OPERATION COLDSTORE: Fake news for honourable purpose?

by Law Kim Hwee

In a more reflective interviews nearing 87 years old, late Lee Kuan Yew said in 2010:

In any case, it is not these reporters or the obituaries they may write that will offer the final verdict on his actions, he said, but future scholars who will study them in the context of their day.

‘I’m not saying that everything I did was right,’ he said, ‘but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.‘”


It’d be a dim person not to respect him, if for little else, than his unsentimental openness to subject himself to “future scholars who will study them in the context of their day” to ‘offer the final verdict of his actions’. Equally, it’s a disrespect for a minister to beat down anyone who’s verdict may not be to his liking, no?

In suggesting as he did, why did LKY volunteer a tacit admission that not everything he did was right but that everything he did was for an honourable purpose? And, interestingly, admitting that locking fellows up without trial is a ‘nasty’ thing, to destroy some lives without due democratic process. By the way, it is still legal to do so, today, in First World Singapore.

However, Lee’s openness to be subject to scholarly scrutiny came with the proviso, ‘in the context of their day’ and his own assertion that ‘everything was for an honourable purpose’. ‘Context’ is fair enough. But ‘honourable’? If Lee stuck untrue labels on some Operation Coldstore detainees and did not respect an individual right to due process, even if legal, how was he ‘honourable’? And how do we square a less-than honourable person with ‘honourable purpose’?

Now with regard to Operation Coldstore (2 Feb 1963), these were the relevant, openly known facts about and around Feb 1963 (context of their day).

It was a tumultuous time in Singapore. The broader world was simmering in the Cold War leading up to the Oct 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In our own backyard, the process to form the Federation of Malaysia sparked the Brunei Revolt (Dec 1962) and Indonesia’s announcing their policy of Konfrontasi (Jan 1963), commencing military raids into Malaysia’s territories.

Through all these events, the economy was shaky, to say the least. Into that mix, the 2 dominant political parties People’s Action Party (PAP) and Barisan Socialis were slugging it out for and against (respectively) Singapore’s merger with Malaya. PAP, though in government with originally 43 out of 51 seats from GE 1959 was, by July 1962, reduced to only 26 seats i.e. only 1-seat majority as a result of by-election defeats, defections and expulsions.

Under the momentum of losing nearly half their seats mid-term, there was a fighting chance that PAP, under LKY, will lose the GE 1963 in Sep to an equally, if not seen as more charismatic Lim Chin Siong-led Barisan Socialis.

With the above as context, of the 107 detained under Operation Coldstore, ‘many of the detainees were politicians mostly from Barisan Socialis‘. Barisan’s core leadership of Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, James Puthucheary, Dominic Puthucheary, Poh Soo Kai, and Lim Hock Siew were detained without trial.

Is it not conceivable and a convenient cover for LKY, an outstanding lawyer, to decimate his key opponent by doing the ‘nasty thing (of) locking fellows up without trial’?…albeit with legal cover under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, the predecessor of the Internal Security Act (ISA)?

Was it fake news for LKY to characterize the mass arrest as a pre-empt against a plot to subvert the elected government – but actually utilising that same act to also destroy one’s, political opponents? Even if there is some truth to the subversive plot, would utilising it as a cover to arrest the Barisan Socialis leaders who could not be successfully prosecuted in a court of law, not constitute misleading news – making LKY the protagonist a liar?

Regardless, his ‘honourable purpose’ did not take away the (possible) guilt of spreading fake or misleading news of Operation Coldstore’s overt governmental purpose to advance his covert political intent.

We will not know for certain LKY’s true motivation for Operation Coldstore. Not unless secret documents that the government possess in relation to the alleged threat posed by those detained by Operation Coldstore are revealed and cross-examined by academics and the public to set the record right.

Now, if LKY opened himself, his actions up, no less with a tacit admission of possible ‘not everything was right’ and was prepared for different offerings of verdict by scholars, why did Shan present us with only a binary choice; “Either they have to be accepted, or shown to be untrue. Keeping quiet about them was not an option.“? Why, indeed, when to any reasonable person, Prof Thum’s verdict –  is but one, and only one of many other different ones – that LKY of the PAP ‘was the biggest creator of fake news in Singapore, a liar, and Operation Coldstore was based on falsehoods’?

Was it because Thum’s verdict undercut PAP’s propagandised veneer of being ‘men in white’, purveyors and practitioners of non-fake news but unadulterated, pure truth every time, all the time? This is especially inconvenient if that verdict takes root or creates doubts amongst Singaporeans, coming as it does so very soon after the recent Budget 2018 trial balloon snafu. An episode that saw the PAP scrambling to a quiet corner licking its wounds. All thanks to Shan who initiated that self-inflicted wound on PAP. Was Shan trying to make up for his royal screw-up by bashing Thum?

Regardless, the bigger issue for us is, in the context of our day, whether the PAP is covertly, under the guise (or fake news?) of the need to control ‘fake news’, intent on practising and repeating what their party founding father, LKY, did i.e. using their own ‘fake news’ presumably to further what they consider to be ‘honourable purposes‘.

My fellow Singaporeans, are you ok with that? Is that what you want for your children – that only one party is able to spread their fake news for what they, a select few, consider to be ‘honourable purposes’ such as, perhaps, perpetuating their party’s total dominance and control of Singapore?