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Dr Leon Comber

Leon Comber is an Honorary Research Fellow at Monash Asia Institute, Monash University.   He holds degrees from London and Hong Kong Universities, the University of East Asia, Macau, and Monash University, and has written widely on Southeast Asia.  His languages are English, Malay, Chinese (Cantonese & putonghua ), with some Hindi.  He is one of the few Westerners holding Malaysian citizenship. He is a ‘Southeast Asianist’, with multi-disciplinary, broad-ranging interests ranging from history, political science, sinology, intelligence, terrorism, to literature, commerce and book publishing.

Leon Comber served as a British officer in the Indian Army during WW2, and took part in military operations against the Japanese in Assam and Burma.   His interest in Malay(si)an affairs dates from the time he landed as a major at the end of the WW2 with the British/Indian army re-occupying force (“Operation Zipper”) on the west coast of Malaya, and he took part in the surrender of the Japanese forces in Kelantan.  After serving in the British Military Administration of Malaya (BMA) as SOII (Major), he was appointed to the British Colonial Service (Malayan Police) when the civil government took over the administration of the country from the army in April 1946.  He was employed for most of his police service in the Special Branch, which was the government’s supreme intelligence organisation responsible for political, security, and operational intelligence.  During the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), the Special Branch played an important part in the counterinsurgency operations against the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and its guerrilla army, the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA).  In 1949, he was appointed as a police ADC to Sir Henry Gurney, the Malayan High Commissioner, who was killed in 1951 by communist insurgents. During his service in the Special Branch he reached the rank of acting Assistant Commissioner of Police. 

After leaving the Malayan Police, he spent more than 25 years in book publishing, based initially in Singapore and then in Hong Kong as the Southeast Asian representative of  the London publishers, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.  He became managing director of the local Heinemann subsidiary companies which he established in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and invited Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Malaysian Prime Minister, and Tan Sri Professor Hamzah Sendut, Vice-Chancellor of the Universiti Sains, Penang, to become directors. He was a member of the official UK Publishers Association / British Board of Trade Missions to Japan/South Korea, China, and The Philippines (twice). 

His last appointment before moving into Australia for residence in 1991 was as Publisher and Director of Hong Kong University Press, a department of Hong Kong University.  In 1990, he was elected Chair of the Hong Kong Anglo-Chinese Educational Book Publishers Association.  After joining Monash University in 1991, he was for several years the joint managing editor (with Dr Joan Grant), and latterly simultaneously book review editor, of the Asian Studies Review, the flagship of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.  During this time, he was appointed by UNESCO as publishing consultant for the People’s Republic of China, and in 1993 ran a book publishing course for the People’s Education Press, Beijing.  He was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of SE Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore, in May/June 2006.

Present Field of Research / Interest

His current research interests include Malaysian politics, the Malay irredentist movement in southern Thailand, the Origins of the Cold War in Asia, the overseas Chinese, Chinese secret societies, terrorism, and intelligence. He is working on a translation of ancient Chinese detective stories as a sequel to his The Strange Cases of Magistrate Pao.

Major Publications - Books

  1. Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya: A Survey of the Triad Society from 1800-1900, published for the Association of Asian Studies, J.J. Augustin, Locust Valley, New York, 1959.
  2. 13 May 1969: A Historical Survey of Sino-Malay Relations, Heinemann Asia, Kuala Lumpur, 1983.
  3. Chinese Temples in Singapore, Eastern Universities Press, Singapore, 1958
  4. Chinese Ancestor Worship, Donald Moore Ltd., Singapore, 1956.
  5. Chinese Magic and Superstitions, Eastern Universities Press, Singapore, 1960.
  6. Chinese Festivals in Malaya (with Dorothy Lo). Eastern Universities Press, Singapore, 1958.
  7. Prizewinning Asian Fiction, An Anthology of Prize-winning Short Stories (ed. with Introduction) Times Books International/Hong Kong University Press, 1991 (reprinted 2000).
  8. The Traditional Mysteries of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya, Eastern Universities Press, Singapore, 1961.
  9. Favourite Stories from Borneo, Donald Moore Ltd., Singapore, 1975.
  10. Introduction to Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya, Eastern Universities  Press, Singapore, 1957.
  11. The Strange Cases of Magistrate Pao, Charles E. Tuttle Inc., Tokyo and Rutland, Vermont, 1964 (reprinted by Pan Books, London).
  12.  An Anthology of Modern Malayan-Chinese Stories (translated by Ly Singko in collaboration with Leon Comber), W. Heinemann, Singapore 1967.
  13. Favourite Stories from Hong Kong, Heinemann Asia, Hong Kong, 1971
  14. Favourite Stories. The Philippines, Heinemann Asia, Singapore, 1995
  15. Golden Legends. Indonesia, Heinemann Southeast Asia, Singapore, 1996
  16. Favourite Stories: Malaysia, Heinemann Asia, Singapore, 1995
  17. Favourite Stories: Sabah and Sarawak, Heinemann Asia, Singapore,  1995.
  18. The Golden Treasure Box, Volume One, Hong Kong, Singapore,  Kuala Lumpur, Heinemann Asia, 1979 (2nd printing. 1979).
  19. The Golden Treasure Box, Volume Two, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Heinemann Asia, 1979 (2nd printing. 1979)
  20. Through a Bamboo Window.  Chinese Traditional Life and Customs in  Singapore & Malaya in the 1950s, Singapore Heritage Society, 2008  (forthcoming).
  21. The Hui. Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya & Singapore, Singapore  Heritage Society, 2008 (forthcoming).
  22. Malaya’s Secret Police 1945-1960.  The Role of the Special Branch in  the Malayan Emergency, Monash Asia Institute/ Institute of SE Asian  Studies, Singapore, 2008 (forthcoming).

Book Chapters and Refereed Journal Articles

  1. ‘Notes on the Adoption of Armed Struggle in 1948 and Questions on the First Malayan Emergency Period’ in Dialogues with Chin Peng.  New Light on the Malayan Communist Party (C.C. Chin & Karl Hack, eds.), Singapore University Press, 2004, pp. 283-291.
  2. ‘Publishing Asian Writers in English’ in Asian Voices in English, (Mimi Chan & R. Harris, eds.), University of Hong Kong Press, 1991.
  3. ‘ Tun Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan’s Role in Shaping Malayan Chinese Attitudes towards the Malays and the Creation of a Malayan Nation’ in Chinese Studies of the Malay World: A Comparative Approach, Eastern Universities Press/ Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2003
  4. ‘Chinese Secret Societies’ in Malaya (Norton Ginsburg with Chester F. Roberts), University of Washington Press, 1958.
  5. Introduction for Hong Kong Triads in the 1990’s: Resilience through Entrepreneurship, (Damien Cheong), Monash Asia Institute, 2004, pp.1-4.
  6. ‘The Malayan Security Service (1945-1948)’ in Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Autumn 2003), pp. 128-153.
  7. ‘Adult Education in Singapore (1950-61), International Journal of Adult and Youth Education, UNESCO, Paris, 1963.
  8. ‘A Primer in Colonial-era Chinese Schools’, The Straits Times, Singapore, 6 June 2006, p. 19.
  9. ‘In love with books in and about Asia’, Logos, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1990, pp. 94-5.
  10. ‘The Chinese Book World before and after Tiananmen Square’, Logos, Vol.17, No. 3, 1990. pp. 39-40.
  11. ‘And another thing – Asia Writing in Asia – Why it Fails to reach a world market’, Logos, Vol. 2, No.3, pp. 170-2.
  12. ‘The Malayan Special Branch on the Malayan-Thai Frontier during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), Intelligence and National Security, 2006
  13. ‘Chinese Education – Perennial Malayan Problem’, Asian Survey, Vol. 1, No. 8, (October 1961).
  14. ‘The Weather has been horrible’: Malayan Communist Communications during the Emergency, Asian Studies Review, 1995.
  15. ‘David Marshall and “Meet the People” – Singapore 1955-6’, Asian Studies Review, 1994.
  16. ‘The Origins of Intelligence.  A Brief History of the Malayan Special Branch’, in Off the Edge (Sun Newspaper Group), Kuala Lumpur, Issue 25, January 2007, pp. 20-21.
  17. ‘The Plot to Kill Chin Peng’, in Off the Edge (Sun Newspaper Group), Kuala Lumpur, Issue 26, February 2007, pp. 34-35.