Barisan Sosialis Singapura, formed on 29 July 1961 was the party which represented the left-leaning electorate, the mainstream political force in Singapore in the 1950s and 60s. Its goal was to eradicate British colonial rule and influence, and obtain genuine independence, that is, a democratic, socialist Malaya.
This goal was a reiteration of the PAP’s inaugural manifesto which we pledged to uphold as its founder members in November 1954. We remained faithful to our anti-colonial mission. It is precisely for this that the British pressed Lee Kuan Yew to kick us out, so that they could then take action against us without Lee being put in a spot of having to defend members of his party. We did not resign or split from the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew kicked us out, so we formed a new party.
How the Barisan came to be, and its decline as a political party within two years is the history of the suppression by the British of the powerful anti-colonial mass movement in Singapore. The Barisan was cut down at its height, its leaders and most capable and active members were imprisoned without trial under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO) in the fateful mass arrests of Operation Coldstore on 2 February 1963 on trumped up charges. The follow-up operation to this took place on 8 October 1963, under the Internal Security Act.
These fatal blows in effect ended the Barisan, and the powerful united, democratic and socialist movement in Singapore. The people of Singapore did not reject what we stood for, our leadership, or the way our party was run. They were denied the opportunity to vote in the Barisan Sosialis at our full strength as the government of Singapore in the general election on 21 September 1963.
Despite Operation Coldstore and blatant harassment of its candidates during the shortest campaign period at the time, the Barisan obtained 33.2 percent of the votes and 13 seats. The PAP had a two-third majority with 46.9 percent and 37 seats. Nevertheless, it still felt threatened by the Barisan’s base in the trade unions, and launched Operation Pecah two weeks later. Five Barisan members who had just won seats in the general election, defeated candidates, labour unionists and subsequently Nantah students and graduates were swept into prison without trial.
The suppression of the Barisan was not a surprise to us. The strength of the independent left-wing movement was completely unacceptable to the departing British colonialists. They found and nurtured right-wing collaborators to plot and act against the left.
Lim Yew Hock as chief minister from 1956 to 1959 was openly pro-British and against the left.
Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the left-wing opposition PAP was surreptitiously working with Lim Yew Hock and the British to undermine the left wing of his own party.
From the start, their main target was Lim Chin Siong. He was arrested by Lim Yew Hock in October 1956 and freed when the PAP won the June 1959 general election; he was arrested by the PAP government in collaboration with the British, and the Federation of Malaya in Operation Coldstore. There was no other way to stop his connecting with the people on the ground, particularly the labour unionists and workers, and with non-Chinese speaking like-minded people and groups that were politically active.
Chin Siong was prepared to be arrested, and so were we. But we did not expect the harsh conditions in prison which amounted to torture and meant to break us. We did not expect to be jailed for close to 20 years, and in the case of Chia Thye Poh, 26 years in prison and another 6 years under restriction orders. From 1963, detention without trial was executed every single year up to 1981.
The Barisan Sosialis was embodied by Lim Chin Siong, the most popular and genuine leader in Singapore’s left-wing movement, and who was within striking distance of winning the general election to be called in 1963. Chin Siong won the respect not only of fellow Chinese-speaking trade unionists, middle school students and the general populace who were spell-bound as he analysed the political position as it pertained to their lives and fueled their aspirations for freedom and dignity in his down-to-earth speeches in Hokkien. He also impressed the left-wing English-speakers in the labour unions and the University Socialist Club with his open-mindedness and genuine commitment to the workers, to socialism and creating a Malayan identity. He was close to Said Zahari who had led the Utusan Melayu strike against the Alliance government in the Federation of Malaya to curb the independence of the paper. Chin Siong had hoped that Said would join the Barisan but Said decided to take leadership of the multi-racial Partai Rakyat Singapura to offer political direction for the Malays. Our two parties were going to work closely together.
The propaganda that the British and Lee Kuan Yew relentlessly launched against Chin Siong– that he was a communist whose aim was to take over the government through subversive and violent means and was a narrow- minded Chinese chauvinist were simply lies. Gutter politics and the instilling of fear for opposing it has remained the hallmarks of the PAP.
The composition of the leadership of the Barisan showed that we came from diverse constituencies. Lim Hock Siew and I were from the University Socialist Club and doctors in the government health service. James Puthucheary, S Woodhull and Lim Shee Ping were also from the University Socialist Club and worked as trade unionists upon graduation. ST Bani was a teacher and a trade unionist who was close to Lee Kuan Yew but disagreed with his merger scheme and curbing of the unions. Dr Lee Siew Choh was older than us and was recruited by the PAP to run in the 1959 elections. Lim Shee Ping and Lee Siew Choh were effectively bilingual in English and Chinese.
We were proud that the Barisan Sosialis was the mass-based party of the working classes; we were proud to work with the Chinese-speaking trade union and mass organization leaders and activists. They were at the heart of the Barisan, the crucial element that the PAP simply did not have. Our party practised an open democratic system. Our Central Working Committee members were elected by representatives who were themselves elected by their branches. Of course there would be infiltrators from all sorts of groups, but so long as we had a democratic system, they would be outvoted if their propositions were not acceptable to the majority.
We were not against the capitalists. As Fajar noted in its article ‘Birth of a New Party’, (August-September 1961):
Any Socialist Party that seeks to govern the state to the best interests of its people, must obtain the support of the industrial working class without which industrial peace is impossible, in which event, there will be no investment and hence, the process of economic growth will be retarded. It must also seek the co-operation of the commercial class whose initiative and efficiency, the buoyancy of our entrepot economy is partly attributable and upon whose cooperation will, to a large extent, depend the success or failure of our economic plans. It must also win the confidence of the English educated and middle class who are responsible for the comparatively efficient functioning of our administrative machinery.
Hock Siew and I resigned from our jobs in the government hospitals to join the Barisan Sosialis. We agreed that he would concentrate on political work, while I focus on our Rakyat Clinic. I preferred to take a low profile. However, I was persuaded to accept the position of assistant secretary general which was offered to me because of my family background. I am the maternal grandson of Tan Kah Kee; Lee Kong Chian was thus my uncle.
Generally I never mentioned my family connections, and not many knew about it. Lee Kuan Yew of course, did.
And importantly, so did the towkays. To them, my position in the Barisan would indicate that our party was not going to be a threat to them.
Tan Lark Sye was foremost among these millionaire community leaders. The leading rubber magnate, he had been chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and in the early 1960s was chair of the Hokkien Huay Kuan, and the Nanyang University Council. He was in the forefront of making Nanyang University a reality.
When I left government service in Kandang Kerbau Hospital to join the Barisan Sosialis, Tan Lark Sye’s son, who was working with me in the hospital, told me that his father was offering me a space at Battery Road to set up my clinic. I declined as I did not want to implicate him in my political involvement.
The Barisan Sosialis was a threat to Lee Kuan Yew, not to Singapore. We had a solid anti-colonial mass base and responsible and experienced leaders. We were more than able to win the general election, and to run the government. Lee’s fear was not that we would wreck the economy of Singapore and throw the country into turmoil. He feared that we were a credible and popular party with leaders dedicated to socialism and coming from a range of backgrounds.
Lee was quick to make note of Chin Siong’s broad appeal when on one occasion Chin Siong turned up at the legislative assembly building wearing a cravat and a jacket which were from my wardrobe. He was staying at my place, and my wife had commented casually that instead of his usual white shirt and pants, he should put on something different. He gamely went along with it. Lee commented in the legislative assembly in mid-1962 that Chin Siong was no longer the ragged proletariat but wanted to look different from what he really was. In other words, he was alleging that Chin Siong was sending the false message that he could relate to the middle class.
The PAP lost two by-elections in April and July 1961. When the member for Sembawang died in August 1962, the government came up with all sorts of excuses to delay the by-election, which was never held. The Barisan was considering fielding Chin Siong as its candidate.
We had to be stopped.
Chin Siong, his comrades and the Barisan Sosialis have been continuously and relentlessly demonized as members of the banned Communist Party of Malaya, pro-communists or communist sympathisers and the Barisan, as a front organization for the communists whose goal was to overthrow the government by force of arms, just as they were responsible for riots and revolutions. These two key terms were beloved of British colonial intelligence. In fact, through the PAP, and then the Barisan, Chin Siong and the left wing had steadfastly followed the constitutional path.
There have been attempts in recent years to say that we are loyal Singaporeans but misguided ones, seduced by the communists in the heat of the anti-colonial movement. I for one absolutely reject this. If there was anyone who attempted to misguide us, it was Lee Kuan Yew, and him masquerading as an anti-colonial leftist. He was the opposite of that. Operation Coldstore was a collusion among the British colonialists and their favoured successors Lee Kuan Yew and the conservative prime minister of the Federation of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman that till today continues to be covered up with Operation Coldstore presented as saving Singapore from a violent takeover by the communists.
All this is sixty years ago. But the PAP is still in power and is essentially no different from how it operated then. It still relies on the founding myth of Lee Kuan Yew, smearing his opponents as evil and mindless communists.
The history of the Barisan is the proud record of the aspirations and commitment of the people of Singapore against colonial rule, or any form of government that is hostile to democracy, the people’s expressions, and their welfare. It is also a record of its leaders who were prepared to face imprisonment, and to continue their fight on their release.
This is not as easy and straightforward as it sounds.
Many lives were wrecked; all carried scars which in some instances, the person involved may not even be aware of. My generation who fought for Merdeka paid a high price. The difficult choices we had to make, which caused pain to our families and loved ones; the vilification, the lies, the shame of succumbing to threats, of having a ‘record’.
And the suppression of our history.
Singapore lives with a distorted and corrupted understanding of itself, a distorted and corrupted body politic without a moral compass.
The sixtieth anniversary of the founding of Barisan Sosialis is an occasion to re-tell our history, just as we did for Operation Coldstore on its fiftieth anniversary.
1954-1959: Towards merdeka!
Post-war Singapore lost no time in giving notice to the British that its days as colonial overlord was over. The main current of events was for independence on an all-Malayan basis. The Malayan Democratic Union was formed in December 1947; its greatest achievement was the formation of the All Malaya Council of Joint Action and the alliance with Pusat Tenaga Rakyat, the federation of Malay organisations to oppose the Malayan Union scheme where the British separated Malaya from Singapore, which held its military bases. A Malayan-wide hartal was held in October 1947.
The British decided to stem the tide. Malay nationalists were interned, then Indian and other trade unionists. In June 1948, the Malayan Communist Party which had been recognized after the war was once again proscribed and a state of Emergency was imposed. In December 1950, the Communist Party of Malaya’s underground Singapore Town Committee was smashed. The leaders of the MDU well as the University of Malaya’s Malayan Orchid group were arrested.
My cohort, in our early twenties at the time, were products of the local institutions—the Chinese middle schools and the University of Malaya Socialist Club, and labour union leaders who championed the cause of its members. Lee Kuan Yew and his group, older by a decade studied and built political connections in the imperial metropole. The left-wing MDU activists who were UK graduate returnees like Lim Kean Chye and John Eber went into exile. We would have benefitted from their presence. Only Samad Ismail, James Puthucheary and Devan Nair remained.
The month of May 1954 was a turning point in the political development in Singapore and where the future Barisan leaders cut their political teeth. The Chinese middle school students’ seeking exemption from national conscription and being set on by the police, and the Fajar trial are now well-known events in Singapore history for sparking the people’s awareness of colonial repression. That month of May opened our eyes to the conditions of the Chinese-speaking students and workers in Singapore. And the students in turn realized that in the Socialist Club they had fellow anti-colonialists.
The PAP was formed in November of that year. Lee Kuan Yew was junior counsel in the Fajar trial and represented the middle school students who were tried for disturbing the public order in the May 13 fracas over national conscription. The PAP as opposition party spanned the period of its formation in November 1954 to May 1959 when it won the general election. It drew its strength from the anti-colonial mass-based popular support of Chinese-speaking union leaders whom Lee courted. At the same time, Lee had contacts with British intelligence, and was assuring the British officials that he would work with them to suppress the left while posturing as a dedicated anti-colonialist.
Following the May 13 event, the middle school students kept up the pressure on the colonial government. The authorities tabled the Registration of Schools Ordinance in the legislative council which gave the registrar of schools the power to prohibit the use of any portion of the schools premises for purposes which he deemed undesirable, and to cancel the school’s registration.
The students held that extracurricular activities which were an indispensable part of their school life, which the colonial government was out to destroy. They called on the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, school management boards and teachers’ associations to resist the Ordinance. ‘Protect Chinese Education’ committees formed by students sprang up in schools. The Ordinance was dropped. In its stead, the government offered to increase funding for Chinese-medium schools by three-fold if they adopted the system of management of aided English schools.
As the legal advisor to the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students’ National Service Exemption Delegation, Lee Kuan Yew pointed out that the director of education would chair the management board of schools which adopted the scheme. In effect this would ‘submit the Chinese schools to such management as to be comparable with colonial education policy and the interests of the government’.
The middle school students also got into action when in December 1954 serious floods hit five farming areas on the island. Bedok was badly hit. It was the third flood the farmers had faced. They had been forcibly relocated from Paya Lebar to the low-lying and poorly drained area. The month-old PAP placed responsibility for loss and hardship suffered by the flood victims on the government. The students formed a Joint Relief Committee of Singapore Chinese School Students to coordinate help for the flood victims. They planned fund raising events, but the government disallowed them. The students were the only group that visited the flood areas, directly helping the victims with livelihood and welfare matters.
Most significantly the Singapore Farmers’ Association was formed as an outcome. Its open letter was addressed to ‘dear farmers of all races’ and listed their woes: high quit rent for land, complicating bureaucratic procedures for licenses and permits, petty corruption of land inspectors, lack of school and medical facilities.
The elections held under the Rendel Constitution scheme in April 1955 demonstrated the popularity of the left agenda. The political parties of the elites were wiped out. The Labour Front formed a coalition government which competed with the opposition PAP for the support of the people. A fairer treatment for workers was expected. Unions multiplied, such as the Shoemakers’ Workers Union, Singapore Barber Shops Employees Union. Prior to this, such workers had no bargaining power vis a vis their employer. At the same time, the umbrella Singapore Shop and Factory Workers Union headed by Lim Chin Siong grew more powerful.
The Hock Lee Bus workers labour dispute had been a long-drawn affair, with the company setting up a yellow union, and unreasonable conditions of work including unfair deductions of salary of bus conductors. Industrial action including strikes had been ongoing, as well as attempts at negotiations by the Singapore Bus Workers Union. Less than a month after the election an agreement was reached for university lecturer Charles Gamba to be the industrial arbitrator. However, the bus company owners had their men break the agreement. The strike organized by the bus workers turned into mob violence on 12 May 1955.
Doubtlessly the riot broke out with some form of deliberate instigation. As the newly elected chief minister, David Marshall had announced that he would review the portions of the Emergency Regulations on detention without trial at the next three-monthly review of the Regulations. An article in Fajar noted that the timing of the riots suited the colonial authorities just nicely. Marshall immediately passed the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance which provided for detention without trial to maintain public order.
In the legislative assembly, Lee Kuan Yew, who was also the legal advisor to the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union and involved in the negotiations between the bus company and the union, condemned the colonial authorities for blaming the riot on the PAP’s ‘lust for power’, and its ‘covert Communist supporters and backseat drivers’. Lee exposed the injustices of the colonial system and its complete disregard for the disenfranchised:
The English-speaking world had no idea of the deprivations that workers and their families suffered, leading to despair and frustration in the face of employers who did not recognize their rights in industrial disputes, and of police violence, which culminated in a mob situation that went out of hand. It is oversimplification to see the riots as the work of unreasonable workers, hidden enemies who fomented them, and students who inflated their morale.
It was the first time that such truths were heard in the legislature.
The building up of mass organisations was not limited to Chinese-medium students and labour. On 19 August 1956 13 public bodies met to form the Anti-Yellow Culture Council, attended by 800 people which included members from various political parties. Its 17-organisation executive committee comprised also the Malay Cultural Association, the Federation Malays Union, the Malay Welfare Association, the Federation of Singapore Malay Unions and the Malay Women’s Association. Two seats were reserved for Indian public bodies. Other members were the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students’ Union, the 1953 Alumni Arts Research Association, the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union, the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union and the Singapore Farmers’ Association, which were all associated with the PAP, which itself was also on the Committee. The Committee was chaired by the trilingual Linda Chen Mong Hock, an alumnus of a Chinese-medium middle school and of the University of Malaya, teacher of English at Chung Cheng High School, and head of the newly-formed Singapore Women’s Federation.
On 18 September 1956 chief minister Lim Yew Hock cracked down on them. A mass arrest was launched, and key organisations like the Singapore Women’s Federation and the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students’ Union were dissolved.
It was in this context that Lee gave his lecture in legislative assembly on the addiction of repression using detention without trial: it all begins with unverified Special Branch information on who is a communist; it then extends to alleged communist sympathisers, then those who unintentionally benefit the communists by being intransigently against colonialism, and finally, any person who opposes the government.
This is Lee Kuan Yew’s famous speech which begins, ‘Repression… is like making love—it is always easier the second time….’
Lee Kuan Yew was to declare in his memoir that his Hock Lee Bus riots speech and all his speeches that came after where he condemned the actions of the colonial authorities and the Lim Yew Hock government were only for show. He did not mean what he said at all.
Nevertheless, his critique of the colonial system and its pernicious impact on the lives of the labouring classes were solid.
But a fitting end to this section should dwell on the best of our merdeka aspirations at the personal level that developed in the 1950s. Tan Jing Quee reminded us of this poem by Usman Awang in the obituary that Jing Quee wrote when Linda Chen passed away on 29 December 2002. ‘Pemuda dan Gadis Tionghoa’ was Usman’s 1961 Chinese New Year greeting to her, Lim Huan Boon and Goh Choo Keng. Lim Huan Boon and Goh Choo Keng were then pursuing Malay Studies at Nanyang University. Usman’s poem expressed the essence of the Malayan Dream.
Pemuda dan Gadis Tionghoa
(Kong Hee Fatt Choy buat Lim, Goh, dan Linda)
Hari depan yang manis dalam usia tanah air
mengisi wajah para pemuda dan gadis Tionghoa
sederap tumbuh bersama pohon-pohon bumi subur
pucuk getah dan ladang pertani disinari matari timur.
Pada tangis pertama kelahiranmu di bumi ini
sampai saat terakhir nafas dalam melangkah kaki
teguh-teguhlah menyanyikan lagu tanah air tercinta
bersama kita atas kesegaran kepedihan bumi merdeka.
Bukankah kecurigaan telah terbunuh ketika kita bersapa
hidup ini sudah terbenam pada persamaan nasib semata
kaum pekerja dan petani dalam satu sumber mengalir
sama-sama menyanyikan lagu terbagus untuk tanah air.
Permuda dan gadis Tionghoa, di sini bumi dan udara kita
yang menghidupkan dan bagi kematian, o tanah air
dengan kepastian tidak seorang pun akan mungkir
kerana kejujuran tertambat pada kesetiaan mengalir.
Lihatlah makam nenek moyang sebagai sejarah terpahat
darahnya dalam darahmu segar di kulit kuning langsat
esok, ketika Tahun Baru akan kukirimkan sebuah angpau
dalamnya sebuah cinta dari jantung tanah dan pulau!
Young Chinese men and women (translated by Haslina Usman)
(Kong Hee Fatt Choy to Lim, Goh and Linda)
The sweet tomorrow in our nation’s history
fills the faces of young Chinese men and women
having grown up together with trees of a fertile earth
rubber shoots and farm land under the eastern sun.
From your first cry when you were born here
till your last breath
sing our beloved national song with conviction
together we will feel the new pain of a freed country.
Hasn’t the mistrust been killed since we greeted each other?
This life is set in a shared destiny
workers and farmers in one flowing force
together singing the best songs for the country.
Young Chinese men and women, here lie our land and sky
that brought life and death, O Motherland
with the assurance no one will betray her
because sincerity should come together
with the loyalty that flows in us.
Consider your ancestor’s grave as history being carved
their blood in yours is fresh under your fair skin
tomorrow, during Chinese New Year, I will bring an angpow;
in it love from the heart of this land and island!
1954-1959: The Deceptions
When Lim Yew Hock took over from David Marshall as chief minister following the failure of the constitutional talks which Marshall had led, Lee Kuan Yew went beyond making a convincing case and pretending to reject continued British control over internal security. He plotted with Lim Yew Hock against the left wing, including members of the PAP itself. The British would re-open the constitutional talks only if Lim Yew Hock showed that he could control what it considered the political chaos in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew worked with the chief minister to lock up the anticolonial activists.
The 10 October 1956 proscription of the student-affiliated, trade union and cultural organisations and arrests of their leaders led to political unrest. The middle school students barricaded themselves in protest in Chinese High School and Chung Cheng Middle School. Lim Yew Hock gave them the ultimatum of disbanding on 25 October, after which the police would forcibly enter the schools.
On that very day, PAP chairman Toh Chin Chye organized a protest rally up the road from Chinese High School, to end an hour before the 8pm deadline Lim Yew Hock had set. Lee Kuan Yew and Devan Nair were also on the stage. PAP assembly member and a member of the PAP central executive committee Lim Chin Siong was designated the last speaker. Speaking in Hokkien, Chin Siong condemned Lim Yew Hock and urged the people to throw him out at the next election. Riots erupted outside Chinese High down the road from where the PAP rally was held, and when the students were still behind the school gate. Thirteen deaths resulted, whom the press grouped as ‘student sympathisers and hooligans’. There were no police casualties.
In the legislative assembly Labour Front education minister Chew Swee Kee blamed Chin Siong’s Beauty World speech calling the crowd to ‘pah mata’ for setting off the riot. Chin Siong was arrested and imprisoned on 26 October 1956, along with over 70 others including prominent left-wing PAP trade unionists Fong Swee Suan, Chan Chiaw Thor, Devan Nair, James Puthucheary and S Woodhull.
The PAP leaders on the stage had heard Lim’s speech; Lee Kuan Yew was present when Chew Swee Kee made the allegation in legislative assembly. Lee Kuan Yew knew very well what Lim Chin Siong had said. But all he did was to make the general remark that ‘if he (Chin Siong) said anything which was seditious or if anybody said anything which was against the law he can be charged, he can be prosecuted for it. To my knowledge, no one has been charged or prosecuted.’ He did not object when Chew Swee Kee made the ‘pah mata’ statement. Needless to say Chew would have known full well that Lee would not call out his deliberate false statement.
Till the end of his life, Chin Siong had denied the accusation that he had called the people to beat up the police. It was only 58 years after Lim made the speech and 18 years after his death that proof came to light that Lim was telling the truth.
In 2014, historian PJ Thum posted the verbatim police transcript in English of Lim Chin Siong’s speech, where he clearly said ‘Don’t pah mata’. Thum had stumbled on the document in the UK archives. Following the twisted logic of the security service of the day, the establishment history stuck to its guns, claiming that even though Chin Siong had said ‘Don’t pah mata’, the crowd knew that he meant the opposite, and were instigated to riot.
Having demonstrated to the British that they were willing to be tough with the left wing anti-colonialists, Lim Yew Hock led a delegation which included Lee Kuan Yew to London for the second constitutional talks in March 1957. The PAP left-wing branches were seriously concerned that Lee Kuan Yew did not reject the Colonial Office’s inclusion of the Internal Security Council (ISC) in the agreement to be presented to the legislative assembly for debate. In addition, there was the ‘anti-subversion’ Clause 30, which denied the right of political prisoners to take part in the 1959 elections. This clause was secretly conceived by Lee Kuan Yew, which Lim Yew Hock and he proposed to London. The colonial secretary agreed to adopt the clause as his own, which allowed Lee Kuan Yew to put on a show of making speeches against it and the ISC in principle when he returned to Singapore.
With Chin Siong and other key leaders in prison, the left-wing leaders at the branch levels who were also mainly trade unionists mobilised the PAP branches to strengthen their resolve on keeping to their anti-colonial agenda in the face of compromises that Lee Kuan Yew was taking, despite his denials. They ramped up the education, cultural and social activities for branch members.
This group of second-tier leaders made a bid to have a greater role in party deliberations and decisions. They made a successful bid for six seats out of 12 at the election for the PAP fourth central executive council positions in August 1957. They were able to oust their key target– Ong Eng Guan, whom they considered to be right wing. But the group was in fact unwittingly setting themselves up to be arrested.
According to TT Rajah, one of the six, Devan Nair had told him to pass the message to the group to go for six seats. TT was visiting Devan in prison as his lawyer, and the group assumed that the message originated from Chin Siong, not knowing that Chin Siong was kept apart from the rest. Devan had quietly turned to working against his comrades.
In contesting for the six seats, the group had no intention to take over the PAP from Lee Kuan Yew. However, Lee Kuan Yew had planned for the occasion in order to break with the left and have the branch leaders put away. He had made a statement to the press just before the CEC election that a group was out to challenge his leadership. The newly-elected 6 CEC members invited Lee Kuan Yew to remain as PAP secretary general, and Toh Chin Chye as the party chairman with the casting vote thus retaining control of the CEC. Lee and Toh turned them down.
Within a week, five of the six left wing members of the 4th CEC were arrested by the Lim Yew Hock government in another massive security sweep. Lim Yew Hock told the governor privately that he was attacking the ‘subversives’ from without in a coordinated exercise with Lee Kuan Yew, who was doing the same within the party.
The mass arrests removed the pressure on Lee within the PAP to make good his claim that he would reject the controversial clauses in the draft constitution. Thus, the political prisoners including Chin Siong were not eligible as candidates in the 1959 election, and the ISC was to authorize mass arrests under the PPSO to eliminate Lee Kuan Yew’s political opponents in Operation Coldstore, with Lee trying to disclaim having any role in this.
The PAP in opposition was an anti-colonial party. We were aware that Lee Kuan Yew was not all that he made himself out to be, but we went for unity of the left against the common enemy– colonialism. We did not fully realise the extent to which Lee Kuan Yew was not an enemy but a dependant of the colonial power.
The British were to go all out to secure Lee’s position as prime minister to preserve their own interest. Even though they were running down their bases in other parts of the world, they needed to keep Singapore for two reasons: so that Britain could interfere in Indonesia, where President Sukarno was regarded as responsible for the region turning into ‘a sea of opposition’, and to station their nuclear weapons as a deterrent to China, which at the time did not yet have the atomic bomb.
1959-1963: A triumph for the people
The deceptions that Lee Kuan Yew inflicted on members of the PAP when it was in the opposition and on the electorate continued when it became the party in power.
The PAP won 43 out of 51 seats in the 1959 election as the most left-wing party in country. But the contradictions within the party when it was in opposition between its proclaimed anti-colonial platform and Lee Kuan Yew’s connivance with the British and Lim Yew Hock remained. The party had fought the election on the promise to free those whom Lim Yew Hock had put in prison. Lee Kuan Yew refused to take office until the most prominent of them were freed. Accordingly eight were released to great public reception as the first step: Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, James Puthucheary, Devan Nair, S Woodhull, all prominent labour unionists; Chan Chiaw Thor of the Singapore Farmers’ Association; and from the 4th CEC – Tan Chong Kin and Chen Say Jame. (the other three—Goh Boon Toh, Ong Chan Aun and and Tan Kong Guan were not Singapore-born and were banished).
The labour movement was the main force that delivered the votes in 1959. Twenty-three of the 43 PAP seats in the legislature were held by trade unionists. Lim Chin Siong remained a concern of the British and Lee, but Lee was confident that he could control the trade unions by restructuring them.
The Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill provided for one general union representing each of the 19 categories of work defined for the purpose. The unions had to have a minimum of 250 members and be registered and affiliated with the Trade Union Congress, which Lee intended would be run by his appointee. Goh Keng Swee made it clear to Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, and James Puthucheary that the PAP would break with them should they try to set up unions in the newly opened Jurong industrial park. The Lee Kuan Yew faction made no bones about its hostility towards the party’s left wing.
However, Fong Swee Suan and the other union leaders stood with Lim Chin Siong.
It was the British who warned Lee that the large number of unions under Chin Siong’s leadership had strengthened their positions. They were able to negotiate concessions from wealthier firms, including fresh contracts for improved wages and conditions, and were careful not to stir up industrial trouble.
Lee heeded the warning and the government allowed the bill to lapse.
When the PAP came into power, the prospects for labour unions improved and membership jumped dramatically from 20,000 in the mid-1950s to about 200,000. When the unions split into two rival groups in 1961. The pro-PAP unions tried to challenge the left-wing unions under the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) by frequently calling strikes. SATU on the other hand was more ready to negotiations and compromise. Under Lim Chin Siong’s leadership, the wage structure of workers in Singapore improved steadily. We were then growing in strength, and there was no reason for to resort to militancy, and to risk arrest. Between 1961 and 1963 the PAP-affilated NTUC led more strikes than SATU.
The British High Commissioner had also to caution Lee that he was set to lose the Hong Lim byelection of April 1961 against Ong Eng Guan. This time Lee insisted that the PAP candidate would win. He was proven wrong. Lee’s overconfidence to a large degree was based on the secret arrangement he had with the MCP’s Singapore committee in exile in Indonesia that the communists would support Lee Kuan Yew unreservedly. Fong Chong Pik wrote a letter to Lee to confirm his backing of the PAP candidate in the byelection but he was unable to deliver the result. Even though Ong Eng Guan had been hostile to the left, he was in an intra-party tussle with Lee for dominance, and had resigned his seat to fight a byelection as an independent on the platform of releasing the political prisoners as promised in the 1959 election campaign, and democracy within the party which had been curtailed by its cadre system.
In his memoir, Lee alleged that Chin Siong had quietly passed the word around for the voters not to support the PAP. If this had been the case, then Chin Siong certainly was not following the orders of the MCP, contrary to how he was demonized. The byelection result also showed that that the MCP was not able to dictate its outcome. Ong Eng Guan had focused his campaign on the pledge of merdeka, of which the release of the political prisoners was a key manifestation. This was a popular demand.
1959-1963: Merger was about Operation Coldstore
The celebratory release of Chin Siong’s batch of political prisoners was not followed by all the others as Lee had promised. In his posthumous account, Chin Siong had insisted that Lee Kuan Yew put his pledge to release all the political detainees in writing before Chin Siong would agree to step out of prison in June 1959. Lee did write the pledge down, but he handed the note to Devan Nair, and it was never seen again.
As prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew should initiate the process by presenting a list of prisoners recommended for release to the Internal Security Council for approval. Unknown even to his ministers however, Lee Kuan Yew did not do this, but gave the impression that the ISC had rejected the lists that he had put up. Lee Kuan Yew pleaded with the British to support his story, but Tunku Abdul Rahman refused firmly to do so.
The British High Commissioner however threw Lee Kuan Yew a lifeline following the PAP’s Hong Lim defeat. He proposed the Greater Malaysia plan. The addition of the British Borneo territories made merger attractive to the Tunku, who was not interested in having a unification with only Singapore.
Merger replaced freeing the political prisoners as the priority issue in Singapore politics.
The British, describing Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee as ‘broken men’ following the Hong Lim byelection pressured them to expel the left, which the Tunku also demanded. When Lee appeared to dither, the British high commissioner passed a message to Woodhull through the journalist Francis Wong inviting Chin Siong and some of the others for tea at Eden Hall, his residence. This was to prod Lee Kuan Yew into action. Meanwhile however, Lee had summoned an emergency sitting of the legislative assembly to call for a vote of confidence in the government, which would give it a blank cheque on the terms of merger.
Thirteen PAP members abstained on the motion, and were expelled from the party, along with the three political secretaries James Puthucheary, Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan. Most of the PAP branch leaders were also expelled or they resigned. There were about 27 full time cadres; at least 24 of them were to join the Barisan Sosialis.
The PAP majority of 35 in the legislature was down to one. But it had the support in the legislature of Lim Yew Hock, and Ong Eng Guan, and the Barisan was unable to win sufficient votes on any bill.
From this point on, politics in Singapore was focused solely on merger. The PAP handled the Barisan’s criticisms of the terms of merger being proposed to the people of Singapore by labelling them as communist-instigated rather than address their anxieties, particularly on the issue of Malaysian citizenship for Singaporeans.
The merger debates consumed the energies of the Barisan as well. In the legislative assembly, Lee Siew Choh and ST Bani gave reasoned and detailed presentations of the Barisan position. Hock Siew was one of our key speech writers. Lee Kuan Yew pointed this out in the legislature, as if Hock Siew, a member of the Central Working Committee was manipulating the Barisan assembly members.
Our arguments were routinely ignored or distorted in the newspapers. This was of course before the days of the internet, and it was difficult for us to have our position put clearly across to the public. Chin Siong, Dr MK Rajakumar, my close friend in the Socialist Club and fellow medical student at the university who was active in socialist politics in the Federation and I decided to try to talk things over with the Tunku about merger. We wanted to make clear to him that we were not against being part of the Federation and regarded ourselves as Malayans. Chin Siong as Barisan secretary general signed a letter requesting a meeting. I drove to Istana Bukit Serene in Johor one afternoon to deliver the letter. Datuk Mubin Sheppard, the Tunku’s secretary came out from the Istana to meet me. We never got a reply.
I had a copy of the letter, but Special Branch must have taken it when they searched my home during Operation Coldstore. I never saw it again.
As with all political parties in the 1959 election, we supported merger, but as an equal with the other states in the Federation. Our aim was to work with the socialist parties in Malaya to challenge the right-wing and race-based government of Tunku Abdul Rahman. We were willing to face being arrested by him.
The most important fact where merger is concerned is that Lee Kuan Yew and the Tunku shared only one common goal: to eliminate the Barisan Sosialis as the major political force in the forthcoming general election. This would be achieved by having the Tunku arrest and imprison us without trial.
Once this was achieved, Singapore fell apart within Malaysia.
The PAP had told the people of Singapore at the time that the Barisan was opposed to merger for we were afraid that the Tunku would arrest us when that happened, even though Singapore would benefit greatly especially in economic terms within the larger political territory. We had made clear that we were in favour of merger with the peninsula all along, but the terms which the PAP had agreed to were dangerous for ethnic relations. They were based on balancing out population numbers based on race. In addition, the PAP was giving inordinate power to the federal government over the island. We foresaw that merger would end badly.
Lee Siew Choh and ST Bani expounded vigorously on the problems with the merger proposals, but the government’s replies were mocking and evasive. The Barisan’s position is very well preserved in the parliamentary debates. They form a large portion of Hock Siew’s oral history tapes recorded in 1982. What follows is excerpts of the key issues he focused on:
On the dangers of heightened racial tensions
Lee Siew Choh, 21 November 1961, Col 369 -370.
….(The) P.A.P.’s so-called “merger” proposals, if bulldozed through, will provide fertile grounds for communal politicians to thrive upon. It may lead to a disastrous disruption of the harmony and unity of our people. We have repeatedly appealed to all those who sincerely believe in harmony amongst our people to carefully ponder over this. Let all decent people realise the extremely dangerous situation that desperate politicians in the P.A.P. are bringing upon our people in their attempt to salvage their own political future.
On ‘Phoney autonomy’, Merger is really about control of Singapore’s internal security
Lee Siew Choh 21 Nov 1961 Col 377
… (T)he P.A.P. is using the phoney autonomy over labour and education as another excuse to cut down even further our already meagre representation in the Federal Parliament. And we say, “phoney autonomy”, because autonomy over any matter is completely meaningless when internal security is in the hands of a government completely unsympathetic to our policies on these matters. …The fact is that the Federation Government is prepared to take in Singapore today only if our political influence is kept to the minimum possible. That is, only if we are politically isolated and without proportionate representation, it is to make this lack of proportionate representation look acceptable to us that the Federation Government is giving us as sops this apparent autonomy over labour and education. The Federation is only interested in the control of our internal security. … (It) just cannot be bothered with the internal administrative problem of Singapore other than that of internal security. So the P.A.P. has to try to cover up this humiliating situation with all sorts of evil tricks and subterfuges.
Demolishing PAP’s argument that merger would benefit Singapore’s economy
Lee Siew Choh 21 Nov 1961 Col 394
The Minister for Finance of the Federation, Mr Tan Siew Sin … said:
‘The Central Government must have enough powers in reserve so that if any state Government should pursue a policy affecting the economic stability of the whole country he can cope with such policies effectively.”
So, how can Singapore have free industrial development to provide more opportunities of employment for the thousands and thousands of our present unemployed and for those coming out from our schools and universities year after year? No, Sir. The economy of Singapore will be hamstrung at every turn. It is even possible, Sir, for example, since they want to have pineapple canning factories in the Federation, such factories will be limited in scope or not even be allowed to operate in Singapore.
Merger was about the survival of the PAP government
ST Bani 30 November 1961 column 1150
(W)hat the P.A.P. really wants is not true merger but a phoney set-up which seeks to place the political destiny of the people of Singapore under the control of the Government in the Federation over which the people of Singapore cannot exert appropriate influence. …The P.A.P. simply hopes that this phoney merger set-up will help the P.A.P. to retain its political power. The P.A.P. leaders hope that the Federation Government…will put all the P.A.P. political opponents into gaol so that there will be no opposition whatsoever, except the weaklings in the S.P.A., in the next election.
It is clear from the parliamentary debates that we the leaders of the Barisan Sosialis knew what the PAP’s White Paper was all about—to allow the Federation government to arrest us once merger came about. However, the Tunku insisted that he should not carry the odium of such a blatant intervention just to keep the Lee Kuan Yew whom he absolutely did not trust, in power.
Attempts were made to provoke us into taking precipitate action out of sheer frustration at the blatant PAP lies that the Barisan was against merger. The PAP resorted to fear-mongering of the dire consequences that would befall Singapore without merger, and intimidated the leaders of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce who were concerned about the citizenship status of those who held Singapore citizenship through registration once we were in Malaysia. The press was used against us. Above all was the completely unscrupulous referendum.
But the Barisan kept its cool.
To no avail. The stronger we grew, the greater the urgency for us to be arrested before the next election and round of constitutional talks with the British.
The arrests in the name of the ISC had been scheduled for 15 December 1962, with the ‘heaven-sent opportunity’ provided by the Brunei Revolt of 8 December 1962. At the last minute, the Tunku changed his mind about arresting a Federation member of parliament which Lee demanded. Following that, another impasse was reached when the Tunku and the British high commissioner objected to the arrest of three members of Ong Eng Guan’s party simply to weaken Ong. The secretary of state for the colonies finally stepped in to put aside any scruples and proceed with the arrests.
We the Barisan Sosialis leaders had been prepared to be arrested. We expected that with the general election out of the way and with Singapore as part of Malaysia, our strength would be diluted in the larger Federation, and we would be released. We planned to take the constitutional fight to the larger political arena, and work with the other socialist parties in Malaysia to challenge the race-based and conservative parties in the ruling Alliance.
We did not expect that our warnings on how untenable the White Paper terms were would be proven right within less than two years. Lee Kuan Yew’s aggressiveness towards the Malay political elite in power when the Tunku rejected his bid to replace Tan Siew Sin as the Chinese supremo fanned Malay supremacy in the peninsula.
Those two years in Malaysia have been used by the PAP to justify the mutual hostility with Malaysia. The so-called multi-racial policies in Singapore cast doubt on the loyalty of the Malays.
With Lee Kuan Yew in power in Singapore, we knew that we would not be released for a very long time unless we gave in and signed a statement to the effect that he was justified in keeping us locked up.
The Barisan lost to the PAP.
This was not the decision of the people, but achieved through the use of state violence. We were of course not the only ones who were on the receiving end. In the 1970s and 1980s, those who stood in elections as opposition candidates risked losing their jobs as well even if they lost, and being sued for defamation. Civil action groups in the University of Singapore and Singapore Polytechnic students were charged in 1976 under the Internal Security Act. And there was Operation Spectrum in 1987.
The history of the Barisan Sosialis as the most potent political party challenging the PAP continues to be a reminder of the nature of Singapore’s ruling party, the vicious politics that it indulges in, and its crushing of alternative voices. Cut down along with the Barisan Sosialis was the genuine trade union movement in Singapore, where the workers had a right to decide on who to represent them, and how best to protect their interests.
Operation Coldstore remains the most sensitive of all the Internal Security Act operations. It is the foundation myth of PAP rule that the operation was against communist terrorists. So ‘dangerous’ were we supposed to be that Lee Kuan Yew released the last of us (with the exception of Chia Thye Poh) only in August 1982.
It was a battle of wills.
But Lee Kuan Yew could not break each and every one of us.
It was not easy, but in the end, we have told our history.
Hong Lysa provided research and editorial assistance for this essay.