The Forgotten Archives of Malay Communism

View of the Ka'ba, Mecca, by Muhammad Sadiq Bey, c.1880 As far as historical subjects go, the Tenth Regiment communists are like ghosts of ghosts. Established on 21 May 1949 in the jungles of Pahang on peninsular Malaya, the Tenth Regiment was the only Malay-majority regiment of the Malayan National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). They were exiled just four years after their birth, pressed northward by British forces in a 'strategic retreat' to the Malayan-Thai border. The Communists lost one armed struggle against the British, then a second against the independent Malaysian government. The peace treaty they finally signed on 2 December 1989 ended four decades of protracted war. They lived those four decades like shadows: guerrillas exiled in a foreign jungle. Today, they are the evil demons of nationalist historiography: ghosts in a postcolonial historical record that is loath to recognise them. And as Malay Communists, the Tenth Regiment guerrillas are ghosts of ghosts within Malayan Communism itself, for it is a movement often seen as one almost entirely dominated by Chinese.

But one can find some tangible record of their existence. The Tenth Regiment Archive (itself in exile, in Amsterdam), is a rich source for writing their history, particularly from a cultural angle, as well as in the context of the global Cold War.  In these archives, we find polemical pamphlets; dramatic retellings of the glorious battles of the Tenth Regiment; music scripts for revolutionary fireside sing-alongs; cartoons; handwritten novellas; poetry and prose; revolutionary dance instructions; news reports on China and other parts of the world; frustrated commentaries on the neocolonialism of postcolonial Malaysia; and numerous translations of Chinese and Russian Communist texts into romanised and Arabic-script Malay, from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Mao.

Yet one often finds that even here in these tangible archives, the historical record seems to grasp at shadows. The archive is saturated with nostalgia. It is a feast of defiant memories clung to in the face of creeping failure. Past battles told and retold; bygone glories relived, bygone defeats glossed. Pamphlet upon pamphlet of elegy: the fierce, proud mourning of the battle-fallen and the revolution's martyrs. Together, these documents weave a complex picture of Malayan communism in exile, but one necessarily gleaned from a web of perspectives—first-hand memories, second-hand reportage, third-hand commemorations, fourth-hand extracts of earlier reportage, and so on. It is an archive thus marked by complex subjectivities, ghostly unto itself: an archive marked by degrees of truth-displacement.

One document may serve to illustrate this: a letter, written by communist cadre Suriani Abdullah circa 1971, which was republished in June 1981 in the Suara Revolusi Malaya, and then issued from there in printed pamphlet form by the CPM's Pejabat Kebenaran in October 1981. This pamphlet is the document we find in the archive (pictured). In their prefatory comments to the letter, the Suara Revolusi Malaya editors wrote: 'This letter is extremely old. But despite this, it contains a special historical meaning for the Tenth Regiment as well as the many patriots among us, and should be studied carefully for its valuable lessons.'

Suriani's letter is a report on an 'exhibition of historical memories' which was put on display (it is not clear where) in October 1970 and again in October 1971. The exhibition was organised by the Tenth Regiment to commemorate the army's 'great revolutionary tradition' of Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought. In Suriani's telling, the exhibition featured a handful of everyday items which had been, in the world of guerrilla exile, freighted with symbolic meaning and value. Some are less prosaic than others: revolutionary books gifted to the Tenth Regiment by 'our respected and beloved leader' Chin Peng, for example. Others are, one cannot help but observe, absurdly prosaic. A small rusted knife represented one comrade's revolutionary upbringing at a Marxist school. A 'historic whistle': a fragment from the great Battle of Jalan Chenor of August 1949. A 22-year-old shred of cloth: a glorious remnant from the Tenth Regiment's Long March that had somehow survived being borne up and down the Cameron Highlands, through the rivers of Perak and Pahang, and through many battles, bombings and party hardships. A tiny pin, it is painstakingly explained, symbolised a year of comity with the Orang Asli during the Long March. Other plebeian objects: a spoon, a comb, a broken carbine from a victorious battle, each with their glorious, invented histories.

These items were assembled into an exhibition to sustain a unique Malay communist revolutionary memory, within which a seam of international Communism ran alongside a fierce local—dare we say national?—pride. Their prosaic character is testament to the social realities of exile and displacement: of material deprivation, of life in the jungle and on the run, and of the deeply human need to create meaning, particularly in the face of an ideology being slowly, devastatingly unmade. But we glimpse all this through the layers of complex, hazy historical vision that encase the Tenth Regiment archive. In the case of Suriani's letter, we glimpse the Tenth Regiment's experience of flight and exile through the republication of a letter ten years after it was written from memory: a letter which tells the story of an exhibition of ghostly objects, themselves vested with ghostly revolutionary memories of a communist regiment in exile. All of this, collected in an archive itself in exile—from Malaysia, as well as from the master narrative of Malaysian history. These are archives of mobility, par excellence.

And yet, despite the elusiveness of Malaysian communism in the mainstream record, and despite the marginality of the Tenth Regiment and its archive, both have been much more central to the making of modern Malaysia than its history has so far allowed. It is sometimes said that historians too often reach for the marginal: or in less kind terms, that in their intellectual fearfulness born of an upbringing in the ivory tower, they often go for the capillary rather than the jugular. But in going for the ghostly capillary of the Tenth Regiment archive, one might find that what one has gotten hold of is in fact the very real jugular of the nation, a story that connects right to the beating heart of Malaysian history.

The Tenth Regiment Archive is held at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. If you are interested in this archive and would like to discuss collaboration possibilities, you'd be very welcome to drop me a line at rl341 AT cam DOT ac DOT uk.


Rachel Leow
University Lecturer in Modern East Asian History
Cambridge University

Added May 2014