Political policing: From Britain to Malaysia — Shao Loong

August 12, 2012 at 11:10 am 1 comment

April 11, 2012

APRIL 11 — Malaysian culture abounds with myths about the undead and other seen or half-seen spectres. Occupying a similar twilit space on the periphery of our senses are the secret police, the Special Branch, who serve as the eyes and ears of government. Like the ghosts and spooks, political police are part of the Malaysian milieu, appearing as figures of mystery, fear, and conspicuous undercover dress.

Yet, unlike the undead, the Special Branch are not the product of cosmic laws, magic, or supernatural phenomena, they are the product of particular 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.

Rituals have been developed to give us power over spirits — whether to propitiate, banish or ward them off — but ordinary mortals typically turn to bomohs or other mediums in order to access this power. However, no special training or gift is required to understand the history and functions of the Special Branch. Such knowledge may give us the power to bring them out of the shadows of rumour and hearsay, and thereby properly situate then within our country’s political development.

Below I present brief comparative histories of the London, Singapore- Straits Settlements and Malayan Special Branches accompanied by some reflection on parallels in their development from agencies countering anti-imperialist movements to a broader role suppressing political opposition and dissent in general.

Much of this material has already been published in one form or another by other authors. I make no claim to originality. However, many people remain unaware of the history of the Special Branches and the role they play. Therefore, in the interest of political education and advancing human rights, I feel it is worthwhile to present this article, in particular its concluding analysis.

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 Special Branch of the London Metropolitan Police was founded in 1883, some five years after the first Criminal Investigation Department 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.

The deception involved in undercover work apparently ran against the liberal grain of mid-Victorian social mores. The authorities themselves found that the detective jobs did not attract upright, high-calibre men.

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 run on illiberal lines. For a variety of reasons the British Empire came to be run by men who had largely escaped or resisted the liberal ethos dominant in Britain.

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. Bombing with dynamite was less discriminate than the bullet or the blade, and the Fenians did not appear to distinguish between political leaders and civilians.

These campaigns of ‘terrorism’ eventually resulted in the formation of the London Metropolitan Police’s Special Irish Branch, which became the first Special Branch. 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 Special Branch 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, Special Branch officers were concerned that the League was going to promote universal bastardy and sought ways to undermine it. Some Special Branch 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 Special Branch’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 Special Branch was formed in 1918 as the Criminal Intelligence Department of the Straits Settlements Police.[ii] It emerged out of a series of disturbances in 1915: first 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, Tok Janggutt.

Like the original Metropolitan Special Branch the Singapore one drew on officers from around the Empire. Victor George Savi, was first director of Singapore Criminal Intelligence. Born in Calcutta, possibly of Indian or Italian extraction, 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 Special Branch. Also born inIndia, Onraet was schooled in Lancashire before joining the Straits Settlement’s Police Force in 1907. He spent twenty 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 C.I.D. 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.

The Singapore Special Branch’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.

The Singapore Special Branch operated as a Straits Agency and in practice combined the domestic and foreign concerns that in Britain were normally split between the Special Branch and MI5, the British secret service. 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, the Special Branch 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. — New Mandala

The Malayan Branch

According to Leon Comber, a scholar of the Malayan Special Branch and a former officer, the Malayan Special Branch was established in Kuala Lumpur at the same time as the Singapore Branch. Details of Special Branch operations on the peninsula prior to 1939 are scant. However, it has been suggested that it initially had closer ties to the Indian Special Branch, though later the London Metropolitan Special Branch came into its orbit.

In any case, after a hiatus during the Japanese Occupation, the Malayan Special Branch was re-formed in August 1948 after the abolition of its predecessor, the Malayan Security Service (1939-48), which had combined both Malayan and Singaporean Special Branches.

The Malayan Branch’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’s famous injunction for guerrillas to be as fish swimming within the sea of the people.

Thus, in the struggle for “hearts and minds,” the Special Branch used intelligence operations to uncover, undermine, and counteract guerrilla activities. The Branch was responsible for identifying MNLA/MCP members and sympathisers, often via interrogation and the co-optation of MNLA/MCP members into imperial service.

The Branch’s operations have generally been acknowledged as tremendously successful, if not decisive, in the prosecution of the counter-insurgency. This article will not go into detail about the balance of factors which led to the results of the conflict; however, interested readers can refer to Leon Comber’s Malaya’s Secret Police 1945-60 and Robert Thompson’s Defeating Communist Insurgency in Malaya and Vietnam. Some broader social and political consequences are addressed in the subsequent section, however.

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, for those concerned with the morality of how order is policed, 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 Branches 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 Special Branch. Like the Malayan Branch, 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 Special Branch shared similar characteristics and functions to the other Special Branches around theBritish 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. One cannot fail to note that this extension of the scope of operations, and even the defence of imperialism itself, stood in contradiction to the values of liberal parliamentary democracy.

Entwined Branches

Although the Malayan Special Branch has been hailed for its role in defeating communist insurgency in Malaya, I believe 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. The Special Branch 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 we know that the full consequences of those strategies do not stop there. Above and beyond its counter-communist activities, the Special Branch extended its operations to monitor and regulate peaceful dissent, social work, the performing arts, political opposition, and media. By the 1980s the Special Branch was not only policing armed insurgents, it was also policing civil society, broadly understood.

Compared to the size of the United Kingdom’s Special Branch before it was merged into the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Command in 2006, the Malaysian Special Branch represents a disproportionate ratio of officers to citizens.

In 2003, the United Kingdom’s Special Branch numbered 4,247 officers over a population of 59.4 million, or approximately one Special Branch officer to every 14,000 citizens. In 2010,Malaysia had 9,130 Special Branch officers over a population of 28.3 million, or approximately one Special Branch 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 Criminal Investigation Department only has 249 more staff than the Special Branch 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 — primarily because the army was subordinated to police and civilian control — 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.

Thus, the Residency system which cuckolded secular power from the Sultanates. Thus, the restrictions and suppression placed on the communists and other anti-colonial movements, which accelerated the move towards armed struggle. The counter-insurgency strategy, in which the Special Branch was involved, was designed to eliminate the colonial regime’s political competition.

(Financially weakened by the Second World War, Britain had no choice but to start ceding its Empire. In the event, it tried to put it into friendly hands. So, better the Anglophilic Alliance than the anti-imperialist communists.)

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.

The Special Branch as a political police has 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 social movements.

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, at least in the short- to medium-term. 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 Special Branch archives, perhaps following a given cooling off period.

Above all, the Branch and its political masters must be able to distinguish between genuine subversion and movements for democratic reform. In this we shall be able to see the quality, not necessarily of the Branch, but of our political leaders.

Bibliographical Note

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), is one of the few books that address the Special Branch’s founding. It is a readable volume, one which manages to be fairly agnostic towards the Branch’s behaviour. It is unfortunately not as readily available as the following two volumes. Ban Kah Choon’s Absent History: The Untold Story of Special Branch Operations in Singapore 1915-1942 (Horizon Books, 2001) gives a detailed account of that particular Branch. 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) is noteworthy for being the first book on the Malayan Special Branch, and written by one of their own. I have not accepted all its political assumptions and conclusions, but its scholarly importance should not be overlooked on this account. Dr. Comber’s account of the first founding of the Malayan Special Branch 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). Those interested in a general history of the Malayan and Malaysian police can refer to Mohd Redhuan Aslie and Mohd Radzuan Ibrahim’s Polis DiRaja Malaysia: Sejarah, peranan & cabaran, (Royal Malaysian Police: History, Role and Challenges] (Karangkraf 1987), which offers a readable general history but with only cursory detail on the Special Branch. — New Mandala

* Yin Shao Loong is a political scientist with a background in human rights activism. He works as an environmental policy advisor to the Selangor State Government. This article is an expanded version of a talk delivered at the Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur in conjunction with Human Rights Day, 2011


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