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HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE - MALAYA 1948


The pre-war political instability in the British Empire continued at an accelerated rate following the liberation of Malaya from its Japanese Occupation during World War II. Huge numbers of refugees, poverty, an inefficient administration, and the growth of communism made Malaya ripe for social and political revolution.

On June 16, 1948, communist guerrillas (Communist Terrorists or CTs) began a campaign of terror attacks on the British planters and miners across the country. Their leadership was well versed in the doctrine of communist revolution and planned the campaign in advance. Most CTs had been trained by the British to fight as guerrillas against the Japanese. They progressively terrorized the country's labor force into supporting them and began to cripple the efforts of the local government.

The government responded quickly with a declaration of a state of emergency and began to formulate a strategy to defeat the insurgents. The British were farsighted enough to realize this was a different type of conflict from WW II.

"Any idea that the business of normal civil government and the business of the Emergency are two separate entities must be killed for good and all. The two activities are completely and utterly interrelated."

General Sir Gerald Templer 11
High Commissioner of Malaya
February 1952

From the very outset, the British realized that the struggle was for the populace and not for a specific military objective. And although the original decision to retain civilian control of operations was made for insurance reasons, hence the term Emergency rather than war, it quickly became apparent that it was the correct choice. (General Templer held his position as a civilian.) This allowed the apparatus of civil qovernment to continue to function and establish its own credibility.

"Government that not only functioned, but was seen to function, so that the births, marriages, and deaths still get registered. For this, as much as anything else, was the key to the changing fortunes."

Sir Robert Thompson 12
Secretary of Defense-Malaya

This philosophy of reinforcing the government with force when necessary but making it work was to become part of the entire fabric of Malayan Administration. This is legitimacy in action. In this example it is easy to see how the factors interrelate. Reinforcing civil organizations rather than substituting military ones for them demonstrated political dominance.

Established at the national level was an Emergency Operations Council, chaired by the Prime Minister (later the High Commissioner) and consisting of Ministers and Service Directors to integrate all policies for the overall conduct of the Emergency. This is referred to as an Area Control Center (ACC) in FM 100-20. The organization was duplicated at every regional and local level down to Joint Military-Police Operations Rooms. It underscored political dominance but also ensured unity of effort from the national level all the way down to the village council. 13

Rather than merely bringing in British troops to combat the insurgents, the police force was expanded (eventually to reach more than five times its original size) and modernized. It included desegregation and integration, which eventually spread across the entire civil service system. This demonstrated that the populace could be protected by an effective civil police force and began to break the racial barriers and integrate a society in Malaya. It also effectively countered one of the main propaganda points of the CTs.

Adaptability was also a crucial factor as illustrated by the four main points of the Briggs Plan (General Sir Harold Briggs - First Director of Operations) authored in large part by Sir Robert Thompson. They were:

  • To dominate the populated areas and to build up a feeling of complete security therein which will in time result in a steady flow of information coming in from all sources.
  • To break up the communist organization within the populated areas.
  • To isolate the bandits from their food and information supply organizations which are in the populated areas.
  • To destroy the bandits by forcing them to attack us on our own ground. 14

A critical element in accomplishing these points and an example of the innovation sometimes necessary was the New Village Program. This social revolution demonstrated the lengths to which the administration was willing to go and clearly illustrated they had perseverance and the long-term view in mind.

The program encompassed the movement and resettling of thousands of Chinese squatters, many of them refugees from the fringes of plantations and the jungle to new villages built specially for them. Police forces secured these villages which included land suitable for cultivation. The Chinese became land owners rather than squatters and were offered citizenship.

Although a prolonged and complex operation, it proved to be one of the most successful of the campaign. It secured a major portion of the populace and removed them as a source of support to the CTs. The plan incorporated these Chinese into Malayan society and gave them a stake in its success.

  • This demonstration of concern and willingness to promote social change on the part of the government was also a tremendous propaganda defeat for the insurgents.

Several other innovative programs served to weaken the CT position and modernize the civil administration of Malaya. One was the National Registration Program. This involved the registration and identification of every individual in Malaya. In addition to serving as the basis for a rationing and population control system, it also served as the first national census. Although bitterly opposed by the CTs, a determined effort on the part of the civil administration with Police and Army support once again demonstrated the ability of the government and its commitment to the populace.

Finally, by establishing and arming a Home Guard, General Templer provided for the participation of the general populace in the struggle and increased local security, building the confidence and morale of the people. Initially a huge gamble, the Home Guard paid for itself by freeing regular troops and police for operations and also by further separating the CTs from their only sources of supply and recruits.

These are but a few of the many successful and innovative techniques the British used in Malaya to quell the Emergency. They effectively illustrate the five imperatives of LIC as well as outline the interdependent nature of them. It is important to note that many successful conventional military operations were carried out during the Emergency. However, they were carried out within the framework of larger political issues and not as a unilateral means to end the conflict.

  • Without the successful political and social programs, it is doubtful that these military actions would have had any measurable effect on the outcome.

The historical example demonstrates that by approaching the imperatives of low intensity conflict as we do the principles of war, as a framework for all decisions, plans, and operations, the results will likely be more favorable.

Further examination of LIC requires an overview of the operational categories and a historical example of each.

Table of Contents
Imperatives of Low Intensity Conflict
Operational Categories of Low Intensity Conflict



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