Global Asia and the Legacy of Counterinsurgency: Malaya Speaks and the Malayan Film Unit

Global Asia deploys the discourse of globalization as a reframing of an expansive geographic point of reference. A significant element regarding debates about globalization is whether it restages with greater efficiency the same underlying context for political and social violence of Cold War internationalism. By emphasizing the locus of the “global” in Asia, I address its legacy through the politics of counterinsurgency within an anti-Communist binary. The nomenclature of the Communist Terrorist (CT) within the terms of Cold War antimonies was codified with confessional reform. The terminology of CT has since been recast as the collective figure of Islamic terrorism, an ill-conceived euphemism for negation of the individual through random attacks on rights of movement while symbolically disrupting capital global flows. It is for this reason that I examine the extent to which Global Asia may be understood as a critical conjuncture for understanding globalized strategies of capital accumulation. Furthermore, it is my contention that the invocation of globalization is historically contingent upon commodifying the local as part of a globalized market dynamic following Hardt and Negri’s notion of Empire. Hence, Global Asia as a thematic may be heuristically positioned as a basis for imperial regimes that structure value, be they under British colonial rule, or within the terms of the postcolonial state.

Within this perspective, the short industrial film Malaya Speaks: Radio Malaya (prod. Malayan Film Unit, 1955; the video is password protected, and the password is: malayaspeaks1955) is founded upon counterinsurgency politics. Like Voices of Malaya (prod. Crown Film Unit, dir. Ralph Elton, Denny Densham [camera], 1948), Malaya Speaks attempts to claim a basis for multicultural consolidation and solidarity. However, it is the performance of speaking subjects who are animated by the modernity of radio. The ventriloquism of radio programming, as Andrew Hill describes it, is revealed as part of a relay of performing bodies, events, and locales (35). The film was produced by the MFU, and features the newly built operations center for Radio Malaya located at the Caldecott Hills Studio in Singapore. By the end of the film, the male voiceover narrator asserts that, “…a good radio service enriches a country and binds it together. Thus, the miracle of radio engineering helps to build a nation of all these varied races, languages, and customs. For Malaya listens as Malaya speaks.”

The implication of “Malaya listens as Malaya speaks” foregrounds national identity within the terms of post-war developmental nationalism. The spoken voice of the unseen British voiceover narrator takes on the quality of a red thread that manages to hold bodies, languages, and territory together. The film was produced within a production cycle of industrial films by the MFU that contributed to a tactics and strategy of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency politics structures the Communist as insurgent within the emerging Cold War moral rhetorical order. The broader implication is a strategy that shapes media in relation to military operations.

Film and radio extended the reign of the British colonial administration and became aligned with Malayan independence. In fact, a strand of Malayan nationalism was indebted to longstanding policies of Anglicism in the Straits Settlements, and Orientalism in the Sultanates. The shift from divided strategies of rule to national consolidation marked a shift in the ongoing context for a market-driven Empire of exchange and value given the might of the rubber and tin export economy. Anglicism and Orientalism were part of an educational ethos that marked the geographic and historical reach of the British Empire throughout Asia.

The British-led counterinsurgency effort during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) was precipitated by the reinstatement of a British resident governor after the Japanese occupation and the polarization of popular sentiment following the murder of three rubber plantation managers in 1948. The effect of Malayan independence, it has been argued, partially enabled a transition from British colonial rule to an American-led Cold War order that was rhetorically expressed as the battle for hearts and minds, and strategically positioned in opposition to the phantasmatic threat of Communism.

The legacy of Cold War internationalism may be understood as more closely aligned with the thematic of colonial modernity as suggested by Tani Barlow within the East Asian Studies context (623). By extension, and in relation to these terms, the construct of Global Asia could potentially refer to the linguistically rich texture and context for Sinophone studies, and the extent to which it actually partakes in an active context for multiplicity and exchange, against economic, political, and social uniformity. While it may be deployed to imply a postcolonial gesture of political and linguistic decentering, Sinophone studies promises a historically grounded context for oral culture as subjectivity and a collective imagination beyond the grip of the state. Brian Bernards’s recent work on the history of Nanyang University as a founding institutional post-World War II context for Sinophone studies argues that the literary and cultural contributions of Straits Chinese communities became a means by which to examine its distinctive history and rootedness in the South Seas region. By contrast, and in the terms that I take up here, debates around English language education in Malaya were intrinsic to the very nature of British cultural hegemony. They were based on a dualistic policy for educational development in relation to a multi-racial construct for national identity. The MFU in concert with Radio Malaya were deployed to reinforce administrative strategies as rhetorical model for a multiracial national identity.

In fact, the ongoing approaches to language acquisition and the organization of schools became critical to an emergent developmentalist construct. The postwar British-led counterinsurgency relied upon the authority structure of English language instruction and colonial education that was most fully developed in the Straits settlement territories of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang. As Alastair Pennycook has explained, English Language Teaching (ELT) came to serve as an institution indebted to colonial educational prerogatives (74). It has been part of a complementary address to a multiplicity of Englishes conceived within the international context associated with the power and politics of English in a variety of postcolonial contexts.

As an extension of the Sinophone thematic, Arjuna Parakrama’s notion of “malchemy” is of great significance. He invokes this term as a pairing of “malediction,” or curse, and “alchemy,” that seeks to circumvent the normative parameters of standard English. In particular, he points to Sri Lankan English as an example of reclassification and reinvention inspired by Braj Kachru (119). This serves as a critique of the elocutionary norms and legacy of ELT as an underlying malchemy of indirect rule. We can further claim that the effects of film and radio production extend educational linguistic training within the very same imperial regime of governmentality.

Malaya Speaks points to film and radio as significant historical referents for the mediation of the voice. The very notion of multiethnic Malaya that was recast during the Emergency references a quality of multiplicity but more specifically relied on the act of ventriloquism, in which Malaya speaks, not for itself, but only thanks to the mediating presence of radio. It is the self-assured parlance of the voiceover narrator that orchestrates these identities such that the grain of the speaker’s voice reclaims an order of inclusion against the disruptive nature of counterinsurgency. Malaya Speaks, as a propaganda film, refers to radio broadcasting as a form of security against the underlying threat of the Communist Terrorist.

Crucially, the Emergency continued well beyond independence in 1957, and UMNO, the ruling party in Malaysia, still derives its grip on power from the same toolbox of counterinsurgency propaganda techniques of false oppositions and exclusions under the cover of an essentialized conception of Malay identity. I have claimed that the “voice” of authority is grounded in the ventriloquist’s art of governance, whose source, once revealed, becomes cloaked in a renewed construct of citizenry. It rhymes with contemporary claims in favor of globalized subjects within the terms of the security state in the post-Cold War contemporary political order. Nonetheless, Anglocentric strategies of political and linguistic standardization remain an enduring vanishing point as part of an unfolding electronic modernity. Malchemy may in fact serve as a useful strategy of negation against imperial prerogative, be it the vestiges of ELT, or the postcolonial state. Finally, “Global Asia” as problematic can be called upon to reveal the underlying historical contradictions of the global and embrace a critically informed, language-based approach to underlying strategies and textures of resistance.

Peter J. Bloom

Peter J. Bloom is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Film and Media Studies at UC-Santa Barbara. His recent work has focused on film and radio in late colonial Ghana and Malaya. He has published extensively on British, French, and Belgian colonial media including French Colonial Documentary (2007), Frenchness and the African Diaspora (co-editor, 2009), and Modernization as Spectacle in Africa (co-editor, 2014). His current project, entitled Onomatopoeia and Empire, addresses the unifying context for radio-cinema modernity by reference to counterinsurgency and pan-Africanism.