New Villages: From forced resettlement to permanent sustainable homes

How residents endured tough conditions during the 'Emergency' and emerged with a sense of identity and heritage

A new village in the 1950s

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The camp was surrounded by a double layer of barbed wire fencing. Everyone who wished to enter or exit the camp to go out to work for instance, had to pass through a checkpoint, manned by armed security personnel. The villagers had to present their Identity Cards (ICs) – which carried one’s photograph, address and other personal details – for scrutiny at the checkpoint. It was law to carry the IC at all times.

Body searches were compulsory. No one was allowed to carry medicine, uncooked food or even cooked food for more than one meal for a single person; kerosene, cooking oil or fuel; or even paper and writing materials out of the camp.

Curfew was strictly enforced and no one was allowed to leave or enter the camp from dusk-to-dawn, 7.00pm to 5.00am. There were patrols around the camp, between the two layers of perimeter fencing, throughout the night. Occasionally, the security might conduct random checks of one’s home during curfew hours, and arrest anyone found if the individual was not listed as a resident of the house. Photos of the people in the household would also be pasted on the walls.

If breach of security occurred, community cooking and eating might be enforced – only those with ration cards would be served a meal.

From time-to-time, there might be a roll-call for all residents to gather at the front of the camp. Sometimes, it was simply to provide instructions and important information to all. However, in most camps, there would have occurred at least one instance, when a hooded individual might pass by all present at roll call, and one or more individuals might be identified by the hooded person as a passive or active supporter of the rebels. Those individuals would then be arrested and taken away for interrogation. Sometimes they returned, sometimes they didn’t. One didn’t dare to ask too many questions!

Full-time employment was scarce. Farming was only allowed within the camp itself. It was difficult to make ends meet.

No, this is NOT a description of daily life in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, prior to 7 October 2023. Rather, it describes everyday living in the New Villages during the ‘Emergency’.

Like in the Gaza, a siege was strictly imposed and the entry of people, food, medicine, fuel and other supplies, including cash, strictly controlled. Raids and arrests were not uncommon, as in Gaza.

Unable to identify the rebels and their active supporters in the New Villages, like in Gaza, the colonial authorities resorted to collective punishment of the residents. Throw everybody into concentration camps! Make life tough for everybody.

The resettled people, however, did not have to endure carpet bombing of the New Villages, unlike in Gaza. So killings within the barbed-wired fencing of the New Villages were rare. Not so in Gaza, where some 32,000 people have been killed, double that number injured, about two-thirds comprising innocent women and children.

With the destruction of the Gazan cityscape and genocide of its people over the past six months – right in our face, so to speak – one would have thought that people in Malaysia would have grown sensitised to the suffering of other people – not just the people of Gaza, but worldwide, perhaps those in Sudan, Haiti, Burma, Colombia and Ecuador as well; not just their misery in 2024, but that of the past too, like the suffering the people of the New Villages endured during the Emergency.

Half-past-six politicians

But no! Our half-past-six politicians showed us their true colours again. Either they have thick skins and are insensitive to the plight of others or they have thick heads and have no understanding of goings-on in the world – like the proverbial katak di bawah tempurung (frog under the coconut shell). Or they are plain racists and have selective sensitivities.

In knee-jerk fashion, Ismail Muttalib, the Perikatan Nasional MP for Maran, questioned the rationale for nominating New Villages in Selangor as Unesco World Heritage Sites. For him, “doing so means that we agree with and legitimise the struggles of the communists”. For him, plain and simple, the residents of the New Villages were “communists”.

Two government MPs from Pakatan Haparan demanded that the Maran MP retract his statement and apologise. For them, the new villagers were forced to stay there by the colonial authorities.

Predictably, their intervention resulted in a shouting match, prompting the Deputy Speaker to raise standing order 36(9), requesting the Maran MP to retract his remarks.

But Ismail stated: “I will not retract historical facts. But if it’s coarse words, I will retract.”

At a later conference with other PN MPs, Machang MP Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal challenged the government, especially the DAP MPs, to amend history textbooks, if they disagreed with historical facts.

Umno youth wing chief Dr Muhamad Akmal Saleh, who also opposed the nomination of the New Villages, offered to teach the DAP’s Nga Kor Ming, the Housing and Local Government Minister, about the history of Malaya.

“There is no need for this proposal. Full stop,” Akmal must have shouted. Yes, it’s the same “socks” guy!

Ramlah Adam, the scholar who has made a name for herself by penning several volumes on the history of Umno and its leaders, has deemed the proposal “unreasonable”. For her, we should not be glorifying the history of the New Villages, as they were set up by the British “to restrict the Chinese who supported the Malayan Communist Party with food and medicine”.

She added: “I think he [Nga] understands history, he might want to erase the dark history of the Chinese New Villages where some Chinese once supported the MCP…If he wants to erase that dark history, then he will distort history.”

In a recent Keluar Sekejab podcast, former Umno youth wing leader and ex-federal minister Khairy Jamaluddin discussed the matter with former Umno info chief Shahril Hamdan.

Actually, there was no serious discussion. They simply sniggered at the proposal to nominate the ethnic Chinese New Villages as a Unesco heritage site, which for them was connected to communism; how so, they didn’t elaborate.

But they did make fun of the local government and housing minister, whom they labelled “politically tone deaf”.

Paradoxically, and in contrast to the Umno and PN politicians, retired Lt Col Dato Zarazilah Mohd Ali, president of the defence and security veterans’ group Patriot, voiced support for the proposal. In his statement on 21 February, he challenged the idea that the villagers were communists!

He said:

“the villagers could have banded together and betrayed rulers and government”. Instead “they demonstrated their resolute loyalty to their new nation Malaya and helped our defence and security forces to fight out the communists….No one of sound mind and decent heart can deny how Malaysian Chinese have worked together, fought together and stayed together to build this nation.

“Instead of celebrating a world heritage recognition for our distinctly deserving Chinese New Villages, we seem to be drumming fears and sowing more anti-racial feelings. Instead of working towards gaining more world recognition for how our unique country preserves…we are instead seizing the opportunity to keep suspicion at a higher crescendo….And as much as the Chinese citizens of Malaysia have a right to preserve their past, all of us today have a reciprocal duty to preserve and celebrate our honest history.”

Faisal Tehrani, an academician attached to the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation (Atma) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, supported the listing proposal, as he felt it will help to “preserve the history of these areas for future generations”.

So, it is not a ‘Malay versus non-Malay’ thing.

Rather, it has to do with our half-past-six politicians making a mockery of our Parliament. Instead of deliberating on the matter seriously, they shouted in crude and crass ways.

The opportunity to reflect on the plight of the New Villages during the Emergency, how these villages might have evolved over the past 60 years, and their fate in the future was all but lost!

No reformasi in mainstream media either

Equally disappointing, our mainstream media did not try to rise to the occasion either. Unlike the Palestinian journalists of Al Jazeera and so many other Palestinian citizen journalists who have seized the opportunity to conduct investigative journalism and report courageously on the situation in Gaza, most journalists have not tried to probe the stories behind the case for nominating the New Villages for Unesco heritage listing.

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If they had done so, they would have discovered it is not the Housing and Local Government Minister Nga who is behind the initiative. It is actually the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) Malaysia, the national committee of Icomos.

Nor have the media explained to us who and why a group of young architects and planners from Icomos Malaysia are doing this. The media did not consult any of them to find out more.

Seeking Unesco heritage listing is a long-drawn-out process. Preparing the required dossier could take as long as 10 years, as in the case of the Penang-Malacca listing. It begins as an initiative from the outside.

However, at some point in the application process, Icomos Malaysia has to liaise with the government, not just the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (under whose auspices the New Villages fall) but also the state and local government authorities.

That said, it is true that the completed proposal for listing, prepared by Icomos Malaysia, will be submitted to the Malaysian government, which will then forward it to Unesco. Unesco only deals with national governments, not Icomos or any other NGO.

Fortunately, BFM, one of our radio stations, did its homework and discovered the organisation behind this initiative. Its host, Sharad Kuttan, conducted this interview with Dr Keith Tan of Taylor’s University, School of Architecture, also a member of Icomos Malaysia’s committee. All this information would have been useful to share with the wider public.

Unfortunately, the local media allowed themselves to be manipulated by the politicians who predictably turned this into a racial issue. Yes, the “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government has been disappointing, So, too, the media – still no reformasi (reforms) there either.

In the remainder of this article, let me offer a framework about how we might want to understand the origins and evolution of the New Villages.

Phase 1: New Villages, security and the Emergency (1950s and 1960s)

In 1951 and 1952, the British colonial government compelled 1.2 million rural dwellers, about a seventh of the Malayan population then, into about 600 new settlements.

Some 650,000 people (32% Malays, 45% Chinese, 18% Indians and 5% Javanese and others) were “regrouped” in rubber estates, tin mines and around existing towns.

Another 573,000 people (85% Chinese, 9% Malays, 4% Indians and 1% others) were resettled into 480 “New Villages”, often located miles away from their original homes. Almost half of these villages were established in Perak and Johor. In these two states, plus Pahang and Selangor, some 63% of these villages were established, housing 84.6% of the total population of these new settlements.

This regrouping and resettlement processes formed the backbone of the counter-insurgency effort to fight the Communist Party of Malaya. Under the Briggs Plan, the regrouping areas and New Villages were securitised. No doubt, resettlement prevented the party from reaching its supporters and sympathisers, denying them recruits, information, funds, food and other supplies.

The most comprehensive account of the Emergency is Anthony Short’s The Communist Insurrection in Malaya 1948-1960 (London: Frederick Muller, 1975). In chapter 7, Short discusses the scope of the post-World War Two squatter problem. In chapter 15, the author reviews succinctly the process of resettlement into New Villages, primarily from 1950 to 1952, and the immediate aftermath of resettlement.

Another comprehensive and balanced study is Richard Stubbs’ Hearts and Minds in Guerilla Warfare (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988).

These studies contrast with more ‘upbeat’ accounts of how the British defeated the communists and won the “hearts and minds” of the rural Chinese population through their resettlement and other measures.

In Dialogues with Chin Peng: New Light on the Malayan Communist Party, edited by CC Chin and Karl Hack (Singapore University Press, 2004), Chin Peng, the secretary general of the Communist Party of Malaya admitted the resettlement exercise was an important turning point in the Emergency. He also agreed that resettlement had been conducted harshly, hastily and forcibly.

Resettlement into New Villages was not a well-executed, let alone a well-planned exercise. In a reply to Anthony Short, the official historian of the Emergency, Chin Peng stated:

They forced you to go, and they burned all your house. And then if you want to resist, you stay in the house they don’t care, they would burn you. Some people stayed in the house, they did not want to move…moved all the belongings. And the British, they got the order to set fire, forced you to move. If you don’t move, then maybe you have to be burned…to be burned alive (p155).

Tan Teng Phee’s Behind Barbed Wire: Chinese New Villages during the Malayan Emergency 1948-1960 (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2020) is the latest book published on the New Villages and the resettlement process during the Emergency.

Unlike earlier accounts, Tan’s study is largely derived from interviews with older villagers in their seventies and eighties when he conducted his fieldwork in 2007-2008. He also consulted colonial records, which were previously ’embargoed’ for some 25 to 30 years, and hence unavailable to an earlier generation of researchers (including this author).

Combining these two approaches, Tan was able to restore a sense of agency into the study of the people who were resettled into the New Villages.

Importantly, Tan argues that the new villagers have to be regarded as a third protagonist in the history of the Emergency; they were caught between the British colonisers on the one hand, who were prepared to resort to harsh tactics in order to bring the villagers into line with British interests, and the Communist Party of Malaya on the other hand, who were not unprepared to pressure the villagers to rally and actively support the party’s cause.

Before Tan’s study became available, there was no ethnographic study of the villagers available.

Ray Nyce’s Chinese New Villages in Malaya: A Community Study, edited by Shirle Gordon (Kuala Lumpur: MSRI, 1973), was an exception. Nyce, who conducted his field research from 1957 to 1961, presented the villagers’ point of view on their socioeconomic plight (though not on ‘sensitive’ political and security matters).

The most important survey of the New Villages was WCS Corry’s “A General Survey of New Villages. A Report to H. E. Sir Donald MacGillivray, High Commissioner of the Federation of Malaya, 12th Oct. 1954” (Kuala Lumpur: 1954). Much of the statistical data of the New Villages in this article comes from this study.

The study sheds light on the problem of inadequate agricultural land, which resulted in these villages becoming unviable economic units. The report highlighted that the authorities were advised “to set aside some 26,000 additional acres in 1953, so that half-acre plots could be allocated to each family of wage earners for subsistence farming” in the event of downturns in the economy.

It further noted that such land was not alienated to the villagers. Instead, they were held as “village agricultural reserves” for temporary use by so-called “non-farming families” only when a slump in tin and rubber prices threatened their livelihood.

Significantly, the report concluded that “there was no chance of complete self-sufficiency for the New Villages” (p39-42) – for the major problem of land hunger, already evident in pre-war times, was left unresolved.

Based on the economic viability of the New Villages which, in turn, was based on their location, Corry classified these villages as “permanent”, “intermediate” and “supposedly temporary” – that is, “expected to disappear with the end of the Emergency”.

Phase 2: New Villages ‘rediscovered’ and incorporated into five-year development plans (1970-1980s)

Following Malaya’s independence in 1957, the Emergency Ordinance was gradually lifted – one district, one state, one region of the country, after another. The ‘Emergency’ was officially declared over in 1960.

Some of the control measures that characterised the Emergency Ordinance were either incorporated into the new Federal Constitution 1957 or passed as laws by Parliament, for instance, the Internal Security Act, or both.

With the end of the Emergency, all the regroupment areas were dismantled.

But despite the removal of the barbed-wire fencing and curfew and the withdrawal of the security forces, most of the New Villages remained. Conditions in these villages rapidly deteriorated in the 1960s, for several reasons.

First, with the end of the Korean War boom (1951-52), rubber and tin prices had dropped back to normal levels. So, funds were insufficient to implement the full complement of physical amenities and social services promised in the original Briggs Plan.

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Second, as independence approached, Umno, the leading ethnic Malay party, pushed for more attention to be given to rural development in Malay areas. Too much attention and funds had been accorded to the resettlement process, which largely benefited the rural Chinese. With the victory of the radical Islamic party, the Pan Malaya Islamic Party (PMIP), in Kelantan and Terengganu in the 1959 general election, such redirection of funds by the Umno-led Alliance was deemed all the more necessary.

Third, new attention was given to the formation of Malaysia (which united Malaya with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak) in 1963; the resulting ‘confrontation’ with Sukarno’s Indonesia, which opposed the formation of Malaysia; and the break-up with Singapore, which separated from the new federation in 1965.

Finally, using the confrontation with Indonesia as the reason, local government elections were suspended in the early 1960s. These elections had been introduced since 1952 to promote democratisation and to pave the way for independence. With the suspension, elections for the municipalities, town councils and local councils in the New Villages were halted. This was an additional reason which led to the neglect of these settlements in the late 1960s.

Fortunately, the New Villages were ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1970s. Due to a new security problem emerging in central Perak, the socioeconomic problems of these villages in Perak were highlighted as the security forces conducted their operations. The press wrote of the “shabby and dilapidated” homes “bordering on the squalid”. “Illegal farming”, “land hunger” and “lack of tenure” were headlined. The villagers were described as a people “who had been forgotten for over a decade” (The Straits Times, 3-5 November 1971).

The New Villages had turned old.

A group of MCA youth wing members rediscovered these settlements as well. A so-called “Perak Task Force”, which was set up, took to grassroots mobilisation in the Perak New Villages, the largest concentration of such villages in any state in the country.

They pointed out that the original resettlement plans of the British were never fully implemented. The government needed to look into their plight.

The new media attention and the rediscovery of New Villages by the MCA youth wing and its Perak taskforce contributed to a round of new studies on these villages.

Unlike the earlier studies which revolved around the question of security, the new set of investigations focused on the question of poverty and the need for development aid in the New Villages. These studies argued that the Chinese in these settlements were part of the poor in Malaysia. They called on the government to recognise these villages as poor, and to incorporate them into the government’s five-year development plans.

Dr Lim Keng Yaik was one of those involved in the Perak taskforce initiative. Having led a revolt of the MCA ‘young Turks’ against the ‘old guard’ (gathered around Tan Siew Sin), Lim was then appointed to the Prime Minister’s Department. There, he was placed in charge of the New Villages, which were then incorporated into the government’s five-year development plans.

Soon, a small proportion of total New Economic Policy (NEP) allocations was made available for the New Villages again. Had it not been for this official aid, small though it might have been, these villages would have turned into slums and massive out-migration would have occurred. Indeed, these settlements might have disappeared altogether.

A related problem in improving socioeconomic conditions in the New Villages was that the portfolio for these settlements was passed from the Prime Minister’s Department, where it was first located, to ministry after ministry, and from department to department.

Finally, in the early 1990s, the portfolio found a permanent home under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

Phase 3: Renewal of land titles facilitated permanency and ‘developmentalism’ (1990s onwards)

From the late 1980s, more foreign direct investment flowed into Malaysia, egging on the nation’s industrialisation.

In the 1990s, the construction sector boomed, requiring capital investments, technical know-how and much labour. The resulting labour shortage led to the recruitment of some four to five million foreign workers – documented and undocumented – into the country. For a few years in the late 1990s, Malaysia experienced double-digit growth as well.

These days, we are categorised by the United Nations Development Programme as an “upper-middle-income nation”. The national poverty rate was just 6.2% in 2022 – though large pockets of hardcore poor remain in Sabah and Sarawak and in isolated regions of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu in the peninsula. (Previously, using the old poverty line threshold, Malaysia had virtually “zero poverty” by 2016!)

The country was becoming absorbed into ‘developmentalism’, the corollary to rapid economic growth, rising incomes and improved livelihoods.

New Villages today are no longer deemed to be poor. In the early 1990s, some 90% of these settlements had access to basic services and amenities. By 2000, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government reported that all these villages had a full complement of services and amenities.

A survey of these settlements conducted by the ministry in 2002 revealed that the country had 452 New Villages with a total population of 1.25 million residents.

The overall number of New Villages had dropped by 2002 because of the closure of remotely located villages, which were altogether unviable. The population in these villages had also dropped because the 2002 data apparently did not include the “urbanised villages”, whose populations had been incorporated into the total for their respective local authorities.

Nowadays, the focus is on transforming the New Villages into residential-cum-employment-friendly “urbanised or intermediate villages” that are sustainable and that can improve their residents’ quality of life.

We are talking about improvements in education, public transport and health facilities, either in the New Villages or their vicinity. Improving the quality of life would also mean establishing crime-free communities and clean and healthy neighbourhoods, with a sense of heritage, identity and belonging for residents.

We also see a greater desire to make local governments more competent, accountable and transparent in their dealings with residents, indeed to revive elected local government.

It was in this context that then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced in November 1990 that the New Villages would henceforth be known simply as “villages” like some 19,000 other traditional villages. There was no longer a need for them to be differentiated from other villages from a security point of view.

A name change, it was hoped, would not only remove the stigma associated with being a “black area” associated with the communists and the Emergency. The hope was that it would also encourage ethnic Malays and Indians to move in and so facilitate national integration.

The notion of “muhibah [goodwill] villages”, first proposed in the 1970s, when Keng Yaik was the minister in charge of the New Villages, was touted again.

Within a year, new names for 108 former New Villages were approved while the names for another 270 were “pending approval”. Another 74 had reportedly not yet submitted their proposed new names.

In keeping with this ‘erasure’, there was also no longer any “special allocation” for the New Villages as a poor target group in the Sixth Malaysia Plan (1991-1995).

The New Villages were placed under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (for the “urbanised villages”) or the Ministry of Rural Development (for the remotely located New Villages). Allocations for these villages were directed to one or the other ministry during the late 1990s.

As it turned out, Mahathir’s exercise to rename these villages and to stop referring to these villages as New Villages was reversed. After Mahathir stepped down as Prime Minister, the use of the term New Villages was revived by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in 2004!

Apparently, special allocations for New Villages were so designated again in the follow-up five-year development plans, rather than incorporating them under the allocations of particular ministries. Considerable controversy arose over these changes.

The renaming exercise and the controversies obscured a more significant policy decision, first undertaken by the National Land Council, in a meeting of state governments in November 1988. First proposed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and supported by Mahathir, the state government agreed “in principle” to renew the leases of the housing lots in all the New Villages.

The impending expiry of lease was an issue that had created much frustration among villagers for about a decade. By the early 1990s, villagers who were on 30-year leases (which were first issued in the early 1950s) needed to have their leases extended. Similarly, those villagers who were on 60-year leases had to begin the renewal exercise too.

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That said, the implementation of this important decision was delayed, again and again. Data obtained from the state governments by the Housing and Local Government Ministry showed that 98,340 housing lots on New Villages land totalling 20,244 hectares were awaiting regularisation in August 1991.

Of these, 83,600 were still held under “approved applications” (a form of semi-permanent title) and another 9,990 under temporary occupation licences (TOLs). Put another way, 85% of the housing lots were not yet regularised. They were “pending” (while another 1,918 lots were without any documentation altogether).

Several reasons lay behind this delay.

First, the lease extension exercise required that semi-permanent titles like the approved applications and the TOLs had to be converted to permanent titles first, before the extensions of the leases could proceed. Fees needed to be paid too, for conversion of the approved applications and the TOLs to permanent titles.

Second, the premium rates charged for conversion were stiff, especially for the urbanised villages. These New Villages would be subjected to the rates for the surrounding towns.

For example, the villagers of Machang Bubok New Village, located outside Bukit Mertajam in Penang, complained that the original premium of RM15,000-20,000 was beyond their reach.

So, the then Penang Chief Minister, Dr Lim Chong Eu, intervened. Using his executive prerogative, he discounted the premium to RM2,000-4,000 per lot. Lim even arranged for payment by instalments over a six-year period.

Thus, the conversion of semi-permanent to permanent titles and the granting of new 30-year leases for those permanent titles were hastened in Penang.

A few other states reportedly followed Penang’s example. In Perak, for instance, an 80% discount was offered to residents who renewed their leases for a 60-year period.

Third, delays often arose, especially when the original benefactor had passed away and no alternative person had been designated as a beneficiary. Indeed, the regularisation of the leases for New Villages only took place in the late 1990s, decades after resettlement in the early 1950s.

This troubling conundrum for the New Villages was eventually resolved. The offer of new long-term leases at discounted prices, at a time when land and housing prices throughout the country were rising, proved attractive to the residents of these settlements, or at least their descendants. Most villagers invested in these new long-term leases if they could afford it.

This exercise resulted in a qualitative change in the residents’ attitude towards their own New Villages. They were now encouraged to develop a sense of permanency, place and identity, even a sense of heritage associated with these villages, after they had renewed their leases.

Tale of the human spirit

It appears that we might be entering a fourth phase in the evolution of the New Villages.

I am not an official member of Icomos Malaysia’s working group on New Villages. However, I had been invited to its meetings and informed about its progress since its formation in 2021.

I was thrilled that a younger group are now interested in discovering the origins and evolution of the New Villages and the history of Malaysia.

History is a subject that parents do not encourage their children to pursue when the latter enrol in university or college. The subject is poorly taught in schools. The textbooks used still present the history of Malaysia as interpreted by the Umno-Barisan Nasional government that had ruled for six decades. This interpretation is completely biased.

Hence, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued that there was so much interest in learning about the New Villages.

The group comprised young(er) architects and planners – Chinese and a few Malays. Several of them had grown up in New Villages and had belatedly discovered the significance of the homes they had grown up in. They had apparently become proud of their heritage and were now keen, as young professionals, to not only improve the physical wellbeing of these settlements. They also wanted to put these places on some sort of global map so as to offer a lesson to all, globally and universally speaking.

Indeed, there is a lesson here. The people of the New Villages have shown tremendous courage and resilience. They have lived through the worst of times (during the Emergency) and now the best of times (at least since the toppling of Umno-BN and the end of the Covid pandemic).

There were no well-educated and well-trained New Village youths like this young group when these settlements were first established in the early 1950s, in the heat of the Emergency, or when I was researching on these villages in the late 1970s.

With so much inconvenience and danger caused by security concerns during the Emergency, and so much poverty in the New Villages, which had grown old and dilapidated, in the 1960s and 1970s, the villagers were waiting to get away from these places to look for better opportunities outside.

With the renewal of their housing leases beginning from the 1990s, the provision of a full complement of the usual amenities, and improved development in the New Villages and its immediate surroundings, residents have discovered a greater sense of permanency in these settlements.

The residents are encouraged to invest in improving their homes and fighting to improve their access to decent schools, health clinics, shops, religious and other social amenities.

They have discovered the origins of their New Villages in the worst of times during the Emergency, and how these settlements had broken through to better times, despite the little official aid they received.

No doubt, the residents of these New Villages have had to struggle hard. Today, they are proud that they, their families and their fellow villagers have been so resilient. It is these residents – not the housing and local government minister – who are seeking Unesco listing for these settlements.

The half-past-six politicians have misunderstood this request as something associated with the buildings and structures per se. The request has even less to do with race and communism!

Instead, it is about how the human spirit – as embodied among the 1.25 million New Village residents – has prevailed over the forced resettlement, the collective punishment they were forced to experience, and the many socioeconomic difficulties they have endured for perhaps three generations. During this period, they had to put up with poor schools with high dropout rates, unemployment, illegal farming and minuscule official grants.

But how they rose and rose again, although they fell several times along the way. This is the pride that has driven them to share their story of endurance. This is the reason Icomos Malaysia wishes to share the residents’ story not only with their fellow Malaysians but with the world out there.

It is not as poignant as the story of the suffering and courage of the people of Gaza. But it is a similar tale of the human spirit that cannot be repressed.

About the writer:

Dr Francis Loh Kok Wah, a former professor of politics in Universiti Sain Malaysia, first conducted research in several New Villages in northern Kinta in the late 1970s.

His PhD thesis was published as “Beyond the Tin Mines: Coolies, Squatters and New Villagers in the Kinta Valley, Malaysia, c.1880-1980” (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988).

A subsequent study of the New Villages in the 1980s resulted in “Chinese New Villages: Ethnic Identity and Politics” in The Chinese in Malaysia, edited by Tan Chee Beng and Lee Kam Heng (pp 255-81. Singapore: Oxford UP, 1999).

The above publications may be downloaded for free through the links.

You might also want to watch this video:

New Villages in Malaysia: Origins and Evolution, produced by Icomos Malaysia in 2021

Francis is indebted to three great politicians (not half-past-six types):

  • Dr Tan Chee Khoon, fondly known as Mr Opposition, who was repeatedly elected MP for Kepong (which contains Jinjang, the largest New Village in the country)
  • Dr Lim Keng Yaik, the first federal minister in charge of New Villages (appointed by Tun Razak Hussein), who represented the Jalong state constituency in Perak
  • P Patto, the Perak state assembly member for Gopeng and MP for Menglembu

All three introduced Francis to the study of New Villages.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Zaini Bin Abdul Karim
Zaini Bin Abdul Karim
30 Mar 2024 11.42am

I have long ago lost all respect and trust to the current crop of nincompoops disguised as politicians, it amazes me how they ever get elected. More, I am disgusted with the electorate that has been so brainwashed until their brains are numb and can’t think for themselves in a rational manner and support these low class crop … in suits and baju melayu who only espouse divisions in race and religion only to remain in office so as to bleed us dry.

I am flabbergasted and I only hope the younger generations will put an end to this decades old nonsense!