Operation Coldstore remains the most contentious event in the history of post colonial Singapore. Despite attempts by the state to silence ex-detainees, by warning that they would not be permitted to rewrite the state’s official version of history, the authors in this volume have done just that. They have placed on record their own perspective of events. The autobiographical element in the narratives brings to life what these individuals went through as left-wing political actors who responded to the call of anti colonialism and the challenge of shaping a new society. Their accounts of life in prison are a sober reminder of the deprivations and tortures inflicted to break their spirit. These stirring accounts are supplemented by academic contributions that provide contextual depth to the historical events and a critique of history writing in Singapore. In remembering Operation Coldstore, the book affirms the personal price that the most resolute leaders of their generation have paid, in order that readers will be able to better understand the nature of the state power that runs through Singapore society.
By Koh Kay Yew
In principle, one is not obliged to dignify with a response any article published by an author who found it necessary to cloak his/her identity over his/her participation in the democratic process in 21st century Singapore.
In the interests of nearly 3000 ex-political detainees (multiplied ten times if we included their families) who suffered deprivation through loss of their freedom and livelihoods, I will focus only on the official justification for their arrests without trial, in the historical context of the so called “Malayan Emergency” and Cold War era, and not be distracted by the ideological red herrings raised.
In the event ‘Singaporean Citizen’ does reveal his/her identity, I will engage him/her in an online debate over Western political democracy, the nature of Imperialism, and the character of the Chinese State and her world view.
A brief synopsis of historical facts and events follows:
- After the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II the British returned to find a very different Malaya where the white man’s superiority was forever shattered. The CPM was at the height of its popularity having successfully led the only effective anti-Japanese resistance. It was a legal and open political organization in the three years from 1945 to 8.
- In Dec 1946 a Working Committee established by the British with participation only from UMNO members proposed a Federated State of Malaya but excluded Singapore. In response a multi-racial national coalition called AMCJA (ALL Malaya Council of Joint Action) led by Singapore based Malayan Democratic Union joined hands with PUTERA (led by Malay Nationalist Party) to submit a People’s Constitution with ten principles. After being ignored by the British, AMCJA-PUTERA organized a successful nationwide hartal (inspired by Gandhian principles of nonviolent anti-colonial struggle) supported even by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. It was an unprecedented challenge to British colonial rule.
- In response to the rising tide of anti-colonial struggle involving all races and classes the British used its time honoured divide and rule racial tactics that favored the Malay feudal class but targeted the Malay progressives led by the MNP, API, Wataniah, and related organisations.
- The CPM found itself increasingly harassed and restricted with leading officials especially in the powerful trade unions arrested. The difficulties of livelihood faced by the working population in the post war aftermath found itself articulated through growing labour militancy and unrest. Research by scholar Michael Stenson showed the primary cause of most industrial action was economic, not political.
- In June 1948 after the killings of three British planters by CPM members, the British declared a ‘State of Emergency’ which lasted twelve long years. According to Chin Peng, the killings were local initiatives and not directed by the Party leadership. The British took advantage of the Emergency to ban not only the CPM and its related organisations but also targeted the radical Malay nationalist organisations deemed as the greater threat.
- Research by leading scholars like Ruth Mcvey did not find any evidence of a central directive from Comintern to its Asian member parties to embark on armed revolution as allegedly made at the Calcutta Conference in 1947.
- Guerrilla warfare never extended to Singapore. As the largest city in Malaya it emerged as the new centre for anti-colonial constitutional struggle in the 1950s given the restrictions on the Peninsula. In 1954 the May 13 incident involving brutal police suppression of Chinese Middle School students protesting against national conscription sparked an anti-colonial tide that overlapped with the Fajar sedition trial and merged into a rising crescendo with the rapidly expanding Middle Road trade unions that successfully negotiated substantial gains for labour. They culminated in the formation of the PAP, Singapore’s first mass based political party.
- In 1960 the whole of Malaya was declared a “white’ area in terms of being cleared off any armed guerrillas of the CPM, who have retreated to the Thai border. Notwithstanding the change in the security situation the newly independent government of Malaya enacted the ISA, which provided for imprisonment without trial. Though Singapore was caught in the backwash of the ‘Malayan Emergency’, urban guerrilla war never erupted on the island unlike in other theatres of the Cold War.
- Separate legislation existed in both Malaya and Singapore that provided the death sentence to anyone caught with illegal weapons. They were summarily dealt with by the State without the costs and efforts of imprisonment. The ISA was the unconstitutional tool used by the State on both sides of the Causeway to counter the constitutional struggle of the nationalist Left, as it suspended due process where the State would be obliged to produce evidence of the security threat posed by those they detained. A review of the charges listed in multiple ‘Detention Orders’ issued have confirmed their lack of substance on security grounds.
- The majority of political arrests were carried out in the stealth of night, free from public gaze, and often by hordes of heavily armed police. The loud knocks on the door in the early hours of the morning were shocking intrusions into the peace and privacy of countless detainees and their families and neighbours. They were designed to instill fear of the State.
- In Singapore the price of freedom for political detainees was their public recantation of beliefs once held dearly but included the denunciation of violence and of the CPM. The former was designed to discredit them politically and the latter was coerced without evidence. None of the detainees were ever charged with having engaged in acts of violence.
- In 1955/6 when riots erupted amidst the Hock Lee Bus strike, a recurrent reference point used by the PAP leadership to justify the ISA, a review of the British colonial archives failed to produce any charges of CPM complicity. On the contrary three Hock Lee Bus unionists who played key roles, though arrested after the riots were released several months later by the British. All three subsequently became officials in Ong Eng Guan’s new party, United Peoples’ Party, formed after his split with the PAP. Some may recalled that the UPP fielded 43 candidates in the 51 constituencies in the critical 1963 General Elections, and helped split the anti-PAP vote.
- Dr Poh Soo Kai’s ten years long research into the British colonial archives at Kew Gardens in England revealed extensive evidence that contradicted the State’s propaganda claims. Among them was British High Commissioner, Lord Selkirk’s conclusion that “even if Lim Chin Siong is a Communist, there is no evidence that he is acting under instructions from the CPM leadership”. According to Deputy High Commissioner, Philip Moore, Operation Cold Store was conducted for political reason and hence had to await an opportune moment. If it was merited on security grounds, it would have occurred earlier. (Read “The Fajar Generation’s chapter on ‘Detention in Operation Cold Store’).
- The role and influence of the CPM underground was grossly inflated by the State to justify repressive actions against their anti-colonial opponents, who held a diversity of views left of centre but united in their opposition to colonial rule. Though PM Lee Kuan Yew once claimed that the CPM had 300 members in Singapore, collective oral history estimated the number to be less than 100. Dr Goh Keng Swee in a speech to University of Singapore students in 1964 stated that the Barisan’s Chinese language organ had 40,000 subscribers. Based on a common rule of thumb of 5 readers for every subscribed copy, the mass base was as large as 200,000 people. Can so few decide on behalf of so many?
- At the Hong Lim by-elections in 1961 the PAP candidate lost to Ong Eng Guan notwithstanding the written assurance of support given to Lee Kuan Yew by Fong Chuang Pik on behalf of the CPM. The ground shift gave clear evidence of the loss of popular support for the PAP and necessitated intervention by the British to save their colonial proxies from certain defeat in the coming General Elections through the mass arrest of the Left.
- The Brunei revolt in 1962 where research by scholars like Greg Poulgrain has established British complicity provided a prime opportunity that was seized to justify the mass arrests in Feb 1963 code named Operation Cold Store on spurious charges that the Barisan Sosialis was contemplating to send arms to Azahari’s rebels.
- Even with the Left leadership behind bars the PAP leadership’s insecurity of losing the 1963 General Elections necessitated a) new legislation that denied political detainees from standing as electoral candidates b) compression of election campaign period to only nine days from earlier month long affairs while the Prime Minister embarked on his 51 constituency tour well ahead of his opposition.
- Besides the decimation of the Left opposition in Cold Store, the PAP leadership also sought to destroy the strong independent Left trade unions that had negotiated substantial wages and benefits improvements for their members, in order to ensure a servile and ‘controlled’ labour force for the benefit of foreign capital investment under the Pioneer Industries’ scheme.
- In the Feb 1977 mass arrests where I was detained with various lawyers like G. Raman and Tan Jing Quee under an alleged “Euro Communist’ plot, and over two dozen or more other professionals and journalists like Arun Senkuttuvan and Ho Kwon Ping for a two to three months period, many of us did not even know each other. During our short sojourn in Whitley Detention Centre, we discovered groups of Chinese school students that were arrested and detained without any fanfare or official press statements. The new State security strategy of pre-emptive strike was designed to temporarily incarcerate potential political dissidents and social activists in order to neutralize them BEFORE they became real threats. The abuse of the ISA to imprison citizens (especially students and workers) at will and without official explanations bordered on State terrorism.
- Operation Spectrum in 1987 accused the 22 religious and social activists detained of involvement in an alleged ‘Marxist conspiracy’ and stretched the public imagination to breaking point. Unlike others arrested earlier few if any of the 22 men and women detained had any prior Left association.
Malaysia has now abolished the ISA but Singapore retained it as part of its national security arsenal to meet any threats. In the words of Fidel Castro “History will absolve us.”
Mr Koh Kay Yew was an ex-political detainee arrested in 1977 under the ISA. He, together with other former ISA detainees, have called for the abolishment of the ISA, which allows indefinite detention without trial. He wrote [Link], “Though armed conflict never engulfed post war Singapore, it is estimated that a few thousand men and women of various backgrounds were incarcerated without due process by the State from the early fifties to the late eighties as part of its pacification program to keep its residents and citizens at bay. Many personal lives were destroyed besides the anguish, mental and physical, suffered by their loved ones. This human tragedy represents the lesser known social costs of Singapore’s ‘modernisation’ and is only now beginning to be told. As we approach the second half century of Statehood, it is timely to call for the abolition of the ISA and its consignment to the rubbish heap of History.”
He is also an editor for the following books:
Over the Easter weekend, friends and I visited former political prisoner, Pak Said Zahari and his family in Kuala Selangor. He has not been well, having suffered another stroke in recent months. Taking good care of him is his elder daughter, Rismawati.
Said Zahari, now 85, was imprisoned for 17 long years without trial when the governments of Singapore, Malaya and Great Britain mounted Operation Cold Store on 2 Feb 1963. It was not a security operation as the governments claim. Released archival documents from Kew Gardens have confirmed that the government of Singapore was hoping to obtain from Said Zahari information which he did not possess.
Said Zahari was the sole breadwinner of his family before his arrest. His incarceration left his wife Salamah to raise four young children for the next 17 years. His eldest child, Roesman was only seven and Rismawati, his elder daughter was six. Norman, his third child was four and was adopted by Salamah’s elder sister. His wife was six months’ pregnant with their fourth child, Noorlinda.
More than 120 people were arrested at the dawn of 2 Feb 1963. Till today, no one can confirm how many were actually arrested. A few hours before his arrest, Said Zahari was elected president of Partai Rakyat. Prior to that election, he was the editor of Utusan Melayu, an independent Malay newspaper. He had led a 93 day strike for editorial independence in Malaya in 1961 when the Malayan government wanted to control the paper.
Said Zahari was not and is not a communist. Why he was imprisoned for such a long time, Said Zahari said was a question that only Lee Kuan Yew can answer. When asked if he anticipated being imprisoned for 17 years, he said he never expected that. He thought it was going to be for one or two years or two or three years.
During those long years of imprisonment, Said Zahari was shifted from prison to prison. He was subjected to solitary confinement in tiny, hot, dark, dirty and bug infested cells in Central Police Station (now demolished). He was confined for months in those cells when prison rules forbade such practice. During those years, he lived through emotional hardships. His wife, Salamah gave birth to their youngest child, Noorlinda without him by her side. Five years into his imprisonment, his wife underwent a breast cancer operation. Again he was not by her side. The family had no financial resources. Salamah worked at a food stall with the help of her young children. Friends helped them. Said Zahari’s memoir, Dark Clouds at Dawn records his ordeals.
As editor of Utusan Melayu before his arrest, Said Zahari led a reasonably comfortable life. He drove a Peugeot 403. Though his life and that of his young family was completely ruined by his long imprisonment, he held on to his beliefs and ideals. The government wanted him to give an undertaking that he would give up arms. He refused because he was never armed.
We had the opportunity to speak to Said Zahari’s elder daughter, Rismawati. She was only six when he was cruelly taken away by armed gurkhas and security officers. Two police cars and a military jeep were involved. Such was the drama played out by those in power to terrify the population.
In narrating life without her father, Rismawati who is now 55, broke down several times. “Life was really tough for us when my father was taken away. My mother had to work at a foodstall. We would help her over the weekends when we were not at school.”
Every week, Salamah and her children would visit Pak Said. A glass panel separated the detainee from his family. Rismawati was too young to understand what had happened to her father. All she knew was that her father was jailed because he was “doing something good”. When she was older, she understood that he was jailed because of politics. She was proud of her father.
What was the impact of her father’s 17 years imprisonment on her? Rismawati said she was as strong as her mother. She took care of her four children and her father when both her mother and husband passed away in December and July ten years ago.
Seventeen years in prison without trial is a long time. Many of the men responsible for Said Zahari’s ordeals are dead. Will there ever be a “Confessions of Saint Augustine?”
By Teo Soh Lung
Below is an extract from Said Zahari’s Dark Clouds at Dawn, A Political Memoir shedding some light as to why ISA prisoners were incarcerated without trial for decades. No weapons or bomb making instruments were found when Operation Cold Store was mounted on 2 Feb 1963. More than 120 people were arrested and imprisoned without trial for decades. Said Zahari was imprisoned for 17 years.
“A letter from Lord Goodman
One morning in August 1978, I had a surprise visitor at the MCC [Moon Crescent Centre]. A senior officer from the Internal Security Department (ISD) turned up in the interview room, where I was made to wait for about half an hour after being taken out from my cell in “Block 6”. I soon found out that the ISD officer did not come to interview or interrogate me, but only to hand over a letter addressed to me from Lord Goodman C.H., Master, University College, Oxford, United Kingdom.
Clipped to Lord Goodman’s letter was a two-line note, typed on Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s letterhead, from the Prime Minister’s Office, Istana Annexe, Singapore, dated 5 August 1978. Signed by Lim Siong Guan, Principal Private Secretary to the PM, the note said: “Mr. Said Zahari, Lord Goodman requested that his letter herewith enclosed be passed on to you.”
Of course, I never knew Lord Goodman personally, but was nevertheless grateful for his kindness for having written a letter to me. At the same time, I was curious to note that the letter was not sent to me directly at my address at the MCC but through the Prime Minister’s office instead.
Lord Goodman thus explained: “At the request of International P.E.N., I entered into correspondence with the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew; in connection with your continued imprisonment in Singapore. I have received from the Prime Minister a letter which makes it clear that, so far as he is concerned, your detention is maintained only because you have – it is asserted – refused to renounce violence as a political instrument.”
If that was the case, continued Lord Goodman’s letter, it was not of course for him to ask me to give any assurances or undertakings that would run counter to my principles, “but might I – as an older man – urge you to consider whether this is a sensible principle to maintain. You have already suffered a most terrible experience during the long period of your incarceration. You have indicated to the world a willingness to suffer for the things you believe in. I do therefore invite you now to take advantage of the offer that has been made by the Prime Minister to release you, provided you agree to forgo violence as a method of attaining any ends, political or otherwise.”
From the contents of the letter, it was obvious to me that Lord Goodman was unaware of the true situation of my detention, which had entered its sixteenth year at the time he wrote his letter to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and later to me. I had not the slightest doubts as to Lord Goodman’s good intentions and sincerity in wanting to help me solve my problem with the Singapore authorities by advising me to “take advantage of the offer that has been made by the Prime Minister.” Hence, I believed he would have agreed with my stand on the “offer” had he been given the true picture with regards to my arrest and detention since February 2, 1963 by Lee Kuan Yew’s regime.
First of all, I had never been accused of advocating violence as a political instrument, nor had I ever have planned to use violence for political ends. In the allegations of “facts” against me, which ostensibly was the pretext for my detention, no one had referred to violence as political means. In all the years of my incarceration, renouncing “violence as a political instrument” had never been a condition for my release.
Why then did Lee Kuan Yew wait until 1978 to say that I had “refused to renounce violence” as a political instrument? The good Lord Goodman may be excused if he felt unable or reluctant to answer this question, but Lee Kuan Yew would never ever, sincerely and honestly, give the answer because it would only expose his real political agenda for cruelly detaining me and many others like me. …”
By Teo Soh Lung
I thank Catherine Lim for putting forth three proposals to the government to bridge the “emotional estrangement between the government and the people.” She suggested the government considers the return of exiles to Singapore without conditions, the setting up of a commission of inquiry with regard to those arrested under the ISA and the repeal of the ISA and other laws which we inherited from our colonial masters as a way forward for the PAP.
Catherine Lim is probably the first political commentator and author to publicly put forth such brave proposals. As a former political detainee, I am grateful that she has written not once but twice on the subject. Please read http://catherinelim.sg/2013/03/11/the-pap-in-critical-transition-regaining-lost-trust/ and http://catherinelim.sg/2013/03/16/the-pap-and-the-people-bread-and-butter-concerns-and-much-more/#comments
The ISA has mainly been brushed aside as an unimportant and irrelevant topic that does not merit any serious discussion. I have time and again been assured by friends and acquaintances that arrests under this law will not happen today because the government does not have the gumption to carry out another mass arrests. I am assured that the internet is our protector and the authority’s inability to hide what it does today will never allow the government to carry out massive operations as it had done in the past. When reminded that there are today about 16 people imprisoned without trial at the Whitley Road Centre, they make a distinction between former political detainees and them. “They are terrorists, different from the detainees of 1987.”
Yes, the 16 have been labelled “terrorists” and members and sympathisers of “Al Qaeda” by the government. But what is the difference between them and the 1987 detainees? Those detained in 1987 were labelled “Marxists” involved in a “Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state.” I recall that when I was first given the “charge sheet”, I was completely at a loss as to what all those allegations meant. The government can label anything on detainees and those labels stick and stink. Political detainees of the 50s, 60s and 70s were labelled “communists” who used violence to achieve their goals. Those arrested in 1977 were labelled “Euro-communists”.
Soon after the bombing of the Twin Towers in September 2001, Singaporeans were arrested and accused of having connections with those responsible for the destruction. They were labelled “terrorists” and “members, supporters and sympathisers of Al Qaeda or some fundamentalist groups”. Between 2001 and now, more than 80 citizens were arrested. About 16 are still in prison today and several of them have been in prison for more than ten years. We know nothing about them, except the brief escape and re-arrest of Mas Selamat. None of those arrested and released have spoken. Their families and friends have also not said a word and we remain in the dark as to what they had done or were supposed to have done. Like citizens arrested under the ISA in past decades, the labels have stuck and even those who have accepted the 1987 Marxist conspirators as normal law abiding people are still not able to accept the detainees of this century. It is the case too of detainees of the 50s, 60s and 70s who until the beginning of this century, have been silent. Fortunately, historians today are searching archival materials from Kew Gardens and recording the voices of the few still alive. They are taking a new look at the history presented by the government and those historians indifferent of their duty to write true history. History will no doubt be re-written in the foreseeable future.
Thousands have been arrested under the ISA and its forerunners, the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance and the Emergency Regulations. The original intention of the British in enacting the Emergency Regulations in 1948 was among other things, to silence the call for independence in Malaya and Singapore. The British were too embarrassed to admit defeat in World War II. They abandoned both Malaya and Singapore in a matter of days. How could they face the people with such a deplorable defeat? Thus when the colonised called for independence, the easiest way to stop the tide was to enact laws which allowed them to put away the leaders in jail without trial.
History tells us that when the PAP took power in 1959, it conveniently retained and used all those oppressive laws enacted by the British. Lee Kuan Yew knew its effectiveness because he was the legal adviser to trade unions and many of those arrested by the British. But unlike the colonial masters, the PAP’s record of oppression of the people is much worse. While the British imprisoned people for a maximum of two or three years, the PAP’s record is ten-fold worse. We know that Dr Chia Thye Poh was imprisoned for 32 years and Dr Lim Hock Siew for 20 years. And there were many others who were imprisoned for decades. The treatment meted out to the detainees was also much worse. While the British kept the prisoners on St John’s island and government bangalows in Changi, the PAP kept them in horrendous small, hot, dark and bug-filled cells at Central Police Station, Outram Road Prison, Queenstown Prison, Changi Prison and Whitley Road Centre.
Why then do we brush aside the discussion on the ISA when victims of this unjust law run into the thousands and when torture by the captors was the hallmark of the PAP? Will forgetting our past help us to deal with bread and butter issues better?
I have been thinking about this subject for a long time. When I participated in the last general election, many people advised me not to speak about the ISA because it is not an election issue. I was advised to speak on bread and butter issues. Except for former ISA detainees who were strongly of the view that the ISA is an important election issue, no one was interested in the subject.
Reading the comments following Catherine Lim’s articles, this view on the ISA has not changed. Andy, one of those who commented on her article had this to say:
“Let’s not forget that PAP still gets 60% of the votes in GE 2011. Why would it jolt itself out of this comfortable margin and embrace some of these intellectual’s ideals such as abolition of ISA, COI, etc? No – the real issue behind the loss of trust is bread and butter issues, where PAP is viewed as elitist and uncaring.”
Is the abolition of the ISA “an intellectual’s ideal” as Andy and many others assert?
The ISA is not a fiction. It is not a law that has been discarded into the bin of history. It is hardly discussed but it is actively used by the government as evidenced by the 16 still wasting their lives in jail without trial.
Catherine Lim rightly pointed out that the abolition of the ISA and all oppressive colonial laws will remove “once and for all, the climate of fear.” Once this climate of fear which we have internalised for more than six decades (counting the time of the British), Singaporeans will be a free and creative people. Imagine if we remove the climate of fear totally by the abolition of all oppressive laws, the practice of big law firms issuing letters of demand for apologies and hefty damages will be a thing of the past. The ISD officers will never have the opportunity of knocking on our doors in the wee hours of the morning, ransacking our possessions and taking away our personal freedom. Imagine that we will no longer be afraid of being put away in prison without open trials. Imagine that organisers of events at Hong Lim Park will never fear being questioned by the police or arrested for encouraging people to gather and speak up against the 6.9 million white paper. Imagine that Singaporeans will be free to call upon the government to conduct referendums on important matters that affect our lives. Imagine if by speaking up without fear, we are able to change government policies? Imagine that we will never worry about our phones being tapped by the secret police.
Can we say that if the ISA is abolished, we are just being idealistic? Far from it. We will be free to discuss bread and butter issues without fear and civil society will thrive without fear. Singapore will be the most liberal country in South-east Asia where ideas will flourish and we will not need the PAP to implement haphazard short term solutions to the massive problems that it had created for us over decades of its rule.