PM Lee’s short narrative of merger history leaves much to be desired

Lee hsieng loong fb post

By Terry Xu

Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsieng Loong wrote on his Facebook page about the Battle for Merger exhibition, which he said was an attempt at “explaining what the fight against the Communists was about, and why Singapore needed Merger with Malaya.”

He went on further to talk about the Communist Party of Malaya and the immediate threat which defunct political party, Barisan Sosialis posed to Singapore then.

Given that Singapore’s High Commissioner to Australia Burhan Gafoor has castigated historian Thum Pin Tjin for an inaccurate portrayal of Singapore’s road to independence, perhaps we can expect a similar high standard from the Prime Minister himself.

“The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) was a violent, illegal organisation. So it operated secretly, underground.”

CPM was an organisation which sought to rid Malaya of the British colonists. It was formed in 1930 with the help of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader who was prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

It operated largely as an illegal underground organisation, as it was outlawed by the British because of its goal: To expel the foreign western forces occupying the Malaya Peninsular, which included Singapore. The idea that foreign forces are undesired is especially appealing to the Chinese educated, as the memories of the allied forces of the Eight Nations Alliance which sacked the cities of China were still fresh in their mind.

It was during World War II, when Japanese empire invaded Malaysia on 18 December 1941, where the British colonial authorities accepted the CPM’s standing offer of military cooperation, with the invading Japanese as the common enemy.

When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the British allowed CPM to operate without repression and CPM sought national independence through political work within legal means. However, a state of emergency was put into place after three European planters were said to be murdered by communists in Perak state in 1948.

In essence, it was at this point where the “violence” of CPM became an issue, which is also the more appropriate reference point to take in the context of Singapore’s history. In reality, the violence that CPM undertook was a matter of self defence and its only means of reaching its objective to purge the British colonists. Both sides suffered casualties especially CPM which depended heavily on guerrilla warfare in the jungles to survive.

british killing
A British Royal Marine holding the severed heads of a young man and woman who were accused of supporting the Communist Party of Malaya.

During the emergency, police were given sweeping powers of arrest and punishment, including the death penalty, could be administered without any trial.

“But the Communists infiltrated open, legal organisations like trade unions, student associations and political parties. These supported the Communist cause, but denied that they themselves were Communist. Mr Lee exposed this Communist united front tactic.”

On the contrary, it would have been more accurate to say that people were in support of the CPM due to their war efforts against the Japanese occupation. Similarly, student bodies, associations, trade unions were aligned with the CPM’s goals to rid Malaya of the British colonial masters.

PAP facebook LKY socialist
Facebook post acknowledging that PAP was formed with pro-communist trade unionists

In fact, the People’s Action Party was well aware of the alignment of the people and had worked with the Communist supporting trade unions and student association to win the 1959 elections. Members of the different unions and associations helped to promote PAP as a political party which could improve the lives of people in Singapore.

“I took these photos of a fascinating exhibit: a pair of original handwritten documents. One was a trade union document, signed 林清祥 Lim Chin Siong. He was the leader of the Barisan Sosialis, the main open front political party. The other was a Communist study cell document, signed 王明 Wang Ming. The handwriting was identical. In fact Wang Ming was Lim Chin Siong’s party name; Communist cadres took party names to conceal their real identities. So Lim Chin Siong was a Communist, and the Barisan Sosialis was Communist controlled.”

Photo uploaded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

It is not clear when PM Lee’s mathematics expertise has evolved into the study of forensics of handwritings. As such, it is clear that PM Lee’s comment is practically unqualified. Otherwise, does PM Lee have reason to believe that Wang Ming is indeed Lim Chin Siong? Is the analysis of the two sets of handwritings part of the government’s investigations?

As it stands, releasing the official documents of the secret branch would be the surest way of verifying this fact. To date, the government has not made these documents public, preferring to obfuscate it with an unverifiable handwriting analysis.

In fact, a study of documents that do exist and are made public suggested that the communist influence on Barisan Sosialis did not go beyond camaraderie through a shared goal.

Former Deputy High Commissioner to Singapore Philip Moore, whom Mr Gafoor referred to for evidence on 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 receiving 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 constitutional government of Singapore.”

As it is, Lim Chin Siong’s arrest under the Internal Security Act denied him of any rights to an open trial to prove his innocence. He has already passed away, so there is no way that he can file a defamation suit against PM Lee for any misrepresentation.

“This was more than 50 years ago. Many old Communist and pro-Communist activists have reconciled with their past, and become good citizens. But a few hard core ones still deny these historical facts. They don’t want to admit that they had fought on the wrong side, and that luckily for Singapore they lost. Some “revisionist” historians make this argument too. One motivation: cast doubt on the legitimacy of the PAP government, not just in the 1960s, but today.”

One of the “revisionist” who PM Lee might be making reference to here would be Dr Thum Ping Tjin, who responded as such to the government’s earlier rebuttal:

“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.”

Indeed, PM Lee’s account adds very little to the clarity, or lack thereof, surrounding CPM and Lim Chin Siong, as it was hardly based less on actual historical records but speculation.

Instead, actual historical record would suggest that the “legitimacy of the PAP government” was shaken less by Dr Thum’s analysis and Dr Poh Soh Kai’s statement, but by the PAP’s own failure in the events leading up to merger. Part of this was then PM Lee Kuan Yew’s inability to secure the release of left-wing politicians detained by the British, but mainly due to the contentious issue of merger that he proposed.

When Mr Lee Kuan Yew proposed the merger, the idea was for Singapore to depend on Malaysia so as to secure independence from the British. Those who resisted the merger believed that the merger would be unfair to Singapore as Singaporeans would effectively become second-class citizens.

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Source – Singapore’s Peoples’s Action Party – The History, Organisation and Leadership (1971)

As history has it, merger fell through. For reasons known only to himself, Mr Lee Kuan Yew led the PAP to participate in the general elections for Malaysia in 1964, contesting for 11 seats and only winning one in Bangsar constituency at Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian government, concerned about the PAP’s intentions for contesting and uncomfortable with what it saw as a challenge to the power of the Malays, eventually asked Singapore to leave the merger.

Perhaps our current PM would do better to leave history to the historians, as much as he should leave the handwriting analysis to the forensics experts. Instead, it would be better for the PAP to substantiate it’s much-repeated narrative with some hard evidence, rather than mere conjectures.

Also read TOC’s commentary on the government’s rebuttal to the ISA detainees.