I Love Malaya
By Chan Kah Mei, Ho Choon Hiong, Eunice Lau, Christopher Len & Wang Eng Eng
Released in 2006
In a nutshell
A documentary about former Malayan communists now living in southern Thailand and their attempts to go home.
One of the perils of making a film about a controversial political issue is that the question of political bias always gets tacked onto the film. I Love Malaya, however, tries to sidestep the matter of political ideology, and focuses on the very human element of passionately believing in something and paying a heavy personal price for that belief.
The documentary begins with the filmmakers’ quest to interview 81-year-old Chin Peng, the enigmatic and media-shy leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). On their journey to locate him, they encounter other guerilla members of the Party also living as “stateless aliens” in southern Thailand.
Unwilling to sever their ties with the Party, they have been barred from returning to their homeland of Malaysia, since they fled to Thailand in the 1950s. Will these people, who fought so hard for their country’s independence from colonial rule, be destined to live out the rest of their lives in a foreign land?
Historians may not like it for its wholly generous tone towards party members, but the documentary works well as a surprisingly sympathetic film, together with suitably wistful music. One of the stateless former communists in Thailand, Huang Xueying, in particular was an inspired choice of interviewee. Her natural feistiness and spunky character gave the film a humorous and engaging hook to grab audiences with.
When Huang finally receives her Thai citizenship and is able to return to her hometown of Perlis in Malaysia, you can’t help but feel relieved that at least she is able to make it back home after all these years. In stark contrast, the close-up shots of the columbarium in Thailand, where party members who died before they could make it home are laid to rest, are strong enough to silence the strongest critic.
However, other parts of the film feel more like missed opportunities. It’s hard to keep track of the fairly large cast of interviewees as the film interweaves their narratives. At the same time, it would have been interesting to see more personal interviews with Abdullah CD and his wife Suriani, both of whom were central figures of the MCP and yet appear as little more than figureheads here.
For me (and ironically so), the film is weakened by its reluctance to let go of Chin Peng as a political reference. His legal fight to return home is much less poignant than Xueying’s own long wait.
Similarly, the emotional interview with a survivor of the Bukit Kerpong police massacre felt strangely awkward against the other interviews, when featured early in the film. Her tearful refusal to forgive the communist guerillas for killing her family sets up a harsh tone that sets up an odd clash with the filmmakers’ warmer perspective of the MCP members.
Nevertheless, I Love Malaya remains a provocative film, both politically and emotionally. It is really a story that needed to be told, and it works hard to shed light on an area of Southeast Asian history that is often glossed over or hidden altogether. For a younger generation of Singaporeans for whom Chin Peng and the Malayan Communist Party are mere mentions in history textbooks, the documentary gives a precious voice to a generation of fighters who dared to fight for what they believed in.