Political Policing: from Britain to Malaysia
Writer: Yin Shao Loong
Published: Fri, 04 May 2012
Malaysian culture abounds with myths about the undead and other seen spectres. Occupying a similar twilit space on the periphery of our senses are the secret police, the Special Branch (SB), who serve as the eyes and ears of government. Like ghosts and spooks, political police are part of the Malaysian milieu, appearing as figures of mystery and fear.
Yet, unlike the undead, it is not the product of cosmic laws, magic, or supernatural phenomena, they are the product of human decisions and struggles for power. In short, they have a history, one that largely remains obscure to the uninitiated, but several scholarly works in recent years have furnished us with the basis for deepening our understanding of the Branch and its role in history.
Looking at comparative histories of the London, Singapore-Straits Settlements and Malayan SBs, their development has moved from agencies countering anti-imperialist movements to a broader role suppressing political opposition and dissent in general.
The First Branch
The Special Branch’s story does not start in Malaya, or even in Singapore. It begins in London, the heart of the British Empire.
The London Metropolitan Police SB was founded in 1883, some five years after the first Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was established. The CID was the detective, non-uniformed branch of the police. It laboured under a cloud of suspicion in mid-Victorian England due to the nature of its work: undercover surveillance and extensive socialisation with what were considered to be the dregs of humanity.
At the time it was thought best to keep policing separate from politics. Political police were quite prevalent in continental Europe – the French gendarme was an infamous figure of state surveillance – but Britain had up to then not embarked on that path due to the success of other methods of social control, such as education.
The mid-Victorians prided themselves on the liberalism which reigned in Britain, but they also had an empire that was ran on conservative lines.
This was an Empire that, by the mid-1800’s, was being wracked by incidents of revolt: the Indian ‘Mutiny’ in the 1850s and ‘60s; black revolts in Jamaica in 1865; and, the Irish Republican, or Fenian, outbreak in Ireland in 1867.
Unlike the locally-embedded constabulary system of policing in England, the police in colonial Ireland and India were national, barracked away from the rest of the population, heavily armed, and were accustomed to using spies and paid informants.
Two factors were to change the political policing situation in Britain by the 1880s: 1) the social malaise and unrest following the economic depression of the ‘70s; and, 2) the American Fenian bombing campaign of 1881-85.
The Fenians were fighting for Irish home rule and the ouster of the British colonial presence. After the failure of plans to develop an Irish submarine to sink British ships the Fenians turned to a bombing strategy based on the use of dynamite, which had been made viable owing to Alfred Nobel’s innovations of 1867.
Hence barracks, public buildings such as town halls, the offices of The Times newspaper, and the government offices in Whitehall were targeted with bombs.
These campaigns of ‘terrorism’ eventually resulted in the formation of the London Metropolitan Police’s Special Irish Branch, which became the first SB. It was staffed mainly by officers from the colonies, particularly Ireland and India, i.e. men who were used to a rougher sort of policing than was common in England.
The SB started out focusing on political subversion and counter-terrorism – opposing Fenians and other radical groups such as anarchists and working class movements – but they soon started harassing more moderate movements such as the suffragettes (in 1913 they arrested Emmeline Pankhurst), and the Legitimation League, which was committed to remove the stigma of bastardy from illegitimate children. In the latter case, SB officers were concerned that the League was going to promote universal bastardy and sought ways to undermine it. Some SB officers also took it upon themselves to counter what they perceived to be the promotion of homosexuality.
We can see a similar expansion of the SB’s mandate beyond its original role of countering anti-imperialist bombing tactics in the Malayan, Singaporean and Malaysian cases.
The Straits Settlements (Singapore) Branch
The Singapore SB was formed in 1918 as the CID of the Straits Settlements Police, emerging out of a series of disturbances in 1915. First was when the Indian sepoys mutinied in Singapore; then the Malay States Guides refused to serve overseas and also expressed interest in fighting against the British in the Middle East; finally, an uprising occurred in Pasir Puteh, Kelantan, an event now firmly associated with one of its protagonists, To’ Janggutt.
Like the original Metropolitan SB the Singapore one drew on officers from around the Empire. Victor George Savi, was first director of Singapore Criminal Intelligence. Born in Calcutta, Savi later became Chief Constable of Fife, Scotland. More influential on the Branch’s nature was Rene Onraet, who became the second director of the Singapore SB. Also born in India, Onraet was schooled in Lancashire before joining the Straits Settlement’s Police Force in 1907. He spent 20 months in Amoy (Xiamen) studying Chinese culture and language (his Hokkien was apparently “flawless”), before also learning Malay.
Colonial Indian manpower was a prominent feature in the early days of the Straits Branch. In an 18 September, 1950 Straits Times article Onraet mentions how “two Indian CID men from India [Balwant Singh and Prithvi Chand] were seconded” to the Singapore Branch. This was due to a focus on containing the long-distance effects of Indian nationalist ferment in Singapore.
Singapore SB’s core work was spelled out by Onraet as the defence of the peninsula from the infection of radical ideas that would stir up the population. Onraet firmly believed that subversion was always foreign in nature and that the local population would always be content with the colonial situation if left to its own devices.
Singapore’s SB operated as a Straits Agency and in practice combined the domestic and foreign concerns. This meant that it not only concerned itself with localised political subversion, but that it also engaged in counter-espionage operations overseas.
After the Japanese Occupation and the restoration of British imperialism in Malaya, SB was reformed in both Malaya and Singapore to address the threat of political competition from communism. Communism was a phenomenon with both local and international dimensions, therefore Onraet’s position of rebuffing external influences eventually had to be abandoned.
The Malayan Branch
According to Leon Comber, a scholar of the Malayan SB and a former officer, the Malayan unit was established in Kuala Lumpur at the same time as the Singapore Branch. Details of its operations on the peninsula prior to 1939 are scant. In any case, after a hiatus during the Japanese Occupation, the Malayan unit was re-formed in August 1948 after the abolition of its predecessor, the Malayan Security Service (1939-48).
The Malayan SB’s role in the war against the communists (1948-60) is fairly well understood. Because the insurgency was primarily a political conflict – the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA)/Malayan Communist Party (MCP) aspired to independence and a communist state whilst the British sought to preserve colonialism – the political affiliation of non-combatants would prove decisive. Beyond political support, the guerrillas of the MNLA/MCP depended on civilians for supplies. Blocking or severing these links would drain the nurturing ‘sea’ of the people from the guerrilla ‘fish’ who sought nourishment from it, thereby reversing Mao Tse Tung’s famous injunction for guerrillas to be as fish swimming within the sea of the people.
Thus, in the struggle for ‘hearts and minds,’ SB used intelligence operations to uncover, undermine, and counteract guerrilla activities. The unit was responsible for identifying MNLA/MCP members and sympathisers, often via interrogation and the co-optation of MNLA/MCP members into imperial service.
Its operations have generally been acknowledged as tremendously successful, if not decisive, in the prosecution of the counter-insurgency.
By 1967, the Malaysian Branch’s functions were codified in the Police Act. Its stated focus was to “gather and process security risks in order to protect national laws and national security whilst preserving peace and security.” Of course, with a statement of purpose such as this much hangs upon the quality and disposition of national laws and how national security concerns are defined.
We can see similarities between the Special Branch of independent Malaysia and the colonial ones in that their role has been to secure the political integrity of their respective regimes from domestic and foreign threats to hegemony.
The expanded scope of this role was displayed most prominently during Operasi Lallang in 1987. Social activists, religious leaders, and opposition politicians were targeted in the crackdown. Also included in the sweep were the plaintiffs of the Asian Rare Earth factory case and their lawyers.
We can trace a similar expansion of focus in the London Metropolitan SB. Like the Malayan SB, the London one began to conduct operations on social activists who challenged the legitimacy of political and development decisions. As mentioned previously, not long after its founding, the early London Branch was soon arresting women campaigning for suffrage, and over the decades they expanded their operations to include anti-nuclear activists, anti-war campaigners, and environmentalists.
These groups could not readily be described as sources or agents of terrorism or threats to national security except by the most conspiratorially-minded or the most politically opportunistic. However, such groups do represent dissent towards a socio-political order founded upon patriarchy, imperialism, and industrial vested interests. From the standpoint of such authoritarian or imperialist states it is true that dissidents present a threat to the former’s legitimacy and stability.
Thus, the Malayan SB shared similar characteristics and functions to those around the British Empire. It served to protect and defend the Empire from its immediate enemies – anti-colonial independence movements – but, like the London Branch, it also began to mobilise against challenges to the broader socio-political order even if they took non-violent forms.
Although the Malayan SB has been hailed for its role in defeating communist insurgency in Malaya, there is a more complicated conclusion to consider.
The overall counter-insurgency strategy undertaken by the British and Alliance government has been hailed as a model for counter-insurgency in general. To summarise, the approach combined military engagement under the control of police and civilian government with socio-economic development programmes, and a coordinated propaganda and subversion programme – the famous ‘hearts and minds’ approach. SB played a key role in propaganda, intelligence gathering, and ‘turning over’ communist fighters to become intelligence and military tools for the colonial forces.
In recent years, senior US Army officers who were keen to develop an effective strategy to guarantee the stable conquest of Iraq have turned to the Malayan example, in comparison with their past failure in Vietnam.
The problem with the numerous positive appraisals of the Malayan counter-insurgency approach is that they have been quite short-sighted. Whether for scholarly convenience or out of policy-making myopia, they have looked at the so-called ‘Emergency’ as a neatly bounded historical entity. It is something that begins in 1948 and a line is drawn under it in 1960. Mission accomplished. British interests in Southeast Asia are preserved. A new democracy under British tutelage is birthed. Commie dominoes are prevented from falling. And so forth.
However, for those of us who have had to live in post-1960 Malaysia know that the full consequences of those strategies do not stop there. Above and beyond its counter-communist activities, SB extended its operations to monitor and regulate peaceful dissent, social work, the performing arts, political opposition, and media. By the 1980s it was not only policing armed insurgents, it was also policing civil society, broadly understood.
Compared to the size of the United Kingdom’s SB before it was merged into the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Command in 2006, the Malaysian SB represents a disproportionate ratio of officers to citizens. In 2003, the United Kingdom’s SB numbered 4,247 officers over a population of 59.4 million, or approximately one officer to every 14,000 citizens.
In 2010, Malaysia had 9,130 SB officers over a population of 28.3 million, or approximately one officer to every 3,100 Malaysians. By manpower alone, this would make Malaysia four and a half times more politically policed than the United Kingdom.
It is noteworthy that the Malaysian CID only has 249 more staff than the SB and Internal Security (including the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU), the Light Strike Force, and “General Forces”) has more than 40,000 staff. That the size of the Internal Security division is only exceeded by Management suggests that it is reasonable to consider the Royal Malaysian Police as a paramilitary force.
How did this come about?
While the Emergency strategy was hailed as a civilian approach to what was really a war what it also represented was the militarisation of civilian government. This was a civilian government that was already quite engaged in the business of colonial rule. Colonial government is a jealous thing. It does not like political competition. Democracy institutionalises orderly political competition through elections. This is why colonial polities are never democracies because colonialism is a form of autocracy and democracy is inimical to it.
The counter-insurgency strategy, in which SB was involved, was designed to eliminate the colonial regime’s political competition.
The political problem that we face in post-colonial Malaysia is that the political system has institutionalised the anti-competitive disposition of colonialism. Change in government is frowned upon and often equated with treason, subversion, disaster and chaos. This is one reason why, 48 years after the formation of Malaysia, we have yet to experience a change in Federal government despite having institutionalised elections. This is also why a Bersih movement has arisen to reform the anti-competitive nature of the electoral system.
SB as a political police have always served the ruling government of the day rather than any democratic constitutional ideal. When an incumbent government is in possession of an extensive network of internal spies and agents it possesses considerable inertia against change.
More so when the imagery of the Emergency – of threats to national security from civil society or the Parliamentary opposition, of critics as communist terrorists – is still very much kept alive by the government. The Emergency may be over as a conflict, but it has shaped the nature of our contemporary state’s handling of political competition.
By allowing the Branch to police legitimate dissent the government has turned democratic politics – whether waged by political parties or civil society groups – into a matter of national security. An imperialist state does not have to tolerate competition and dissent in order to be true to itself, however any democratic state worthy of the name must accept dissent and competition as part of its nature and its virtue.
Post-script: Is there a role for the Special Branch in a post-Barisan Nasional government?
Yes. A Special Branch doesn’t address the root causes of subversion, but tackles the symptoms directly. Like other political police, its role is not to question why but to protect the regime that employs it. Broadly speaking, a political police reflects the morality of the political-economic system it serves.
In fact, political police indicate the true morality of a political system because they reveal what social groups need to be suppressed in order for the regime to persist. Political policing in the US and Britain reveals them as liberal democracies in name only. Instead, the dynamics of racism, patriarchy, class, wealth privilege and vested interest are shown to be constitutive elements of the overall regime via the persecution of Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, suffragettes, gay rights activists, environmentalists, workers movements, civil rights movements, Occupy and anti-war protestors, and many more besides.
Any political order, even the most enlightened, will need to suppress its antithesis, whether by fair means or foul. Does a political police have a role in this?
Even with a wide-ranging programme of reform, the socio-economic structures of a new Malaysia will not change overnight. Discontents will still arise and some blame will surely make its way to the doorstep of the government of the day. Citizens may be targeted by conventional terrorism. Those newly deprived of power may seek extra-legal means of seizing control once more. In short, the job of policing subversion remains a relevant one. The question is whether the political police will serve the masters of the state or a particular partisan interest. It is thus less a question of historical conduct than of professionalism.
Police intelligence will be valuable in monitoring such developments, but the crucial difference is that such intelligence should be connected to programmes of reform to address root grievances rather than campaigns of suppression. There should also be bi-partisan Parliamentary oversight over the operations of the political police. It should not be allowed to be an unaccountable force within the state. Much like the case of the East German Stasi, there should be public access to information in the SB archives, perhaps following a given cooling off period.
Above all, it must be able to distinguish between genuine subversion and movements for democratic reform.
In developing this account I have relied primarily on three texts: Bernard Porter’s The Origins of the Vigilant State: The London Metropolitan Police Special Branch Before the First World War (Boydell Press, 1987), Ban Kah Choon’s Absent History: The Untold Story of Special Branch Operations in Singapore 1915-1942 (Horizon Books, 2001) and Leon Comber’s Malaya’s Secret Police 1945-60: The Role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008. Comber’s account of the first founding of the Malayan SB is found not in his book, but in an interview with Danny Lim in Off the Edge (‘The origins of intelligence: A brief history of the Malayan Special Branch’, Issue 25, Jan 2007).