I empathise with and do not disregard those, the ordinary people, especially Singaporeans, who hold Lee Kuan Yew in high regard. We are all products of our different yet similar circumstances which affect us in different ways.
I was an admirer of LKY when I was an undergraduate in the heady days of the 1960s. I remember queuing at university campus and eventually crammed into a lecture hall that was holding probably three times its capacity to hear LKY speak. I was caught up with great hope for our future when LKY was championing Malaysian Malaysia.
However, after more than 50 years, documents in the public domain that prove conclusively that there were no basis for LKY’s allegations that his political opponents and the Barisan Socialis Party (which subsequently was absorbed into The Workers’ Party in 1988) were involved in a communist conspiracy to topple the PAP government by illegal means.
This was the basis for Operation Coldstore – the precursor to our merger and eventual separation from Malaysia – that arrested and detained 111 individuals without trial and who in many cases were subjected to physical abuse and torture. In any civilised society, LKY would have been arrested, tried and thrown in jail. But he continued to become Prime Minister.
From the early 1960s, LKY had used (or rather, abused) the full power of the state to arrest, detain, destroy and silence anyone he saw as a potential challenge to his rise to and grip on power based on baseless allegations. The methods he deployed included physical and mental violence and torture through the state apparatus.
LKY did not defeat his political opponents with open debates or the strength of his arguments or through the democratic processes. He defeated them through detention without trial, violence, torture, imposed exile and information control.
Who is to say that men and women of great intellect, integrity, moral principles who tower over LKY would not have created a better Singapore, or a better Singapore and Malaysia, for all of us? We will never know because LKY ruthlessly destroyed these people, with the connivance of neo-Colonial interests, in his march to supreme power and glory.
The bulk of this alternative narrative revolves around Lim Chin Siong, who co-founded the PAP in 1954 with Lee Kuan Yew.
LCS’s intellect, leadership, and legendary oratory skills enabled him to provide the organisational base for the PAP. He effectively championed the cause of the unemployed and the exploited workers of Singapore, and was wildly popular, winning the Bukit Timah constituency in the 1955 elections with an outright majority at the young age of 22.*
David Marshall former Chief Minister of Singapore recalled that LKY introduced LCS to him as the person who would be Singapore’s next leader. However, LCS’s promising political career was destroyed when he was detained without trial. He was forced into renouncing politics and went into exile in London.*
For over five decades, the official government narrative of Singapore’s history has justified LCS’s detention by asserting that he was a communist who advocated violence and subversion.*
He was specifically accused of making a speech that advocated violence. LKY was present when LCS made the speech. LKY did not refute the charge against LCS.
LCS denied the charge all his life. A transcript of LCS’s speech, recorded and translated into English by the Singapore Police, has been unearthed in the National Archives of the UK. Far from urging violence, LCS used humour to defuse the tension in the audience, and reminded them that the police were also employees and did not deserve their anger.*
After the PAP came into power, it did not provide the opportunity for LCS to clear his name either.
Recent academic work has also proven that LCS’s later arrest and detention in 1963 was politically motivated. The Singapore government has never produced any concrete evidence to show that LCS was part of a communist conspiracy.*
The PAP split in 1961 when there was widespread dissatisfaction with LKY’s leadership. At a vote of confidence in the PAP government in 1961 in the Legislative Assembly, 27 voted for and 23 either voted against or abstained including 13 PAP members. These 13, including LCS, were expelled following which they formed a legally constituted Party, Barisan Socialis. After the split, 35 of 51 PAP Branch Committees and 19 of the 23 paid Organising Secretaries of the PAP went over to Barisan.
In February 1963, LKY unleashed Operation Coldstore and arrested 111 people including the leadership of Barisan. Many were detained without trial for 10, 15, 20 and more years and subjected to physical abuse and torture while in detention.
To date no concrete evidence has been produced to support the allegations that those arrested were engaged in illegal activities, preached violence or were communists. Declassified secret Special Branch files reveal the opposite – these people detained without trial were engaged in legitimate political activities.
The research work of Dr Thum Ping Tjin has provided clear evidence which is now in the public domain for everybody to see that there is no basis for the allegations made by LKY’s PAP government that those detained were involved in a communist conspiracy to topple the PAP government by illegal means.
The report dated 25 April 1962 of Maurice L B Williams, head of British Intelligence MI5’s office in Singapore, runs counter to LKY’s claim that the opposition was involved in a communist conspiracy to wrest power from the PAP through violence or unlawful means. The report is now in the public domain and can be seen by anybody who has genuine interest in the truth.
The above is NOT to deny the very many positive aspects of Singapore today. If others had had the opportunity to learn what I was fortunate to have learnt from about 45 years ago until now, there would be no material difference in the bulk of our views about LKY.
However, in a civilised society, we must not hide from the truth and, based on one-sided information fed to us and baseless false allegations, continue to dishonour and discredit those who made huge sacrifices, including sacrificing their lives, for social justice. We must expose the deeds of tyrants we might call heroes, whatever their other achievements may be, instead of placing them high on pedestals they do not deserve.
* – Extracts and adaptations from papers published by Dr Thum Ping Tjin. Dr Thum, a Singaporean Harvard graduate in East Asian Studies, teaches history at the University of Oxford. He is also research associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia on LKY’s Singapore.
Stephen Chang currently resides in the UK.