Eu Chooi Yip: Singapore’s unknown communist leader

The name “Eu Chooi Yip” (or ECY) might be familiar to readers of biographies of Singapore’s first generation of leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew, S. Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee or of communist leaders like Chin Peng and Fong Chong Pik. Eu Chooi Yip (1918-1995) is best remembered for being an economics student at Raffles College, the Secretary of the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), Singapore’s first political party after the Second World War, and the leader of Singapore’s underground communist movement in the 1950s. However, these details are sketchy for a man who played an important part in Malayan politics and communism. He had been driven underground after becoming a communist, making it difficult for scholars to piece together a complete account of his life. Then again, maybe because the workings of history are such that more attention is paid to the ‘victors’, men like Eu, who did not emerge victorious from the political struggle or make it a point to publish his own memoirs, are left unstudied.

My interest in this character began when I was thinking about the different political paths taken by the English-educated and Chinese-educated intelligentsia in Singapore and Malaya.  Closer examination of these characters in the post-war milieu threw out exceptions which went against the historical grain – there were Chinese-educated intellectuals who joined the PAP and stayed on;[1] so also were there English-educated communists.[2] Interested in the latter group, I was led to Eu Chooi Yip, who had in 1991, upon renouncing communism and returning to Singapore, been interviewed by the Oral History Department of the National Archives of Singapore. In 2006, this oral history transcript was then published by C.C. Chin, who provided an introduction and included an article by Eu’s wife on their lives together after Eu accepted communism.[3] The English-language and vernacular press were another valuable source of information – besides reflecting Eu’s academic excellence (e.g. receiving a scholarship to study at Raffles College, graduating with a second-class diploma in Economics), they also contained letters he wrote to the press as Secretary of the Malayan Democratic Union, and news about the hunt for him when he became one of Singapore’s most wanted men. Finally, there were historical accounts and other primary sources relating to the organizations or activities which he had been involved in which would allow a sketch of Eu’s life.

I began studying the period in which there were the most sources – when Eu Chooi Yip was Secretary of the Malayan Democratic Union. Entitled “The Making of a Communist Leader: The Malayan Democratic Union’s impact on Eu Chooi Yip’s Political Development”, my paper focused on Eu’s involvement in the MDU from 1946 to 1948. As Secretary, he was a key spokesman who represented the MDU in its anti-colonial battle against British imperialism. The result of that brief stint with the MDU was that he developed and sealed his burgeoning reputation as an intellectual, writer and political agitator, all of which contributed to his eventual political career as a member of the Communist Party of Malaya. While at the MDU, Eu gained exposure to Marxist doctrines and built bonds with other intellectuals sympathetic to leftist ideologies. Months after the MDU self-dissolved, he found himself increasingly part of a group of English-educated radicals who had gravitated towards communism because they believed that it was the most viable avenue of opposing colonialism, having tried other ways and failed. His will to fight colonialism was strengthened and his identity as a Malayan shaped during his time at the MDU. One can also identify continuities from his MDU days with his later activities, for example, just as he was in charge of editing the Malayan Democratic Union Bulletin, so also was he later to become the editor of the Chinese-language samizdat newspaper Freedom News.

My paper on Eu and the MDU is only a small part of a larger project I hope to undertake in the near future – a biography of Eu. There is much more to be uncovered about the man – his family background; schooling days including those at Raffles College ; early days working as Labour Inspector in the colonial government; joining the underground communist movement by forming the English Section of the Anti-British League; role as editor of Freedom News; escape to Indonesia from 1953 to 1965; arrest in 1966 following the crackdown on the Partai Komunis Indonesia which he was associated with; subsequent move to China where he was involved in operating a propaganda radio station called Voice of Malayan Revolution broadcasting communist messages to listeners in Malaysia and Singapore; later disillusionment with communism and his eventual return to Singapore with the help of his old schoolmate Goh Keng Swee in 1991. Such an eventful life must not be forgotten by historians. Uncovering the story of a man like Eu will not only give insight into the history of post-war communism in Southeast Asia, but more importantly, show that there exist valuable stories to be told from the perspectives of those who in retrospect might have been deemed by many to have taken the ‘wrong’ path – although at that time ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ might not necessarily have been judged by their results, but by noble convictions and ideals.

Christine Chan is an undergraduate in History at the National University of Singapore

 


[1] See Jianli Huang and Siew Min Sai, “The ‘Chinese-educated’ Political Vanguard: Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy and Jek Yeun Thong” in Lee’s Lieutenants: Singapore’s Old Guard, ed. Lam Peng Er and Kevin YL Tan (St Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 1999), pp. 132-168.

[2] See Kim Wah Yeo, “Joining the Communist Underground: The Conversion of English-educated radicals to Communism in Singapore, June 1948 – January 1951” in Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 67, 1 (June 1994), pp. 29-59.

[3] C. C. Chin, ed., Langjian Zhumeng: Yuzhuye koushu lishi dangan (A Pioneer Leader’s Dream: Oral History Recordings of Eu Chooi Yip) (Petaling Jaya, Selangor: Celue zixun yanjiu zhongxin, 2006).

 

About Christine Chan, Guest Contributor