Discovering Chin Peng Through a Theatrical Retelling of the Historic Baling Talks

Baling, by Five Arts Centre from Malaysia, attempts an original, alternative retelling of the historic Baling Talks, with a focus on Chin Peng, the enigmatic leader of the outlawed Malayan Communist Party.

A scene from the play. Credit: Vaisakh E Hari.

A scene from the play. Credit: Vaisakh E Hari.

One of the most talked about plays in the Kerala’s International Theatre Festival earlier this year was Baling, by the Five Arts Centre from Malaysia. The play dissected the rich history of the Malayan peninsula through the historically significant 1955 Baling talks. The audience, otherwise familiar with the raw energy of physical theatre, adapted smoothly to the subtleties of this low key “docu-drama” and marked the end of the performance with a curtain call that was certainly one of the loudest in the festival’s history.

The Baling talks

In 1955, an old schoolroom at Baling near Kedah in Malaysia played host to one of the most significant events in the history of the Malayan peninsula: the Baling talks. After the colonial British government announced a state of emergency in 1948, war had been declared by insurgents, which ravaged the country. The talks were a last desperate measure to put an end to a situation spiralling out of the control, with Malayan Chief Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singapore Chief Minister David Marshall sitting down to talk to Chin Peng, the leader of the insurgent Malayan Communist Party (MCP). The talks, however, failed, and Peng returned to the forests.

As the unchallenged supremo of the MCP, Peng retains an enigmatic halo to this day, even after his death in 2013. Born Ong Boon Hua, history had given the man numerous sobriquets, from “true freedom fighter” to “Communist terrorist”.

Baling attempts a dissection of popular history, examining a perspective divergent to that found in popular history: it examines how Peng was wantonly demonised and ostracised in the eyes of the public by the state machinery under the colonial British government.

The MCP, which had remained outlawed throughout Peng’s lifetime, maintained that the start of the emergency aligned with their anti-colonial revolutionary war against the British. In 1955, the first federal elections were held and resulted in the rise of Rahman (who went on to become the prime minister of Malaysia) and Marshall (who became the leader of opposition in Malaysia) as the local leaders.

Mark Teh, the director of Baling, explains: “Peng agreed to participate in the talks, given that his anti-colonial struggle at the time was slowly transitioning to full-blown civil war. Tunku Abdul Rahman, who wanted to prove his calibre to the people and the colonial government, played a trump card by conducting the talks two days before leaving for Britain for independence discussions. The talks ultimately failed and the Communists retreated to the borders into Southern Thailand where they remained outlawed. Even after the communists signed the 1989 Hat Yai Peace Agreement to terminate hostilities between the MCP and the government of Malaysia, Peng would never be allowed to set foot in the country again.”

The play calls out the doublespeak of the colonial British empire, juxtaposing newspaper clippings in which Peng was described as the “Most Wanted Man in British Empire” with earlier pictures featuring him receiving the medal of gallantry from Lord Louis Mountbatten for effectively resisting the Japanese army.

Baling part one: the negotiations

“With the people behind him, Chief Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman goes confidently and in good faith to Baling in Kedah, accompanied by Singapore Chief Minister David Marshall to meet Peng, the Secretary General of Malayan Communist party and public enemy number one. Much as the people of Malaya wish to end the senseless terror of the past, none desire to yield an inch to the men who committed these crimes,” so proclaimed the narrator as a black and white video played on a wall of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi black box theatre. Against visuals of the sweeping Malayan terrain, the audience had their first sight of Peng. The British propaganda video signalled the start of the play, accompanied by onstage reenactments of the Baling talks using transcripts available in the public domain.

The Baling talks underway. Credit: Vaisakh E Hari.

The Baling talks underway. Credit: Vaisakh E Hari.

As the play proceeded, significant portions of the talks were enacted onstage, bringing to life the motives of each of the three players – Rahman, Marshall and Peng. Rahman and Marshall insisted on concessions they had put forth in their amnesty agreement. The duo assured Peng that those who surrendered would be dealt with humanely and that every prisoner who wanted to leave for China would be sent his way without questions. Those who wanted to stay, however, would be detained for a certain period and investigated until they proved their loyalty to the country.

Peng, on the other hand, adamant on remaining true to his ideology, questioned the clause about the investigation of prisoners and laying down of arms, and insisted that the surrendered prisoners be given the opportunity to start their own political party.

Baling, part two: Peng in his final years

The novelty of the performance lay in the sections that interspersed the scenes reenacting the talks. In these, the performers, who had all researched Peng in depth, unmasked themselves of their stage personas and spoke with passion and clarity on their personal experiences.

One of the performers, documentary film maker Imri Nasution, had a treat in store for the audience. He was one of the very few individuals who had gotten a chance to interview Peng in his final years. The theatre wall flashed with images of a wrinkled Peng. Staring bemusedly at the video camera, the Communist firebrand was incoherent and in complete loss of his mental faculties while addressing the questions posed by the interviewer.

Pausing the video midway through a particularly lengthy spell of silence from Peng, Nasution said, “I was really excited when I received a chance to interview Peng for my documentary Revolusi ’48 (Revolution ’48). It was like a dream come true for me. However, it seemed impossible for him to answer any questions. I had almost shelved the visuals and given up the project. But after several years, I noticed some sections where he was at his most lucid. I felt that these had to be brought to the eyes of the public.” He then forwarded to a clip in which Peng spoke with perceptive longing of his desire to return to Malaysia and be buried in the cemetery where his parents rest.

During his presentation, performer and politician Fahmi Fadzil spoke about visiting Bangkok in 2013 for Peng’s last rites. The political situation at the time was not conducive for such a visit. “I was more than a little bit scared, so I stayed at the very back of the memorial service. I also picked up and brought back a small booklet from the funeral. Imagine my consternation when I discovered that some people were detained at the airport in Malaysia for carrying the same booklet,” he said, displaying it.

Director speak

Speaking to this writer after the play, Teh explained in detail what followed the MCP’s retreat and Peng’s death:

“In hindsight, the Communist Party retreat to the Thai border was a political suicide. A new nation needs new myths, new foundations, and new enemies – and for decades there was no bigger enemy or bogeyman than Peng, the secretary-general of the outlawed MCP.  As the face of the guerrilla MCP who were fighting in the Malayan jungles, the image of Peng was mediated and reproduced – initially by the British, then by the independent government of Malaysia – to signify ‘Communist bandit,’ ‘Communist terrorist,’ and ‘Chinese traitor’.  As with many Communist or leftist political parties and movements in the world, the MCP was regarded as proxies of a foreign, godless ideology of the Chinese (CPC) and/or the Soviets, with no local agency or context of their own. Following the publication of his memoir, which created great interest for a relook into a marginalised history of Malaysia, Peng’s applications to return to Malaysia were denied.”

The performers speak to the audience. Credit: Vaisakh E Hari.

The performers speak to the audience. Credit: Vaisakh E Hari.

When it became public that Peng desired his ashes to be scattered in the cemetery in his hometown, Malaysian Home Minister Zahid Hamidi said there would be no way for this to happen, even going so far as to assert that the Malaysian government would station army personnel at the border with Thailand to arrest anyone bringing back Peng’s ashes.

Rumours about Peng surfaced again in Malaysia after his death, highlighting the paranoia, hysteria and demonisation that continues to plague his memory.

Rahman was an important political leader, against whom all Malaysian prime ministers have been compared and judged, said Teh.

“In Malaysia today, Rahman is generally viewed nostalgically and oftentimes uncritically as an all-inclusive father figure. The British initially viewed Rahman with suspicion, preferring to back his predecessor Onn Jaafar. But with Rahman’s alliance coalition sweeping 51 of 52 seats in the 1955 Malayan general elections, the British had no choice but to deal with him as the representative Malay nationalist leader in our nascent democracy. In fact, the British had been against the idea of the Baling talks between Rahman, Marshall and Peng – perhaps fearing that a deal or compromise would be struck with the Communists, with whom they were fighting a war.”

Teh added that it was during the Baling talks that Rahman began to assert his identity and authority, and display his sophistication as a politician. “In many ways, he was ‘performing’ at the Baling talks – for the future ‘citizens’ of a soon-to-be independent Malaya, for the international media, for the colonial government.”

At the end of the discussion, however, Nasution made the most telling statement of all: “We went in search of Chin Peng, but instead discovered Ong Boon Hua.”