In this group interview, Yu, Zheng and Lin recount their experiences living under the Malayan Emergency regulations, the food situation during the Bukit Asahan Estate strike, and their imprisonment.
The interviewees begin by recounting the restrictions on freedom of movement and the transportation of goods, as well as food rationing. Villages were barricaded with barbed wire fences and watchtowers manned by soldiers, enforcing a curfew. Farmers were also forced to adhere to limits on the food they could bring to the fields during work; due to restrictions on taking food out of town over concerns that they would be given to guerrillas. Meat dishes became a luxury.
During the Bukit Asahan Estate Strike, Indian laborers were very poor and saddled with debts from multiple creditors. The striking workers participated in communal cooking over a single large pot, using low-grade broken rice and the leaves of root vegetables. Supporters of the strike who came from other regions and were more affluent brought meat dishes for themselves, leading to suspicions about their loyalty. The union leadership then enforced a rule that all supporters would have to only partake from the communal pot, or leave. The interviewees also recall a farmer who would cycle 15 kilometers to support the strikers with a daily supply of fresh vegetables.
They then discuss their time in prison, where both union leaders (like Lin) and rank-and-file workers (like Yu) where detained without trial. Yu recalls that the authorities arrested anyone even remotely suspected of Communist involvement, across various professions. Prisoners were held in solitary confinement, driving many insane. Wardens also used violence against inmates, especially the Politics Branch officers, who were predominantly Chinese. The men recall two particularly brutal wardens who were later killed, with the first being shot dead at a coffeeshop in broad daylight.
In the second case, the prisoners plotted to kill him as a last resort, and one inmate volunteered. He got himself released early from prison by Appeal, which meant providing a false confession about one’s alleged involvement with the Malayan Communist Party (CPM), which would then be published in tabloids. Though the prisoners generally discouraged the provision of coerced confessions denouncing the CPM, this inmate did so, and those still detained later received word that the abusive warden had been killed. The inmate who had committed the murder later attempted to escape into the forest, but got lost and was killed, with his wife.
25th Sept 2019, 2:30pm to 3:30pm at a coffee shop at Tangkak, Johor.
Yu: An estate worker at Asahan Estate in the 1960s, he participated in the Asahan Estate strike.
Zheng: A Labour Party member from Tangkak, a town about 15 km away from Asahan. He was a supporter of the Asahan Estate strike. He was detained without trial for seven years for his involvement in the strike.
Lin: A major leader in the United Malayan Estate Workers Union (UMEWU) in the 1960s, he played a leading role in the Asahan Estate dispute. He was detained without trial for ten years for his labour activism.
The group interview was conducted in Mandarin Chinese. The transcript was then translated into English.
Interview conducted by: Pa Kuan Huai
Tangkak under the Malayan Emergency
Q: Did the lifting of the Emergency allow people to organise social movements?
Lin: Yes, this was surely a contributing factor.
Zheng: Yes. During the Emergency there were barbed wire fences surrounding the entire town of Tangkak. Gates were set up at each of the crossroads. Each gate has a high watch tower and soldiers were stationed to check every item brought out of the town. Food was not allowed to be taken out of the town for fear that they will be given to the guerrillas. Curfew was imposed at night.
Yu: I remember the rice ration coupons. Each family was limited to a ration. We could not buy more rice. Due to the restriction on bringing food out of the town, we could only bring some kueh (rice cakes) and bananas to work on the field. It was really inconvenient.
Q: Was the fence and gates still up after the lifting of the Emergency?
Zheng: No. the barbed wire fence and the gates were removed after the Emergency ended.
Food supply during the strike
Lin: We set up a shed at the entrance to the estate. A big pot of rice (大窝饭) was cooked. Cheap grade of broken rice was used. How big was the rice pot? This big? (He stretched out his arms to make a circle to indicate the size of the pot.)
Yu: No, bigger! Much bigger! The rice when cooked was not like rice, neither was it like porridge. It was something in between! Curry was cooked. There was no meat in the curry. There were only sweet potatoes and sweet potatoes leaves grown by workers. It was enough to fill up the stomach. We did not feel it was bland food then, like we would think now if we were to eat those food now. On thinking back, we did not feel it could have been any other way. Everyone was poor, very poor. Some Indian workers did not have shoes. They went barefooted to work.
Lin: Yes, the Indian workers were very poor. They were in debt. On pay day, as soon as they collected their pay and stepped out from the estate office, creditors will be waiting for them on both sides of the road. Creditors from the grocery shops, coffee shops, cigarette shops and the occasional tuak (fermented drink made from coconut tree flowers) seller. They hardly had any money left after paying the debts.
Lin: In those times the most sumptuous food was the “Da Bao (大包)” (meat bun) and chicken rice. Some supporters of the strike who came from big towns brought these luxuries with them. They did not eat with us from the big pot of rice. Some workers observed this and asked, "Will they support us if they refuse to take our food?" The strike committee held a discussion. They decided that the visiting supporters would all have to take the “big pot rice” to show their solidarity with the workers. Those who refused would have to leave. Everybody took the “big pot rice”.
Turning to Yu, Lin asked: Do you remember a vegetable farmer from Tangkak who sent fresh vegetables to us every other day?
Yu: Yes, they had to cycle about 15 km from Tangkak to Asahan to send the vegetables. We were used to cycling. There was no motorcycle available. If there was a car, so many people would squeeze inside it that one can hardly breathe! After a while, people in Asahan began to ask," Has the vegetable from Tangkak arrived yet?" It was as though it was a routine to have free vegetables!
Experiences in prison
Q: You were detained without trial.
Lin: He was just a supporter of the strike, but he was put in prison too.
Yu: Those days, they put anyone and everyone in prison. Workers, party members, teachers, farmers, even professors - they caught anyone they wanted to. Prison was really terrible. It was dark, eerie, and we were put into solitary cells. There were many people who couldn’t take the imprisonment. It drove people mad.
Lin: I know someone who told me that after his experience in prison, he would start shivering whenever he heard the sound of metal gates and chains.
Yu: The wardens were abusive too.
Lin: A secret police recognised me when he interrogated me in prison. He said that I was from the Asahan strike. Then he hit me in the face. I fell to the ground. He was notorious for hitting prisoners.
Yu: Yes. He was brutal. He was gunned down one late afternoon at the coffee shop where he had his usual afternoon coffee. They had observed his movements.
Q: Was he Chinese?
Yu: Yes. Most Politics Department officers (Special Branch of the Police or secret police) were Chinese. They were present in strike actions, rallies and political party public functions.
Lin: There was another particularly brutal Politics Department officer. Many prisoners suffered at his hands. A few committed suicide in prison. The situation got so unbearable that a few prisoners got together to hold a meeting to discuss the issue. Many options were suggested. At the end of the meeting, it was decided that he had to be eliminated. That was that. Nothing else was decided. I thought it would end there and then and nothing more would be done after we had aired our collective anger. Soon a second meeting was called. A fellow prisoner volunteered to carry out the decision. Everyone fell silent. It was unexpected. He then started the process of Appeal. He was successful. He was released from prison.
Q: What was an Appeal?
Lin: It means making an appeal to the Prison Board that a person was detained on wrong charges. We would discourage making such an appeal because the Prison Board would demand that the appellant admit that he was a member of the Malayan Communist Party even though he was not. He would have to make false charges against the Malayan Communist Party, denounce the Party and his belief in communism even though he was not a communist. Such coerced recantation and denouncement would be printed in newspapers and broadcasted in television.
One late afternoon, a Malay prison guard told us that the particularly brutal Politics Department officer had been gunned down in town. The news spread fast in prison. We knew he had fulfilled his vow. Later we learnt that he had escaped into the jungle with his wife. He was not familiar with the jungle and lost his way. They were both killed.
Interviewer: Kuan Huai
Interviewee: Lin, Yu and Zheng
To what extent were labor uprisings such as the Bukit Asahan Estate Strike part of the Cold War? Is it more accurate to characterize it as a domestic conflict?
In light of these reflections, consider the real and imagined dimensions of the Cold War in Malaysia. How does this enhance our understanding of Malaysian, Asian, and global Cold War history?
Discuss the emotions experienced by those who experienced the Cold War Era in Malaysia. How do they differ for different segments of society?