Wednesday 3 June 2009
The long march home
ALIAS CHIN PENG: MY SIDE OF HISTORY as told to Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor (Media Masters, 2003, 527 pages)
An early chapter begins with a sentence as good as any Dickens opening: “Several months after my 25th birthday, I discovered that I was, in fact, only 23 years old.” If the events of the past had been very different, might Chin Peng (the nom de guerre of Ong Boon Hua, now 85) have become one of our very best writers?
Life was different then. Births weren’t registered efficiently; people made difficult life choices; some of those choices vex us until today. That is why, despite not having made any public statements lately, Chin Peng has become the second-most discussed octogenarian in the country. That’s not surprising because, for over four decades, he led the country’s very first political party.
The Communist Party of Malaya was also the first multi-racial party, although you can see the snag very early on when Chapter 2 is titled “A Chinese boyhood in colonial Malaya.” That well-known colonial strategy of stark racial demarcation also ensured that the CPM never really succeeded in expanding its reach, and this proved one of the factors that led to its marginalisation.
Chin Peng has lived in our popular imaginations as all sorts of things, and it’s with a sense of shock that we discover that he’s just a man. I also hadn’t counted on this book, whose very title is intelligently aware of narrative subjectivity, to strike the occasional droll note: recollecting his boyhood membership of a church choir, he says that he probably could still sing Christian songs now -- “if my life depended on it.”
I had looked forward to his account of the killing of the Sungai Siput planters, the event which triggered the Emergency. Although he says it was done without his knowledge, and that he regretted that the youngest planter was targetted (he was a new arrival in Malaya and couldn’t have known much), he ends the section with: “The deaths of the other two were acceptable.” No longer droll, just chilling.
Then again, these were people at war. The Emergency was merely a euphemism for the longest undeclared war in Commonwealth history, with tolls on both sides. Within the context of armed revolution, a white planter embodies precisely the type of capitalist exploitation that needed to be eliminated.
We have become subconsciously used to the idea of British rule as not only relatively benign but, given the circumstances of the time, somehow natural. Thus, the wounded and dead who fought on behalf of the colonial elite are protecting “the rest of us” while anyone else becomes, well, unnatural. It seems almost impossible now to imagine that if history had gone the other way (and in the decade after WWII, communism was seen as a global force not only by its supporters) we would have very different ideas of heroes and villains.
Among the rich cast of characters, the British soldier John Davis, who formed an alliance with the communists to get rid of the Japanese, emerges particularly vividly, as does the book’s villain, the triple-agent Lai Te. The unlikely friendship between Davis and Chin Peng points to how people could be ideologically opposed but still respect each other. This is something few of us appreciate nowadays.
No politician should stay in power so long, and the second half of the CPM’s active existence did indeed see the group unravelling through internal bickering and witch-hunts. But it’s the stubborn pride of its leaders that resisted a total surrender; after all, pride was one of the few things they had left.
The last chapters detail the long road to freedom...or at least out of the proverbial and literal jungle. He stops short of calling Mahathir our Mandela, but Chin Peng acknowledges the 1989 peace accord between the governments of Malaysia and Thailand as well as the CPM as a model of a dignified settlement.
It appeared that we could finally set aside our respective hurts and just move along. After all, nations with arguably more traumatic pasts, like South Africa, could reconcile their divisions, so why can’t we? Just as we shouldn’t forget history, we shouldn’t be strangled by it either.
Respect the promises we made two decades ago, and let the guy come home. There's a word for people who break their promises -- and that word is far dirtier than 'communist' ever will be.
(Malay Mail, 3 June)