Political policing: from Britain to Malaysia – Part 1

Malaysian culture abounds with myths about the undead and other seen or half-seen spectres. Occupying a similar twilit space on the periphery of our senses are the secret police, the Special Branch, who serve as the eyes and ears of government. Like the ghosts and spooks, political police are part of the Malaysian milieu, appearing as figures of mystery, fear, and conspicuous undercover dress.

Yet, unlike the undead, the Special Branch are not the product of cosmic laws, magic, or supernatural phenomena, they are the product of particular human decisions and struggles for power. In short, they have a history, one that largely remains obscure to the uninitiated, but several scholarly works in recent years have furnished us with the basis for deepening our understanding of the Branch and its role in history.

Rituals have been developed to give us power over spirits – whether to propitiate, banish or ward them off – but ordinary mortals typically turn to bomohs or other mediums in order to access this power. However, no special training or gift is required to understand the history and functions of the Special Branch. Such knowledge may give us the power to bring them out of the shadows of rumour and hearsay, and thereby properly situate then within our country’s political development.

Below I present brief comparative histories of the London, Singapore- Straits Settlements and Malayan Special Branches accompanied by some reflection on parallels in their development from agencies countering anti-imperialist movements to a broader role suppressing political opposition and dissent in general.

Much of this material has already been published in one form or another by other authors. I make no claim to originality. However, many people remain unaware of the history of the Special Branches and the role they play. Therefore, in the interest of political education and advancing human rights, I feel it is worthwhile to present this article, in particular its concluding analysis.

The First Branch

The Special Branch’s story does not start in Malaya, or even in Singapore. It begins in London, the heart of the British Empire.

The Special Branch of the London Metropolitan Police was founded in 1883, some five years after the first Criminal Investigation Department was established. The CID was the detective, non-uniformed branch of the police. It laboured under a cloud of suspicion in mid-VictorianEnglanddue to the nature of its work: undercover surveillance and extensive socialisation with what were considered to be the dregs of humanity.

The deception involved in undercover work apparently ran against the liberal grain of mid-Victorian social mores. The authorities themselves found that the detective jobs did not attract upright, high-calibre men.

At the time it was thought best to keep policing separate from politics. Political police were quite prevalent in continental Europe – the French gendarme was an infamous figure of state surveillance – but Britain had up to then not embarked on that path due to the success of other methods of social control, such as education.

The mid-Victorians prided themselves on the liberalism which reigned in Britain, but they also had an empire that was run on illiberal lines. For a variety of reasons the British Empire came to be run by men who had largely escaped or resisted the liberal ethos dominant in Britain.

This was an Empire that, by the mid-1800’s, was being wracked by incidents of revolt: the Indian ‘Mutiny’ in the 1850s and ‘60s; black revolts in Jamaica in 1865; and, the Irish Republican, or Fenian, outbreak in Ireland in 1867.

Unlike the locally-embedded constabulary system of policing in England, the police in colonial Ireland and India were national, barracked away from the rest of the population, heavily armed, and were accustomed to using spies and paid informants.

Two factors were to change the political policing situation in Britain by the 1880s: 1) the social malaise and unrest following the economic depression of the ‘70s; and, 2) the American Fenian bombing campaign of 1881-85.

The Fenians were fighting for Irish home rule and the ouster of the British colonial presence. After the failure of plans to develop an Irish submarine to sink British ships the Fenians turned to a bombing strategy based on the use of dynamite, which had been made viable owing to Alfred Nobel’s innovations of 1867.[i]

Hence barracks, public buildings such as town halls, the offices of The Times newspaper, and the government offices in Whitehall were targeted with bombs. Bombing with dynamite was less discriminate than the bullet or the blade, and the Fenians did not appear to distinguish between political leaders and civilians.

These campaigns of ‘terrorism’ eventually resulted in the formation of the London Metropolitan Police’s Special Irish Branch, which became the first Special Branch. It was staffed mainly by officers from the colonies, particularly Ireland and India, i.e. men who were used to a rougher sort of policing than was common in England.

The Special Branch started out focusing on political subversion and counter-terrorism – opposing Fenians and other radical groups such as anarchists and working class movements – but they soon started harassing more moderate movements such as the suffragettes (in 1913 they arrested Emmeline Pankhurst), and the Legitimation League, which was committed to remove the stigma of bastardy from illegitimate children. In the latter case, Special Branch officers were concerned that the League was going to promote universal bastardy and sought ways to undermine it. Some Special Branch officers also took it upon themselves to counter what they perceived to be the promotion of homosexuality.

We can see a similar expansion of the Special Branch’s mandate beyond its original role of countering anti-imperialist bombing tactics in the Malayan, Singaporean and Malaysian cases.

The Straits Settlements (Singapore) Branch

The Singapore Special Branch was formed in 1918 as the Criminal Intelligence Department of the Straits Settlements Police.[ii] It emerged out of a series of disturbances in 1915: first Indian sepoys mutinied in Singapore; then the Malay States Guides refused to serve overseas and also expressed interest in fighting against the British in the Middle East; finally, an uprising occurred in Pasir Puteh, Kelantan, an event now firmly associated with one of its protagonists, To’ Janggutt.

Like the original Metropolitan Special Branch the Singapore one drew on officers from around the Empire. Victor George Savi, was first director of Singapore Criminal Intelligence. Born in Calcutta, possibly of Indian or Italian extraction, Savi later became Chief Constable of Fife, Scotland. More influential on the Branch’s nature was Rene Onraet, who became the second director of the Singapore Special Branch. Also born inIndia, Onraet was schooled in Lancashire before joining the Straits Settlement’s Police Force in 1907. He spent twenty months in Amoy (Xiamen) studying Chinese culture and language (his Hokkien was apparently “flawless”), before also learning Malay.

Colonial Indian manpower was a prominent feature in the early days of the Straits Branch. In an 18 September, 1950 Straits Times article Onraet mentions how “two Indian C.I.D. men from India [Balwant Singh and Prithvi Chand] were seconded” to the Singapore Branch. This was due to a focus on containing the long-distance effects of Indian nationalist ferment in Singapore.

The Singapore Special Branch’s core work was spelled out by Onraet as the defence of the peninsula from the infection of radical ideas that would stir up the population. Onraet firmly believed that subversion was always foreign in nature and that the local population would always be content with the colonial situation if left to its own devices.

The Singapore Special Branch operated as a Straits Agency and in practice combined the domestic and foreign concerns that in Britain were normally split between the Special Branch and MI5, the British secret service. This meant that it not only concerned itself with localised political subversion, but that it also engaged in counter-espionage operations overseas.

After the Japanese Occupation and the restoration of British imperialism in Malaya, the Special Branch was reformed in both Malaya and Singaporeto address the threat of political competition from communism. Communism was a phenomenon with both local and international dimensions, therefore Onraet’s position of rebuffing external influences eventually had to be abandoned.

Yin Shao Loong is a political scientist with a background in human rights activism. He works as an environmental policy advisor to the Selangor State Government. This article is an expanded version of a talk delivered at the Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur in conjunction with Human Rights Day, 2011

[i] The American Fenian submarine scheme represented what was probably the first attempt by a non-state entity to develop a submarine. The two submarines built with overseas Irish funds suffered from major defects: one could not float; the other could not steer. (One wonders if the course of history may have been changed had the Fenians only engaged the services of French engineers, who today manufacture submarines resistant to submersion). The remaining funds were channelled into the bombing campaign.

[ii] The British administered colonial Malaya under several political units. Formal colonialism was extended over Penang, Singapore, Melaka and later Labuan as the Straits Settlements from 1826-1946. Informal colonialism operated via the ‘Residency’ system in the Sultanates of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang from 1895 to 1946.

About Shao Loong, Guest Contributor