Hearts and Minds: The Keys to Victory

This short paper examines John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, and his  argument that winning the support of the population was the key to victory for the British in Malaysia during World War II.

Hearts and Minds: The Keys to Victory

By Tom White

The Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960, was a campaign of violence and terror instigated by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), and aimed at destroying British control of their colony of Malaya. The British, after a series of fruitless efforts aimed at defeating the communist insurgency through military force applied a key lesson learned from their World War II experiences in Burma. The British realized that without support of the local populace, they had very little chance of success. The one factor which proved most important in the British victory over the Malayan Communist insurgency was their ability to adapt a political strategy which won over the hearts and minds of the Malayan population.

The first and most daunting task faced by the British government in Malaya was convincing the “Chinese population that their future was in an independent Malaya rather than one subordinate to the Chinese Communists.”[1] The support of the population was absolutely critical for the British government’s hope of defeating the insurgency, because the population formed the basis for both the insurgent’s logistical support and intelligence. Therefore the support of the population became a cornerstone of the British strategy for defeating the insurgency in Malaya.

One program in particular, known as the Briggs Plan, was aimed specifically at gaining the support of the population. Under the Briggs Plan, “settlements for the Chinese squatters, estate workers, and villagers”[2] would be created resulting in safe havens. These settlements would contain schools, aid stations, and other incentives for the populace showing the people that the government was serious about not just protecting them, but offering them a better life. The people living in these settlements began gaining confidence in the government’s efforts at protecting them, and by “the end of 1951 some 400,000 squatters had been resettled in over four hundred ‘New Villages.’”[3] As the people’s trust in the government increased, they no longer feared reprisals from the guerrillas nor felt compelled to support them. As a result, the guerillas began to lose their main source of logistical support and the government in turn started to gain the upper hand.

Another effective program aimed at winning the population’s support began under the direction of High Commissioner Gerald Templer in 1952. Templer’s program merged “the functions of the federal War Council with those of the Federal Executive Council”[4] for directing the war effort, but more importantly it did so with a cross section of national leaders from both the Malay and Chinese communities. Templer’s program resulted in not only having a unifying effect amongst the populace, further negating the insurgency’s hold on them, but also provided an invaluable political education for a future self-government.

The British strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the Malayan population proved to be instrumental in defeating the insurgency because it accomplished several things. First of all it removed from the insurgency their logistical support and a key source for intelligence, but just as importantly it helped to instill a new sense of unity within the people. This last point was significant for Malaya because now the seeds were planted for a future self-government.




Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

[1] John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 74

[2] Ibid, 75

[3] Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 75

[4] Ibid, 89

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