Dr Poh Soo Kai and a History of the Malayan-Singapore Left

Posted: December 16, 2012 in Events
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“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.

  1. Ben says:

    In his lecture on the history of the Malaysian and Singapore left, Dr Poh Soo Kai has been very consistent in reminding people from both sides of the Johor Straits that Singapore has always been historically and geographically an inalienable part of peninsula Malaya now known as peninsula Malaysia.

    Singapore’s relation with peninsula Malaysia can be likened to Hong Kong with mainland China. Interactions and intermingling of people from both sides of the Johor Straits or the Shenzhen River can never be cut off. The linguistic, eating and other daily lifestyle habits of a Malay, Chinese, Indian and or Eurasian from Singapore is hardly discernible from his or her counterpart from peninsula Malaysia whereas a Chinese person from Hong Kong can be easily identified from his or her counterpart from mainland China the minute he or she starts to speak Cantonese freely spiced with Hong Kong jargons or more particularly Mandarin with a heavy Hong Kong Cantonese accent. If Hong Kong can remerge with China, more so Singapore with Malaysia especially if and when the “Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy)” mindset – consciously and systematically perpetrated by the ruling UMNO party with the help of their former British colonial masters – loses its mass appeal and or dominant influence in the daily discourse among younger generations of Malaysians especially those from the Malay community.

    The coming 2013 General Election in Malaysia may mark the end of UMNO’s incumbency along with its “Ketuanan Melayu” mindset which forms the ideological anchor of its long-standing “Bumiputra (meaning ‘princely sons of the soil’) Policy” of “ensuring that the native Malay racial majority will enjoy their full share of the nation’s wealth”. This would set the stage for the rise of a “Malaysia for Malaysians” mindset which even current UMNO leaders have to pay lip service to but only the multi-racial Keadilan party leaders are able to put into practice by opening their party doors to all Malaysians regardless of race and religion. The Keadilan-led opposition coalition – Pakatan Rakyat – was able to break the two-third majority stranglehold of the Malaysian parliament by the long-ruling UMNO-led Barisan Nasional during the 2008 GE under the charismatic leadership of Keadilan leader, Anwar Ibrahim whose return from political wilderness was instrumental in helping to pull off such a historic political feat. Former longest-ruling prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew should feel vindicated because his long incumbent People’s Action Party in Singapore was championing the same mindset with the “Malaysian Malaysia” slogan before the PAP was booted out of the Malaysian Federation in 1965.

    As for pointing out the fact that Singapore has always been a safe haven for hot money accumulated by super-rich Asian tycoons from newly industrializing countries in East, South and Southeast Asia especially hot cash from Indonesia, China and recently India, Dr Poh has exposed the secret behind the Singapore success story which all boils down to becoming the Switzerland of the super-rich in the region. However, the limited space of barely 700 square kilometers puts a severe cap on how far Singapore can continue playing Switzerland to the tremendous amount of money needed to be laundered and or kept for long-term safekeeping from public auditing in their host countries. Remerging with Malaysia immediately resolves not only space limitation but also aging demographic problems. Surely Lee Kuan Yew and his ruling party elites are more than capable of fathoming this objective limitation, aren’t they?

    Anwar Ibrahim and most of his coalition partners in the Pakatan Rakyat leaders would not be unreceptive to suggestions for such a re-merger, wouldn’t they?

  2. Daunkesom says:

    Dear Ben

    Thank you for your reply. I agree with your comments and am writing something on how the current difficulties SIngapore has is linked to its existence as a city state. I think the region both socially and politically continues to pay a heavy price due to it’s colonial heritage.

    While LKY did advocate for a Malaysian Malaysia, he implemented various racialized policies which has raised conciousness of racial differences as well as marginalized minorities in SIngapore. Let’s not forget while advocating for a Malaysian Malaysia, he also caused a lot of instability in a bid to be the Prime Minister of Malaysia. I remember Dr Poh saying LKY gloated that he had turned Tunku around his little finger.

    Remerger would bring huge benefits to both parties, but the challenges would be formidable.Part of the problem is conciousness, unlike the earlier generations, most younger SIngaporeans seem to have an aversion to Malaysia, cultivated by years of propaganda.

  3. Ben says:

    Dear Daun,

    Apa hal? I’m sorry for having to take quite some time to get back to you. Thank you very much for your feedbacks on my response to Dr Poh’s lecture on the history of the left in Malaysia and Singapore. I hope you don’t mind my calling you Daun.

    I agree with you that certain sections of our younger generation in Singapore may be averse to re-merging with Malaysia due to years of pervasively consistent PAP propaganda on the supposed superiority of what long-incumbent PAP leaders such as LKY and his son love to call “meritocracy” which they are never tired of proclaiming to have enabled Singapore to go “from the third world to the first world”. They even dare to proudly claim that decades of sustained high growth in the GDP of the city republic of Singapore has enabled us to make it to be on par and in some cases even better than some of our former colonial masters from Europe.

    Perhaps LKY may even consider himself to be not just the one and only Minister Mentor in Singapore but also an invaluable Statesman Mentor in the world freely giving his advice to younger up-and-coming statesmen such as GW Bush, Vladimir Putin and even older statesman such as the late Deng Xiao Ping who was trying his utmost during his incumbency to realign China’s political-economic structure to be fully driven by world market terms and conditions. LKY even sent his PAP right-hand man, Dr Goh Keng Swee to be a key economic advisor in China during the 1980s. The veteran leaders from the LKY faction of the PAP are certainly well placed to advise DXP’s capitalist right faction of the Communist Party of China to not only suppress the Maoist socialist left faction in the CPC but also help the Chinese political-economic structure link up and hopefully even catch up with capitalist market standards and practices in the world because the incumbent LKY ruling faction has not only been extremely successful in suppressing their own socialist left faction in the PAP for more than 30 years but also in achieving what our former British colonial masters have failed to achieve in their former crown colony of Hong Kong. Since the 1980s, LKY has been widely promoted in the main-stream corporate media of the world as one of the world’s most successful statesman from Asia. He is still prominently featured in the international main-stream corporate media right until even quite recently. How can many of our youths – especially those who are aspiring to be successful highly-paid executives in the private and state-owned corporate sectors – be not impressed?

    However, among more ordinary young working people, PAP’s perceived superiority over neighboring ruling parties such as UMNO in Malaysia seems to ring rather hollow; they are more concerned with making ends meet from day to day and are genuinely worried about how they can continue to make ends meet when their working shelf life are expected to end at age 55. During the early 2000s, I had the good fortune of talking to a young life guard at a SAFRA swimming pool where I used to work out regularly. He told me when he is able to withdraw his CPF nest egg at age 55, he would sell his presumably paid-up HDB flat to procure enough money to use half of the proceeds to buy a more affordable house or condo in Johor and use the other half along with his CPF savings to live the remaining years of his life with his wife in Malaysia where they would not have to worry so much about sky-rocketing living cost that has become a cardinal issue among the majority of ordinary working people in Singapore. A PAP minister even suggested that ordinary working people who cannot afford to put their aging parents in local institutions should consider putting them in more affordable institutions in Malaysia especially in the nearby state of Johor. Many have already done so without any PAP ministerial prompting.

    I think countering PAP’s perceived superiority over the ruling UMNO in Malaysia is not as formidable as the concrete task of downsizing the current SAF to state-level local territorial defense force if we were to re-merge with Malaysia. Most ordinary rank and file national servicemen and officers would be more than happy to be rid of our national service liability to join the work force on par with our female cohorts immediately after secondary and or tertiary schooling. Furthermore downsizing the SAF to a state-level territorial force would relieve the heavy burden of our current grossly inflated military budget to release much needed funds to improve the general well-being of the vast majority of our ordinary working citizenry.

    However, professional soldiers especially senior officers with the rank of major and above may not be so happy with losing their high paying iron rice bowl along with the recognition and respect they have been awarded by the state and society at large. Furthermore PAP is well known for coopting young high-ranking SAF officers such as Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong and Rear-Admiral Teo Chee Hian into its central party hierarchy to become ministers in the state legislature; others are given cushy positions in the state corporate sectors when they relinquish their key commanding positions in the military sector and recently, some high ranking officers were encouraged to set up private companies to undertake lucrative defense related contracts dished out by MINDEF. The tight interlocking of ruling party and state corporate interests with the elitist sectorial interest of the high-ranking military officer corps in the SAF ensures the loyalty of the military high command to PAP.

    Such loyalty might come in handy if the ruling PAP super elites were to turn desperate in hanging onto its power and privileges if majority of the ordinary working citizenry were to turn against them but instigating internal strife to justify instituting emergency rule with the support of the military high command would seriously threaten the stability and credibility of Singapore as a safe haven for hot money. What may have worked for the ruling UMNO in Malaysia during the politically instigated communal strife in May 1969 may not work in our little tiny dot. UMNO tried to instigate another communal strife in the wake of losing its two-third parliamentary majority during the 2008 GE but such instigation was forestalled by the joint call of a united opposition to the people especially to the youthful populace to not aid and abet efforts by the ruling UMNO to ferment communal strife among Malaysians to frustrate any attempt by UMNO to annul the results of the election by declaring an emergency. So it is extremely important for opposition parties in Singapore to learn the lessons of preempting any PAP attempt to ferment communal strife among our citizenry in the event that its two-third majority stranglehold on the parliament is threatened by opposition victories in several SMEs and GRCs during the next GE.

    Thanks for hearing me out.

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