The historical background
For the benefit of the younger generation, it is necessary to describe the historical background at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, i.e. the period prior to merger and Operation Coldstore.
Let us not forget that World War II was a ferocious battle between two imperialist camps for control of global wealth. In the Southeast Asia, it was fought out in the colonies with total disregard for the untold sufferings it brought upon the local population, including our forebears in Singapore and Malaya. Therefore, their desire for independence from colonial Britain in the aftermath of World War II was fervent and uncompromising.
With the end of the War in 1945, Britain sought to reimpose its exploitation of the colonies including Singapore even though as a member of the newly-established United Nations, it was obliged to grant them independence. Hence it began casting about for the person or party, most committed to protect British interests in Singapore, upon whom it could bestow independence. In brief, Singapore was still a colony in the period before merger and Operation Coldstore, with Britain having the final say in all matters affecting us. It had the right to suspend the constitution.
Unless history is to be revised, no one can deny that Britain abandoned Malaya and Singapore during World War II and that it was the colonised people and the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) that bore the brunt of resisting the Japanese invaders. However, with the Emergency unleashed in 1948, the CPM was a decimated force in Singapore by the 1950s. Historian TN Harper has quoted the 1959 Singapore Special Branch report by the police commissioner that the CPM strength was low: an estimated 40 full party members, 80 ABL cadres, 200 or so sympathisers and less than 100 released for ‘White Area work’.[i]
However, the mood of anti-colonialism was unabated. Even Lee Kuan Yew saw that the way ahead for him politically was to take on the appearance of an anti-colonial fighter though he recognised that his future rested firmly with the British.[ii] Chin Peng in My Side of History (2003) revealed that Lee had contacted the CPM for support when the PAP was being formed. At that time in 1954, Lee was fully aware that Samad Ismail was a communist, yet he appointed him the pro-tem chairman of the PAP at its inaugural meeting at Victoria Memorial Hall.
Because of the pressure for independence from the people, including the efforts of the Anti-British League (ABL), the British allowed an anti-colonial party – the PAP – to come into existence legally in 1954. Its founding constitution stated that it stood for independence, freedom of speech and assembly, human rights, abolition of detention without trial and even socialism. With the advent of the PAP, the clandestine ABL lost its relevance as anti-colonial activists could now join the PAP openly. In the sense of being at the forefront of the struggle against British colonialism for independence, the PAP in 1954 was the successor of the ABL.
The anti-colonial, democratic and socialist platform of the PAP ensured its landslide victory in 1959. But by 1961, it was becoming clear that the PAP leadership under Lee was not carrying out the goals listed in its 1959 electoral platform notably that of releasing political prisoners and trade unionists detained by the Lim Yew Hock regime. Lee’s PAP was also tightening the screws on the rights of trade unions to organise to protect its members’ welfare and hard-won benefits.
And so the test came in April 1961 during the Hong Lim by-election, when Ong Eng Guan cashed in on the failings of the PAP leadership. His election platform prioritised the release of all political prisoners, abolition of the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (subsequently Internal Security Act) and easing of restrictions on trade union activities.
However Lee was assured of CPM support for the Hong Lim by-election. Citing Special Branch files, Lee Ting Hui referred to the letter that CPM leader in Singapore Fong Chong Pik (the Plen) wrote to Lee assuring him that the CPM was not interested in overthrowing Lee; on the contrary it was keen to continue the alliance with him.[iii] Lee Kuan Yew believed in his own propaganda that the communists were all powerful and that he would thus win Hong Lim easily; he forbade Lim Chin Siong and the trade unionists to speak on the PAP platform during the campaign. He wanted to demonstrate that he had no need for Lim and that he was capable of getting the votes by himself. Lee lost Hong Lim in a clean and fair election.
On the other hand, the British Acting High Commissioner PBC Moore recognised the depth of feeling that the electorate had for the key issue in the by-election: freeing of the political prisoners as the PAP had pledged in the 1959 election. In Moore’s view, ‘everybody in Singapore except the PAP seemed to know before the election that Ong Eng Guan was going to win’.[iv]
British strategic interests in the region at that time rested on its military base in Singapore from where it could effectively interfere in neighbouring countries as near as Sukarno’s Indonesia or as far as Mao’s China. But with the ground swell of anti-colonialism in Singapore, Britain was faced with the prospect of whether the base would be able to serve its purpose given Singapore’s largely hostile population. Therefore, to contain this threat to their interests, the British enticed the otherwise reluctant Tunku to accept merger with Singapore by expanding ‘Malaysia’ into the Grand Design, with the British Borneo states and Brunei thrown in. With the conservative Tunku in charge, the base would be safe.
In an interview with a German journalist in early 1961, the Tunku had said that merger was something in the distant future. He was clearly not keen on merging with the predominantly Chinese-populated Singapore. However within a month of the PAP loss of Hong Lim, the Tunku did a 180-degree turn. He was persuaded to agree to merger.
The PAP faced its second test with the Singapore electorate in the Anson by-election in July of the same year. David Marshall’s stand was the same as Ong Eng Guan’s in the Hong Lim by-election. In a last-ditch attempt to secure credibility with the electorate, Lee Kuan Yew put the blame on the British for not releasing political prisoners when it was he who had never tabled their release at the Internal Security Council’s meetings.[v] Despite putting the “odium” on the British, Lee still lost Anson in a clean and fair election.
Even with communist support, Lee Kuan Yew’s political life was at stake with the loss of these two by-elections in 1961. It was not the communists that Lee feared, it was the larger anti-colonial movement that had lost faith in the PAP. Merger was a life-line thrown by Britain to save Lee in order to secure its strategic interests in the region.
So we now come to the issue: whether the motive for Operation Coldstore arrests was justified on security grounds as evidenced by existing acts of violence and riots; or a premeditated conspiracy with preparatory acts in furtherance of an uprising for which weapons had been procured and stocked, and secret arms training conducted, etc; or whether the arrests of Operation Coldstore were simply politically motivated to mow down legitimate opposition.
The Internal Security Council (ISC) did not have the luxury of blatantly arresting the political opposition, much as the British wished it could decimate the anti-colonial forces openly. Given the international climate of post World War II and the setting up of the United Nations, Britain would have to present any arrests for political domination under the guise of ‘security’. The assessment of the British officials in Singapore was that the ‘subversives forces were not plotting an insurrection as did the communist cadres in Malaya in 1948’, hence taking police action against them might well remove all hope of bringing about Malaysia peacefully, for it would raise the political temperature in Singapore and strengthen the support for the opposition.[vi]
On the part of Barisan Sosialis and the people’s movements in Singapore, there was no unconstitutional struggle, no plot or conspiracy for insurrection, no Occupy Raffles Place as we know the occupy movements today, to justify Operation Coldstore. Rather it was Selkirk who had to alert London that Lee would advocate a policy of provocation of Lim Chin Siong and his associates with a view of forcing them into unconstitutional action justifying their arrest. The UK high commissioner hoped that the colonial secretary would be able to impress on Lee when he visited London of the risk to merger of such a course and ‘our doubts whether we could give our support’.[vii] Specifically, Lee was in favour of a Special Branch proposal to create ‘just the right degree of provocation to force Lim Chin Siong into taking action’ by removing Federation-born leaders in the Barisan and trade unions to the Federation.[viii]
Lee had to give the impression that the arrests were not against his political opponents but a security exercise in conjunction with Malaya. So for the arrests to be seen as a Pan-Malayan security arrest, he insisted that the meeting of the Internal Security Council deciding on the arrests, be held in Kuala Lumpur and not in Singapore; he further insisted that the Tunku should arrest Lim Kean Siew, Ahmad Boestamam and other Malayan leaders. The Tunku refused to play ball.[ix] Thus Operation Coldstore, scheduled for 16 December 1962, was called off at the eleventh hour. This state of affairs goes to show that there were no pressing security issues to justify Operation Coldstore!
Azahari’s rebellion in Brunei had taken place a week earlier on 8 December. The Barisan Sosialis gave it moral support as it was wont to do in international solidarity with colonies rising up to overthrow colonial rule. The British were confident that the revolt would be squashed quickly. So before the Brunei uprising dissipated, the order came from London, giving Selkirk the green light to arrest us in Singapore to which the Internal Security Council concurred.[x] Lee grasped it as a ‘heaven sent’ opportunity.[xi] It allowed the ISC to claim there was concrete evidence of communist terrorism being plotted and spin a security scare while all that happened was that we expressed verbal expression of international solidarity. Till today, no evidence of any Barisan Sosialis involvement in the Brunei uprising has been presented. It would be the easiest way to settle the issue if indeed such evidence exists.
The security myth trotted out to justify Operation Coldstore is further and completely debunked by Lee’s insistence to arrest Ong Eng Guan[xii] and three members of his party, the United People’s Party (UPP).[xiii] Lee was afraid that Ong would capitalise on the arrests and pose a threat to him at the next general election.[xiv]
As stated earlier, merger was a life-line thrown to Lee after the PAP lost the Hong Lim and Anson by-elections in 1961 to a hostile Singapore electorate, which also threatened British strategic interests in the region, that were being safeguarded by the military base in Singapore. Therefore, it was no small wonder that Lee worked feverishly to get the Tunku to agree to merger to the extent of ‘fawning and bowing to the princeling’, as he put it.[xv]
Here I would say to Lee’s propagandists that they would do well to have a holistic reading of his works. Lee Kuan Yew had said, in no uncertain terms, that he agreed to Operation Coldstore to clinch merger – which is a political matter and NOT a security concern. In a letter dated 12 February 1963 to Lord Selkirk, Lee said:
It was because of your Government’s firm assurance given by your Deputy endorsing the view of your High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur that if the arrests were not agreed to, then merger and Malaysia would fail that made us agree….
It was because of this appraisal of the Federation position by your Government and the assurance that you would dissuade them from departing from the publicly agreed terms that we agreed to the decision of the I.S.C.[xvi] [The I.S.C. decision referenced is the mass arrests of Operation Coldstore.]
Therefore, Lee had to conceal his role and responsibility in Operation Coldstore as he was well aware that this move was against the people’s anti-colonial aspirations. Upon return to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur on 2 February 1963 – the day of Operation Coldstore – he denied responsibility for it, saying if he had had his way, Operation Coldstore would not be executed.[xvii] And the next day, pressured by fellow members of the Internal Security Council, the British and the Federation, he denied his denial!
Lim Chin Siong
The official PAP propaganda has it that Lim Chin Siong was a communist. Lim himself refuted this allegation in his letter to the Straits Times published on 31 July 1961. He said:
Your editorial comments and news reports in the last week have focused attack on me. By repeating the fiction that I am a Communist front-man I suppose my political antagonists hope that it would stick in the minds of some.
While Mr. Lee and his men keep crying Communism to cover up a multitude of sins, let me, for my part, try to set the record straight.
Let me make clear once and for all that I am not a Communist or a communist front-man or, for that matter, anybody’s front-men.
Lee Kuan Yew in his Radio Talks, subsequently published in Battle for Merger (1962), produced documents obtained in a raid on an ABL outfit in 1953/4 and claimed that the handwriting was that of Lim’s. Notwithstanding this opinion from the police handwriting expert, what these documents prove is simply that they are ABL and not CPM documents. A strong anti-colonialist, Lim had always admitted that he was in the Anti-British League.
The ABL was not a party with an ideology. Its membership was not limited to adherents of Marxism-Leninism or to the working class; the bourgeoisie was welcomed. Thus, members of the ABL hailed from all strata of society, embraced different worldviews and were only glued together by an anti-colonial commitment. Clearly, the ABL was not the CPM and should not be confused as such even though in the climate of the early 1950s, it had to operate in the twilight zone since the British had declared Emergency and outlawed all anti-colonial activities, causing the demise of the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU).
If the PAP logic concludes that the ABL is communist, would not that conclusion logically apply to the PAP itself as well?
Meetings at Barisan Sosialis HQ
The Barisan Sosialis was a democratically constituted party that must listen to its cadres and grassroots.
In the atmosphere of that time after the phony merger referendum where the democratic process was obviously flawed: anti-colonial fighters for freedom locked up without trial; the Legislative Assembly prorogued indefinitely to avoid disclosing the terms of merger; and a phony merger referendum (whose choices were best characterised by David Marshall as choices to beat your mother, wife or daughter) had just been foisted on the electorate; it was no small wonder that Barisan cadres and rank-and-file were questioning the fairness or even the viability of the constitutional path. All avenues of lawful activities had been blocked in the name of the law or guise of it by the powers-that-be.
The Barisan Sosialis, as a legally constituted party that abided by the rules of parliamentary democracy and elections, was faced with the insurmountable obstacle of a grossly uneven playing field that was always tilted against it. An analogy to the current tenacious struggle of the BERSIH (CLEAN) movement across the causeway illustrates Barisan’s dilemma at that historical epoch.
Barisan Sosialis cadres in the branches were activists, not well paid civil servants. The threat of arbitrary arrest constantly hung over their heads. These young and brave activists struggled on at great sacrifices to themselves and their families for the lofty cause of social justice and freedom from colonial rule. We had to address their legitimate fears and disillusionment with the so-called constitutional path dished out to us by colonial Britain and the PAP. Hence these meetings and debates in Barisan Sosialis headquarters where all views and skepticism could be expressed and encouraged to be aired. These meetings were open with minutes recorded, and taken out of context by Mr Gafoor. These meetings concluded with the Barisan Sosialis cadres and members affirming the constitutional and parliamentary path.
It is not true as Mr Gafoor suggested that the Barisan did not recognise Singapore’s independence in 1965. Lim Chin Siong smuggled a letter out of Changi prison in which he asked Barisan cadres to accept this fait accompli and to move on despite the crippling blows. This letter was openly read out to Barisan assemblymen. Apparently, Mr Gafoor forgot to mention the Barisan ‘rump’ intentionally left behind by Lee Kuan Yew to his advantage when the entire moderate leadership of Barisan had been wiped out in Operation Coldstore.
Poh Soo Kai
Mr Gafoor claimed that I was not an unwitting dupe of the communists. As evidence, he mentioned a Katong bomber incident in December 1974.
What proof can he proffer that this bomber was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya apart from bare assertion? Would the files be opened for scrutiny?
Just as Lai Tek was a known British agent infiltrated into the highest level of the CPM, so could bogus revolutionary groups be set up by the Special Branch or similar intelligence organisations like the CIA and MI6 in this devious game of spy and counterspy with unwitting and innocent youth duped into executing extreme violence. I have reasons to believe that the outfit to which the bomber belonged is a fake radical group called the Singapore Revolutionary Party.
I hereby state categorically that I have not treated any bomber, communist or non-communist.
Not having a case against me whatsoever, Lee Kuan Yew resorted to allegations that I, my wife Grace and G Raman went in the stealth of the night to Masai in Johore to treat an injured bomber. Lee even publicly told the people of Singapore that as a medical doctor, I would be charged and judged by my peers in the Singapore Medical Council and struck off the rolls. Up till today, I have not heard from the Singapore Medical Council on so serious a charge.
I have consistently asked for a public trial. Should evidence of the alleged crime that I had committed be presented in a court of law, I will accept its verdict.
It still pains me that on the basis of this serie noir (dark thriller), my wife Grace, was subject to arrest and tortured for a month.
Surprisingly, these new sensational charges of treating the injured bomber were never added to my charge sheets.
What if the Barisan Sosialis had won in a fair and clean election…
What if Operation Coldstore had not been carried out and the Barisan Sosialis had won in a fair and clean election?
This prospect has been and remains so terrifying to the PAP that its propaganda has repeatedly raised the spectre of a “communist millennium”. There would certainly be no such millennium should the Barisan accede to power in a fair and clean election. I reiterate that even as late as 18 July 1962, PBC Moore wrote that, though the British colonial office was of the view that Lim Chin Siong was a communist,
(T)here is no evidence that he is receiving direction from the C.P.M., 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 necessary prove a compliant tool of Peking or Moscow.
As a founder member of the PAP as well as of the Barisan, I can assure the people of Singapore that the Barisan was established to carry forward the founding constitution of the PAP, much of which was incorporated into the constitution of the Barisan.
There would be freedom of speech and assembly; the ISA would be abolished. There would be social justice and economic dignity for the sick and disabled, the old and retired and other vulnerable groups.
There would not have been the wave after wave of arbitrary arrests and imprisonment without trial that we have witnessed under the PAP to instill fear in the population and keep itself in power. The ridiculous arrests of Church and other social activists as alleged Marxists would not have happened.
There would certainly be no astronomical salary for ministers; no polarisation of wealth in society; ministers would have to declare their assets on taking office and beprohibited to have personal holding companies, exposed to the lure of investing in tandem with the Government Investment Corporations (GICs); and definitely, OCCUPY Raffles Square would not be deemed an illegal assembly!!
We would have promoted a robust 2-party system for checks and balances in the parliament which till today I would very much welcome.
Dr Poh Soo Kai was Assistant Secretary-General of Barisan Sosialis. He was imprisoned twice under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) – which allows for detention without trial – for a total of 17 years by Singapore’s PAP government.
Notes ‘Note of Meeting held with Mr Lee Kuan Yew’, attended by Minister of State Lord Lansdowne, Lord Selkirk and Mr West in Lee Kuan Yew’s office, 27 November 1962, CO 1030/ 1159:
“He (Lee Kuan Yew) considered that it was necessary to take in the leaders before Malaysia, leaving the lesser men to be proceeded against more quietly and gradually after Malaysia. At this point he said with surprising candour that it was to his advantage to preserve a pro-communist rump in opposition. He thought that this strengthened his position in Singapore.” No. 363, Moore to Secretary of State, 18 July 1962, CO 1030/1160.
Sources[i] EJ Linsett, ‘The security threat to Singapore (Communism and nationalism)’, 24 July 1959, DO 35/9870, PR0, cited in TN Harper, “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story’”, in Comet in our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History, ed Tan Jing Quee and K S Jomo (2001), p. 31. [ii] Colonial Office assessment, 1958. ‘Singapore – Political situation and outlook’, August 1958, CO 1030/451, Future of Singapore.
“Lee Kuan Yew and moderate leaders of the PAP regard the continued presence of UK in Singapore as an assurance for themselves. They considered it unavoidable that in order to be consistent with the public image they have created, they must continue to be highly critical of U.K. Policies”.[iii] Lee Ting Hui, The Open United Front: The Communist Struggle in Singapore 1954-1966 (1995), p. 197. [iv] PCB Moore to WIJ Wallace, Colonial Office, 22 May 1961, CO 1030/1149, Political situation, Singapore 1960-1962. [v] Secret 263, Selkirk to Colonial Office, 17 July 1961, CO 1030/1149. [vi] ‘Singapore Political and Security Situation’, United Kingdom Commission in Singapor, 10 April 1962, CO 1030/998. [vii] Selkirk to R Maulding, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 28 April 1962, CO 1030/ 998. [viii] Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 24 April 1962, DO 169/247 Telegram 224 . [ix] Secret 996, UK Commissioner, KL to Commonwealth Relations Office, 28 December 1962, CO 1030/1160. “Tunku’s refusal to authorise arrest of Members of Parliament was genuine due to professional advice given to him that there was no security case which could justify it. Reason for his anger was realisation that Lee was taking advantage of atmosphere of urgency to include a number of political opponents in list of arrest on purely political grounds and by implicating the Tunku was hoping to shift the onus.’ [x] Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies, Report on Internal Security Council meeting, 14 December 1962, CO 1030/1160. [xi] Moore to Secretary of State, Colonial Office, 10 December 1962, CO 1030/1160. [xii] Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 23 January 1963, CO 1030/1576, p. 49, para. 2(b):
Lee has mentioned on several occasions that he fears Ong Eng Guan may attempt to make political capital out of the arrest. He wants to make it clear that if Ong Eng Guan were to cause serious trouble, action would have to be taken against him. I told Lee we could give no undertaking at this stage and that he was not a communist (he agreed) and there would have to be a strong case to take any action against him.[xiii] Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 29 January 1963, CO 1030/1576, telegram 53, p. 63:
Lee in effect admitted that the object of the U.P.P. arrests was to strengthen his own chances of political survival….The Director of Special Branch admitted however that he had been directed specifically by the Prime Minister to select several members of the U.P.P. for arrest and that it would never have occurred to Special Branch to propose these names for arrest. It is clear therefore that Lee’s purpose is to bring home to all who might entertain the idea of making political capital out of the arrests that they would not themselves be safe from arrest. In this way he hopes to ensure that the Chinese speaking electorate are not encouraged to transfer their political allegiance to Ong Eng Guan.[xiv] Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 31 January 1963, CO 1030/1577, ‘Internal Security Council Singapore, 1963-65’. [xv] Record of Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew on July 25, 1961, CO 1030/1149, p. 93 [xvi] Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 13 February 1963, DO 169/248, Secret No. 108, appending text of letter dated 12 February received from Lee Kuan Yew. [xvii] ‘Lee: Reds were ready for violent action’, The Straits Times, 4 February 1963.