By Dr. Hong Lysa
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 . Article – “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 Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (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’. (see here)
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 a 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 ‘alaternative 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!!!
Dr. Hong Lysa was a faculty member of the History Department and Southeast Asian Studies Department of NUS between the years 1984-2000. Since then she has become an independent scholar. Her research areas are: Thai History, Singapore History, History and Gender and Historiography.
This article was first published at minimyna.wordpress.com