Oxford historians saga and Operation Coldstore

by Teo Soh Lung

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has historically been fond of seeing conspiracies in every word or phrase it dislikes. Its latest allegation that Oxford University historians have conspired to “subvert [our] parliamentary process” is not as exaggerated as what it has claimed against some Singaporeans. (Straits Times 1 May 2018). Singaporeans have been accused of conspiring to overthrow the government using violent means.

The Oxford University historians have naturally responded to the unfounded allegation.

In the past, many Singaporeans have been called “communists, euro-communists, communist sympathisers, Marxists and all manner of Leftists”. They have been accused of conspiring to bring down the entire PAP government using violent means. Such unfounded allegations have resulted in mass arrests under the Internal Security Act and its predecessor, the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance. Thousands have been arrested and detained without trial under these laws.

It is common for Singaporeans hear, read and see on State media what the PAP government alleges against those it dislikes and cannot tolerate. The government somehow gets away until now when the history as told by the PAP is questioned by a Singaporean historian educated in Oxford University. Ironically, it was the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods that brought out the debate of Operation Coldstore which took place some 55 years ago and which most Singaporeans would not have known. The victims of Operation Coldstore have much to thank the Committee and Dr Thum Ping Tjin.

Dr Thum’s claim that Operation Coldstore was mounted for political and not security reason is not new. Why didn’t the government challenge this claim earlier?

Historian T N Harper in an essay in Comet in Our Sky and titled “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story’ published by INSAN in 2001 had already explored the murkiness of Operation Coldstore. I quote a few paragraphs from the essay. At page 39 Harper wrote:

“…Throughout the eighteen months that followed the PAP split, within the ISC and in the political negotiations that surrounded Malaysia, Selkirk and Moore saw the issue as ominous for the future conduct of internal security within Malaysia: they noted, on repeated occasions, the willingness of politicians on both sides of the Causeway to see their opponents arrested. Of the Tunku’s and Lee’s respective bids for 25 and 250 arrests in July 1962, Selkirk warned the Minister, Duncan Sandys: ‘in fact I believe that both of them wish to arrest the effective political opposition and blame us for doing so.’ In October 1962, he went further. Lee, he wrote:

Is probably very much attracted to the idea of destroying his political opponents. It should be remembered that there is behind all this a very personal aspect … he claims he wishes to put back in detention the very people who were released at his insistence – people who are intimate acquaintances, who have served in his government, and with whom there is a strong sense of political rivalry which transcends ideological differences.”

The opportunity to arrest political opponents came. At page 41:

“In late 1962, an opportunity arose for the bargain to be concluded. The Brunei revolt, and the earlier meeting between Lim Chin Siong and others with Azahari, provided an immediate security panic which was, in Lee Kuan Yew’s words, a ‘heaven sent opportunity’ to justify the arrests….”

We all know, the planned swoop of 12 December 1962 did not take place because Lee’s insistence on arresting two members of the Federal Legislature, Ahmad Boestamam and Lim Kean Siew were rejected by the Tunku.

Can a security operation be postponed over a disagreement on who to arrest? Dr Poh Soo Kai had questioned this postponement and concluded that the postponement of Operation Coldstore to 2 Feb 1963 clearly proved that the operation was political as a security operation cannot be delayed.

According to Harper, Lee Kuan Yew had intended to arrest 250 people. In Operation Coldstore, more than 133 were arrested. That however was not the end. There were 46 known arrests within 1963 itself. That makes a total of at least 179.

One important point which we often omit to question is the PAP’s serious allegation that those arrested used or attempt to use “violent means to overthrow the government”.

If Operation Coldstore was a genuine security operation, surely some weapons would have been seized in the arrests and raids of houses and offices. Yet NOT A SINGLE WEAPON HAS BEEN SEIZED. HOW DOES ONE CARRY OUT A VIOLENT OVERTHROW OF THE PAP GOVERNMENT WITH BARE HANDS? CAN DR JANIL PUTHUCHEARY ASK HIS FATHER IF HE WAS IN POSSESSION OF ANY WEAPON?

Singaporeans have not been told the true story. It is time we question the official narrative and discover the truth ourselves.