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It is 1950 and the Federation of Malaya is in the throes of the Malayan Emergency. The British are struggling to defeat the communist terrorists and deal with rising nationalism in the colony. Ferdach O'Haney arrives in Malaya as a young Anglo-Irish man to serve the Federation government, and he is plunged into the nitty-gritty of Malayan Emergency duties in the New Villages and in the communist occupied jungles of Perak. Gregarious and bisexual, O'Haney is equally at home in the brothels of Penang and in Singapore's sleazy Bugis Street as he is in the corridors of British intelligence at Phoenix Park in Singapore and in the manicured grounds of King's House and Carcosa in Kuala Lumpur. He befriends communist terrorists and nationalist sympathisers, experiences the bloody Maria Hertogh race riots, and comes up against prejudiced colonial administrators. O'Haney meets General Briggs and Chin Peng, the leader of the communist guerrillas, and he reveals new information about the assassination of Sir Henry Gurney. The Malayan Life of Ferdach O'Haney is a fictionalised account of the author Frederick Lees' own experiences in 1950s Malaya.
Englishman Lees' most memorable moment in Malaya, where he worked for many years, was his rousing call of 'Merdeka!' at the conclusion of Malaysia's Declaration of Independence ceremony on 31 August 1957 after Syed Jaafar Albar-who had been asked by Tunku Abdul Rahman to lead the crowd in cheers of 'Merdeka' as the dignitaries left the stage-lost his voice after the first two proclamations. Lees, who was sitting with Syed Jaafar in the control box of the newly erected Stadium Merdeka, stepped up to the microphone to save the day.