This article uses the research paper ‘Traitor of all Traitors—Secret Agent Extraordinaire‘ by Leon Comber as a main source. And if you’d like more of these historical pieces, you can join our HARI INI DALAM SEJARAH Facebook group.
We’re sorry to announce that we’re starting this article with a bad joke again.
Q: What happens when you hire a cow as a spy?
A: It performs a steak-out.
Yes, that was a bad joke, but more importantly a spy joke, because as you can probably tell from the title of this article, we’re going to be talking about a spy so devious, so cunning and so sly, his actions would lead to multiple Malayans dead – earning him the title of ‘Traitor of All Traitors’.
But to understand this spy’s story fully, we’ll first have to travel north, to what is modern-day Vietnam.
Malaya’s most notorious spy who wasn’t even from Malaya
Lai Teck was born in 1903, to Chinese-Vietnamese parents in the southern regions of Vietnam, then known as French Indochina. His Vietnamese name was, depending on who you asked, either Nguyen Van Long, Pham Van Dac or Hoang A Nhac, although it was claimed that he was known as Lai Rac around town.
He involved himself in the Indochina Communist Party at an early age, even getting arrested for his political activities when he was still 22. In an attempt to get out of jail, Lai Teck would agree to the French Indochina Security Service’s demands that he become an informant for them against the Indochina Communist Party. It was here that he began his career as a shadowy figure working for whoever would ensure his safety the most.
“This was to be the established ‘pattern’ of his treachery throughout his political life: transferring his allegiance from one side of the fence to the other, without having any qualms in doing so about reneging on his former comrades,” – Leon Comber, ISEAS Senior Fellow, in his research paper on Lai Teck
He continued to work for the French as a spy, spending some years in Vietnam before heading to Moscow under the request of party leader Ho Chi Minh. It was common for young Vietnamese communists to head to Moscow for training. Lai Teck would also end up in China for a bit, working in international communist organisations before heading to Hong Kong.
The time spent there in and around important international communist leaders would prove essential in his next mission – to infiltrate the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).
He was so good at his job, he became MCP’s Secretary-General
You know how in spy movies, the agent would head over to some shady looking shop and whisper some phrase that would be instantly recognised by the shopkeeper as their secret code? That’s kinda literally what happened here IRL. While in Hong Kong, Lai Teck visited a grocery store and identified himself as just another communist member, hellbent on bringing down global capitalism. The shopkeep realised he was speaking to a fellow commie, and provided him the funds to travel to Singapore to spread the revolution… or so he thought.
See, the reality was that Lai Teck was about to meet up with the Singapore Special Branch, part of the British’s police force. During his time as a French spy against the Vietnamese Communists, his contact was passed over to the Brits, like a favour from one coloniser to another. The Brits wanted him to infiltrate the Malayan Communist Party as he had all the credentials needed to look like just another commie who wanted to help with the struggle against the colonisers.
Lai Teck proved to be a good spy, channeling all his inner 007-ness and getting the British significant amounts of info. Many MCP members would end up arrested by the British and exiled to China. Meanwhile, the authorities would also return the favour by taking a hands off approach towards any MCP activities that were being led by Lai Teck, boosting his reputation within the party. Things went so well for him in fact, that he ended up being elected as the MCP’s Secretary-General by 1939. It was an incredible move from the Singapore Special Branch – no one from the MCP suspected a thing, as Lai Teck seemed to be a great communist leader, bolstered by his time in Vietnam and Moscow.
But alas, there was a greater common enemy for the Communists and the British upon the horizon. In 1941, with World War 2 underway, the Japanese would begin its occupation of Malaya and Singapore. The British were completely overwhelmed, and so took all the help they could get, which included working with MCP.
But Lai Teck crippled the MCP’s anti-Japanese war effort
We know for most of our lives, we’ve been told that the Communists were the bad guy, but in this case, they were genuinely trying to stop the Japanese advance and occupation in Malaya. However, with Lai Teck at the helm, part of their fight were disrupted as yet again, he would find himself changing allegiance fairly quickly.
Barely months after the Japanese began their invasion, Lai Teck was caught and arrested by the Japanese military police, known as the Kempetai. It was here that he began part three of his treachery – working for the Japanese.
“He was arrested by the Japanese kempetai… and taken for questioning to the kempetai headquarters… He broke under interrogation and agreed to work for them as a secret agent to save his life,” – Leon Comber, ISEAS Senior Fellow, in his research paper on Lai Teck
Of course, news of him being arrested and then freed spread thru to party members; most people arrested by the Japanese don’t exactly get to walk out alive. Indeed, while his new job scope was kept as secret as possible, there were still some close calls.
On one instance, Li Ying Kang, an MCP member, was arrested by the Kempetai and while he was under arrest found out that his boss was secretly a Kempetai agent. Lai Teck caught wind that his cover was blown, so he got the Japanese to release him… only for Lai Teck to immediately tell other party members that Li was released because he agreed to become a Kempetai spy. Poor ol’ Li was then buried alive. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But that’s barely touching the surface of his backstabbing antics. Lai Teck would also provide the Japanese the identities of several MCP members who had survived the original wave of Japanese massacres, leading to their arrest and eventual death. He then produced a chart depicting the structure of the MCP for the Japanese, allowing the party’s war efforts to be broken down by the Kempetai. Lai Teck even allowed numerous MCP activities to continue, only for the Japanese to raid, ambush and kill them. It’s estimated that over a hundred Communist fighters died at the hands of Lai Teck’s treachery.
Lai Teck even made sure that he didn’t give away details regarding his fellow British troops who had been fighting alongside the MCP. This was to ensure that in the event of the Brits winning the war, he would remain on good terms with them – he could claim that while he was “forced” to work with the Japanese Kempetai, he never sold out the British.
And indeed, that’s kinda what happened. By the end of the war, Lai Teck went to hiding and attempted to get back on the Brit’s good books and report to his Singapore Special Branch officers. However, before he could, his cover was blown after a fellow MCP member who was also arrested by the Japanese saw Japanese documents and found out that Lai Teck was a Kempetai mole. Word spread and the MCP soon realised that their Secretary-General had in fact been a spy working against them the whole time.
Lai Teck would spend his final months on the run
With the whole Malayan Communist Party – now lead by his successor Chin Peng – hot on his tail, Lai Teck quickly fled Malaya. He was initially called up by the MCP Central Committee to face the allegations of treachery, but skipped town before he faced the music. Lai Teck also took with him most of the party’s money as well as large quantities of gold ingots. It was also revealed later that he had been embezzling the MCP’s funds during his time as the sec-gen. So much for the ‘communist’ spirit, huh.
Lai Teck managed to use a passport with a different name to escape Malaya, taking a boat from Singapore. Chin Peng, on an mission to track him down, found himself going to Hong Kong, where thru some local contacts discovered that Lai Teck had been there just recently and that he had gone to Bangkok. Following the tip off, Chin Peng also went to Bangkok and found the hotel where he was hiding in.
However, Lai Teck was no longer at said hotel. According to Chin Peng, he would later find out that Lai Teck had moved to a small house by the Menam river, where he was discovered by Thai communists. A violent altercation happened, and the Thai commies, in an attempt to hold him down, accidentally strangled and killed the former spy. They then threw Lai Teck’s body into a sack and dumped his corpse into the river.
And so concludes the tale of Lai Teck, secret agent extraordinaire. If there’s a lesson you can learn from his life story, it’s that you probably shouldn’t betray every other person in your life. In fact, perhaps don’t betray anyone at all.
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