The Impact of the Cold War on the Development of Trade Unionism in Malaya (1948-57)

By Leong Yee Fong

In the aftermath of World War Two, Malaya saw the emergence of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and its attempt to mobilize labour support against the returning British colonial government. The Pan Malayan General Labour Union (PMGLU), later renamed the Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Union (PMFTU), was established as a front organization to harness multiracial labour support and to work in close liaison with other left-wing political groups.

Trade unions that mushroomed after the War were invariably dominated by the PMGLU and used as tools for the realization of communist political objectives in Malaya. The MCP-dominated labour struggle, contrary to the objective of improving labour’s position within the framework of the capitalist economy, was, in reality, to oppose the colonial government’s policy of restoring the prewar basis of capitalist monopoly and the utilization of cheap labour for maximizing production.

Inevitably, the MCP’s labour movement was crushed with police retaliation, restrictive labour and trade union laws and the establishment of an alternative network of democratically constituted trade unions. The MCP turned to armed revolution in June 1948, following which a state of Emergency was declared and all PMGLU controlled trade unions were suppressed.

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Source : Leong, Yee Fong, 1992, The Impact of the Cold War on the Development of Trade Unionism in Malaya (1948-57), Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 60-73