The world's most cosmopolitan city of the era: Singapore in the 1920s, Photograph courtesy of Tripadvisor
Bayly and Harper write that Britain’s South-East Asian empire was somewhat unique, with the Malayan economy for example based not only on rubber plantations worked under a strict hierarchical regime by Indian migrant labourers, plus tin mines in the Kinta Valley in Perak, producing by 1905 some 50% of the world’s tin, and coal mines at Batu Arang in Selangor worked by Chinese labourers under slightly less onerous conditions – giving Malaya an unusual concentration of industrial workers – but also opium, official duties on which accounted for an astounding 40-60% of annual revenue: “The British crescent in Asia [from Assam on the Chinese border to Singapore at the tip of the Malayan peninsula] was supported by narco-colonialism on a massive scale.” Apart from being a narco-colony, Malaya was home to a polyglot multiracial society of British, mixed-race Eurasians, Chinese, Malayans, Tamils from India, Burghers from Sri Lanka, Sikhs, and others – all discretely discriminated amongst by class, caste, religion, language, labour and colour: “British Malaya was built on a viciously insidious form of apartheid.” They note that in that era, Singapore was probably the world’s most cosmopolitan city – even more so than New York, and boasted electric light, refrigeration and air-conditioning. The Malayan peninsula was administered by a patchwork consisting of: the British “Straits settlements” at Penang, Malacca and Singapore; the “federated Malay states,” indirectly ruled via local collaborationist potentates, of Perak, Selangor, Pahang, and Negri Sembilan; and the “unfederated states,” essentially protectorates, of Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu, and Johore. Yong notes that "Communism as an ideology was first introduced to Malaya by Chinese anarchists, and not by Kuomintang [Guomindang] Left, Indonesian communists or Chinese communists as claimed in existing scholarship. A handful of Chinese anarchists arrived in British Malaya during the First World War to take up positions as Chinese vernacular school teachers or journalists. These Chinese intellectuals harboured not only anarchism but also communism, commonly known then as anarcho-communism."
Yong says that the ideology of these pioneers – men such as Hu Tu-tsu, Fan Chang-pu and Goh Tun-ban – was based both on Kropotkin’s mutual aid and violent social revolution, with a distinct anti-militarist and anti-imperialist flavour. Citing colonial police records, Yong says Hu and Fan were alleged to be “the leaders of an anarchist society in Singapore, called Truth” – this is probably the Society for the Truth of the South Seas founded in Singapore by Liu Shixin, which established small branches across the East Indies archipelago – and admitted to having organised a strike among Chinese workers employed in the city’s Japanese engineering firms in protest against the Japanese occupation of Germany’s former Shantung Peninsula territory in northern China. Both men were deported back to China, but Goh, who had emigrated from the anarchist stronghold of southern Fujian province in China, remained in the city of Kuala Lumpur. There, he befriended local Guomindang intellectuals and businessmen – at this time, some Chinese anarchists were close to or even inside the Guomindang’s left wing – and with their aid, launched the anarchist-communist journal Yik Khuan Poh (To Benefit the People), which carried articles from both the anarchist and Bolshevik perspectives. Yong says that in 1919 in response to the May Fourth Movement in China, Goh published a series of articles on “national self-defence”, “national self-determination” and “national self-government” – but this was to have been on a Bolshevik Soviet model which Goh, from the distorting great distance of Malaysia, saw as rule by the popular classes, the “ideal of anarcho-communism”. Confused as this was, when Goh was tried after being arrested with five other militants in the so-called “Six Gentlemen Incident”, he nevertheless stated he was an anarchist who wished to destroy the chiang-chuan (oppressive authorities). Goh and the other five were deported to China and the editorship of Yik Khuan Poh was briefly taken over by the moderate socialist P’an Ssu-choon. The May Fourth Movement also sparked anarchist organising: according to Kim and Mahl, one of the leaders of the movement in Malaya recalled, “this enthusiastic movement had a great effect upon the whole [Chinese] nation, and later on the South Seas (Nanyang). Many propertyless men in the South Seas long sunk in slumber were awakened. And for the first time they began to know that there has existed such a thing as Labour Day”. Bayly and Harper confirm that “The labouring world of Kuala Lumpur was a hotbed for the first Chinese anarchists who came to Malaya in the wake of the May 4th movement of national awakening in China.” The anarchists’ recruiting-ground was the ethnic Chinese trade guilds in Malaya and shortly, Kim and Mahl write, “The Anarchist Party was established in Malaya by 1919 and its objectives were stated to be as follows: ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Community of Goods, Co-operation; each does what he can and takes what he needs: no government, laws or military forces, no landlords, capitalists or leisured class. No money, religion, police, prison or leaders. No representatives, heads of families, no person uneducated or not working: no rules of marriages, no degrees of high or low, rich or poor, and the method to be adopted is given by organisation of comrades by means of communication centres, by propaganda in pamphlets, speeches and education, by passive resistance to those in power. Do not pay taxes, cease work, cease trade; by the method of direct action, assassinate and spread disorder. Anarchy is the great revolution’.”
Kim and Mahl state that “By 1920, Anarchist societies… existed in Singapore, Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Seremban. Some of the Chinese schools were important centres of activities.” P’an was replaced in 1920 by Liu Ke-fei, the younger brother of the celebrated Chinese anarchist-communist Liu Shih-fu. Kim and Mahl write that prior to his arrival in Malaya, Liu the younger had edited a paper in Manila, the Philippine capital, presumably anarchist in orientation. His articles over the following year tended towards a rose-tinted view of the Bolsheviks, but also promoted anarcho-communism, “proletarianism” and class war – which he said in the undeveloped world was rather between the populace and the warlords and bureaucracy than between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Kim and Mahl state that: “May Day was first celebrated, clandestinely but with great enthusiasm, by the Anarchists in Ipoh in 1921. A big meeting was held which was attended by workers and students. The following year it was intended to distribute tens of thousands of leaflets on Labour Day but the scheme fell through because no printer was prepared to undertake the job. However, numerous Anarchist publications entered the country that year among which were: Kung Sai Yam (Save the World), Kung Chan Tong (the Communist Party)” – in these early days, there was often a misidentification by militants of Bolshevism with anarchist-communism – “and Anarchist Morality by Kropotkin. There were also pamphlets printed or published locally such as the Tai Yeung (the Sun) printed at the premises of the Yik Khwan Po in Kuala Lumpur and Yan Kheun (Power of the Proletariat) which was published in the town of Gopeng, about ten miles south of Ipoh. The Anarchist movement in Malaya entered an even more active phase in 1924 when several new leaders emerged especially in Kuala Lumpur.” Crisi identifies one of them: “One of the premier Malaysian anarchists was Lau Hak Fei, who was editor of several newspapers in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, one of them the Po Yik Khwan. From the decade of the ’20s, the momentum of the experience was from anarchism in China, and many unions were founded throughout the Malay Peninsula.”
The first communist cell was only established in Malaysia by Chinese immigrants in 1921, with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and to the Guomindang left wing, relations which improved after the 1924 ZGD-Guomindang pact. Some communists worked alongside the anarchists on Yik Khuan Poh. In 1925, the Chinese woman anarchist Wong So-ying bombed the Chinese Protectorate in Kuala Lumpur, injuring two officials and herself. Kim and Mahl recall the bombing so: “The last major activity of the Anarchists in Malaya occurred in 1925 when an attempt was made, first to assassinate the High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States and Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Laurence Guillemard. When this failed to materialise they turned their attention to Daniel Richards, the Protector of Chinese for Selangor. On January 26, 1925, a Chinese woman (Wong Sau Ying), about 26 years old, with bobbed hair, wearing a white jacket, black shirt, white shoes and white stockings, arrived at the Chinese Protectorate in Kuala Lumpur. She bought with her a small brown attaché case. Finding Daniel Richards and his assistant (W.L. Blythe) seated at a table, she entered the office, placed the case near a corner of the table and spoke softly to Richards. She then fumbled with the catch of the attaché case [and] pushed it towards Richards. There was an explosion. Both Richards and Blythe were injured but survived.” Bayly and Harper hint that Wong’s motivations, while intimately personal, were also indicative of the repressive climate under which the colonised survived: “The bomb was retribution for those who had banished her lover to China and caused his early death. It was Malaya’s first act of political terrorism.” Yong says that the British interrogators were unable to crack Wong – who had also been injured in the explosion – and she was jailed for ten years, while the authorities rounded up and deported “quite a number of Chinese anarchists”. Kim and Mahl say that while serving her time in Pudu Gaol, Wong “committed suicide by hanging herself”. In response, there was an anti-British boycott in the anarchist stronghold of Guangzhou, southern China, where the anarcho-syndicalists had by 1922 built unions 300,000-strong (and where they conducted a social revolution that controlled most of the Guangdong province as well as southern Fujian province over 1921-1925). Yong cites a report into the anarchist movement following the bombing by A.M. Good, the Secretary for Chinese Affairs, which revealed that an “Anarchist Federation” had existed in Malaysia since 1919 and by 1925 had an estimated membership of fifty. This is presumably the Anarchist Party referred to by Kim and Mahl, who also state that “there were probably not more than 50 hardcore members in the Peninsula. Their influence was reported to have reached a much wider circle of Chinese, especially among the school teachers”.
But by this stage, the communists were surpassing the suppressed anarchists, with a nascent communist party, the Nanyang Public Bodies’ Union (later the Nanyang Communist Party, NCP) founded in 1926 under Chinese Communist Party patronage and with its own labour arm, the Nanyang General Labour Union (NGLU). In 1930, the Comintern, in an apparent attempt to supplant Russian influence for Chinese, directed the NCP to transform itself into the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), but despite this, it and the NGLU remained Chinese-dominated and thus marginalised from the Malayan majority. Bayly and Harper write that Malaya’s industrial concentration of 724,000 industrial workers by 1931 was unique in South-East Asia: “this was about 16% of the total population. It was a unique concentration of workers: only perhaps 0,7% of the population of India could be classified in this way.” Nevertheless, the impact of the Great Depression saw half the Chinese tin-miners, some 75,000 – repatriated to China. And yet thanks to the opium trade, Malaya never required outside assistance to ride out the Depression, and in 1934, new finds of bauxite and manganese in Kelantan and Trengganu saw massive mines established there, one at Dungun employing 3,000 miners. Kim and Mahl note that “After the bomb incident, the Anarchist movement in Malaya fizzled out. The Communists took over the role of inciting workers to oppose their employers and government and government. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Chinese were the active trade unionists, receiving no official sanction though, in Malaya. Their leaders, being mainly leftists, were arrested as soon as they gained influence.” Still, Bayly and Harper write: “By the late 1930s, trades unions and the Malayan Communist Party had made inroads in the small industrial towns of the west coast.” In 1937, a wave of protests involving some 100,000 workers swept the rubber plantations and tin mines – and a Batu Arang Soviet was established at Malayan Collieries, but it was suppressed by 250 police and 200 troops, leaving one worker dead and four injured; hundreds of “soviet” labourers were deported to China. Kim and Mahl write: “It was only after World War II that the government embarked on a deliberate policy of grooming Indians to take control or workers’ unions as a counter to the influence of the radical Chinese.”
1. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: Britian’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, Penguin Books, London, UK, 2004.
2. Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 1992.
3. Maia Ramnath, Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire, California World History Library, USA, 2011.
4. C.F. Yong, Origins and Development of the Malayan Communist Movement, 1919-1930, Modern Asian Studies Vol. 25, No. 4, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1991.
5. Datuk Khoo Kay Kim and Ranjit Singh Mahl, Malaysia: Chinese Anarchists Started Trade Unions, The Sunday Star, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 12, 1993.
6. Emilio Crisi, Revolución Anarquista Coreana en Manchuria, Editorial Libros de Anarres, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2015.