S’pore’s 50th anniversary – time to have open dialogue on Operation Coldstore

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By Andrew Loh, Photos by Lawrence Chong/Thum PJ

On 22 August 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the setting up of a steering committee to plan Singapore’s 50th year of Independence celebrations in 2015. To be headed by Education Minister, Heng Swee Keat, the plan is for Singaporeans “to reflect on who we are and how far we have come as a people.”

“We want every Singaporean to be able to connect through their personal stories with the broader Singapore story, and be a part of the anniversary celebrations,” Mr Heng said.

Indeed, this tiny island has come a long way from its tumultuous beginnings, and there is much to celebrate and be thankful for, even as we work together to solve the problems we face today.

But one cannot truly celebrate our nationhood without also being honest about how we came to be. In fact, that should and must be the starting point for our look-back on the last 50 years of being one people.

In other words, what is the truth of how we became a nation?

Throughout these 50 years, there has mostly been one version of that story, told by one party, repeatedly – a one-sided, unquestioned, narrative presented as the factual truth on television and radio programmes, in books, in government-controlled newspapers.The victors of the battle for Independence told our story, our history, from their view, and in the event, glorified themselves.

The losers were communists and that was that.

But how true is this narrative?

Historians of late have started to tell a different story.

Those who were detained under 1963’s Operation Coldstore, long painted by the PAP Government as communist insurgents who posed an extraordinary threat to our very survival, have emerged in recent times to tell their side of the story.

More importantly perhaps, their account is supported by the work of historians and declassified 50-year old secret papers from our former colonial rulers, the British.

The latest historian to step up and offer an alternative narrative is the very distinguished Dr Thum Ping Tjin.

A Rhodes Scholar and a Commonwealth Scholar who attended Harvard (when he was 16-years old) and Oxford, Dr Thum’s research areas included Decolonisation and the Cold War in Southeast Asia; and the history of Singapore and Malaysia.

Dr Thum has presented his research into Operation Coldstore at various occasions, including at NUS and in private talks.

Book Launch held on 16th November 2013

Book Launch held on 16th November 2013

Most recently, on 16 November, Dr Thum gave a 20-minute speech at the launch of the book on the February 1963 arrests, titled: “The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore – Commemorating 50 years”.

Dr Thum related a significantly different story of Operation Coldstore from the state narrative we have been offered all these years. The declassification of the British papers, particularly, gave important insights into the behind-the-scenes political manoeuvres by the main interested parties at the time – the British government, the Tunku of Malaysia, and Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore.

Dr Thum says the events which led to the arrest of the members of the Barisan Socialist, branded as “communists”, were in fact politically motivated, and were not ideological.

Indeed, he empathetically rejects any suggestion that the detainees were communist at all.

"Let me get this straight, let me say this,” Dr Thum told the packed room at last Saturday’s book launch. “Were the Barisan and the other detainees of Operation Coldstore part of a communist conspiracy? No. No. No. No."

"Special Branch and the ISD did not, does not have any evidence that the Operation Coldstore detainees were engaged in any communist conspiracy."

This directly contradicts the very reason which the PAP government, and Lee Kuan Yew in particular, have always given for the arrests of the 133 detainees in 1963.

The arrests, according to Dr Thum, were to accede to the Tunku’s desire for the more liberal political opposition in Singapore to be curtailed. The arrests also assured that there were no alternatives to the PAP in the next general elections, a result which would not be unwelcome by the PAP then.

In an interview with website The Online Citizen (TOC), Dr Thum explained:

“The Tunku was openly worried about the impact of the Barisan Sosialis in a unified Malaysia. He feared their organisational skills and the inspired, ‘talismanic’ leadership of Lim Chin Siong. He thus demanded that Singapore’s political opposition be arrested as a condition of merger.”

Dr Thum also revealed that Operation Coldstore was originally planned to take place on 16 December 1962. It was, however, postponed because Mr Lee had wanted to include a further 15 of his political opponents onto the list to be detained, which the Tunku rejected. And a stand-off ensued, with the British playing middleman. Eventually, it was agreed that the operation would proceed in February 1963.

[Do read the interview and watch the video of Dr Thum’s speech. They are most enlightening.]

The story of Singapore’s birth is not the one-dimensional portrayal of Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP as benevolent victors over the “communists”, as we are often told. Instead, historians such as Dr Thum and Dr Lysa Hong, and the former detainees themselves, tell us that there is more to it than what we have been told all these years.

But we need courage to tell the whole truth about how our nation came to be, and to shine a spotlight on the facts.

There is no better time than Singapore’s 50th anniversary to do so.

Will the steering committee led by Mr Heng see the importance of giving space to historians to tell our history factually and dispassionately, on a national platform, as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations?

Will Mr Heng’s committee have the courage to allow the voices of those who are an integral part of our history be heard, besides that of the ruling party; and let Singaporeans – finally – see that there were more than one who believed in and fought for and sacrificed for Singapore?

“We want every Singaporean,” Mr Heng said, “to be able to connect through their personal stories with the broader Singapore story…”

I agree. There is no better place to start than with the facts surrounding Operation Coldstore.