A few months ago, a group of Malaysian senior citizens smuggled an item across the Thai border and spirited it down to the northern state of Perak.
Then, a few weeks ago, the same group took the surprise decision to make their deed public, reopening old wounds that had taken a long time to heal.
The group could have – and many have argued should have – kept its actions a secret, but it comprised followers of Chin Peng, the late leader of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which waged an insurgency campaign against the government from 1948 to 1989.
The followers had brought back Chin Peng’s ashes to be scattered in his home state of Perak 30 years after the government signed a peace agreement with the CPM.
Chin Peng, real name Ong Boon Hua, was a committed anti-colonialist and communist, born in Sitiawan, in what is now northern Malaysia, in 1924.
He rose through the ranks of the CPM during World War II, fighting as a guerrilla during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, taking over the leadership of the party in the first couple of years after hostilities ended.
However, the peace in Malaya was fragile at best.
Even before the war, the British knew the empire was coming to an end and were making steps to slowly reduce their global footprint.
Six years of worldwide conflict had left a bankrupt UK on its knees, so those initial steps towards ending the empire turned to a steady canter after the Japanese defeat in August 1945.
London began the process of devolving power in Malaya to a locally run administration with a view to pulling out completely and rolled out a new Malayan Federation plan in 1948, but it was a federation biased heavily in favor of Malay elites.
So, in view of his wartime service and that he had been decorated a number of times by the British, an incensed Chin Peng instigated a series of labour union strikes.
In response, the British cracked down on the unions and it wasn’t long before the situation turned ugly, with strikes and civil disobedience replaced by beatings and murder.
Chin Peng always vigorously denied any part in the violence of those early days, but the killing of three plantation owners in Sungai Siput made him public enemy no. 1 regardless, with a $250,000 bounty on his head.
It also prompted the British to declare a state of emergency and an armed insurrection followed.
Based in camps straddling the then Malaya-Thailand border, communist guerrillas would plague the peninsula on and off until 1989, when they finally sat down with the (now) Malaysian and Thai governments to sign a lasting peace deal at Hat Yai.
During the emergency, there was a lull in operations after the British left in 1957 — one of the CPM’s goals achieved — but renewed in 1960 when the Soviet Union began providing military support to North Vietnam.
With communism seemingly on the ascendancy, the CPM saw an opportunity.
CPM insurgents would number some 3,000 men and women at the peak of popularity, dropping to as few as 300 at its lowest. Members included ethnic Chinese, and Malays from southern Thailand and the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan.
However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and with it support for communism worldwide, the CPM became an anachronism, with dwindling numbers and virtually no public support.
While the Hat Yai agreement allowed Chin Peng and other CPM leaders to return to Malaysia and fade quietly into uneventful lives, Chin Peng was actually left out in the cold.
Unable to provide documentation to prove his citizenship, he remained in exile in Thailand until his death, despite numerous appeals.
Yet, even though his comrades faded into obscurity, this communist leader left a lasting impact on Malaysian life.
His return — or, more correctly, the return of his ashes — caused an uproar, and multiple complaints were filed with the police up and down the country, with the investigation into the whys and wherefores ongoing.
Such was the depth of feeling that a fist fight broke out in parliament when opposition MP Tajuddin Abdul Rahman casually quipped that RSN Rayer — an MP from the government coalition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and an ethnic Indian who had just come from temple — had marked his forehead with Chin Peng’s ashes.
The two MPs had to be pulled apart. Their brawl also took on a deeply ironic character, as it occurred right under the noses of the visiting delegation from the Communist Party of China, which had been invited to observe “civilized” Malaysian politics in action.
However, in this incident lies the crux of the matter.
Compared to the rise of communism in other Asian nations and the human cost, the Malayan Emergency was small in scale.
At its peak the CPM numbered 3,000 men, but this was only for short periods of time. The movement never seriously challenged the stability of the government.
Yet, it was how the government at the time portrayed the CPM to the public — a Chinese menace — that has shaped sentiments to this day.
During the early years, Communist China vocally supported the rebellion, even if it did not supply arms.
From independence in 1957 to 2018, Malaya and (from 1963) Malaysia was under the thumb of the Malay nationalist party, the United Malays National Organization (Umno), of which Tajuddin is a member.
By the end of hostilities, the CPM was overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese in make-up, with the 1969 race riots helping to shape this demographic.
However, according to some estimates, up to 1960, the CPM was at least 40 percent Malay.
On top of which, since 1989, various Malay leaders have recognized and even lauded Malays for their part in the CPM, commenting that they helped hasten the end of colonial rule.
Nevertheless, with a liberal dose of double-standards, the Umno-led government sought to demonize the rebellion, the ethnic Chinese for their part in it and, by extension the DAP, which was the mainstay of the opposition and an overwhelmingly Chinese-majority party.
Even now, Tajuddin’s outburst in the house is evidence that, while it may not be official party policy, there is still the need for Umno to undermine the credibility of the DAP and fuel Malay mistrust of Chinese influence in the new government.
Umno leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has not apologized for Tajuddin’s behavior, and has rather milked it for political capital, attempting to drive a deeper wedge between the Malay and Chinese communities with trademark racial polemics.
Such are ethnic sensitivities in Malaysia, it requires very little in the way of a spark to ignite a dispute.
So, while Chin Peng’s followers may have thought they were fulfilling a dying request, possibly even a final thumbing of the nose at the Malaysian government, the country is still too consumed by race to even care about the politics of ideology.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LICAS News.