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No mystery to history: Lim Chin Siong and the Singapore general elections, 2015?

Lim Chin Siong’s name has popped up in the current hustings.

It was uttered by PAP secretary general Lee Hsien Loong no less, at the press conference held at the party headquarters on nomination day.

He castigated the Workers’ Party for sounding fierce, and making rousing speeches at election rallies, but in effect failing to raise issues in parliament.

The PAP secretary general waxed Dr Seuss (incidentally, whom Amos Yee waxes over):

Tiger in a Chamber
Mouse in the House

Throw in roosters (courtesy of the PAP party secretary general again, and the exquisite story-teller Chen Show Mao of the Workers’ Party) and lions (courtesy of Singfirst chairman Ang Yong Guan) and parliament seems like a veritable Bukit Chapalang (courtesy of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Singapore’s greatest cartoon artist that never lived).

While minimyna enjoyed the clever allusions and repartees (not forgetting The Online Citizen’s ‘Crouching Unicorns, Hidden Roosters’ video commentary on the elections) it was what the PAP secretary general said following his ‘mouse in the house’ quip that made her sit up.

He said that the number of opposition members of parliament did not necessarily make for a better legislature, for that depended

… on the quality of the Opposition, citing the example of the only three PAP candidates — Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Goh Chew Chua and Mr Lim Chin Siong — elected in the 1955 General Election, but who managed to establish a reputation for themselves.
“In 1959, they swept the General Election and formed the Government. It’s the quality that counts, it’s not the numbers,” he said. [Today Online, ‘PM raps Opposition, calls it a mouse in the House’, 2 September 2015)

[The Straits Times report did not carry this part; Asiaone’s version reads:

Mr Lee, who is the ruling party’s secretary-general, pointed out that the PAP had only three members elected to the legislative assembly in the 1955 General Election: Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Lim Chin Siong and Mr Goh Chew Chua.
“They established such a reputation for themselves, especially Mr Lee Kuan Yew, that in 1959, they swept the general election and formed the Government,” he said.]

So what did the PAP secretary general mean to say when he included Lim Chin Siong alongside Lee Kuan Yew as one of the three quality elected members who between 1955 and 1959 built up such a reputation for themselves to be able to sweep the 1959 general elections?

To begin with, clarifications are in order, such being the reason for the existence of minimyna.

Lim Chin Siong did NOT stand in the 1959 general elections, contrary to the PAP secretary general’s statement. He was in prison, on the orders of the Lim Yew Hock government with the connivance of Lee Kuan Yew. That is what the ‘ [DON’T] Pah Mata’ speech was all about.

In fact, the British, Lee and Lim Yew Hock were so keen that Lim and the other political detainees should not take part in the election that they introduced Clause 30, where political detainees would be excluded from standing in the 1959 general election. This was unprecedented in the British colonies.

Lee Kuan Yew built his reputation from 1955 to 1959 as a champion of democracy. His most evocative speech of the period, oft cited by those who insist on reminding us of it goes ‘repression… is like making love—it is always easier the second time!…[W]ith constant repetition, you get more and more brazen in the attack.’

The PAP secretary general cited the sanctity of the hallowed institution as the reason why the Workers’ Party parliamentarians dared not pose as the Tigers that they promised the electorate.
But the Singapore parliament has never been an institution where in the course of debate, fallacies, insincerities and untruths’ have been exposed.

The proceedings in the legislature on the part of the ruling PAP were distinguished by relentless attacks of the Barisan representatives as communists and ignoring any of their arguments, and by the evading of direct replies.

David Marshall had pressed the PAP for a date of the Sembawang by-election, ministers simply kept saying that it would be held once the electoral rolls were ready, whereas the PAP was determined not to hold it, having lost in Hong Lim and Anson (May, July 1961 respectively).

Information and facts on the negotiations for the terms of merger with Malaysia, the most important issue for the country at the time, was absent.
Members who were elected to the legislature could be issued with arrests under the PPSO even before they were sworn in.

With the Barisan boycott of parliament in 1966  and general elections from 1968, the legislature featured only monologues.The one-party state indeed took this as a key ingredient in how it shaped Singapore into a ‘unicorn’.

But beyond taking issue with the PAP secretary general’s statement as a historian as she is wont to, minimyna thought of another response to it.

The PAP really does not know how to present its history except to ram it down the throats of the citizenry, which of course goes against claims to it being open, transparent, inclusive and so on, and embarrassing its high commissioners and ministers, members of the Media Development Authority and the National Arts Council when they have to stick by the story.

The policing of Singapore history became noticeably even more hardline in the last year: To Singapore, with Love was Not Allowed for Any Rating; the political tract, the Battle for Merger (1962) was re-issued as history, along with the installing of a marker to remember ‘Singapore’s struggle against communism’. The National Arts Council withdrawing its grant to Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which it pronounced  ‘potentially undermines the security of the country’. This episode took place in June, only three months ago.

Perhaps the PAP secretary general’s statement should be a signal that Lim Chin Siong has become a model opposition parliamentarian.

This would not be a bad idea at all for the PAP to consider.

After all, Tan Kah Kee, Tan Lark Sye and Pan Shou who had been called communists and chauvinists in their lifetime are now extolled by the PAP government as model citizens.

The case of Lim Chin Siong might be a more tricky one, but all that is needed is wilfully planned media blitz, which simply ignores everything else, including what one’s party had said or done before, and call it history, or better still, heritage.

Rather than continue to fight the historical research and writings on Operation Coldstore that has emerged, it might be better for the PAP to co-opt Lim Chin Siong’s handsome forever-young image, reinforced just last week by the cover of the new edition of Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History, which it can be  hoped, would be what younger Singaporeans may find most appealing about him.

After all Lim Chin Siong was a founder-member of the PAP.

Image (2)And Dr Poh Soo Kai should then be aware that he’s certainly a candidate for co-option, so he might as well accept the inevitable and not bother to labour on writing his revisionist history.

After all, it was the Fajar trial of which Dr Poh was at the centre, which shot Lee Kuan Yew to fame.

Minimyna hit on this possibility when she tried to join the Dr Seuss bandwagon, and googled for words that rhymed with ‘history’.

Only one word did: ‘mystery’.

A list of about 200 cases where the two words were used to provide rhyme also popped up, almost all of them in pop songs.

This particular one happened to make so much sense.

Shopping (the Pet Shop Boys, released in 1987)

We’re buying and selling your history
How we go about it is no mystery
We check it with the city then change the law
Are you looking forward?
Now you want some more

We’re S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G
We’re shopping

It’s easy when you’ve got all the information
Inside help, no investigation
No questions in the house
no give and take
There’s a big bang in the city
We’re all on the make

We’re S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G
We’re shopping

Our gain is your loss
That’s the price you pay
I heard it in the House of Commons
Everything’s for sale

We’re S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G/ We’re shopping

For SG 50.

Weapon of the powerful?  Wondering about The Response to Poh Soo Kai, “Singapore’s ‘Battle for Merger’ revisited: the poverty of its history” 

Hong Lysa

High commissioner 001

Battle royal

The Battle over Operation Coldstore—between the PAP establishment case that the fateful arrests of 2 February 1963 was rightly justified as a security measure that saved Singapore from subversion and imminent outbreak of violence, and the former political prisoners who maintain that it was to prevent the opposition forces from winning the 1963 general election has been going on in the last few years, following almost 50 years of virtual state monopoly on the subject.

In October 2014 the government took up the cudgels directly with the re-issue of The Battle for Merger (1962) by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, which cast the 1950s and 1960s as the time of pitched battles between the communists and the non-communists in the PAP.

The challenge from those who have queried this version of history has caused the present PAP government to declare on that occasion that it is imperative that the ‘correct’ history be reaffirmed, in order to honour and emulate the spirit of our pioneers to rise above the ‘dire threat of communism’.  In other words, the battle is over; it has been won. History serves as an inspiration.

However, in the latest round of Battlefield Operation Coldstore, the importance of the communist vs non-communist trope and the legitimacy or otherwise of the Operation has been ratcheted right up.

The High Commissioner of the Republic of Singapore’s, ‘Response to Poh Soo Kai’s Allegation’ [18 December 2014] vs Poh Soo Kai’s, “Singapore’s ‘Battle for Merger’ revisited” [ 3 Dec 2014]  both in New Mandala which is put out by academics based in the Australian National University, is not just about fighting over narratives of the past.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed in his Facebook posting of 20 December 2014 to ‘A few hard core ‘old Communist and pro-Communist activists [who] don’t want to admit that they had fought on the wrong side’, and ‘some revisionist historians’ who support their version of history share one motivation: cast doubt on the legitimacy of the PAP government, not just in the 1960s, but today.

And the PAP government has risen to the challenge.

The Response by the high commissioner is written on the letterhead of his office, and signed in his official capacity. It thus emanates from the government of Singapore and issued is by its representative to Australia, where New Mandala is published.

On his Facebook which is maintained by the Prime Minister’s Office, the prime minister wrote that ‘We have put together an account using evidence from the British archives as well as CPM sources, which confirm that Mr Lee Kuan Yew told the truth’ when he provided the url of ‘The Response’ for his readers.

What then would the government have to say should those British archival and CPM sources are shown in fact NOT to confirm in the least that ‘Mr Lee Kuan Yew told the truth’?

Disingenuousness?

Given the high stakes that the government has put into Battlefield Operation Coldstore, including drawing Singapore’s high commissioner to Australia into the fray, one can expect that it would have poured in every resource at its disposal to present the most convincing, water-tight case possible, perhaps even using Singapore’s Internal Security Department confidential records to tear Dr Poh’s statements about the exercise to shreds for once and for all.

Yet the research and analysis in ‘The Response’ is plainly incompetent and quite embarrassing indeed. It is as if it is not meant to be read closely, not to say taken seriously; it is simply going through the motions to register that a Response has been made.

It actually reads like a spoof of itself. The Response claims that ‘revisionists’ conveniently omit mention of incriminating evidence in the documents against its own arguments, and merrily proceeds to do exactly that itself.

Dr Poh’s ‘Battle for Merger revisited’ quotes the following:

While we accept that Lim Chin Siong is a Communist, there is no evidence he is receiving orders from the CPM, Peking or Moscow. Our impression is that Lim is working very much on his own and that his primary objective is not the Communist millennium but to obtain control of the constitutional government of Singapore. It is far from certain that having obtained this objective Lim would necessarily prove a compliant tool of Peking or Moscow. (Philip Moore, deputy high commissioner to secretary of state, 18 July 1962, CO 1030/1160.) [Emphasis added]

This quotation has been oft-cited since it first appeared in T N Harper’s ‘Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story’ (in Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in history ed. Tan Jing Quee and Jomo K S, 2001) by those who query the authority’s claim that it had evidence that Lim Chin Siong was a member of the Malayan Communist Party. In some instances, the first part of the first sentence is omitted. Moore’s passage has been simply ignored by the establishment and its stable of defenders.

However, The Response to Dr Poh no less has the temerity to write: “There is ample evidence in the British archives to show that Lim Chin Siong was a CPM member….[In a] dispatch in July 1962, Deputy UK High Commissioner Philip Moore wrote: ‘we accept that Lim Chin Siong is a communist.’”

Could The Response be playing a joke on itself?

History class: Text and historical context

If the colonial office records do contain any concrete evidence that Lim Chin Siong was a communist, that would have been brought to light from the start, and not fester as a thorn in the PAP’s flesh even fifty years later. Colonial officials, whether in the mother country or in Singapore all worked on the premise that Lim was a communist. Deputy commissioner Philip Moore and high commissioner Selkirk were certainly not exceptions in this respect.

To the colonialists, communists in Singapore fit a checklist: They were Chinese-speaking, particularly students and trade unionists; took part in group activities; were concerned with political and social issues; called for greater government recognition of Chinese-medium schools; demanded the departure of the colonial power; called for the abolition of the Emergency regulations, primarily detention without trial. Given the importance of its military bases to its defence of Southeast Asia, the British refused to grant self-government to Singapore if they did not have some control over internal security, fearing that Singapore’s left-wing forces could build up sufficient momentum to put the future of the bases in jeopardy.

Moore’s remark that Lim was not acting on orders was made when debates in the Internal Security Council over whether arrests should be carried out was at its fiercest. On 3 July 1962 a PAP assemblywoman resigned over the stipulation in the Referendum bill that all blank votes would be counted as a vote for the PAP’s Alternative A. The ruling party lost its one-seat majority in the legislature, which it held when it expelled the left wing of its party in July 1961. The liberal forces rallied to the Barisan, forming the Council for Joint Action. The police arbitrarily broke up anti-PAP merger moves, and coerced the press into not reporting the views of the opposition.

Analysing the developments, Philip Moore combed through Special Branch and M15 reports which ‘proved’ that Lim Chin Siong was a communist, and concluded that nevertheless Lim was working very much on his own. (S J Ball, ‘Selkirk in Singapore’, Twentieth Century British History, vol. 10 no.2, 1999 pp. 179-180)

Selkirk told London that the Federation and Singapore governments had plans to arrest 25 and 250 ‘effective political opposition’ respectively, and put the blame for the arrests on the British. (PREM11/1951, GM (62) 26 Selkirk to R Maulding, 17 July 1962, cited in S J Ball, ‘Selkirk in Singapore’, p. 180.)

Selkirk and Moore, both supporters of Lee Kuan Yew, were expressing their apprehensions of the impact of the proposed arrests on Lee and the British themselves.

Moore’s report continues:

I would like to take this opportunity to stress again that in Singapore today we have a political and not a security problem. We know who most of the potential subversives are and they could easily be gathered in at any time they seemed to threaten the security of the state. Our problem however is to prevent left wing parties from gaining control of the constitutional Government of Singapore by a chauvinist appeal to the Chinese educated. The Tunku’s threat in his ‘Close the Causeway’ speeches and Lee Kuan Yew’s Phase One have only had the effect of solidifying the political opposition to Merger and Malaysia. But I am not impressed by the opposition leaders who came to see me today. I believe moderate forces can prevail in Singapore provided either the Tunku nor we make stupid tactical mistakes. Nothing could provide a moderate effective rallying point for the chauvinistic and moderate elements against merger and Malaysia than to arrest leading members of the main Opposition party without adequate cause.

Moore was giving input to his superiors on the best strategy to ensure the defeat the left-wing Barisan Sosialis at the general election; he was not ‘soft’ on Lim Chin Siong. His professional judgment as Her Majesty’s servant was that the intelligence reports did not contain sufficient evidence to prove that Lim was acting on orders as a communist, which would create problems for the authorities if he were to be arrested on that ground.

However around that time, the colonial office was moving to a less open position on how to deal with the ‘communists’. Duncan Sandys became secretary of state for the colonies concurrent with his position as secretary of state for commonwealth relations on 13 July 1962. As minister of defence (1957-1959) he had made the plans to reduce the size of the armed forces by going for nuclear weapons, and a large air transport force to ensure mobility of troops. His key interest in Singapore was as a military base, and he regarded Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew as guarantors of British military interest in Southeast Asia. Sandys did not object to the Federation and Lee’s view that arrests should be made ‘to reduce the communist threat’, provided that the Internal Security Council approved individual cases for which reasonable grounds were presented, and that the arrests would not cause domestic unrest and difficulties for him in the British parliament.

The high commission in Singapore was thus no longer consulted for its view on the wisdom of launching arrests; its job was only to ensure that none of the detention cases would cause embarrassment. The outbreak of the Brunei uprising on 8 December 1962 made even that no longer necessary. Selkirk immediately asked the colonial office for an agreement in principle that he might ‘concur on behalf of the British government in the arrest and detention of the leading communists and communist sympathisers in Singapore.’

The colonial office internal minutes noted that that it was a ‘reasonable inference’ that as the Barisan had expressed its support for the revolt in Brunei, they would favour similar action in Singapore if the opportunity were present.   (CO 1030/1160 CS Roberts to Higham, colonial office memorandum, 11 December 1962)

It is thus facile to counter Moore’s much-cited statement by simply spouting others which show that Moore was actually convinced that Lim was a communist. Such statements are the stuff of police intelligence reports; equally numerous are UK high commission reports which freely note that Lee Kuan Yew was bent on arresting his political opponents which the British did not object to, so long as Lee took the responsibility for it publicly, and there would not be a popular backlash.

Moore’s observation about Lim Chin Siong being an independent actor inadvertently goes beyond the run-of-the-mill intelligence reports on Lim’s activities. In that paragraph, Lim Chin Siong is accorded a human dimension rather than being a stereotype whose every move is always predictable if not predestined. It was written when the colonial office was uncertain about the best strategy to adopt. Moore was performing his duty when he alerted the colonial office to the absence in the documents of what the authorities needed.

There is no contradiction at all when with the Brunei uprising the UK commission in Singapore was very gung-ho about drawing convenient lines to connect the Barisan, Brunei’s Azahari and communism.

Along with seeking permission from London to act against the left with the Brunei uprising,Selkirk sent the minutes of a Barisan meeting held 3 months earlier, on 23 September 1962. The Response quotes from this document central executive member Chok Koh Thong’s remark that ‘Experience elsewhere showed that ‘there was no country in the world which had attained a thorough success in revolution through constitutional processes.’

However, CS Roberts of the colonial office noted in internal minutes that the records of the Barisan meeting that Selkirk sent did not reveal ‘more than [the fact] that certain elements of the Barisan Sosialis would resort to violent acts if they thought it expedient.’ Nonetheless he went on to recommend ‘On the other hand we must take Mr Moore’s word that this evidence does show more conclusively than anything we have had previously that the Barisan Sosialis is communist controlled.’ (CO 1030/1160 CS Roberts to Higham, colonial office memorandum, 11 December 1962)

It is not a case of the devil citing scripture for its purpose.

Rather, the script in this instance has all along been written by the devil itself.

Perpetuating Lim Chin Siong as communist bogey

The Response sticks to the 50-year old format of treating Lim Chin Siong as the all-powerful leader whose every word is sacred to Barisan Sosialis and trade union members.

Dr Poh Soo Kai, Barisan assistant secretary general has given an account of his political involvements, which started with the postwar spirit of anti-colonialism. As a student of the University of Malaya he was the key defendant in the Fajar trial, prosecuted by the colonial government for sedition. The Fajar trial had nothing to do with Lim Chin Siong. Dr Poh has explained why he decided to join the Barisan Sosialis when he was approached, giving up two postgraduate medical scholarships to do that, and his relationship with Lim Chin Siong. Had the PAP expulsion of its left wing taken place just a couple of months later, Dr Poh would have already gone overseas, and his life would have taken a different course. His narrative can be found in his chapters in The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore (2009), and The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 5o years (2013).

Despite this, The Response simply portrays Dr Poh and every Barisan member and trade unionist who was arrested on 2 February 1963 as an obedient follower of the diabolical Lim Chin Siong, more likely reflecting the type of leadership that PAP members and sympathisers are used to than anything else.

The memoirs of Chin Peng (2003), Fong Chong Pik (2008) and the publication of the Singapore Oral History Centre’s interview transcripts of Eu Chooi Yip (2006) have been around for some years, but the establishment narratives have not till now brought them into service at all.

Perhaps there is a reason for that. While readers are disappointed that Fong Chong Pik (‘The Plen’) revealed very little indeed of his secret meetings with Lee, his memoir is centred on the anti-colonial fervor of the time. It was the CPM that sustained the fight against the invading Japanese imperialists; in Singapore it was the Chinese-speaking youths like Fong who carried this over into the anti-colonial post-war movement. It is not a life-story that would have a place in the recommended reading lists of school textbooks.

The Response uncharacteristically treats the words of the MCP leaders in this instance as nothing but the truth. MCP secretary general Chin Peng, and leaders in charge of Singapore Eu Chooi Yip and Fong Chong Pik surely were fully cognizant of the significance that their comments on Lim Chin Siong would have on the PAP story, and given Lim’s stature, MCP history as well.

Chin Peng and Fong have chosen neither to deny nor confirm that Lim Chin Siong was a member, leaving a trace of the complexity of the politics of the time. What they have done is to remind Singaporeans that the communists were there, once a force which no serious anti-colonial group could simply ignore. Chin Peng reminds us that from the start, the PAP through various means, vitally kept its channels open to the spectrum of the left, including the CPM. One can surely assume that Lim Chin Siong would have his channels too. Being ‘influenced’ by the very knowledge that the CPM was in the background and keeping in touch with its reading of politics, even working surreptitiously with them in specific instances where it was deemed beneficial to one’s own interests did not make one a member of the communist party. This is only stating the obvious.

Unless one is talking about Lim Chin Siong, but of course.

Eu’s oral history transcripts which have been published (in Chinese, 2006) is particularly problematic. He renounced communism and on returning to Singapore in 1991, underwent debriefing by the internal security department and was taped by the Oral History Centre of the Singapore National Archives a year later. His 2002 transcripts are painful to read. He was concerned to distance himself Fong Chong Pik’s ‘mistakes’ in pledging total support to Lee Kuan Yew [which Fong accepted responsibility for in his memoir]. Eu claimed that as a graduate of Raffles College (the predecessor of the University of Malaya) he knew the likes of Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee well, while Fong was out of his depth. Chin Peng’s memoir takes a dig at Eu, who had apparently told the MCP leaders that Rajaratnam was not Lee’s man, and could be counted on to break with him.

So much for pedigree.

Or the notion that communists think alike.

The Response asserts this, despite the fact that while Chin Peng wrote that Coldstore shattered the CPM’s underground network throughout Singapore, Fong Chong Pik, the closest to Singapore of the three, (Chin Peng was based in China, and Eu Chooi Yip in Indonesia)  claimed that he had started withdrawing cadres who were likely to have been exposed in small groups from Singapore at around the end of 1961 to 1963-4. ‘As a result ‘practically the entire effective strength of the organization was withdrawn.’ The sum total of the cadres was more than 50 males and females. (Fong, page 172)

Communist leaders do have clashes of egos too. Just read their memoirs.

Weapon of the weak?

Fifty years after Coldstore, it is no longer so easy to hype up the PAP’s first two decades of history as a feat of basically destroying of one person, (and more than a hundred others, just in case) and one deserving of  eternal gratitude.

But it does not mean that the PAP has not kept trying.

Perhaps at this point,  it has no choice but to resort to the ways of its founders: Make is simple, make it loud and brazen. Bring out the government machinery. Capture the headlines– the actual text doesn’t matter.

To outsiders, it would seem irresponsible and even suicidal for the government to come up with an empty vessel like The Response and its echoes.  Why not simply continue to send out the well-trained troopers from the ranks of academia? Why do cabinet ministers, a minister of state and a high commissioner have to put their names to really ludicrous statements?

Just what is going on?

It has taken me almost a month before giving up trying to figure it out.

Only those directly involved at the highest levels will know what the battle is really about, and how it is faring.

The Battle for Merger re-staged: SG 50 and the killing of two birds with one red herring

 

 

Hong Lysa

 

Note: This is the original posting of ‘The Battle for Merger re-staged’. (minimyna essay number 11, posted on 7 November 2014)  When I learnt that the Film Appeal Board had just heard Tan Pin Pin’s presentation in her appeal against the ‘Not Allowed for All Ratings’ classification for To Singapore, With Love  and its decision would be released in a matter of days, I deleted references to the film, and retitled the essay ‘ The Battle for Merger re-staged: SG 50 and the art of shadow-boxing’.   The section, ‘Pesky Birds’  has been updated following the Appeal Board’s decision.

 

 

Battle for merger cover jpgBattle for merger english cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Chinese text: Lim Chin Siong (editor), The Constitutional Struggle Ahead. The first in a series of compilation of speeches and essays  on merger published in 阵线报 the Chinese language paper of the Barisan Sosialis. Courtesy of Ong Sooi Eng 王瑞荣)

Pomp and Circumstance

 

A few weeks ago, those in Singapore who listen to ministerial speeches would have felt that the 1950s and early 1960s had descended on them.  The airwaves were blasting out rhetoric from the cold war era of stark political categories in all its unabashed crudity and oppressiveness. The most senior cabinet members, the prime minister brigadier-general (res) Lee Hsien Loong and rear-admiral (res) Teo Chee Hean, deputy prime minister, coordinating minister for national security and minister for home affairs dispensed a singular history lesson emanating from what is clearly a polemical political tract from the last half a century.

 

The full weight of the government was thrown behind re-sanctifying as gospel truth the 12 radio talks of then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew: how he rescued the country from being over-run by communists who were ascendant, subversive and violent, in a period of great upheaval and civil unrest manipulated from behind-the-scenes by communist hands. The Battle for Merger, delivered between 13 September and 9 October 1961, and published in 1962, was ‘pivotal in lifting the curtain on the communists and exposing their hidden manoeuvrings’ and won public support for the referendum on merger.

 

The fanfare orchestrated to greet the gravely-intoned regurgitation of the communist vs non-communist framework to understand Singapore’s past was accompanied by students making the requisite school excursion to visit to the allied exhibition, and the hint of public disciplining two academics for their works.

 

Despite the hype, the 1961 text was simply recited.  There is no new evidence or perspectives that would justify its reprinting.

 

Most significantly former prime minister/senior minister/minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself viewed the exhibition, and it was relayed by the deputy prime minister that the author had praised the team who had put up the exhibition for their ‘thorough research’.

 

Incredibly the government decided to put its credibility on the line to defend and propagate this document whose value fifty years since it was written surely lies in its historicity, not its veracity.

 

What thorough research?

 

The re-print includes an introductory chapter ‘The Battle for Merger—the Historical Context by Associate Professor Albert Lau, National University of Singapore.  It does not read like a work written in 2014 at all. It simply echoes the key lines of the Radio Talks, citing only like-minded publications without engaging at all with either documentary material or analyses which have emerged which question the premises of this PAP narrative.

 

This essay goes overboard in its zealousness, kicking an own goal in the process.

 

In one telling elaboration on just how brilliant and righteous it all was, we are told that at one point in the negotiations between the governments of Singapore and the Federation on the merger scheme, Singapore citizens were going to be accorded Malaysian nationality, not citizenship. The opposition Barisan Sosialis pointed out that Singapore citizens would become second-class citizens.  By his own account, and repeated in the 2014 essay, the Barisan’s challenge immediately instigated the prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to ‘implore’ both London and Kuala Lumpur to ‘use similar terms’ for the people of Singapore and of the Borneo territories, who were to be conferred Malaysian citizenship. If the Federation refused, merger would certainly be rejected by the people of Singapore in the promised referendum.

 

 

Clearly, the PAP government had not given due attention to the most basic of concerns for the largely immigrant population.   The vigilance of the Barisan and the pressure it asserted contributed to the outcome that Singapore citizens automatically became Malaysian citizens, even though the Barisan insisted that the change was only cosmetic as the representation that Singapore had in the Malaysian parliament was way below what its population figure warranted.

 

Yet then and now in the 2014 chapter, their intervention has been called ‘propaganda’, and another proof that they were against merger and therefore they were communists.

 

The 2014 chapter credits the radio talks with playing a vital part in defeating the ‘communists and pro-communists’ and winning the people over as seen in the referendum where 71 % voted for the PAP ‘option’.

 

The whole referendum exercise was nothing more than the government fixing the rules at every turn to obfuscate and confuse, playing on the people’s fear of what the Federation government might or might not do if merger fell through. Those responsible have continued to congratulate themselves for being very clever about it.  Then PAP chairman Toh Chin Chye said of the referendum in a 1996 interview, ‘The ballot paper was crafted by Lee Kuan Yew. Whichever way you voted, you voted for merger. …Few understood the ballot paper….How do choose? Which way do you vote? But we got away with it. We won… ‘ [Melanie Chew, Leaders of Singapore (1996), p. 92]

The National Museum of Singapore’s new interactive exhibition SINGAPURA 700 YEARS reportedly includes ‘hands-on experience’ such as casting a vote to decide Singapore’s merger with Malaya and taking a history quiz. One wonders if the museum visitors ‘reliving’ that ‘experience’ will understand the ballot paper more clearly than those casting their votes on 1 September 1962.

 

The PAP government had simply rammed through its terms of merger.  The Battle for Merger was one key propaganda exercise to this end. One blogger, a former political detainee has shown far greater understanding of the nature of the publication than academics seem to have. Ong Sooi Eng (王瑞荣) has juxtaposed the Radio Talks with booklets that the Barisan Sosialis published at the time explaining its position on merger.

 

They are ‘propaganda’ only as much as Battle for Merger is, and the publications should be read against one another.

 

Singapore’s merger with Malaysia proved to be a failure with consequences not necessarily for the better for the people and the societies in the long term.  The Barisan’s pointing out that if the fundamental difference in the politics of ethnicity adopted by the Federation and Singapore were not addressed, merger would only lead to conflict was but stating the obvious. And that was exactly what came to pass.

 

The well-worn ‘what if’ scenario, almost in verbatim refrain since the days of S Rajaratnam in the 1960s has it that if the ‘communists and their pro-communist CUF allies had won, and Singapore had fallen under communist rule in the 1960s…we would have gone a different path….Even if Singapore had survived, life would have been harsh and miserable.’

 

The re-printing of Battle for merger brings another ‘what if’ scenario to mind: what if merger was intended to work, and the result of genuine consultation with the people of all the political units concerned, and not an immediate political expedience. What if the Federation, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah had negotiated a Malaysia that actually had a chance of working? We would all have gone on a different path….

 

What revisionist history?

 

The battle for merger has been re-staged ostensibly out of concern that ‘revisionist writers’ have emerged who ‘portray the fight as a merely a peaceful and democratic disagreement over the type of merger. They ignore the more fundamental agenda of the communists to seize power by subversion and armed revolution’. Historians Geoff Wade and Thum Ping Tjin have figured in the footnotes appended to deputy prime minister Teo’s speech as two such purveyors of this at best ignorant view.

 

The deputy prime minister actually appended ‘a sampling of the more credible books on the CPM and the communist struggles between the 1940s to the 1960s’ in the written copy of his speech. It comprises a number of authors who were given access to the documents of Singapore’s Internal Security Department.  One has to wonder why these individuals were deserving of such trust. Included in this list and cited in the 2014 essay is the poisonous and scandalous Dennis Bloodworth, Tiger and the Trojan Horse (1986). Bloodworth was also given interviews with the top PAP leadership, and even Mrs Lee Kuan Yew. Would all this make the book more credible or incredible?

 

Also making it to the minister’s recommended reading list is hagiographic accounts by MCP leaders and members.

 

However, the idea that ‘revisionist history’ is the work of historians in Singapore today who challenge the state narrative on the dangers of communism in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps with an agenda in mind is quite misconceived. The seminal work of such ‘revisionism’ was in fact written more than a decade ago.

 

comet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As any undergraduate who has done modules on Singapore, or even  eighteen-year olds in junior college who have done a research project on that part of Singapore history would know, Cambridge University historian TN Harper’s ‘Lim Chin Siong and the “Singapore Story”’  [ in Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in history, edited by Tan Jing Quee and Jomo KS, 2001] cited then commissioner of police Linsett’s 1959 report to the Internal Security Council to the effect that in his estimate, MCP strength was low: 40 full party members, 80 ABL (Anti-British League) cadres; 200 or so ‘sympathisers and less than 100 ‘released for ‘white area work’.

 

The report also spoke of ‘much uncoordinated ‘cell activity without either lateral or vertical contact’, [ EJ Linsett. ‘the security threat to Singapore (Communism and nationalism)’ 24 July 1959, DO 35/9870, PR0]

 

Harper’s ‘revisionist’ essay has long become the established paradigm for scholars. Credible research on post-war Singapore history has to be cognizant of it. Wade and Thum build on Harper’s study. A document featured in the study which has become de riguer to cite reveals that at the height of the bargaining among the ISC members on the list of people to be arrested, deputy high commissioner Philip Moore asserted:

 

While we accept that Lim Chin Siong is a Communist, there is no evidence he is receiving orders from the CPM, Peking or Moscow. Our impression is that Lim is working very much on his own and that his primary objective is not the Communist millennium but to obtain control of the constitutional government of Singapore. It is far from certain that having obtained this objective Lim would necessarily prove a compliant tool of Peking or Moscow. [Selkirk, British high commissioner, Singapore to Secretary of State D Sandys, 8 September 1962CO 1030/1159 in Harper p. 41]

 

The PAP Story denies that Lim Chin Siong was capable of thinking, discernment, and comprehending and adjusting to political developments in Singapore that he himself was in the forefront of. It freezes him in this caricature that is applied generally the Chinese-speaking students, trade union leaders and members. It alleges that the self is alive, and has human agency. The ‘other’ is one-dimensional and timeless in its perfidy.

 

Pesky Birds

 

In his heyday, Lim Chin Siong was the PAP’s feared political nemesis; he has become the albatross around the party’s neck. Any hint that Lim was not a MCP member, was not a subversive and had no intention of supplying arms to the Brunei rebellion would raise questions about Operation Coldstore, and the morality of how the PAP came to rule Singapore.

 

Yet Lim, who died in 1996, is not the main target in the 2014 exercise of re-staging the Battle for Merger.  Similarly the historians who write ‘revisionist history’ are but sideshows or collateral damage.

 

That honour goes to the former political detainees who have in the last decade step by accelerated step made their narrative public through interviews, speeches posted on youtube, and credible publications.  They have continued to insist that they have never been communists or subversives, and  refused to sign any ISD statements, the only way to obtain release. Said Zahari, Lee Tee Tong, the late Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, and Chng Minoh endured imprisonment for as long as it took for them to earn the right to demand accountability.

 

They have also reaffirmed that Lim Chin Siong was their legitimate and respected leader.

 

The former long-serving political prisoners and their counter-narratives have been studiously avoided by the authorities, leaving it for academics to sniff condescendingly that one has to be aware that they may have an ‘agenda’. They do indeed have an agenda, and have made that very clear: demand for evidence of the charges they were accused of, and the abolition of the Internal Security Act which as their cases show has been thoroughly abused.

 

The re-staged Battle has been carefully circumscribed to those couple of years; there is no mention at all of Operation Coldstore, which remains the elephant in the class/room.

 

Instead the MCP is served as red herring.

 

Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, with Love has been given the same treatment. The MCP members from Singapore who are not allowed to return to home unless they first report to the Internal Security Department featured in the documentary have been made fair game in the re-staging of the Battle for Merger, which apparently had been planned for SG 50 way before To Singapore, with Love made its appearance. The film was given a Not Allowed for All Ratings classification on 10 September 2014.

 

The interviews with the MCP members from Singapore have been condemned by the prime minister as ‘self-serving personal account, conveniently inaccurate in places, glossing over inconvenient facts and others, which will sully the honour and reputation of the security people, and the brave men and women who fought the communists, all those many years.  (Today, 3 October 2014)

 

Yet the MCP members who could produce evidence of citizenship within a specified time frame were allowed to return to Malaysia unconditionally as part of the Hadyai Peace Accord (1989)  by which the MCP agreed to disband their armed units and destroy all their weapons. The Malaysian security forces were engaged in jungle warfare against the MCP for fifty years. Since 1989, there have not been any official statements to the effect that the returnees have posed security risks to the country.

 

Tan Pin Pin’s appeal against the Media Development Authority’s classification was rejected by the Films Appeal Committee on 12 November  citing the Film Classification Guidelines which provided that “films deemed to undermine public order, national security and/or stability will be disallowed for all ratings”. The FAC agreed that the film condoned ‘the use of violence and subversion as a means to achieve political ends in Singapore’. This verdict was of course no surprise, despite mainstream commentators’ view that the film showed that the old men and women interviewed were once ‘militants who would have used violence to overthrow the legitimately elected, non-communist regimes in Singapore and Malaysia if they had a chance.’ (Chua Mui Hoong, ‘To JB, for a movie’ Straits Times 28 September 2014). One would have thought that read this way, there was every reason for the the film to be screened from the point of view of ‘national education’.

 

Yet while the segments of the To Singapore with Love which were given most public attention were the Chinese-speaking septuagenarian former MCP members resident in South Thailand and Bangkok, their narratives would not be the ones that the audience would find the most compelling.

 

The most forthright, reflective, poignant and inspirational interviewee who holds the film together has been carefully left out in official disparagement of the interviewees.

Just as the former political prisoners who continue to insist that they were political threats to the PAP, not security risks to their country, have not received any direct rebuttals from the authorities, there has not been any explanation given for Dr Ang Swee Chai having to remain in exile, standing by her husband Francis Khoo Kah Siang.

 

The late Francis Khoo (d 2011), lawyer, church and civil society activist  managed to escape in February 1977 while his friends were arrested under the Internal Security Act on charges of being Euro-communists. Most were released within three months, after signing statements and for some, television confessions. Khoo made his way to England. His return to Singapore entailed an Internal Security Department interrogation. Doubtlessly he would have to reveal the identity of those who helped him get across the causeway.

 

As Dr Ang tells the story in the film, Francis’s mother, a feisty peranakan matriarch who had been pressuring him to return, said to him ‘If you come back, I’ll take a gun and I’ll shoot you, then I will shoot the chief of ISD’ when she understood the situation.

 

By Dr Ang’s account, Francis Khoo did not simply pine for home, but continued his commitment to social justice in the new land and beyond. A refugee, she lent her surgical and organizational skills to the cause of the Palestinians—a nation of refugees, particularly the victims of war. She co-founded the British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians,  and co-authored War Surgery Field Manual (1996), based on her experience of  treating Palestinian victims of war atrocities.

 

Dr Ang sought special leave from the Ministry of Home Affairs to journey home with Francis’s ashes. She would not dream of doing that on a British passport as an expatriate widow.

 

In ordinary circumstances, Dr Ang Swee Chai could well be lauded as a model Singaporean.  As it is, she is reconciled to the fact that her siblings would bring her ashes home when she dies.

 

The elderly MCP members in To Singapore, with Love serve as red herring in being additional ammunition for the re-staging of the Battle for Merger, and as the reason for the NAR decision, which in effect shuts out Dr Ang’s narrative, the most difficult to re-write into a security risk story.

Reality Check

 

teo chee hean battle for merger 

 

 

It has been endlessly said that every society needs a narrative that knits it together. Such a narrative should articulate the fundamental and attractive values underlying it.

 

The Battle for merger does the opposite.

 

Its idea of the ‘essential facts of our nationhood’ is that students should be able ‘to name one communist or one communalist.’

 

Sg 50 can indeed be an occasion for Singaporeans to reflect and take stock of their society’, to ask ‘how did we get here from there, in the span of 50 years’.

 

An occasion for breaching the polarization that afflicts our history.

 

The occasion for the authorities to demonstrate that they possess wisdom, are ‘their own men’, even-handed, inclusive, humble, forward-looking.

 

And above all true to themselves and to the people of Singapore.

 

 

Aside

The Battle for Merger re-staged: SG 50 and the art of shadow boxing

Hong Lysa

Battle for merger english coverBattle for merger cover jpg

 

(Chinese text: Lim Chin Siong (editor), The Constitutional Struggle Ahead. The first in a series of compilation of speeches and essays  on merger published in 阵线报 the Chinese language paper of the Barisan Sosialis. Courtesy of Ong Sooi Eng 王瑞荣)

Pomp and Circumstance

A few weeks ago, those in Singapore who listen to ministerial speeches would have felt that the 1950s and early 1960s had descended on them.  The airwaves were blasting out rhetoric from the cold war era of stark political categories  in all its unabashed crudity and oppressiveness.

The most senior cabinet members, the prime minister brigadier-general (res) Lee Hsien Loong and rear admiral (res) Teo Chee Hean, deputy prime minister, coordinating minister for national security and minister for home affairs dispensed a singular history lesson emanating from what is clearly a polemical political tract from half a century ago.

The full weight of the government was thrown behind re-sanctifying as gospel truth the 12 radio talks of then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew: how he rescued the country from being over-run by communists who were ascendant, subversive and violent, in a period of great upheaval and civil unrest manipulated from behind-the-scenes by communist hands.

The Battle for Merger, delivered between 13 September and 9 October 1961, and published in 1962, was ‘pivotal in lifting the curtain on the communists and exposing their hidden manoeuvrings’ and won public support for the referendum on merger.

The concern is that students have only ‘vague ideas’ about the  ‘essential facts of our nationhood’. They may not be able to ‘ name one communist or one communalist’, for instance.

The fanfare orchestrated to greet the gravely-intoned regurgitation of the communist vs non-communist framework to understand Singapore’s past was accompanied by students making the requisite school excursion to the allied exhibition, and the hint of publicly disciplining two academics for their ‘revisionist’ works.

Most significantly former prime minister/senior minister/minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself viewed the exhibition, and it was relayed by the deputy prime minister that the author had praised the team who put up the exhibition for their ‘thorough research’.

Incredibly the government decided to put its credibility on the line to defend and propagate this document whose value fifty years since it was written surely lies in its historicity, rather than its veracity.

What thorough research?

The re-print includes an introductory chapter ‘The Battle for Merger—the Historical Context’ by Associate Professor Albert Lau, National University of Singapore, which does not read like a work written in 2014.

It simply echoes the key lines of the Radio Talks, citing only like-minded publications without engaging at all with either documentary material or analyses which have emerged and which have questioned the premises of this PAP narrative.

The essay goes overboard in its zealousness, kicking an own goal in the process.

In one telling elaboration on just how brilliant and righteous it all was, we are told that at one point in the negotiations between the governments of Singapore and the Federation on the merger scheme, Singapore citizens were going to be accorded Malaysian nationality, not citizenship.The opposition Barisan Sosialis pointed out that this would mean that Singapore citizens would become second-class Malaysian citizens.

The 2014 essay repeated and endorsed the account by Lee that the  Barisan challenge immediately instigated him to ‘implore’ both London and Kuala Lumpur to ‘use similar terms’ for the people of Singapore and of the Borneo territories, who were to be conferred Malaysian citizenship. Lee argued strenuously that should the Federation refuse, merger would certainly be rejected by the people of Singapore in the promised referendum.

Clearly, the  vigilance of the Barisan and the pressure it asserted contributed to the outcome that Singapore citizens automatically became Malaysian citizens, even though the opposition party insisted that the change was only cosmetic as the number of seats that Singapore was given in the Malaysian parliament was way below what its population size warranted.

Yet then and now in the 2014 chapter, the Barisan  intervention has been called ‘propaganda’, and treated as further proof that they were communists who were against merger.

The 2014 chapter credits the radio talks with playing a vital part in defeating the ‘communists and pro-communists’ and winning the people over as seen in the referendum where 71 % voted for the PAP ‘option’.

The whole referendum exercise was nothing more than the government fixing the rules at every turn to obfuscate and confuse, playing on the people’s fear of what the Federation government might or might not do if merger fell through. Those responsible have continued to congratulate themselves for being very clever about it all.  Then PAP chairman Toh Chin Chye said of the referendum in a 1996 interview, ‘The ballot paper was crafted by Lee Kuan Yew. Whichever way you voted, you voted for merger. …Few understood the ballot paper….How do choose? Which way do you vote? But we got away with it. We won… ‘ [Melanie Chew, Leaders of Singapore (1996), p. 92]

The National Museum of Singapore’s new interactive exhibition SINGAPURA 700 YEARS reportedly includes ‘hands-on experience’ such as casting a vote to decide Singapore’s merger with Malaya and taking a history quiz. One wonders if the museum visitors ‘reliving’ that ‘experience’ will understand the ballot paper more clearly than those casting their votes on 1 September 1962.

The PAP government had simply rammed through its terms of merger.  The Battle for Merger was one key propaganda exercise to this end. One blogger, a former political detainee has shown far greater understanding of the nature of the publication than academics seem to have.

Ong Sooi Eng (王瑞荣) has juxtaposed the Radio Talks with booklets that the Barisan Sosialis published at the time explaining its position on merger.

They are ‘propaganda’ only as much as Battle for Merger is, and the publications should be read against one another.

Singapore’s merger with Malaysia proved to be a failure with consequences not necessarily for the better for the people and the societies in the long term.  The Barisan’s pointing out that if the fundamental difference in the politics of ethnicity adopted by the Federation and Singapore were not addressed, merger would only lead to conflict was but stating the obvious. And that was exactly what came to pass.

The well-worn ‘what if’ scenario, almost in verbatim refrain since the days of S Rajaratnam in the 1960s that if the ‘communists and their pro-communist CUF (Communist United Front)  allies had won, and Singapore had fallen under communist rule in the 1960s…we would have gone a different path….Even if Singapore had survived, life would have been harsh and miserable’ was also repeatedly heard in 2014.

The re-printing of Battle for merger brings another ‘what if’ scenario to mind: what if merger was intended to work, and the result of genuine consultation with the people of all the political units concerned, and not an immediate political expedience. What if the Federation, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah had negotiated a Malaysia that actually had a chance of working? We would all have gone on a different path….

What revisionist history?

The battle for merger has been re-staged ostensibly out of concern that ‘revisionist writers’ have emerged who ‘portray the fight as merely a peaceful and democratic disagreement over the type of merger. They apparently ignore the more fundamental agenda of the communists to seize power by subversion and armed revolution’. Historians Geoff Wade and Thum Ping Tjin have figured in the footnotes to deputy prime minister Teo’s speech as two such purveyors of this at best ignorant view.

The deputy prime minister actually appended ‘a sampling of the more credible books on the CPM and the communist struggles between the 1940s to the 1960s’ in the written copy of his speech. The  reading list includes a number of authors who were given access to the documents of Singapore’s Internal Security Department.  One has to wonder why these individuals were deserving of such trust.

The poisonous and scandalous Dennis Bloodworth, Tiger and the Trojan Horse (1986) is cited in the 2014 essay.  Aside from ISD records,  Bloodworth was also given interviews with the top PAP leadership, and even Mrs Lee Kuan Yew.

Would all this make the book more credible or incredible?

Also making it to the minister’s recommended reading list are hagiographic accounts by MCP leaders and members.

However, the idea that ‘revisionist history’ is the work of historians in Singapore today who challenge the state narrative on the dangers of communism in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps with an agenda in mind is quite misconceived.

The seminal work of such ‘revisionism’ was in fact written more than a decade ago. As any undergraduate who has read modules on Singapore, or even  eighteen-year olds in junior college who have done a research project on that part of Singapore history would know, Cambridge University historian TN Harper’s ‘Lim Chin Siong and the “Singapore Story’  [ in Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in history, edited by Tan Jing Quee and Jomo KS, 2001] cited then commissioner of police Linsett’s 1959 report to the Internal Security Council to the effect that in his estimate, MCP strength was low: 40 full party members, 80 ABL (Anti-British League) cadres; 200 or so ‘sympathisers’ and less than 100 ‘released for ‘white area work’.

The report also spoke of ‘much uncoordinated ‘cell activity without either lateral or vertical contact’, [ EJ Linsett. ‘the security threat to Singapore (Communism and nationalism)’ 24 July 1959, DO 35/9870, PRO]

The PAP Story denies that Lim Chin Siong was capable of thinking, discernment, and comprehending and adjusting to political developments in Singapore that he himself was in the forefront of. It freezes him in this caricature that is applied generally to the Chinese-speaking students, trade union leaders and members. It alleges that the self is alive, and has human agency. The ‘other’ is one-dimensional, programmed, and timeless in his/her perfidy.

Harper’s ‘revisionist’ essay has long become the established paradigm for scholars. Credible research on post-war Singapore history has to be cognizant of it. Wade and Thum build on Harper’s study.

A document featured in the study which has become de riguer to cite reveals that at the height of the bargaining among the ISC members on the list of people to be arrested, deputy British high commissioner Philip Moore asserted:

While we accept that Lim Chin Siong is a Communist, there is no evidence he is receiving orders from the CPM, Peking or Moscow. Our impression is that Lim is working very much on his own and that his primary objective is not the Communist millennium but to obtain control of the constitutional government of Singapore. It is far from certain that having obtained this objective Lim would necessarily prove a compliant tool of Peking or Moscow. [P. Moore, deputy British high commissioner, Singapore to Sandys]Secretary of State D Sandys, 18 July 1962 CO 1160 in Comet p. 39]

Shadow boxing

In his heyday, Lim Chin Siong was the PAP’s feared political nemesis; he has become the albatross around the party’s neck. Any hint that Lim was not a MCP member, was not a subversive and had no intention of supplying arms to the Brunei rebellion would raise questions about Operation Coldstore, and the morality of how the PAP came to rule Singapore.

Nevertheless Lim, who died in 1996, is not the main target in the 2014 exercise of re-staging the Battle for Merger. Nor is it the historians who write ‘revisionist history’ who are but sideshows or collateral damage.

That honour goes to the former political detainees who have in the last decade step by accelerated step made their narrative public through interviews, speeches posted on youtube, and publications.

They have continued to insist that they have never been communists or subversives, and had refused to sign any ISD statements, which was the only way to obtain release. Said Zahari, Lee Tee Tong, the late Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Chng Minoh endured imprisonment for as long as it took for them to earn the right to demand accountability.

They have also reaffirmed that Lim Chin Siong was their legitimate and respected leader.

The former long-serving political prisoners and their counter-narratives have been studiously avoided by the authorities, leaving it for academics to sniff condescendingly that one has to be aware that they may have an ‘agenda’. They do indeed have an agenda, and have made that very clear: demand for evidence of the charges they were accused of, and the abolition of the Internal Security Act which their cases show as having been thoroughly abused.

The re-staged Battle has been carefully circumscribed to go no further than the referendum results; there is no mention at all of Operation Coldstore, which remains the elephant in the class/room.

A show of battling the communists  is made, while the real problem is the strength of the opposition who follow the constitutional path.

Reality Check

teo chee hean battle for merger  

It has been endlessly said that every society needs a narrative that knits it together. Such a narrative should articulate the fundamental and attractive values underlying it. As a state initiative, it should set the tone of embodying high-minded ethos, fostering mutual understanding and  togetherness, and project a vision of a harmonious society.

Sg 50 can indeed be an occasion for Singaporeans to ‘reflect and take stock of their society’, to ask ‘how did we get here from there, in the span of 50 years’.

An occasion for breaching the polarization that afflicts our history.

For the authorities to demonstrate that they possess wisdom and integrity, are ‘their own men’, humble, even-handed, inclusive,  forward-looking.

Above all that they are true to themselves and to the people of Singapore.

They do say the darnest things: What a to-do about Operation Coldstore

Hong Lysa

Michelangelo-God-620x350 (1)

True colours

‘Sound historical consciousness requires intellectual rigour and honesty’ — a very heartening statement by Tan Tai Yong, Nominated Member of Parliament, Vice-Provost (Student Life), director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, (‘History’s many shades of grey’, Straits Times 15 Sept 2014).

He is Professor, Department of History, National University of Singapore, (only the third local Singaporean to achieve this rank in the department’s history) of which he was a former Head; author of Creating Greater Malaysia: Decolonisation and the Politics of Merger (2008) and co-author of Singapore: A 700-year history: From Early Emporium to World City (2009).

The Professor underscores that good responsible history will enable Singapore citizens to appreciate complexity without succumbing to propaganda:

It should be motivated by the desire to understand rather than the intention to pass judgment. This can be constructive for building national identity and belonging.

He then promptly proceeds to spell out what he considers as correct insofar as it gives a factual account of the political events of the tumultuous 1950s:

The People’s Action Party took the left wing on and was able to ‘ride the communist tiger’ rather than end up in its stomach. In the political contest that ensued, one group eventually defeated the other.

The ‘riding the communist tiger’ imagery is just about the most hackneyed there is to describe the colonial and the PAP version of events, culminating in, but not stopping at Operation Coldstore. It is about the struggle between ‘the communists’ against ‘the non-communists’—(the ‘rightwing’ as the colonial documents call them, though they prefer to call themselves ‘the moderates’).

The Professor’s injunction on intellectual rigour and honesty as the hallmarks of historical consciousness is directed at historians who have examined the colonial office records for the evidence that the leftwing were subversives, involved in a plot to overthrow the elected government by force and bring in communist rule.

The Professor had spelled out more clearly his attitude to such historians at a Ministry of Education event to introduce the new history textbooks in May 2014:

Prof Tan … welcomed historians’ attempts at writing “revisionist” or “alternate” history – these historians have said they want to break the “hegemonic narrative” of Singapore’s history – if such efforts result in new interpretations and analysis. “But if it is done with political intent, then I’d say, let’s be more cautious about those approaches.

The term ‘alternative’ or ‘revisionist’ history used in such a context is the code word for biased unsound history, academic history with a political agenda– in other words, propaganda rather than scholarship.

This flagging of ‘political intent’ begs two questions: whether such standards apply to academic histories that are ‘non-revisionist’ as well; and the place of ‘political intent’ in assessing the worth of an academic history-writing.

‘Revisionist’ or otherwise, a scholarly presentation is not to be judged by its intention or agenda, if such were present. The community of professional historians evaluates the work of its members based on the level of sophistication of the inquiry, the thoroughness in sources used, and the depth of the analysis. Such evaluations take the form of book reviews, and the number of times the work has been cited in academic publications. If the ‘political intent’ overwhelms the scholarship, then even if one is of the same political persuasion, the assessment has to be that it is an inferior academic inquiry. An example of this is if the historian ignores pertinent documents that do not support his argument or perhaps ‘political intent’.

By the same token, adopting the ‘alternative’ or ‘revisionist’ label by academics does not confer exemption from the rigours of the discipline at all. It does not mean that one is particularly courageous or exceptionally critically-minded. In fact, the term is quite meaningless, for there is only sound history-writing or bad history-writing and the range in between, which applies to ‘revisionist’ history as well. The historian ultimately contributes most to shaping the ‘historical consciousness’, drawing relevance of the past to her or his society through excellence in scholarship.

‘Alternative’ or ‘revisionist history’ however, describes well what former political prisoners have written. They challenge the PAP Story with their account of the events leading to and the circumstance of Operation Coldstore. Their story tells of the struggle between the ‘pseudo-anticolonialist right-wing’ and the ‘genuine socialist anti-colonialists’.

These writers are openly dictated by their political intent, no more than The Singapore Story: The Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. They insist that they were made political prisoners in mass arrests which robbed the leftwing of its leadership in the September 1963 elections, and the waves of imprisonment that followed, leading to the politics of fear in Singapore and the unbroken virtual monopoly of parliament by the PAP.

Theirs are head-on counter-narratives to The Singapore Story. Yet in the Professor’s reckoning, they merely ‘add texture to make the narrative more interesting’.

The mainstream media has been the conduit for what remains an unreconstituted black and white history, while claiming that it has many shades of grey.

The code used in such writing is a familiar one. The Professor considers as ‘factual account’ the statement that ‘the leftwing was committed to a political ideology and outcome that, if they had come to pass, would have taken Singapore down a very different road.’ No one in Singapore would assume that the speaker might mean a ‘different road’ which could have led to an even better Singapore.

In his 2014 National Day Rally speech, the Prime Minister also had occasion to quote the first man to hold the office, whose government was responsible for Operation Coldstore: ‘Had the PAP lost in September 1963, the history of Singapore would have been different.’

Curiousier and curiouser

Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, has also addressed the issue of the questions raised about Operation Coldstore by the former political detainees and by historians.

Big ‘Idea number 3’ (12 April 2014) is in his series of essays penned at the invitation of the Straits Times, to help Singapore succeed in the next fifty years– a lead-up to Sg 50, celebrating fifty years of nationhood.

This Big Idea is that Singapore’s success has been incredible, except that unlike the Americans, there is an absence of ‘sets of stories that will bind our hearts together as fellow Singaporeans’ to strengthen the Singapore Spirit. The Professor hence evinced the hope that philanthropists would award a $500,000 prize for the best history book written on Singapore.

It is curious that The Professor has asserted that there are more than enough materials and historical records available to document historically Singapore’s narrative of success.

In March, the Opposition Workers Party leader had asked in Parliament for the National Archives to adopt the Declassification Act by which the documents generated by government ministries among others would be available to the public for research purposes after thirty years. The government’s reply was that transparency for transparency’s sake does not necessarily make for good governance.

Without the availability of archival documents, the requisite history books cannot be written meaningfully.

It is even more curious that the Professor actually tells the world that historians confess to him that they are chary of writing post-independence Singapore history as it is too sensitive. Just what is the sensitivity over? What exactly do they fear?

A similar revelation was made in the New York Times (11 May 2014). Historians at the university announce that there has been a change of mindset. One states that ‘out of bounds’ limits …once were rigorously policed by colonial and post-colonial institutions, but no student now would ask her if she feared arrest for discussing heterodox views. What did the historian discuss in class that would elicit such concern by students? What was the reply given?

Whatever the case may be, the message is that those bad old days of being scared to write is over; it is time to celebrate openness. Now that the ‘revisionist’ books have been published, it is time for a history book that tells the story of successes and failures together, just as the Americans liberated itself from the atrocious record of slavery, and cleansed the national soul of past wrongdoings by writing about it openly. Movies like 12 years a Slave also help cleanse the national soul of past wrong-doings, says The Professor.

Like African American history and the civil rights movement, writing of Coldstore and other operations is part of a larger justification and fight for change to the status quo on the part of those who were suppressed. The former political detainees write to set the record straight, and thereby demand admission by the government that it did gross violence to the political process and to its victims.

There has not been any serious and substantive challenge to their contention, only indirect responses that cast aspersions on the writers, or that trivialize or misrepresent their work.

What to do?

The leading lights of Singapore’s intellectual establishment found themselves saying the darnest things in the mainstream media, including painting the university as a thought-controlled institution till not so long ago. This would have been considered travesty of the highest order to besmirch the good name of the institution and the country, uttered only by those harbouring malevolent intent, except that it seems to be the way chosen to stave off having to deal with Operation Coldstore in an open manner, having to historicise the event rather than to continue to politicise it.

That Operation Coldstore was necessary for national security is at the very heart of the PAP myth; it is also the Party’s original sin.

It is not possible to change Singapore history, from the old testament to the new testament whether it is seen as 700 years or 50 years long–from the rule of the god of wrath to the god of love without first admitting to that sin.

It is a difficult transition to make; it calls for an entirely new social compact which repudiates the old. It needs to be built on trust and mutual respect.

But it seems that the day has not yet arrived.

The handlers of Operation Coldstore in history try to manage the transition, which seems nigh impossible for them to do as scholars.

It is a particularly exciting time to be a student of history in Singapore today.

Especially those in the Yale-NUS College, it would seem.

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