A historian’s business
If Kumar Ramakrishna, author of ‘Lim Chin Siong and that Beauty World speech: A Closer Look’ had only identified himself as Associate Professor and Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University, I would not have bothered with his article at all .http://www.ipscommons.sg/index.php/categories/featured/177-lim-chin-siong-and-that-beauty-world-speech-a-closer-look
However, he also states that he is a historian by training. This makes it the business of historians, which I take great pride in being. As such, it is not possible to not take issue with his approach to history.
‘A Closer Look’ has one aim: to discredit PJ Thum’s assertion that the Lim Yew Hock government had abused the PPSO, which provided for detention without trial, when it detained Lim Chin Siong for urging the crowd that gathered to hear his address at Beauty World on 25 October 1956 to ‘pah mata’. Thum’s conclusion is based on his unearthing of what is so far the only copy of Lim’s fateful speech in recently released Special Branch files in the UK archives which reveals that contrary to the charge, Lim had in fact urged the crowd NOT to ‘pah mata’. [Link provided in ‘A Closer Look’]
The author takes for granted that Lim Chin Siong, and everyone else who was arrested by the Lim Yew Hock government in the days and weeks leading to the speech was a member of the communist party, and by that token was ruthless, violent, subversive and dangerous. They all deserve to be arrested and detained without trial. From that everything else flows. Hence, to the author, even though Lim Chin Siong had urged the crowd NOT to ‘pah mata’, he was in fact encouraging them to do so ‘in spirit if not in letter’, for that is what communists do. Thum was thus taking the ‘pah mata’ comment of Lim Chin Siong ‘totally out of context’, the author avers.
The Anti-colonial Context
History is about context: the wider circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood. The bald context the author has zeroed in is the Cold War, understood simply as the anti-communists vs the communists.
Yet there is a more fundamental context that he and other historians have suppressed: the anti-colonial movement that swept Singapore in the post-war years, which was put down by the Emergency in 1948, and resurfaced as a mass movement comprising in particular the Chinese middle-school students and workers following the May 13 1954 petition for the students to be exempted from national service which turned violent when the police used force in the streets to disperse them.
Lee Kuan Yew had stated in his radio talks ‘exposing’ Lim and other left-wing leaders as communists over the question of merger (Battle for Merger ) that he recognized the vitality, dynamism and revolutionary fervour of the anti-colonial mass movement from the mid-1950s which he knew he needed to tap into. Colonial rule had to go—its business was not to rule for the benefit of the people, and the British had to be pressured to leave; dissatisfaction with the system that permitted exploitation of workers would no longer be tolerated, hence the burgeoning of labour unions which were ready to take strike action. The very first aim of the PAP as stated at its inauguration in 1954 was to end colonialism.
To the author however, the departure of the colonial power should be on its terms, rather than on that of the people of Singapore. Hence, the anti-colonial movement was not recognized as such, but as subversive and communist, and calling Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock who detained members of the anti-colonial left in order to impress the British ‘running dog of the British’ is using ‘dehumanising language’ and whipping up mob frenzy, while Lim Yew Hock’s action apparently had no part in it at all.
Without the pervasive anti-colonial context in which the Cold War rhetoric has to be understood, every action challenging the authorities, even if it is the colonial is to be condemned. And the legacy that the use of state violence is always justified, while any questioning or protests against it is communist/Euro-communist/Marxist-inspired, has remained a key myth in Singapore, where the same party has been in government since 1959.
Without the pervasive anti-colonial context, the author is unable to understand the statement he quotes made by Lim Chin Siong to Melanie Chew in 1996: ‘Was it my mistake, or was it the mistake of history that I had become a member of the ABL [Anti-British League] at the time?’
Nor would he be able to appreciate the significance of Lee Kuan Yew’s 5 May 1955 statement, at the start of CJ W-L Wee’s chapter which the author cites fairly extensively: ‘If I had to choose between colonialism and communism, I would vote for communism, and so would the great majority.’
The occasion of the speech
The author also ignores the more immediate context of the Beauty World speech. Firstly, it was not made at a labour union event or one summoned by Lim Chin Siong. It was a People’s Action Party rally. On the stage along with Lim were party secretary Lee Kuan Yew, chairman Toh Chin Chye, and CV Devan Nair. The party chairman organized the rally, decided on the time, day and venue, and selected the speakers. He had earlier invited Gerald de Cruz organizing secretary of Lim Yew Hock’s party, the Labour Front to justify the series of detentions at the PAP rallies, but de Cruz did not accept the invitation. (Straits Times, 24, 25 October 1956). Lim Chin Siong, Legislative Assembly member for Bukit Timah, was designated the last speaker.
The Lim Yew Hock government had announced that at 8pm that evening ( Lim ended his speech one hour and ten minutes before that, as the organisers had arranged), troops would be sent into Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High to break up the students who were camped there for the past 15 days in protest against the banning of the Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Student Union, and the arrests of student leaders and teachers.
Surely there is no doubt that the PAP rally was addressing a gathering of people angered by the actions of Lim Yew Hock, and the violence on the part of the government that was imminent.
The rally commenced at 5.25 pm, Lim Chin Siong spoke from 6.25 to 6.48 pm. There would have been other PAP speakers before him, possibly the three other PAP leaders on the stage. The permit for the rally expired at 7 pm. The crowd dispersed 10 minutes before the deadline. An announcement was made that next rally was at Bukit Panjang on 27th and call was made for shouts of ‘Merdeka’ three times.
As we now know, Lim Chin Siong had urged the crowd not to yell ‘pah mata’, but ‘Merdeka’ instead.
A really close look at the speech
Looking at the context also means’ taking the speech as a whole, not just a snippet’, as the author himself has put it. In taking ‘a close look’, the author sees Lim Chin Siong’s speech as ‘inflammatory and aimed to stoke anti-government resentment towards the Lim Yew Hock government.’
Summary of Lim Chin Siong’s speech at Beauty World, 25 October 1956:
I. roll-call of those detained by Lim Yew Hock; groups and organisations that were banned.
2. Lim Yew Hock as running dog of the British. The people want the British to be driven out. Instead of enlisting the help of the people and joining up with other political parties to do this, he got the help of the British to fight against the people. Lim Yew Hock did nothing for the people, and was afraid he would be thrown out of office in the election in 2 years’ time. In return for the arrests of those who were strongly anti-colonial, the British would conspire to give his government independence so that the people would forget the arrests and laud him for obtaining independence, and elect him as prime minister.
3. Lim Yew Hock’s position is dependent on the use of the army and the police, and banishments and detentions without trial. This cannot go on forever. Even if the people are intimidated enough to vote for him in 1959, their desire for democracy remains, and sooner or later, Lim Yew Hock will be defeated.
4. Lim Yew Hock relies on the British, but they are no longer mighty and respected. They are now like lowly dogs that the people spit on. They are being chased out of Egypt, India, Cyprus and Africa.
5 The police are wage earners. They are all here to attend the meeting to oppose Lim Yew Hock. People don’t want to shout ‘Merdeka’. They want to shout ‘Pah Mata’. This is wrong. We want to ask the police to cooperate with us.
6. Lim Yew Hock is not worthy to represent the people; he should dissolve the government and call for an election to see if the people will support him. And we warn him that if he uses force against the students we, the people of Singapore, will not tolerate it.
7. We must let people know how bad the government is. I believe that no matter how oppressive the government is, it will be defeated if we are united. We must take certain action to retaliate against their oppressive action.
There are no records of there being ‘so many contemporary and later observers who have recounted’ that the speech was inflammatory, as the author alleged. The originating source, now revealed as fraudulent allegation was made in the Legislative Assembly by Minister of Education Chew Swee Kee on 26 November 1956. He stated that Lim Chin Siong had said: ‘Instead of shouting “Merdeka” the people should now shout, “Pah Mata”, which means “Beat the Police”. Is there any doubt whatsoever as to who sparked off the riots?’
Taking the speech as a whole, it is evident that Lim Chin Siong was condemning Lim Yew Hock for the wave of detention of anti-colonial trade unionists, civic organisations, students and teachers. He was calling on the people not to despair, but to unite to get rid of Lim Yew Hock in the 1959 election, which the PAP would be fighting.
The discipline of history
What gives anyone claiming to be a historian, an academic even a student of social psychology the authority or legitimacy to claim that ‘it does not matter that Lim Chin Siong did not literally tell the crowd to ‘pah mata’?
According to the author, Lim Chin Siong was like ‘a well-known violent extremist leader in Indonesia who said, “I am only a craftsman making knives, so how am I responsible for how those knives are used?”’ Such a comparison, plucked out of the air by the author, cannot be the practice of historians and their consciousness of context.
Nor can the ‘A Closer Look’ as a whole qualify as the work of a bona fide historian. It is replete with insinuation, caricature, acrobatic leaps of logic, bald assertions disguised as fact, and confounding naiveness. What is one to make of the statement that the British High Commissioner Lord Selkirk recorded that ‘Lim and Fong had “seemed embarrassed” and “failed to give a clear reply” when he asked whether they were communists. Was it Lim Chin Siong or Lord Selkirk who was being ‘disingenuous’? Is the author so prone to repose uncritical belief in the superior intelligence of the British colonial rulers, or regard Lim Chin Siong as an imbecile, caught out by such a penetrating question? Or perhaps it is his readers’ intelligence that the author is insulting.
In the end, the worth of a piece of historical writing is based on the integrity of the author as a scholar.
Even on this score alone, ‘A Closer Look’ does not qualify as the work of someone who claims to be a historian.
What it’s all about
Or who even tries to be one.
Just as the recent commemoration of the 60th anniversary of May 13 1954 brought a renewed claim in Lianhe Zaobao that the student movement was actually directed by the Communist Party of Malaya, the surfacing of the Beauty World speech which revealed that Lim Chin Siong was clearly framed when he was arrested in 1956,has duly resurfaced the chant of ‘communism’. Lim Chin Siong’s arrest by the Lim Yew Hock government would call to mind his subsequent detention under Operation Coldstore under an equally specious charge of planning to supply weapons for the Brunei Revolt.
‘A Closer Look’ has to defend Lim Yew Hock even though his government has been proven to have blatantly lied in the Legislative Assembly. The obvious resort is the charge of communism, the fight against which no measure is deemed to be unjust or too harsh. The ‘Cold War’ context is presented as literally the fight between the free world and the communists, without any sensibilities of McCarthyism, or its manipulation by colonial powers, including in Operation Coldstore, or the killings of more than a million in Indonesia in September 1965, in the name of eliminating communists.
Archive-based historical studies which have presented documentary evidence that Operation Coldstore was about political rather than security concerns so far have not received substantive critiques from historians which challenge the findings.
Once again, there are only loud blares of ‘It’s the Cold War, stupid!’
These come from those who state that they are trained as historians, or throw terms like ‘revisionist historians’ and ‘alternative histories’ around, who are in fact with the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University.
Once again I have to say, OMG!!!
>In memory of Tan Jing Quee
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.
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 (http://s-pores.com/2008/01/ccchin/) 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.
50th anniversary: The Mighty Wave contained
Roman á clef non grata
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.
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.
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.
It was in the familiar tune of“I love Malaya”. Re-titled ‘Song of the Students’ the first line goes:
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.
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.
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.’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwviaaULeiY
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.
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? .
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. http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00052353-ZZ¤tPubID=00068855-ZZ&topicKey=00068855-ZZ.00052353-ZZ_1%2Bid002_19550516_S0002_T00021-motion%2B
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….
Two powerful, defiant words.
We insist on commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Operation Cold Store, on remembering its pivotal role in Singapore’s post-1959 political history, and the incarceration of detainees for an inordinate number of years for which there is no conceivable security reason. Named individuals have mentioned their detention for 10 years, 13 years, 17 years, 18, 20 years, and exceeding that in the case of Chia Thye Poh.
We need to remember so long as efforts are continuously made for us to forget that it took mass detentions of about 200 people in 1963 in two major Operations, and close to a hundred in 1964 to set off the change in the political landscape of the island for almost half a century.
So we gathered at Hong Lim Park on 2 February 2013.
We were meant to forget all this. If Cold Store is to be mentioned all, it is only to say that those arrested were communist party members with subversive agenda, or united front collaborators, knowingly or otherwise, who if they had been allowed to carry on with their plot, would have seen our parks and pavements turned over to socialist production of tapioca, sweet potatoes, cabbages and other hardy vegetables…(S Rajaratnam, ‘Birth pangs of a nation’ in pre-university seminar Birth of a Nation: Singapore in the 1950s, June 1984)
Control of state power to the degree as seen in Singapore has allowed its political leaders to pronounce on what it insists would definitely have had happened.
The same political party has held sway in Singapore,and likewise their pronouncements on the country’s history. And there is no better illustration of the effect that such domination can have on the intellect, not to mention the integrity of the citizenry than the Straits Times report on the commemoration of Operation Cold Store. It was an exercise in sheer absurdity.
A reference by speaker Tan Kok Fang to the situation in Korea, where the president-to-be apologised to the nation for the almost two decades of human rights abuses committed when her father was president somehow became Tan ‘longed for the day Singapore could be like South Korea, where the daughter of a former detained dissident was elected president.’ This is most likely to be confusing Korean military strongman Park Chung Hee (1961-1979) for dissident-turned president and Nobel prize winner Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003). The paper has printed an errata, stating what Tan had actually said, but is it even imaginable that anyone could have conceived that Tan or anyone else in Singapore for that matter would long for what for the article attributed to him?
Perhaps less innocently but certainly even more absurd and bizarre, the report highlighted the parts of the speeches by the former detainees on 2 February 2013 that talked about their fight against colonialism in the 1950s and sixties, identifying only the British as the party that ordered Operation Cold Store. The Singapore government, alongside the Federation of Malaya, as members of the Internal Security Council, shared equal responsibility for the arrests of 2 February 1963, and from 9 August 1965 it was solely responsible for not releasing the detainees, and for the many subsequent detentions under the ISA.
But there is not a single mention of the PAP, or the Singapore government in the ST report, and a Martian can be forgiven for concluding that the British was still governing Singapore, and the event was an anti-colonial rally. So when Dr Poh Soo Kai was reported as saying in the ST’s words, that “Then, it would have been ‘unimaginable’” for him to speak as he was doing on 2 February 2013, the only way to understand the statement, following the logic of the report, is that it is thanks to the authorities today that he could do so.
Dr Poh’s words: ‘Today, the unimaginable has happened’ plainly referred to the change in political climate in Singapore.
The Straits Times report, one would assume, was twisting and turning to avoid saying what the event it was covering was about, and ended up tying itself up in laughable knots.
If so, was it necessary to do this in the first place?
Lianhe Zaobao didn’t seem to think so. Its report stated clearly that the speakers called for Singaporeans to follow the example of the voters in the Punggol East by-election, and that Operation Cold Store was the decision of the British, Federation of Malaya and Singapore governments. It quoted a 27- year old who has just completed his masters degree telling the press that he hoped to understand more clearly from the older generation the price that has been paid for our country’s economic development.
2 February 2013 was just such a fantastic day.
It was the day when we told the world that We Remember.
These two words have been uttered before in recent years, but in indoor venues, not to such numbers, and not with such great poignancy and confidence. Like this time, on a number of such previous occasions in the last three years the timing turned out to be impeccable.
The Fajar Generation was launched on 14 November 2009, some two months after the razzmatazz over The Men in White, and immediately showed up the latter’s inadequacies. MiW disingenuously portrayed the Fajar defendants as rather passive actors grateful to be ‘saved’ by junior counsel Lee Kuan Yew, when he was only assisting the renowned anti-colonial Queen’s Counsel DN Pritt whom the colonial authorities dreaded.
Dr Poh Soo Kai and Dr Lim Hock Siew were founding members of the University Socialist Club, and the PAP. With the expulsion of its left wing by the Party in July 1961, they became founding members of the Barisan Sosialis, continuing to demand for the abolition of the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (predecessor of the Internal Security Act), freeing of political detainees, and abiding by the PAP’s 1954 constitution and agenda. With its mass base, the Barisan was set to win the next general election, necessitating Operation Cold Store, where its key leaders which included Dr Poh and Dr Lim were detained.
The self-generated media hype had stated that Men in White was a best-seller and was being translated into Chinese. That was in 2009, and they must have thought the better of it.
The launch of The May 13 Generation on 14 May 2011 marked the introduction to the Chinese middle school students, whose efforts to obtain exemption, and later automatic deferment from national service led to police violence against nearly a thousand of them standing peaceably on the pavement of Clemenceau Avenue opposite Government House while their representatives were supposed to be meeting with the Governor. Together with the Fajar arrests exactly a fortnight later on 28 May the May 13 event was the beginning of anti-colonial mass politics in Singapore.These middle school students, by the time either in Nanyang University or involved in the trade union movement, formed a substantial number of the 1963 detainees.
At the book launch, the widow of a former Barisan MP who was in the audience told the almost 500 gathered why she was present: she did not want her grandchildren to think that their grandparents and their comrades were villains.
A few minutes after that, sms and twitter messages brought news that Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong had resigned from Cabinet following the 7 May 2011 general election a week earlier.
A memorial gathering was held on 20 August for Tan Jing Quee, who passed away on 14 June, a month following the launch of the May13 Generation of which he was the lead editor. Tan was also an editor of the Fajar Generation. The gathering took place in the midst of the campaigning for the 27 August 2011 presidential election. Candidates gave interviews to on-line journalists, who posed questions they would not have encountered previously. This included their stand on the Internal Security Act (ISA). Dr Lim Hock Siew (who subsequently passed away on 4 Jun 2012) in his tribute to Jing Quee issued a challenge to presidential candidate Dr Tony Tan who had in an interview a day earlier, linked ISA detentions with the fight against terrorists. He wanted Tan to repeat this, and say that he, Dr Lim and other detainees were terrorists, and let the courts hear the matter in a libel suit. This opportunity for the PAP to present their evidence from more than half a century ago that Dr Lim was engaged in subversive activities and continued to be a threat to the security of the state for the next twenty years was simply ignored.
The commemoration of 25 years of Operation Spectrum scheduled for 19 May 2012, had to be postponed to 2 June on account of the Hougang by-election. About 600 people turned up to listen to political and civil society activists calling for accountability to the former detainees, and the abolition of the ISA. The former detainees then talked to small groups of mostly younger people, addressing their questions as evening descended.
When Seelan Palay took the initiative to mark the 22nd anniversary on 21 May 2009, about 30 people turned up, and that was considered a good start. Among them were a couple of students in school uniform. ‘Tan Pin Pin, who was filming the event, recalls with amazement that she had actually asked them: Do your parents know you are here?
Which brings us to 2 February 2013.
It was such a fantastic day.
It had been raining the day before, and every day after that for the next fortnight. But it was sunny on the fiftieth anniversary of Operation Cold Store. Hong Lim Park was dry.
The Punggol East by-election had taken place on 26 January, a week ago.
The turnout was beyond what was expected. The elderly took up almost all of the 400 chairs; more than 300 sat on the tarpaulins or stood at the back and at the sides. Old friends greeted one another; former detainees gathered around the board with the name list, looking for their names and those of their friends. Those who found that they were not on the list, or who spotted errors made a beeline to the relevant person to have this put right. There was also a crowd at the stall to pick up copies of the commemoration publication. Banners in Chinese and English called for the abolition of the Internal Security Act, and the return of our political exiles.
‘We Remember’ said the board on the stage in English and Chinese.
The festive mood turned solemn and reflective when the speeches by former detainees began, and towards the end, reverent. They remembered; we heard and we learnt and will not forget.
Tan Kok Fang, speaking in English and Chinese after making remarks in Malay, had just graduated from Nanyang University when he was arrested in Operation Cold Store. He spoke of two Nantah graduates– Tai Yuan, detained for eight years, following which he was abruptly banished to Hong Kong, and Chia Thye Poh. These two academically outstanding Nantah graduates eventually obtained their PhD degrees when they were almost seventy. Tan evoked the cause to which his comrades were dedicated: ‘Merdeka!’ a cry which at mass rallies led by Lim Chin Siong and ‘other heroic trail blazers’ , ‘made the colonialists in England shiver, and their local fellow travelers quiver’.
‘Friends, how can we forget?’ He thundered.
Michael Fernandez recalled the giants of the time whom he knew: James Puthucheary, Said Zahari, Linda Chen, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Abdul Razak and Tan Jing Quee. The listing of names is an important ritual of remembrance.
Lee Tee Tong was the Barisan MP-elect for Bukit Timah when he was detained on 10 October 1963, gaining freedom only after almost 18 years. The mandarin-speaking former trade unionist condemned the use of the ISA to bring the death of parliamentary democracy, and saluted Singaporeans today for reviving the spirit of the Hong Lim and Anson by-elections (29 April and 15 July 1961 respectively) where the PAP candidates were defeated.
Chng Minoh, also speaking in Mandarin, took to the podium for the first time since his arrest in 1970, by which time, he noted, the opposition was already seriously weakened and not a threat to anyone. Yet the authorities ordered the detention of the trade unionist and painter working at construction sites. He was the sole breadwinner for his two young children and his wife into her third month of pregnancy, and in poor health. It was probably expected that it would not take long for him to sign a ‘confession’ to secure his release, given his family’s plight. But so doing Chng knew well, would mean an end to his credibility, and his political life. He remained in detention for thirteen years and four days. Given what he and his family members were put through, he claimed the right to demand the abolition of the ISA.
Dr Poh Soo Kai, among the most respected of the survivors of political detention, and tireless in remembering and re-examining the history of his generation not only condemned the ISA but spoke to the detainees as a collective, honouring each and every one of them and their family members. They should all stand tall for surviving the ordeal they were put through for having the dream of independence from colonial rule, democracy, and social justice–a dream that the people in Singapore today share.
His enormous moral authority allowed him to touch on what the former detainees have all suffered to some degree—whether it be in terms of years of their life, opportunities to pursue and develop a cherished career, relationships, family, or loss of dignity and sense of self-worth.
2 February 2013 was the first occasion where this benediction was made, and probably the last.
In response,Teo Soh Lung, a detainee in Operation Spectrum thanked all those from the 1960s for commemorating the event. She then turned to Dr Poh and thanked him, Said Zahari and survivors of Operation Cold Store for liberating us from the rule of the colonial masters.
As someone who was herself wrongfully detained, she also called the government to either press charges against those in detention today, or release them.
The history has been imbibed; the legacy of Operation Cold Store embraced.
Minimyna reads practically every post by yawningbread, but felt in a position to follow up in writing only on his 8 Sept 2012 piece ‘Square Moon swallowed by public tax monster’ — a reflection of her limited capability. To recapitulate, the play ‘Square Moon’ by Wong Souk Yee, ‘originally commissioned for a festival next year’, was according to its producer, F8, unceremoniously removed from the programme; the reading of the play along with the launch of two books scheduled for 26 August had to be cancelled as the venue had become unavailable for the purpose. Read more…