Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Pretty Communist, and a Hollywood Star


What could possibly connect Hollywood movie star George Sanders with the Malayan Emergency and the communist government of Hungary?
On 24 July, 1952 Special Branch officers raided a house in the Lahat Road in Ipoh and arrested two women. They were held in custody and ‘rigorously interrogated’. One of the women Cheow Yin ‘committed suicide’ in her cell. The other twenty four year old Lee Ten Tai, known as Lee Meng (photographed here in 2007) was eventually charged with possession of a pistol and a grenade and consorting with persons armed with weapons and ammunition. Under Emergency regulations, these charges all carried the death penalty. The assessor system in Perak, where Lee Meng was arrested, provided for her trial by a European judge assisted by two assessors. There was, of course, no jury. The judge had to agree with only one other person to convict and sentence a prisoner to death. Lee Meng faced her accusers in style. She was, according to the leering journalists in court, exceedingly pretty and her navy blue slacks and checked blouse showed off her prison diminished frame. The Straits Times headline declared: Pretty Girl Gave Murder Orders! (The same edition lamented the fall in the price of rubber.) She had the allure of a Malayan Mata Hari. Lee Meng was an articulate young woman and was ably defended by her Indian barrister Mr S.P. Seenevasagam who successfully demolished prosecution evidence as the self serving lies of former communists. At the end of the trial the two court assessors, who were both Asian, found Lee Meng Not Guilty – but Justice Thomson refused to accept their verdict and ordered a retrial: ‘Both assessor are of the opinion that you are not guilty. How, as reasonable men, they can come to that opinion I have no means of knowing. I disagree with their opinion and order a retrial.’  Ten days later, the new trial began under a new judge and new assessors. This time, one of the assessors was a European – and the court duly found Lee Meng guilty. At this second trial, the courtroom had been packed with lawyers and journalists: British colonial justice was in the dock. In the meantime, Lee Meng had been taken to Taiping Prison where she was locked up in the condemned cell on death row to await execution.
Mr. Seenevasagam – the hero of this story – successfully lodged an appeal with the Federation’s Court of Appeal in Kuala Lumpur which was heard by a panel of three judges: the Chief Justice of Singapore Mr. Murray-Aynsley, the Chief Justice of Malaya Mathew, and Justice Whitton. On 14 November, 1952 the panel dismissed Lee Meng’s appeal by a two to one majority. Chief Justice Murray-Aynsley alone had found the charges against Lee Meng to be ‘defective’. The government finally had the verdict it wanted. Lee Meng was taken back to Taiping. As her cell door was slammed shut, the eyes of the world were turned on Malaya. In London, the celebrated Mr Dingle Foot assisted by Mrs Wee Phaik Gan (then the only Chinese woman to have been called to English Bar) appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. When this failed, a London law firm took on Lee Meng’s case and briefed by the indefatigable Mr. Seenevasagam organised a petition to be presented to the Sultan of Perak, who was entitled to grant clemency to a condemned prisoner. For students of post war British history, the list of signatories is interesting indeed: they included such luminaries as Michael Foot, Jennie Lee, Tom Driberg, Richard Crossman and a future Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Sir Leslie Plummer, who had been knighted for his role promoting the disastrous ‘Ground Nut Scheme’ in Tanganyika, led a deputation to the Colonial Office to demand that Lee Meng’s death sentence be commuted. Plummer was a committed opponent of racism and anti-Semitism. In Malaya, Tan Cheng Lock weighed in – drawing up another petition to the Sultan. He was well aware that the colonial legal system favoured Europeans. He pointed out that if Lee Meng had been tried in the former Straits Settlements Penang or Malacca she would have tried by a judge and jury. If the jury had arrived at the same conclusion as the two assessors at Lee Meng’s first trial, she would have been acquitted. Then came a most remarkable and unexpected turn of events. In November, 1949 a British businessman called Ernest Sanders had been arrested in Budapest on spying charges. Now at the end of February 1953, the communist Hungarian government offered to exchange Mr Sanders for Lee Meng. For the British government the offer smacked of a global communist plot hatched in Moscow and Peking and somehow linked to the MNLA in Malaya. It was in any case deuced awkward – especially when journalists tracked down poor Mr Sanders’ wife Winifed, who was slaving in a café in Frinton-on Sea in Essex to make ends meet for her three children while her husband languished in a Hungarian prison. The association between Mr Sanders, the wrongfully imprisoned British businessman and Lee Meng, the glamorous Malayan freedom fighter was discomforting for the government. It was pointed out that the American government had got Mr Sanders’ business associate Robert Vogeler, who had been arrested at the same time, an early release by making a few adroit diplomatic concessions to the communist government. In the House of Commons, the following exchange took place:
Mr. Ernest Davies asked the Prime Minister if he can now announce the decision that has been reached on the offer made by the Hungarian Government in regard to the release of Mr. Sanders in exchange for Mlle.[sic] Lee Meng.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Winston Churchill): Her Majesty's Government, after earnest consideration, have decided that they cannot entertain the proposals made by the Hungarian Government.
Mr. Davies: Would the Prime Minister give the House any indication of the reasons which led the Government to reach this decision? In view of the rejection of this offer, will he explore every other possibility of obtaining the release of Mr. Sanders by making an offer on our side, or by entering into negotiations, in view of the fact that Mr. Sanders has been in prison for more than three years, convicted of crimes of which he is known to have been innocent?
The Prime Minister: The answer to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is in the affirmative. We shall continue to persevere, but I do not think I ought to take up the time of the House in dealing at length with arguments as to the balance of reasons which have led us to take our decision.
Hon. Members: Why not?
Churchill refused to be drawn. A week later, however, Lee Meng was taken from her cell and marched into the office of the Taiping prison superintendent, Mr. W.J. Burton. He had good news. The Sultan had commuted her death sentence to one of life imprisonment. She apparently showed no emotion. At the end of the year, the Hungarian government released Mr. Sanders: ‘Red Hungary Frees Briton!’. He had served three and a half years in prison. The cameras of British Movietone News were on hand to record Mr. Sanders’ arrival at Croydon Airport where he was greeted by his wife and daughters and gave a short press conference enthusiastically sucking on a cigarette. A tall, distinguished looking man, who bore a striking resemblance to his cousin the Hollywood actor George Sanders, Ernest found it hard to get a job in austerity Britain. He became a bus driver in Clacton. Although the British government had insisted he was innocent of all charges, Mr. Sanders admitted that he had passed on information to the British military attaché in Budapest; he had not, however, been paid a penny. The Malaysian government released Lee Meng nearly a decade later in 1964. She was banished to China. In Chin Peng’s judgement, she had never been sufficiently cautious and paid the price.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Greene Propaganda

It seemed appropriate this week to post some notes about a rather more impressive BBC DG than the unfortunate George Entwistle. 


For the first few years of the Emergency war, propaganda efforts had been confused and paltry. By the beginning of the 1950s, with the arrival of General Briggs, a root and branch reform of both intelligence gathering and propaganda objectives was underway. Briggs had repeatedly stressed the importance of breaking down communist morale through targeted propaganda. Investment in the psychological battlefield was ramped up when it became clear that Briggs’ other proposed strategies had begun to harm the MNLA. For Briggs, resettlement would be a blunt weapon without rigorous food control. The aim was simple – starve the MNLA to defeat or death. The typical resettlement camp was a hunger machine. Each camp was encircled by barbed wire, with just two entrances which were stringently patrolled. The district authorities purchased every kind of food supply in controlled quantities. Food was secured in silos and could be purchased only by holders of ration cards. Rice was rationed. Store holders were required to keep a meticulous record of every item sold. Foodstuffs arrived in the camps at strictly controlled times; supplies could not be moved at night. Lorries could only stop at regulated points – and had to use only the most direct route. Some tried to get round these regulations to help MNLA units lurking near the camps. But in most districts Briggs’ food controls throttled the guerrilla supply lines.  When four MNLA men surrendered in northern Selangor in August 1951, they told interrogators that they had been forced to eat fruit seeds instead of rice. They all suffered from severely swollen legs and ulceration brought on by vitamin deficiency. It may be that the sudden and final upsurge of violence in 1951 was a desperate response to starvation. The worst, for the MNLA, was yet to come. Briggs had a fondness for aerial bombardment – but he shifted the mind set of his military commanders sharply in the direction of what he called ‘framework patrolling’, by ‘small harassing patrols’. Reform of intelligence gathering meant that the ‘will o’ the wisp’ approach was replaced by targeted attacks. Between mid 1950 and early 1951, the contact rate - that is actual engagements with the enemy – doubled. Framework patrolling and food control caught many MNLA units in a tightening vice. 

This was all very well but for many Chinese, who now had a very effective spokesperson in Tan Cheng Lok, killing more ‘CTs’ simply amplified the message of botched resettlement projects, deportation and collective punishment. The Federation was ‘Chinese bashing’. In October, 1951 – that cruellest of months - anger about resettlement peaked when the Mawai camp in Johor was attacked by the MNLA. More than a thousand squatters had been moved here at the beginning of the Emergency. For three years, the former squatters had lived in poorly maintained dwelling scattered along a two and half mile road that would along the edge of the jungle. The camp was not wired in and a handful of ‘Specials Constables’ were responsible for protecting a growing community. Over the course of the next few years, almost nothing was done to improve conditions. By 1951, Mawai was allegedly penetrated by Min Yuen cells and threatened by local MNLA units. The camp was duly reinforced – with the addition of four Specials who could do very little to stop the MNLA killing four informers and kidnapping thirty six young men. At the end of the month, the government ordered the closure of Mawai camp – to the great dismay of the people who had struggled to rebuild their lives. Tan Cheng Lok reacted with forceful eloquence: ‘they are being treated like cattle and ordered to move their homes and their cops on a whim of the government…’ Gurney’s political will that bemoaned the indifference of the Chinese to the war on communism had ended with …. – and this reflected a growing sense that the Malayan Chinese should and could not be left out in the cold. The solution proposed in the dog days of the Labour Government by Secretary of State James Griffiths was to enlist the support of a propaganda expert – more to the point, a ‘anti-communist expert.’ The ‘man with a propaganda plan’ was Hugh Carleton Greene.

Greene was supremely well qualified. He was the brother of the novelist Graham Greene From 1934 to the outbreak of war, he had worked in Germany as correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. After 1940, he had a brief stint in intelligence before joining the BBC as head of its German Service. In 1945, he returned to Germany to serve as Controller of Broadcasting in the British Zone. Back in London, Greene was appointed as head of the BBC East European Service. Greene was on good terms with the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs Patrick Gordon Walker – who recommended him to Griffiths for the Malaya job. Greene had observed and?? the charismatic power of the German propaganda machine. His experience of occupied Germany and the Soviet clamp down in Eastern Europe convinced him that Britain and the United States faced a global menace. Greene had also worked closely with Richard Crossman who had headed the German section of the Political War Executive (PWE) where he pioneered innovative techniques of psychological warfare – PSYOPS. Greene arrived in Kuala Lumpur on 19 September, 1950 and immediately embarked on the customary whirlwind tour of the Peninsula. The ‘Greene Report’ made three basic recommendations: raise public confidence in the Federation government; demolish the morale of the MNLA by ‘driving a wedge between the leaders and the rank and file’ and encouraging defection; and ‘create an awareness of the democratic way of life’ and the threat of communism. To enact these goals, the government set up the Emergency Information Services (EIS) – headed by Greene. It was said that Greene had the manner of a ‘cold fish’ – he was unflappable and appeared domineering. With Briggs’ backing, he laid waste to the old Department of Information and brought out favoured staff from the BBC East European service. Since the demise of the Chinese Protectorate, the Federation had been plagued by a shortage of Chinese and even Chinese speaking staff. This deficiency had magnified the government’s often insensitive treatment of even the most conservative Chinese Malayans. Greene had no Chinese nor was he planning to stay in Asia indefinitely  – so he insisted on recruiting a new cadre of suitably qualified staff. His most important acquisition was a brilliant young Cantonese called Too Chee Chew (who had been given the nickname C.C. Too by colleagues in the American OSS who claimed they had difficulty remembering his full name)  – who impressed Greene with his outstanding educational vitae, and his intimate understanding of the Asian communist mind. He was it was said ‘a clear and fast thinker, with photographic memory, magnetic gaze and oratorical skills’. After the war, Too had been finishing a degree level course in ‘War Science’ at Raffles College in Singapore when he was approached by representatives of the MCP who were in search of new blood – especially if it spoke English. Too kept them at arm’s length. He came from a staunchly nationalist family – his grandfather had known Sun Yay Sen – but was unimpressed by communism. The MCP then offered Too the chance of travelling to London to act as translator for the MPAJA veterans invited to take part in the 1946 Victory Parade. He again turned them down, but later attended a party at MCP headquarters in Kuala Lumpur to welcome home the heroes where he had met Chin Peng. He concluded that the MCP leaders were cynical, manipulative and naïve. Later he was even less polite: the MCP was 
‘A gang of half-educated, swollen headed, power-mad adolescent demagogues trying to take over the country. I told them many facts which, as self-claimed leaders, they should have known but did not. What they were really trying to carry out boiled down to nothing but a gigantic swindle…’
After this, Too had become Secretary to the Chinese Consul General in Kuala Lumpur, but had lost his job when Britain recognized Communist China and closed the consulate. During his time there, Too had helped negotiate the surrender of a band of KMT guerrillas in southern Thailand – which had provide him with an entre to the government information services. Greene had immediately recognized Too’s value to the EIS. For his part, Too was impressed that Greene did not exhibit ‘colonial airs’. Soon after Too was recruited, Greene brought in Lam Swee – who it will be remembered had defected from the MNLA in Pahang. As an SEP, Lam Swee was officially a detainee – but he was soon a free man. SEPs who had come in from the cold would play a vital role in Federation propaganda.
Both C.C. Too and Lam Swee made crucial contributions to the development of the Federation propaganda war. Greene stayed for just two years – but it is remarkable how much he achieved. He established iron laws of propaganda that the EIS followed religiously. Greene insisted that propaganda had to be credible; information must stand up to cross checking. Many MNLA guerrillas were highly intelligent men and women who were starved of information. Propaganda  had to be positive rather than threatening: Greene banned a leaflet called ‘Death to Min Yuen Workers’. Threats would merely stiffen resistance.  Propaganda should be laced with entertainment. So Greene used radio to broadcast news shows, ‘Spotlight on the Emergency’ and ‘This is Communism’ for example, that had regular spots for a radio doctor and popular story tellers such as Lee Dai Soh. Propaganda had to be based on the most refined and precise market research, drawn from close examination of MNLA propaganda – very little of which had been translated accurately before the arrival of C.C. Too and Lam Swee. These were the basic principals that Greene instilled. He also understood that in Malaya, propaganda had to be exquisitely tailored to a culture that valued information conveyed by word of mouth. This is, of course, how the communists worked – the Min Yuen went from village to village, town to town talking up the MCP message. Greene persuaded the government to invest heavily in the SEPs and in radio. He realised that the stories told by the SEPS who had renounced the struggle could have enormous power. This was why Lam Swee wrote his famous pamphlet ‘My Accusation’ in 1951 which had such an impact on MNLA rank and file, forcing the Central Committee to rush out their cumbersome reply. Greene persuaded the government to end prosecutions of even those SEPS who were known to have committed atrocities and ‘had blood on their hands’. Instead, the EIS organised speaking tours by mobile SEP units that lectured to tens of thousands of people all over Malaya. These tours were heavily protected: the SEPs travelled in armoured wagons, backed by armoured troop carriers and a dozen or so police. The MNLA denounced their ‘sweet flattering words’. Greene, a future Director General of the BBC, helped mould the Malayan broadcasting and film industries. Unlike the modern BBC, the Malaysian film and broadcasting organisations have never shaken off their founding roles as mouthpieces of government propaganda. 


Propaganda is generated in the mutable gap between truth and falsehood. Greene and his successors invested heavily in film and radio propaganda. As well as the SEP tours, mobile projection units toured Malay kampongs and resettlement villages showing films to a rural population that was still largely illiterate. Titles such as ‘’The New Life: Resettlement in Johor’, ‘Rewards for Information’ and ‘The Shame of Pusing, Communist Extortion Methods’ give a good idea of the kind of productions that made their way around the Peninsula and beyond. Greene, like his mentor Richard Crossman, like to spread the jam of entertainment on the bread of the government message. An SEP drama ‘Love in the Jungle’ and a serial called ‘The Adventures of Yaacob’ about a young man’s adventures fighting ‘CTs’ in the jungle were tremendously popular. These home grown stories were shown alongside Hollywood imports. For Greene, as for Goebbels, the commanding medium was radio. Soon after his arrival in Malaya, the government invested in powerful new transmitters – and Greene made sure that he was, as it were, editor in chief. He appointed Alex Josey as Controller of Emergency Broadcasting. Josey, ‘a character of bohemian appearance and considerable wit’, had been Controller of Programmes in the ‘Palestinian Broadcasting Service’, and then worked for ‘Radio Malaya’. He was something of a maverick and one of his broadcasts had upset European planters who had launched a barrage of abusive attacks forcing his resignation. Greene recognized Josey’s talent – and made sure he got the funds to develop a ‘Community Listening Organisation’ that could transmit programmes in Malay, Tamil and the four main Chinese dialects. Shows were finely tuned to different communal audiences. In resettlement villages, people could listen to SEPs revealing how they had been duped by the communists in Hakka, translated into Cantonese. Although Greene wanted to at least give the impression that the government was keeping its audiences up with what was happening to beat the communists, Josey made sure that not all the output was overtly political. One regular show that became very popular was ‘Can I Help You?’ which provided answers to questions sent in by listeners about ID cards, food control regulations, applying for resettlement grants – and even marital difficulties. In Malaya in the 1950s, very few people in rural areas possessed a radio. The government sponsored setting up transmitters and loudspeakers on estates, and in kampongs and resettlement villages. Hundreds of small battery powered receivers were distributed to coffee shops and community centres. Radio embraced Malaya. And the communists were listening too.