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A Tale Outrageously Told: Days of Rage on the Hock Lee riots

February 23, 2014

Reckoning with online citizens

Now that Channel NewsAsia is putting up a $5000 prize money for a multi-media competition in schools as a follow-up to the Days of Rage series just telecast, minimyna expects that students will be calling it up on the internet. And when they do that, the link to the TOC’s three-part critique of the Hock Lee riots episode will also appear.

TOC’s staff writer has dissected the way the episode has been edited to project the state’s narrative; historian PJ Thum has provided evidence to dispel its mantra chanted by the colonial rulers then and continuously since, that the Hock Lee riot was masterminded by the Malayan Communist Party;  historian Loh Kah Seng and Otto Fong, two key interviewees in the documentary have  revealed the core of what they had actually said on camera. Loh has clarified that he saw the Hock Lee strike, and the 1950s as days of Hope not rage, an extraordinary time of political and cultural pluralism and optimism. Otto’s testimony was that his father Fong Swee Suan has never been a communist.

The  scathing online rejoinders to passing off diatribe as lessons from history is surely to be expected in this day and age. Yet the Days of Rage team was apparently happy to open itself to such solid attacks with what Loh Kah Seng calls its dated story.

Outrageously discourteous

It is nothing short of indecency that the producers of the series could be so discourteous to people who trusted them sufficiently to agree to be interviewed, doubtlessly falling for the pitch that the film would project ‘other side of the story’ as well.

Otto Fong’s sentence ‘My father was always clear who he was fighting for, and that was the workers within the bus company’, is practically made into a lie when historian Albert Lau is given paragraphs to elaborate that Fong’s demands were part of an underlying pro-Communist plan to control Singapore’s strategic public services, and Janadas Devan, that the labour union leaders were out to push the government to the brink, raising more demands when the original ones were agreed to.

Janadas spoke as Director, Institute of Policy Studies. His concurrent designation, Chief of Government Communications at the Ministry of Communication and Information, is perhaps the more pertinent  to note.

Lee’s script revised

The documentary is indeed more of the same state narrative.  Lau and Janadas practically echo Lee Kuan Yew’s 1998 memoir, to wit: ‘I received my first lesson in CUF (Communist United Front) negotiating tactics. Every concession made immediately led to a new demand. Every refusal to give in to a demand led to an increase in heat and tension….Lim (Chin Siong) and Fong wanted nothing less than to win control of all the bus workers and be able to paralyse the city’s transport system at will.’ (p. 200)

However Lee Kuan Yew had in fact veered away from this view a decade later.  The following account of the Hock Lee riots appears in Men in White:

Lee Kuan Yew, who was then SBWU legal adviser, agreed that Fong did not plan the riots. He doubted that Fong was acting on instructions to bring a collision. The situation blew up, he said, because of ‘the overflow of revolutionary fervour among communist united front activists who believed that revolution was just the day after tomorrow”. In such a hothouse atmosphere, these activists worked themselves to a feverish pitch in defiance of authority and in a strike, ‘there’d be a few inevitable toughies or semi-gangsters and off it went.” (Men in White p. 60)

Minimyna reads Men in White, meant to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the PAP, as an attempt to arrive at a reconciliation of sorts with its own left wing which it has demonised so badly.  The bitterness and sense of injustice felt by its victims might be eased to some degree, perhaps even laid to rest, and that history would fade from memory. The editors of the book made much of their interviewing people from both ends of the political spectrum, and giving voice to all views.

It was thus vital that the book receive endorsement from the former leftwing leaders and detainees themselves.

Fong Swee Suan obliged when he shook Lee Kuan Yew’s hand at the launch of the book.
The hatchet appeared to have been buried.

The ‘retro’ position

However a growing momentum for raking up that history was in fact quietly in the works then. The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of post-war Malaya and Singapore had just been completed, but the editors held the book back till after Men in White was launched. Two of its editors, the late Tan Jing Quee and Dr Poh Soo Kai continued to urge their comrades not to let their past be forgotten.

In 2013 the fiftieth year of Operation Coldstore was remembered at a gathering at Hong Lim Park. The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating Fifty Years was launched. Both events achieved a record turnout.

Members of the ‘old left’ renewed their solidarity, and demanded accountability for their detention which they insisted was unwarranted, and recognition for their historic role as anti-colonialists and socialists.

Their publications and speeches have not been met with any open responses from the state nor academic works calling them to task.

In this respect, the Days of Rage Hock Lee riots episode can be understood as the only reply to them that there has been. 

The aggressive and relentless  emphasis on Fong and Lim Chin Siong being communists and behind the riots implicitly justifies Operation Coldstore, which saw the detention of the two men, and more than a hundred others.

In the last few years, former political leaders who had been detained for more than a decade like Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai and Lee Tee Tong have made speeches emphasising that Coldstore and other detentions were carried out for no other reason than to kill off the most effective opposition to the PAP in the 1963 elections. Based on British Colonial Office documents, historians have revealed that there was absolutely no evidence that there was a subversive plot at the time to overthrow the government.

PJ Thum has categorically stated: ‘Were the Barisan and other detainees part of a communist conspiracy? No, no, no.’

The response to this open and stout challenge seems to be simply to revert to the hardline position, and to use bulldozers to shove it through, even if it is the expense of professional standards.

Fong Swee Suan simply was collateral damage in the process.

Minimyna was incredulous and enraged when she viewed the Hock Lee episode of Days of Rage.

She felt sorry for the parties who feel that they have been made to look ridiculous.

However, she contends that they are not the ones who look the most ridiculous in the programme.

It’s the Cold War, stupid

Just as minimyna was about to upload this essay, up popped ‘Revising the revisionists: Operation Coldstore in History’ by Kumar Ramakrishna, (no date, but a ‘recent’ publication) posted on the Institute of Policy Studies’online platform, IPSCommons.  

The author is Associate Professor  and Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University. ‘A historian by  background, he has published extensively on the struggle against post-war Malayan Communism. He is working on a longer scholarly analysis of Operation Coldstore.’
[Minimyna cannot help but sound a warning chirp here: anyone who writes: ‘History records that Coldstore was mounted to contain threats…’ is not likely to be much of a historian, unless he lived in the 19th century]

As its very title unabashedly reveals, the essay takes us back to the dark ages, despite claiming to be filling in ‘nuances’ and ‘morally complex shades of grey’.  Its method of operation is bizarre to say the least.  Among other things, it blatantly name-drops academic authorities like T N Harper and S J Ball, attributing to them arguments which are contrary to what they have presented.

It also jousts at windmills of the author’s own design. According to Ramakrishna, PJ Thum asserts that the British and the Tunku were being cornered by Lee into the arrests—a ‘sensationalistic treatment’, which Ramakrishna proceeds merrily to demolish. However, his essay vis a vis Thum’s is at best like ships in the night. There is actually no engagement, certainly no collision as the former claims, for Thum has not made such an argument at all.

Ramakrishna nevertheless insists that there is evidence that ‘even careful British officials conceded that Lim was a skilled CUF operator, and other detainees had a history of subversive activities’. Simply alleging this is not a rebuttal, only a rehashing, and befuddling to boot, when Thum has precisely provided the documents which contain such statements, and shown how they are the prose of counterinsurgency, a Special Branch speciality.  It is already assumed that the enemy are subversives.

Ramakrishna’s following ‘rebuttal’ is even more incredible: that the CUF leaders regarded Lee as the only serious obstacle to their plans to establish Communist rule in Singapore. Thus the British and the Tunku recognized that Lee ‘was the only man’ who can run the city.

This is indeed news… if the CUF were as ruthless as they are made out to be, surely the easiest thing to do would be for them to bump Lee off. And surely what Ramakrishna means is that the British and Tunku recognized that Lee was the only man who could run the city to their satisfaction, though the latter was proven quite wrong within two and a half short and acrimonious years with Separation.

The kindest thing that one could say of ‘Revising the Revisionists’ is that if it is a spoof of ISD-speak,  of the state narrative as presented by the industry that produces it, it does a jolly good job of it.

But then minimyna is really quite a simple-minded creature. She reckons that as the Coldstore arrests were made on the grounds that the Barisan was involved in the Brunei revolt, why don’t the authorities simply make the evidence of this available to the public?

The former detainees who have been protesting their innocence for 50 years would then be totally discredited.  Some of them have spent more than a decade in detention for refusing to submit to the accusation of being communists and subversives.

Academic travesty

There have been academics who have been sent to the British archives who have managed to talk about the ‘CUF’ and the ‘Communists’ without any reference to the documents that PJ Thum for one has quoted, and which they cannot in good faith have missed.

Ramakrishna is left to give a blustering lecture on the Cold War, in Cold War jargon, and coming to Cold War conclusions, more than two decades after the end of the Cold War.

Yet the Institute of Policy Studies deems it to be of sufficient scholarly standards to post it, on a site for writings that ‘contribute to the development of the country’s intellectual capital’, no less. And isn’t the author Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University? .

OMG !!!

An appendix of sorts

Minimyna has spent more than a couple of weeks figuring out how best to present her reading of the Hock Lee riots in Days of Rage.  She has had to check herself from countering point by point, what to her are misrepresentations and other outrages, and trust that readers would follow the hyperlinks to examine the trees if they are given an outline of the proverbial woods.

She had written the following three segments before abandoning the approach:

Bull…dozer one: the participant’s account

One of the most desperate moves and expensive to boot was the interview with a Gurkha constable in the police force who was deployed in the Hock Lee riots. Speaking in his native language and filmed in Nepal, Gashahadur Gunung knows none of the languages used in Singapore, which is precisely why the Gurkhas are employed as mercenaries by the British. To this day, the Gurkha troops in Singapore are disallowed from integrating too much with local society in order to maintain their ‘neutrality’ when deployed in action.  Yet in the documentary, the former Gurkha constable is filmed telling us, ‘Communists were the agitators, they wanted to take over the country.’

Bull…dozer two: painting demons

On 16 May 1955, four days after the incident, Chief Secretary William Goode called for an amendment to the Emergency Regulations to restore powers of imposing curfew to the police commissioner which the newly-elected government of David Marshall had done away with. A student of a Chinese school had been shot at about 9.30 pm on 12 May. He was put on a stretcher and paraded around to whip up the emotions of the crowd. When he was taken to the hospital at 1.10 a.m. on the 13th he was dead.  According to the Chief Secretary, ‘ it is quite possible his life might have been saved if his body had not been used for propaganda purposes for hours.’ 16 May 1955 Legislative Assembly debate.

The inquest, which concluded on 2 July 1955 and was extensively covered in all the newspapers, however returned an open verdict on the cause of the student’s death. In his summary, the coroner noted that ‘at no time was there positive evidence that the boy was alive or for that matter dead’ immediately on being shot. The lack of evidence that the student was alive after being shot, the allegation that he had been allowed bled to death as the communists would not let a life stand in the way of propaganda material, has been repeated as fact whenever the Hock Lee riots have been mentioned. It is too good propaganda material to let the truth get in the way.

Bull…dozer three: David Marshall’s weakness held back Singapore’s attainment of internal self-government

David Marshall was dragged into this documentary as a weakling, and regarded as unreliable by the British who thus refused to give Singapore full internal self-government with Marshall as chief minister. The constitutional advancement, which was achieved only 3 years later; purportedly it was the PAP government which managed to win that confidence and statehood. At the first Constitutional Talks held in London in April 1956, the British had agreed to compromise on nearly every issue, except that they insisted on retaining control of internal security. Marshall and Lim Chin Siong, representing the PAP with Lee Kuan Yew, rejected this condition. Marshall resigned as Chief Minister. British control of internal security through chairing the Internal Security Council was accepted by Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, and Lee Kuan Yew in the second Constitutional Talks in 1957. The two men also proposed to the British that political prisoners not be allowed to stand in the 1959 general election. If the British had greater trust in Lee than Marshall, it was because the latter was far less amenable to safeguarding their interests.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera….


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  1. norman lim permalink

    Some lack of academic impartiality here, ignoring other sources. Perhaps a more detached and objective manner would be better. Sounds more like an activist than academic? Maybe years of moving around in a certain circle does change one’s perspective and balance.

    • I take it that the reference would be to the ‘other sources’ who were interviewed in Days of Rage, whom you regard as ‘impartial’. Such as? I have named the ones with academic designations in my critique of the documentary, where my observation is precisely that they are more like activists than academics.

      Others, including former journalists, were speaking as people who were on the scene, I do not hold them to standards of academic ‘impartiality’.

      I am a historian, who is answerable first and foremost to the community of scholars. Writing as minimyna, I try to lighten the tone but not the substance of the argument.

      I would be glad to respond to specific charges of having comprised my academic integrity in my use of materials, or the conclusions that I have drawn from them. .

      Hong Lysa. .

  2. Reblogged this on why must like that one?.

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