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

November 25, 2014

 

 

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.

 

 

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One Comment
  1. Kevin Blackburn permalink

    Regarding the statement: ‘It has been endlessly said that every society needs a narrative that knits it together.’ Many societies have a contested past and learn to live with their own ‘history wars’. These often reflect a vibrant civil society. Why should Singapore be expected to be any different from Japan, Australia, Malaysia, and many other countries, which have highly contested pasts? Often the only countries that have had a past that the state and its people ‘agreed’ on were authoritarian countries. Perhaps Singapore having an increasingly contested past reflects a growing democratization in society? That is a point that I suggest in a recent BKI 2013 online open access article: ‘The “Democratization” of Memories of the Singapore Past’, http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/22134379-12340064
    Interestingly, both Barry Desker and Tan Tai Yong have suggested recently that Singapore can live with a contested past over the 1950s and 1960s political fights during the path to nationhood and independence (Straits Times, 8 November and 29 November, 2014). But, of course, as Lysa suggests, some people insist on one simple uniform narrative of the past. That is also not uncommon, especially in Southeast Asian countries, where history has often been harnessed to the cause of ‘nation building’.

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