Jan 21, 2011
By Barry Wain
WHEN Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) boss Lai Teck failed to show for a special Central Committee meeting near Kuala Lumpur in early 1947, Chin Peng, a ranking colleague, suspected the worst. He thought Lai Teck had been picked up by the Special Branch.
Chin Peng headed for a house where Lai Teck - married with two children in Singapore - usually stayed with his Chinese mistress when he was in the area. She told him Lai Teck had been and gone.
Now worried that the Special Branch had kept the Central Committee gathering under surveillance, Chin Peng went underground for a week.
By the time he re-established contact with the party, concern had switched from the snooping British colonial police to focus on Lai Teck himself. The man who had served as secretary-general of the CPM for eight years - having been elected to the post at the outbreak of World War II - had disappeared.
Also missing were most of the party's considerable funds, consisting of gold ingots and sheets, 130,000 Straits dollars in cash and a stack of currency notes issued by the Japanese occupation administration during the war.
While the CPM established a three-man panel to investigate the affair, the senior communists recognised immediately the ugly truth:
Lai Teck, who had been re-elected secretary-general only a year earlier, months after the British had re-occupied Singapore and Malaya, was a traitor.
The stories circulating about Lai Teck having collaborated with the Japanese - which he had been summoned to address at the aborted Central Committee meeting - were true.
With no qualms, he had betrayed his comrades in spectacular fashion to the dreaded Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, condemning dozens, if not hundreds, to certain death and temporarily crippling the clandestine communist movement - in particular its military wing, the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army, or MPAJA.
It was a year before the Central Committee received the panel's report, formally expelled Lai Teck from the party and disseminated the sordid details to party members.
Actually, what the Central Committee did not say, and apparently did not know, was even more damning. Lai Teck had not just collaborated with the Japanese. He was also a British plant who had infiltrated the CPM with the express purpose of destroying it.
He had opened the way for his leadership ambitions by passing on incriminating information to his Special Branch handlers in Singapore. That invariably led to the detention or death of party rivals.
Moreover, unknown to both the Japanese and the CPM, Lai Teck had earlier double-crossed the communist party in his native Vietnam and become an informer for the French colonial authorities there.
Covering his tracks expertly, the French intelligence agency in Indochina had then passed him along to its British counterpart, the Special Branch in Singapore, when he was no longer useful in Vietnam.
The French did such an effective job in spreading the false word that dedicated Vietnamese communists long believed Lai Teck had fled to Thailand to escape 'French repression'.
His exploits are recorded in the latest issue of the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, under the appropriate heading, 'Traitor of all Traitors'.
His tale is told by Dr Leon Comber, a former member of the Malayan Special Branch, who is now attached to Monash University's Monash Asia Institute in Australia. He currently is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Dr Comber adds to Lai Teck's profile by including information provided by Chin Peng and a Western academic doing research in Vietnam. But Lai Teck remains elusive. Dr Comber could find no specific Special Branch file on him in the official archives of Britain, Australia, Malaysia or Singapore.
Lai Teck's role in modern South-east Asian history is important, and not just because of the mystique that surrounds him.
It was Lai Teck - under the alias Chang Hong, one of at least 26 he used - who signed an agreement with British officers in 1943 that committed the CPM and the Allies to cooperate with each other to fight the Japanese for the duration of the war. The Allied South-east Asia Command based in Ceylon covertly supplied weapons, training and cash to the MPAJA in occupied Malaya.
It was also Lai Teck who made the first personal contact, in Hong Kong after the war, with the Chinese Communist Party, seeking advice on whether the CPM should resort to armed struggle in Malaya. The Chinese advice evidently was: Form a united front with all anti-colonial forces and strive for self-government by constitutional means.
And it was Lai Teck's disappearance that opened the way for Chin Peng - decorated by the British for his war-time bravery - to become secretary-general of the CPM at the age of 23.
Chin Peng led the Malayan National Liberation Army in an unsuccessful guerilla war against first the British colonial authorities and later the federal Malayan government from 1948 to 1960. He represented the CPM at the failed peace talks in Baling in 1955 with then Malayan Chief Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and then Singapore Chief Minister David Marshall. Chin Peng finally reached an agreement with the Malaysian and Thai governments in 1989 to formally end hostilities.
The Lai Teck mystery begins with his communist activity and subsequent defection in southern Vietnam, and continues after he left the country with French help.
Some researchers believe he went to Moscow and joined the Third International, the Comintern, which then controlled all communist activities outside the Soviet Union. His trail leads to China, where he is thought to have worked for the Comintern's Far Eastern Bureau.
In his 2003 autobiography, Chin Peng dismisses the Moscow-China connection as conjecture. But he admitted to Dr Comber that Lai Teck was given the nickname Ah Lin, or 'Malaya's Lenin', because of his impressive knowledge of communist theory.
In any event, Lai Teck's claim to Comintern status, which implicitly proclaimed his revolutionary credentials and sophistication, impressed the provincial CPM when he arrived in Singapore in the early 1930s. The party signed him up as a member, even as he was being assigned to a Cantonese-speaking case officer in the Singapore Special Branch.
With secret Special Branch help, this foreigner - son of a Vietnamese father and Chinese mother, who spoke heavily accented Cantonese and Mandarin and whose real name was unknown to anyone in the CPM - rose rapidly to the top of the party. A mole at the heart of party central was a breathtaking coup for British intelligence.
Lai Teck's collaboration with the Kempeitai during the war included the preparation of a CPM organisational chart that enabled the Japanese to systematically target, torture and kill key personnel. By April 1943, he was the only CPM Central Committee member to have survived the Japanese dragnet.
Once, when a captured party member learnt of Lai Teck's perfidy and managed to get word to the CPM, Lai Teck arranged for the man to be released by the Japanese, successfully branded him a traitor and had him buried alive.
Lai Teck did not rat on the British officers working behind the lines with the MPAJA, displaying what one of them preferred to think of as a 'residual loyalty' to the British. But, of course, keeping them onside was merely an insurance policy for Lai Teck, who could see by the trend of events that the Allies were likely to win the war.
Even in the annals of espionage, where monumental feats of daring, danger and deception are common, Lai Teck was exceptional. In British or American terms, write scholars C.C. Chin and Karl Hack, it was as if Prime Minister Winston Churchill or President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had turned out to be spies for Josef Stalin.
It is hard to fathom the philandering Lai Teck's motive. The connecting thread at nearly every stage of his career was disloyalty - but why? What drove him?
We can only guess. All we know is that his triple-faced treachery did not end happily.
Finally confronted by Thai and Chinese communists in Bangkok in 1947, he resisted and was strangled - accidentally, they said. His body was stuffed in a gunny sack and dumped into a klong (canal).
He was 44.
The writer is a writer-in-residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Spies By Ben Jonson
Spies, you are lights in state, but of base stuff,
Who, when you've burnt yourselves down to the snuff,
Stink and are thrown away. End fair enough.
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