Coldstore Here and Now (Part 1)

Posted: February 4, 2013 in Events
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On 2nd February 2013, I attended an event at Hong Lim Park to commemorate the 50th anniversary or Operation Coldstore, an event which saw the arrests of over 100 activists.  This tragic event shattered many lives and severely crippled the political efforts of the left. Perhaps emboldened by the earlier commemoration of the detainees involved in the 1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ this commemoration marked not just a rememberance of a political tragedy, but a necessary introspection into the narrative of Singapore’s history, specifically that to the evolution of authoritarian political structures.

Historical context: The Colonial System

Discussion of authoritarianism in Southeast Asian countries cannot be divorced from the reality of colonial history. Autocrats in Asia and Africa denounce democracy as a Western construct. Historians such as Niall Ferguson write apologia on the merits of empire. However, in reality, the influence and institutions of Western colonialism was key to maintaining authoritarian structures in the colonies. The purpose of colonialism was not a civilizing mission but to extract resources and cheap labour for colonies as well as markets to sell goods. In such colonies, the colonial masters also prevented the development of advanced industries which would compete with their own goods. This situation was highly exploitative and was often disguised by a layer of local dignitaries to obscure the reality of foreign domination. This arrangement meant that colonial countries were structured by institutions which was not accountable to the local populace and whose existence was premised on a large disempowered local mass.

Struggle for Independence

This situation was made highly untenable with the end of the second world war where the traditional colonial countries of Britain and France severely hampered the ability of these powers to control their colonies. Instead, the Japanese interregnum was crucial in denting the myth of colonial invincibility. When the colonial forces came back, the nationalist forces were well organized to mobilize the masses into revolt. A nationwide Hartal (strike) by the multi racial coalition of PUTERA AMCJA was a manifestation of this new organization.

Political Repression

The Malayan Emergency however signalled the onset of a new round of political repression. The official narrative was that this Emergency was to tackle the threat of the Malayan Communist Party, however, the arrest of over 10000 Malay nationalists such as Ahmad Boestaman suggested that a primary target of the British was the nascent radical Malay Nationalism inspired by the Indonesian revolution. Looking back, the colonial strategy to protect their interests in Malaya seems clear. Firstly is to destroy whatever genuine organized anti colonial groups through repression, and secondly cultivate an elite which would be more amenable to protecting their economic interests as they ceded political power.

The Pieces LIne Up

In Malaya this would be the feudal elite who had been comfortable with them up to the formation of the Malayan Union. Singapore however had no feudal elite. The Progressive Party who would have been their group of choice had been devastated by left wing parties such as the Labour Front and a fledgling PAP. Behind these parties was an effervescent movement of various anti colonial groups. With the resignation of David Marshall however, another Labour Front member Lim Yew Hock became Chief Minister and took an increasingly repressive stance. This pushed the Left away from the Labour Front and into the PAP which ensured its landslide victory in the 1959 elections.

The political game was thus outlined. The British wanted an elite which would protect their interests in Singapore (and the region). The various forces of the left had various interests but were united by their desire to see the British out. The pivot from which these forces swung was the new PAP government which ensured some form of democratic respectability for the British while providing some cover for the various leaders of the Left from arrests.

However, internally there was another dynamic within the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew and his group knew that they could not compare to his contemporaries such as Lim Chin Siong on the ground. If Lim and his cohorts were released they could easily win power and he would be sidelined. Yet, he could not appear to be anything other than an anti colonial fighter. He thus became increasingly secretive in negotiations with the British, insisting on clauses aimed at his political enemies, such as insisting people in prison could not stand for elections (something which was not practised in other countries). He was also helped by various institutions such as the media, the special branch and the civil service to play both sides. However such actions increasingly alienated him from both his party and the people. At the same time, the British too kept up pressure, even inviting Left wing leaders to a tea party to send a message out to Lee that they were supposedly just as amenable to the Left taking over Singapore. Losses in the Anson and Hong Lim by election showed the ground was increasingly turning against the PAP and unless he acted he would lose the next election. Lee Kuan Yew forced the issue by calling a motion of confidence in the legislative assembly. When 13 assemblymen from the PAP abstained, they were sacked. This led to a large scale withdrawal from the PAP of the party branches into a new party: The Barisan Sosialis. The support for the Barisan was such that they had to be ‘fixed’.

However, such large scale repression could not be done outright. Lee Kuan Yew wanted to give it the cover of a pan Malayan arrest, but the Tunku initially balked at arresting the elected members of parliament. The Azhari revolt in Brunei however, provided an opportunity to act. The national media (with Lim Kit Siang as one of the journalists)proclaimed that the Barisan Sosialis had supplied the revolt with weapons (later declassified information from the British archives proved otherwise, that the Barisan were distancing themselves though giving moral support). Operation Coldstore began with many of the stalwarts of the Left arrested. Many would not smell the free air for a long time.

An Alternative History Emerges

The truth of the situation is harrowing especially the stories which have come from the detainees themselves. In his political memoir Dark Clouds at Dawn Said Zahari gave of the sufferings he and his family had to endure, such as how his mother died never seeing her son free, him missing his childrens’ childhood and the ill treatment meted to the prisoners. It is from the biographies of men like him and books written by other ex detainees, as well as declassified British records that forms the bedrock of an alternative understanding of operation Coldstore. The question then, is its relevance for today.


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