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We Remember

February 24, 2013

We Remember

Two powerful, defiant words.

We insist on commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Operation Cold Store, on remembering its pivotal role in Singapore’s post-1959 political history, and the incarceration of detainees for an inordinate number of years for which there is no conceivable security reason. Named individuals have mentioned their detention for 10 years, 13 years, 17 years, 18, 20 years, and exceeding that in the case of Chia Thye Poh.

We need to remember so long as efforts are continuously made for us to forget that it took mass detentions of about 200 people in 1963 in two major Operations, and close to a hundred in 1964 to set off the change in the political landscape of the island for almost half a century.

So we gathered at Hong Lim Park on 2 February 2013.

photo 50th anniversary cold store crowd scene 2 feb 2013

We were meant to forget all this. If Cold Store is to be mentioned all, it is only to say that those arrested were communist party members with subversive agenda, or united front collaborators, knowingly or otherwise, who if they had been allowed to carry on with their plot, would have seen our parks and pavements turned over to socialist production of tapioca, sweet potatoes, cabbages and other hardy vegetables…(S Rajaratnam, ‘Birth pangs of a nation’ in pre-university seminar Birth of a Nation: Singapore in the 1950s, June 1984)

Control of state power to the degree as seen in Singapore has allowed its political leaders to pronounce on what it insists would definitely have had happened.

Unimaginable

The same political party has held sway in Singapore,and likewise their pronouncements on the country’s history. And there is no better illustration of the effect that such domination can have on the intellect, not to mention the integrity of the citizenry than the Straits Times report on the commemoration of Operation Cold Store. It was an exercise in sheer absurdity.

A reference by speaker Tan Kok Fang  to the situation in Korea, where the president-to-be apologised to the nation for the almost two decades of human rights abuses committed when her father was president  somehow became Tan ‘longed for the day Singapore could be like South Korea, where the daughter of a former detained dissident was elected president.’ This is most likely to be confusing Korean military strongman Park Chung Hee (1961-1979) for dissident-turned president and Nobel prize winner Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003). The paper has printed an errata, stating what Tan had  actually said,  but is it even imaginable that anyone could have  conceived that Tan or anyone else in Singapore for that matter would long for what for the article attributed to him?

Perhaps less innocently but certainly even more absurd and bizarre, the report highlighted the parts of the speeches by the former detainees on 2 February 2013 that talked about their fight against colonialism in the 1950s and sixties, identifying only the British as the party that ordered Operation Cold Store. The Singapore government, alongside the Federation of Malaya, as members of the Internal Security Council, shared equal responsibility for the arrests of 2 February 1963, and from 9 August 1965 it was solely responsible for not releasing the detainees, and for the many subsequent detentions under the ISA.

But there is not a single mention of the PAP, or the Singapore government in the ST report, and a Martian can be forgiven for concluding that the British was still governing Singapore, and the event was an anti-colonial rally. So when Dr Poh Soo Kai was reported as saying in the ST’s words, that “Then, it would have been ‘unimaginable’” for him to speak as he was doing on 2 February 2013, the only way to understand the statement, following the logic of the report, is that it is thanks to the authorities today that he could do so.

Dr Poh’s words: ‘Today, the unimaginable has happened’ plainly referred to the change in political climate in Singapore.

The Straits Times report, one would assume, was twisting and turning to avoid saying what the event it was covering was about, and ended up tying itself up in laughable knots.

If so,  was it necessary to do this in the first place?

Lianhe Zaobao didn’t seem to think so. Its report stated clearly that the speakers called for Singaporeans to follow the example of the voters in the Punggol East by-election, and that Operation Cold Store was the decision of the British, Federation of Malaya and Singapore governments. It quoted a 27- year old who has just completed his masters degree telling the press that he hoped to understand more clearly from the older generation the price that has been paid for our country’s economic development.

Momentum

2 February 2013 was just such a fantastic day.

It was the day when we told the world that We Remember.

These two words have been uttered before in recent years, but in indoor venues, not to such numbers, and not with such great poignancy and confidence. Like this time, on a number of such previous occasions in the last three years the timing turned out to be impeccable.

The Fajar Generation was launched on 14 November 2009, some two months after the razzmatazz over The Men in White, and immediately showed up the latter’s inadequacies. MiW disingenuously portrayed the Fajar defendants as rather passive actors grateful to be ‘saved’ by junior counsel Lee Kuan Yew, when he was only assisting the renowned anti-colonial Queen’s Counsel DN Pritt whom the colonial authorities dreaded.

Dr Poh Soo Kai and Dr Lim Hock Siew were founding members of the University Socialist Club, and the PAP. With the expulsion of its left wing by the Party in July 1961, they became founding members of the Barisan Sosialis, continuing to demand for the abolition of the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (predecessor of the Internal Security Act), freeing of political detainees, and abiding by the PAP’s 1954 constitution and agenda. With its mass base, the Barisan was set to win the next general election, necessitating Operation Cold Store, where its key leaders which included Dr Poh and Dr Lim were detained.

The self-generated media hype had stated that Men in White was a best-seller and was being translated into Chinese. That was in 2009, and they must have thought the better of it.
*********
The launch of The May 13 Generation on 14 May 2011 marked the introduction to the Chinese middle school students, whose efforts to obtain exemption, and later automatic deferment from national service led to police violence against nearly a thousand of them standing peaceably on the pavement of Clemenceau Avenue opposite Government House while their representatives were supposed to be meeting with the Governor. Together with the Fajar arrests exactly a fortnight later on 28 May the May 13 event was the beginning of anti-colonial mass politics in Singapore.These middle school students, by the time either in Nanyang University or involved in the trade union movement, formed a substantial number of the 1963 detainees.

At the book launch, the widow of a former Barisan MP who was in the audience told the almost 500 gathered why she was present: she did not want her grandchildren to think that their grandparents and their comrades were villains.

A few minutes after that, sms and twitter messages brought news that Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong had resigned from Cabinet following the 7 May 2011 general election a week earlier.
******
A memorial gathering was held on 20 August for Tan Jing Quee, who passed away on 14 June, a month following the launch of the May13 Generation of which he was the lead editor. Tan was also an editor of the Fajar Generation. The gathering took place in the midst of the campaigning for the 27 August 2011 presidential election. Candidates gave interviews to on-line journalists, who posed questions they would not have encountered previously. This included their stand on the Internal Security Act (ISA). Dr Lim Hock Siew (who subsequently passed away on 4 Jun 2012) in his tribute to Jing Quee issued a challenge to presidential candidate Dr Tony Tan who had in an interview a day earlier, linked ISA detentions with the fight against terrorists. He wanted Tan to repeat this, and say that he, Dr Lim and other detainees were terrorists, and let the courts hear the matter in a libel suit. This opportunity for the PAP to present their evidence from more than half a century ago that Dr Lim was engaged in subversive activities and continued to be a threat to the security of the state for the next twenty years was simply ignored.

******

The commemoration of 25 years of Operation Spectrum scheduled for 19 May 2012, had to be postponed to 2 June on account of the Hougang by-election. About 600 people turned up to listen to political and civil society activists calling for accountability to the former detainees, and the abolition of the ISA. The former detainees then talked to small groups of mostly younger people, addressing their questions as evening descended.

When Seelan Palay took the initiative to mark the 22nd anniversary on 21 May 2009, about 30 people turned up, and that was considered a good start. Among them were a couple of students in school uniform. ‘Tan Pin Pin, who was filming the event, recalls with amazement that she had actually asked them:  Do your parents know you are here?

Culmination

Which brings us to 2 February 2013.

It was such a fantastic day.

It had been raining the day before, and every day after that for the next fortnight. But it was sunny on the fiftieth anniversary of Operation Cold Store. Hong Lim Park was dry.

The Punggol East by-election had taken place on 26 January, a week ago.

The turnout was beyond what was expected. The elderly took up almost all of the 400 chairs; more than 300 sat on the tarpaulins or stood at the back and at the sides. Old friends greeted one another; former detainees gathered around the board with the name list, looking for their names and those of their friends. Those who found that they were not on the list, or who spotted errors made a beeline to the relevant person to have this put right. There was also a crowd at the stall to pick up copies of the commemoration publication. Banners in Chinese and English called for the abolition of the Internal Security Act, and the return of our political exiles.

‘We Remember’ said the board on the stage in English and Chinese.

The festive mood turned solemn and reflective when the speeches by former detainees began, and towards the end, reverent. They remembered; we heard and we learnt and will not forget.

Testimonies

Tan Kok Fang, speaking in English and Chinese after making remarks in Malay, had just graduated from Nanyang University when he was arrested in Operation Cold Store. He spoke of two Nantah graduates– Tai Yuan, detained for eight years, following which he was abruptly banished to Hong Kong, and Chia Thye Poh. These two academically outstanding Nantah graduates eventually obtained their PhD degrees when they were almost seventy. Tan evoked the cause to which his comrades were dedicated: ‘Merdeka!’ a cry which at mass rallies led by Lim Chin Siong and ‘other heroic trail blazers’ , ‘made the colonialists in England shiver, and their local fellow travelers quiver’.
‘Friends, how can we forget?’ He thundered.

Michael Fernandez recalled the giants of the time whom he knew: James Puthucheary, Said Zahari, Linda Chen, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Abdul Razak and Tan Jing Quee. The listing of names is an important ritual of remembrance.

Lee Tee Tong was the Barisan MP-elect for Bukit Timah when he was detained on 10 October 1963, gaining freedom only after almost 18 years. The mandarin-speaking former trade unionist condemned the use of the ISA to bring the death of parliamentary democracy, and saluted Singaporeans today for reviving the spirit of the Hong Lim and Anson by-elections (29 April and 15 July 1961 respectively) where the PAP candidates were defeated.

Chng Minoh, also speaking in Mandarin, took to the podium for the first time since his arrest in 1970, by which time, he noted, the opposition was already seriously weakened and not a threat to anyone. Yet the authorities ordered the detention of the trade unionist and painter working at construction sites. He was the sole breadwinner for his two young children and his wife into her third month of pregnancy, and in poor health. It was probably expected that it would not take long for him to sign a ‘confession’ to secure his release, given his family’s plight. But so doing Chng knew well, would mean an end to his credibility, and his political life. He remained in detention for thirteen years and four days. Given what he and his family members were put through, he claimed the right to demand the abolition of the ISA.

Historicity

Dr Poh Soo Kai, among the most respected of the survivors of political detention, and tireless in remembering and re-examining the history of his generation not only condemned the ISA but spoke to the detainees as a collective, honouring each and every one of them and their family members. They should all stand tall for surviving the ordeal they were put through for having the dream of independence from colonial rule, democracy, and social justice–a dream that the people in Singapore today share.

His enormous moral authority allowed him to touch on what the former detainees have all suffered to some degree—whether it be in terms of  years of their life, opportunities to pursue and develop a cherished career, relationships, family, or loss of dignity and sense of self-worth.

2 February 2013 was the first occasion where this benediction was made, and probably the last.

In response,Teo Soh Lung, a detainee in Operation Spectrum thanked all those from the 1960s for commemorating the event. She then turned to Dr Poh and thanked him, Said Zahari and survivors of Operation Cold Store for liberating us from the rule of the colonial masters.

As someone who was herself wrongfully detained, she also called the government to either press charges against those in detention today, or release them.

The history has been imbibed; the legacy of Operation Cold Store embraced.

Friends, can we ever forget such a day?

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