Mark Teh

Mark Teh

 The 1955 Baling Talks

This ongoing project is centred on the act of copying and writing out the entire 39-page transcript of the historic 1955 Baling Talks, which took place two years before Malaya (subsequently Malaysia) achieved its independence from the British in 1957.  This action of writing is located across several libraries in London which have large collections of books and reference materials related to Malayan, Malaysian, Singaporean, and late-colonial British history, and is a parallel project to the 1955 Baling Talks participatory reading event that I am convening at the Singapore Arts Festival from May 18-19, 2011.

The 1955 Baling Talks remains one of the most important moments in 20th century Malayan-Malaysian-Singaporean history.  Taking place in a school room in the small town of Baling, Kedah on December 28th and 29th 1955, the talks were a unique attempt to broker peace and an end to the Malayan Emergency / anti-colonial revolutionary war between the British colonial government and the Communist Party of Malaya that had begun in 1948.  The chief protagonists of the talks were Tunku Abdul Rahman (Chief Minister of Malaya, and president of the United Malays National Organisation), David Marshall (Chief Minister of Singapore, and head of the Labour Front), Dato’ Sir Tan Cheng Lock (president of the Malayan Chinese Association), and Chin Peng (secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya).

Although the British colonial government was not participating directly in the talks, they were nevertheless recording and following the proceedings with great interest.  The talks took place several months after Malaya held its first general elections (a concession by the British government towards self-government), where 51 out of the 52 contested Federal Legislative Assembly seats were won by the Alliance coalition, consisting of the United Malays National Organisation, the Malayan Chinese Association and the Malayan Indian Congress.

The Baling Talks reveal a time of multiple possibilities and trajectories of nationhood, and the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of Baling were to have a profound impact on the Tunku and Marshall’s respective missions to London in January and April 1956 to negotiate for Malayan and Singaporean independence.  At the broadest level, I have been, and continue to be fascinated by the contents and contestations of the talks – debates about the meanings of nation, loyalty, terrorism, reconciliation, surrender, sacrifice and independence – contestations that continue to echo loudly in the present contexts of Malaysia and Singapore.

My interest and relationship with the 1955 Baling Talks dates back to 2005.  For the fifth Directors Workshop series facilitated by theatre director Krishen Jit, four young directors (Fahmi Fadzil, Gabrielle Low, Hari Azizan and myself) decided to work with the broad themes and issues surrounding the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), portrayed in Malaysian history textbooks as terrorists, bandits and bogeymen.  Former CPM secretary-general Chin Peng had published his autobiography Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History in 2003, and this was soon followed by the release of memoirs by other leftist and communist leaders including Shamsiah Fakeh, Ibrahim Chik, Abdullah CD, Rashid Maidin, Eng Ming Cheng and others who had been living in exile in Southern Thailand since the 1950s.  Suddenly, and with a great amount of controversy, alternative imaginings and blueprints of pre-independence Malaya-Malaysia entered into the mainstream.  This is particularly significant as Malaysia has been governed by the same ruling coalition since Independence.

For Directors Workshop 5: CPM (2005), I collaborated with three first-time performers (visual artist Chang Yoong Chia, designer-documentary filmmaker Fahmi Reza and filmmaker Imri Nasution) to create Baling (membaling), a physical docu-performance that re-presented snippets of the Baling Talks transcript between the Tunku, Marshall and Chin Peng, which we had found in the book, Tunku Abdul Rahman and his role in the Baling Talks: a documentary history (1998).  We had assumed that the transcripts would be classified, and were surprised that they had been published by the National Archives in Malaysia.  The structure of performance was such that the four sessions of the Baling Talks were interspersed with short eyewitness recollections of the event by journalist Said Zahari, and the performers’ own research interests of the Emergency era (including familial experiences and encounters with the communists, and the types of handheld weapons used during the war).  Baling (membaling) was subsequently toured to 10 universities, colleges and indoor sports centres in 2006.

In 2008, as part of the EMERGENCY FESTIVAL to mark the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Malayan Emergency, I curated a series of presentations, performances and participatory events under the theme of Re:Search Re:Source.  As part of the programme, I organised a reading of the entire transcript of the Baling Talks.  The event lasted over three hours, and featured students Bryan Chang, Amanda Low and Faiqsyazwan Kuhiri, journalist-playwrights Kee Thuan Chye and Shanon Shah, lawyers Malik Imtiaz Sarwar and Lew Chee Seong, film directors Yasmin Ahmad and Imri Nasution, and actors Anne James, Jo Kukathas and Mislina Mustaffa reading the parts of the negotiators.  For many in the audience, it was their first encounter with this episode from Malaysian history.

56 years on, the 1955 Baling Talks project invited to participate in this year’s Singapore Arts Festival is another reading of the entire transcripts of the talks. This time, I have invited as readers a number of people from both sides of the Causeway who are imagining and articulating better and alternative Malaysias and Singapores through their work in various arenas – political blogger and civil society activist Haris Ibrahim, sociologist Chua Beng Huat, actors Anne James and Neo Swee Lin, human rights lawyer M. Ravi, performance artist Noor Effendy Ibrahim, journalist-playwright Kee Thuan Chye, educator Leow Puay Tin, writer-publisher-filmmaker Amir Muhammad and Malaysian Opposition member of Parliament Nurul Izzah Anwar.  In addition, three members of the audience will also be invited to participate in the reading each night.  As the original talks were divided into four separate sessions, I have decided to cast a different set of readers for each session – thus the audience will witness four different readings-interpretations-performances of Tunku, Marshall and Chin Peng each night.  The four sessions also allow for tactical casting (after Michel De Certeau’s distinction between the powerful’s strategies and the “tactics of the weak”) against the readers’ gendered, racial, ideological and political identities and affiliations.

The audience will also be able to participate in the talks via a projected Twitter-wall, which will document real-time reports, responses, reflections and commentary by the live and online audiences.  The original Baling Talks were a media spectacle not just in Malaya, but across the region and the world too – it was framed as a meeting between prospective leaders of soon-to-be-independent nations and the “most wanted criminal in the British Empire.”  The notion of recording, documentation and surveillance is implicit in the mediation provided by the Twitter-wall; the British colonial government in 1955 were after all monitoring, recording and analyzing the progress of the talks very closely, and the original source for the transcripts is the Public Record Office in Kew, London.

In between each of the four sessions of the talks, we will be playing recordings of former Utusan Melayu journalist Said Zahari’s eyewitness recollections of the Baling Talks, excerpted from his memoir Meniti Lautan Gelora (2001), as well as film footage of 1955 events in Malaya from the Malayan Film Unit, the propaganda arm of the colonial government.

I decided to site the project in a number of libraries in London with extensive collections related to Malaysia (the School of Oriental and African Studies, the London School of Economics, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library at Senate House, and Goldsmiths), and the plan is write out the entire transcripts of the Baling Talks in books and pages that specifically reference the event, as a kind of reply from the protagonists in the 1955 Baling Talks to the authors of the books.  Many of the books that I have written on up till this point were published in the 1960s (many of the authors chosen were pioneering Malaysian, Singaporean or British historians, or high-ranking members of the British administration, armed forces and police forces in Malaya, whose work have been frequently cited), and most are not available in Malaysia – in several cases, these are the only copies of the book within the catalogues of the set of libraries chosen.  This feeling of transgression that comes with defacing valuable resources is further heightened by the decision to write directly into the books in each library – no checking the books out, as the duration spent in the library is part of the necessary commitment to complete this project.  The anticipated audience for the work are other students or researchers on Malaysia, Singapore, the Emergency years, or late-colonial British strategies in South-East Asia, and it is assumed that they will encounter these transgressions individually and most likely accidentally, if at all, when they are browsing through the books.

As for the actual writing into the chosen books, I always underlined the word ‘Baling’ on the specific page where it is to be found, as well as the names of the four political leaders at the Talks.  Aside from copying continuous fragments of the text in colour codes (Tunku Abdul Rahman in blue, David Marshall in black, Tan Cheng Lock in yellow and Chin Peng in red), I also write the Public Records Office reference code for the talk, “PRO: The Baling Meeting CO1030/31,” providing the reader a clue as to where the original transcript is can be found (and that there is a transcript at all).  At the time of submitting this report, I am about midway through the transcript and have written on 19 books in the SOAS Library, and three audio-visual resources in the Goldsmiths:

Books in the School of Oriental and African Studies Library

  • Simandjuntak, Malayan Federalism 1945-1963 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 76-77, 262. HG321 /436329.
  • Cheah Boon Kheng (ed.), A Samad Ismail: Journalism and Politics (Kuala Lumpur : Singamal Publishing Bureau, 1987), p. 121. 4092 /570262.
  • Harry Miller, Jungle War in Malaya (London: Arthur Barker, 1972), p. 164.  HG950 /287623.
  • M. Gullick, Malaysia (London : Benn, 1969), p. 120. HG950 /250796.
  • John Bastin and R. W. Winks (eds.), Malaysia: Selected Historical Readings (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 372. HG930 /198564.
  • Justus M. Van Der Kroef, Communism in Malaysia and Singapore: A Contemporary Survey (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1967), p. 29. HG329 /277196.
  • G. Tregonning, Malaysia (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1965), p. 35. HG930 /189739.
  • Meredith L. Weiss, Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia(Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 118.  2 /962855.
  • Mohammad Salleh Lamry, Gerakan Kiri Melayu dalam Perjuangan Kemerdekaan (Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2006), pp. 143-149. IBA320 /962242.
  • Musimgrafik, Where Monsoons Meet: a history of Malaya (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2007), pp. 168-169. 5/721487.
  • J. Ryan, The Making of Modern Malaya: a history from early times to the present (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 197. HG930 /169034.
  • Ooi Keat Gin, Historical Dictionary of Malaysia (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009), p. 32. 5003 /817772.
  • Richard Clutterbuck, Riot and Revolution in Singapore and Malaysia 1945-1963 (London: Faber, 1973), pp. 103, 112, 227, 257.  HG322 /296751.
  • Richard Clutterbuck, The Long Long War: the Emergency in Malaya, 1948-1960 (London: Cassell, 1967), p. 136.  HG950 /202856.
  • Richard Stubbs, Hearts and Minds in Guerrilla Warfare: the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960(Singapore: Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 226-227, 238, 240.  HG950 /730331.
  • Sidek Fadzil, Sejarah Orang China di-Tanah Melayu (Kota Bharu: Pustaka Aman, 1970), p. 110. IBA301 /306613.
  • The Federation of Malaya Year Book for the year of 1956 (Kuala Lumpur: Malay Mail Press, 1956), p. 87. HG031 315742.
  • Wan Shamsuddin Yusof and Arena Wati, Sejarah Tanah Melayu Dan Sekitar-nya 1400 – 1967 (Kuala Lumpur: Pustaka Antara, 1969), p. 227. 5 /910540.
  • Wang Gungwu (ed.), Malaysia: A Survey (London: Pall Mall Press, 1964), pp. 158-161. HG031 /180853.


DVD and VHS in Goldsmiths Library

  • Peter Molloy (producer), Empire Warriors : the British Empire at war 1945-1967 (BBC, 2004). 342 EMP, DVD.
  • Peter Molloy (producer), Empire warriors; Programmes 3-4 (BBC, 2004). 15378, Video.
  • Robert Lemkin (producer), Malaya : the Undeclared War (BBC, 1998). 8447, Video.

Mark Teh - copying and writing out the 39-page transcript of the historic 1955 Baling Talks, 1955 Baling Talks (photo by Syed Muhd Hafiz) 1

Mark Teh - copying and writing out the 39-page transcript of the historic 1955 Baling Talks, 1955 Baling Talks (photo by Syed Muhd Hafiz) 2

Mark Teh - copying and writing out the 39-page transcript of the historic 1955 Baling Talks, 1955 Baling Talks (photo by Syed Muhd Hafiz) 3

Mark Teh 1955 - Baling Talks (David Marshall, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tan Cheng Lock)

From left: Chang Yoong Chia, Imri Nasution and Fahmi Reza - in a scene from Baling (Membaling) which toured selected local college and universities as well as futsal centres in the Klang Valley. The play was directed by Mark Teh.

Baling (Membaling) performance by Five Arts Centre at HELP University College



Mark Teh 2006 - Baling (membaling) @ Universiti MARA

Mark Teh 2008 - reading of the entire Baling Talks 2

Mark Teh 2008 - reading of the entire Baling Talks 3

Mark Teh 2008 - reading of the entire Baling Talks

Mark Teh 2008 - Transcript of the Baling Talks

Mark Teh1955 - Baling Talks (Rashid Maidin, Chin Peng, Chen Tien)