SPECIAL FEATURE: by Dr Michael D. BarrNews Weekly
Murder and insurrection: Lance Sharkey in Singapore
, March 26, 2005
What sort of threat did communist trade unions pose to Australia? Dr Michael Barr reveals how Australian communists after World War II were quite prepared to murder strike-breakers and political opponents.Two new books on Southeast Asian history have cast light on aspects of Australian history: the role of the Communist Party of Australia in the international communist movement of the 1940s, their vicious tactics in Australian trade unions during the same period, and the role of Australia's Lance Sharkey in initiating the communist insurrection in Malaya in 1948.
The revelations were made by Chin Peng (born Ong Boon Hua), who was Secretary-General of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) after 1948. Chin Peng has been fairly free to travel since the MCP negotiated a peace treaty with the Thai and Malaysian governments in 1989. This has allowed him to speak at length to historians about Malaya and Malaysia's communist insurrections from the "other side".Communist insurrection
The major single incidence of such a consultation was held in Canberra in 1998, when he entered into a two-day dialogue with leading historians of the Malayan "Emergency" (1948-60), which is the British term for the first and most significant period of the communist insurrection in Malaya/Malaysia. The transcriptions of the dialogue sessions have been published in Dialogues with Chin Peng: New Light on the Malayan Communist Party
(edited by C.C. Chin and Karl Hack Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2004).
In this seminar, Anthony Short (University of Aberdeen) tried to prompt Chin Peng to repeat a story that he had first recounted during an earlier meeting between the two men in London:Anthony Short:
But when we met in London, and I think we should repeat this for an Australian audience, you told me that [Lance/Lawrence] Sharkey had told you his Australian experience on how to deal with scabs, to terminate with extreme prejudice, in a certain mining industry?Chin Peng:
Mining industry. Of course, it is ridiculous to kill people in the town area, in a developed country. It was the only advice we ask him, because we were discussing about the strike, about how we had no conclusive [results]. There were differences of opinion. Because within that three years, nearly, every strike we face the sabotage of scabs. (Dialogues, pp. 121, 122.)
At the time in question, Lance Sharkey was Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Australia.
None of the academics in the room were scholars of Australian history and most were not even Australians, which perhaps accounts for why this revelation elicited no follow-up questions or comments.
Nevertheless, since that seminar, Chin Peng has been more explicit. In his memoirs (Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History
, by Chin Peng as told to Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor, Media Masters, 2003), he wrote of the meeting of the Malayan Communist Party central committee in Singapore at which Sharkey spoke. Chin Peng told his biographers:
"Then a Central Committee member in charge of trade union affairs asked our guest the critical questions for which we had been seeking the answer for months. 'Comrade,' he requested, 'how do you Australians deal with strike-breakers?'
"The meeting eagerly awaited Sharkey's views on strike-breakers and how his party handled them. Our visitor leaned back in his chair as the question, originally in Chinese, was translated into English. Pausing for a moment, Sharkey glanced along the row of Asian faces at the table and said bluntly: 'We get rid of them.'
"Someone who spoke English followed up. He thought he might have misheard the response which had been delivered in such a thick, slow Australian drawl. 'You mean you eliminate strike-breakers, Comrade ... kill?'
"Sharkey considered the question carefully. Then he said: 'But not in the cities. Only in the outlying areas. Rural areas. The mining areas.'
"Translated, Sharkey's words sent a rush of reinforced vigour through our gathering." (Alias Chin Peng
, pp. 203, 204.)Drastic retribution
Of course, there is no reason to believe that murder was reserved just for "strike-breakers" in the strict usage of the term.
It is no secret that anyone who opposed the Party in the large, blue-collar trade unions was vulnerable to varying degrees of physical intimidation. It seems that murder was merely the most drastic form of retribution, to be used only away from the glare of city lights.
Having said this, it also seems that Sharkey was speaking partly for the effect of his words in galvanising the communist forces in Malaya. Note Chin Peng's words about the "rush of reinforced vigour" that went through the room.
This is significant because, immediately prior to Sharkey's account of killing strike-breakers, he had been reporting on the now-famous Calcutta Conference of the Indian Communist Party, in which he passed on the new Zhdanov line from Moscow that defined the world as being irrevocably divided between a communist camp and an imperialist camp.
That doctrine has been commonly thought to have sparked a wave of communist insurrections in Southeast Asia in the late 1940s.Order from the Cominform
Historical opinion has been divided on the question of Sharkey's role, with the official British position saying that Sharkey passed on the order from the Cominform and it was followed slavishly.
On the other hand, historians such as Ruth McVey (The Calcutta Conference and the South-East Asian Uprisings
, 1958) and Tim Harper (The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya
, Cambridge University Press, 1999) have disputed that Sharkey was the critical trigger.
Chin Peng's accounts (in both Dialogues
and Alias Chin Peng
) suggest that Sharkey came to Singapore to give the Moscow line, as the official British account had always argued. But, in contradiction of the picture generally painted by anti-communists, it was not a simple matter of giving an instruction. He had to use his powers of persuasion and capitalise on his standing as a militant and successful communist leader and a senior figure in the Cominform.
As Chin Peng wrote in Alias
"Earlier in the month, the Straits Times
had carried a front page lead story headed 'Reds have invaded Queensland'. The state premier in Brisbane had declared a 'state of emergency' and had gazetted 'regulations to impose strict censorship on strike news in the press and on the radio'. Twenty-three thousand railwaymen had refused to work and the powerful Waterside Workers' and Seamen's Union had ordered their members to strike in sympathy.
"The report continued: 'The port of Brisbane is now immobilised with 19 ships idle and a complete paralysis of all other Queensland ports seems certain.' Adding to the clamour, the premier, Mr Hanlon, alleged that 'the High Command of the Communist Party has invaded Queensland'.
"Now, here, about to give us the benefit of his knowledge and experience, was the man directly responsible for all the spectacular developments [in Australia] that had been dazzling us so. His genius for organisation preceded him ... We felt privileged to have such a guest." (Alias
, p. 203.)
Chin Peng makes clear that he and his colleagues had already picked up enough about the changed currents in the wake of the Zdhanov doctrine to realise that they "should" be considering "armed struggle", but they were reluctant to do so because they were not ready. (Alias
, p. 202.)
Sharkey arrived in Singapore and succeeded in confirming the direction of the developments coming from Moscow, but he did not press for insurrection directly. Instead he recounted his inspirational story about killing scabs.
The upshot of Sharkey's input to the 1948 Central Committee meeting in Singapore was a decision by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) to initiate a new round of strikes (prompted in large part by an imminent British crackdown on unions), and to use violence to support the strike action, following the Australian model.
It was this violence that led to the British declaring the "Malayan Emergency", and the MCP decided to launch its insurrection only after the British crackdown. Asked by Anthony Short in Dialogues
if he would have gone ahead with the insurrection without an external "trigger", Chin Peng responded:
"No! At that time, we thought about the strike. How can we launch the strike? Because we launch many strikes but every time we failed. Either suppressed by the police, or because we lacked funds to continue.
"So we were discussing whether we could adopt certain forms of violence to deal with the scabs. In that meeting, if Sharkey was not there to provide certain advice to us, we would not have adopted the tactic to get rid of the scabs. But because he introduced it, it is quite okay with us. Because the Central Committee was divided into two groups of opinion, one say can, one said no.
"Then we adopted it, we could use violence to support the strike, to let the strike continue on. Then of course the Government will respond to that. Using a new term to express, we escalate, the Government will escalate also." (Dialogues
, p. 134.)
It is beyond credulity to believe that Sharkey did not anticipate that his advice would result in the escalation of violence to the point of a country-wide military confrontation.
- Dr Michael D. Barr teaches Southeast Asian history and politics at the University of Queensland and has written Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man (2000) and Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War (2002)