the role of Gerard Templer has been exaggerated at the expense of Harold Briggs so as to sell the ‘COIN narrative’. This argument is most often advanced by Gian Gentile and the target is typically John Nagl’s research. I do not understand where this Briggs vs. Templer stand-off comes from but I suspect it was constructed to resonate with the Westmoreland vs. Abrams debate and the separate Casey vs. Petraeus debate in Iraq. In other words, if Briggs can be shown to have been important in Malaya, then Casey mattered in Iraq and the counterinsurgency fanfare around Petraeus can be proved all wrong. This type of historical analysis by analogy is deeply troubling. What’s more, all of the serious scholarship on Malaya (Nagl included) recognises the critical role played by Briggs during his time as Director of Operations. If there is truly a problem with the historiography on Malaya in this regard, let’s discuss it. But let’s be careful so that we don’t talk about Malaya when we actually mean Iraq.

[1] On that point, Miller again contradicts his lead when he argues that ‘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’. 




3 thoughts on “Exhumed and abused: the sorry fate of the Malayan Emergency

  1. gian p gentile says:


    Since you went after me I will make a short response to your post.

    First, Nagl’s book should not be taken seriously by anybody who is looking for some semblance of historical truth, based on good scholarship. His conclusions about both Malaya and Vietnam are wrong and are NOT supported by primary evidence. This essential point becomes quite clear to any researcher who has spent weeks and months in the archives.

    I cannot believe you are so unaware of the literature surrounding Malaya that you do not see the binary comparison of Briggs to Templer; in this literature the former being the failure and the latter being the savior. Now to be sure in the Malaya case there is more sympathy shown toward Briggs (as compared to Westmoreland and Casey) but in almost all of the literature the war is presented as either being stalemated or lost by early 52 and Templer is the general who comes in, gets his army doing Coin right, energizes the campaign and turns defeat into victory. Would you like me to send you direct quotes from the various texts of the literature to clarify this point to you?

    Nagl says that Templer transformed his army from one that was failing at coin to one that got it doing correctly and as a result won the war. Yet after weeks and weeks in the archives in London looking at the operational record of the British Army in Malaya one sees no radical shift in operational method; it remained basically the same (except for some tweaks along the way) from start to finish. If you send me your mailing address i would be happy to copy my thousands and thousands of digital photos of the documents so that you can see this basic truth and then see how deeply wrong John Nagl really is.


    • Thanks for your response. You seem to be making two claims:
      1) that sholars on Malaya have elevated Templer at the expense of Briggs; and
      2) that the operational method remained basically the same (except for some tweaks along the way) from start to finish.

      On the first, you often cite Stubbs, Nagl, Barber, Clutterbuck as the guilty parties. I had a look at the resources on Malaya I have in my office. In ‘Riot and Revolution’, Clutterbuck makes the case that the guerrillas were at their least aggressive in 1953 (vis-a-vis their high point in 1951) (p. 211). He credits Briggs for the change (p. 214). In ‘Long, Long War’, Clutterbuck writes that Briggs devised a plan that ‘not only won the war in Malaya but has been copied ever since’ (p. 57). He elaborates on this point throughout chapter 7.

      I do not have Barber or Stubbs handy, but looking at Nagl’s book, he does credit Briggs with changing the strategic direction of the campaign, for having an ‘unusual grasp of the political nature of the insurgency and the measures required to defeat it’, and for setting up the committee system (71). He deals with this period of the emergency some more before crediting Briggs with overseeing the shift to small-unit tactics, for the New Villages and of course for the Briggs Plan, which Nagl writes ‘had a decisive impact on the course of the emergency’ (p. 75).

      Now, admittedly the summary pages from 79-81 do make quite a lot about the discontinuity that came with Templer (but then it Templer was there for twice as along and served as both High Commissioner and Director of Operations, whereas Briggs was only the latter — in a sense his greater imprint is to be expected). The broader point is that I see no systematic or even widespread attempt in the literature to overlook Briggs and elevate Templer. Anyway, what purpose would such a conspiracy serve?

      On your second point, I think most scholars, including Karl Hack whom I know you are very fond of, see transitions in the British strategy. This repsonse is already too long so maybe that’s a conversation for a later date. Much would also depend on what you qualify as ‘tweaks’.

  2. I personally blog also and I am authoring a little something related to this particular blog post, “Exhumed
    and abused: the sorry fate of the Malayan Emergency | Kings of War”.
    Would you care in cases where I reallyincorporate a few of
    your own points? Thanks for your effort -Luigi

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