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

September 29, 2014

Hong Lysa

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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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