Life behind Barbed Wire: New villages, Malaysia

马来西亚华人新村的故事

Google image: The entrance of a new village.
Google Image: A charming new village with Chinese Lanterns.

If there is a statement I must make, it would be that the generation of Malaysians who have lived through the years from 1930s to 1970s had a tough life. They experienced the terrors of the WWII, suffered discrimination under the British colonial rule, went through periods of uncertainty and had to fight for their nation’s independence. In the process, many battles were fought and lives lost. In the history of Malaysia, the topic about New Villages 新村 stood out to me. To describe them in one sentence, New Villages are areas of residences for many Malaysian Chinese of that era and even in present-day Malaysia. Mention this topic to anyone who has lived in one, I am sure that he or she will have many stories to share. Today, this article’s aim is to document the historical significance of them. To understand how these New Villages came to be, we have to first trace back to the history of Chinese migration.

History of the Chinese Migration

Since centuries ago, the Chinese people have been migrating outwards to other lands in search of a better life or for trade purposes. Due to one reason or another, some of these Chinese eventually settled down in the foreign countries and their descendants became known as 华裔, people of Chinese descent.

Historians have classified the Chinese migration into three major waves.

  • First Wave 10th-15th century: Immigration was primarily motivated by trade and commerce activities. During this time, many Chinese settled in parts of Southeast Asia and assimilated with the local populace. (Think of Peranakans, otherwise known as Straits Chinese)
  • Second Wave 17th century: After the collapse of the Ming dynasty, many Chinese became disheartened with the politics of China. They refused to show support for the new Qing dynasty which was formed by the Manchurian race and perceived to be a barbaric government. It was considered shameful for the Han people to be defeated by another race. Therefore, some of these Chinese decided to emigrate and many of them settled in parts of Southeast Asia.
  • Third Wave 19th-20th century: The biggest wave of immigration coincided with the British colonial rule where huge number of contract workers embarked on ships and sailed south to work in tin mines, which was a booming trade at that time. At that time, many of these Chinese were also experiencing famine, internal wars and poor living conditions back in their home villages, which hence led to them migrating in search of better living prospects.

Perhaps due to the proximity of China, Southeast Asia received the biggest proportion of Chinese immigrants compared to other parts of the world such as the USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil etc. The occupational backgrounds of these migrant Chinese were either merchants or labourers or intellectuals. Most of them hail from Southern provinces of China such as the Fujian province or Guangdong province.

A table showing the statistics of the number of overseas Chinese in modern times.
A google image of the map showing the direction of migration to M’sia

To share a personal story, my family was part of the third wave of Chinese migration.

On my maternal side, I am a fifth generation Chinese Overseas. My great-great grandfather brought along the entire family from the China province of Guangdong, Dongguan 东莞 to Ipoh which was the tin-mining capital of Perak State in Malaysia.

Google Image of Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia (LEFT) A photo taken by me while on the road in 2020 when I was back in Ipoh for Chinese New Year visiting right before Covid-19 became serious :| (RIGHT)

On my paternal side, I am a fourth generation Chinese Overseas. My great grandfather hailed from the China province of Fujian, Nan-an 南安 and migrated to the Perak state of Malaysia. They settled in a small village at Termelok 谈不落.

Google Image of Termelok, Perak, Malaysia

As such, the Chinese had formed a significant size of the population in the Malaya by the 20th century. Most of these Chinese tended to congregate, live and work with people of their own kind, meaning people from the same dialect group or hometown Chinese village. Life was relatively peaceful and everyone worked hard for a better living until the outbreak of WWII……

Perceived threat of the Chinese

At that time, one of the few political organisations in pre-war Malaya was the Malayan Communist Party, also known as the MCP. It was a mainly Chinese-dominated political party, hugely influenced by the communism ideology in China. After the defeat of the British from the Japanese invasion in 1941 where the British abandoned the Malaya and retreated their forces, the MCP became the leading force in resisting the Japanese forces. They operated in the Jungles where they plotted and launched anti-Japanese campaigns. Slowly but surely, they attracted more and more Chinese to support their cause and built up a huge formidable fighting force. It united the previously divided Chinese (divided by dialect groups) into one and they shared a common goal of defeating the Japanese. This fighting force then became known as the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA).

Google Image of the MPAJA

During the Japanese occupation of Malaya in 1941, the people in Malaya, especially the Chinese, suffered tremendous hardship. Due to the amount of support that the overseas Chinese had demonstrated for their counterparts in China during the Japanese invasion of China, the Japanese were naturally more wary of the Chinese population than any other races in the Malaya. The Japanese often carried out random killings, arrestments or rapes of females. In most of these cases, the Chinese were singled out and treated more harshly than other races. In an attempt to escape persecution, many Chinese escaped to the forest and resided in squatters. The problem of squatters living were already existent in the pre-war years, however, the Japanese occupation exacerbated this phenomenon.

This in turn contributed to the growth of the MPAJA which was able to obtain a huge mass base from these residents (mostly Chinese) living in squatters to draw food, supplies, intelligence and recruits. By the end of 1944, the MPAJA was backed by a huge base of hundreds of thousands of supporters, most of whom lived in squatters in the rural areas of Malaya.

After the defeat of the Japanese and the end of WWII, the British power returned to rule the Malaya. Now that the Japanese occupation was over, the MPAJA was disbanded and MCP operated as a political party. The MCP had a renewed goal — to destroy the British control. The Japanese occupation marked the first time that an Asian power was able to defeat a Western power. It changed the people’s view that the westerners were more superior and gave them a renewed sense of confidence that they too, could defeat the British power and claim independence. Furthermore, after facing the abandonment of the British power during the WWII, negative resentments amongst the Malayan people towards the British were commonplace. The MCP hence vowed to establish an independent “People’s Democratic Republic” in Malaya and to do that, it had to get rid of the British forces. Therefore, members of the MCP often launched armed guerrilla rebellion and surprise attacks on the British forces. Over time, the MCP proved to be a real threat to the British and the British knew they had to do something about it.

Formation of the New Villages

In June 1948, after the murder of three European plantation managers at Sungai Siput in Perak state, a state of emergency (1948–1960) was declared by the British. This then led to the launch of the Briggs plan. As much of the support given to the MCP were from the Chinese people living in squatters, they soon became the targets of such a systematic operation to defeat the MCP. The Briggs plan involved forced relocations of the people living in these squatters into new villages. This was to prevent the Chinese from providing assistance to the MCP.

Interestingly, this tactic was ironically learned from Mao Zedong’s quote on guerrillas and the masses.

党群关系就像鱼水关系,共产党是鱼,老百姓是水;水里可以没有鱼,鱼永远也离不开水。

The relationship between the masses and the guerrillas: the masses were likened to water and the guerrillas to the fishes who inhabit it. The water can exist without the fishes whereas the fishes cannot exist without the waters. Therefore, the Briggs plan was the anti-guerrilla tactic of “draining the water so the fish can’t swim”.

During the emergency period, a total of 450 New villages across Malaysia were constructed. They could be found in virtually all Malaysian States. The largest New Village in Malaya was in Selangor which had a population of 13 000 people while the smallest was in Kedah with a population of 44. Typically, the average New Village had a population from 100 to 1000.

Screenshot taken from a reference paper.

Of the total population in the New Villages across all states, 86% were Chinese, 9% Malay, 4% Indian and 1% others (Siamese, Javanese, Orang Asli). Most of the resettled people were farmers, tin mining workers, rubber growing workers or shop keepers living in squatters.

Manner of Relocation

Usually, people would be given advanced notice (a few hours before) about their pending relocation. In some cases however, relocations were carried out without warning and people were only given matters of minutes to pack their life belongings before moving to their next area of residence. The relocation operations were often carried out at dawn so that people would be caught by surprise and could not escape from it. The nature of such operations meant that many Chinese had to abandon much of their belongings behind and could only bring with them whatever few valuables they owned that could be packed into bags. The vacated housings and plots of crop-land were then burned and destroyed so that they could not be used by the Communists.

The people were then transported to their new area of residence by trucks provided by the British government. In the new land, each family was then allocated a small plot of land where they then had to use whatever means they could to construct their new family homes. They made use of whatever materials they could get their hands on and received little help from the government in the construction of their new homes. Because such relocations were unpredictable and could happen more than once, most of the houses constructed during this period of time were with materials that were not meant to last long as the Chinese had the perception that they were meant to be temporary housings.

Image from referenced paper

In some cases, families were separated. For instance, parents might arrange for their children to stay with relatives living in another town so that their education would not be disrupted. In other cases, some young people moved into the city to look for jobs or even into the jungles to avoid the resettlement. Sometimes, a “divide and rule” strategy was adopted whereby different houses living in the same area were resettled to different villages so that the neighbours would not end up being in the same New Villages. In the past, it was common for relatives to live in the same area. This strategy meant that families were divided and the people had no say in this matter no matter how frustrated or displeased they were.

In oral interview records, when asked if any squatters refused to move, one respondent replied, “They (the British) have guns, what else can you do?”. From this, we could see that the manner of relocation were done in a brutal, forceful and de-humanising manner.

Lives of the people

Official British discourse portrayed the New Villages as “safe and protected”. They were described as areas of residences with much better living conditions and proper amenities, which was an improvement compared to the squatters that the people once lived in. The relocation was viewed as a step forward towards modernity and progress.

However, the collective memories of the people were vastly different from official records.

As one elderly man summed it up in an oral interview from a referenced paper: “I was happy to know we were going to have our own farming land from the government … I thought we could be protected by the government and kept safe from the Communists … I never thought life behind barbed wire could be like that.” When pressed to elaborate what “that” meant, he emphasised, “Like a concentration camp, lah!”

Given that most New Villages were constructed within a short notice, most of these sites did not have good amenities at the beginning. There was a lack of overseeing administrative staff, money and resources. Furthermore, key drainage and wastage systems were only established properly years after the people moved into the New Village. Nevertheless, most New Villages contained basic facilities such as a police post, dispensary, school, community hall and for villages with severe food restrictions, a communal kitchen.

Screenshot from a reference paper

Furthermore, social policies were imposed in the lives of the people. For example, every individual of over twelve years of age had to register for an identity card which contained a photograph and a thumb print. This identity card would then be used to verify identity by security forces. Households also had to be registered, listing the names, ages and occupations of each member.

The movement of the people were also limited by curfews. There were namely two types of curfews.

  • Gate curfews in which residents had to stay within the barbed wire fence of the New Village between certain timings (Eg, 7pm and 6am).
  • House curfews in which residents could only stay indoors in their homes.

Sometimes when there were any incidents, the British Government would impose long hours of house curfews to “punish” the village which was located closest to the area of the incident. For example, on the 25th March 1952, the MCP guerrillas ambushed a public works department party repairing a water pipeline and it resulted in 12 loss of lives. As a result, a 22-hour long house curfew was imposed as a form of collective punishments on the villagers. The main intention was to scare the villagers into cooperating with the British Government and incite fear amongst them so that they would not support the MCP guerrillas.

Image from a referenced paper

Another form of social control was in the form of food supply. Each household was also allocated a food ration card which determined that amount of food quota they were entitled to purchase and consume. Furthermore, people were not allowed to bring food out of the New Villages to prevent those food supplies to be given to the MCP guerrillas. The level of strictness was such that many of the Chinese rubber tappers who had to leave the New Villages for work everyday had to skip their midday meal as they were banned from carrying food out. This had an adverse impact on their nutritional health. In areas with even stricter policies, a communal kitchen was introduced in which families could only come to a central kitchen to collected their allotted amount of cooked rice and bring home to consume. This strict measure was to prevent the leakage of rice to the Communists since cooked rice had to be consumed within a few hours and were more difficult to smuggle out. The first of such kitchen was set up in the Bahau district of Negeri Sembilan in May 1954.

Image from a referenced paper

Furthermore, body screenings was a regular occurrence. If one had to leave the village, they had to do so by going through the main gate as the entire village was enclosed by barbed wire fences. They had to queue up at the main gate and be subjected to a body screening where an official would search their belongings and clothes for any smuggled goods. In a conservative society, such actions were deemed to be disrespectful and it hurt the dignity of the people. At times, all adults were commanded to congregate at the village public space and walk in a line whereby an informant sitting in a van would be responsible for identifying anyone suspected of committing crimes. If the informant knocked as someone passed by, then that person would be brought into interrogation by the British. No doubt, it was a fearful period of time. Nobody knew who they could trust and everybody had to be extra cautious.

Trapped in the Middle

Contrary to the general consensus that most Chinese were pro-communist and pledged their allegiance to China, many overseas Chinese were in fact trapped in the middle between the British government and the guerilla fighters. In fact, by that period, most Chinese viewed Malaysia as their homeland and had no wish to return to China. All they wanted was to earn a honest living. The British Government mistrusted them while the guerilla fighters intimidated them. Most of the time, they were constantly living in fear of both sides. Unfortunately, these Chinese had to bear the brunt of the British response towards the guerilla fighters and had their lives disrupted in the process.

Impact of the New Villages

Overall, the resettlement operation was a success in contributing to the demise of the MCP. It helped to cut off supply of the MCP by cutting contact between the masses and the guerilla fighters. These rural masses no longer had the potential of a sea in which the guerilla could swim like a fish. However, the operation has deeply influenced and altered the settlement landscape of Malaysia. For those affected, those twelve years from 1948 to 1960 must have been a long and tiring one.

Today’s Context

Image from a referenced paper

Today, Malaysia is an independent country and the Chinese of these New Villages are no longer subjected to the same restrictions. The barbed wire fences have been pulled down and the people are once again allowed to move in and out freely. The houses which were once thought to be “temporary settlements” have lasted longer than expected and even housed several generations of Chinese to come. For many younger Malaysian Chinese, these New Villages are now looked up upon as a place with sweet childhood memories instead of a place where they were once prisoners of. Many of these villages have blossomed into prosperous little towns with bustling village activities. In fact, in recent years, the Malaysian government is looking to channel funds to turn a few selected villages into tourist hotspots.

It is my wish that such an event would not happen anywhere in the future or in other places in the world. I hope that we will remember this history and preserve these New Villages as they serve as a reminder that a nation’s security cannot be taken for granted and bear testament to the resilience of the Chinese people.

The End :)

References

This is a repository of my thoughts on my personal life, my random interests & notes taken down as I navigate my way through the tech world!