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Sixty Years on….Commemorating the May 13 1954 Student Movement

May 19, 2014

may 13 banner
Photo credit: Ho Choon Hiong

>In memory of Tan Jing Quee

Part 1
May 13 2014: The fantastical version

Continuing silence 60 years on?

The ’60 years on…Commemorating the May 13 1954 Student Movement’ lunch gathering was a widely-publicised event, drawing an attendance of over 700. Up to the early 1960s the Chinese middle school students used to mark the day with exhibitions and speeches in schools.

On May 13 1954 the middle school students’ assembling on the footpaths outside Government House to await the outcome of their petition to the colonial authorities for exemption from conscription ended in state violence inflicted on them. The public display of brutality by the police stimulated the anti-colonial movement in Singapore.

Despite the overwhelming response to the 60th anniversary gathering, there would have been some who had reservations about the commemoration. The state narrative of the May 13 events targeted the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) as the mastermind. There would be concerns that the celebration will cause the state to retaliate by bringing the charge of communist party involvement to the fore again.

Those who hold this view could well feel that their fears were justified when they opened their copy of Lianhe Zaobao on May 13 and read ‘The historical significance of the May student movement’.

The myth of the mighty Communist Party of Malaya

The article posits the CPM as the force directing the May 13 events. CC Chin introduced himself as ‘an independent scholar working on the history of the left in Singapore and Malaysia’. He is on record ( as stating that he was from the left, and supported the left-wing movement. His life’s work is to build an archive of the CPM, and write its history.
CC Chin is a veteran when it comes to publishing on the communist parties in Malaysia.

Chin’s Zaobao essay does an amazing feat. Turning Rudyard Kipling’s phrase ‘never the twain shall meet’ on its head, it manages to fuse or rather, confuse what are opposites, and antagonists.

His key proposition is that May 13 was masterminded and directed by the CPM. To this end he asserts that the conscripted troops from Singapore were to be sent to suppress the communists. The logic thus is that the CPM would be at the forefront of opposing conscription. The essay also attributed the impressive discipline and organizational capability displayed by the students to CPM direction.

* Would it be plausible that the colonial authorities would train and arm Chinese middle school youths among others, and send them into the jungle?
* Would it be plausible that only Chinese middle school students protested against the possibility of being sent to fight the insurgency, while those in the English-medium schools, and their parents were not the least concerned?
* Would it be plausible that in preparing for such a mission, conscription entailed only part-time training totaling not more than 20 hours in a month?
In claiming that the CPM was a vibrant and dynamic outfit, the author lists its chain of command, identifying by name the leader of the party’s student committee, its committee member in charge of the May 13 events, and its student leader on the ground.

It is obvious too that the organization chart say nothing about actual strength and operational effectiveness.

However, while one can debate with the author on his sources, or how he uses them, and his conclusions, these are actually only secondary issues.

More significant is how the essay ends.

The meeting of the twain

CC Chin asserts that the May 13 event won over the petty bourgeoisie and the Fabian Socialist students on their return from overseas, like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee. The PAP was the result of the united front between the Fabian socialists, and the MCP.

The PAP wins the 1959 general election, the culmination of the dynamism set by May 13 which the CPM initiated, and with the CPM in a united front.
Highlight is placed on the May 13 activists becoming leaders in Singapore’s politics, its labour, farmers, students, and women’s movement, and it is alleged, their ranks included some ministers, and ministers of state in the early cabinet.

This is fantastical, and at best delusional.

In the first place, one wonders who were the ministers alluded to. The only possibility appears to be Jek Yeun Thong, appointed minister of labour in 1963 (not 1959) who had come clean with Lee about his CPM membership, and his turning away from the party.

Ending the narrative in 1959 saves the author having to explain how the mighty party was put on the run after the PAP expelled its left-wing in mid 1961, and Operation Coldstore, where the PAP arrested en masse communists, leftists and non-leftists—by deeming all of them to be communists.

The PAP government has relentlessly called communists Singapore’s greatest enemy. Yet in CPM lore, the party’s chief enemies continue to be the Japanese invaders and the British colonialists.

The CPM’s myth of its strength suits the PAP just fine, and explains why Zaobao would publish an ostensible glorification of the CPM on the 60th anniversary of May 13.

To contemplate the possibility that the author is unaware of this is to underestimate him.

Part 2
50th anniversary: The Mighty Wave contained

Roman á clef non grata

ju lang cover

The fiftieth anniversary of May 13 was marked by the publication of Ju Lang, a historical novel.

But it was a non-event at the time. The CPM did not want the book to be circulated.

The roman á clef, was written by Lim Kim Chuan, using his pen name He Jin when he was 69 years old. Lim was elected by fellow-students as one of 9 committee members to negotiate with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. He became a full-fledged CPM member following the May 13 events.

He Jin has explained that he chose to write a novel rather than a documentary account for the latter would have involved naming names, and discussing matters directly and openly, which he was not ready to do. In any case, he was a leading short-story writer in his student days, recording the sense of belonging to Malaya, and promoting the art for life literary movement.

The protagonists in the novel are two student leaders of the May 13 events who were promoted to full-fledged CPM members after the event. However, they were not carrying out the directives of the party at every turn. In the first place, the students were reacting to events as they unfolded, and the leaders’ decisions had to be acceptable to the student body if the movement were to stay united.

In the novel, the cell leader of the two protagonists had in any case turned rotten, interested only in a life of comfort, siphoning party funds and exploiting a female student subordinate. He could not be contacted when the protagonists sought guidance, and failed to turn up to conduct the ceremony confirming the two as full members for a comrade had escaped from jail and he was afraid of being caught in the dragnet.

The portrayal of this cell leader is the most controversial aspect of the novel. The Party, used to hagiographies, was not open to any criticisms, and its role in the May 13 events cut down to size.

Following the attention which the book received when it was translated into English in 2011, a faction of CPM members circulated essays stating that it wanted to render the posthumous justice due to Zhan Zhong Qian, the CPM leader in charge of students, and in command of the May 13 events (also named in CC Chin’s piece). The essay also detailed subsequent infighting among the leadership which saw him ousted.

At the same time, some former Chinese middle school students insisted on portraying May 13 as a completely student affair, flatly denying even the merest whiff of CPM presence.

A former student leader speaking publicly in 2012 on that period of his life left the CPM out of his account. He stuck to his guns that it had no relevance when a member of the audience raised the inevitable question.

Ju Lang was thus taboo to both sides, and the translation of the novel into English in 2011 was cause for unhappiness on their part. It evidently touched raw nerves.

The uncompromising compromise

Like CC Chin’s account, Ju Lang ends on an ostensibly high note: the PAP’s victory in the 1959 election:

‘Singapore politics entered into a new phase. The people looked forward to a new social order. These young men and women too waited expectantly to assume their new tasks!’

While He Jin ends Ju Lang with the PAP victory, his Afterword spell out the reasons for what can be seen as the compromises he had made.

He Jin explains that he waited till he was in retirement before writing the novel as he did not want to trigger off a ‘political minefield’. An early draft was rejected by the publisher –‘it stuck too rigidly to historical facts’. The second draft elicited the comment that the novel should be ‘more positive’.

The Afterword confronts the issues head-on:

It is well known the Chinese middle school movement in the 1950 was influenced by the underground. Hence it is not possible to write about the students’ movement without dealing with the underground organization. However, many do not know of the complexities of the underground organization.This is an inevitable outcome of a situation where the enemy is overwhelmingly stronger. There was a wide disparity between the strength of the British colonialists and the people of Malaya (including Singapore)….
Taking the Singapore underground as an example, it suffered serious damage. At one stage, the Town Committee had only one surviving student committee. Despite this, and in the low tide of the armed struggle, the mass movement in Singapore miraculously developed into a mighty wave. The young people in our country had inherited the fighting spirit of their forefathers in the anti-Japanese struggle and in addition they were inspired by the objective conditions created by the high tide of the national liberation movements in the Afro-Asian countries.

The young people who threw themselves into the movement initially thought naively that those who participated in the revolution were all good men and women. They did not realize that there were unsavoury characters who failed to undergo self-criticism when they held power….These people degenerated in the complex political situation.

He Jin’s contribution has been vilified by both the Party of which he remains a member, and by former May 13 student comrades.

Yet it is this novel that has given the most complex and reflective historical account of the event, challenging the self-denial by the Party and the ostrich approach of some former student leaders.

Instead of being suppressed, there needs to be many more narratives, recollections and reflections that supplement, complement, interrogate, qualify, challenge or demolish Ju Lang.

The former students who reject historical assessment find themselves continuously fearing that the state would be provoked to raise the issue of the CPM’s presence in May 13.

The CC Chin essay in Zaobao proves their point.

But only if they continue to allow such writings to intimidate them, rather than to break away from the constricting state discourse that Singapore history of the 1950s and 60s is a matter of arguing who is a communist and who is not, or whether the CPM is behind this or that.

Part 3
60 Years on….Commemorating the May 13 1954 Student Movement

10 years on from Ju Lang

The most significant aspect of ‘60 years on…. Commemorating the May 13 1954 Student Movement’ was that Lim Hock Koon was invited to give a speech at the event.

He gave a familiar, dutiful account of the day-to day, week-to-week development of the May 13 events.

The significance lay not in what he had to say, but the fact that Lim Hock Koon is no other than the main protagonist in Ju Lang
The entrenched taboo has been broken.

Lim is also one of the main villains in that fiction posing as history, Dennis Bloodworth, The Tiger and the Trojan Horse.

Like He Jin, he became a full CPM member following the May 13 events. He was on the run from the authorities, and was detained from 1970-1979.

Lim Hock Koon did not simply recount past events. His final note was not about the triumph of 1959 but the betrayal. He ended with the words of his brother Dr Lim Hock Siew:

Like a gigantic tidal wave, these (May 13) activists swept the PAP into power in 1959, hoping that the newly formed political party would bring about political freedom and social justice to our people. But it was not to be. Subsequent repressions conducted by the PAP after it came to power proved to be more ruthless and relentless than those carried out by the colonial rulers and they have to be seen through and through as a massive political betrayal in Singapore history.

But Lim Hock Koon saved the last lines for himself, exhorting in particular the younger people present: ‘Destiny is in our own hands, we must struggle and be prepared to sacrifice if we want to realize our dreams’.

What the archives have to say

Dr Poh Soo Kai’s speech extended the time-frame to bring in the conjoined University Socialist Club members and the Fajar trial, the burgeoning the trade unions, mentioning in particular Jamit Singh, and the Hock Lee Riots, and citing Dr PJ Thum’s confirmation that the Special Branch reports in the UK for 1954-55 state that the MCP did not instigate May 13, nor the Hock Lee Bus strike and riot. Dr Poh also revealed that two individuals whose cases he read in the Colonial Office files were likely to be agents provocateurs in the Hock Lee riots.

Dr Poh reserved his final point for advising Lee Kuan Yew to apologise to Lim Chin Siong for never ever clearing Lim’s name when he knew full well that Lim had told the highly worked up people attending the rally on 25 October 1956 NOT to ‘pah mata’ (beat the police) rather than the opposite.

The Lim Yew Hock government deliberately twisted Lim’s words to justify detaining him. Dr Thum has recently found the transcript of Lim’s speech in the Special Branch files.

The commemoration lunch was a social event, and constant chatter went on while the speeches (which are in the commemoration publication) were made.

However, even those busily catching up in conversation with their friends were paying sufficient attention to the speeches and broke into applause when Lim Hock Koon and Dr Poh brought their talks to the present situation.

But the link to the present was delivered most vitally not by the ‘old left’.

The younger left

The gathering was organized by Maruah and Function 8, and Lim Hock Koon expressed appreciation on behalf of the May 13 Generation for the gesture of respect shown to them.

In a moving short film re-enacting a student-led study session during the camp-in at Chinese High, young director Jason Soo had the students reading a fable from Aesop in their English language lesson.

In ‘The Eagle and the Arrow’ an eagle was fatally shot by an arrow whose shaft included a feather from its own plume.

The proceedings of the day ended with a rousing choir and mass singing session of the repertoire of 5-13 songs, which are regular fare for the many alumni and community choir groups that meet regularly. The energy of 5-13 reverberated through the vast hall.

old left singing
Photo credit: Ho Choon Hiong

Another group was scheduled to sing, but their item was cancelled as there wasn’t enough time.

But the song was sung after all.

As people were moving out of the restaurant, they were greeted with a Hokkien song, sung with much gusto and good cheer by three Function 8 members.

f8 singing
photo credit: Ho Choon Hiong

It was in the familiar tune of“I love Malaya”. Re-titled ‘Song of the Students’ the first line goes:

无良心的政府人, 害死了读书人
Bo liong sim aye zeng hu lang Hai see liao tak chay lang
Our heartless government Destroy the lives of students

Function 8 members had learnt it from former Singapore Polytechnic students who were arrested and detained in 1976.

Perhaps we will now be seeing updated lyrics to that tune, which reflect our times.

And we will be hearing songs sung to this tune for decades to come.


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  1. Ruikko permalink

    Please, if you don’t know much about the writer of Ju Lang, do not talk like you are so familiar with him, but the words gone wrong. Also it is not appropriate to change the facts of the history to suit own needs and interests. Fact is fact. Even though you and the rulers may not like it. It is not something like “The myth of the mighty” described by Wangruirong’s article.

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