Panel 1:
Film and media infrastructure during the Malayan Emergency

Image Credit: Malayan Official Photographer / Imperial War Museum

The British Reception of Two 1950s Films on the Malayan Emergency
Jon Cowans
(Rutgers University-Newark, USA)

Exploring contemporary British popular opinion on the Malayan Emergency faces one principal obstacle: the paucity of written sources. One largely overlooked set of sources consists of published reviews and letters to newspapers in Britain concerning two fiction films released during the conflict: The Planter’s Wife (1952) and Windom’s Way (1957), both from Rank. Using a sample of more than two dozen reviews and letters published in British newspapers at the time, this paper offers insights into British opinions and political stances on the Malayan Emergency.

The paper will first note each film’s political viewpoint. The Planter’s Wife, released relatively early in the Emergency, urged British (and American) audiences to empathize with the embattled British settlers by featuring the Frazers, a family of planters struggling to protect themselves, their workers, and their rubber trees against communist guerrilla fighters. Windom’s Way, released five years later, took a more nuanced view, condemning ruthless communist rebels and bull-headed, heavy-handed British planters and authorities in equal measure, while focusing on the troubled efforts of a British doctor to mediate between the British and striking workers on their plantations.

Using a wide range of British daily and Sunday newspapers as well as general interest magazines and film journals, the paper identifies patterns in the responses to the two films and to the politics of combatting the insurgency as well. Published reviews and letters from readers convey a range of views, often quite impassioned, on the issues highlighted in the films, providing a glimpse of British attitudes toward colonialism, counterinsurgency, and decolonization in a crucial moment in British imperial history.

Gendering Insurgency: Visual Cultures of Martial Womanhood
Kate Imy
(University of North Texas, USA)

Shortly after its release in 1952, the film Outpost in Malaya (or The Planter’s Wife) became mandatory viewing for soldiers serving in the Malayan Emergency. The film focused on the (fictional) white British Fraser family defending their estate against attacks from so-called “bandits.” While foregrounding a privileged planter family, filmmakers employed a diverse supporting cast to portray the Emergency as a fight that crossed colonial boundaries of race, gender and class. Still, the film proved to be ambivalent in its depictions of Asian women. Their characters were largely frightened but loyal servants or laborers who were preyed upon – but never joined – “bandits.” In reality, many women fought as communist insurgents during the Emergency, prompting overwhelming violence against Asian women. This paper explores these tensions by comparing depictions of Asian women in The Planter’s Wife to police magazines, which spoke to and condemned women’s complex roles throughout the conflict.

The Malayan Police Magazine frequently and forcefully portrayed Asian women in cartoons, illustrations, and photographs. While the film showed them as passive allies or victims, police magazines cast Asian women insurgents as sexualized objects to be redeemed – or brutalized – by white British men. At stake in both The Planter’s Wife and the Malayan Police Magazine was uncertainty about martial womanhood. The film’s central protagonist, Liz Fraser, evades death by shooting a machete-wielding man but retains her femininity by fainting. The Malayan Police Magazine undermined insurgent women’s martial prowess by repeatedly depicting them as over-sexualized jezebels who coveted cleavage-revealing uniforms, copious makeup, and multiple sexual partners. When formal policewomen joined the force, they became paragons of respectability to inspire the “redemption” of their communist counterparts. These visual representations of insurgency and resistance revealed the importance of gender hierarchies for defining and implementing permissible violence.

Mediatic Environments of the Malayan Emergency: Enmeshed Infrastructure and Forest Topographies
Nadine Chan
(Claremont Graduate University, USA)

This paper examines electric and wireless media that were part of the militarization of Malaya’s rainforests and its hinterlands during the Malayan Emergency. Nontheatrical film screenings, mobile film units, and wireless radio were part of a material network of what I call “enmeshed infrastructures” that included the building of electrical grids, road systems, and other networks designed to entangle forest ecologies within expanding technologies of colonial statecraft. I argue that mediatic thinking became contiguous with emergent conceptualizations of coloniality in dispersed geographies—imaginaries made possible by the peculiarities of the forested landscapes that they sought to govern.

This paper takes a topographic approach to media studies that takes seriously how forests produced and inspired mediatic thinking, and were themselves mediatic environments.

Panel 2:
Cultural representation of the Malayan Emergency

Image Credit: Kementerian Perumahan dan Kerajaan Tempatan

Representing the Emergency to Domestic UK Audiences: The Planter’s Wife (1952) and Conflict of Wings (1954)
Lawrence Napper
(King's College London, UK)

This paper will consider the representation of the Malayan Emergency in two contrasting British feature films and explore the reception of these films in the UK and elsewhere.

The Planter’s Wife (Ken Annakin, 1952) is a well-known example of the colonial adventure film – a classic of UK propaganda which seeks to elicit support for the British counter-insurgency campaign though the story of a colonialist family struggling to protect their property and home from communist rebels. Produced by Rank, the film relies on representational tropes identified by Wendy Webster as recurrent in British journalistic and cinematic propaganda around the struggles for independence in this period, not only in Malaya but also in various parts of Africa. Prominent among these tropes are the colonist’s home transformed into a fortress battleground, and the elegant hostess concealing a gun in the folds of her dress.

Conflict of Wings (John Eldridge, 1954) offers a completely different set of generic characteristics. Produced by Group Three, the film at first seems to have no relationship to the Malayan Emergency at all. Its story of a community of eccentric little Englanders in a dispute with the RAF over the use of an island bird sanctuary for bomber training is reminiscent of the famous comedies made at Ealing. It is only at the downbeat conclusion of the film when the RAF men reveal they are to be posted in Malaya that the parallels between the plucky villagers and Malayan insurgents become evident. The film, then, appears to offer some criticism of the counter insurgency campaign through its metaphorical allusions. This paper will consider how far these films attracted oppositional readings and constituted a stimulus for debate about the Emergency among UK citizens.

1956 Representations of the Malayan Emergency: Reading Han Suyin, Mary McMinnies and Anthony Burgess
Anne Wetherilt
(Open University, UK)

1956 saw the publication of three English novels, bringing the distant Malayan conflict to Western readers. Best known are Han Suyin’s ... and the Rain my Drink and Anthony’s Burgess’s Time for a Tiger, published in the United Kingdom in July and October, respectively. But there was another, earlier novel – The Flying Fox, now forgotten and out of print – by the British writer Mary McMinnies, which came out in March. 1956 was also a pivotal year in British colonial politics, with negotiations towards independence progressing in Malaya and Ghana, and the autumn Suez crisis shattering the image (and reality) of Britain as a global power. Public opinion at home continued to be supportive of the government’s approach, assisted by a narrative which emphasised the communist threat to British and Western interests, despite some media criticism of General Templer’s tactics.

This presentation aims to answer two broad question: first, how does the representation of the Malayan Emergency compare across the three novels; and second, what do contemporary reviews tell us about metropolitan readers’ engagement with the conflict. Drawing on middlebrow scholarship, which emphasises readers’ preference for mimesis, immersive plots and engaging characters, alongside the didactive function of the middlebrow novel, I will show that Han and McMinnies (and Burgess to a lesser extent) combine fact and fiction to undermine the official British narrative, which viewed Malaya as a British success story and the Emergency as a blueprint for successful counter-insurgency. I will also suggest that the novels’ dialogism challenges metropolitan readers, as they encounter multi-layered texts which admit diverse readings, whilst their inconclusive endings convey the complexity of the political situation. Finally, contemporary reviews serve as evidence for the novels’ impact on the British cultural landscape, whilst also revealing the divergent interpretations – and blind spots – of their critics.

Picturing the “New Village Chinese”: Photography in the service of resettlement in Emergency-era Malaya
Jeremy E. Taylor
(University of Nottingham, UK)

This paper explores the much overlooked role of colonial- and locally-commissioned photographers in documenting life in the New Villages that were established as part of the wider colonial response to the Emergency in Malaya. While a good deal of existing literature has stressed the use of photojournalism in colonial attempts to strike fear into the minds of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) ― or the broader representation of Malayan insurgents under the “colonial gaze” ― little has been written on the vast body of photography that was produced to promote the New Villages as sites of peace, familial harmony, and commerce.

As I hope to show in this paper, photography became an important medium through which Resettlement could be sold by the colonial authorities and the Malayan state to a skeptical international audience. Photography even played a key role in late colonial attempts to create and visualise a new quasi-ethnic/social category in Malaya―the “New Village Chinese”.
This paper will trace the history of such New Village photography produced from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. I seek to place such New Village photography within not just the context of Emergency resettlement policies but also within the context of the rise of photography as a middle-class pastime in 1950s Malaya.

The paper draws on photographic collections now held in various archives in Britain, Australia and Singapore, as well as archival records relating to the commissioning and circulation of photography in and of the New Villages―and “the New Village China” ―in 1950s Malaya.

Panel 3:
In retrospect: looking back at the Malayan Emergency 1

Image credit: Tan Pin Pin

Youth and the Malayan Emergency: Generational Tensions and Ideological Dissonances in British War Films of the 1950s and 1960s
Kevin M. Flanagan
(George Mason University, USA)

The cultural memory of the Malayan Emergency (1948 - 1960) is often framed, especially from the British and Commonwealth end, as one to do with a generational experience related to the politics of the Cold War, especially as experienced by young soldiers engaged in National Service (conscripted recruits being a significant force on the ground during these years). What this paper proposes is to put the youth experience of the Malayan Emergency, both on the British side and in comparative parallel that of youth in the Malayan Communist Party, into a wider context. As such, this paper examines representations and discourses of youth in fictional films on the Emergency. It looks at subplots to do with the young and generational tensions (not just among service members) in The Planter’s Wife (1952) and The 7th Dawn (1964), but principally considers The Virgin Soldiers (1969: both as an adaptation of the Leslie Thomas novel and as a film of the representation of warfare more generally).

The argument is that these narratives are concerned with the playing out of struggles and tensions--often along generational lines, where the young are told what to do by the old--that preceded the Malayan Emergency specifically, and which get hashed out by participants at a remove from the ideological principles of the conflict more generally. As with other British war films of the 1960s, part of the appeal of The Virgin Soldiers is the gap between official military aims and motivations and the degree to which service members are shown to actually go along with those aims. To explore this, I will situation the films in question against the 1930s and 1940s geopolitical situation of the British in Malaya and their relationship to the MCP as the war began, and will analyze the films (especially The Virgin Soldiers) in relation to other British war films set in Southeast Asia and aligned to the experience of jungle warfare in different contexts, including The Purple Plain (1954), Yesterday’s Enemy (1959), and The Long, the Short, and the Tall (1961). Moreover, I will consider The Virgin Soldiers in terms of its tone, mood, and sense of ideological consensus-building as compared to other National Service comedy films of the period, especially Carry On Sergeant (1958). My aim is to both connect Malayan Emergency narratives to larger thematic trends in British cinema of the period and also hone in on some of the specificity about the conflict that these movies can highlight that might go otherwise unnoticed.

[Re]Representing the Batang Kali Massacre
Chrishandra Sebastiampillai
(Monash University, Malaysia)

In 1992, the BBC aired a documentary titled In Cold Blood under its Inside Story series about “an alleged British Army massacre” that took place on 11-12 December 1948 during the very early period of the Malayan Emergency (BFI Collections Search). The event is known as ‘The Batang Kali Massacre’ and has been dubbed ‘Britain’s Mỹ Lai’, referring to a similar American massacre in Vietnam in 1968 (Hale, 2013). 24 unarmed men were killed by British soldiers from the Scots Guards on suspicion of being or aiding Communist “bandits”. Attempts by surviving family members to hold a public hearing have been repeatedly rejected by British courts.

In 2008, a WordPress page titled 'Condemning Batang Kali Massacre' was published as the official blog of surviving family members in their quest for justice and administrated by a Malaysian lawyer coordinating their legal battle. A prominent tab at the top of the page navigates users to the group’s YouTube channel which contains a 2014 re-edited version of the documentary that runs for 17 minutes and 19 seconds, less than half of its 40 minute original duration.

This paper explores the second iteration of the documentary and its role in the context of the survivors’ trauma, memory, and struggle for justice. The original documentary additionally was cited as evidence in several of the resulting court cases because it contained controversial new evidence that supported the survivors’ version of events. This paper examines the role of the original documentary in reigniting investigations into the massacre and the British legal response to its claims. I will explore the framing of the Malaysian re-edit and how the survivors and British army veterans returning to the village in 1993 are [re]represented to a modern primarily Malaysian audience on YouTube.

Panel 4:
In retrospect: looking back at the Malayan Emergency 2

Image credit: Lau Kek Huat

Breaking the taboos: A Study on the Representation of National History and Identity in filmmaker Lau Kek Huat’s Trilogy: Absent Without Leave (2016), The Tree Remembers (2019) & Boluomi (2019)
Chew Hui Yan
(Kagawa University, Japan)

Malaysia-born filmmaker Lau Kek Huat left Malaysia to study filmmaking and pursue his filmmaking career in Taiwan since 2006. Breaking away from the constraints of national boundaries has allowed Lau to release his spontaneous creativity in filmmaking. Through Absent Without Leave (2016), The Tree Remembers (2019) and Boluomi (2019), in concerning the recent past of his home country, Lau makes inroads into taboo subjects, such as the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), and ethnic riot which happened in the past but until now such topics still can’t be discussed publicly within Malaysia due to the topics’ sensitivity.

Absent Without Leave (2016) was banned from distribution for public screening in Malaysia, suffering the same fate as other Malaysian films featuring the MCP issue as their main theme, such as Amir Muhammad’s The Last Communist (2006) and Wang Kew Lit’s The New Village (2013). The Tree Remembers (2019) which centers on the indigenous minority groups and May 13 racial riot was shown in Malaysia during the Freedom Film Festival 2019 but police and officers from FINAS were on location for inspection. As for Boluomi (2019), Lau’s first ever fictional film, which also focuses on the MCP theme as well as the lives of the migrants of Southeast Asia countries in Taiwan, there were 27 scenes banned by the Malaysian censorship board.

This paper focuses on four aspects. The first deals with Sinophone independent filmmaking in Malaysia, followed by the study of the “multi-layered” identities and collective experiences of Sinophone Malaysian filmmakers in the international arena, in this paper focusing on Lau Kek Huat who is currently living and working in Taiwan. This is followed by a textual analysis of the narrative and the particular filmic language that is employed to address the political issues oscillating between personal memory and national historical incidents.

The Occlusion of the Malayan Emergency in Beth Yahp's The Crocodile Fury and Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists
Eugene Chua
(PhD graduate, Monash University, Malaysia)

The Malayan Emergency does not feature prominently in anglophone Malaysian fiction, though it marked a critical transition from colony to postcolonial nationhood. This reticence or limited engagement will be explored through Beth Yahp’s Crocodile Fury (1992) and Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) – both titles having garnered critical attention and won awards overseas. The former depoliticizes the Emergency, framing it instead within a metafictional fabulist tale composed of conflicting personal narratives, rumours and gothic legends. In contrast, the latter covers the conflict between the Malayan Communists and British colonial government, but the Emergency itself appears to be subsumed under the main plot of the protagonist Yun Ling’s relationship with the former chief gardener of the Japanese emperor, focusing instead on the trauma of World War II. Examining how the Emergency is and is not represented elucidates its tangled politics and contentious history in Malaysia, even as the novels themselves are imbricated in the tension between postcolonial recuperation and the global literary marketplace. What becomes evident is the fraught conception of Malaysia which has yet to be resolved.

To Singapore and Malaysia with Love: The Artistic Legacies of the Malayan Emergency
Sim Chi Yin
(King's College London, UK)

In the heart of Kuala Lumpur, five soldiers with rifles stand triumphantly on a pile of other soldiers with red starred berets. In Singapore, across from the neo-classical facade of the Victoria Concert Hall, is a plaque memorialising the “fight for a democratic non-Communist Singapore”. These national monuments cast the post-colonial states’ narratives on the Malayan Emergency in stone – or bronze.

But over the past decade, there have been multiple works made by Singaporean and Malaysian artists that complicate, challenge and contest those narratives of victors and losers. These range from Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore With Love, theatre maker Mark Teh’s Baling, Ho Tzu Nyen’s performance piece The Mysterious Lai Teck and filmmaker Amir Muhammad’s Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (The Last Communist) to my own books and photographic and filmic installations (One Day We’ll Understand, 2015-ongoing). Taken together, these can be seen as attempts to unsettle the public memory of this conflict key in the independence narratives of both countries, and in history of counter-insurgencies globally.

This paper will explore the artistic legacies of the Malayan Emergency and consider whether art does create space in public discourse where the civil society and political spheres are too suffocating — and ask what, if any, impact art can have on public memory.