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The Battle for Merger re-staged: SG 50 and the art of shadow boxing

(Chinese text: Lim Chin Siong (editor), The Present Tasks in the Constitutional Struggle. The first in a series of compilation of speeches and essays  on merger published in 阵线报 the Chinese language paper of the Barisan Sosialis. Courtesy of Ong Sooi Eng 王瑞荣)

By Hong Lysa

Pomp and Circumstance

A few weeks ago, those in Singapore who listen to ministerial speeches would have felt that the 1950s and early 1960s had descended on them.  The airwaves were blasting out rhetoric from the cold war era of stark political categories  in all its unabashed crudity and oppressiveness.

The most senior cabinet members, the prime minister brigadier-general (res) Lee Hsien Loong and brigadier-general (res) Teo Chee Hean, deputy prime minister, coordinating minister for national security and minister for home affairs dispensed a singular history lesson emanating from what is clearly a polemical political tract from the last half a century.

The full weight of the government was thrown behind re-sanctifying as gospel truth the 12 radio talks of then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew: how he rescued the country from being over-run by communists who were ascendant, subversive and violent, in a period of great upheaval and civil unrest manipulated from behind-the-scenes by communist hands.

The Battle for Merger
, delivered between 13 September and 9 October 1961, and published in 1962, was ‘pivotal in lifting the curtain on the communists and exposing their hidden manoeuvrings’ and won public support for the referendum on merger.

The concern is that students have only ‘vague ideas’ about the ‘essential facts of our nationhood’. They may not be able to ‘name one communist or one communalist’, for instance.

The fanfare orchestrated to greet the gravely-intoned regurgitation of the communist vs non-communist framework to understand Singapore’s past was accompanied by students making the requisite school excursion to the allied exhibition, and the hint of publicly disciplining two academics for their ‘revisionist’ works.

Most significantly former prime minister/senior minister/minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself viewed the exhibition, and it was relayed by the deputy prime minister that the author had praised the team who put up the exhibition for their ‘thorough research’.

Incredibly the government decided to put its credibility on the line to defend and propagate this document whose value fifty years since it was written surely lies in its historicity, rather than its veracity.

What thorough research?

The re-print includes an introductory chapter ‘The Battle for Merger—the Historical Context’ by Associate Professor Albert Lau, National University of Singapore, which does not read like a work written in 2014.

It simply echoes the key lines of the Radio Talks, citing only like-minded publications without engaging at all with either documentary material or analyses which have emerged and which have questioned the premises of this PAP narrative.

The essay goes overboard in its zealousness, kicking an own goal in the process.

In one telling elaboration on just how brilliant and righteous it all was, we are told that at one point in the negotiations between the governments of Singapore and the Federation on the merger scheme, Singapore citizens were going to be accorded Malaysian nationality, not citizenship.The opposition Barisan Sosialis pointed out that this would mean that Singapore citizens would become second-class Malaysian citizens.

By his own account, and repeated in the 2014 essay, the Barisan’s challenge immediately instigated the prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to ‘implore’ both London and Kuala Lumpur to ‘use similar terms’ for the people of Singapore and of the Borneo territories, who were to be conferred Malaysian citizenship. He argued strenuously that should the Federation refuse, merger would certainly be rejected by the people of Singapore in the promised referendum.

Clearly, the  vigilance of the Barisan and the pressure it asserted contributed to the outcome that Singapore citizens automatically became Malaysian citizens, even though the opposition party insisted that the change was only cosmetic as the number of seats that Singapore was given in the Malaysian parliament was way below what its population size warranted.

Yet then and now in the 2014 chapter, the Barisan  intervention has been called ‘propaganda’, and treated as further proof that they were communists who were against merger.

The 2014 chapter credits the radio talks with playing a vital part in defeating the ‘communists and pro-communists’ and winning the people over as seen in the referendum where 71 % voted for the PAP ‘option’.

The whole referendum exercise was nothing more than the government fixing the rules at every turn to obfuscate and confuse, playing on the people’s fear of what the Federation government might or might not do if merger fell through.

Those responsible have continued to congratulate themselves for being very clever about it all.  Then PAP chairman Toh Chin Chye said of the referendum in a 1996 interview, ‘The ballot paper was crafted by Lee Kuan Yew. Whichever way you voted, you voted for merger. …Few understood the ballot paper….How do choose? Which way do you vote? But we got away with it. We won… ‘ [Melanie Chew, Leaders of Singapore (1996), p. 92]

The National Museum of Singapore’s new interactive exhibition SINGAPURA 700 YEARS reportedly includes ‘hands-on experience’ such as casting a vote to decide Singapore’s merger with Malaya and taking a history quiz. One wonders if the museum visitors ‘reliving’ that ‘experience’ will understand the ballot paper more clearly than those casting their votes on 1 September 1962.

The PAP government had simply rammed through its terms of merger.  The Battle for Merger was one key propaganda exercise to this end. One blogger, a former political detainee has shown far greater understanding of the nature of the publication than academics seem to have.

Ong Sooi Eng (王瑞荣) has juxtaposed the Radio Talks with booklets that the Barisan Sosialis published at the time explaining its position on merger.

They are ‘propaganda’ only as much as Battle for Merger is, and the publications should be read against one another.

Singapore’s merger with Malaysia proved to be a failure with consequences not necessarily for the better for the people and the societies in the long term.  The Barisan’s pointing out that if the fundamental difference in the politics of ethnicity adopted by the Federation and Singapore were not addressed, merger would only lead to conflict was but stating the obvious. And that was exactly what came to pass.

The well-worn ‘what if’ scenario, almost in verbatim refrain since the days of S Rajaratnam in the 1960s that if the ‘communists and their pro-communist CUF (Communist United Front)  allies had won, and Singapore had fallen under communist rule in the 1960s…we would have gone a different path….Even if Singapore had survived, life would have been harsh and miserable’ was also repeatedly heard in 2014.

The re-printing of Battle for merger brings another ‘what if’ scenario to mind: what if merger was intended to work, and the result of genuine consultation with the people of all the political units concerned, and not an immediate political expedience. What if the Federation, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah had negotiated a Malaysia that actually had a chance of working? We would all have gone on a different path….

What revisionist history?

The battle for merger has been re-staged ostensibly out of concern that ‘revisionist writers’ have emerged who ‘portray the fight as merely a peaceful and democratic disagreement over the type of merger. They apparently ignore the more fundamental agenda of the communists to seize power by subversion and armed revolution’. Historians Geoff Wade and Thum Ping Tjin have figured in the footnotes to deputy prime minister Teo’s speech as two such purveyors of this at best ignorant view.

The deputy prime minister actually appended ‘a sampling of the more credible books on the CPM and the communist struggles between the 1940s to the 1960s’ in the written copy of his speech. The  reading list includes a number of authors who were given access to the documents of Singapore’s Internal Security Department.  One has to wonder why these individuals were deserving of such trust.

The poisonous and scandalous Dennis Bloodworth, Tiger and the Trojan Horse (1986) is cited in the 2014 essay.  Aside from ISD records,  Bloodworth was also given interviews with the top PAP leadership, and even Mrs Lee Kuan Yew.

Would all this make the book more credible or incredible?

Also making it to the minister’s recommended reading list are hagiographic accounts by MCP leaders and members.

However, the idea that ‘revisionist history’ is the work of historians in Singapore today who challenge the state narrative on the dangers of communism in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps with an agenda in mind is quite misconceived.

The seminal work of such ‘revisionism’ was in fact written more than a decade ago. As any undergraduate who has read modules on Singapore, or even  eighteen-year olds in junior college who have done a research project on that part of Singapore history would know, Cambridge University historian TN Harper’s ‘Lim Chin Siong and the “Singapore Story’  [ in Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in history, edited by Tan Jing Quee and Jomo KS, 2001] cited then commissioner of police Linsett’s 1959 report to the Internal Security Council to the effect that in his estimate, MCP strength was low: 40 full party members, 80 ABL (Anti-British League) cadres; 200 or so ‘sympathisers’ and less than 100 ‘released for ‘white area work’.

The report also spoke of ‘much uncoordinated ‘cell activity without either lateral or vertical contact’, [ EJ Linsett. ‘the security threat to Singapore (Communism and nationalism)’ 24 July 1959, DO 35/9870, PRO]

The PAP Story denies that Lim Chin Siong was capable of thinking, discernment, and comprehending and adjusting to political developments in Singapore that he himself was in the forefront of. It freezes him in this caricature that is applied generally to the Chinese-speaking students, trade union leaders and members. It alleges that the self is alive, and has human agency. The ‘other’ is one-dimensional, programmed, and timeless in his/her perfidy.

Harper’s ‘revisionist’ essay has long become the established paradigm for scholars. Credible research on post-war Singapore history has to be cognizant of it. Wade and Thum build on Harper’s study.

A document featured in the study which has become de riguer to cite reveals that at the height of the bargaining among the ISC members on the list of people to be arrested, deputy British high commissioner Philip Moore asserted:

While we accept that Lim Chin Siong is a Communist, there is no evidence he is receiving orders from the CPM, 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 necessarily prove a compliant tool of Peking or Moscow. [P. Moore, deputy British
high commissioner, Singapore to Sandys]Secretary of State D Sandys, 18 July 1962 CO 1160 in Comet p. 39]

Shadow boxing

In his heyday, Lim Chin Siong was the PAP’s feared political nemesis; he has become the albatross around the party’s neck. Any hint that Lim was not a MCP member, was not a subversive and had no intention of supplying arms to the Brunei rebellion would raise questions about Operation Coldstore, and the morality of how the PAP came to rule Singapore.

Nevertheless Lim, who died in 1996, is not the main target in the 2014 exercise of re-staging the Battle for Merger. Nor is it the historians who write ‘revisionist history’ who are but sideshows or collateral damage.
That honour goes to the former political detainees who have in the last decade step by accelerated step made their narrative public through interviews, speeches posted on youtube, and publications.

They have continued to insist that they have never been communists or subversives, and had refused to sign any ISD statements, which was the only way to obtain release. Said Zahari, Lee Tee Tong, the late Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Chng Minoh endured imprisonment for as long as it took for them to earn the right to demand accountability.

They have also reaffirmed that Lim Chin Siong was their legitimate and respected leader.
The former long-serving political prisoners and their counter-narratives have been studiously avoided by the authorities, leaving it for academics to sniff condescendingly that one has to be aware that they may have an ‘agenda’. They do indeed have an agenda, and have made that very clear: demand for evidence of the charges they were accused of, and the abolition of the Internal Security Act which their cases show as having been thoroughly abused.

The re-staged Battle has been carefully circumscribed to go no further than the referendum results; there is no mention at all of Operation Coldstore, which remains the elephant in the class/room.

A show of battling the communists  is made, while the real problem is the strength of the opposition who follow the constitutional path.

Reality Check

It has been endlessly said that every society needs a narrative that knits it together. Such a narrative should articulate the fundamental and attractive values underlying it. As a state initiative, it should set the tone of embodying high-minded ethos, fostering mutual understanding and  togetherness, and project a vision of a harmonious society.

Sg 50 can indeed be an occasion for Singaporeans to ‘reflect and take stock of their society’, to ask ‘how did we get here from there, in the span of 50 years’.

An occasion for breaching the polarization that afflicts our history.

For the authorities to demonstrate that they possess wisdom and integrity, are ‘their own men’, humble, even-handed, inclusive,  forward-looking.

Above all that they are true to themselves and to the people of Singapore.

This article was first published at

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