The Malayan Emergency 1948-1960

Causes and general description

The Malayan Emergency was a conflict between communist guerrillas and British Commonwealth forces including Australians. The guerrillas, most of whom were Malayan Chinese, were seeking to overthrow the British colonial administration in Malaya. The term 'Emergency' is used to describe the conflict because on 18 June 1948 the British declared a State of Emergency in Malaya after guerrillas assassinated three European plantation managers in the northern state of Perak.

The Malayan Emergency arose from political and ideological uncertainty in Asia following the Second World War, and from a long-standing antipathy between the British and the Malayan Chinese. Moreover, when the British resumed control after the war, the new administration failed to act firmly or consistently to solve social and economic problems in Malaya. The administration's initial response to escalating violence on the part of the communists was also indecisive.

The Malayan Union Proposals were the immediate cause of this violence. In 1946 the British announced the proposals, which would have led to the granting of citizenship to the Malayan Chinese. The proposals were, however, extremely unpopular with the wider Malay population, so the British withdrew them. This about-face enraged the Malayan Chinese, some of whom, abandoning protests and strikes, began a campaign of violence that included intimidation, sabotage, and selective assassination. And in 1948 the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), attempting to redirect this violence, decided to convert the struggle against the British into a rural guerrilla war.

Although the assassinations of 1948 led to the declaration of a State of Emergency, the British only appointed a Director of Operations, Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs, in 1950. Briggs completed a report that recommended both active anti-guerrilla operations and cutting the guerrillas off from communities likely to help them, as well as a systematic clearance of Malaya from the south to the north. Yet the assassination of the High Commissioner Sir Henry Guerney on October 1951 still suggested that, from a British perspective, the situation was continuing to deteriorate.

According to western accounts, the pivotal point in the conflict was the appointment in January 1952 of General Sir Gerald Templer as British High Commissioner and Director of Operations. During his two-year command in Malaya the energetic Templer carried out Briggs' recommendations including the controversial resettlement of many rural Chinese into 'new villages.' Templer also offered the guerrillas rewards and other incentives to surrender.

As early as 1951, however, the MCP leadership was beginning to think that moving to a full-scale guerrilla war had been a mistake. From the mid-1950s communist leaders such as Chin Peng realised that they could not win, and began to press for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Nevertheless, peace talks held over a three-month period from December 1955 failed, not least because of the strong stance taken by British-backed Malayan representatives such as Tunku Abdul Rahman, who would only consider an unconditional surrender by the guerrillas.

When Malaya became an independent federation in August 1957 with Tunku Abdul Rahman as Prime Minister, the avowed anti-colonialism of the communist cause became meaningless. Indeed, the new government was now able to call the struggle against the guerrillas 'the People's War.' The struggle itself was effectively over by 1958 when the last significant group of guerrillas still at large in Malaya surrendered at Telok Anson in Perak, and others fled north into the remote areas near – and across – the border with Thailand. The Malayan government did not, however, declare an end to the State of Emergency until 31 July 1960. By that time 6,700 guerrillas, 1,800 Malayan and Commonwealth troops, and more than 3,000 civilians had lost their lives in the conflict.


Last updated: 18 January 2019

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