Tens of thousands of British veterans of the Malayan emergency are to be allowed to receive medals from the Malaysian government commemorating their part in winning a bitter jungle campaign against communist insurgents in the 1950s and 1960s.
However, the veterans, the majority of whom were teenage national servicemen at the time, are then to be banned from wearing them at Armistice parades because it would contravene Foreign and Commonwealth Office rules over "foreign medals awarded for events in the distant past".
The decision, taken by a special Cabinet Office committee on December 7, but yet to be announced, was last night branded by regimental campaigners as "a Scrooge-like insult" to a generation of conscript soldiers who spent up to two years at a time fighting in Malayan jungles.
A total of 519 British troops were killed – 95 of them from Scottish regiments – in more than a decade of ambushes and skirmishes against ethnic Chinese guerrillas in some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. Thousands more became casualties from malaria, scrub typhus, dysentery and jungle sores, as well as booby-traps and snake bites.
The Malaysian government, which came into being after the defeat of the insurgency in 1966, decided more than 10 months ago to finally honour the men who underwrote its existence and sovereignty. It offered the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal to all Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen who served and fought there during the emergency.
Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, all of whom committed troops in the late 1950s, accepted the offer and submitted lists of those eligible along with details of their service records.
Britain, which at the height of the conflict had 35,000 troops in Malaya, said it would have to consider its position.
In January this year, Baroness Symon, a government spokeswoman, told the House of Lords: "Her majesty's government rules preclude the acceptance and wearing of foreign medals for events in the distant past or more than five years previously.
"In addition, the rules do not allow for a foreign award to be accepted if a British award has been given for the same service. Eligible veterans of the emergency in Malaya should already have received the Malaya bar to their general service medals."
The "bar" is a small strip across the top of the general service award, and not a medal in itself.
George Fleming, is a Belfast veteran who served on a Royal Navy warship in support of the troops ashore, and has been a leading campaigner in trying to persuade the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence to allow the award.
He said: "The government is inconsistent in its own rules. It has recently awarded medals for the 1956 Suez campaign and allowed Russian medals to be pinned on UK survivors of the Murmansk convoys in the 1940s."
Brigadier Allan Alstead, who served in Malaya for three years as a young infantry officer, added: "This is not only a snub to the tens of thousands of young Britons who found themselves at war in the jungle, but also to the Malaysian government. "The Malayan veterans are being victimised. This is a Scrooge-like insult which does this government no credit."
A spokesman for the FCO confirmed that "an announcement will be made in due course" after a meeting of the review committee on December 7, but declined to say what decision had been reached.
"The foreign secretary asked the committee to review the rules in the light of exceptions that had already been made and the importance of such medals to veterans. A paper was submitted to the committee and their ruling is pending."
A senior defence source told the Herald: "What we have here is classic Whitehall fudge mixed with bloody-mindedness and inflexibility.
"We have been told that the medals will be issued, but cannot be worn. It's like giving a child a toy at Christmas and telling him he can only play with it in the house. It's ludicrous, given the sacrifice so many made in a forgotten war."
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"