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:
- The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club And The Politics Of Postwar Malaya And Singapore
- Our Thoughts Are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile