Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Did Subhas Chandra Bose die in 1945?


More than any of the other grand collaborators of the Second World War, Bose proves how dangerous is that maxim that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. 
By June, 1945 powerful men close to the Emperor had begun to explore ways of ending the war without losing the imperial institution. Some of them reached out the Soviet union unaware that Stalin had pledged to enter the war against Japan on the side of the Allies.  Then at the beginning of August, the Americans dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima then Nagasaki – and on 12 August, the Emperor at last advised his cabinet that Japan had no choice but to surrender. Although the Minister of War the ultranationalist General Anami Korechika and other hawks hoped to continue fighting, the wishes of the Emperor prevailed. 
Bose was in Malaya when he heard the news about the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and decided at once to make contact with the Soviets. Although, as he rightly suspected, there were widening rifts between the ‘Big Three’, it is inconceivable that the Russians would have rushed to eject the British from India. On the eve of his departure, he told the Japanese that the Soviets ‘are the only ones who will resist the British. My fate is with them.’ 
But Stalin’s future quarrel would not principally be with the British, whose power was waning fast, but the Americans, transformed by the titanic struggle against the Axis into a global superpower. Bose failed to notice that August 1945 saw the first act of a new Cold War and that it was neither Japan nor the Soviet Union that was determined to wind up the British Empire – but Churchill’s special friends in Washington. 
On 17 August, Bose flew into Saigon. He hoped to bring most of the Azad Hind provisional government with him to the Soviet Union – but at the last minute discovered that the Japanese could offer him two seats on a flight taking Lt. General Shidei a Japanese expert on the Soviet Union to Dairen in Manchuria via Taipei. Bose had to make a quick decision – and he chose Colonel Habibir Rahman to accompany him in the second seat. The aircraft was a twin engine Mitsubishi heavy bomber of the type code named ‘Sally’ by the Americans. The plane was already overloaded, but Bose insisted on loading two suitcases stuffed with gold and jewellery. There were in fact no ‘seats’ on the aircraft -  and Bose was wedged into the back on a pile of cushions. 
The aircraft took off on the evening of 17 August – and because it was so late, stopped over at Tourane in Vietnam instead of flying straight on to Taipei. As the Indians and Japanese rested, the pilot tried to carry out a few repairs: take off had been unusually sluggish and he had noticed unusual vibration in the left engine. The flight to Taipei took six hours. Bose and the other passengers suffered freezing temperatures in the unheated cabin. On landing, the pilot again complained about overloading and tried to get the left engine checked. Perfunctory maintenance was then carried out. Bose enquired if they would flying at the same altitude and, after being informed that they would be, asked for an extra sweater. 
At about 2.30 p, on the 19th August, the pilot started engines and the Mitsubishi ponderously strained into the air when it reached the the very end of the runway. Seconds later, at an altitude of about 90 feet, an explosion ripped apart the left engine. The pilot instantly lost control. The aircraft plunged to the ground. Bose’s companion Colonel Rahman survived the crash – and was able to give a detailed account of this gruesome sequence of events. The Mitsubishi broke into two and caught fire. Both the pilot and General Shedhai died instantly. Rahman, sitting close to Bose, was knocked unconscious. When Rahman came round, he saw that Bose had suffered serious head injuries but had stood up and was trying to get out of the aircraft. Baggage blocked the way. Bose was drenched in aircraft fuel – and as he struggled his clothing became a roaring inferno. Rahman tried desperately to douse the flames but Bose, badly injured already, was horribly  burnt. He collapsed, his hair on fire, his face contorted in agony. 
Many admirers of Bose believe, even today, that 'Netaji' survived the crash and lived on - perhaps as a prisoner in the Soviet Union or as an itinerant Sadu in India. There have been frequent 'Elvis like' sightings of the lost leader. But there can be no doubt that Bose died in Taipei. In the Indian Office collections of the British Library, we can read statements made by Captain Taneyoshi Yoshimi, a medical officer in Japanese Imperial Army who was later questioned in Stanley Goal, Hong Kong: 
‘When he was laid on the bed, I personally cleaned his injuries with oils and dressed them. He was suffering from extensive burns over the whole of his body… During the first four hours, he was semi conscious, and practically normal speaking quite a good deal. The first words I remember his speaking were in Japanese, when he made a request for water. After the fourth hour, he appeared to be sinking into unconsciousness. He murmured and muttered in his state of coma but never regained consciousness. At about 2300 hours he died. There was, apart from the injuries mentioned above, abrasions on his elbows and knees. There were no fractures…’ 
Cremation took place immediately. Yoshimi issued a death certificate which cited ‘Extensive burning and shock’ as cause of death. Japanese army representatives arrived bringing mourning flowers, fruits and cakes.  
On 5 September, when Rahman had recovered, he accompanied Bose’s ashes to Tokyo – here they were interred at the Renkoji temple by a Buddhist priest. Gandhi on hearing the news said that ‘Subhas Bose died well. He was undoubtedly a patriot though misguided.’ It is hard not to agree with the second point – but by ‘died well’ the Mahatma might have been hinting that it was just as well that his old rival was longer in a position to plan for a second political coming as the British prepared to hand over the Jewel in the Crown.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Lai Tek.. the story continues


After the fall of Singapore, Lai Tek the ethnic Vietnamese Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and Special Branch agent and informer went into hiding. But in March, a Chinese detective working for Special Branch betrayed him for reasons that have never been made clear and he was arrested and taken to the Kempeitai headquarters at the YMCA building in Stamford Road. He was clearly considered a very high value prize. No doubt vigorously interrogated, Lai Tek broke – or so it seemed. To save his life, he promised to work as a secret agent for the Kempeitai. 
For the Japanese, Lai Tek’s treachery was a marvellous strategic gift. A high ranking Kempeitai officer Major Satoro Onishi was assigned as his case officer. Contact would be made through a café on the Orchard Road or Lee Yem Kong, a Chinese photographer who had been ‘turned’ before the invasion and worked for the Japanese as an interpreter. Now Lai Tek had to try his story on his comrades in the MCP: he claimed that he had picked up early on in the purge and, thankfully, released after ten days. Many of his party admirers accepted this story because it chimed with Lai Tek’s other apparently miraculous gifts. 
But he had a narrow escape early on his new career. Communist Li Ying Kang had also been arrested by the Kempeitai and somehow got word to party leaders about Lai Tek’s treachery. To deal with this, Lai Tek arranged with the Japanese for Li to be released – then had him buried alive, the truth along with him. He also took up with Li’s wife. But Lai Tek was not yet safe. For other communists had also got wind of Lai Tek’s dealings with Major Onishi or his subordinates. (Only four Kempeitai officers knew about Lai Tek’s new role.) 
Although he must have been under considerable strain, Lai Tek either had his potential betrayers arrested and executed by the Japanese, or denounced them as traitors to the MCP. He exploited, in other words, Japanese anxiety about the threat posed by the Chinese communists and traditional communist paranoia about enemies within.  With Lai Tek’s assistance, Onishi was able to map an MCP organizational chart that provided a near complete picture of communist activity in Singapore and the Peninsula. Lai Tek’s position was high risk. He used the Japanese to eliminate literally hundreds of rivals and thus secure his position as communist top dog. He did not at any time betray his British contacts like Freddy Spencer Chapman and John Davis. Lai Tek’s was a ‘hedge’ scheme of astonishing bravura. 
His personality intrigued everyone who had dealing with him. Spencer Chapman recalled a ‘young-middle-aged Chinese [sic] of great charm, considerable intelligence, and quiet efficiency. He had a large mouth and perfect teeth and when he becomes animated his eyes grow round and his eyebrows rose about an inch and a half…’  John Davis was remarkably forgiving: ‘I personally find a character like that – a person who has spent the whole of his life as an informer or traitor, or whateverword you like to use, for one side or the other, then doubly, develops a strange sort of character. You can’t dislike a man intensely just because of that – you’ve got to look behind and understand a certain amount about it. And I don’t think Lai Teck let us down, we couldn’t have got anywhere without him. But Richard Broome, a Malayan civil service official who also served with Force 136 thought he was ‘devious’ – a nice understatement. 

Once again thanks to Dr Leon Comber for his essay on Lai Tek.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose returns to Asia...




On a fiercely hot and sticky Monday morning in March, 2007,  I set out for the ‘Netaji Centre’ in downtown Kuala Lumpur. The Centre which is devoted to the memory of Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose occupied a few dusty rooms in an nondescript shop house in India Town. near the lovely old mosque on the Klang. In the hot sun, the streets pulse with colour. Every shop front is painted an intense green or yellow or red. The Centre is up a very dark flight of stairs. Sitting in the gloom at the top is Lt. Das, a wizened veteran of the Indian National Army. He has forgotten the key to office and we are waiting for the director of the centre who will, he promised, be along shortly. Lt. Das is old and frail, his deeply wrinkled face a rich mahogany brown. As we wait, he deflects my question about the INA to deprecate Gandhi – speaking as if the Mahatma was still alive. ‘He was an evil man,’ says Das with a shudder. At last we are let into the office. It’s very dark. On the wall, I can just make out a dark hued studio portrait of Bose wearing his INA uniform. He looks far into the distance, towards the end of the British Raj. He would be dead – though many still deny this - by the time Indian became independent in 1947. For Lt. Das, I suspect, Bose is the third man in the room. Surprisingly, Lt Das knows very little about the German ‘Indische Legion’ that Bose recruited in Nazi Germany. For him, the big story was always here – in what was in 1943, Japanese occupied Malaya.

The last act of Bose’s story had begun six thousand miles away in Berlin. The photograph above shows him with SS chief Heinrich Himmler. Shortly before Bose was scheduled to leave Germany, the Japanese Naval Command raised objections because of a regulation not permitting civilians to travel on warships in wartime. When Trott received this message by cable from the German Ambassador in Tokyo, he was dismayed. He was longing to be rid of his Indian friend and the Japanese had raised a number of objections: they were clearly very uncertain about into their theatre of the war. This time, Trott sent a determined reply: ‘Subhas Chandra Bose is by no means a private person, but Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Liberation Army.’  The Japanese relented. One suspects that the staff of the Sonderreferat breathed a very deep sigh of relief. On the 8th February 1943, Subhas Chandra Bose accompanied by his wife and his adjutant Abid Hasan Safrani, who was under the impression he and Bose were going to Greece, travelled to the port of Kiel[1]. Here Keppler, Werth and Nambiar had arrived to say farewell. Emilie watched as a motor launch took Netaji out across the harbour to the waiting submarine[2]. She would never see him again. The 1500 ton U-180, commanded by Korvettenkapitän Werner Musenberg, was brand new - and fast. But it was hardly a pleasant environment in which to spend two and a half months. Hasan recalled that when he arrived in Kiel, he had felt entranced by the romance of a long voyage: as soon as he climbed down into the claustrophobic submarine, that feeling was instantly extinguished. The U-boat crew knew nothing about their destination. Nor had they been informed who was travelling with them until one crew member identified Bose. He had seen a picture of him in the newspaper and referred to him the ‘Indian Adolf’.

The voyage ahead was a perilous one. The Atlantic was heavily blockaded and according to Ronald Lewin, an expert on Allied intelligence quoted by Gordon ‘Special messages were transmitted to [Bose] by radio to keep him abreast of the nationalist situation. Intercepted and deciphered, these told the Allies not only about his presence aboard but also a great deal about the Free India movement…’ Musenberg set a course that took the U-180 north along Norwegian coast, then making a turn west towards the Faroe Islands.  Seas were rough, and the two Indians became badly sea sick and depressed. The food was greasy and the air foetid with diesel oil and odours of confined men. Hasan had hoarded rice and lentils to improvise meals for Netaji. After ten days, the U-180 reached the Atlantic ocean and Musenberg at last turned south. According to crew members Bose’s German was poor but Hasan was fluent and he enjoyed exchanging jokes about the Nazi leaders. Bose spent a lot of time writing: ‘‘Mein Kampf’ for the freedom of India,’ Hassan told the crew. Bose was indeed working on a new edition of ‘The Indian Struggle’, his most famous book. If as the intelligence reports imply, the British knew that Bose was now on board a U-Boat, and heading east, they made no attempt to intercept it – on 18th April, Musenberg was confident enough to attack and sink a British merchant ship, the Corbiss. Two months is a very long time for an inexperienced civilian to spend locked up in a submarine. To make use of the time, Bose and his highly intelligent secretary discussed how they would deal with the Japanese. In role-play sessions, Hasan took the role of the Japanese Prime Minister Tojo and interrogated Bose.  

At dawn on April 21st, 400 miles SW of Madagascar, the U-180 rendezvoused with a Japanese submarine the I-29 and exchanged signals. The weather was rough and the two captains had to wait twenty four hours for the sea to calm. Then Bose and Hasan were fitted with life jackets, transferred to a rubber raft and rowed across to the I-29. Two Japanese engineers then took their places on the U-180 – along with fifty bars of gold. Then the two submarines dived beneath the waves and set off home in opposite directions. After two years spent in Hitler’s Reich, Bose was now a guest of the Japanese Imperial Navy.  When the U-180 finally returned to Kiel, Musenberg and his crew had completed a journey of 15,000 nautical miles and been away from home for five months. In the meantime, the I-29 reached the little island of Sabang on May 6th – where Bose and Hasan were welcomed by Colonel Yamamoto, and Senda, an important member of the Iwakuro Kikan, the Japanese-Indian liaison group. 

It was a glorious relief to escape the claustrophobic steel sarcophagus of the German submarine. Yamamoto, Senda and the two Indians boarded an aircraft which flew them to Singapore. Here Bose hopped over the causeway to what is now the modern state of Johore where he was put up at the Sultan’s Palace at Bukit Serene. Here he met Rash Behari Bose. Together, the two unrelated Boses were flown across the Pacific to Tokyo, where they touched down on 16 May. Here Bose took on his third false identity, as a VIP called ‘Matsuda’ – the Japanese version of Mazotta – the name he had used in Italy.




[1] See ‘A Soldier Remembers’ The Oracle, 1985.
[2] Details from Hartog, pp.107ff.

Comparing Japanese and German invasions...


It is tempting to view the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia through the prism of European history in the same period. The Japanese are seen as analogous to the Germans; the Kempeitai to the Gestapo; Asian nationalists who made deals with the Japanese to Quisling like collaborators; and the mainly Chinese guerrillas to the resistance. These analogies have some validity. The Japanese state that emerged after the Meiji Restoration was consciously modelled on Prussia. Japan was as nationalist, imperialist and aggressive as Imperial Germany. Its fledgling democracy was vulnerable to military cliques. Excessive reverence for the Emperor sanctioned  a multitude of imperialist atrocities. The Japanese rationalised conquest of other Asian nations as a right granted by their own racial superiority. Japan was the natural leader of all Asiatic peoples. These analogies become less convincing for one very significant reason. German occupiers deceitfully appealed to the nationalist sentiments of chauvinist Europeans whose nations had been occupied by the Soviet Union (by agreement with Germany) and who shared their vile hatred of Jews. To be sure, the Japanese regarded all Chinese civilians in Southeast Asia as ‘hostiles’ and used violence to neutralise this purported threat. The difference with the Shoah is that the Japanese committed barbaric atrocities for a limited period of time and had no intention of completely liquidating ‘the Chinese’. There is another reason to distinguish between German and Japanese occupation strategy and ideology. The architects of Japanese expansionism could reasonably claim that they made war not on other Asians but on their imperial masters, the British, the Americans and the Dutch. They invaded China not to destroy but reform a decayed civilisation. A Japanese nationalist put it like this: ‘America and Britain had been colonising China for many years. We felt Japan should go there… to make China a better country.’ Like the European imperialists, Japan would ruthlessly plunder and exploit the territories it conquered. But for many Asian nationalists, the shaming expulsion of the old colonial powers by an Asian nation smashed open a door on a new and unexpected political landscape. In the medium term, they were surely right.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The First Filipino


I spotted this plaque here in Berlin. It is dedicated to José Rizal...


I am looking at the uneven emergence of nationalism across Southeast Asia. Here is a draft of a few paragraphs about the Philippines...

A precocious anti colonial movement had emerged in the Philippines at the end of the 19th Century. To a significant degree, this precocity reflected the declining power of Spain, which had already lost its South American empire to Creole nationalists. Named after Felipe II, the Philippines were the last acquisition of the Spanish Empire and in many respects an imperial sideshow. The indigenous Filipinos lived in small communities called barangays under datus or chiefs. There were no armed states for the first Spanish colonists to contend with so ‘conquest’ was a slam dunk.  The Spanish made their fortunes not by exploiting natural resources like spices or tin but from the ‘Galleon trade’ with China. Chinese silks and porcelains were exchanged for Mexican silver to be sold for immense profit in the Americas and Europe. Although Islam was making inroads on the southern island of Mindanao, Buddhism and Hinduism were unknown. Most Filipinos that the Spanish encountered were animists, and ripe for conversion by the Church. Spanish missionaries achieved spectacular results: today, 90% of the population is Christian. Clerical colonists did more than convert Filipinos on behalf of the Celestial Empire. They established huge haciendas which began pioneering commercial agriculture. Although the fathers forgot their vows and fathered an army of children with local women, these haciendas remained the property of the Orders, and were not passed on to the marginalised descendants of their founders. The Church also tried to convert the local Chinese, who were known as Sangleys, from the Hokkeinese sengli, trader. They had little success with the first generation. But many of the next, that is to say the offspring of the Sangleys who had married local women, as well as the children of other inter ethnic unions eagerly embraced the faith. These mixed race Mestizos evolved into a distinct ethnicity with its own customs, costumes and coiffure. When the British occupied Manila in 1762, as a consequence of the European Seven Years War, the Chinese Sangleys welcomed them with open arms: they hated the avaricious Spanish. Two years later, the British abandoned their allies and the Spanish took violent revenge. Many were killed and expelled; Chinese immigration was banned. The Mestizos adroitly took over the Sangley economies, infiltrating the old Chinese trading networks. Others bought land from the Spanish. When the Spanish Empire finally collapsed in 1811, the ban on the Chinese was lifted, and British and American entrepreneurs began opening the Philippines to international trade with the establishment of Cebu City and other ports. Rather like Malays, the Mestizos found themselves out competed by European and Chinese business acumen and energy. They retreated to the countryside – and Anglo-saxon capital followed in their wake. On the near empty island of Negros, for example, British entrepreneurs built a sugar factory in 1857 – but it would be managed by Mestizos from Panay and Cebu City, who had given up the struggle with the new Chinese companies. The acquisition of land transformed the Mestizos into a powerful, wealthy new class who lived on their estates in the grand manner of a nouveau riche. This new class began demanding an education for its sons and daughters. And it was from this educated Mestizo world that the first nationalists would emerge. Calling themselves Ilustrados (enlightened ones), they would become the first conscious Filipinos.

The title of the ‘First Filipino’ in a singular sense belongs to nationalist martyr José Rizal, who was born in 1861 to a family of prosperous hacienda farmers who embodied all the mixed streams flowing through Filipino history: Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and indigenous Tagalog. The family name Rizal was adopted following a decree by the Spanish colonial government. Rizal, it is believed, was ambivalent about his Chinese ancestry. In the course of his short life, Rizal was a poet, novelist, ophthalmologist, historian, doctor, and, as Benedict Anderson puts it, ‘political dreamer’. On 30 December, 1896, Rizal was executed on the Bagumbayan Field (now Rizal Park) by a firing squad made up of native soldiers under Spanish officers. His last words, allegedly, were ‘consummatum est’: it is over. Rizal grew up against a background of violent revolution and counter revolution in Carlist Spain which sent seismic tremors shuddering through the Philippines. In 1868, the ‘Cortes Generales’ led by General Juan Prim ousted the reactionary old order and forced the abdication of Queen Isabella II. The Generales’ regime despatched a new, liberal governor to the Philippines Carlos Maria de la Torre who was greeted with cries of ‘Viva la Libertad!’ He immediately granted new political rights to natives and mestizos outraging the old colonial guard. After two years ‘La Gloriosa’, the Spanish Glorious Revolution collapsed, provoking a furious counter revolution in Manila. The Rizal family was implicated in these upheavals and José fled to Spain to continue his studies. He travelled all over Europe, to England, France and above all Germany picking up French, German and English with ease. Rizal admired the new unified Germany, and spent a great deal of time in Heidelberg, the picturesque university city where he studied ophthalmology. It was in Berlin, where he is commemorated with a small metal plaque, that he completed his novel ‘Noli me Tangere’ which dramatizes with astonishing vibrancy the complex strata of a decaying and fragile colonial society. The novel became the manifesto of a rapidly emerging Filipino nationalist movement. When Rizal returned to Manila in 1892, he threw himself into forming ‘La Liga Filipina’ to campaign for relatively modest social reforms. ‘La Liga’ was banned by the nervous government and Rizal himself branded an ‘enemy of the state’.  He was a moderate compared to the man who would lead the anti colonial revolution a few years later. Andréas Bonifacio was a poor, self educated Manila artisan who had enjoyed none of the social advantages of the author of ‘Noli me Tangere’. Bonifacio’s secret revolutionary organisation, modelled on the Freemasons was  called in Tagalog Kataas-taasan, Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng̃ mg̃á Anak ng̃ Bayan (The Highest and Most Respectable Society of the Sons of the People), shortened to Katipunan.  (Filipino rebels were called Katipuneros.) Spanish was spoken by a tiny elite; using Tagalog was intended to broaden the appeal of the new movement – even though it was not comprehensible to all Filipinos. At a secret meeting, Bonifacio tried to get Rizal to pledge his support for the revolt he was planning to unleash against the Spanish government. Rizal refused, arguing that to take such a step was premature. This was a bitter setback for Bonifacio who nevertheless went ahead with the ill prepared uprising in August 1896. The Spanish had been battered by the 1895 revolution in Cuba, and although Spanish troops easily quashed Bonifacio’s rebels in Manila, the Katipuneros waged a much more effective campaign in the rural provinces. In 1899, the Spanish threw in the towel and a Republic of the Philippines was proclaimed. By the time the free peoples of the Philippines celebrated the first national revolution to oust a colonial power in Southeast Asia, both Rizal and Bonifacio were dead – the former shot by a Spanish firing squad, the latter executed by the leader of the new republic General Emilio Aguinaldo. The revolution and the Republic of the Philippines  was short lived. Its leaders, like Aguinaldo, had no purchase on the Muslim south; they faced new revolts led by religious lunatics and fanatical disciples of Bonifacio. The mestizo generals  fell to carving up power between themselves. Then in 1898, American President McKinley, goaded by the reactionary newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, went to war with Spain, cynically expressing support for her oppressed colonial peoples. The Americans smashed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay; American troops seized Manila. At peace negotiations in Paris, Spanish negotiators hoped to retain some of the Philippines, but the Americans insisted that ‘to accept merely Luzon, leaving the rest of the islands subject to Spanish rule, or to be the subject of future contention, cannot be justified on political, commercial, or humanitarian grounds. The cessation must be the whole archipelago or none. The latter is wholly inadmissible, and the former must therefore be required…’ The Spanish Queen-Regent Maria Christina finally agreed to American demands, against the wishes of the Cortes. The cost of acquiring the Philippines to the American government was a mere 20 million dollars. Yankee imperialism crushed the nationalist dreams that Rizal had imagined with such brilliance in his novels.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Lai Tek 2


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.