Speech of Dr Poh Soo Kai at the launch of his historical memoir, “Living in a Time of Deception” at Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium on 13 February 2016
Madam Chairwoman, friends, and comrades,
I wish to thank all of you here for coming to attend this book launch of my historical memoir, “Living in a Time of Deception.”
When Function 8 undertook to organize this launch, it did not envision the many difficulties it would encounter in securing a venue for it. F8 first tried to book the Medical Alumni Auditorium in Outram. After all, I am a doctor and a local graduate, therefore I am technically an “old boy” of the Medical Alumni. Moreover, my first book, “The Fajar Generation” was launched there in 2009. I wonder what had changed since 2009 for the Medical Alumni to take such a discourteous attitude towards a fellow old boy?
The Singapore Medical Association, a separate organization, which looks after the professional and ethical interests of the medical profession in Singapore, was then approached to help in securing the venue. Its members were very supportive and tried to book the alumni hall in their name but for our use. This was also rejected by the Medical Alumni who owns the hall. Here, I want to thank the Singapore Medical Association for its support.
Interestingly, if I may add, I am a founder member of the Singapore Medical Association and its first Secretary-General. And allow me to pay homage to the SMA’s founding President, Dr. B R Sreenivasan, who became the first local Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1962-63.
He was a man of principle. When he was VC, he refused to enforce the Suitability Certificate - a political screening for students entering the university. He believed that the university, as an educational institute, should not be involved in such matters. If the applicants meet the required academic standard for entrance, they should be admitted. Dr. Sreenivasam lost his job. I saw him when he was very ill; he had no regrets. He was made of sterner stuff.
F8 then decided to book the Tan Kah Kee Auditorium owned by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. After the rejection by the Medical Alumni, what venue would be more befitting for this book launch other than the Tan Kah Kee Auditorium for I am, after all, Tan Kah Kee’s grandson.
The hall was available on 20th February, and F8 proceeded to pay a deposit of 500 dollars to reserve it. The SCCCI advertises that it has venues for the public to rent for their functions. However, in less than a week, the council of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry informed Teo Soh Lung that it had decided to cancel the reservation. No reason for the rejection was forthcoming.
It is sad to note that I, a grandson, cannot make use of a hall that is in my grandfather’s name to launch my memoir which also pays homage to the old man. This, to me, is a sign of a very sick society.
In any case, here we are gathered today for the launch of “Living in a Time of Deception”!
Now I would like to talk about my book. It is termed a historical memoir. It thus deals not only with my life but, more importantly, my life in the context of the historical developments in Singapore as I lived through them.
History, to me, is a subject that is based on facts. One may have different interpretations of the facts, and one can argue over the interpretations, but the facts must be there. In my memoir, we have taken great pains to verify the facts from the British archives, the Hansard, and other sources. 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.
I want to give you just two examples of such fabrications or tales passing off as historical facts:
One, the “Pah Mata” (Beat up the Police”) event of October 1956, fabricated to justify the imprisonment of Lim Chin Siong.
Dennis Bloodworth, a writer, commissioned by the PAP to write Singapore history, was happy to regurgitate the PAP version that Lim Chin Siong had called upon those attending the PAP rally, held in October 1956 in Beauty World, Bukit Timah, to “Pah Mata” (Beat up the Police).
Bloodworth had access to the Singapore police files that recorded the event and, therefore, knew this to be false. His bibliography states sources from the Security Department. Page 146 of his book is on the Beauty World speech. Moreover, he also interviewed Lim Chin Siong for his book. Chin Siong would have definitely denied making such an inflammatory statement as “Pah Mata” as he did when interviewed and recorded by Melanie Chew in her book, “Leaders of Singapore.”
Today, some 60 years later, thanks to historian PJ Thum’s painstaking research, we now have concrete proofs from the police files in the British Archives that Chin Siong categorically did not call on the PAP crowd to “Pah Mata”. There can absolutely be no mistake that he said the contrary, which is “Mai Pah Mata” (which is Do Not Beat up the Police), as Chin Siong followed up this phrase by telling the rally in Beauty World that the police were wage earners like those attending the rally and therefore welcomed in their midst.
Yet, for some 60 years, this “Pah Mata” fabrication has been treated as historical truth in the Singapore storytelling. Bloodworth’s book, published in 1986 was named as one of the recommended history books by the authorities.
If a person as well known and popular as Lim Chin Siong, also an elected Assemblyman of the Singapore Legislature, could be fixed up in this manner, one shudders to think of the fate of the thousands of students and trade-union activists, whisked off into arbitrary imprisonment without trial. The Internal Security Act which legitimizes these arrests, has no place in any society upholding human rights.
The other example of creating a story from thin air is my visit, with Grace (my wife) and G. Raman, to Masai in South Johore to treat an injured bomber. We were supposed to have driven across the two immigration checks at the causeway in two separate cars, one following the other, stealthily and dramatically, in the middle of the night. Evidence from immigration records could easily have proven whether we did go or not. But the evidence was never produced.
This fiction, propagated on front page headlines and in vivid details, was swallowed hook, bait et al by everyone! Many years later, a young friend told me that his doctor-wife supported my right as a doctor to treat any injured person.So convinced she was that the event actually happened, that she reiterated that it was my duty as a doctor to do so.
So coming back to my historical memoir, I would welcome criticisms of what I write if based on facts and evidence.
Lastly, there is one more matter that is heavy in my heart and spirit that I should take this opportunity to say a few words on.
We all have lived through the very dark period of fear, uncertainty, dilemma and downright frustration that followed on the heel of the mass arrest of the leaders of the Barisan Sosialis in February 1963 as well as in September 1963. How could we - who have abided by peaceful and constitutional means - be dealt such a violent card as detention without trial, to be plucked with force by armed police from our families and loved ones in the still of the night, and denied the due process of law that is enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Yet in that very dark depth in 1963, a group of young men and women, mainly from Nantah (Nanyang University), bravely rose up to fill the vacuum in the Barisan leadership, created by our mass imprisonment. They were in touch with the concrete reality on the ground, in particular, the difficulties at that time to organize the progressive forces, as experienced by the left-wing unions. In tune with the ground, they advocated taking a less robust stand in opposition which would appear prudent at a time when the Barisan was crippled, decimated.
On the other hand, however, the series of unconstitutional arrests - exacerbated by further anti-democratic policies and actions on the part of the ruling regime, such as the refusal to call parliament into session, - created deep frustrations and provoked intemperate responses in certain quarters of the Barisan, resulting in a subjective urge to take a robust stand as opposition and even, to reject parliamentary democracy. Dr Lee Siew Choh, chairman of the Barisan Sosialis, headed this stand.
And so it came to pass that a clash became inevitable between Dr Lee and the Nantah group, to the point that Dr Lee resigned from the Barisan. The Nantah group finally managed to get him to return and for the sake of left-wing unity, the Nantah group fell in line behind Dr Lee.
However, out in the cold were the left-wing trade unions, who refused to take a robust stand in opposition. Hence, they came to be on the receiving end of harsh criticisms for not toeing the party line. An unfortunate rift developed between members of the Nantah group and the left-wing trade unions that have persisted till today.
I say this with a heavy heart for, given a correct analysis, it is a contradiction among comrades and should not have been pushed to the precipice of no return, gravely bruising personal feelings and sentiments.
Today, it would seem that there is remorse and political withdrawal from those among us who had gone on the offensive to attack the left-wing unions especially since Dr Lee had subsequently acknowledged and apologized for the policy of robust opposition.
On the other side, it would seem that persistence still remains to call the Nantah group to account for Dr Lee’s erroneous policy; sadder still, it would seem that there is an attempt to heap the harm done on the left-wing movement by Lee Kuan Yew, upon the shoulders of the Nantah group.
Let us close ranks by recognizing that we must bring closure to this unfortunate and painful strife. And return to political activism, we must all strive, even now in the twilight of our lives. Or we would have abandoned the stage to its present occupants who most gleefully welcome our absence, which they have engineered - notably with Operation Coldstore.
Therefore, to my comrades in arms, let me end this speech by quoting from Paul A Baran, who said in 1931, in the looming spectre of Hilter:
“And if the tribulations of the political humdrum and the disappointments of our last decades have caused many of you to desire some political tranquility, to desire a vacation from politics, you must repress this attack of weakness with all your might. This desertion from the political battleground is the greatest crime against humanity that one can commit, because the others, the reactionary backwards striving forces never allow themselves a vacation from politics. And if you, infuriated and embittered, now renounce the political struggle; if you sulkily stand off to the side with a dismissive wave of your hand; then you leave the politics to the others; then you subject yourself to their domination.”
“Take no vacation from politics - otherwise, the meaning of your existence will leave you!”
With these words of Paul A Baran, I close my speech in the launch of my historical memoir, “Living in a Time of Deception”.