A small, distant war? Historiographical reflections on the Malayan Emergency

Bernard Z. Keo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


The Malayan Emergency (1948–1960), one of the earliest conflicts of the Cold War, remains understudied despite the voluminous literature produced by specialists on the topic. Most of these works have focused primarily on unpacking the lessons offered by the Emergency in the realm of counterinsurgency at the expense of explorations of the conflict as a lived experience. This article explores how the historiography on the Emergency has changed over time, focusing on how it has been studied primarily in terms of its political and military implications with the key debate emerging over which strategy and tactics ultimately led to British victory. One school of thought argues that success was a consequence of British forces embarking to win “hearts and minds” rather than focusing on traditional warfare. Newer works have challenged this discourse, suggesting instead that the Emergency was won through strict and oftentimes violent “population control.” While these approaches have been integral to furthering understandings of the Emergency, the overwhelming focus on the military aspects of the Emergency has resulted in a number of gaps in the field, which this article highlights before concluding with discussions on how these gaps might be addressed.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12523
Number of pages12
JournalHistory Compass
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019

Cite this