By Teo Soh Lung
There is a common saying that “Politics is dirty”. I didn’t know it is that dirty till I read the essays of historians, Professor Geoff Wade and Dr Thum Ping Tjin in “The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore, Commemorating 50 Years.” I have heard personal accounts and analysis of the politics of Singapore in the 50s and 60s. But nothing hit me more than the words of these two historians who have ploughed through archival documents and newspapers, and explained them with such clarity in their writings.
In Chapter 1 of the book, Professor Geoff Wade gave an insight into the vibrancy of politics in the late 50s and early 60s. Merger with Malaya and the North Borneo territories was the singular event that saved Lee Kuan Yew from being sidelined into the backyard of Singapore’s history. The manner in which he won that battle however would not bring pride to any right thinking politician and admiration of citizens who care to think. Lee literally thrived on instilling fear in people, from the 50s, till today. His style is deeply entrenched in his party and we have internalised fear to such an extent that we were not able to articulate criticisms of wrong doings until the past few years.
Yesterday, I read Chapter 2 of the book. Young and brave historian, Dr Thum Ping Tjin in his essay, “‘Flesh and bone reunite as one body’: Singapore’s Chinese-speaking and their Perspectives on Merger” reinforced what Wade wrote. Dr Thum is effectively bi-lingual and he has ploughed through not only the English press but also the Chinese newspapers of that historic period. According to Dr Thum, the Chinese newspapers were not the official mouthpiece of the PAP government. There were left, right and centre papers.
The Chinese in Singapore have always believed in a united Malaya, not because Singapore could not survive independently but because she was an “inalienable part of Malaya.” Dr Thum writes:
“Economic analysis was a strength of both major Chinese newspapers, and their editorials laid out a convincing case for Singapore being able to survive as an independent country. To solve the problems of high unemployment and to expand the economy, the government was urged to attract foreign investment, to develop infrastructure and to industrialise. They argued that Singapore’s entrepreneurs had over the course of Singapore’s history as a free port built up tremendous experience and demonstrated great motivation, skill and ingenuity. The best way to take advantage of this was to promote industrialisation by attracting local and foreign capital. This was an extension of well-established Chinese business networks. Lastly, the public had to be involved through active promotion and expanding democratic involvement and public spirit, so that the people of Singapore would have an active stake in the system.”
Singapore was even then compared to Switzerland in Sin Chew Jit Poh. Thum writes: “In a wide-ranging editorial, the newspaper compared Singapore to historical models such as Phoenicia, Athens, Venice and Switzerland, using history, geography and economics to build a case that Singapore could easily survive independently.”
Former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong had failed to keep his promise that he would turn Singapore into the ‘Switzerland of the East’ at the turn of this century. Maybe if the left had been in power, Singapore may truly be the Switzerland of the East today!
Prior to merger, Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP did not believe that Singapore could survive independently. Thus they constantly used the communist bogey to solicit help to entrench their power.
It is clear from Wade and Thum that by 1961, the communists (if there were any in Singapore) had no influence at all on the people of Singapore. Thum writes about the Hong Lim by election in 1961:
“Before Hong Lim, Lee had secretly struck a deal with the illegal Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) for their support. The CPM had been firmly behind Lee, and sent instructions to its cadres through its underground network that ‘the Party should support the PAP and it is necessary for the Party to spread propaganda among the masses with a view to exposing the true opportunistic features of Ong Eng Guan’. After Lee publicly speculated about collusion between Ong and the CPM, the local CPM chief Fong Chong Pik (later dubbed by Lee as The Plen, short for ‘Plenipotentiary’) wrote him a letter assuring him that the CPM was fully behind Lee.”
The PAP candidate, Jek Yuen Thong not only lost Hong Lim, he lost by an incredibly large margin. His opponent, Ong Eng Guan who resigned from the PAP to contest the seat as an independent, had 73% of the votes. If anyone had been used by the communists as the “Communist United Front” it is the PAP as shown in Hong Lim! Yet Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP continues to arrest people accusing them of being communists and using the communist united front tactics till as late as the 1980s.
Less than three months after the Hong Lim by election, the PAP lost Anson to David Marshall, who was clearly not a communist.
It was crystal clear from the results of the two by elections that the PAP would lose power if nothing was done. Cleverly, Lee Kuan Yew used the communist bogey to frighten the gullible Tunku into offering merger. Obviously, he failed to disclose that it was he who solicited the help of the CPM in the Hong Lim by election. To achieve his end, he disregarded the interest of the people of Singapore. A bogus referendum opened the door to arrests and imprisonment of all his political opponents for decades. Only cold blooded politicians could carry out such acts. Singapore was then led into a marriage of convenience which lasted for just two years.
The chapters of Wade and Thum brought back a conversation I had with the late Dr Lim Hock Siew. He had read some of the British documents disclosed in The Fajar Generation. He said that he didn’t know the British were behind Lee Kuan Yew. The Barisan could fight the PAP but it was impossible to fight the British. Now we know that it was not only the British that the Barisan had to contend with. There was also the Tunku.
The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore, Commemorating 50 Years is available in Chinese and English at Select Books and all leading bookstores.