Singapore’s ‘Battle for Merger’ revisited

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The merger issue

2015 is the fiftieth anniversary of Singapore’s separation after almost two years of being part of the Federation of Malaysia (16 September 1963 – 9 August 1965). The event is marked as the day when the island gained independence. The British colonial rulers formally relinquished its residual power over Singapore’s defence, foreign affairs and internal security to the newly-formed Federation of Malaysia when merger came into effect. Reunification was the aspiration of its people as the island was severed in 1946 by the British after being part of the Straits Settlements for 120 years, save for the Japanese Occupation (1942-45).

However the merger scheme which Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP government concluded with the Federation of Malaya government’s Tunku Abdul Rahman was an outright failure. It is thus curious that for the official celebration of SG 50, the PAP government should choose to highlight the 12 radio broadcasts that Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister made between 13 September and 9 October 1961 which was published as The Battle for Merger (1962). The book was reprinted in 2014, with much official hype but no new insights. The deputy prime minister and concurrently coordinating minister for national security and minister for home affairs who launched the reprint, stressed the importance of the PAP’s push for the 1963 merger thus:

It was a time when momentous decisions had to be made for Singapore. A wrong decision then would have been calamitous and Singapore might still be trying to shake off the dire effects today.

[Ministry of Home Affairs, Speech by Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs, at the launch of the reprint of “The Battle for Merger”.]

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The 1963 merger was a wrong decision. The disastrous outcome was foreseen by the opposition Barisan Sosialis.  We wanted reunification with Malaya, but NOT on the terms that Lee obtained. Those simply could not work. They did not address the fundamental ethnic issue which was handled differently in Malaya and Singapore. The Alliance, the ruling party which dominated Malaysian politics, was an alliance of ethnic-based political parties. It had control of Singapore’s internal security through the internal Security Act (ISA) which provided for detention without trial. The PAP had accepted that Singapore would have fewer seats than its population size warranted, weakening its representation in the Federal government.

Lee insisted that we ‘opposed merger’ fearing that we would be arrested and detained without trial by the Tunku as Malaysia’s prime minister. We countered with the declaration that Barisan leaders were willing to be arrested and imprisoned before merger took place. Contrary to the PAP’s proposals, we insisted that the people of Singapore should have the same rights and responsibilities as any other Malaysian citizen. The ‘autonomy’ in labour and education for Singapore which the PAP obtained was meaningless if the ISA was not abolished.

After Malaysia was formed on these faulty terms, the PAP found itself in the margins of Federal politics when the Tunku rejected its attempts to replace the MCA as his Chinese coalition partner.  The PAP then, in a volte-face, resorted to so-called championing of equal political rights for the Chinese.  Ethnic tensions were stoked in response by UMNO extremists championing Malay rights. Riots broke out in Singapore in 1964, and Separation came to be seen as the only way to avoid further outbreaks of ethnic-based violence.

The merger of Singapore into the larger Federation of Malaya with an entrenched rightwing government was introduced by the British, and rushed through to save Lee Kuan Yew’s political skin. The British were not prepared to give Singapore independence outside of merger with the Federation, fearing that its military bases on the island would be jeopardised if our genuine leftwing party won the 1963 election. Lee was keen on such a merger, expecting that the Tunku would act against the leftwing of his party. There was no vision of democracy or equality for the new society that was enunciated.

Lee had made clear to the British that should there be no role for him, he would not go into Malaysia. As prime minister since 1959, he threw everything he had to push for merger and to discredit his opposition as communists. Based on this charge, the PAP expelled its leftwing members, who then formed the Barisan Sosialis party led by Lim Chin Siong. The Internal Security Council, comprising of the Singapore, British and Federation of Malay governments, duly carried out Operation Coldstore on 2 February 1963 and subsequent weeks, with a total of 133 arrested.

Building up a reading list

Among those imprisoned in 1963, were individuals who refused to sign statements ‘renouncing’ or condemning communism – the only way to gain release. Dr Lim Hock Siew, imprisoned for almost twenty years, refused to sign a statement renouncing violence in 1975. He retorted that it was like asking him to announce that he would stop beating his wife, giving the impression that he was imprisoned for wife-beating. He would never lift a finger to justify his detention.

For more than twenty years following the release in 1982 of the last of the political prisoners then (save for Chia Thye Poh) we maintained silence about our wrongful imprisonment.  The political climate was stifling; we were warned of re-arrest should we ‘cause trouble’, which included maintaining contact with one another. There was also the need to focus on making a living. Only gradually were attempts made among ex-political prisoners to meet up socially.

Following The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (1998) , Said Zahari, who certainly did not have any communist links but was imprisoned for 17 years, published his autobiographical account Dark Clouds at Dawn: A Political Memoir, and Tan Jing Quee co-edited (with Jomo KS) Comet in our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History; both accounts came out in 2001. They were spurred on by Lee’s narrative of his heroic deeds and flawless judgment, and demonising of his leftwing opponents as subversive communists at every turn.

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The momentum grew with Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez speaking about their imprisonment at an arts forum on Detention-Healing- Writing in 2006. Tan then come up with The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore, (2010) and The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s. The two books, available in both English and Chinese, challenge the state bifurcation of English-speaking students as apolitical and Chinese-speaking as manipulated by the Malayan Communist Party. The book launches drew a capacity audience. The latter in particular was attended by about 300 elderly Chinese-speaking former political activists who for decades had hidden their past, even from their children and grandchildren, who accompanied them to the event.

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The detainees of the 1950s and 1960s were not the only ones who began to find a voice.  A younger group of  lawyers, dramatists, political activists, and social and church workers arrested in Operation Spectrum in 1987 as ‘marxist conspirators’ had also started to stir. They connected with the 1963 and 1970s detainees to produce Our Thoughts Are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile (2009). The next year, Teo Soh Lung (imprisoned without trial 21 May 1987-26 Sept 1987; 19 April 1988-1 June 1990) published Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner. At the book launch, Teo stated, ‘I call for the ISA to be abolished. The ISA and its predecessors have destroyed many lives from the time of the British to today.’

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Since then, her comrades have put out collections of essays by Catholic church workers who were Operation Spectrum survivors,[i] and on Singapore’s political exiles from the 1970s[ii].

The growth of the social media, resulting in the proliferation of publishing outlets, made its impact during the campaign for the hotly-contested election of the president in August 2011. Citizen journalists,  invited to the debates, asked the candidates to state their position on the ISA. Former cabinet minister Tony Tan justified the legislation on grounds that terrorism is a real threat, which led Dr Lim Hock Siew to challenge him to repeat his statement so that they could meet in a court of law, and to call for an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the allegations against all ISA prisoners. His challenge is still on YouTube.

Operation Coldstore documents: Demanding accountability

Except for the 1990s, the ISA has been used in every decade in postwar Singapore. Operation Coldstore remains the most controversial, as it paved the way for the PAP’s unbroken rule and constitutes its founding myth of ‘riding the communist tiger’. What it did, in effect, was to eliminate Lim Chin Siong and the Barisan Sosialis from the 1963 general election. Lim had won the confidence not only of the Chinese-speaking labour unionists, but also the English-speaking left, mostly coming out from the University Socialist Club. I was one of them.

Documentary evidence from the colonial archives, analysed by historians such as TN Harper, Geoff Wade[iii] and PJ Thum[iv],  has shown that the British and the Federation governments were not going to accept a leftwing government in Singapore; they came to Lee’s rescue by abetting in Operation Coldstore. I too made a trip to the Kew Archives in the early 1990s.  There is insufficient evidence that Lim Chin Siong, the key target to be destroyed politically, was a member of the MCP—which did not stop the demonising of him as such in the 2014 Battle for Merger. Choice quotations from the Colonial Office include:

While we accept that Lim Chin Siong is a Communist, there is no evidence he is receiving orders from the CPM, Peking or Moscow. Our impression is that Lim is working very much on his own and that his primary objective is not the Communist millennium but to obtain control of the constitutional government of Singapore. It is far from certain that having obtained this objective Lim would necessarily prove a compliant tool of Peking or Moscow.[v]

Also, Lee was,

quite clearly attracted by the prospect of wiping out his main political opposition before the next Singapore elections…advocating a policy of provocation of Lim Chin Siong and his associates with a view to forcing them into unconstitutional action justifying their arrest. [vi]

The specific reason given for our arrests was that the Barisan was supplying arms and logistical support for the popular uprising led by Azahari in Brunei on 8 December 1962. The British had minuted how this charge was formulated:

Lee had in mind a statement calling for the crushing of the revolt pointing out that organisation, training and arms could not have been provided within the Borneo territories and drawing the conclusion that there must have been foreign intervention. As to arrests, Lee said that information about the recent contacts between Azahari and Lim Chin Siong coupled with Barisan Socialis’ statement giving open support for the revolutionaries provided a heaven-sent opportunity of justifying action against them.[vii]

Lim Chin Siong as Barisan leader had a meal in a restaurant with Azahari, leader of the socialist Partai Rakyat Brunei, who was stopping by Singapore, in full view of the head of Special Branch. Our statement of moral support for the Brunei popular uprising was no different from those that the Barisan had issued for other anti-colonial uprisings. Strangely for the danger we were alleged to pose in our fraternal relations with Azahari, our arrests were postponed for two months after the Brunei uprising as the Tunku and Lee could not agree on the list of detainees!

The authorities had indicated that they would produce evidence of our clandestine involvement in the Brunei uprising, but never did. I am still waiting.

Operation Coldstore was a set-up against Lee’s political opponents. On its fiftieth anniversary, I declared in the blurb of The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years:

I maintain that I was imprisoned for being part of a slate of left-wing anti-colonialists who were going to pose a challenge to Lee Kuan Yew in the election of 1963. The charges of communism and subversion, used to frame people like me, have simply been chanted repeatedly to this day. Our rejection of the charge has been ignored outright, without any attempt to supply evidence or specific details which we could answer.

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To date, we have received only a non-reply, in the form of the re-printing of the Battle for Merger, the Cold War diatribe of the day. The government has to content itself with targeting school children and blitzing the mainstream media, using the same language and materials from half a century ago, and resurrecting the failed ‘merger’, implicitly to justify Coldstore, though the event itself is not ever mentioned. The impression given is that with the radio talks the PAP won the hearts and minds of the people. If that had been the case, Coldstore would have been unnecessary.

Even more impossible to justify than our arrests is the length of the imprisonments. Detention orders were renewed every two years, without any limit at the minister’s pleasure. Lim Hock Siew would have received at least 8 extensions of such orders under section 8A of the ISA, 1960, a printed form with the name of the detainee and date typed in. How many such orders would Chia Thye Poh, – imprisoned on 29 October 1996, restricted to Sentosa island from 17 May 1989, then to Singapore from 28 November 1992 and freed of restrictions on 27 November 1998, – have received?

The present PAP leaders have chosen to identify themselves with the gross injustices using the ISA inflicted by their party elders, and to cling to a narrative of history that has been seriously questioned.

Dr Poh Soo Kai was Assistant Secretary-General of Barisan Sosialis. He was imprisoned twice under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows for detention without trial for a total of 17 years by Singapore’s PAP government.

[i] Fong Hoe Fang, ed. That We May Dream Again (2009)

[ii] Teo Soh Lung and Low Yit Keng, eds. Escape from the lion’s paw : reflections of Singapore’s political exiles (2009)

[iii] Geoff Wade, ‘Operation Coldstore: A Key Event in the Creation of Modern Singapore’, in The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating Fifty years, eds. Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang, Hong Lysa (2013).

[iv] Thum Pingtjin, “‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, not Merger’: Singapore’s ‘Progressive Left’ , Operation Coldstore and the Creation of Malaysia”, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore Working Paper series no. 211, November 2013.

[v] High Commissioner, Singapore to Secretary of State, 8 September 1962, CO 1030/1159 in TN Harper, ‘ Lim Chin Siong and the “Singapore Story”’ in Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History, eds. Tan Jing Quee and Jomo KS (2001), p. 41.

[vi]  High Commissioner Singapore to Secretary of State, CO 1030/998, 28 April 1962, cited in Tan Jing Quee, ‘Merger and the Decimation of the Left-Wing in Singapore,’ in Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore, eds. Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew (2010)  p. 283.

[vii] High Commissioner to Secretary of State CO 1030/1160, no 572, 10 December 1962.