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Words Siva Sithraputhran

Photography: The Star, Malaysia

If communism was the scourge of newly-formed Malaysia, then Tan Sri Yuen Yuet Leng was one of its greatest adversaries, a role that put his life in constant danger.

A career policeman and a stalwart of the special branch, the intelligence unit of Malaysia’s police force,Tan Sri Yuen Yuet Leng’s life’s work revolved around tackling the communist threat faced by the country.

Yuen joined the police force toward the end of 1950. From the very beginning, he was called upon to deal with what was considered the greatest menace facing the soon-to-be independent nation. It was a threat that persisted well after independence in 1957, ending in a peace accord in 1989, in which Yuen played a crucial role as negotiator.

In his autobiography Nation Before Self, Yuen talks about his life carefully and matter-of-factly, but the details are as startling as they are courageous. By 1951, Yuen was involved in heavy battles with communist guerrillas and sympathisers, exchanging rapid fire and narrowly escaping injury on more than one occasion.

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Injury And The Trail Of Peas

The inevitable happened in December 1951. Yuen was shot and injured barely a year after joining the force and just three months into a posting in Grik, at the time a tiny settlement surrounded by deep jungle in northern peninsular Malaysia.

Yuen had tracked a group of communist guerrillas for two days, aided by the trail of peas they kept dropping, having harvested a crop planted by others. The trail led to a large guerrilla camp, and while Yuen and his men were planning an ambush, they faced gunfire from higher ground.

“PC Lope and I were both struck down by shotgun fire as the heavy thud of heavy tommy gun bullets also hit the ground around us,” Yuen wrote in his autobiography. Yuen was hit in the chest and took a month to recover but was back in the fray by January 1952, this time escaping a burst of gunfire unharmed.

There were other near misses too. A tiger escaped from a trap meant for wild boar and leapt at Yuen and his men but fell just short. On another occasion, friendly fire left him with a flesh wound in his arm. Yuen was able to thwart assassination attempts with the help of colleagues and careful planning.

Stellar Career

Yuen’s career was marked by steady progress. He quickly became known for his dependability in the most delicate operations and his ability at intelligence gathering. Starting as a trainee inspector in 1950, he went on to become the Chief Police Officer of Perak state and the Commissioner of Police for Sarawak state, retiring in 1984 after a career than spanned 34 years.

“Yuen is an intrepid survivor of Malaysia’s life-and-death struggle against the Communist Party of Malaysia,” Tun Mohammed Hanif Omar, former Inspector-General of Malaysian Police, said in a foreword to Yuen’s autobiography. He was a soldier’s soldier, who was greatly admired by his men and led from the front, added Tun Hanif. Not bad for a man whose initial application to work for the police was delayed because he was colour-blind.

Yuen was born into a poor working-class family in 1927. He went to King Edward VII School in Taiping, Perak, but his education was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. At the end of the war, Yuen travelled to China in the hope of finding a naval scholarship. It never materialised. He returned to Malaya, finished school and won a scholarship to the Kuala Lumpur Technical College, the country’s highest institution of learning at the time, but was forced to leave for financial reasons. He worked as a clerk and teacher before becoming a policeman.

He succumbed to heart disease in October 2015. He was 88.