Poh Soh Kai: “We must learn from history and not myths, history that is grounded in the events and realities of the time”

Former Barisan Sosialis assistant secretary-general and ISA detainee, Dr Poh Soo Kai issued a response to the claim by Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam that Operation Coldstore was mounted on grounds of “national security” at the hearing before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on 29 March 2018, challenging the assertion that he and his colleagues in the defunct political party posed a threat to national security.

Below is what Dr Poh said in a video interview published on Function 8’s Facebook page.

The Singapore Law Minister recently crossed swords with historian P J Thum in a six-hour long interrogation of the latter. The Law Minister justified Operation Coldstore on grounds of national security. In other words, that my colleagues and I in the Barisan Sosialis were a threat to national security. I want to challenge this assertion.


I am saddened that educated persons of the younger generation talk about historical events like Operation Coldstore without situating it in its particular historical context.

The historical period in which Operation Coldstore took place, was one where Singapore was still a British colony. The line we drew was the line taken at the 1955 Bandung Conference:

“Are you anti-colonial or are you pro-colonial?”

In this context what do they mean by “national security” when we are not yet a nation but a British colony.

Educated people would have read Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote, during his sedition trial in India, that “every Indian should be proud to be seditious.” This statement must be studied in the context of the Indian struggle for independence against the British Raj. We cannot transpose Nehru’s concept of sedition to the situation in post-colonial India.

Therefore, the issue is:

“At the time of Operation Coldstore, was Singapore independent or was it a British colony?”

If you accept that Singapore was not an independent nation then, in other words, that it was a colony controlled by Great Britain. So what do you mean by “national” in that context?


According to the report of the Commissioner of Police, there were 40 odd card holding communists during that period. Even if we assume that they were all active in the unions and social bodies, how great was their influence? That would depend on the policies adopted by the party. If the policies promote the people’s welfare and reflect their democratic aspirations, then they would be supported by the people. This is well illustrated in the Hong Lim by-election of April 1961.

A leadership struggle had ensued between Lee Kuan Yew and Ong Eng Guan resulting in the Hong Lim by election. A main point in Ong’s manifesto was the release of all political detainees still detained by Lee Kuan Yew after Lee had won the 1959 elections to be Prime Minister of Singapore. Lee had promised to release all political prisoners during his campaign. Once elected, he reneged on his promises and only released a handful. This was not acceptable to the Singapore electorate. Hence, Ong’s pledge to release these prisoners resonated with an electorate disappointed with Lee Kuan Yew.

However, Lee had secured a written letter of support from the Communist Party. This is a fact. Armed with this assurance, Lee Kuan Yew was of the opinion, that he would win the Hong Lim by-election without the assistance of the trade unionists. Thus, Lim Chin Siong and the left wing unionists were barred from addressing the People’s Action Party (PAP) rallies against Ong Eng Guan. But Lee Kuan Yew lost in the Hong Lim by election. Ong Eng Guan won by a convincing majority of 73.3%.

Where is the great Communist influence? Lee Kuan Yew realised that he had been duped by his own propaganda; that he had grossly over-estimated the strength of the Communists.

And so he realized that he had to quickly change the perception of the electorate and be seen as one ordering the release of all detainees. He had the audacity to propose to the British that he would publicly order the release of the detainees only to have his order countermanded by the British. To this deceitful scheme, the British declined to cooperate.


The reasons I say it is political and not security are:

(1) if it was security, it should be nipped in the bud. The Operation was scheduled to be held in December 1962. But it was postponed until February 1963 when the Brunei rebellion gave them the pretext to arrest. Lee Kuan Yew said this opportunity afforded by the Brunei rebellion is “heaven sent.” No security operation can wait for “heaven sent” opportunities.

(2) The Barisan Sosialis had given moral support to the Brunei rebellion as we always did for all anti-colonial movements around the world. The media claimed that we were sending military equipment to Brunei which is of course a fake news for we had no military hardware to send to anybody. Even the date for Operation Coldstore was chosen by Lee Kuan Yew to fall on the 15th night of the Chinese New Year (Chap Goh Mei) – the reason being that there would be less chances of protests by people busy with the lunar new year celebration.

(3) After Lee Kuan Yew left the Internal Security Council meeting in Kuala Lumpur on 2 February and upon arriving at Paya Lebar Airport, he denied responsibility for the Operation Coldstore arrests and said that he preferred an open confrontation with us to win the hearts and minds of the people. The London Economist taunted him by quoting Lady MacBeth, “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” Lee Kuan Yew was trying to evade responsibility for the arrest. In doing so, he let the cat out of the bag. The operation could not have been for security reason.

(4) However, for Lee Kuan Yew, Operation Coldstore must not be seen for what it is – an operation to lock up his political opponents in Singapore. Hence he tried to mask Operation Coldstore as a Pan Malayan operation against the left in Peninsula Malaya as well, not just in Singapore. Towards this masquerade, he insisted:

(1) that Internal Security Council meetings (made up of the British, Peninsula Malaya and Singapore) should be held in Kuala Lumpur and he obtained consent on that;

(2) he persuaded Dr Ismail, the Malayan representative to the Internal Security Council, to include Ahmad Boestamam, Lim Kean Siew and other Malayan left- wing persons in the list of persons to be arrested in Operation Coldstore.

But the Tunku would have none of this. He would not arrest Ahmad Boestamam and Lim Kean Siew, who were both Members of Parliament just to please Lee Kuan Yew when no justification for such presented itself. Due to this disagreement between the Tunku and Lee Kuan Yew, Operation Coldstore which was scheduled for December 1962 had to be aborted. So much for the pretext of security grounds.

We must learn from history and not myths, history that is grounded in the events and realities of the time. And that is fundamental according to President Sukarno of Indonesia. Otherwise as pointed out by Sukarno:
“If you do not know your history you would be like monyets (monkeys) amok and running in the dark”.