Sunday, May 28, 2017


John Davis, b 1911 d 2006, was by any measure a remarkable man.   He was captivated by Malaya.   He loved the country and its peoples.   He served ten years in the Federated  Malay States Police Service becoming fluent in Malay, Tamil and a range of Chinese dialects before transferring to the Straits Settlements Police in Singapore where he was posted to the Special Branch before he was moved to the Defence Security Office as a cover for his real job in counter-intelligence.  

As such and in story that has yet to be fully told he was responsible for acting as case officer for the Special Branch's most infamous secret double agent Lai Tek, Secretary-General of the Malayan Communist Party from 1939 through to 1946 when he decamped to Thailand after cleaning out the Party bank accounts.   

In 1942 JD managed to escape from Singapore to India where he was appointed to command Force 136 established to infiltrate back into Malaya in preparation for the eventual British landings.    He returned to Malaya by submarine in May 1943 and thereafter worked in close co-operation with Chin Peng, head of the Communist Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army.   He was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) and awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his war work.    After the war  he transferred to the Malayan Civil Service where he served in a variety of roles,   At the start of the Malayan Emergency in 1948 he was the driver behind the establishment of Ferret Force which was the first attempt to take on the Communists by hitting them in their jungle bases.   For his leadership of Ferret Force he was awarded a Mentioned in Despatches.   Later he became the principal advisor to successive Governors overseeing the resettlement of (mainly) Chinese squatters into 'New Villages' which broke the back of the Min Yuen (the CT support network).

Following 'Merdeka' in 1957 he was one of the few Europeans invited to stay on in service by the new Malaysian Government.    He oversaw Johor State, which had been a hotbed of terrorist activity, finally declared a 'White' area by the end of 1958 before moving to the staunchly Malay State of Kedah as Chairman of the State War Executive Committee and the Metri Besar's (Chief Minister) right hand man.   When he finally retired in mid 1960 he was honored by the Malaysian Government with the award of the JMN (The Most Distinguished Order of the Defender of the Realm) and by the Johor Government with the SMJ (Companion of the Order of the Crown of Johor.

But what really caught my eye was this tribute by Chin Peng, the Communist Guerilla leader,  read at John's funeral.   From 1948 to 1960 they were sworn enemies and would have happily killed each other.  I make no apologies for reprinting it in full.

Many people tend to believe that friendships cannot bridge the divisions of international conflict - particularly in situations where those with close bonds of trust and understanding find themselves in bitterly opposing camps.   I would quietly differ from this viewpoint.  I would even go so far as to suggest that perhaps there might be a lesson for our troubled world today in the decades long relationship that has existed between my friend, John Davis, and myself.

It is not that we were in constant touch with each other throughout this time.   Historical circumstances determined this was not to be.   But those very historical circumstances also determined that at no point in our lives, once we had met and worked together, would we ever forget each other.

I well remember the day John Davis and I first came into contact.   It was 30 September 1943.  The place was Segari beach on the Malacca Straits of Perak State in Japanese-occupied Malaya.   John was there to establish links with the outlawed MCP - the only active anti-Japanese Resistance group then in existence in the country.  After initial introductions John presented me with a his credentials - a letter signed by Adm Louis Mountbatten, head of Britain's Ceylon based SEAC.   I was there representing the Perak State Committee of the MCP.

That initial meeting forged an association that was at first expedient.  We both wanted to rid Malaya of a common enemy.   But both of us ultimately realised that the period of being allies in common cause would eventually come to an end.   And it did.

But I can never forget my time together with John in the Malayan jungle.   I remember him as an implacable leader in the most harrowing of circumstances.  On one occasion, in the Bidor region of southern Perak, John and I together with a band of MCP guerillas had gathered to receive a joint personnel and arms drop by RAF aircraft.   Things went terribly wrong.   Parachutes landed in the wrong areas.  Arms landed where personnel should have been and vice versa.   And to top it all we came under heavy Japanese machine-gun fire.   I was twenty years old at the time, John was in his early thirties.  I had never encountered such a sustained attack before and perhaps for the first time in my life I knew the feeling of real fear.  I looked across at John and he appeared calm and in control.  That is the picture of John Davis that has stayed in my mind all these years.

John was also a man of principle and I recognised that very early on.   I came to appreciate it when our guerillas became his group's Security Force at the hill-top Blantan camp.   I knew it when the MCP signed the Blantan Agreement with SEAC on 26 February 1945.   This tied his cause and mine to an honorable agreement, albeit of limited duration.

I knew it when I saw him again during the Malayan Emergency.   We renewed old ties at the so called Baling peace talks in northern Malaya held on 28-29 December 1955.  Sadly these failed.   Because of our wartime association John had been deputised to look after me at Baling during the MCP's negotiations with Malaya's Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singapore's David Marshall.   John escorted me to and from each bargaining session.   My onetime ally was now my enemy.   We both acknowledged this fact.  But at no point during that Baling episode did I feel any personal hostility on his part.   Neither did I feel any antagonism towards him.     We both strongly differed on matters of politics and principle, but there was still great mutual respect which precluded personal enmity.

The world moves on.    Visions and  goals likewise modify and change from all perspectives.  So, when I visited the United Kingdom in 1998, I sought out my old friend John Davis.     It was my way of showing my deep gratitude for a man who, despite being vehemently opposed to my anti-British colonial struggle, always treated me fairly and decently.       You cannot ask more of a man or a friend.   John Davis is a great loss to this troubled world.

One final thought.  When John and I got together in Britain that day in 1998 he gently laid down the ground rules for our reunion. 'Chin Peng' he said, 'lets just talk about the good old days'. And that is how I will always remember him - John Davis in the good old days.

What a tribute.   I would have liked to have met John Davis.


No comments: