Weapon of the powerful? Wondering about The Response to Poh Soo Kai, “Singapore’s ‘Battle for Merger’ revisited: the poverty of its history”
The Battle over Operation Coldstore—between the PAP establishment case that the fateful arrests of 2 February 1963 was rightly justified as a security measure that saved Singapore from subversion and imminent outbreak of violence, and the former political prisoners who maintain that it was to prevent the opposition forces from winning the 1963 general election has been going on in the last few years, following almost 50 years of virtual state monopoly on the subject.
In October 2014 the government took up the cudgels directly with the re-issue of The Battle for Merger (1962) by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, which cast the 1950s and 1960s as the time of pitched battles between the communists and the non-communists in the PAP.
The challenge from those who have queried this version of history has caused the present PAP government to declare on that occasion that it is imperative that the ‘correct’ history be reaffirmed, in order to honour and emulate the spirit of our pioneers to rise above the ‘dire threat of communism’. In other words, the battle is over; it has been won. History serves as an inspiration.
However, in the latest round of Battlefield Operation Coldstore, the importance of the communist vs non-communist trope and the legitimacy or otherwise of the Operation has been ratcheted right up.
The High Commissioner of the Republic of Singapore’s, ‘Response to Poh Soo Kai’s Allegation’ [18 December 2014] vs Poh Soo Kai’s, “Singapore’s ‘Battle for Merger’ revisited” [ 3 Dec 2014] both in New Mandala which is put out by academics based in the Australian National University, is not just about fighting over narratives of the past.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed in his Facebook posting of 20 December 2014 to ‘A few hard core ‘old Communist and pro-Communist activists [who] don’t want to admit that they had fought on the wrong side’, and ‘some revisionist historians’ who support their version of history share one motivation: cast doubt on the legitimacy of the PAP government, not just in the 1960s, but today.
And the PAP government has risen to the challenge.
The Response by the high commissioner is written on the letterhead of his office, and signed in his official capacity. It thus emanates from the government of Singapore and issued is by its representative to Australia, where New Mandala is published.
On his Facebook which is maintained by the Prime Minister’s Office, the prime minister wrote that ‘We have put together an account using evidence from the British archives as well as CPM sources, which confirm that Mr Lee Kuan Yew told the truth’ when he provided the url of ‘The Response’ for his readers.
What then would the government have to say should those British archival and CPM sources are shown in fact NOT to confirm in the least that ‘Mr Lee Kuan Yew told the truth’?
Given the high stakes that the government has put into Battlefield Operation Coldstore, including drawing Singapore’s high commissioner to Australia into the fray, one can expect that it would have poured in every resource at its disposal to present the most convincing, water-tight case possible, perhaps even using Singapore’s Internal Security Department confidential records to tear Dr Poh’s statements about the exercise to shreds for once and for all.
Yet the research and analysis in ‘The Response’ is plainly incompetent and quite embarrassing indeed. It is as if it is not meant to be read closely, not to say taken seriously; it is simply going through the motions to register that a Response has been made.
It actually reads like a spoof of itself. The Response claims that ‘revisionists’ conveniently omit mention of incriminating evidence in the documents against its own arguments, and merrily proceeds to do exactly that itself.
Dr Poh’s ‘Battle for Merger revisited’ quotes the following:
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. (Philip Moore, deputy high commissioner to secretary of state, 18 July 1962, CO 1030/1160.) [Emphasis added]
This quotation has been oft-cited since it first appeared in T N Harper’s ‘Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story’ (in Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in history ed. Tan Jing Quee and Jomo K S, 2001) by those who query the authority’s claim that it had evidence that Lim Chin Siong was a member of the Malayan Communist Party. In some instances, the first part of the first sentence is omitted. Moore’s passage has been simply ignored by the establishment and its stable of defenders.
However, The Response to Dr Poh no less has the temerity to write: “There is ample evidence in the British archives to show that Lim Chin Siong was a CPM member….[In a] dispatch in July 1962, Deputy UK High Commissioner Philip Moore wrote: ‘we accept that Lim Chin Siong is a communist.’”
Could The Response be playing a joke on itself?
History class: Text and historical context
If the colonial office records do contain any concrete evidence that Lim Chin Siong was a communist, that would have been brought to light from the start, and not fester as a thorn in the PAP’s flesh even fifty years later. Colonial officials, whether in the mother country or in Singapore all worked on the premise that Lim was a communist. Deputy commissioner Philip Moore and high commissioner Selkirk were certainly not exceptions in this respect.
To the colonialists, communists in Singapore fit a checklist: They were Chinese-speaking, particularly students and trade unionists; took part in group activities; were concerned with political and social issues; called for greater government recognition of Chinese-medium schools; demanded the departure of the colonial power; called for the abolition of the Emergency regulations, primarily detention without trial. Given the importance of its military bases to its defence of Southeast Asia, the British refused to grant self-government to Singapore if they did not have some control over internal security, fearing that Singapore’s left-wing forces could build up sufficient momentum to put the future of the bases in jeopardy.
Moore’s remark that Lim was not acting on orders was made when debates in the Internal Security Council over whether arrests should be carried out was at its fiercest. On 3 July 1962 a PAP assemblywoman resigned over the stipulation in the Referendum bill that all blank votes would be counted as a vote for the PAP’s Alternative A. The ruling party lost its one-seat majority in the legislature, which it held when it expelled the left wing of its party in July 1961. The liberal forces rallied to the Barisan, forming the Council for Joint Action. The police arbitrarily broke up anti-PAP merger moves, and coerced the press into not reporting the views of the opposition.
Analysing the developments, Philip Moore combed through Special Branch and M15 reports which ‘proved’ that Lim Chin Siong was a communist, and concluded that nevertheless Lim was working very much on his own. (S J Ball, ‘Selkirk in Singapore’, Twentieth Century British History, vol. 10 no.2, 1999 pp. 179-180)
Selkirk told London that the Federation and Singapore governments had plans to arrest 25 and 250 ‘effective political opposition’ respectively, and put the blame for the arrests on the British. (PREM11/1951, GM (62) 26 Selkirk to R Maulding, 17 July 1962, cited in S J Ball, ‘Selkirk in Singapore’, p. 180.)
Selkirk and Moore, both supporters of Lee Kuan Yew, were expressing their apprehensions of the impact of the proposed arrests on Lee and the British themselves.
Moore’s report continues:
I would like to take this opportunity to stress again that in Singapore today we have a political and not a security problem. We know who most of the potential subversives are and they could easily be gathered in at any time they seemed to threaten the security of the state. Our problem however is to prevent left wing parties from gaining control of the constitutional Government of Singapore by a chauvinist appeal to the Chinese educated. The Tunku’s threat in his ‘Close the Causeway’ speeches and Lee Kuan Yew’s Phase One have only had the effect of solidifying the political opposition to Merger and Malaysia. But I am not impressed by the opposition leaders who came to see me today. I believe moderate forces can prevail in Singapore provided either the Tunku nor we make stupid tactical mistakes. Nothing could provide a moderate effective rallying point for the chauvinistic and moderate elements against merger and Malaysia than to arrest leading members of the main Opposition party without adequate cause.
Moore was giving input to his superiors on the best strategy to ensure the defeat the left-wing Barisan Sosialis at the general election; he was not ‘soft’ on Lim Chin Siong. His professional judgment as Her Majesty’s servant was that the intelligence reports did not contain sufficient evidence to prove that Lim was acting on orders as a communist, which would create problems for the authorities if he were to be arrested on that ground.
However around that time, the colonial office was moving to a less open position on how to deal with the ‘communists’. Duncan Sandys became secretary of state for the colonies concurrent with his position as secretary of state for commonwealth relations on 13 July 1962. As minister of defence (1957-1959) he had made the plans to reduce the size of the armed forces by going for nuclear weapons, and a large air transport force to ensure mobility of troops. His key interest in Singapore was as a military base, and he regarded Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew as guarantors of British military interest in Southeast Asia. Sandys did not object to the Federation and Lee’s view that arrests should be made ‘to reduce the communist threat’, provided that the Internal Security Council approved individual cases for which reasonable grounds were presented, and that the arrests would not cause domestic unrest and difficulties for him in the British parliament.
The high commission in Singapore was thus no longer consulted for its view on the wisdom of launching arrests; its job was only to ensure that none of the detention cases would cause embarrassment. The outbreak of the Brunei uprising on 8 December 1962 made even that no longer necessary. Selkirk immediately asked the colonial office for an agreement in principle that he might ‘concur on behalf of the British government in the arrest and detention of the leading communists and communist sympathisers in Singapore.’
The colonial office internal minutes noted that that it was a ‘reasonable inference’ that as the Barisan had expressed its support for the revolt in Brunei, they would favour similar action in Singapore if the opportunity were present. (CO 1030/1160 CS Roberts to Higham, colonial office memorandum, 11 December 1962)
It is thus facile to counter Moore’s much-cited statement by simply spouting others which show that Moore was actually convinced that Lim was a communist. Such statements are the stuff of police intelligence reports; equally numerous are UK high commission reports which freely note that Lee Kuan Yew was bent on arresting his political opponents which the British did not object to, so long as Lee took the responsibility for it publicly, and there would not be a popular backlash.
Moore’s observation about Lim Chin Siong being an independent actor inadvertently goes beyond the run-of-the-mill intelligence reports on Lim’s activities. In that paragraph, Lim Chin Siong is accorded a human dimension rather than being a stereotype whose every move is always predictable if not predestined. It was written when the colonial office was uncertain about the best strategy to adopt. Moore was performing his duty when he alerted the colonial office to the absence in the documents of what the authorities needed.
There is no contradiction at all when with the Brunei uprising the UK commission in Singapore was very gung-ho about drawing convenient lines to connect the Barisan, Brunei’s Azahari and communism.
Along with seeking permission from London to act against the left with the Brunei uprising,Selkirk sent the minutes of a Barisan meeting held 3 months earlier, on 23 September 1962. The Response quotes from this document central executive member Chok Koh Thong’s remark that ‘Experience elsewhere showed that ‘there was no country in the world which had attained a thorough success in revolution through constitutional processes.’
However, CS Roberts of the colonial office noted in internal minutes that the records of the Barisan meeting that Selkirk sent did not reveal ‘more than [the fact] that certain elements of the Barisan Sosialis would resort to violent acts if they thought it expedient.’ Nonetheless he went on to recommend ‘On the other hand we must take Mr Moore’s word that this evidence does show more conclusively than anything we have had previously that the Barisan Sosialis is communist controlled.’ (CO 1030/1160 CS Roberts to Higham, colonial office memorandum, 11 December 1962)
It is not a case of the devil citing scripture for its purpose.
Rather, the script in this instance has all along been written by the devil itself.
Perpetuating Lim Chin Siong as communist bogey
The Response sticks to the 50-year old format of treating Lim Chin Siong as the all-powerful leader whose every word is sacred to Barisan Sosialis and trade union members.
Dr Poh Soo Kai, Barisan assistant secretary general has given an account of his political involvements, which started with the postwar spirit of anti-colonialism. As a student of the University of Malaya he was the key defendant in the Fajar trial, prosecuted by the colonial government for sedition. The Fajar trial had nothing to do with Lim Chin Siong. Dr Poh has explained why he decided to join the Barisan Sosialis when he was approached, giving up two postgraduate medical scholarships to do that, and his relationship with Lim Chin Siong. Had the PAP expulsion of its left wing taken place just a couple of months later, Dr Poh would have already gone overseas, and his life would have taken a different course. His narrative can be found in his chapters in The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore (2009), and The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 5o years (2013).
Despite this, The Response simply portrays Dr Poh and every Barisan member and trade unionist who was arrested on 2 February 1963 as an obedient follower of the diabolical Lim Chin Siong, more likely reflecting the type of leadership that PAP members and sympathisers are used to than anything else.
The memoirs of Chin Peng (2003), Fong Chong Pik (2008) and the publication of the Singapore Oral History Centre’s interview transcripts of Eu Chooi Yip (2006) have been around for some years, but the establishment narratives have not till now brought them into service at all.
Perhaps there is a reason for that. While readers are disappointed that Fong Chong Pik (‘The Plen’) revealed very little indeed of his secret meetings with Lee, his memoir is centred on the anti-colonial fervor of the time. It was the CPM that sustained the fight against the invading Japanese imperialists; in Singapore it was the Chinese-speaking youths like Fong who carried this over into the anti-colonial post-war movement. It is not a life-story that would have a place in the recommended reading lists of school textbooks.
The Response uncharacteristically treats the words of the MCP leaders in this instance as nothing but the truth. MCP secretary general Chin Peng, and leaders in charge of Singapore Eu Chooi Yip and Fong Chong Pik surely were fully cognizant of the significance that their comments on Lim Chin Siong would have on the PAP story, and given Lim’s stature, MCP history as well.
Chin Peng and Fong have chosen neither to deny nor confirm that Lim Chin Siong was a member, leaving a trace of the complexity of the politics of the time. What they have done is to remind Singaporeans that the communists were there, once a force which no serious anti-colonial group could simply ignore. Chin Peng reminds us that from the start, the PAP through various means, vitally kept its channels open to the spectrum of the left, including the CPM. One can surely assume that Lim Chin Siong would have his channels too. Being ‘influenced’ by the very knowledge that the CPM was in the background and keeping in touch with its reading of politics, even working surreptitiously with them in specific instances where it was deemed beneficial to one’s own interests did not make one a member of the communist party. This is only stating the obvious.
Unless one is talking about Lim Chin Siong, but of course.
Eu’s oral history transcripts which have been published (in Chinese, 2006) is particularly problematic. He renounced communism and on returning to Singapore in 1991, underwent debriefing by the internal security department and was taped by the Oral History Centre of the Singapore National Archives a year later. His 2002 transcripts are painful to read. He was concerned to distance himself Fong Chong Pik’s ‘mistakes’ in pledging total support to Lee Kuan Yew [which Fong accepted responsibility for in his memoir]. Eu claimed that as a graduate of Raffles College (the predecessor of the University of Malaya) he knew the likes of Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee well, while Fong was out of his depth. Chin Peng’s memoir takes a dig at Eu, who had apparently told the MCP leaders that Rajaratnam was not Lee’s man, and could be counted on to break with him.
So much for pedigree.
Or the notion that communists think alike.
The Response asserts this, despite the fact that while Chin Peng wrote that Coldstore shattered the CPM’s underground network throughout Singapore, Fong Chong Pik, the closest to Singapore of the three, (Chin Peng was based in China, and Eu Chooi Yip in Indonesia) claimed that he had started withdrawing cadres who were likely to have been exposed in small groups from Singapore at around the end of 1961 to 1963-4. ‘As a result ‘practically the entire effective strength of the organization was withdrawn.’ The sum total of the cadres was more than 50 males and females. (Fong, page 172)
Communist leaders do have clashes of egos too. Just read their memoirs.
Weapon of the weak?
Fifty years after Coldstore, it is no longer so easy to hype up the PAP’s first two decades of history as a feat of basically destroying of one person, (and more than a hundred others, just in case) and one deserving of eternal gratitude.
But it does not mean that the PAP has not kept trying.
Perhaps at this point, it has no choice but to resort to the ways of its founders: Make is simple, make it loud and brazen. Bring out the government machinery. Capture the headlines– the actual text doesn’t matter.
To outsiders, it would seem irresponsible and even suicidal for the government to come up with an empty vessel like The Response and its echoes. Why not simply continue to send out the well-trained troopers from the ranks of academia? Why do cabinet ministers, a minister of state and a high commissioner have to put their names to really ludicrous statements?
Just what is going on?
It has taken me almost a month before giving up trying to figure it out.
Only those directly involved at the highest levels will know what the battle is really about, and how it is faring.