To understand how the Singapore Special Branch contrived the appointment of their agent at the very top of the banned MCP we need to go back to Lai Tek’s first steps on the political stage of Southeast Asia. We now know that he was born in Saigon in 1903 – then the capital of the federated French colony of Indochina. His father was Vietnamese, his mother Chinese. This means that his ethnicity would have been described as métis, or in Vietnamese minh huong. Leon Comber points out that there remains uncertainty about his birth name: it may have been Nguyen Van Long or Hoang A Nhac. Vietnamese communists have claimed, convincingly it seems, that Lai Tek was born not in Saigon but further south in Ba Ria and that his original name was Pham Van Dac. He studied at the Petrus Ky Lycée in Saigon. These sources also said that when Pham Van Dak, as Lai Tek was probably called, became a communist he was known as ‘Lai rac’. He had at one time, he claimed, been forced to flee French Indochina for Thailand. It is not uncommon for Vietnamese to use different names in different circumstances but it seems to be typical of Lai Tek to evade being pinned down, even now. What is certain is that in 1925, when Lai Tek had turned 22, he was arrested by the Sûreté Générale Indochinoisie – a bureau of the French colonial secret service. There are no details about what happened next and why. The French released Lai Tek having secured his agreement to work as an informer. It is impossible to say what kind of pressure was applied, if any, that persuaded or forced Lai Tek to betray his comrades. It may simply have been greed. At the height of his power in Singapore, Lai Tek lived high on the hog. But treachery seems to have come naturally to him. Betrayal without conscience is the pattern of his life – until he was betrayed himself one day in 1947. In colonial Southeast Asia, French, Dutch and British security forces often cooperated, despite their jealous protection of their colonial possessions. The motivation was, of course, a shared and consuming fear of communism. In the early 1930s, René Onraet the head of Singapore Special branch paid a cordial visit to his opposite number in Saigon. There is no evidence that he was introduced to Lai Tek, but we do know that by this time he was no longer considered a useful asset and was ‘offered’ to the British. Onraet chose not to activate Lai Tek immediately. In the meantime, Ho Chi Minh despatched a number of Vietnamese communists, including the treacherous Lai Tek, to Moscow for training with the Comintern which had recently established a Far Eastern Bureau in Shanghai. From this nerve centre, the Comintern and the CCP monitored and directed communist cadres in the Nanyang. In the next few years, Lai Tek seems to haves shuttled between China and the Soviet Union – leaving no evidence about what he was up to. We have no idea whether the Singapore Special Branch took much interest in Lai Tek. The fact that he was known to both the French, and continued to work for them, and the British security agencies suggests that this was likely. The French and British cooperated closely. In May, 1931 Onraet sent an invitation to George Nadaud, who was the Controlleur Générale de la Sûreté Générale Indochinoise to attend the trial in Singapore of the French Comintern agent Joseph Ducroux, also known, appropriately enough, as Serge Lefranc, who had been coordinating communist units in Singapore while masquerading as a businessman. This close working relationship between the Singapore Special Branch and the Sûreté Générale in Saigon would support the idea that when Lai Tek walked into that grocery store in Hong Kong, he was already acting as a British agent.
Soon after his arrival in Singapore, Lai Tek secretly contacted Onraet. Evidently he appreciated Lai Tek’s value as an asset for he selected one of his best and most intelligent officers: F.I. (Innes) Tremlett to act as his case officer. Tremlett, of course, spoke excellent Cantonese. So it was that in March, 1937 Tremlett approved Lai Tek’s leading role in the Batu Arang strike, which was allowed to run its course to establish his credentials. Special Branch also arrested a number of Malayan communists and deported them to China. This was as Comber points out tantamount to a death sentence since any communist falling into Kuomintang hands in this period would have been executed. It may well be the case that Lai Tek used these arrests to eliminate rivals in the central committee. In any event, his hand in the arrests was never suspected. Special Branch played its asset with consummate skill. By 1941, Lai Tek was not merely a mole in the MCP – he was its all powerful Secretary-General. Lai Tek’s career had barely begun.