The last communist in the cinema
For about 11 years from June 1948, peninsular Malaya
experienced a low-grade insurgency between communist guerrillas and British, Australian and New Zealand forces. The communist side was led by
Chin Peng, now the subject of Amir Muhammad's film The Last
Communist (Lelaki Komunis Terakhir)
Chin Peng was born in a small town called Sitiawan, in 1924, at a time when anti-colonial consciousness was just beginning. It was also a period when the Chinese community in Malaya still identified with the Chinese motherland, such that when the Japanese invaded China in 1931, a sense of outrage took hold among the Malayan Chinese. There was active mobilisation of support among overseas Chinese to help the resistance effort "back home" in China, which in turn heightened a local consciousness against the analogous British imperial rule in Malaya.
In China itself, the resistance to the Japanese was split between the Kuomintang and the Communists, a divide that was reflected among the Malayan Chinese. By the time Chin Peng was 14, he was clearly leaning to the communist side. By age 16, he was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).
The British kept tabs on the growing networks of the CPM, viewing them with suspicion, though more and more, the greater concern was the Japanese. On 8 December 1941, the latter made surprise landings on the coasts of Pattani, Kelantan and Trengganu, and within 2 months, the British were driven out of Malaya.
Only the CPM, with its underground cells, was in any position to disrupt Japanese rule. The British provided what little material aid they could via furtive submarine missions unloading supplies in the shallow coastal waters.
At that time, the CPM was led by an ethnic Vietnamese, Lai Te. The party, however, drew its support mainly from Chinese villages all over Malaya, though they did have some support from the Malay and Indian communities too. Despite that, communism tended to be a Chinese-identified movement in Malaya, which would prove to be its Achilles heal.
The relationship between the British and the CPM during the Second World War was no more than a marriage of convenience. As soon as the Japanese surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the British colonial army came back and re-occupied Malaya.
Soon after the British returned to Malaya, Lai Te was discovered to be a triple agent. He was soon "eliminated". At the age of 23, Chin Peng took over as leader of the CPM.
A year later, on 16 June 1948, three British plantation owners were killed by the CPM, an incident that triggered the declaration of a State of Emergency. Many CPM members were rounded up by the British, while the rest fled into the jungle where they regrouped. At this point in time, they had about 3,000 – 5,000 men.
Army patrols were sent to weed them out from their hide-outs, but more importantly, the government fenced up many Chinese villages, allowing the residents out to tend their farms only in daylight. By doing so, they made it extremely difficult for the guerrillas to obtain food and supplies from even sympathetic villagers. Within 3 years, the CPM insurgency lost its initiative, and soon after, the CPM relocated their main bases to southern Thailand, for greater safety. By 1960, their ranks had been decimated; the film suggests that as many as 75% died.
Malaya gained independence from Britain in 1957, and as time passed and economic growth doused the hunger for revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order, the CPM fighters camped just across the border became an irrelevance.
* * * * *
The communists were equally active in Singapore in the 1940s and 1950s. Unlike in Malaya, where they were mostly active in the small towns and villages, in urban Singapore, they adopted the classic strategy of winning over industrial and other workers. Many trade unions were communist-infiltrated, while students from the Chinese-stream schools were also prominent in the vanguard of street protests.
Through this period there were numerous strikes and other forms of labour agitation. From time to time, public transport was paralysed. Even schools came to a halt when students called for sit-ins.
Like in Malaya, the communist movement was also Chinese-identified in Singapore. In fact it was the same movement, for at the time, no one saw Singapore as separate from Malaya.
* * * * *
Within the Cathay cineplex, one hall is posher than the rest. It is branded as "The Picturehouse" and is meant for art films and serious documentaries. Amir Muhammad's The Last Communist was screened there.
There were only 25 people in the audience. About 2 in 3 of them looked to me like academics and graduate students. Neat, clean, dressed conservatively but informally, with a hint of unconventional flair.
But 7 or 8 people in the theatre looked like they came from a different world. They were middle-aged men with pot bellies, some with glasses whose frames were 2 seasons out of date. They had thin satiny polo shirts with tired collars, the same kind one sees among those queuing in the betting lanes at the Turf Club.
As soon as they sat down, they removed their sandals, as if footwear was an encumbrance to be relieved of as soon as possible.
One guy in particular looked around repeatedly as if hoping that the surroundings might become more familiar with each turn of the head. Of course, they didn't. The large bucket seats, the plush carpet, soft designer lighting and the music -– lyrical songs in the style of Andrea Bocelli or Russell Watson -– all spelt Westernised capitalist elite.
Finally, he gave up with looking around and tried to make himself at home while waiting for the film to begin. He started to sing along, aloud, with the music. He didn't know the words -- they were in French and Italian, for heaven's sake -– so he went la la la and ya ya yo. All in a desperate attempt to convince himself that he owned the space, and that he wasn't a fish out of water.
* * * * *
The Last Communist is not a historical documentary, though
it roughly follows a chronological path. It doesn't interview the now
82-year-old Chin Peng; it doesn't even show him. Instead it's an
exploration of the landscape from which Chin Peng and the communist
movement emerged, yet also an exploration of how that landscape -– social
and developmental, rather than physical -– has changed. Or not.
The localities that the film visits, mostly in the Perak region of Malaysia where Chin Peng's formative years were spent, are nothing like the urban, industrial Malaysia of Kuala Lumpur and its surrounds that we more often have in mind; the former areas still have the feel of a neglected backwater. The people still speak in a babel of Chinese dialects, unrefined Malay and Tamil... and one man speaks in a slightly stilted, self-important form of English that went out of fashion 30 years ago. The camera shows us a Malaysia that is race-fractured still, even though one young man who looks obviously Malay, chose to speak in Chinese Hokkien.
Yet, when the interviewees speak, one realises that something has changed. There isn't anymore an astringency in the throat that may convey a feeling of political outrage; quite the opposite, the film suggests that there is hardly any memory of the passions and sacrifices of just 1 or 2 generations ago.
In making the film, Amir revisited the small towns that were milestones in Chin Peng's early life. At each stop, he got a few townspeople to talk about themselves and their livelihoods. Some interviews were relevant to the overarching narrative, but others were less so. The guy who ran a bicycle shop just like Chin Peng's father did, referred to how motorbikes and cars were pushing his trade to the margins. The woman who worked as a pest-fumigator and fruit harvester at the plantation where the 3 killings occurred on 16 June 1948, told us she knew nothing of the history of the spot; she could only speak about her hopes for her children. But at other stops the interviews seemed to go too far off on a tangent. Getting townsfolk to talk about petai leaves' health benefits or how charcoal is made added little to the story. I really wanted to hear what they thought of their lives, their families' past and future.
It seems The Last Communist was telling us, roving around Perak, that there's little trace left of the CPM and its insurgency. An amnesia has settled in. A degree of contentment in the new Malaysia has taken over where revolutionary zeal once flourished.
Then, in the middle part of the film, the interviews got closer to the action. Sallehuddin recounted how as a teenager, he was first recruited by the communists, then by the British, eventually betraying his uncle and cousin to the authorities for a then-princely sum of one thousand Malayan Dollars. Yet even here, the interview left important angles unexplored. How did Malays, as Sallehuddin was, fit into a Chinese-dominated movement? What feelings did he have about betraying family? Not asked.
The last part of the film was the best. Here the camera moved to the Betong district in Southern Thailand, where after signing a peace agreement with the Kuala Lumpur government in 1989, the remaining members of the movement laid down their arms. They could choose to return to Malaysia or, with the help of the Thai government, settle down in 4 "peace villages" on the Thai side.
It was said that 2 of these villages were for the Chinese, and 2 for the Malays. This was intriguing, for these guys must have fought together for decades, yet at the end, race, language and religion continued to divide them. Why? Unfortunately, this was not explored. The interviews were all on the Chinese side. We don't get to hear from the Malay ex-CPM villages. Perhaps, in truth, there were none?
Staying in one (Chinese) village, the film featured a number of men and one woman speaking about themselves on camera, often gesticulating with their amputated limbs. They didn't much cover thier battle experiences, but spoke more about how they saw their fate today. They still believe that their insurgency made the British sick of staying on in Malaya, and thus, that they catalysed the events that led to the present, independent Malaysia.
Now however, they are cut off, for after the initial amnesty, the Malaysian government has not allowed any to visit their hometowns across the border. Thus, they are stuck here in Thailand living off what rubber they can tap and what fruits they can bring to market.
We see them at an evening concert, where once more, revolutionary songs are sung on stage -– in Chinese. We see their drug store, with little more than some herbal cures.
But most poignant to me were the 3 or 4 minutes when the camera dwelled on their "bookshop" - just a glass counter with a few Chinese books, mostly extolling the historical correctness and heroism of the communist movement in China and Southeast Asia. I had the sense that the glass counter was there for the benefit of middle-aged day tourists bussed up from across the Malaysian border, former sympathisers now wanting a souvenir or two, particularly if the souvenir also reassured them that the romance of their youth was not faith misplaced after all.
It should break anyone's heart that earnest men and women should spend 40 years in the jungle, see three out of every four comrades die of horrible wounds and disease, only to end up as curiosities for the occasional busload of camera-toting countrymen, but alas, it's a story all too common in human experience.
The "detritus of history" fits like a glove.
Perhaps that's why, knowing that, many of us justify to ourselves resolute fence-sitting on the great political issues of the day, casting our lot only when the winning side becomes clear. And if that be a sin, why, history will surely grant us absolution.
© Yawning Bread