Reluctance to open official records discredits government’s rebuttal on ISA detainees

By Terry Xu

When Singapore High Commissioner to Australia Burhan Gafoor rebutted Dr Poh Soh Kai’s recent allegations that a major crackdown on leftists in 1963 was a political exercise, his rebuttal was firmly rejected by former political detainees and some historians on social media, and a renewed call for the government to make available official papers on the detentions.

In a nine-page letter, Mr Gafoor said that Dr Poh’s claims were “misleading and disingenuous”. The letter was published on Thursday on the Australian National University’s New Mandala website and later reported by Straits Times.

Dr. Poh in the book launch of The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore

Dr Poh, former Assistant Secretary General of Barisan Sosialis, was among 113 left-wing politicians and unionists rounded up in Operation Coldstore, which he called a “set-up” against political opponents of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, including Barisan’s Secretary General, Lim Chin Siong.

Dr Poh had criticised in his article the re-run of the radio talks by former PM Lee Kuan Yew titled Battle for Merger, describing it as a “Cold War diatribe” and aimed “implicitly to justify Coldstore”.

Burhan Gafoor
Mr Burhan Gafoor

However, Mr Gafoor insisted that a full reading of the available evidence would highlight the “serious security threat” the Communists posed. He also said that the crackdown, Operation Coldstore, was a continuation of security operations mounted since 1948 to contain the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).

Mr Gafoor noted that “revisionists” like Singaporean historian, Dr Thum Ping Tjin “conveniently omit mention” of incriminating information in the declassified documents, like the colonial officials’ concern about the extent the CPM had penetrated the Barisan.

Mr Gafoor referred to the declassified British documents and said that evidence showed “they were ready, when the opportunity arose, to use violent unconstitutional means to overthrow the Government”.

He said the British Commissioner to Singapore, Lord Selkirk, had by late 1962 recognised the extensive Communist hold on the party and said “it would be wise to make arrests of communists in Singapore as soon as possible”.

He cited Deputy UK Commissioner Philip Moore saying, “knowing what we now do about the extent of Communist penetration within Barisan Sosialis, it will be more difficult to acquit many of the other leading members as unwitting dupes”.

“Moore was referring to two reports of meetings at Barisan HQ that he described as “of considerable importance not only for what they reveal of the future intentions of Barisan Sosialis, but they provide more conclusive evidence than we have had hitherto for the belief that Barisan Sosialis are Communist-controlled.”

“It has never been disputed,” he noted, “that the Communists in Singapore are following United Front tactics and that Barisan Sosialis is their principal instrument on the political front. …The report on the first of the two [Barisan] meetings shows that those engaging in the discussion were Communists examining quite frankly how best to achieve their ends. Furthermore, we can see that the Communist influence within Barisan Sosialis is not confined to the Central Executive Committee but extends to Branch Committee level…”.

“Moore’s superior, Lord Selkirk, concurred with this judgement. A week later, on 14 Dec 1962, after the Brunei rebellion, Lord Selkirk sent a dispatch stating: “I said I had recognised all along that a threat was presented by the communists in Singapore. I had not however previously been convinced that a large number of arrests were necessary to counter this threat.”

“What is missing is an explanation from the revisionists as to why they have systematically ignored revelations by CPM leaders, as well as the many British documents that demolish their claims,” said Mr Gafoor.

Omissions? What omissions?

However, a closer study of the works by Dr Thum would reveal that the historian did actually address the omissions that Mr Gafoor wrongly described.

“Before Special Branch could finish writing the cases, the Brunei Rebellion broke out on 8 December. Amidst the shock, it was noted that Azahari, the leader of the Brunei rebellion, had lunched with Lim Chin Siong a few days prior. While George Bogaars, Head of Special Branch, openly observed them from a nearby table, Azahari had attempted to sell a sceptical Lim on the idea of armed rebellion, which Lim refused.

“Despite this, the Barisan declared that the rebellion was ‘a popular uprising against British colonialism and must command the support of all genuine anticolonialists’. The Federation leaders and Lee seized upon this. By supporting the rebellion, the Barisan had provided, Lee declared, ‘a heaven-sent opportunity of justifying action against them.’ Likewise, the Federation declared that this was the ‘tactically ideal moment’. Selkirk spent the bulk of his four-page telegram to Sandys explaining that it was now impossible to deny the Federation the arrests they so badly craved without jeopardising merger. In six lines, Selkirk added that recent intelligence demonstrated communist control of the Barisan, and that Lim had never explicitly ruled out violent action.

“The evidence which Selkirk cited was ‘accounts of two post-referendum Barisan meetings.’ Barisan members had complained that the constitution was pointless if it was so easily manipulated, asking if there was another way forward. Selkirk chose to interpret these as calls to abandon constitutional action, and disregarded their unanimous agreement to keep following peaceful constitutional action. Selkirk’s assertion that Lim never ruled out violent action was based on Lim’s statement that ‘so long as the conditions for peaceful constitutional struggle remain available to us, we will persist in the peaceful constitutional method of struggle,’ but, as noted above, Lim was speaking about the importance of maintaining integrity and public faith in the constitution.

“In the same speech, Lim explicitly rejected violence. Asked about the possibility of repressive detention, Lim replied, ‘as long as the unjust and undemocratic laws exist, there will be no guarantee for the people’s basic freedoms and democratic rights, and there will always be the possibility of repression anytime and anywhere. So we should prepare for the worst… No matter what happened, he stressed, violence was out of the question. ‘Our immediate objective is to defeat the government in a general election. If merger is forcibly implemented, we will strive for victory in the federal election…The PAP will work hard to suppress and restrict us… we must be patient and calmly analyse our work. We must persuade the people slowly and should absolutely never be irritated nor attack.'”

Dr Thum wrote that Lim Chin Siong’s support for the Brunei rebellion was a matter of principle and Lim Chin Siong directly addressed this in a speech on 23 December at a rally supporting the rebellion.

“It is a just cause, precisely because it is fighting against colonialism, for freedom… It is our duty not only to fight against colonialism locally but also to support wholeheartedly the struggle against colonialism that is being waged in other regions. If we are not internationalists, then we should rightly be called chauvinists. We recognise that colonialism and imperialism respect no national boundaries.”

Many of the points Dr Thum made in his academic paper are being backed by official documents from the declassified British archives and biography of those involved. He attested to this in his response to Mr Gafoor on Facebook.

“My article, which was peer-reviewed and has extensive citations, does address the issues and evidence which Burhan raises. It critically analyses the evidence which Burhan cites and points out, for example, that the evidence on which the Internal Security Council case rested on relied upon a mistranslation and misrepresentation from the original Chinese language source.”

On the topic of omission, it seems that Mr Gafoor did not quote the part where Deputy High Commissioner Philip Moore whom he quoted as evidence to the threat that Barisan posed, said in his report to London in July 1962, “while we accept Lim Chin Siong is a Communist, there is no evidence that he is recieving his orders from the MCP, Peking or Moscow. Our impression is that Lim is working very much on his own and that the primary objective is not communist millennium, but to obtain control of the consituional government of Singapore.”

And also what High Commisioner Lord Selkirk said to Minister Sandys in July 1962 in regards to the proposed 25 and 250 arrests by Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew, “in fact I believe that both of them wish to arrest the effective political opposition and blame us for doing so.” In October 1962, Lord Selkirk went further to say, “he (Lee Kuan Yew) is probably attracted to the idea of destroying his political opponents. It should be remembered that there is behind all this, a very personal aspect… he claims he wishes to put back in detention the very people who were released at his insistence, people whom there is a strong sense of political rivalry which transcends ideological differences.”

Support for Merger?

Mr Gafoor wrote that Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in his Battle for Merger radio broadcasts in 1961, had exposed the communists’ objective and strategy, and that the radio talks made by Mr Lee won over public opinion in favour of merger on the terms proposed by the Government.

He further stated that in the referendum in September 1962, the specific merger terms were put to the electorate. 71% of the voters opted for the PAP’s merger proposal while the Barisan, which called for blank votes to be cast in protest, received only 25%.


However, a scrutiny of a sample ballot slip of the referendum would suggest that there was dilemma or confusion about what the electorate was supposed to be voting for.

Without proper explanation – and assuming that it can be explained – voters would be hard pressed not to see that their choice was already pre-determined. There was simply no option for the voters to say no to the merger and they would eventually choose option “A” as it would seem to be the most reasonable option.

Mr Gafoor also said that the Singapore electorate endorsed Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership and returned the PAP to power with 37 out of 51 seats in the General Elections of September 1963.

“The Barisan, on the other hand, won just 13 seats. In subsequent elections in the 1970s and 1980s, the Barisan failed to win a single seat, eventually dissolving itself in 1988 and merging with another party. The electorate’s rejection of the Barisan and communism was thorough and total. Otherwise, Singapore would have laboured under the yoke of communism, and not have developed into a modern, non-communist nation.”

What Mr Gafoor did not connect to here was that Barisan Sosialis earlier suffered a massive loss in candidates when they were arrested as part of Operation Coldstore, including its charismatic leader Lim Chin Siong.

Wouldn’t it be more pertinent for Mr Gafoor to ask what the PAP’s margin at the general elections might have been, if the PAP government did not arrest the leaders of the leading opposition party?

Singapore PAP BS
The constituencies won by different political parties in 1963  (Image from Singapore Elections)
votes collected
Results of the Singapore General Election 1963

Nevertheless, despite the arrest of its top cadre members and facing many four cornered fights, Barisan Sosialis managed to win 13 seats and collected 33% of the total votes, compared to PAP’s 46.9%. This is a far image from the image of an unpopular Barisan that Mr Gafoor tried to paint.

In addition, why didn’t Mr Gafoor clarify on how many other Barisan members were arrested under the Internal Security Act, particularly those who have won the 1963 general elections? Was the dissolution of Barisan really caused by its waning popularity, or merely that most of its members were under detention or fled the country due to prosecution?

Show proof to clear all doubts

Mr Gafoor also continued the government’s position that Barisan was controlled by communists. However, it should be noted that, beyond the evidence he (under)cited, which has been countered by Dr Thum, Mr Gafoor has not cited any substantive evidence from the government to substantiate his claims.

In effect, Mr Gafoor had done nothing more than repeat the rhetoric that we have been hearing since independence about Barisan Sosialis, the communists and the ISA detainees.

To properly refute Dr Thum’s studies, it would be in the best interest of the government to open official documents that would prove beyond doubt the guilt of Barisan members. Even if there is no incriminating evidence, there should be at least some documents that would suggest that they were an imminent threat to the general public and not merely a political threat to the PAP, as Dr Poh and other ISA detainees have alleged.

Indeed, Dr Thum had issued a similar challenge to Mr Gafoor in his Facebook post.

“The government can and should clear this entire controversy up by declassifying its own documents. It has no need to cite British documents when it has its own.

As a historian, I would be happy to modify my arguments based upon the government archives. Its unwillingness to do so weakens its own case. Please declassify the archives and let us know the truth once and for all. I would be delighted by this even if it proved me wrong. The truth is what matters.”

Let the documents be seen by all to clear all doubts. In addition, have the charges of all former detainees heard in court, so that the government can legitimately call them “terrorists” and end all “speculation” by “revisionists”.

If Mr Gafoor can say that Dr Poh, Dr Thum and other “revisionists” alternative portrayal of Singapore’s political history “is disrespectful to the many Singaporeans who chose a non-communist path at great risk to themselves, and contributed to the success of modern Singapore”, and yet is unable to substantiate this, then it can also be said that Mr Gafoor and the many other government officials who have supported the use of the ISA on Barisan Sosialis members and other detainees are no less disrespectful to those who have contributed to our nation, and stayed steadfast in their beliefs despite undergoing detention without trial for decades.

What happened is already fixed in history, and Singapore has progressed much in the past 50 years. But to truly appreciate what we have achieved so far, let us remove any doubt that the public might have about how our current government might have attempted to “fix” their political opponents. Whitewashing this part of our history does not make it any less a part of Singapore’s history.

Dr Thum Ping Tjin perspective of Singapore’s history can be read online in his academic papers, which are backed by official documents and papers.