Friday, 8 July 2011

Secret Service

I had originally intended to blog the review of this book I got from Monsoon. Then, when visiting the editorial staff at the paper, I opened my big mouth.

But perhaps it's better I did. As an account of the days before and after the Japanese occupation of Malaya, this book is a slice of history. While I don't know how much of a difference the review will make, I felt the paper was a better platform to tell people about this book.

My standfirst in the original copy was not used, so I've included it here; it does sound quite cliché in hindsight. But why does the print and online version have different titles?



Secret service
The memoirs of a British intelligence officer in Malaya surfaces to entertain, enlighten and enthral

first published in The Star, 08 July 2011


Malayan Spymaster: Memoirs Of A Rubber Planter, Bandit Fighter and Spy is the abridged version of the memoirs of the late Boris Hembry (1910-1990) who, according to the back cover blurb, "... spent a month in the jungle behind enemy lines ... recruited into the Secret Intelligence Service ... returned to Sumatra and Malaya several times by submarine ... liaised with Force 136 ..."

Who would not want to know more?

Born in South Africa, Boris Messina Hembry was barely 20 when he arrived on these shores in 1930. He bounced around several rubber estates in Malaya and Sumatra, and also joined the local volunteer corps. He brought his wife over from Britain and started a family.

When the Japanese invaded during World War II, Hembry joined one of the volunteer corps' many stay-behind parties – his first and failed foray into espionage – before eventually escaping to India. He soon demonstrated a knack for getting into trouble when he signed up for intelligence work in Burma, forsaking the relative safety and calm of a training battalion.

He would later join spying operations in Japanese-occupied Malaya, a job that had him travelling by submarine and taking a short course at Britain's famous Government Code and Cypher School in Bletchley Park, where the Nazis' Enigma code was cracked.

Hours after the murder of estate manager Arthur Walker (that eventually triggered the declaration of the Malayan Emergency and the fight against communist insurgents), Hembry organised his "own bloody army" of volunteers to repel the Reds – the beginnings of the anti-Communist home guard.

His contribution to the fight against the insurgents included input that would later be incorporated into the Briggs Plan that resettled rural folk into New Villages to cut off support for the communists. Social highlights included interactions with Sir Henry Gurney, Sir Gerald Templer and Anthony Eden, who would become British prime minister. Hembry left Malaya in 1955 with his wife, partly due to poor health.

With a title like Malayan Spymaster one expects a cool book. The writing, however, is quite matter-of-fact, devoid of the usual fluff and literary devices. His life as a planter, soldier and estate manager is more detailed than chapters that concern his time as an intelligence officer.

Even if this isn't quite the knuckle-whitening, real-life spy thriller the title suggests, Hembry's simple storytelling, charming in its own unadorned way, is compensated by a wealth of information and experiences gleaned the hard way. The reader is immersed in life in the clubs and estates of the British colonial era, as well as the dangers of the jungles and swamps during war-time.

'Tis heady stuff, this record of the days in pre-war and post-war Malaya by this Mat Salleh, one of many who spent much of their life's efforts on their adopted country and who may never be acknowledged in the history books.

Hembry never intended to publish his memoirs. His kin, however, felt that it deserved a much wider readership.

"We dedicate it to those expatriates of many generations whose devotion to that beautiful country and its peoples helped to lay the foundations of present-day peaceful and prosperous Malaysia," says Hembry's son, John, in the preface.

I'm certain readers of Malayan Spymaster will be grateful for the Hembrys' generosity.



Malayan Spymaster
Memoirs of a Rubber Planter, Bandit Fighter and Spy

Boris Hembry
Monsoon Books (2011)
424 pages
Non-Fiction/History/Malayan Emergency
ISBN: 978-981-08-5442-3

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