Quotable: Paul Boothroyd on messaging during the Malayan insurgency

Thursday, April 6th 2017

Information operations in Malaya were a particularly effective tool that led to the surrender of many insurgents while simultaneously bringing the Chinese population of Malaya onto the side of the government.   However, this was the result of years of trial and error during which the British gradually adapted their message to meet the demands of the conflict.

 

Title:    “Adaptation in Counterinsurgency: The Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960”

 

Author:  Sergeant Paul Boothroyd, USMC

 

Journal:  Marine Corps Gazette

 

Date:   May, 2013

 

Link:  https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/2013/05/adaptation-counterinsurgency

 

Section on “Information Operations”

 

While there are several definitions of information operations, indeed several different names in common usage, the best definition comes from Sir Robert Thompson:

 

The task naturally falls into two categories: information work directed ar the insurgents (i.e., psychological warfare) and information work directed at the public. . . . The aim of the first is to reduce the will of the insurgents to fight and encourages surrenders, while the aim of the second is to rally the population to the side of the government in its campaign.

 

Information operations in Malaya were a particularly effective tool that led to the surrender of many insurgents while simultaneously bringing the Chinese population of Malaya onto the side of the government. However, this was the result of years of trial and error during which the British gradually adapted their message to meet the demands of the conflict.

 

One example of this adaptation in information operations is the nomenclature by which the British referred to insurgents. During the early part of the conflict, British officials of the Colonial Office and military commanders referred to insurgents as "bandits," deemed necessary to avoid overemphasizing the gravity of the situation.  When [Harold] Briggs arrived in Malaya in 1950, however, he decided that since the situation was obviously beyond that of mere banditry, an escalation in term was necessary. From that point on, insurgents were referred to as "Communist terrorists," or "CTs," terminology that was used in order to clearly emphasize the illegal nature of the insurgency.

 

Initially, the press was the primary medium through which the government put out its message, especially the Chinese-language press. Later, with the consolidation of squatter populations in the new villages, the government used travelling film crews, sometimes with rehabilitated insurgents in tow, in order to get their message across.

 

In terms of their information campaign directed at the public, the British focused on two areas: that the insurgency was bound to fail, and that the insurgency was senseless given the preparation for Malayan independence. While in the beginning there was a tendency toward Sinophobia (anti-Chincsc sentiment), the British quickly realized that this was counterproductive, and adapted their message to focus primarily on a "pan-Malayan" ideal.

 

British information operations "tried to 'win hearts' by persuading Chinese minds that support for Communism, or loyalty to Communism once captured, could mean just one thing - death."

 

In terms of psychological warfare, the British had to move away from their initial strategy of counterterror and resist the urge to punish surrendered insurgents. After initial failures, during which time most insurgents who surrendered did so because of disagreements with their fellow Communists rather than because any actions of the government, the British adapted their psychological warfare tactics to match the realities of the conflict. This psychological campaign, which aimed at instilling a sense of hopelessness in the insurgents, was very successful. By early 1955, three times as many insurgents were surrendering because of a sense of hopelessness. Templer, however, realized that additional incentive was necessary to induce the Communists to surrender. To this end, [Gerald] Templer increased the rewards leading to the capture of Chin Peng or members of the Malayan politburo (executive committee), as well as distributing safe passage documents throughout the jungle. These safe passage documents were signed by Templer, and were so expertly crafted as to be worthy of quoting at length:

 

Many of you who are now still fighting for Communist leaders in the jungles of Malaya are not hardened criminals, but youths who were tricked or intimidated into following the wrong path. There is no hope in Communism. I would rather you lived to serve the common interests of the people of Malaya than died like beasts in the jungle. I therefore call upon you to hide your arms and equipment, and report to the nearest police or military officer or Government official. I guarantee that you will not be ill-treated in any way. I have also given orders that a reward is to be paid to any member of rhc public who helps you ro escape from the clutches of the Communist leaders.

 

Far from the "hang them, regardless" attitude of the early part of the insurgency, this document was essential in causing the large-scale surrender of the latter part of the Emergency.

 

Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. 

Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.  Specializing in Public Diplomacy, political-military affairs, and East Asia, he attained the rank of Minister-Counselor in the career service.  He was President of the Public Diplomacy Council from 2013 to 2015 and is now a member of the Board of Directors.

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Author: Donald M. Bishop

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