Dr Poh Soo Kai: "History is not a tale that can be fabricated or conjured out of thin air"

Dr Poh Soo Kai: "History is not a tale that can be fabricated or conjured out of thin air"

A historical memoir of Singapore from a non-establishment perspective

Over 300 people turned up for the book launch of one of the most important publication in Singapore history. The historical memoir by Dr Poh Soo Kai, “Living in a Time of Deception” documents not only his life as a student, a medical doctor and a politician during the pre-independence period in the 1950s but also the political development of Singapore as he lived through the nation changing events in the 50s and 60s.

Dr Poh is a man with a rich history; he was the founding member of the People’s Action Party, the Assistant Secretary General of the Barisan Socialis and the founding member of the Singapore Medical Association. Dr Poh also has a distinguished family background with prominent millionaire businessman and philanthropist, Tan Kah Kee as his maternal grandfather.

On 2 February 1963, Dr Poh along with 112 other individuals were detained without trial under “Operation Coldstore”, an operation which the government claimed was meant to cripple the Communist Open front. He was detained twice for a total span of 17 years.

Fully packed seminar room for the book launch.

Dr Hong Lysa, a Singapore historian, describes the book to be not just only a historical memoir but also a historic publication, a landmark publication because this book is the first publication that accounts for the Singapore’s 1950s and 60s, linking Singapore from its post-war era right up to present day. An account that is not along the way of the logic of the conventional Singapore story.

She took the opportunity during her speech to appreciate the publication of this memoir, “the chances of having this book to become a reality is actually very slim if you think about, how many people in their 80s have their ability to recollect and experiences more than 60 years ago.”

Dr. Hong goes on to comment on the timing of the publication after several decades, “The passage of time have in fact sharpen his analyst, he have never stopped to think about what to write about.”

Tan Kok Fang, a former detainee under the Internal Security Act, referred to a twenty character Chinese couplet written by Dr Poh’s grandfather, Tan Kah Kee for a Burmese newspaper agency. In that, Tan Kah Kee wrote that a commoner has responsibility for the success and fall of a country, one can sacrifice one’s fortune but one cannot fail to distinguish what is right from wrong. Tan says that these words from Dr Poh’s grandfather aptly sets the direction of this book, the need to debunk Lee Kuan Yew’s story of Singapore.

Obstacles in securing a venue for the book launch

Dr Poh in his speech, thanked local NGO Function 8, for their assistance in publishing his book and the organising of the book launch. Apart from thanking them, he also brought up the difficulties faced by him and Function 8 in securing of the book launch’s venue.

Dr Poh’s application to use the Medical Alumni Auditorium for the book launch was rejected despite being an alumni himself and as a founding member of the Singapore Medical Association (SMA). Even when SMA tried to assist in the booking of the venue in the name of the organisation, Medical Alumni again rejected the application.

Function 8 then booked the Tan Kah Kee auditorium from the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) for the book launch and had already paid the deposit for the booking. However, just within a week, the booking was cancelled without no reasons given. Dr Poh said it is sad as a grandson of Tan Kah Kee, he is unable to launch his memoir in the hall named after his grandfather and to pay homage.
He remarked that these were signs of a “sick society”.

History is not a tale that can be fabricated or conjured out of thin air

Dr Poh welcomed criticism and scrutiny on his book and said, “History is not a tale that can be fabricated or conjured out of thin air. A Singapore story cannot masquerade as the history of Singapore.” He went on to cite two “inaccurate historical facts” taught as Singapore history as examples of the “Singapore story”.

The first is the incident at Beauty World, where Secretary-General of Barisan Sosialis, Lim Chin Siong was accused of instigating the crowd to beat up police, with his words, “Pah Mata” (beat the police). However, the record of his speech recently found in the British Archives debunks this allegation of Lim. The second is the allegation by the Internal Security Department (ISD) that Dr Poh, his wife and Dr G Raman visited Masai, Johor to treat an injured bomber. This Dr Poh denies this allegation and said that immigration records could easily to prove that it was untrue but the government choose not to. His wife was detained for a month by the ISD.

Examples such as what Dr Poh pointed as inaccurate representations of history may be unsettling for many who have been taught otherwise. R. Joethy, lawyer and former member of the University Socialist Club in his speech, addressed this by saying, “sometimes the facts may not be acceptable, but we must dare to know the facts.”

He added that Dr Poh has taken great pains to record events of political developments and that there have been “far too few” history of that particular period written from a non-establishment point of view. Giving context from Dr Poh’s perspective on how decisions were made by the British government and the colonial civil servants in Singapore.

Mr Joethy also noted that this book is for the future generation because this book is not going to be taught in school. “This book is like wine, take it, keep it, savour it once in a while.” said Mr Joethy. Earlier on, he made mention to historian, Thum Ping Tjin having trawled through a vast ocean (of information) and produced a bottle full of wine.

People behind the book. From left to right, Ngoh Teck Nam, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Dr Hong Lysa, Tan Kok Fang, Wong Souk Yee and R. Joethy.

The speakers of the book launch unanimously agreed that there will be accusations against the book of its attempt to rewrite history but welcomes scrutiny of the book on its facts. And it is for this reason that the book cannot help but to carry numerous references to sources based on the Hansard, British archives and other relevant documents for a constructive discussion with would-be critics.

“One can argue over the interpretation, but the facts must be there.” said Dr Poh.

When asked to give advice to Singaporeans in the Q&A session, Dr Poh said, “Those in power will do everything to keep themselves in power, so those who oppose, have to realise that the road ahead will be tough… On the other hand, one has to feel committed, committed to your cause.”

The book can be purchased online via Ethos Book or major bookstores in Singapore.

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