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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

CastFrom The Herd Excerpt #40: Psy-Ops

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #40:  The Emergency’s Psychological Operations (Psy-Ops)

Back to the propaganda movies, I do not remember any screenings during Ramadan in deference to local religious sensitivity. Had there been one, the department probably would have won hands down over the mosque in terms of attendance. 

The psychological operations (psy-ops) went beyond those propaganda movies. There were those low-flying aircrafts dropping leaflets over the jungle with the message urging those terrorists to surrender. Sometimes voice recordings of the terrorists’ family members or former colleagues were also broadcasted from the aircraft, urging those still “misled” to surrender and enjoy the good life outside. The pamphlets carried pictures of well-fed surrendered former comrades with their wide grins or pictures of forlorn terrorists’ wives and mothers. No mistaking the message:  the authorities knew the relatives of those communists! 

A favorite game for us village kids was who could catch that first leaflet or the most. I would later appreciate the joy Canadian children had in catching that first or most perfect snowflake. The prize was of course only bragging rights, except for my Chinese friends. They assured me that those pamphlets were much superior to newsprints as toilet paper. 

In the end, the insurgency was not so much defeated as simply faded away. With independence, the communists lost their cause. At its height they enjoyed the occasional spectacular successes, as with Gurney’s assassination in October 1951 mentioned earlier. The year before, a train carrying my Yam Tuan (Sultan) was ambushed. He was in the last coach and thus escaped injury. Today few remember those tragic events. 

Yam Tuan’s ambush merited only a brief news item in the Straits Times; Gurney’s had a profound impact on the country. Apart from the obligatory holiday on the day of his funeral, the colonial government forced every landowner with properties abutting the roadways to clear back for at least 300 feet. Gurney’s convoy had been ambushed on a narrow jungle hillside road on their way up to Fraser’s Hill, a cool resort destination. 

Gurney’s successor, General Templer broke the back of the insurgency, and by the time he left in 1954 he was dubbed “The Tiger of Malaya,” a moniker once attributed to the ruthless Japanese wartime commander, Yamashita. Templer’s send-off befitted one given to great monarchs. The whole of Kuala Lumpur was shut down, with the streets from his official residence to the Sungei Besi Airport lined with citizens and school children. At the airport the sultans too lined up to bid goodbye, genuflecting to Templer like peasants to their, well, sultan. No mistaking the symbolism – those sultans knew or were told to know their place. I did not however, notice anyone wiping away tears. Nonetheless a grateful nation honored Templer by naming a national park as well as a major hospital after him. 

The Emergency was not officially declared over till July 12, 1960. Despite its horrors, nobody paid any attention to its ending; no victory parades or mass celebrations. It was anticlimactic. That was the best tribute to the nation. 

The Emergency may be over but the communists were still wreaking havoc, albeit sporadically and unsystematically. It took the genius of a local commander to finish them off in the 1970s. Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman was Templer’s protégé; he personally selected Mahmud for entry into Britain’s Sandhurst. At a time when Robert McNamara and his fellow Harvard “bright boys” at the Pentagon were obsessed with “body counts” as a measure of “progress” in prosecuting the war in Vietnam, Mahmud adopted a counterintuitive and radically different strategy. He gave those terrorists every opportunity to escape from being killed. He saw immense propaganda value in seeing former communists being alive, repentant, and leading productive lives. 

General Mahmud’s operating principle was simple:  In fighting communist terrorists (or any terrorist for that matter), first create no new ones. Kill one innocent victim and you would turn his entire extended family, as well as friends, clan and village, against you. This simple and obvious wisdom escapes the best minds, then and now, in Malaysia and elsewhere. Mahmud’s innovative thinking and counterintuitive strategy enabled Malaysia to prevail over the communist guerrillas, sans any foreign help – an achievement that remains unique to this day. The victory was made even sweeter as it happened at the height of the Cold War and where in nearby South Vietnam similar pajama-clad communists had humbled the world’s greatest military might.

The formal end to The Emergency was not signed until December 2, 1989, in Haadyai, Thailand. There was but a brief mention of it deep in the day’s papers, reflecting the irrelevance The Emergency had on contemporary Malaysians. Stripped of its legalese, the agreement was but a surrender document, a “save face” gesture to the geriatric Chin Peng and his Geritol comrades. 

As for that brilliant and innovative Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman, except for a minor datukship there were no national honors heaped upon him or monuments erected in his name. Except for close associates and subordinates, few remember him. As a military leader General Mahmud agonized over the selection his commanders, very much aware that the lives of his troops would depend on the skills and wisdom of those whom he had selected. If only Mahathir had Mahmud’s sense of leadership responsibility, Malaysia today would have been spared the likes of Najib and Ismail. 

Time Asia magazine graced Mahmud’s portrait on one of its covers, describing him as a general equally at home reading poetry as planning military strategies. General Mahmud resigned his commission when then Prime Minister Hussein Onn in his wisdom bypassed him for promotion to be Armed Services Chief. As can be seen, Malaysia not valuing her talented citizens is not a recent phenomenon. 

General Mahmud died unheralded on August 25, 2020 at age 92.

Next:  Excerpt #41  The Labu Years


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