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We often hear about the Brits boffo counterinsurgency in Malaysia. But are the British still in Malaysia? Yes, it was a communist insurgency, which they defeated. But they also left, which presumably sapped the nationalist dimension from equation. ~Josh Marshall [1]

As others have pointed out before, the Malayan case is much less encouraging for us, since the communist insurgents [2] came primarily from the Chinese minority and so did not have nearly as much of a popular “sea” in which to swim.  It was more like a small pond.  The Muslim Malay majority was not sympathetic to their goals, and Malay nationalists supported the British effort in exchange for a promise of independence, which made the insurgents’ political marginalisation and defeat much, much easier.  Decolonisation and independence were already in the works, while communist revolution seemed both unnecessary and undesirable to the majority. 

Both Malaya and Vietnamese insurgencies grew out of the resistance to Japanese occupation, but the chief difference was that the Vietminh could appeal to national identity in ways that the communist insurgents in Malaya could not.  In other words, the Malayan insurgency lost in part because it could not count on a nationalist dimension in its fight, since the insurgents were not representing a nationalist cause, but rather an ideological one and one associated with a small minority group.  (Comparing the Malayan and Vietnamese cases seems to confirm Prof. Lukacs’ view that nationalism is the far more powerful and therefore potentially more dangerous modern ideology when compared to socialism and communism.)  Had the British opted to stay in Malaya indefinitely, as the French chose to try to do in Indochina, there might have been a broader-based anti-colonial rebellion, which would have probably been very different in its outcome. 

The Malayan case was also significantly different in the number of insurgents involved:

In the end the conflict involved up to a maximum of 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops against a peak of about 7–8,000 communist guerrillas.

Estimates of the insurgency’s size in Iraq vary, but I have seen figures this year as high as 60,000.  (As I understand this estimate, this refers only to Sunni insurgents.)  That’s seven to eight times the number of insurgents, while we have approximately four times as many soldiers fighting them.  If the optimal size of a counterinsurgency force is 10x larger than that of the insurgents, the British were much closer to the ideal and had the overwhelming support of the majority, and it still took them nine years before the crisis was formally ended.  The lesson from the Malayan experience is that you should fight very unpopular, isolated, highly ideological insurgencies and you should ally with the local nationalists if you want to win.  It is very difficult for a government, especially one backed by a foreign power, to compete with nationalist insurgents in the intensity and credibility of their nationalism.

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2 Comments To "Counterinsurgency"

#1 Comment By ducinaltum On September 19, 2007 @ 5:59 am

No, quite wrong. Although many Western (English largely) historians have made the mistake of viewing the Malayan insurgency as driven largely by a desire to establish a communist client state of Moscow or Bejiing. More and more of the actors in Malaysia and Singapore are giving accounts of this time and they veer wildly from the generally accepted view. Unfortunately many of these are not yet in English but should soon be.

A good place to start would be the First Volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs.

Now to your posts.

First, it is not as if it were the Indians of Malaya who were involved in the insurgency (a very small percentage of the population in both Malaya and Singapore), it was the Chinese, who were almost on par in terms of population with the Malays (if you include Singapore, which one should). Indeed, most of the leadership and funding for the insurgency originated in Singapore.

Second, the insurgency recieved direct or tacit support from a vast number of Chinese throughout Southeast Asia, not because they were ideologically Communist but because they were by and large Chinese nationalists and almost to a man Chinese chauvinists (see any history of Lee Kuan Yew, Chinese language curriculum wars throughout the Peninsula, the early PAP, the establishment and disestablishment of Nanyang University). Their ultimate goal and primary reason for supporting the insurgency was to prevent their domination in a sea of Indonesians/Malay and the ultimate establishment of a Chinese dominated/run state in South Asia (Singapore).

I am an avid reader of my blog, and only have a few critiques.

-A bit armchair historian-ish when it comes to Asia (see my critique of your Thai comment).
-Your comments on the situation in Iraq are well written and quite powerful but perhaps a bit more diversity of topic (it would be great to read more posts on the life issue, your thoughts as an Orthodox on Benedict XVI and his papacy so far, etc….)

Anyway, your blog and everything.

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On September 19, 2007 @ 8:53 am

Of course, I welcome corrections when merited, and I don’t claim any extensive expertise in much of Asian history.

It makes sense that Chinese nationalism would be a strong factor in the insurgency. I should have been more careful in talking about the motivations of the insurgents, and I obviously exaggerated the smallness of the Chinese community. However, the main points would seem to remain intact: the lessons of this insurgency for us are limited because it was limited to the Chinese population and opposed by other ethnicities. Its number of men under arms was small and the insurgency could be effectively politically isolated from a large part of the population.