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 tobomohs 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.