fbpx

Operation Coldstore: The elephant in the classroom

Book launch event: The 1963 Operation Cold Store in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years, edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa

By Hong Lysa

When British film director and education policy-maker David Puttnam visited Singapore last October, he was featured in a full-page interview, where his message was that university teachers should ask their students questions, and challenge them to ask questions constantly. (Straits Times 12 Oct 2013).

No one who is in a leadership position in Singapore today would argue with this. The Singapore education system from pre-school to university has adopted student-centred learning, emphasising inquiry, figuring out how to put this into operation through a systematic approach to identifying and gathering information, analysis, and presentation of one’s conclusions.

Yet there is an elephant in the room. One of the most crucial areas of inquiry which will encourage the development of a better thinking and a thoughtful Singaporean with an appreciation of our country and how it came to be, has been and continues to be marked as illicit.

This area is no less post-war Singapore history in general, in particular the years 1959 to 1965, and specifically Operation Coldstore — the arrest and detention without trial of more than a hundred people on 2 February 1963, comprising leaders of the opposition party Barisan Sosialis, labour unions with a mass following, and Nanyang University alumni and students. Operation Pechah was mounted less than 3 weeks following the general election of 21 September 1963. Orders of arrest were issued against 5 of the 13 newly elected Barisan MPs among others.

Operation Coldstore and other instances where the Internal Security Act was used have been justified by the authorities as measures to save the country from succumbing to communist subversion. On the other hand, survivors of political detention contend that Operation Coldstore and Pechah were intended to kill off the left-wing opposition, which threatened the electoral fortunes of the PAP.

The Operations marked the first step towards one-party rule in Singapore. Dissent was suppressed, and even political prisoners who were released unconditionally after almost 20 years like Dr Lim Hock Siew were warned that they would be rearrested immediately if they caused trouble. For close to half a century, former political detainees did not keep a public profile at all. A veil of silence descended on Operation Coldstore.

This silence has been broken in the last five years or so, among other things with publications that cannot simply be dismissed as baseless propaganda.

How are history teachers to encourage critical inquiry and thinking when teaching Singapore history? With the state continuously coming up with its statements about ‘communist united fronts’ and the chilling warning: ‘ex-detainees will not be permitted to re-write history’ when it is compelled to react, such testimonies, accounts and analyses that the survivors of political detention produce immediately become illicit material.

The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years one hopes is a publication that does deserve at least some degree of serious consideration. Those who turn up for the book launch should expect to be treated with respect, and be presented with arguments for them to think about. Not harangues and proselytising. Not sales talk or entertainment. If they are successful, the reaction of the audience should be a sober one.

The book launch is an open event. The audience will be able to interrogate the speakers, read the book and throw it away if they find the arguments facile or unconvincing. Most copies are likely to end up sitting unread on the bookshelves—the fate of even purportedly bestselling political memoirs in Singapore. There is nothing sensational or thrilling or daring about the launch. Any such expectation generated is only on account of how such events and publications have already been branded by the state.

It will indeed make the lives of history teachers much easier if what appears to be forbidden fruit become regular debates about our history.

Assoc Prof Kwok Kian Woon, associate provost in charge of student life at the NTU, was quoted in response to David Puttnam’s views on education. Prof Kwok said: Most importantly, students should come to realise that making a good, robust argument involves on the one hand, discipline and rigour in thinking and on the other, respect and a generous spirit. One yields to the force of better argument.

The move towards such civility needs to begin at home.

Hong Lysa is a historian. She is one of the editors of The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years.


Operation Coldstore remains the most contentious event in the history of post-colonial Singapore. On 2 February 1963 and the weeks that followed, 133 men and women were arrested and detained. The country was deprived of the top leaders of the opposition parties, trade unions, rural organisations, and Nanyang University student and alumni associations. The collapse of political pluralism and the open exploration among the people of Singapore for the kind of society they envisaged ensued. In all but one of the five decades since, the Internal Security Act which permits detention without trial has been and continues to be used.

Despite attempts by the state to silence survivors of Operation Coldstore, the authors in this volume have now placed on record their perspective and understanding of the event as left-wing political actors who responded to the call of anti-colonialism and the challenge of shaping a new society.

In remembering Operation Coldstore, we affirm the personal price that the most resolute leaders of that generation have paid, in order that Singaporeans will be able to better understand the nature of State power that runs through their society.

Venue: Harvest Care Centre, 165 Sims Avenue #04-01, S (387606) (Between Lorong 17 and Lorong 21 Geylang)
Nearest MRT: Aljunied (about ten minutes’ walk)
Bus numbers: 2, 13, 21, 26, 51, 62, 63, 67, 80, 100, 125, 158, 158B, 853*
Date: 16 November 2013
Time: 2.30 pm (Please be seated by 2.15 pm)