Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote a letter to Mr Fong Swee Suan’s wife, Mdm Chen Poh Cheng, to express his condolences towards Mr Fong’s passing on Sunday (5 February).
Mr Fong, who was a founding member of the People’s Action Party (PAP), died on Saturday aged 85.
The former Barisan Sosialis leader and leftist trade unionist left the PAP in 1961 along with a large group of other PAP members due to the proposed merger between Singapore and Malaysia Penisular, a deal which some felt that was unfair to Singapore as it is set on unequal terms. Barisan Sosialis was then formed by those who left and had the same constitution with PAP.
Those who opposed the merger were vindicated on their stance when Singapore was forced to leave the Malaysia federation two years later, though PAP till today insists that the merger was a decision that had to be made.
While Mr Lee’s condolence letter is largely fair and respectful, a number of individuals have criticised his comments as Mr Lee tries to paint Mr Fong, a socialist as a communist even in death. A claim that PAP has made against members of Barisan Sosialis until today, that justified their arbitrary arrest and detention for years just before the General Election in 1963.
Below is PM Lee’s letter in full:
Dear Mdm Chen,
I am sorry to learn of the passing of your husband, Mr Fong Swee Suan. Mr Fong Swee Suan was a convenor of the People’s Action Party when it was formed in November 1954 and a member of its first Central Executive Committee. He and Mr Lim Chin Siong had joined Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s “Oxley Road” group earlier in the year to discuss the formation of a political party. Almost wholly English-educated, the non-communist group led by Mr Lee found in Mr Lim and Mr Fong a bridge to the Chinese-educated world – “a world teeming with vitality, dynamism and revolution,” as Mr Lee put it in his Battle for Merger talks, “a world in which the Communists had been working for decades with considerable success.”
The two sides, the non-communists and the pro-communists, joined forces to rid Singapore of the British colonialists, knowing full well that the real battle would come after the British left and Singaporeans had to decide who was to govern them.
Mr Fong and his pro-communist colleagues were arrested by the colonial authorities in October 1956 after a series of strikes and riots paralysed the island.
Mr Lee had to act as the detainees’ lawyer, and would visit them at St John’s Island every three or four weeks. I remember regularly taking a police boat together with my parents from the Master Attendant’s Pier at Collyer Quay to St John’s Island. My mother would bring along a pot of chicken curry and freshly baked bread for the detainees. It was a long walk from the jetty on the island to the house where they lived. I knew them by name, having met them when they came to Oxley Road, probably during election campaigns.
For me the trips to St John’s Island were Sunday outings. But for my father there was a serious purpose. My father spent hours trying to persuade the detainees of the folly of the Communist Party of Malaya’s policy. In the end, all the detainees signed a document, The Ends and Means of Socialism, which they themselves had drafted, setting out their support for the non-communist objectives of the PAP.
In 1959, Singapore attained self-government. The PAP won the general election, and formed the government. Mr Lim, Mr Fong and six other detainees were released from prison. Mr Lee and his senior colleagues were hopeful that all but Mr Lim were sincere in their declarations of support. He appointed the detainees as Political Secretaries in various ministries. Mr Fong went to the sensitive Ministry of Labour. In the end only one detainee, Mr Devan Nair, remained true in his pledge.
The inevitable parting of ways came in June 1961, over the question of Merger with Malaya to form the new Federation of Malaysia. The split was precipitated by the decision of the “Big Six” trade union leaders, including Mr Lim and Mr Fong, to oppose the PAP at a by-election in Anson. The pro-communists formed the Barisan Sosialis, with Mr Lim as its Secretary-General, and the Singapore Association of Trade Unions, with Mr Fong as its Secretary-General.
A ferocious battle for hearts and minds ensued. In the Referendum of September 1962, the option for merger recommended by the PAP won 70 per cent of the vote. Later in the general election of September 1963, the PAP was re-elected to office with 37 out of 51 seats, with the Barisan winning 13.
It is difficult for Singaporeans who did not live through the events to appreciate the passion of those times. This was a serious battle of ideas between two groups of people with diametrically opposed visions of our society. Singapore’s history would have been utterly different if Mr Lim and Mr Fong had prevailed. Fortunately, they did not, as several of those who took their path recognised later, after the dust had settled.
But it is important to realise that this was not a battle between good men and women on one side, and crooks and charlatans on the other. There were dedicated, disciplined, deeply courageous people on both sides. Indeed, Mr Lee and his colleagues liked and respected their opponents, admiring them for their simple lifestyles, selflessness and commitment. Mr Lee recalled in his obituary note on Mr Lim Chin Siong in February 1996 that his differences with Mr Lim were ideological and deep, but never personal. He would have said the same of Mr Fong.
Mr Fong and Mr Lee met for the last time in September 2009, in the chamber of the old Parliament House, where the PAP and Barisan Sosialis had crossed swords in those tumultuous years half a century earlier. The occasion was the book launch of “Men in White”, a history of the PAP. They shook hands warmly, and stood next to each other for a photograph.
As Mr Lee wrote, it was precisely because the PAP had such opponents, that he and his colleagues learnt “the meaning of dedication to a cause”:
“They were prepared to sacrifice everything for their cause, and many did. Some lost their lives in the jungle, many were banished to China. Because of the standards of dedication they set, we, the English-educated PAP leaders, had to set high standards of personal integrity and spartan lifestyles to withstand their political attacks. They were ruthless and thorough. We became as dedicated as they were in pursuing our political objectives.”
Please accept my sincere condolences.
Lee Hsien Loong