“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell “1984”
Dr Poh Soo Kai, a prominent figure in the left movement in Singapore in the 50s and 60s held a talk organized by Collective Intelligence on the background to the formation of the Barisan Sosialis. (The lecture can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNWUYM0NUw8) The richness of detail of his account reveals a full and meaningful life despite having to spend 17 years in the darkness of Lee Kuan Yew’s gaols without recourse to due process. This is a summary of his lecture with this overarching question in mind: How could the British ensure their interests were maintained in the face of the rising tide of nationalism? In the end would be my own commentary on the importance of such alternative histories.
Colonialism under Threat
After the war, Malaya’s tin and rubber was key to pay British war debt. Besides serving as a port to facilitate the sale of rubber to London firms, Singapore also served as a place where rubber smugglers could rise to tycoons. The war had changed many things in which the different races began to accept Malaya as their homeland. A combination of left forces represented by PUTERA AMCJA (Pusat Tenaga Rakyat and the All Malayan Council for Joint Action)formed a united front. In response to the federation proposals by the British, John Eber and William Kuok from the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU)presented the People’s Constitution based on the concept of an equal, multicultural nation with Melayu citizenship for all. When the British did not accept it, PUTERA AMCJA called a 1 day Hartal. (For a vivid account of this do check out Fahmi Reza’s 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka or 10 Years Before Independence http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNZzZlVgWxY)
The British of course did not take this lying down and launched an emergency on 18 June 1948. The primary aim emergency was to decimate the Malay nationalist movement in which over 10000 Malays were detained without trial. The Chinese groups were the secondary target, but were more easily controlled through corralling them into ‘New Villages’. With the destruction of the left, this vacuum was filled by UMNO who emphasized the communal aspect of politics.
Fajar and the University Socialist Club (USC)
It was in this context the University Socialist Club and its journal, Fajar came into being. The University Socialist Club was a nationalist club out to build a non communal multi cultural nation. The founding declaration spoke about communalism rather than socialism. They advocated Malay as national language, but promoted the mother tongue of other communities. There already was an Anti British League (ABL) operating in the university, and members such as James Putucherry and Dollah Majid helped and discussed with the group but kept their distance so as not to endanger it through association with underground left wing associations.
The issue which got the USC into trouble was the emerging South East Asia Treaty Organizations (SEATO) which they saw as an attempt to encircle China and the third world countries. They wanted to be neutral in the cold war. The editorial in the Fajar was very mild but brave enough to talk about neutrality. Upon their arrest, John Eber, who had been arrested and sent to London, cabled them to inform them that he had 2 QCs to represent them: DN Pritt or Dingle Foot. Dr Poh chose DN Pritt. The trial broke long dammed frustrations and people came forward to support: workers, the middle class, teachers. (A more detailed account of this trial and the USC can be read in The Fajar Generation, edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew)
Formation of PAP
The USC shot to prominence by winning the case. They subsequently played a pivotal role in building the bridge between Chinese educated and Lee Kuan Yew. Lee Kuan Yew was courted by Labour front, but that group comprised mainly of Indian workers in city council and government service. He wanted to start another party with Chinese union support. USC had contact with the Chinese middle school through the Pan Malayan students federation- it was from there that Lee Kuan Yew built up his Chinese base. Key to this were charismatic individuals from the Unions who joined the PAP such as Lim Chin Siong.
Lee Kuan Yew’s Manoeuvres
In 1956 David Marshall went to London and asked for greater control of internal security which Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Yew Hock opposed. At the failure of the London talks, Marshall resigned and Lim Yew Hock took over. In 1957, Lim Yew Hock discussed with Lee Kuan Yew and British the formation of the Internal Security council in Singapore. This council would comprise of 3 members from Britain, 3 from Singapore, 1 casting chairman and 1 from Malaya. Two defining terms were established: Firstly, the Council had over riding power to arrest, but release was to be proposed by Singapore government. (This was not told to people) Secondly, at the behest of Lim Yew Hock and Lee Kuan Yew, people in detention not allowed to stand for election. This was unlike other countries, and aimed at people like Woodhull, Lim Chin Siong, Putucherry.
This would lay the stage for the political game which ensued. The British needed someone to stem the rising support for the Left, and Lee Kuan Yew fashioned a role for himself as an increasingly influential gatekeeper. This often meant however, being secretive about his manoeuvres to an extent that even his cabinet did not know. For example when the International Labour Organization asked why the Trade Union leaders were not released, Kenny Byrne responded that this was the fault of the British. However, the British responded that as with the agreement, the onus was on the PAP to ask for their release, something which Byrne did not know.
This secrecy led to opposition to him in the PAP. In 1957, Lee Kuan Yew’s group lost control of the CEC in the PAP, but with Lim Yew Hock’s crackdown on supposed communists, LKY’s group was restored to the PAP. Henceforth, the PAP would be run through a system based on the papacy where the CEC (pope) would appoint the cadres (cardinals) and the cadres (cardinals) would appoint the CEC (pope).
However, by 1961, pressure to release the detainees was mounting. Ong Eng Guan campaigned in the Hong Lim by election on the platform that all detainees before 1959 should be released and he won. It showed that there was a deep and genuine concern from the people on the release of the detainees and Lee Kuan Yew knew that he would lose the next election if he did not order the release of the detainees. In desperation, he asked Selkirk that if he proposed release, that Selkirk would countermand the order. Selkirk refused as the reason for putting LKY in front was to take the odium of the arrest from the British.
The Die is Cast
With Selkirk refusing to back him up and the public opinion pressurising the release of the detainees, Lee Kuan Yew acted decisively. On 20th July 1961 Lee Kuan Yew called an emergency legislative assembly meeting to discuss the question of merger. A group opposed him, not because they were against merger per se, but wanted to know the terms of merger. When they abstained, they were kicked out of the party and formed the Barisan Sosialis.
The formation of the Barisan Sosialis dealt a near fatal blow to the PAP’s operational capacity. Nearly all the branches, including Lee Kuan Yew’s Tanjong Pagar branch went over. To deal with this, a large scale ‘security’ operation was mooted, however, to mask the true nature of this operation, this needed to be a pan Malayan ‘anti communist’ affair. Azhari’s revolt in Brunei gave the opportunity and the arrest of Malayans like Ahmad Boestaman made it seem like there was a Pan Malayan communist plot. The Barisan were accused of supplying weapons for this revolt and over 100 people were detained on February 1963 under Operation Coldstore. This was eventually proven untrue from official British records which showed that the Barisan were trying to distance themselves from the revolt. (Dr Poh’s personal account of his arrest can be found here http://singaporerebel.blogspot.sg/2011/09/dr-poh-soo-kai-and-mhas-fiction-of-his.html)
With key leaders arrested, and propaganda against the Barisan as well as the issue shifting to the question of merger rather the release of the detainees, the PAP unsurprisingly won the elections. With the arrests, the situation was tough for the unions. Their leaders were arrested, some blackmarked along with their families. Most of unions still fought on through 1963 but were eventually completely smashed. (An account of this can be found here: http://michaelfernandezthumba.blogspot.sg/2010/03/left-wing-trade-unions-in-singapore.html)
Present and Future
Although the trade unions as a site of mobilization and resistance has been smashed, Poh Soo Kai outlined several tensions in Singapore society. Recently workers from China employed as bus drivers were unhappy at their poor treatment and inequitable wages. At the failure of the official lines of protest, many decided to stay at home and not work. They were arrested and charged for going on strike.
Politically, the opposition is gathering strength as the people are less fearful but also because economically not doing well. There is high GDP, but much foreign money is laundered in through casinos. This clean money is speculated into land causing inflation to rise. This causes a corresponding rise in house prices. Previously one could pay back a house in 15 years, now it takes a lifetime. Such expensive housing also consumes CPF moeny meant for retirement. The cost of this is not only the interest paid on the housing loan, but the interest otherwise earned on the CPF foregone. When many people feel they cannot afford old age, ministers suggest they move over the causeway. Another option for supplementing old age would be to rent out the rooms of the house. As such, economic factors are more important now for merger than before. Unfortunately the old consciousness that Singapore is an inalienable part of Malaya is not there in the younger generation anymore.
The Importance of Alternative History
One of the major questions at this point is why the need for an alternative history. I am not a philosopher of history, so I will just try to substantiate with key learning points from Dr Poh’s talk. Firstly is the issue of justice. If Dr Poh’s account is accurate, and which can be easily substantiated from declassified British records, many of the people arrested were innocent of their charges. Although many have passed away, others such as Dr Poh, Said Zahari and Chia Thye Poh are still alive and deserve the chance to clear their names. Such revelations and other revelations from people like Teo Soh Lung more recently shows that the Internal Security Act itself must be reviewed and all those charged deserve to have their names cleared.
A second important point is that of social memory. Dr Poh often pays homage to the Malay left as a matter of fact. He rolls out names such as Burhanuddin Helmy, Ahmad Boestaman and Pak Sako (Ishak Haji Muhammad).These names are often forgotten to most in Singapore whose most heroic Malay historical figures are often Leftanen Adnan or Hang Tuah. Whatever their contributions, they surely pale in significance to the bravery, dedication, intelligence and initiative of not only those leaders, but also those of the scores of people in that generation who made the acrifice. This highlights not merely the true heroes which time otherwise forgot, but also inspires a certain type of ideal in contrast to the role models we find today. Another point is that the history presented to us is often full of precautionary tales about racial strife and discord if we do not have repressive laws. His narrative turns these tales on its head. It was precisely repression which destroyed the solidarity of the races to break the united front against colonialism.
A third point is that listening to his narrative is like following an unbroken rope. The rope is frayed and some pieces jut awkwardly, but events which are otherwise incoherent makes more sense from his perspective. Although I often feel like I am marooned in the vastness of time, I feel that following the rope, with all its frayed edges will give me greater clarity about my own situation of where Singapore came from, why certain things are what they are today and where we are going. There are obviously more of such ropes to discover as we hurtle towards an uncertain future. Such a turbulent inception has left a lasting trauma, institutionalized into the social, political and economic order, seeping deep into the psyche of citizens. We face the economic difficulties dictated by the logic of such a system, namely continuous influx of foreign labour and capital for disproportionate economic growth, but are seemingly too disempowered and alienated to change it. His narrative does not provide us with a time machine to change the key moments in history, but it does give greater clarity to the problems that confront us today so we may address them with honesty.