THE place is infested with mosquitoes and one glides to a halt on Siew Mah's sweat-soaked right forearm. Yet, the guerrilla commander of Pahang's 11th Regiment and close confidante of Chin Peng remains motionless at his ambush station.
His eyes and mind are transfixed on the section of narrow twisting road further in front that forms an almost perfect S-shaped bend.
Siew Mah moves his head slowly to check on the positions of the rest of his 38-member platoon.
The movement startles the mosquito and it quickly flies away without having the chance to draw blood. From the corner of his eyes, the commander traces the tracks connected to his three Bren-gun firing positions.
Satisfied, he turns to check the crucial withdrawal route where he and his men will dissolve back into the jungle once the act had been committed.
The date is Oct 6, 1951 and the communist terrorists have been frozen in their respective posts for two whole days, waiting patiently to ambush a military convoy which they’d been told would pass that way.
Siew Mah badly needed to get his hands on arms to shore up his fast depleting weapons cache.
Unfortunately for the bandits, the information is flawed as the promised fleet of military vehicles didn’t turn up. Only private vehicles are seen passing regularly up and down the hill, which was just a few kilometres north of Tras. Further up lies the popular hill resort of Fraser's Hill.
By noon, Siew Mah gives the signal to withdraw but his men are unwilling to throw in the towel. Their suggestion to attack the next official car flying pennants is accepted by their leader. Siew Mah realises that after all the trouble his men had gone through in preparation for the intended ambush, he had to give them a win to boost their otherwise sagging morale.
Nearly an hour later, a three-vehicle motorcade swings around the corner. Leading the pack is a Land-Rover carrying six policemen.
Directly behind is a black chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce flying the Union Jack. The third vehicle is out of view from Siew Mah's vantage position. A later post-mortem of the incident revealed that its engine had stalled.
Without a moment's hesitation, Siew Mah gives the signal for his men to unleash furious bursts of machinegun fire. The aggressors didn’t have the faintest idea that inside the Rolls Royce is Sir Henry Gurney, the High Commissioner of Malaya, his wife and secretary, JD Staples, on their way to Fraser's Hill for the weekend.
With the chauffeur hit almost instantaneously by a hail of bullets, the car slowly grinds to a halt at a grassy patch by the side of the road with its badly shot-up tyres in shreds. Unaware that his motorcade had been just a blind target, Gurney looks at his wife and aide crouching on the car floor. He knows that he has to act fast to save their lives.
Without a second to waste, Gurney wrenches open the door, steps out into the open and bangs it shut.
Then he starts walking towards the roadside. The waiting bandits must have been taken aback by this unexpected move. They pause for a moment before releasing a hail of gun fire moments later to send Gurney crumpling on the grass verge. The British High Commissioner to Malaya is dead.
Although the incident happened exactly 67 years ago, it’s easy to put to mind the events that took place on that fateful Saturday afternoon based on the Straits Times report I accidentally stumbled upon while searching for a misplaced book among the piles of reading material in my study.
Despite not being in very good condition, I’m still able to put together the badly fraying newspaper pieces and read Harry Miller's detailed account written soon after he visited the scene of the assassination and spoke to survivors, including Gurney's widow and Staples. It was nothing short of a miracle that the duo managed to escape unscathed as 35 bullet holes were counted on their Rolls Royce.
The general public was numbed by shock when Miller's story was published the next day. Considered the blackest day in the history of the Malayan Emergency, Gurney's death began raising questions in the mind of the people. Many began to wonder if the authorities were ever going to triumph over the communists who seemed to be growing from strength to strength since their reign of terror began three years ago.
The audacity of the terrorists in assassinating the heavily-escorted British High Commissioner, one considered in the hierarchy of British Imperial rule to be as inviolable as the Queen, in broad daylight clearly showed that the authorities had underestimated the strength of the insurrection.
Two days after the incident, as thousands of people from all walks of life lined the streets of Kuala Lumpur to witness Gurney's cortege on a gun carriage make its way towards the Cheras War Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur, many a tear was shed for the man who was the chief architect of British policy since the first day he arrived in Malaya on Oct 1, 1948.
Succeeding Sir Edward Gent, Gurney had been Chief Secretary in Palestine during the last two years of the British mandate.
Described as a slight man of 50, with receding hairline and grey moustache, Gurney's self-confidence was almost legendary during the last few frightful months in the Middle East. He even insisted on his daily round of golf up until the day when he theatrically wound up the administration by taking the last plane out of Palestine.
Upon his arrival in Kuala Lumpur, Gurney was quick to grasp the situation and realised the fundamental truth that the communist uprising was a political war where arms alone could never subdue. To him, the major key to victory was political stability.
The Malayan government had to function and, more importantly, the people must see the administration run 'business as usual' style or else there’d be no hope for the millions caught up in the turmoil. Gurney strongly believed that without hope and belief in the government, the only alternative for the people would be communism.
With the support of like-minded Malayan administrators like Malcolm MacDonald, Gurney successfully persuaded London not to lean towards an all-out war.
He warned that an unending pattern of escalation and the inevitable toll on innocent civilians would result in hatred for the government and tilt the balance in favour of bandit leader, Chin Peng.
Instead of direct confrontation, Gurney gave the world its first glimpse of how communist terror tactics could be effectively eroded by launching a plan which marked an unprecedented social revolution never before seen in the history of British overseas rule.
Gurney set in place a plan to uproot and resettle around 600,000 Chinese squatters living on land near the jungle fringe and put them in barbed wired new villages with round the clock security.
Through this herculean nationwide removal operation, Gurney hoped to deprive Chin Peng of hundreds of thousands of both willing and unwilling supporters.
Squatters are known to have already existed ever since the time when the Chinese began immigrating to Malaya in huge numbers in the late 19th century.
But their numbers began to increase at a phenomenal rate during the Japanese Occupation. During those times of great hardship, many starving Chinese abandoned the city and settled with their families on land acquired by simply clearing the jungle.
Chin Peng already realised the value of these squatters when he was heading the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), a guerrilla force that opposed the Japanese army during Second World War.
A staunch British ally at that time, Chin Peng and his men received huge supplies of weapons, cash and tactical knowledge to wreak havoc on the Japanese troops.
Malaya was thrown into chaos once the Japanese surrendered on Aug 15, 1945 as the bulk of the British troops had yet to return to assume control. Attempting to fill the power vacuum, the MPAJA emerged from the jungle and began their reign of terror by killing and torturing those suspected of abetting the Japanese during the war.
Looking at several MPAJA issued leaflets in my collection, it’s evident that the guerrillas were intent upon seizing control of most major towns in the country and set up their own communist administration.
Fortunately, the timely return of the British during the first week of September 1945 called time on their brief period of influence and the MPAJA was subsequently disbanded.
FRIENDS TURN INTO MORTAL ENEMIES
During Victory Day celebrations held throughout Malaya, the guerrillas publicly laid down their arms in return for monetary rewards. The British also bestowed honours upon many of them during these events in recognition of their gallantry during the Japanese Occupation.
Chin Peng received three prestigious medals for his wartime effort. On Jan 6, 1946 he was decorated twice by the Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral Lord Mountbatten at the steps of Singapore's City Hall and six months later was given the Order of the British Empire medal at the London Victory Celebrations on June 8, 1946.
Unfortunately, a string of related events that happened after that caused Chin Peng and his men to return to the jungle in 1948 and continue their struggle to establish a communist government in Malaya.
In the jungle, Chin Peng depended heavily on the squatters for food and information.
He launched ferocious campaigns of intimidation after realising that quite a number of the squatters were reluctant to help. Waverers quickly toed the line when their family members were hacked to death in front of their very eyes. "Cooperate or we’ll kill another one" soon became the guerrillas' trademark parting shot before slipping back into the jungle.
These atrocities were among the many reasons that helped Gurney persuade the squatters to move to the safety of the new villages. First, however, Gurney had to overcome the stumbling block of land acquisition before his plan could become a reality.
Gurney formed a Squatters' Committee and started work on what was to become known as the Briggs Plan. Using patience, tact and understanding he successfully persuaded the Malay rulers that it was to their advantage to give away land titles for him to build new villages.
TIGHTENING THE NOOSE
Little by little, Gurney tightened the noose around his enemy. He gave the police far-reaching powers to detain suspects for up to two years without trial, impose curfews, conduct house searches without warrant and impose strict control on food and traffic movements. Death sentences were mandatory for those convicted of illegally carrying arms.
These measures, coupled with the death of several senior communist leaders in the early days of the Emergency, caused a great upheaval among Chin Peng's men. Unknown to the British at that time, a Central Executive document telling of disenchantment in the ranks was circulating among the guerrillas.
The Malayan government could have routed the communist terrorists by the end of 1949 if only it had realised how close they were to total defeat. Instead, the Malayan government took an unexplainable breather in its war against terror.
That fatal mistake on Gurney's part added many more years to the costly Emergency. It also gave Chin Peng the golden opportunity to re-group and prepare for his next massive offensive, the very one that played a part in Gurney's untimely death.
Returning the newspaper and leaflets carefully back into their protective plastic sleeves, I recall the enduring legacy left behind by Gurney.
Today, many roads and prominent places in Malaysia and Singapore still bear his name. Visiting Perak's Pekan Gurney and Penang's popular beachfront Gurney Drive will prompt us to think of the brave man who unselfishly laid down his life for his friends.