“CHACK! Chack! Cheep! Cheep!“ A small jungle bird calls out to its mate in the distance. The male bird resplendent in its brilliant mating plumage continues singing, while ignoring the group of more than 20 men in green skulking amidst the tall grass directly beneath it.
Like the soldiers, the green barbet is perfectly camouflaged against the lush tropical rainforest. The soldiers lie perfectly still.
Despite just having arrived in Malaya days ago, the intense tropical heat and high humidity do not bother the South Pacific islanders at all. These battle-hardened troops are determined to help Malaya win the war against its aggressors.
Suddenly, without warning, the bird stops singing and takes flight. It vanishes in a flash of green, obviously startled by something approaching. Alerted by the fleeing bird, the soldiers‘ muscles tense as they grip their rifles tighter in anticipation of an impending battle.
They don‘t have to wait long. A few minutes later, a communist terrorist patrol emerges into the clearing in front of the waiting Fijian soldiers.
Their informer was correct and the hours spent lying motionless in mosquito-infested bushes have paid off. The soldiers open fire as soon as the bandits come within range. The first volley brings down seven enemy soldiers. The next round kills another four. By then, the element of surprise has worn off.
The three remaining bandits dive for cover but they‘re in for a big surprise. Their relentless Fijian aggressors‘ fighting skills are unlike any other opponents they‘ve encountered in the past. The soldiers start advancing as soon as the gun battle ends. Having run out of ammunition, the bandits brace themselves for hand to hand combat.
As a last ditch attempt to gain leverage, the terrorists lunge at the Fijian soldiers closest to them. Instead of firing at point-blank range, the Fijian soldiers flip over their rifles, grab them by the tip of their barrels and swing them around like war clubs, in a move exactly like their warring ancestors in the past.
The heavy rifle stocks crash against the men‘s skulls and knock them out cold. During the melee, a Fijian soldier drops his cap badge. It falls to the ground unnoticed and is thought to be lost forever.
LOST AND FOUND
Fast forward 65 years later, a collector who‘s out looking for old embossed bottles happens to be at the exact same spot where the skirmish happened in 1952. Six and a half decades is a long time. The once-dense jungle has transformed into a village which was established in the 1960s.
Khairulnajah Ibrahim removes the leaf litter and starts working the ground with a spade. Unfortunately there aren‘t any bottles to be found. Then just as he‘s about to give up, a glistening metallic object half buried in the mud, catches his eye.
Khairul, as he‘s known to his friends, has, against all odds, unearthed the Fijian soldier‘s missing cap badge. Still oblivious to its significance, he cleans the badge and posts photographs of it on Facebook.
Coincidentally I was online at that moment and recognised the badge instantly. We exchange several private messages and Khairul manages to send this little object out by the last Pos Laju shipment before the courier company closes for Hari Raya.
I study the badge closely. The worn-out insignia depicts a lion resting on a crown. At the back is the maker‘s mark: J. R. Gaunt London. Remnants of dried mud all over the badge lend credence to Khairul‘s story of how he discovered this small piece of faded metal.
Holding it in my palm, my thoughts flit back to the time when the communists started their armed uprising against the government in 1948. Their guerrilla tactical warfare caught everyone by surprise. Their victories during the early years of the Emergency led many to believe that the former Malayan People‘s Anti-Japanese Army was fast gaining an upper hand.
THE TROOPS COME MARCHING IN
Things only started to change when the British commanders sought the help of Commonwealth forces to bolster the existing British and Malayan units. Apart from Fiji, troops began pouring in from Australia, New Zealand, Nyasaland and Rhodesia.
Prior to their arrival in Malaya, the troops from Fiji had already gained fame as fearless jungle fighters during the Second World War. The Fijians served under the American
command during the Solomon Islands campaign.
Together with the other Allied troops, the Fijian forces fought tooth and nail to finally defeat the Japanese Imperial Forces at Guadalcanal.
By mid-1943, the Japanese naval and air forces had been weakened enough to allow the Allied forces to recapture the Philippines and cut off Japan from its crucial resource areas in the Netherlands East Indies.
The Fiji military forces left their homeland on January 1952, initially on a commission for two years but due to their dedication and string of successes, this was later extended to four.
By 1953, there were 850 Fijians in Malaya fighting the communists. This represented 0.6 per cent of the total Fijian population!
At their base in Johor, these soldiers showed exceptional bravery and skill in jungle warfare. They earned the respect of the other Commonwealth forces, prompting one Malayan commander to state: “Of all the troops of many races who have been for a long time fighting the communist menace in Malaya, none have earned greater respect, admiration and affection than the 1st Battalion Fiji Infantry Regiment.“
During their four-year tour of duty in the dense jungles of Batu Pahat, Muar and Pontian, the soldiers killed 175 bandits, captured three and brought back one surrendered jungle insurgent.
In recognition of their valour, the men received countless medals including two Orders of the British Empire, one Member of the British Empire, one British Empire Medal, two Military Crosses, two Distinguished Conduct Medals, five Military Medals and 24 Mentions in Despatches. Not even the fearless Gurkha soldiers could come close to such an impeccable record.
Sadly, 25 Fijian troops died during combat in Malaya. Looking on the bright side, friendships on and off the battlefield had been forged. Malaya‘s first Prime Minister and Father of Independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, became a friend and mentor to Ratu Sir Edward Cakobau, who was a commander in the Fijian Battalion.
Cakobau later became the Deputy PM of Fiji and his son, Brigadier General Ratu Epeli, became the President of Fiji.
A NEW WAR TACTIC
The British soon realised that sheer brute force alone was not enough to bring the communists to their knees. A psychological warfare masterminded by a pragmatic and highly intelligent Malayan finally drove the nail into the Chin Peng-led insurgent.
Born Too Chee Choo, he was nicknamed C. C. Too by two American Office of Strategic Services officers who had trouble remembering his full name. Too was described as a clear and fast thinker, with photographic memory, magnetic gaze and oratorical skills.
He joined the Emergency Information Service in February 1952 and soon initiated a study of the enemy‘s mentality and strategy. Too asked to see every captured document for what he would call “study and research“.
His ultimate goal was to know more about the communists and their theories then they knew themselves. He realised that he could anticipate the actions of the enemy once he was able to think like them.
The turning point in the war on terror happened when Too pointed out that it was more important to propagandise the people than the insurgents. His weapons were not guns and grenades. Instead, his most effective arsenal comprised the press, radio, leaflets and other forms of communication including booklets and magazines.
He strongly believed that the war would soon end if he could convince the people that they were better off with the government rather than with a communist dictatorship.
To help bolster that fact, the British High Commissioner Sir Gerald Templer granted automatic Malayan citizenship en masse to 2,727,000 Malays and Aborigines, 1,157,000 Chinese and 222,000 Indians in 1953.
Among Too‘s ideas that were considered novel at the time was one using light yellow and deep brown earthy colours for leaflets to be strewn near streams and rivers. These colours would camouflage the messages and allow the communists to steal glances at them without attracting attention from their comrades.
Too‘s main idea was to turn the communists who had joined the insurgence believing that they were fighting for a better world.
Interestingly, he didn‘t hate nor seek out to track and kill them. He wanted to address them through leaflets and via radio to drive home the point that they could better help the people by returning to the government. Too welcomed defectors, treated them well and used their testimonies to convince their comrades to re-join society.
In the closing days of the Emergency, the British started changing their military tactics. The army was no longer a centralised fighting force.
The government realised that in guerilla warfare, there were no fixed battle lines. Patrols, ambushes and “hunting-squads“ like those conducted by the Fijian soldiers in Johor evolved to become a main military organisation.
Encounters with the bandits were no longer by chance but were made possible through deliberate action and systematic planning. The Malayan jungle war transformed essentially into an infantry war which finally drew to a close on July 31, 1960.