– the 50th anniversary of Operation Cold Store, 2nd February 2013
by Chng Suan Tze
Cold store indeed. It took 50 years to break some of the silence. At last, some of the hundreds of people who were arbitrarily detained in the 1963 ISD arrests by the PAP government, code named Operation Cold Store, decided to speak up. And after 50 years of self-imposed silence, many came openly to support the event. Fifty years is a long time; time that is reflected in the lined faces and not too robust physique of these people, who, one may recall, were once young, energetic and full of ideals — in struggling for independence from colonial rule, in fighting against PAP repression and in seeking a better and more humane society.
So on an unusually sunny Saturday afternoon of 2nd February 2013, about 700 people, mostly in their 70s – 80s mingled in Hong Lim Park. Backs were patted, hands shook and faces, sometimes stern, broke into wrinkled laughter and all around there was a subdued camaraderie. Both former detainees and visitors to the event alike, scanned the big “bill board” on which was pasted, row after row, of names of people who were detained without trial since the 1950s. Copies of the book “We Remember” published to commemorate the occasion were quickly picked up.
A stage was set for speeches and testimonies from some of the former detainees. About 400 plastic chairs quickly filled up and those without chairs either sat on tarpaulins or stood around to hear what the ex-detainees have to say.
We heard, sometimes in Mandarin and sometimes in English, people like Chng Min Oh who was detained for 13 years for being involved in various struggles to improve the living conditions of workers.
We heard Lee Tee Tong, then Barisan MP elect for Bukit Timah and former trade unionist who was detained for almost 18 years, condemned the use of the ISA for bringing on the death of parliamentary democracy.
We heard Tan Kok Fang who then just graduated from the former Nanyang University, spoke of fellow university graduates Tai Yuan and Chia Thye Poh. Tai Yuan was imprisoned for eight years and then banished to Hong Kong. Chia Thye Poh was imprisoned for 32 years earning him the unsolicited and heartbreaking fame of being the world’s longest political detainee. They were fighting for ‘Merdeka’ (independence from colonial rule).
Michael Fernandez (detained twice and for a total of more than 9 years) spoke of many important and principled people incarcerated for many years without trial, under PAP rule: James Puthucheary, Said Zahari, Linda Chen, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Abdul Razak and Tan Jing Quee.
Dr Poh Soo kai, (one of the founding members of the University Socialist Club and later the Barisan Sosialis and detained twice and for a total of 17 years), paid homage to the hundreds of ‘brave young men and women who were cut down cruelly and undemocratically, in the prime of their lives by the mass arrests of 2nd February 1963 and in the relentless waves of detentions thereafter.” He told all to honour the families of all the detainees who went through years and decades of immense pain and suffering to provide unquestioning support for their incarcerated loved ones.
He called upon the ex-political detainees to heal their wounds, for as ‘survivors of 2.2’, their youthful idealism and their pursuit of a better humanity had not been in vain!
To the young among the audience he told them a little bit of history — that there was such a thing as a People’s Constitution meant to protect the peoples’ basic rights and which maintained that Singapore is an integral and inalienable part of Mainland Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia). He told them how in those days without the internet and when even the use of the telephone was a luxury, they were able to carry out a one day HARTAL – a one day peaceful and complete stoppage of economic activities –throughout the whole of Malaya and Singapore to protest against the British refusal to accept the People’s Constitution drafted by lawyer, John Eber and Willie Kuok of the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU). Imagine the bicycles peddling furiously from town to kampong to town, spreading the news. The HARTAL was convincing proof that all communities, especially the Malay community, supported the non-communal politics that was at the heart of the People’s Constitution.
Dr Poh spoke about the Fajar Sedition Trial and added that it was ironic that in those days they had legitimized Lee Kuan Yew. “But we cannot cry over the past,” he told the gathering. “Our aspirations to be decent human beings will never die; today we can repeat Hong Lim and Anson* again through the ballot box.”
The speeches closed with Teo Soh Lung (detained for more than two years under Operation Spectrum) thanking the survivors of Operation Cold Store for the part they played in liberating Singapore from the British colonial masters. She urged the government to 1) charge those currently imprisoned under the ISA in an open court; 2) to abolish the ISA; and 3) to let all exiles return home without conditions imposed on them. She hoped that one day all those who were detained under the ISA will receive a public apology from the government.
Today, in 2013, the quest for the abolition of the ISA persists and the fight for a better and more humane society continues.
(*He was referring to the Hong Lim and Anson by –elections of April and July 1961 in which the PAP was defeated – for failure to release political prisoners as it had promised prior to the 1959 election for self government.)