Ye discusses his childhood and participation in the vernacular high school student movement in Penang, his motivations for joining the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), his return to Penang after the Hadyaai Peace Treaty in 1989, and his efforts to build a memorial for his fallen comrades.
Born the son of a port coolie in the Clan Jetties of Penang, Ye was exposed to foreign communities from an early age, when helping to bring shipments of books ashore in a sampan. There he met Chinese sailors who would bring Mao’s little red book, and would later join the student movement in his youth. These movements had begun in Malaysia from 1957 and continued throughout the 1960s. Students were inspired by both the revolution in China and the Soviet Union, even singing soviet songs.
This changed in 1969 after the racial riots in Malaysia, when the government enforced a harsh crackdown on mass demonstrations. Ye was wanted by the police for his history as a student activist, though he was not yet part of the CPM; and both his and his wife’s photographs were splashed in tabloids. They had to go into hiding, and moved around various places within and off mainland Malaysia, for the next four years. This also forced them to leave their newborn daughter with his parents. In 1973, Ye joined the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) to avoid imprisonment, like many other former student activists.
Ye did not return to Malaysia until after the Hadyaai Peace Treaty was signed in 1989, which permitted their return with a few conditions. First, the CPM would not be legalized, but its former members were allowed to form a new Socialist Labor Party, which they did not choose to. The government also agreed to release all former detainees under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and to not penalize the released detainees for their past actions, granting them and their children citizenship, as well as RM300 a month for 5 years to help them rebuild their lives.
In practice, however, the state still discriminated against former detainees — rejecting their applications for passports or obstructing their entry and exit from the country, even when they held passports. Ye recalls being held back by the authorities when he and his wife tried to leave for China for her cancer treatment. Further, the detainees were required to collect their payouts from the police station, which was not the normal protocol, and ceased remitting money after his wife’s passing, although the agreement required the funds to be sent to the family.
Upon his return, Ye suffered survivor’s guilt as the sole living member amongst his comrades to get released. He endeavored to build a memorial for his fallen comrades, even accumulating sufficient donations in 1993. However, this was blocked by the Special Branch. It was only in 2018, during the regime change, that Ye and his collaborators could build the memorial amidst the political confusion
Interview with Ye on the Commemoration of the Fallen Members of the 8th Regiment of the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA)
Biography: Ye, currently in his 70s, was formerly a member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).
The interview was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and later transcribed. The transcript was translated into English. The interview took place in Penang.
Interview conducted by: Pa Kuan Huai
Childhood and early activism
I lived in the Clan Jetties on the sea front of Penang Island during my childhood. My father worked as a coolie carrying goods from the cargo ships to the tiongkang (Chinese wooden boats) to unload them on land. The neighborhood had much contacts with foreigners. Chinese sailors brought with them Chairman Mao’s little red books. I remember rowing a sampan to bring shipments of books on shore.
In my youth, I got involved in the Chinese vernacular school student movement. The student movement had started much earlier in 1957. We had seniors who guided us. We drew some inspiration from the revolution in China. I remember singing songs from the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, socialism was popular. It was popular like how democracy and freedom have become popular since the 1990s.
Joining the Communist Party of Malaya
The government repressed the student movement. The repression kept becoming worse. After the 13 May 1969 racial killings, it was impossible to continue what we had been doing. We could not continue to organize study groups or protests on the streets. Our voices could no longer be heard.
I was wanted by the police for my involvement in the student movement. At that time, I was not even a member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). Yet, I was put on a wanted list. The photographs of my wife and me appeared on newspapers. We had to go into hiding. We left our newly born daughter with our parents. My father was ill. I met him in the hospital. He told me that since I had chosen this road, I must go all the way to the end so that I would not betray other people. We went into hiding with a fisherman family at Teluk Bahang on the Island and later with another family farming vegetables on the mainland. After a period on the run, we joined the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) in 1973 because there was no other way. It was either going to prison or the joining the MNLA.
A scholar I talked to told me that joining the MNLA in 1973 was very late. It wasn’t late. Many of us who were involved in student and other social movements only joined the MNLA in the 1970s.
Returning to Malaysia after the Hadyaai Peace Treaty of 1989
There were a few conditions agreed on the Hadyaai Peace Treaty Agreement regarding our return to Malaysia. The first was that the CPM could not be legalised. However, the government allowed former CPM members to organise politically and form a new political party. They had even named the party for us – it was to be called the Socialist Labour Party. We did not take up the suggestion.
The second condition was that all political prisoners under the Internal Security Act would be released. The third was that we would not be penalised for our past actions – the war was over. The fourth condition was that we would regain our citizenship and our children would automatically become Malaysian citizens as well. However, many of these conditions were not fulfilled by the government. They did not do it fairly. Many of us were rejected when we applied for passports. Even when we had passports, we would face obstructions at immigration check-points whenever we leave or enter the country. I was really frustrated when they obstructed my wife and me from leaving the country. My wife had contracted cancer and we wanted to go to China for treatment.
The last condition was that we would receive RM300 per month for five years upon our return. This money was to assist us to return to society to start a new life. However, there were many issues on the government’s part in fulfilling this condition. Sometimes the Special Branch police officers would ask us to go to police stations to collect our money when we should not have to do so. They also stopped remitting the money when my wife passed away when they should have continued remitting it to the family according to the Agreement.
Constructing the memorial
We returned to the country in separate batches. When my turn came, I crossed into country from Thailand and reached Kroh (a northern town close to the northern border). I was overcome with emotions (Ye’s eyes were red with tears as he said this). Here I was alive and many of my comrades had sacrificed their lives. I told myself that I must erect a memorial to commemorate them.
We were sent to a house near the Parliament at Kuala Lumpur where we waited for our papers to be completed. We were not interrogated nor debriefed. That was part of the Hadyaai Peace Treaty Agreement. When I returned to Penang for the first time I was again overwhelmed by emotions. I remember sitting in the car as it crossed the Penang Bridge. The Special Branch policeman was telling me about how Penang had advanced and developed in the years I was away in the jungles. I was not paying attention to what was saying. I had other thoughts on my mind.
I was recalling my feelings when I left Penang to join the MNLA many years ago. I remembered how my comrades had sacrificed their lives in battles. Now, I had come back to Penang. Yet many of them could not make this journey back with me. I was the one who recruited them to join my unit. I was the one who had survived. I had to do something for them. As the survivor, I had to do something for those who had passed away. I was a witness to this history. I need to record this history.
I decided to build a memorial to honour our fallen comrades. Many other friends shared the same view. In 1993, we managed to collect about RM30,000 and bought a plot of burial ground with a plan to erect a commemorative stone on it. We informed the Special Branch police of our plan. They stopped us. We did not expect them to forbid us from even erectinga gravestone for our fallen comrades. The money collected had to be returned to the families.
We finally built the memorial in 2018. The federal government had changed following the general election in May 2018. The old regime had lost. We started the construction in July. We knew that the Special Branch police would be in a state of disarray following the change of government. This time we did not inform them. We were so determined that we even took a loan to proceed with the construction before raising funds.
We were successful this time around. The memorial commemorates comrades of the 8th Regiment who had fallen during the Anti-Japanese War, the Anti-British Independence War and the Civil War. We held the Qing Ming Gong Ji (public commemoration in the Chinese grave sweeping season) on 14th April 2019. The Special Branch only found out about the event a few days before schedule. The commemoration went smoothly. We finally fulfilled our aspiration to build a memorial to honour our fallen comrades 30 years after the signing of the Hadyai Peace Treaty in 1989.
Interviewer: Kuan Huai
Sampan is the Malay term for a small, wooden rowing boat.
To what extent were Ye’s actions part of the Cold War? Is it more accurate to consider it part of a domestic conflict? Why or why not?
How does Ye’s recollections illustrate the agency he and his contemporaries had in shaping their Cold War experience in Malaysia?
Did the Cold War really end for Ye, as is argued in the traditional Western historiography of the Cold War?
Consider the role of memory transmission and memory politics in shaping Malaysia’s Cold War, in light of Ye’s reflections.