Monday, June 8, 2015

Book Review : Kattu Perumal – Hero or Traitor

Poster : Book Launch "Kaattu Perumal"

I was fortunate to present a talk on the “Radicalization of Indian Plantation Labourers in Malaya” - a topic which rarely finds its way to public domains - in conjunction to the launching of Dave Anthony’s latest book “Kaatu Perumal – The Folk Hero of Sungai Siput”.

The other panelists were Dr.Kumar (MP Sungai Siput) and the author, Dave Anthony, himself. The book being a collection of oral history, takes great efforts to be compiled into a written format. And this needs to be done with great care so that the attention of the readers would be distorted.

As the book was based on stories and experience shared by local estate folks who had knew Perumal as a friend and enthusiastic footballer, the author should have also presented the perspective portrayed by British through the local newspapers.

For example, Perumal was believed to be leading an Indian unit attached to Independent Platoon 32 of Regiment 5 in Perak. The news which appeared in The Straits Times titled “Reward of $12,000 for Perumal – Sungai Siput’s Red Scourge” dated 7th August 1956, stated that Perumal was a District Committee Member (DCM) of Malayan Communist Party (MCP). It also stated that a reward of $12,000 shall be given to those who helped to capture him alive.
Ranked as one of the most notorious Indian Communists, Perumal also had other “nom de guerre” in Chinese – Mee Sai or Mee See.

ST - 19th June 1957
Another article in The Straits Times titled, “Death Comes to Scourge of Sungei Siput” dated 19th June 1957, reported that Perumal who nicknamed as “Sungei Siput Scourge” was executed in July 1956 by his own men. Munusamy, a member of his unit who surrendered to the British reiterated that Perumal was killed on the orders of a member of Perak Central Committee of Malayan Communist Party known as Muthu.
(Reader may find this infomation in Rajeswari Ambalavanar's Indian Minority and Political Change in Malaya 1945–1957 New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981)
ST - 7th August 1956

According to Rajeswary Ambalavanar, Perumal was an ex-member of Indian National Army (INA) and was holding the rank of Corporal. (Even though Perumal's daughter, Jegathambal, denied the claim that his father was a member of INA)

Instead, according to Jegathambal (based on information told by Perumal's wife, Pappa), her father returned from Singapore after serving in the British army – a claim that seemed to have no much basis in it.

If Perumal would have served the British army during the Japanese invasion, his loyalty would have been with the British when latter returned to Malaya. But, why was Perumal so critical of the British especially against the white capitalists planters? Why did Perumal decided to join the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) to fight against British?

In 1956 and 1957, there were two news article appeared in The Straits Times.

From these two articles, we understand that:

1. Perumal was a corporal in Indian National Army (INA) –The Straits Times, June 19, 1957

2. Perumal was a Commander of Platoon 8 – 2nd Company of 5th Regiment (Perak Region) of Malayan Liberation National Army (MNLA) - The Straits Times, June 19, 1957

3. Surrendered MNLA one Munusamy witnessed that Perumal was executed by MNLA men under order of MCP State Committee Member – Muthu in June 1956 –The Straits Times June 19, 1957

4. Perumal was a District Committee Member of MCP – leading an Indian Unit under 32nd Independent Platoon of 5th Regiment. He had other names: (Chinese names) Mee Sai and Mee San - The Straits Times August 7, 1956

Other sources of Perumal can be found in Boris Hembry's "The Malayan Spymaster". 
Hembry, a former plantation manager with Kamunting Estate, had regarded Perumal as an intellectual young man and intended to recruit Perumal in estate management. Hembry had also sponsored Perumal's education at Sungai Siput using the profits earned through "Toddy"[1] sales.  

But later after the war ended, Hembry found that Perumal "as a changed man". Hembry in his book has mentioned Perumal in 6 occasions ( in pages: 308, 315, 327, 331, 347, 384) and always intended to kill Perumal as he regarded Perumal to be the most notorious bandit in Sungai Siput.

In one occasion, knowing that Perumal known for looting shop in the estate and always helped himself with bottles of orange squash, Hembry even suggested to the Special Branch to apply cyanide on the bottles so that Perumal could be caught dead after drinking them. But this idea was rejected by the Special Branch taking into considerations safety of others.

The radicalisation of Perumal would have been occurred during the war. Beside the alleged INA involvement, another possible movement that would influence Perumal was the Malayan People Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). According to Cheah Boon Keng (author of Red Star Over Malaya) there were Indians were involved in MPAJA during the war such as R.G Balan and a Sikh named Gurchan Singh (also known as "Singa" - Lion in Malay) believed to be involved in MPAJA sabotaging Japanese plans in Malaya.

There is a strong reason to believe that Perumal was in MPAJA was his ranking in MCP political structure as District Committee Member for State of Perak based on statement given by his daughter that her father was serving the British Army in Singapore during war. Perumal would not have served the regular army; instead he would have been in MPAJA which was trained by Force 136 under John Davies, Spencer and Broome. Initially there were four groups trained at 101 Special Training School which controlled by The British Operation Executives in Singapore. These groups were sent to four major locations - Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and North Johor and South Johor. Eventually, these groups formed the first, second, third and forth regiments of Malayan National Liberation Army.

No Involvement in Trade Unions
Perumal involvements in trade unions were not clear. Beside statement given by resident of Kamunting Estate, no records have been found of his involvement especially in Pan Malayan Federation Trade Unions during pre and post war period.

Failed to Mobilize Masses
Unlike Ganapathy, Perumal failed to mobilize the masses into a clear direction either to fight for their rights as labourers or take arm against oppressive British administration.

Militant Approach - Gross Punishment
Based on accounts given by Hembry, Perumal was responsible for committing 20 cold murders around Sungai Siput. One of the gruesome murders committed by Perumal was during a morning muster where Perumal stabbed a conductor in front of some 250 estate labourers. Perumal’s sympathisers justify this murder as punishment metered to bullying conductors but Hembry regarded these as cold murders. Perumal would have failed to justify to estate workers for killing bullying conductors.

Hembry’s Good Reputation
Hembry succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of Kamunting estate workers. His effort to educate Perumal was seeing a great deal of charity by the labourers. When Hembry and his colleagues were targeted by Perumal, the labourers saw this as a betrayal act, as the saying goes “Biting the hand that feeds”, which regarded as ultimate act of treason in Tamil’s culture.

For estate workers, the “Periya Thorai" Hembry was regarded as “god” and created a fatherly image, who provided education for poor. Hembry was also portrayed as saviour and protector of the labourers as Hembry had his own home guard team called HOBA (Hembry’s Own Bloody Army).

Being a war veteran and involved in anti Japanese war, Hembry armed and trained his men on his own. In the event of shootings, he would rush to the scene setting example as a brave and daring leader. Therefore, Perumal was received with mixed feeling by the estate workers.

Perumal Portrayed - Womaniser 
As part of media propaganda to tarnish Perumal's reputation, often portrayed Perumal as a womaniser. He was often linked to one of his cadres named Rukumani [2]. Rukumani was named as his mistress and there was also a reward of $2000 for her head.

Last Indian Communist - Asi

Being a part of Platoon 32 of Regiment 5.
Asi is standing at extreme right in front row 

Selfie with Asi
Many Impersonators of “Kaatu Perumal(s)”
There were reports appeared in The Straits Times where many persons impersonated as Perumal extorted money from locals. The Straits Times dated 27th March 1954 reported that one Achutan was sentenced to four years of imprisonment for impersonation and extortion by Assize Court. Achutan extorted $175 from G.N Naidu, an overseer at Public Water Department in Lenggong, Perak.

There are many versions existing with regards to Perumal’s death. One of the accounts which stated in Dave's book was Perumal was shot dead by his own men when he was bathing.

However as this account remains as an oral account, the official account also available.

The Straits Times in its publication dated March 1st, 1958 reported that Perumal had been shot in the back after a "jungle trial" conducted.

This was revealed in a series of talks conducted by Perak State Information Officer, Howard. According to Howard, who managed to recover Perumal's diary confirmed that racial discrimination within MCP ranks existed. Howard alleged that Perumal despite his rank in MCP was treated with contempt by Chinese rank and file members who ignored his orders and at times even abused him.

According to Howard, Perumal was executed by CPM for planning to surrender with his men. Account of Perumal's death had been obtained from a surrendered MNLA member named Munusamy.

The Straits Times -  1st March 1958

In Brian Swewart’s Smashing Terrorism in the Malayan EmergencyThe Vital Contribution of the Police, on execution of Perumal, Yuan Yuet Leng [3] accounted that:

In the June 1956 a party commanded by DCM Chan Fei executed the notorious and dreaded DCM Perumal. The reason for the execution was a report by one of Perumals’s men that Perumal had decided to bring his whole section out and surrender.

A member of the execution section, who surrendered later gave the following account of the affair.

“Over cover story was that we has been dispersed by Special Force action and had gone to the Indian camp looking for liaison. In the camp were Perumal and eight of his Indians: two others had gone off to get supplies. We confronted and disarmed the Indians who did not resist; Chan Fei announced the guilt of Perumal and Central Committee decision. Selvam then executed Perumal, after singing some sad Tamil songs.

One Indian Communist Terrorist, who surrendered because of the execution, voiced his wrath in the leaflet written for the information Department as follows:

The Chinese Communists hate and speak ill of the Indian people and Indian workers. They call Indian comrades Keling Kwai, “Indian Devils”. They are very partial in giving food more to Chinese and less to Indian comrades. They shot and killed Comrade Perumal unjustly. Perumal joined the Communist and worked so loyally for them. To placate the Chinese higher ups he even killed and wrought violence on them. No matter how hard you may have worked for them, one day your life will be in danger. You know one Communist comrade, Muniandy, a member of District Committee in Tapah who could not bear the indignities suffered by Indian comrades, committed suicide. I want you to realise it and come out of the jungle and surrender to the government”[4]

[1] Toddy - fermented liquor produced from coconut sap

[2] According to local news, Rukumani believed to be Perumal’s lover and Perumal took former after sending his wife to India. Interesting finding stated by Dave Anthony in his book that Perumal’s wife was not sent back to India, instead she was sent to live in a different estate with a different identity. Rukumani was reported to be notorious rebel as well and armed herself with grenades. The Straits Times dated 21st April 1959 -“Sungai Siput is Freed”, reported that Rukumani surrendered to the authority.The claim that Rukumani was really mistress of Perumal seems to be very vague. During my visit to Shukhirin Peace Village in Narathiwat province in Thailand, I was privileged to meet and interview, Asi - real name is Ramasamy Perumal. Asi was born in Sungai Siput on Rayla Estate and joined the MNLA at the age of 10. According to Asi, Perumal was not keen in recruiting Asi at first as the latter was only 10 year old. But due to persuasion from Rukumani, Perumal finally agreed to accept Asi into his unit. Asi was one of the youngest members in Perumal’s unit. They were a few children under 12 years old in the same unit. Rukumani used to take care of Asi’s and other under-aged children's well being in the unit. According to Asi, Rukumani was not a mistress of Perumal but she was married to a MNLA cadre called Sahastranaamam. The Straits Times on 21st April 1959, (titled “Sungai Siput is Freed”), reported that Rukumani surrendered to the authority.

[3] A former Special Branch officer who spent most of his life being hunted down by the communists during and after the Emergency years. He was also the former Sarawak Commissioner of Police from 1981 till his retirement in 1984 and Perak Chief Police Officer in 1975.

[4] Brian Stewart, Smashing terrorism in the Malayan Emergency: the vital contribution of the police (Kuala Lumpur, 2004) pp 170


  1. Good account of the Indian Legacy to free Malaya. Sir, did you manage to contact Dr.Leong Yee Fong.

    1. Mr Narayanan - Thank you for the comments. All my efforts to locate Dr Leong YF turned futile.


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