The secret agent, known as Lai Tek, the enigmatic communist swore allegiance first to France, then Britain and finally Japan.
In February 1947, in a secret house on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the long-time leader of the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) hastily filled a suitcase with more than $1 million in gold and local currency. Disappearing with almost all of his party’s funds, the general secretary, known by the pseudonym Lai Tek, never set foot in the then British colony of Malaya (today Malaysia) again.
A few months after his disappearance, Lai Tek, a career spy who alternately pledged allegiance to three different countries, was reported dead in Thailand. As Chin Peng, the guerrilla leader who succeeded Lai Tek as general secretary of the MCP, later recalled, the Thai Communists (probably acting on Chin’s orders) strangled the secret agent, collected his body in a sack and threw it into a river. For the MCP, it was a fitting end for a man who spent decades betraying his fellow communists, points out Smithsonian Magazine.
Born in Vietnam in the early 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.
Vietnamese secret agent
Rumors of Lai Tek’s survival persisted long after his alleged assassination, testifying to the enigmatic nature of a man whose name, background and true loyalties remain unknown. “What he’s been doing all these years is a mystery to me,” says Karl Hack, a historian of Malaysian counterinsurgency at the Open University. “But maybe he liked the game. It’s quite interesting to be involved in high-level politics and plotting. And the game is part of it.”
Lai Tek’s story unfolded at a critical time in Asian history, when European powers were struggling to retain their colonial territories in the face of rising nationalism, Japanese expansionism, and the growing influence of political ideologies such as communism. French Indochina, which included modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, had been under full French control since 1887, but after World War II, communist parties seized power, sparking bloody and protracted conflicts whose effects continue to reverberate 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 allied with the British, who were seen as the better of two evils. At the end of the war, the British colonial powers reoccupied Malaya and attempted to reestablish their authority, but faced increasing demands for independence that culminated in a protracted communist insurgency known as the Malayan Emergency. Unlike the successful communist revolution in Vietnam, the MCP insurgency failed. Malaya only gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, when it was clear that the communists had been defeated. In 1963, Malaya joined the British colonies of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak to form the democratic nation of Malaysia. Singapore later separated from Malaysia and declared independence in 1965.
The mysterious history of Lai Tek
Relatively obscure in the modern Western world, Lai Tek’s espionage had geopolitical implications in Southeast Asia. The secret agent, 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 had been tasked with bringing down 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 (apart from Vietnam), and paved the way for the eventual smooth transfer of power from British colonial authorities to local ones. Lai Tek’s successor, the old Malayan Chinese communist Chin, discovered 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: “Incredibly, no one knew his real name. However, they were all most familiar with his Party alias: Lai Te. An order or directive associated with Lai Te attracted immediate attention, absolute respect and unquestionable adherence.” The spy’s name is spelled in a variety of ways, including Lai Tek, Lai Te, and Lai Teck.
Biography of the mysterious spy
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 mother chinese. Moynahan suggests that Lai Tek’s original Vietnamese name was Nguyen Van Long; another source, the Vietnamese communist Duong Quang Dong, identifies Lai Tek as Pham Van Dac from 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 had any genuine ideological or nationalist beliefs, will probably never be known. But the French colonial authorities, who saw all communist activity as a threat, arrested him in 1925, releasing him only after making a deal with him.
After several years of spying for the French, a dark period in his life with little information available about his victories or failures as a spy, Lai Tek left Vietnam. In 1929, he reappeared in Moscow, possibly working for the Comintern, a communist organization that coordinated the efforts of revolutionaries around the world. He continued to move throughout the 1930s, spending time first in Shanghai and later in Hong Kong.
The lack of information adds to the mystery
Why Lai Tek left his native country is not clear. His cover may have been compromised, but Comber argues that it is more likely that 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”.
In the 1930s, the colonial secret services maintained frequent contacts, collaborating to maintain the grip of the European powers on Southeast Asia. Rather suddenly, the French seemed to pass control of Lai Tek to the British, who needed informants in their colonies of Singapore and Malaya. The British were hoping to embed a spy in the newly formed Malayan Communist Party, and Lai Tek, who had years of intelligence experience, was the perfect candidate.
The details of Lai Tek’s mission in Malaya are murky. 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 nascent political party. “When it appeared in Singapore in 1934,” says Hack, “it was interesting that the Malayan Communist Party had only really existed for four years.”
Lai Tek had been trained to be ruthless
Lai Tek was prepared to be ruthless and took full advantage of the naive communist leadership of the MCP. “After his arrival,” Moynahan writes in his biography of Chapman, “several high-ranking figures in the MCP were assassinated. A member of the central committee was killed while riding a bicycle. … Others were betrayed to the British, who expelled them to China.” For MCP members, deportation to China, then an anti-communist republic under the 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 the first “Soviet” or communist council in Malaya. British authorities soon shut down the organization, but by then, the move had “the desired effect of strengthening Lai Teck’s prestige in the eyes of the MCP,” according to Comber. By 1939 most of the original leadership was dead or in exile.
December 8, 1941 was a terrible day in Malaya. Hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese landed on the beaches of northeastern Malaya and began a rapid advance toward Singapore. On 15 February 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, Moynahan writes, “He confessed to directing all communist activities in Malaya and Singapore … and agreed to work with the Kempeitai in exchange for his life.”
Betrayal to escape alive
Keeping his permanent agreement with the British a secret from the Japanese invaders, Lai Tek began spying for yet another country. Acting on his information, the Japanese quickly arrested and executed party members in Singapore and Malaya – a wave of violence that raised suspicions about the true loyalties of the MCP leader.
In a brutal example of self-preservation, Lai Tek has a comrade buried alive after questioning the Secretary General’s role in the disappearances.
But the greatest betrayal was yet to come. Lai Tek invited senior members of the MCP and the newly formed communist-organized Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) to a secret conference at Batu Caves, now a popular tourist spot north of Kuala Lumpur. The Japanese, aware of the exact date and location of the meeting, launched their attack at sunrise on 1 September 1942, destroying almost the entire communist leadership of Malaya.