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Thursday, 23 August 2012

The end of Lai Tek


The Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) Lai Tek had smoothed Chin Peng’s ascent to power in the Party. Now his downfall allowed Chin Peng to seize complete control of the MCP. The Central Committee was purged and Chin Peng elected as Secretary General. He was just twenty three. But the Lai Tek crisis was not over. For one thing, Chin Peng realised that Lai Tek must have been planning to pass on information about the location of secret weapons caches to the British. He had cunningly streamlined the Party organisation to create autonomous Organisational Bureau that functioned independently of the Central Committee. Lai Tek had sent a stream of messages to the Bureau, which were never seen by Central Committee members, demanding information about the arms caches and who controlled them. None, however complied. It was simply inconceivable for the old MPAJA fighters to consider putting such high value information in writing. 
On this at least, Lai Tek had been foiled - but the MCP wanted and needed their money back – and no doubt hungered to enact revenge. At a meeting on 6 March, the Politburo agreed that their newly elected Party leader Chin Peng should be granted leave of absence to track down Lai Tek. He would become a Malayan Oedipus, whose destiny was to liquidate the Party’s fallen patriarch... In early July, Chin Peng boarded a north bound train to Butterworth, then changed to the Bangkok line. In the Siamese capital, Chin Peng found a cheap hotel and contacted local communists. He planned to stay there two weeks and then take a flight to Hong Kong – assuming, that is, he had found no trace of the renegade in Bangkok. 
As Chin Peng was returning from the Cathay Pacific office by trishaw, accompanied by a Siamese communist, he noticed a figure in the shadows on the other side of the hot, crowded street. A man was buying cigarettes from a street vendor. He had his back turned. Chin Peng jolted forward to get a better view. There was something terribly familiar about shape of the body, the posture… Could it be Lai Tek? The man turned towards the street and lit up. It seemed to Chin Peng that he was looking directly at him. Time froze. It was a moment worthy of ‘The Third Man’. No, there could be no doubt. There was the fugitive Lai Tek, standing just yards away. Chin Peng ordered the trishaw driver to turn round. But his quarry was already boarding a motorised tuk-tuk which roared off in a cloud of oily smoke. Chin Peng rushed to the Bangkok headquarters of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Sukhumvit and told the comrades about his sighting. He was certain it was Lai Tek. His contact assured him that they would launch a full scale search. It would be well nigh impossible for any Vietnamese gone to ground in Bangkok to avoid detection. 
Soon afterwards, Chin Peng flew on to Hong Kong, another repossessed British colony. This seems an odd decision, given his certainty that Lai Tek was in Bangkok. But he was a young man having an adventure; he had never travelled outside Malaya; he may well simply have wanted to experience his first flight – and on a wonderful four engine Skymaster to boot.  The jaunt, however, paid off. Not long after his arrival in Hong Kong, Chin Peng nspotted a familiar name in the day’s passenger lists in the ‘China Morning Post’: Chang Chan Hong. This was the very name that Chin Peng himself had come up with to get Lai Tek a bogus passport. He had it seemed slipped through the Vietnamese dragnet in Bangkok. The trail was getting hotter by the day. It may appear surprising that Chin Peng’s first call was to Inspector Francis Wong Chui Wai of the Hong Kong Special Branch, who had served in Malaya before the war. The fact is that the MCP was not yet a banned organisation in Malaya or Singapore. In any event, Inspector Wong knew nothing about the whereabouts of Lai Tek. Chin Peng knew that shortly the end of the war, Lai Tek had travelled to Hong Kong to confer with Zhou Enlai, who was second only to Mao Zedong in the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Lai Tek was told in no uncertain terms not to expect material assistance from the CCP which, at the time, was locked into frustrating negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek and the Americans. Lai Tek's audience with Zhou Enlai had been arranged by General Fang Fang, a former editor of the ‘Red Flag’ and a member of the CCP Central Committee. He was still resident in Hong Kong. Chin Peng tracked down General Fang at the offices of the Chinese business daily the ‘Hwa Sung’, a front for the Chinese Communist Party. He discovered that Lai Tek had called by just days earlier and had spun a tale about being kidnapped by the British Special Branch. According to Chin Peng’s account, Fang had supplied Lai Tek with funds to return to Bangkok. Leon Comber, former Special Branch officer and now historian, says that Lai Tek did not request financial assistance. Why should he? He was loaded. Lai Tek had submitted a report, Fang revealed, saying that he was planning to eventually travel back to Singapore to continue the struggle. For Chin Peng, this was all very convenient. A British colony like Hong Kong was not the safest place to carry out an assassination. He now followed Lai Tek’s trail  back to Bangkok on a BOAC flight.
The Viet Minh comrade had news. Lai Tek had contacted the local Vietnamese News Agency and left details of the hotel where he was staying. When a few comrades made further enquiries, they discovered that Lai Tek had checked out of the hotel and was holed up in ‘in a small house on the klong’. It was here that Lai Tek received a visit from a three man Vietminh squad. Chin Peng did not accompany them. He may have assumed that Lai Tek would be brought back to headquarters alive. If he did, he would be very disappointed.
For years afterwards, the fate of Lai Tek remained an unresolved mystery. Some intelligence experts claimed that Special Branch had whisked him off to Hong Kong and resettled him there with a 'new identity’. One historian suggested that Lai Tek was active in ‘Siamese Communist circles’. It was only in 1998 that Chin Peng, by then permanently exiled in Bangkok, finally revealed to Chinese newspaper reporters what had happened to the fugitive Malayan Lenin. Or did he?
Lai Tek had bowed out of history not with a bang but a whimper. The Vietminh squad comprised three young and completely inexperienced men. They waited outside the shop house 'on the klong' and pounced on Lai Tek as he returned to his squalid quarters. The diminutive, sickly Vietnamese put up a tremendous fight. One of the young men gripped him round the neck; Lai Tek writhed and contorted; then he frothed at the mouth; finally he stopped breathing. At the back of the shop house, the assassins found some discarded lengths of hessian used for making sacks. In these, they wrapped the corpse and waited for dark. As soon as night fell, they heaved Lai Tek's body into the rushing waters of the Chao Praya river.
So ended the remarkable life of one of the most enigmatic secret agents in 20th Century intelligence history – the enigmatic puppet master of Malayan communism. He had done sterling clandestine service for the French, the British and the Japanese. Arguably, he put the brakes on a communist revolution in post war Malaya. Many would regard that as a 'good thing'. Not one of these powers would ever honour or acknowledge Lai Tek's contributions to their cause. 
It is odd that Chin Peng did not accompany the squad to positively identify Lai Tek and to confront him about his multiple betrayals. Perhaps he did... He will probably take that secret to his grave. We have no idea at all why the British Special Branch abandoned their ‘Mr Wright’ to his fate. They owed him a great deal. No one has any idea what happened to all the money Lai Tek stole from the Party coffers. As Leon Comber points out, these puzzles are unlikely ever to be solved. 
Freddy Spencer Chapman summed up his impression of Lai Tek: ‘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.’

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Sybil - a few notes


Individual responses to any occupation by a foreign power are never simple or clear cut. They reflect contingency as much as individual moral decisions. Resistance and collaboration are crude classifications of a range of reactions, actions, decisions and choices. In the Japanese sphere of conquest in Southeast Asia, interactions with the occupying power were multifaceted and highly volatile. These colonial societies were communally divided and indeed divisive. Each community reacted differently, and were treated differently. For some, the Japanese offered liberation. Others simply perceived them as merely the latest foreign occupier little different from the British, French or Dutch colonial powers. A substantial minority, but a minority nonetheless, chose to actively resist the Japanese occupier by force of arms. The bulk of these resistors were communists. A significant majority, however, concluded that little or nothing would be gained by non cooperation. But merely ‘getting by’ could in war time Malaya easily shade into active collaboration. This irreducible complexity is evoked by Sybil Kathigasu’s very powerful account of her war time experience and torture by the Japanese: ‘No Dram of Mercy’. It is significant that Kathigasu was Eurasian. She was born Sybil Daly in Medan in Sumatra. Her parents were also Eurasians of mixed French, Irish and Asian ancestry. The family was Catholic. Her husband Dr  A.C Kathigasu was a Tamil and Hindu – but agreed to convert to please Sybil’s family and took a new name Abdon Clement Kathigasu. The marriage took place at St John’s church in Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur. Sybil had trained as a nurse and midwife and the couple worked together for many years in Ipoh. She and her husband were committed and hard working and their practice at 114 Brewster Road was busy. The family was Catholic, and vegetarian; they lived simply above the clinic. But the Kathigasus were not conformists. At the end of 1941, Chin Peng was hiding out in an atap hut outside Lahat, a few miles from Ipoh where the underground communist newspaper ‘Humanity News’ was printed. A few weeks before the Japanese landed in Thailand and northern Malaya, Chin Peng suffered a nasty bout of malaria. A comrade insisted that he go to a doctor. He said that the best, who dealt with all his patients with equal care, whatever their race or status, was Dr Kathigasu. He was already well known and admired by local communists because the Brewster Street surgery was close to a Chinese owned foundry and Dr Kathigasu had frequently treated sick or injured workers. He did not charge extortionate fees. The doctor had, Chin Peng noted, pictures of the Indian nationalists Gandhi and Nehru pinned to his surgery wall. While he was waiting, Chin Peng had a brief glimpse of the famous ‘Mrs K’. When a dose of liquid quinine failed to reduce Chin Peng’s fever, Dr Kathigasu insisted that he go to hospital – and it was from a hospital bed that he heard that Japanese troops had landed at Kota Bahru. A few days later Ipoh was bombed and the Kathigasu’s fled to Papan, a one street tin mining town on the edge of the jungle, where they set up at 74 Main Road. Dr Kathigasu soon returned to Ipoh, leaving Sybil to manage the dispensary. Chin Peng was aware that Sybil was ‘a great champion of the British cause’ as well as ‘incredibly God-fearing’.  It didn’t matter. In Sybil’s world, the Japanese occupiers were the enemy; those who resisted should be helped at whatever cost. And that cost would be high indeed. 
In her book, Sybil evokes the atmosphere in occupied Malaya: ‘the informer was everywhere, and everywhere was hated and feared… their rule was based on terror…particularly so in respect of the Chinese…they feared the Chinese and gave expression to their fear in savage persecution and constant spying…’ The Japanese mobilised an ‘army of informers or ‘intelligence agents’; they were Chinese, Malays, Javanese, Banjerese, Filipinos, Siamese, Ceylonese and Eurasians; an informer might be a cook or maidservant, cabaret girls and messenger boys; they haunted every crowded place. One learned, Sybil recalled, to ‘trust nobody’. The Japanese Military Administration took over the old colonial security apparatus virtually intact, merely replacing British rank and file with locals and appointing a Japanese officer class. The police and auxiliary forces expanded enormously. On a local, day to day basis this meant that occupied Malaya was policed by Malays and Indians. A few Chinese were employed in the ‘Toko’ detective branch. In the background, fanatical Kempeitai officers pushed the rank and file to perform their security tasks zealously. From the beginning of the occupation in February, 1942 the Japanese banned possession of radios, hoping to cocoon its people in a web of silence and ignorance. All radios had to be surrendered to local police stations and frequent surprise inspections carried out to find illicit sets. For the Kathigasu’s, this was intolerable. Sybil felt the ‘burning need to know what was going on in the world outside’.  Her first act of rebellion was to acquire from a Mr Wong a fine GEC model that the family christened ‘Josephine’ which was ingeniously concealed in the family home. Papan’s main street ended at old tin workings at the edge of the jungle. When Sybil helped two young runaways from Singapore known as ‘Romeo’ and ‘Don Juan’ (someone in the MCP had a sense of humour), sick or wounded guerrillas began slipping away from their jungle camps to the dispensary at 74 Main Road. The dispensary was always busy in any case which meant that the jungle fighters could easily avoid detection. 
And so No 74 became a ‘clearing house for local news, messages and warnings…’ Sybil spoke perfect Cantonese. As a nurse and midwife, she was able to travel around the district quite freely without arousing suspicion. She never asked for payment. Most of the young MPAJA men who came secretly to the back door of her dispensary suffered from malaria, jungle sores, scabies and beri-beri. Many had symptoms of vitamin deficiency – which Sybil treated with an improvised paste made from the millings of polished rice. Sybil Kathigasu’s book which she wrote when she was dying after the war in Scotland is a gripping account of her work with the MPAJA guerrillas. She could not evade the Japanese for long. Somehow the Japanese discovered that ‘a Chinese midwife was helping the guerrillas’. Then on July 29, 1943 a Chinese police inspector Lim, a ‘Toko’ officer, called and searched the dispensary. The Kathigasu’s were arrested soon afterwards. Sybil was so severely tortured that she never recovered. After the war, the British offered her treatment in Britain and awarded her the George Medal. She died two years later in Lanark, Scotland. 
Sybil is now feted as a Malaysian war heroine and national martyr. A ‘Time’ article called her the ‘Edith of Malaya’, referring to Nurse Edith Cavell shot by the Germans in the First World War. The story of Sybil Kathigasu is a lot more complex than that implies. Resistance to Japanese rule was exceptional in occupied Malaya. I think her decisions reflected the fact that she and her husband had non aligned roles and social status in a communally divided society. Dr Kathigasu was a Catholic convert. As a Cantonese speaking Eurasian, Sybil was an insider-outsider. She had made a decision long before the Japanese came that the caring professions should pay no heed to communal or racial divisions. She valued informed connectedness as her courageous and illegal radio listening demonstrated. All these factors made Sybil unique. It was a lot easier and less perilous to comply with the occupying power as so many did. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Anthropologist who Disappeared 2


In July, 1931 Noone set up camp in the deep jungle at the confluence of the Telom and Cherkok Rivers. On the other bank was a Semiah village, but when he attempted to cross over, the women and children all vanished into the forest. He was met by a sullen group of men who made it all too clear that they did not want him to stay. It looked very much as if Noone’s second expedition would suffer the same fate as his first. The Semiah simply did not want to be discovered. As Noone moped about in his little camp, his Malay cook Puteh bin Awang, who Noone said had ‘all the instincts of a gentleman and an amazing delicacy of manner’, told him he had discovered a young Semiah girl who seemed to be dying in a small hut just half a mile away. She was covered in wart like sores, Puteh told Noone and desperately thirsty. It turned out that she had been abandoned by her people: no one could go near her until she had died. Noone, who had only the most basic knowledge of tropical diseases, examined the stricken girl and sent a runner with an urgent letter describing her symptoms to the British medical officer in the nearest village, which was Tapah. He and Puteh brought the girl to their riverside camp where she was nursed. The runner soon returned from Tapah, with a diagnosis and medicine. The girl had tertiary yaws, a horrible tropical disease caused by a spirochete bacterium. Today yaws is treated with antibiotics; these were unavailable in 1931. But whatever the medical officer in Tapah sent to Noone’s camp worked very well. The little Semiah girl was soon recovering, and her sores fading. 
This fortuitous sequence of events transformed Noone’s standing among the previously hostile Semiah. The stricken girl it now turned out was the daughter of the headman Batu who showed off his white skinned medicine man to other village chiefs and promised to take him deeper into the jungle to find the Temiah. In the meantime, Noone, in a state of elation, began working with the Semiah, mapping their settlements and making notes on kinship networks and ritual. It was an exhilarating time, but cut short all too soon. After a nasty bout of dengue or ‘break bone’ fever, Noone, stricken with a temperature above 105 degrees and very severe pain, was forced to return to Tanah Rata and then Taiping. 
In March, 1932 he set out again, following the Telom River and its tributaries. Many weeks later, Noone reached the tiny settlement of Kuala Rening where the Rening River roars down from a narrow, rocky gorge. It was here that a group of young Temiah warriors, armed with blow pipes and festooned with feathers, stepped boldly out of the jungle and gathered in front of the mysterious white man who had searched for them for so long. 
Richard Noone later described Kuala Rening as a haunted place. For it was here that his brother began his journey into the world of the Temiah, and where he would find love and finally death.After these crucial first encounters, Noone ‘went native’. When Richard travelled to Malaya in 1935, Pat invited him to spend time with the Temiah. He was astonished to discover that Pat had married ‘a jungle girl’ called Anjang. Was she just ‘a floozie on the side’, a shocked Richard wondered. No, Pat insisted – they were married ‘in the sight of God and the Temiah’. But it was going to be ‘damned hard’ to explain Ajang to the family. 
A British planter who got to know Noone well, called him ‘Lawrence in a loincloth’. He was, to be sure, one of the last romantic anthropologists. Noone came to regard the Temiah as Rousseauesque ‘Noble Savages’: quasi jungle socialists and gentle pacifists who shunned violence. His idealistic conviction would turn out to be a literally fatal error.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Anthropologist who disappeared... 1


Months after the Japanese invasion, an unusual encounter took place in the Malayan jungle. It was a meeting of very different minds and cultures that would have unexpected consequences  not only in Malaya during the Emergency war but later in Vietnam. Herbert Deane Noone, always called Pat, was a British anthropologist who had taken a First in Archaeology and Anthropology at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.[1] Pat’s father was the splendidly named Herbert Vander Vord Noone who made enough money in India to retire at forty-four and return to England where he lived a somewhat peripatetic life with his family. ‘HV’ was inordinately ambitious for his children. Pat and his bother Richard, who was ten years younger, grew up in Dymchurch on the Kent coast and across the channel in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the Basque country of south-west France. 
Pat, his brother recalled, was ‘blessed’. He had inherited his mother’s blue eyes and fair colouring; he excelled at sports; he passed any exam effortlessly; he was supremely confident and assured. After coming down from Cambridge in 1930, he was offered a job by the Perak State Museum in Taiping as a field ethnographer and readily accepted. At the time, Taiping was a charming up country town. 
The curator of the town museum, a splendid little building with a dome and wide verandas, was Ivor Evans. A graduate of Clare College, Cambridge, Evans had come to North Borneo in 1912 as a cadet district officer. He fell under the spell of Malaya’s aboriginal peoples – then referred to as ‘Sakai’ which means ‘dependent’ or ‘slave’ in Malay. The modern, less pejorative term is ‘Orang Asli’, ‘original people’. Although Evans took early retirement in 1932, he evidently passed on his passion. Pat realised, with some disappointment, that the region of Malaya that Sir Hugh Clifford referred to as the ‘aboriginal block’ was shrinking fast as new roads and railways were cut through the pristine jungle or ulu. But between the Cameron Highlands and a peak in Malaya’s central spine called Gunung Noring, there remained one spellbindingly unmapped ulu region, far away from the roads and railways – a rumoured lost world of jungle clad mountains, riven by deep, plunging ravines, laced with foaming rivers and streams, and permanently shrouded in mist. It was a realm, so it was said, haunted by malevolent spirits and blood thirsty cannibals. ‘Nonsense, of course’ concluded a ‘vastly intrigued’ Pat Noone. 
According to Evans and the German  anthropologist Father Paul Joachim Schebasta (another expert on Malayan aborigines whose work was funded by the Vatican), a wavy haired ‘race’ of people who spoke a language called ‘Senoi’ dwelled in this mysterious and uncharted ulu.[2] A number of European anthropologists had begun studying the aboriginal peoples of Southeast Asia but in 1930, the Senoi speaking tribes of Upper Perak remained an enigma. Noone sensed that his destiny lay in solving this puzzle. Early in 1931, Evans gave him permission to venture into the lost world and track down the Senoi. ‘I am steeled for a high purpose’ Noone wrote to his father from the small town of Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands from where he launched his quest. 
Noone’s first expedition was a dismal failure and he was forced to return, tail between his legs, to Taiping. In July, 1931 he set off again – and this time, after an arduous journey, he was rewarded by a life changing encounter with a group of Semiah.   


[1] There is no up to date account of the life and work of Pat H.D. Noone. I have relied on two books by Dennis Holman ‘Noone of the Ulu’ (1958) and ‘The Green Torture’ (1962) and Richard Noone’s ‘Rape of the Dream People’ (1972). None of these books is in print. This fascinating story deserves updating.
[2] Schebasta is sometimes referred to as Austrian. He was in fact born in Silesia, but studied at the University of Vienna. See Paul Joachim Schebesta (1887-1967) Wilhelm Dupré, History of Religions , Vol. 8, No. 3 (Feb., 1969), pp. 260-266