In February 1947, in a secret safe house on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the longtime leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) hurriedly filled a suitcase with upward of $1 million in gold and local currencies. Disappearing with almost the entirety of his party’s funds, the secretary-general, known by the alias Lai Tek, never again stepped foot in the then-British colony of Malaya (now Malaysia).
Several months after his disappearance, Lai Tek—a career spy who alternatively pledged allegiance to three different countries—was reported dead in Thailand. As Chin Peng, the guerrilla leader who succeeded Lai Tek as the MCP’s secretary-general, later recalled, Thai communists (likely acting on Chin’s orders) strangled the secret agent, bundled his body into a hessian sack and threw it into a river. For the MCP, it was a just end for a man who’d spent decades betraying his communist colleagues.
Born in Vietnam around the turn of the 20th century, Lai Tek first worked for the French colonial authorities in French Indochina. He then became a double agent for the British in Singapore and Malaya, working to undermine the colonies’ growing communist factions before being turned again by the Japanese during World War II.
Rumors of Lai Tek’s survival persisted long after his supposed assassination, testifying to the enigmatic nature of a man whose name, background and true loyalties remain unknown. “What he was doing all those years is a mystery to me,” says Karl Hack, a historian of Malayan counterinsurgency at the Open University. “But perhaps he was enjoying the game. There’s quite a drug to being involved in high-level politics and plotting. And the game is ... part of it.”
Lai Tek’s story unfolded at a critical moment in Asian history, when European powers were struggling to hold on to their colonial territories in the face of rising nationalism, Japanese expansionism and the growing influence of political ideologies such as communism. French Indochina, which encompassed modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, had been under full French control since 1887, but in the aftermath of World War II, communist parties seized power, sparking bloody, prolonged conflicts whose effects continue to resonate today.
Malaya and Singapore, meanwhile, came under British rule in the early 1800s. When the Japanese invaded the region in 1941, local communist factions initially sided with the British, who were seen as the better of two evils. At the end of the war, British colonial powers reoccupied Malaya and tried to reinstate their authority, but they faced increasing demands for independence that culminated in a prolonged communist insurgency known as the Malayan Emergency. Unlike the successful communist revolution in Vietnam, the MCP’s insurgency failed. Malaya only gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, when it was clear the communists had been defeated. In 1963, Malaya joined with the British colonies of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak to form the democratic nation of Malaysia. Singapore later separated from Malaysia and declared its independence in 1965.
Relatively obscure in the modern Western world, Lai Tek’s espionage had geopolitical implications across Southeast Asia. Dubbed the “traitor of all traitors” by scholar Leon Comber, he brutally betrayed the most important figures in the MCP, rising through the ranks of the organization he’d been tasked with taking down by both the British and the Japanese. Delaying the MCP’s efforts to launch a revolution, Lai Tek ensured that a communist government never gained power in Malaya, contained communist influence in the region (Vietnam aside), and paved the way for the eventual smooth transfer of power from British colonial authorities to local leaders.
Lai Tek’s successor, the long-serving Chinese Malay communist Chin, uncovered the secretary-general’s treachery and ordered his death shortly after World War II. But even Chin knew very little about Lai Tek’s origins.
In his 2003 autobiography, Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History, Chin wrote, “Extraordinarily enough, nobody knew his real name. All, however, were most familiar with his Party alias: Lai Te. An order or directive associated with Lai Te commanded immediate attention, absolute respect and unquestioned adherence.” (The spy’s name is spelled in a variety of ways, including Lai Tek, Lai Te and Lai Teck.)
According to Brian Moynahan, author of a 2009 biography of Frederick Spencer Chapman, a British army officer who worked with Lai Tek during World War II, the spy was born in Saigon in 1903 to a Vietnamese father and Chinese mother. Moynahan suggests that Lai Tek’s original Vietnamese name was Nguyen Van Long; another source, Vietnamese communist Duong Quang Dong, identifies Lai Tek as Pham Van Dac of Ba Ria, in southern Vietnam.
In the early 1920s, the young Lai Tek joined the Communist Party of Indochina, a predecessor of the still-active Communist Party of Vietnam. Why he signed up—and whether he possessed any genuine ideological or nationalist beliefs—will likely never be known. But French colonial authorities, who saw all communist activity as a threat, arrested him in 1925, only releasing him after he struck a bargain to inform on his comrades.
As Comber, a British military officer who later edited and authored books on Southeast Asia, writes in one of the few scholarly articles tracing the spy’s story, “This was to be the established ‘pattern’ of his treachery throughout his political life: transferring his allegiance from one side of the fence to the other, without having any qualms in doing so.”
After a few years of spying for the French—a shadowy period in his life, with little available information about his successes or failures as a spy—Lai Tek left Vietnam. In 1929, he reemerged in Moscow, possibly working for the Comintern, a communist organization that coordinated the efforts of revolutionaries across the world. He continued to move around throughout the early 1930s, spending time first in Shanghai and later in Hong Kong.
Why Lai Tek departed his home country is unclear. It’s possible his cover was blown, but Comber argues that it’s more likely he remained in the pay of the French while living in Russia and China. Intriguingly, the scholar theorizes that Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh personally asked Lai Tek to work for the Comintern as part of his policy of “sending young Vietnamese cadres for further training.”
During the 1930s, colonial secret services kept in frequent contact, collaborating to maintain European powers’ grasp on Southeast Asia. Rather suddenly, the French seemingly passed control of Lai Tek over to the British, who were in need of informants in their colonies of Singapore and Malaya. The British hoped to embed a spy in the recently formed Malayan Communist Party, and Lai Tek, who had years of experience informing on Vietnamese communists, was the perfect candidate.
The details of Lai Tek’s mission in Malaya are shadowy. After disembarking from a transport ship in Singapore in 1934, he made his way to the offices of the Singapore Vegetable Growers Association (a front for the MCP), where he made covert contact with the fledgling political party.
“When he turns up in Singapore in 1934,” says Hack, “the interesting thing is that the Malayan Communist Party ha[d] only really existed for four years.”
The historian adds, “Most of the people involved would have been in their teens or 20s. They would have been cooks, sailors and night school teachers. And then up turns this man who claims to be from [Vietnam’s communist party] and claims to have worked for the Comintern in China.”
Lai Tek was prepared to be ruthless, and he took full advantage of the MCP’s naïve communist leadership. “Following his arrival,” writes Moynahan in his biography of Chapman, “several senior MCP figures were assassinated. One central committee member was murdered with a parang whilst cycling. … Others were betrayed to the British, who expelled them to China.” (For members of the MCP, deportation to China—then an anti-communist republic under the leadership of nationalist Chiang Kai-Shek—was tantamount to a death sentence.)
In 1937, Lai Tek organized a coal miners’ strike that led to the establishment of Malaya’s first-ever “soviet,” or communist council. British authorities soon closed down the soviet, but by then, the move had had the “the desired effect of strengthening Lai Teck’s prestige in the eyes of the MCP,” according to Comber. By 1939, with most of the original leadership dead or in exile, the British plant had been elected undisputed secretary-general of the MCP.
December 8, 1941, was a day of infamy in Malaya. Several hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor, which lay across the international date line, the Japanese landed on the beaches of northeastern Malaya and began a rapid advance toward Singapore. On February 15, 1942, British forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese.
Lai Tek went into hiding but was soon arrested by the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, as a suspected communist. Almost immediately, writes Moynahan, “He confessed that he directed all communist activities in Malaya and Singapore … and agreed to work with the Kempeitai in return for his life.”
Keeping his ongoing agreement with the British a secret from the Japanese invaders, Lai Tek began spying for yet another country. Acting on his information, the Japanese swiftly arrested and executed party members across Singapore and Malaya—a wave of violence that aroused suspicions about the MCP leader’s true loyalties. In a brutal example of self-preservation, Lai Tek had a comrade buried alive after he questioned the secretary-general’s role in the disappearances.
But the greatest betrayal was yet to come. Lai Tek invited top-ranking members of the MCP and the newly formed, communist-organized Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) to a secret conference at Batu Caves, now a popular tourist site north of Kuala Lumpur. The Japanese, aware of the exact date and location of the meeting, launched their attack as the sun rose on September 1, 1942, destroying almost the entirety of Malaya’s communist leadership.
“As they fled, the survivors gave thanks for one thing,” according to Moynahan. “Their beloved leader had not yet arrived. Lai Te was safe.”
The cult of personality that Lai Tek had by this stage carefully curated was immense. He told the survivors that his car had broken down, and no one dared question him. While he betrayed his comrades to the Japanese without a second thought, Lai Tek was savvy enough to keep the British on his side throughout the war. (The British only found out about his espionage for the Japanese after the war ended, when interrogated Kempeitai officers and documents recovered from the enemy revealed his involvement.) British agents regularly parachuted into Malaya to train and arm members of the MPAJA—but none were ever betrayed by Lai Tek.
Lai Tek’s devious balancing act only began to unravel when the British returned to Malaya after the Japanese surrender in 1945.
“Colonialism was past its expiry date,” wrote Chin in his autobiography. “The idea of British superiority was dashed the year the Japanese cycled down the roads of Malaya and began a rout that would climax in the battering of Churchill’s ‘Fortress Singapore.’”
Chin, who had survived the war and risen through the ranks (Moynahan suggests Lai Tek was grooming the young man for leadership), wanted to take the fight to the British. But Lai Tek argued for a peaceful revolution, disbanding communist guerilla armies as he once again began working for the British. “The sudden Japanese surrender had provided us with a breathtaking opportunity to manipulate events to our advantage,” recalled Chin, “and, rather than seizing it, we were throwing it away.”
Lai Tek’s approach to the British reoccupation of Malaya was the beginning of the end for him, even if, as Hack argues, the idea that the MCP could have defeated the British military in 1945 was “absolutely barmy.”
The once-infallible party leader’s fall from grace was rapid and dramatic. Supporters first found evidence of embezzlement. Lai Tek, it appeared, had several wives, mistresses and secret businesses in Singapore, all paid for by party funds. Then, serious accusations of his treacherous dealings with the Japanese began to emerge, and a visiting Vietnamese communist delegation began asking questions about his earlier work in French Indochina. As the evidence against Lai Tek mounted, Chin summoned the courage for a confrontation.
Lai Tek was called to a party meeting in February 1947, but he never showed up. Instead, the spy escaped with the vast majority of the party’s funds. (The money’s whereabouts have never been verified.) Chin, then only 23 years old, was voted in as the new secretary-general of the MCP, and Lai Tek was sentenced to death.
In 1948, with his treacherous former mentor disposed of in a Bangkok river, Chin was free to launch an all-out guerilla war against the British. His revolution became known as the Malayan Emergency, and it dragged on for 12 long years. Chin’s goal was to establish a communist-controlled government in an independent Malaya, but the MCP, made up mainly of ethnic Chinese members, failed to gain the support of the multi-ethnic Malayan population—particularly after the British laid out a timeline that granted Malaya both independence and democracy.
Chin’s revolution arguably helped free Malaya from colonial rule, as the British sped up the process of granting independence to the colony to ensure that the country didn’t fall into communist hands. Even after the modern state of Malaysia was formed in the wake of independence, Chin stubbornly remained fighting in remote jungles until as late as 1989. He died in exile in Thailand in 2013.
Lai Tak, meanwhile, has never fully stepped into the spotlight. Scholarly studies of his life and espionage remain limited, in part because the Malayan Emergency was soon overshadowed by the onset of the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Details of Lai Tek’s work are vague and inconspicuous, but perhaps that’s the mark of a truly successful spy. As Hack points out, “The problem, is if you’re going to work in the shadows, then you’re going to remain in the shadows.”