A story for the hearts and minds

Military might earned Sir Gerald Templer the fear of the enemies. But the battle of the Malayan Emergency was won by winning the hearts and minds of the natives.

For the latest tale, The Night of the Flying Blades, we had fun describing things that science can’t explain. Flying blades and were-tigers are far-fetched phenomena best consigned to a folder called “Magic”. 

But The Night of the Flying Blades is inspired by an actual description card of a keris still on display at the V&A Museum in South Kensington. Go to the Southeast Asia section and you’ll find a wavy dagger with an ivory parrot hilt. The card underneath it says:

“This kris is the distinctive weapon of Malaysia and Indonesia. Some were credited with supernatural powers – the ability to kill merely being pointed at the victim, for example, or to fly through the air to attack an enemy.”

No doubt the wording was crafted by R J Wilkinson, the Deputy Governor of the Straits Settlement (1911 to 1916), who was gifted this weapon by a Perakian nobility.

“This kris is the distinctive weapon of Malaysia and Indonesia. Some were credited with supernatural powers – the ability to kill merely being pointed at the victim, for example, or to fly through the air to attack an enemy.”

Magic is what science can’t explain

The volume that preceded The Flying Blades, The Tiger-Man and His Constant Companion, was also inspired by the writing of another British Malaya civil servant, Sir Hugh Clifford, the former Governor of North Borneo. Whilst a Resident at the Malayan state of Pahang, he came across a report of a massacre so out of this world that it could only be described as the work of a monstrous beast. The resulting fiction, The Were-Tiger, was written by Clifford in 1916.

Magic, supernatural intrigue, the Malayan Emergency and the 1980s Cold War provide the backdrop to this horror story about betrayals and friendship. Available on Amazon Kindle

In a way, we write horror fiction not only to amuse ourselves and our readers. We write it also to make sense about situations we can’t yet comprehend. M R James, for instance, wrote horror stories to entertain his friends on Christmas eve. No doubt he did it not just to fulfil his literary obligation as a Cambridge academic. A trustee of the British Museum, he was deeply interested in antiquarian objects and the history behind them.

Ghosts aside, the heart of The Flying Blades lies in the true stories of courage displayed by the Royal Malayan defence forces during the State of Emergency period. It was a long, drawn-out insurgency, characterised by terrorism, betrayals and impressive accounts of extraordinary bravery by the Royal Malayan Police and the civilians. Many lives were taken.

Clifford came across a report of a massacre so out of this world that it could only be described as the work of a monstrous beast. The resulting fiction, The Were-Tiger, was written by him in 1916.

Winning the hearts and minds

Sir Gerald Templer, a veteran of European and Palestinian wars, was brought in to replace Sir Henry Gurney, who was assassinated in 1951. Informed by his experience, this former general of the Royal Irish Fusiliers pioneered a soft power military approach – “winning the hearts and minds” – that worked successfully only in Malaya. Conscious of restoring Malaya into a confident country, not a ‘military government’, he introduced the Special Branch division under the Royal Malayan Police, comprising locals. It worked. The Communists were defeated not by the sole action of the British. They were defeated also by the lack of support of the Malayans.

Templer: Tiger of Malaya explains the strategy and the logic behind Sir Gerald Templer’s approach of ‘winning the hearts and minds’.

There is a logical explanation behind this. Soft power works both ways as social collusion. The British wanted to engage; the Malayans wanted to be understood. Cultural diplomacy was established, and as a result, both parties attained their objectives.

Soft power works both ways as social collusion. The British wanted to engage; the Malayans wanted to be understood. Cultural diplomacy was established, and as a result, both parties attained their objectives.

British ASPs of Royal Malayan Police attending a local wedding with their colleagues. Circa 1948-1950s. Image source: Brian Stewart CMG, MCS. Website: www.britishempire.co.uk. Chapter: Operation Sharp End

The true face of disruption

Apart from the biography Templer: Tiger of Malaya by John Cloake, another non-fiction work also informed this fiction. We were researching disruption caused by artificial intelligence (AI) when this book by Roger Spitz, Thriving on Disruption: Reframing and Navigating Disruption came to our door. Inadvertently, Spitz’s description of the anatomy of disruption helps us to understand its pattern in the course of the Malayan history as we wrote the story.

Initially, we found it perplexing that Communist rebels such as Mat Indera and Chin Peng could turn from promising characters to enemies of the state. Before the war, Mat Indera was a budding religious scholar. Chin Peng was actually awarded an OBE for his contribution during the war. The deception and betrayals experienced during the war and after had served as a catalyst that accelerated their downward spiral into rebellion. But it appeared that the seed of rebellion had laid dormant long before, perhaps decades or centuries before that great war. Thus, we contextualised the tales with historical references to the Brahman Buddhist and Majapahit eras, and the numerous ‘colonial’ eras.

The author at the Muzium Beruas in Perak, in 2018. Here she discovered that environmental factors such as the sediment built-up that were clogging up the River of Perak choked the commercial activities of the ancient kingdom of Beruas. They turned their ire towards the neighbouring seaside kingdoms of Manjung and Lumut that continued to prosper. Beruas invited the Malaccan Sultanate to invade in the 16th Century. That spelled the end of the Brahman Buddhist kingdoms of Perak under Gangga Negara. Female rulers were dethroned and a new dynasty was installed to rule. The author, from Manjung, is descended from the people of Gangga Negara. Image: ©Salina Christmas

So, it’s no surprise that this is a horror story centring on the theme of betrayal. The Emergency period was longer and much bitter to us than the intense but brief World War 2. It’s because the insurgency was based on treason committed from within by our kith and kin.

This is a horror story centring on the theme of betrayal. The Emergency period was longer and much bitter to us than the intense but brief World War 2. It’s because the insurgency was based on treason committed from within by our kith and kin.

A tribute to heroes

We enjoyed the talk by Daniel Berke on his grandfather’s experience as a Chindit who was captured in Myanmar during World 2 (February 2023). Many former prisoners of war opted to remain in Malaya after the war to serve during the Emergency period. Image captured via ©The National Army Museum.

This third installation of The Constant Companion Tales is a tribute to heroes who’d done so much to protect our country. Many were erased from Malaysian history books – either due to a newer nationalistic narrative, or simply because there’s only so much you can fit into a school’s textbook.

Our thanks go to the veterans and soldiers whom we had met and chatted with on numerous occasions on Remembrance Day. We are grateful to Daniel Berke who shared the experience of his grandfather, Frank Berkovitch, a Chindit who was captured in Myanmar in the talk Captured Behind Japanese line: a Chindit story (February 2023), organised by the National Army Museum. Also, we extend our heartfelt thanks to St Joseph’s Hospice for looking after whoever it was who owned the hardcover print copy of Templer: Tiger of Malaya. We bought it as a second-hand book via Amazon.

The Flying Blades is also a homage to our indigenous ancestors of a time long gone: the sea gypsies, the head-hunters and the tree folks.

You are not forgotten. Not in our tales of magic and the supernatural.


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