After the fall of
Singapore, Lai Tek the ethnic Vietnamese Secretary General of the Malayan
Communist Party (MCP) and Special Branch agent and informer went into hiding. But in
March, a Chinese detective working for Special Branch betrayed him for reasons
that have never been made clear and he was arrested and taken to the Kempeitai
headquarters at the YMCA building in Stamford Road. He was clearly considered a
very high value prize. No doubt vigorously interrogated, Lai Tek broke – or so
it seemed. To save his life, he promised to work as a secret agent for the
For the Japanese, Lai Tek’s treachery was a marvellous strategic gift. A high
ranking Kempeitai officer Major Satoro Onishi was assigned as his case officer.
Contact would be made through a café on the Orchard Road or Lee Yem Kong, a
Chinese photographer who had been ‘turned’ before the invasion and worked for
the Japanese as an interpreter. Now Lai Tek had to try his story on his comrades
in the MCP: he claimed that he had picked up early on in the purge and,
thankfully, released after ten days. Many of his party admirers accepted this
story because it chimed with Lai Tek’s other apparently miraculous gifts.
But he had a narrow escape early on his new career. Communist Li Ying Kang had also
been arrested by the Kempeitai and somehow got word to party leaders about Lai
Tek’s treachery. To deal with this, Lai Tek arranged with the Japanese for Li
to be released – then had him buried alive, the truth along with him. He also
took up with Li’s wife. But Lai Tek was not yet safe. For other communists had
also got wind of Lai Tek’s dealings with Major Onishi or his subordinates.
(Only four Kempeitai officers knew about Lai Tek’s new role.)
Although he must
have been under considerable strain, Lai Tek either had his potential betrayers
arrested and executed by the Japanese, or denounced them as traitors to the
MCP. He exploited, in other words, Japanese anxiety about the threat posed by
the Chinese communists and traditional communist
paranoia about enemies within. With Lai
Tek’s assistance, Onishi was able to map an MCP organizational chart that
provided a near complete picture of communist activity in Singapore and the
Peninsula. Lai Tek’s position was high risk. He used the
Japanese to eliminate literally hundreds of rivals and thus secure his position
as communist top dog. He did not at
any time betray his British contacts like Freddy Spencer Chapman and John Davis.
Lai Tek’s was a ‘hedge’ scheme of astonishing bravura.
intrigued everyone who had dealing with him. Spencer Chapman recalled a ‘young-middle-aged
Chinese [sic] of great charm, considerable intelligence, and quiet efficiency.
He had a large mouth and perfect teeth and when he becomes animated his eyes
grow round and his eyebrows rose about an inch and a half…’ John Davis was remarkably forgiving: ‘I personally find a
character like that – a person who has spent the whole of his life as an
informer or traitor, or whateverword you like to use, for one side or the
other, then doubly, develops a strange sort of character. You can’t dislike a
man intensely just because of that – you’ve got to look behind and understand a
certain amount about it. And I don’t think Lai Teck let us down, we couldn’t
have got anywhere without him. But Richard Broome, a Malayan civil service official who
also served with Force 136 thought he was ‘devious’ – a nice understatement.
Once again thanks to Dr Leon Comber for his essay on Lai Tek.