The People’s Hero’s article 14
Appendices II: Lim Hock Siew’s writings, statements, speeches and interviews
‘I would never lift one finger to justify my own detention’
Lim Hock Siew
This chapter is extracted from the transcripts of the series of interviews given by Dr Lim Hock Siew to the Oral History Centre that began on 5 August 1982, a month before his release on 6 September, and five months short of what would have been 20 years of his incarceration. The final interview session was held on 31 July 1986. The interviews comprise 61 reels of about half an hour each. From time to time, Lim Hock Siew expressed interest in working on the transcripts for publication. He readily gave the editors permission to form a chapter from the materials, which he would then go through and perhaps write a postscript. Sadly, this was not to be. Lim Hock Siew passed away on 4 June 2012 at the age of 81, when the first draft of this chapter was just about ready to be reviewed by him. Judging from the speeches that he had given in the last decade nothing had happened in the intervening two decades that would make him any less scathing of the People’s Action Party (PAP). – Hong Lysa
In the last five years of his life Lim Hock Siew saw signs of the fading fortunes of the PAP. He was excited about the changes brought about by the alternative media and emerging social forces. Even though he was in poor health, having to undergo kidney dialysis three times a week, he would drive to work at Rakyat Clinic in his old Mercedes every day. He worked half a day and back home he would spend a large part of his time browsing the internet. He kept up to date with political developments in Singapore. He was supportive of the opposition and was always happy to meet young people who were bringing about change. He willingly shared his experiences with them. He minced no words about his great dislike and distrust of Lee Kuan Yew. Lim Hock Siew refused to put his signature to a document that would have secured his own freedom but which, to his mind, had nothing to do with national security. He thus denied Lee this satisfaction. Although soft-spoken and mild-mannered, he was a powerful orator on his feet. He spoke without notes at the launch of The Fajar Generation in 2009 and at other public and private functions. He was a man of steel, sacrificing a warm family life with his wife and then five-monthold son for his political beliefs and democracy for Singapore. – Teo Soh Lung
I am the third of a family of 10 children; my parents were completely illiterate. My father was orphaned from childhood. He sold fish in the Kandang Kerbau market, close to where we lived in Campbell Lane. It was a poor people’s area with mainly Chinese residents, but there were a good number of Indians and Malays as well. We were a closeknit family, with loving parents who encouraged us to study to as high a level as we could.
The environment I was brought up in enlightened me on the problems and difficulties facing the poor. It was a political education in itself, giving more meaning to the theoretical knowledge which I later acquired on my own, and strengthening my socialist outlook on life. I was also inspired by my younger brothers and my younger sister who were especially politically active in the 1950s and 1960s. Students from the Chinese-medium schools like them played a very active role in the political struggle of our people. However, my Mandarin at the time was poor, and I did not have any serious discussions with them. Also, I was hardly home as I was preoccupied with my university studies and activities. My parents understood and supported what my siblings and I were doing. My family was morally behind me when I was in prison.
I started my primary education in 1936 at the Anglo-Tamil School in Hastings Road and later transferred to Rangoon Road School. In 1941, when I had completed standard three, the war broke out. Like most Chinese men at the time, my father was put in a concentration camp, but he was released, most probably because he was obviously uneducated. We managed to get used to the deprivations, the strenuous life, and the sense of apprehension – of not knowing what was going to happen next. When the Japanese surrendered, race riots broke out in Kampong Kapor where we lived. Gangsters took law and order into their own hands. The police, predominantly Malays, locked themselves up in Kandang Kerbau police station, in fear that they would be assaulted. The Japanese had used the police to suppress the Chinese hawkers in the area. I witnessed a Malay boy who ventured out to buy food being attacked by a dozen Chinese boys. Within minutes his body was a mashed heap of flesh and blood.
We were relieved when the British returned, for at least law and order was reestablished. However, a transformation had occurred. The inculcation in English-medium schools that it was a privilege to be ruled by the British and the abject admiration for the colonial system were demolished. My parents insisted I return to Rangoon Road School. At the end of two terms I enrolled in Raffles Institution.
My schoolmates came from different feeder schools. We were awed by the so-called elite atmosphere of Raffles Institution. I took history as one of my subjects. We were pumped with rubbish about the glories and achievements of colonial builders like Robert Clive, even though India gained independence in 1947. The teachers made no effort to explain the significance of historic events that were happening around us. Like in other English schools, students at Raffles Institution were politically apathetic. Every time some Tom, Dick or Harry was invited to address our school, he would start by extolling the virtues of Raffles and hail us as ‘future leaders’ of our country. I thus felt an obligation to enlighten myself about current political events by reading in the Raffles Library. I read Nehru and other Indian leaders’ accounts of their struggle for independence. Nehru’s letters to his daughter in particular gave me a completely different picture to what we studied as history. It changed my life. I also took part in school debates and in an interschool oratorical contest in 1949. The topics, however, were frivolous ones like whether romantic love interfered with academic studies. I was also on the editorial boards of the school magazine and the combined schools magazine.
I worked hard at my studies, managing to be at the top of my standard throughout my secondary schooldays, while also participating in extracurricular activities. I would say I was an allrounder trying to make the best use of every opportunity in school. I wanted to take up architecture, but could not afford to go abroad for higher studies. So like almost every student applying for admission to the University of Malaya, I put medicine as my first choice. I have no regrets, for it is a very good form of humanitarian studies, not only a professional course.
University Life and Political Developments in the 1950s
My first year at university in 1951 was a very packed one as I had to take the basic science subjects which Raffles Institution did not offer because of the lack of facilities immediately following the war. Ragging was then permitted, and of a rather ferocious type, in the medical faculty. I allowed myself to be ragged but campaigned for its abolition, which was achieved only in 1957. In my first year I was involved in the founding of the Non-Hostelite Organisation that catered to about 40 per cent of the student population, and in 1955 I helped found its official organ Pelandok. I was a member of the students’ council for three sessions and its chairman for one of them. I was also on the editorial boards of Malayan Undergrad, the students’ union newsletter, and of Fajar, the organ of the University Socialist Club.
The vast majority of undergraduates then were immersed in their academic studies and totally disinterested in politics. I would say that objectively their apathy and passivity in politics resulted in their playing a reactionary role in our people’s struggle for national independence. Nevertheless, the university was not totally quiescent. In January 1951 the police raided the university and arrested six people. I was shocked and angry at how easy it was for the government to invade the university and put them into prison under the Emergency Regulations without charge or trial. I thought that there would have been some sanctity, some kind of academic freedom within the university. The political realities gave me a big jolt. The students’ union sent representatives to visit the students in prison to see how they were faring. They could bring food, books and other items. The colonial government was thus more liberal than the PAP government was to be in its treatment of political detainees.
The University Socialist Club was formed at a time when colonial peoples worldwide were clamouring for national independence. As university students, we felt an acute sense of obligation and responsibility to be involved in our people’s struggle. The club was meant to provide students with an opportunity to meet, discuss, enlighten and educate themselves, and to express their views on political issues. We did not envisage an active role in the political struggle. Its founders openly declared their socialist convictions, and their support for an independent, united and socialist Malaya which included Singapore. We were concerned not only with the question of freeing our country from colonial rule but also how to solve the tremendous social and economic problems confronting our people after independence.
My close friends at university mostly came from the University Socialist Club. Like me, most of them were to be imprisoned either in Singapore or in Malaysia. They included Dr Poh Soo Kai; Dr M.K. Rajakumar, chairman of the Labour Party, Selangor branch; Sandrasegeram (Sandra) Woodhull, secretary of the Naval Base Labour Union; James J. Puthucheary of the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union; Jamit Singh, secretary of the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association; Lim Shee Ping, a paid staff member of the Singapore Business Houses Employees’ Union; A. ahadeva, secretary of the National Union of Journalists in Singapore; Linda Chen; Tan Jing Quee and so on. Kassim Ahmad and Syed Husin Ali, who were imprisoned in Malaysia when they were leaders of Partai Rakyat Malaysia, were also my compatriots at the university.
The University of Malaya students reacted strongly to the violence that the riot police inflicted on the Chinese middle school students on 13 May 1954 when they gathered to petition for exemption from national service. Some undergraduates approached the students’ union president, who then called for an emergency meeting on the night of 14 May. Around four to five hundred turned up. It was a stormy affair. Those opposed to the meeting discussed the legality of calling it at such short notice, as they could not possibly argue in support of the police action which even the press, chiefly the Singapore Standard, condemned. The majority voted in favour of continuing with the meeting; the others walked out. I gave an account of the 13 May event, which I heard from my brothers (Hock Koon in particular, who was the designated spokesperson for the student representatives’ delegation from Chung Cheng which had an appointment with the officer administering the government) and younger sister, and which generally tallied with the Singapore Standard’s account. The meeting passed a resolution strongly condemning the unwarranted use of violence against peaceful student demonstrators, and to send protest telegrams to the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, opposition leader, Clement Attlee, and the Singapore colonial authorities.
However, the students who walked out subsequently demanded an extraordinary general meeting to discuss the legality of the emergency meeting. They carried the motion, so the resolutions taken at the earlier meeting were declared null and void. There was yet another meeting where a vote of no confidence was passed against the whole student council.
The 13 May demonstrations, the arrest and trial of the Chinese middle school students and of the Fajar editorial board for alleged sedition led to an upsurge of mass political activity. Following the arrests, I became an editorial board member of Fajar, and was in charge of the Fajar Defence Fund that was set up. The trial ended in total victory for the students when charges against them were thrown out after three days.
We sensed that the time and the circumstances were ripe for a serious anticolonial party to emerge and represent the interests and aspirations of our people, in particular the workers and common people, to fight for national independence. The workers’ and the students’ organisations were an integral and the most effective anticolonial component of the original PAP. Members of the club participated in their individual capacity in its formation, and the leftwing trade unions were closely linked to the party’s leadership.
I volunteered to work for the month-long campaign in the Farrer Park constituency in the 1955 legislative assembly election, where the PAP candidate was C.V. Devan Nair, as I was familiar with the area. Devan Nair was an impressive speaker, spouting anticolonial philosophy. The substantial numbers of English-educated voters in the constituency, mostly civil servants and city council workers, were so comfortable being colonial subjects that the thought of being a free people frightened them. There was also a sizeable portion of illiterate Chinese without much political consciousness. They said frankly that they would vote for a certain person who had kindly given them five dollars.
The middle school students were capable of organizing themselves and sacrificing personal for common interests. They risked being branded as communists and imprisonment without trial. The colonial authorities were more reluctant to make such moves against University of Malaya students. The middle school students helping in Farrer Park were extremely active, disciplined and efficient. They simply informed the organisers that they would be doing work in one area, and could be left to it. Nobody provided them with lunch or transport. They passed the hat around and bought the essential materials like cloth for banners and so on. However, their spontaneity and dedication were turned against them with the insinuation that their actions were orchestrated from behind the scenes.
I arranged for mobile vans fitted with megaphones to tour not only the Farrer Park constituency but all the other PAP-contested constituencies as well. I had to pay for this from my own pocket. I passed the hat around after that, but could collect only a fraction of the sum. I asked Devan Nair for the balance of about $300. He shrugged and said, ‘Where am I going to get the money?’ That $300 was my bursary for one term, so I was broke for quite a while after that.
On polling day, I was with Lim Chin Siong, PAP candidate for Bukit Timah, as he needed an English speaker to help with talking to the election officers. The popular support that he enjoyed among the people of Bukit Timah was amazing. Without exception, he was warmly welcomed by the villagers like their own brother. He spoke their language, understood their problems and could convince them that he was incorruptible and sincere in fighting for the interests of the common man. Lim was then only 21-years-old.
The anticolonial movement was essentially a young people’s movement. The majority of the activists in the PAP branches were below 30-years-old. With the full knowledge and encouragement of the PAP leadership, the middle school students played a critical role in the election campaigns. Devan Nair was defeated, but the PAP won the other three seats, as did their candidate who ran as an independent. David Marshall’s Labour Front formed a coalition government, with the PAP in opposition.
However, the election under the Rendel Constitution was a straitjacket. The fight for independence had to come from outside the legislative assembly, through the mass movement and popular agitation, as in any colony. It was not a question of how many votes one could muster in the legislative assembly whose powers were dictated by the colonial government, but the mass support one had outside the legislature that counted. Lim Chin Siong spoke in halting English in the assembly. The language inhibited his capacity to articulate his views, but his stature and popular support underlined the importance of every word he uttered.
Socialist Club members knew that mass organisation was crucial to politics. When they left the university, Sandra Woodhull, Jamit Singh, James Puthucheary and Lim Shee Ping all entered the trade union movement. Others went to the Federation to organise unions. We considered Singapore as part of Malaya. We did not become members of the central committee of the PAP, which was elected at the various party general meetings. At the same time there was hardly any role we could play in the branches because they mainly comprised the Chinese educated.
The Chinese school students identified closely with the interests of the workers in Singapore. I think they saw that they were likely to become workers themselves when they graduated, for they had few employment prospects except for working in factories and becoming construction workers or even general labourers. The civil service was closed to them. Even though Chinese was the language of the majority, it was not recognised as an official language, nor were Malay or Tamil. A person highly educated in Chinese was considered an illiterate when he turned up at a government counter, which might be staffed by someone who did not even have a Cambridge school certificate. The Chinese were more vocal against this gross discrimination because of their numbers and ability to organize themselves.
Their identification with the workers was also based on their anticolonial political conviction. The students were politically mature, with a sense of responsibility towards society, for they felt privileged within their community for the opportunity to have an education.They wanted to help the workers and the general population to improve their lot, which could come about only with national independence. This alliance between workers and students was significant in bringing about the formation of the PAP and its 1959 electoral victory.
The Lim Yew Hock government tried to demonstrate its reliability to the colonial authorities by banning a number of social organizations including the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students’ Union, arresting more than a hundred activists, and expelling 140 students in September 1956. Further arrests were made in October, forcing the students into taking action. In protest, the middle school students camped at Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School. After two weeks the government issued an ultimatum that troops would be sent in on 25 October 1956. My friends and I were outside the gates of Chinese High that evening, along with four to five hundred people who seemed to be farmers and people from nearby villages. They were shouting and booing at the police, who fired tear gas. Violence broke out and spread to other localities. A curfew was imposed. Thirteen people died, were injured and about a thousand were arrested. In the legislative assembly, Lee Kuan Yew stated categorically that he was convinced that the riot was not caused by subversive groups, and that the police should have dispersed the crowds before the situation turned ugly. He also said that if the riots did not occur, Lim Chin Siong and others would have been arrested on another occasion, on some other pretext.
With this demonstration of his trustworthiness to the British, Lim Yew Hock led a small delegation to the second merdeka (independence) mission in London in March 1957. The first round of talks led by David Marshall had been doomed to fail as there was no prior agreement on the part of the multiparty participants from Singapore. The British government simply layed pucks with them. It did not trust Marshall, suspecting that he would not be firm enough to control the situation. The second round of constitutional talks did obtain an agreement that there would be a fully elected assembly, answerable to the people. But it was merely what the British felt was safe for them to give at that stage of our struggle, considering their vested interests.
During this period, I was very busy with my final year of studies and did not go out of my way to talk to party members on this matter, but still had the impression that they were not enthusiastic about the whole thing. With the key anticolonialist leaders in jail, the British had to make some concessions. The elected government, however, did not have full control over internal security. In retrospect, it is clear that Lee Kuan Yew at the time did not necessarily want the people of Singapore to have such control. I also had a feeling that various party members whom I was in contact with were unhappy with the exclusion of political detainees from participating in the country’s first general election. Despite The Straits Times playing up the success of the merdeka mission public reaction was lukewarm at best, for widespread contempt for Lim Yew Hock prevailed.
Marshall was critical of the mission, claiming that it obtained even less than what the British were prepared to give to the first merdeka mission which he led. Lee Kuan Yew was quite unhappy with the support that Marshall was getting from some sections of the PAP members and the trade unionists. He resigned and asked for a mandate via a by-election to vindicate himself, as it were, on his stand on the second merdeka mission. He grabbed at the opportunity to do so during the legislative assembly debate, though Marshall’s off-thecuff challenge to him to do so was ruled out of order by the speaker. I subsequently learned that the by-election had in fact already been seriously contemplated in order for Lee to disassociate himself from Lim Yew Hock.
Before the PAP’s fourth annual general meeting scheduled for 4 August 1957 we had heard that groups of mainly trade unionists within the party were planning to oust Ong Eng Guan from the central executive committee (CEC), as they were unhappy with his attacks on the trade unionists made at various party meetings. We, the University Socialist Club members, felt that such open battle would create discontent and disunity within the party. If Ong, the party treasurer, was ousted, Lee might fear that he himself was similarly vulnerable. We tried to meet them, and after much difficulty got to talk to Chen Say Jame, Goh Boon Toh and Tan Chong Kim. The three trade unionists gave us a polite hearing, and said they would consider our views. We knew they had already made up their minds. The result was that six pro-Lee and six pro-trade union candidates were elected to the CEC. Ong was ousted. Lee was alarmed that he had no control over the majority of the party members. His group refused to hold positions in the CEC. The decisions and statements by Lee were interpreted by many at the time to be an open invitation to the British and Lim Yew Hock to arrest the PAP dissidents. We were perturbed, and went to see Lee at his office to try to persuade him to change his mind, but he was adamant.
On 22 August the Special Branch arrested 35 people, including five of the six new CEC members under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance. Socialist Club members saw the arrests as being of benefit to Lee’s faction in two ways. First, the British would read the faction’s distancing of themselves from the six left-wing CEC members, and the absence of protests against the detention of the PAP members, as an indication that the faction could be expected to maintain colonial interests; second, the arrests of the five left-wing leaders would allow the Lee faction greater control of the party organisation before the general election, while Lim Chin Siong and other trade union leaders were still in prison.
At the November 1957 party annual general meeting Lee introduced the appointed cadre system which deprived party branches and ordinary members of the right to elect the CEC members, in effect totally destroying the democratic nature of the party. All this marked the beginning of our disillusionment with Lee. We began to feel that he was by no means a democrat and were rather appalled by what we saw as his ruthlessness in allowing the British and Lim Yew Hock’s government to put his opponents within the party into prison. Much later, we learnt from T.T. Rajah, the only one of the six not arrested, that Devan Nair, who was in detention, had indicated to him ‘six–six’, when T.T. visited Devan as his legal adviser. Devan’s standing at the time among trade unionists was very high, and they must have thought that his words were those of the other imprisoned top unionists as well. We did not know then that Lim Chin Siong was not confined in the same location as Devan Nair, and they were not in communication. My impression now is that those trade unionists merely carried out what they thought was the instruction of their detained leadership. Long after the event T.T. Rajah raised the matter with Devan, but the latter merely laughed it off and suggested that Rajah had misunderstood him. By then Devan had moved closer to Lee. Before the general election there was talk that the PAP might work with Lim Yew Hock. On 11 May 1959 The Straits Times reported Marshall’s allegation that Lim was snarling at Lee above the table, but under the table they were ‘playing footsie-footsie’, which we understood to mean that they were forming a united front. Five of my friends and I barged into Lee’s house. He did not deny the report. The gist of his reply to us was that if the PAP did not unite with the Labour Front then it would have to fight against all the other parties. I remember rebutting him, arguing that if all the other parties were united against the PAP, so much the better, for the lines will be more clear-cut and people would be able to see who the procolonialists were, and who the anticolonialists. Lee was quite displeased by the bold affront. All this took barely five minutes as he was on his way to an appointment. I volunteered my services in the PAP’s election campaign in 1959 and focused on the English-speaking constituencies, despite having been turned down for nomination as a PAP candidate. These areas were hostile territory. The PAP’s victory raised the hopes of the working class for changes in the whole social set-up, which would lead to improvements in their lives. After the general election the PAP issued a notice which was posted in all party branches stating that over 140 members of the party were forthwith expelled. My name was on the list. I was not given prior notice and in fact was not informed of this at all.
The PAP proceeded to launch some unpopular policies such as an attack on the English-speaking section of our population, who were mostly living in a world created by The Straits Times which assumed that the party was highly unpopular. They were shocked by its massive electoral victory. The government cut the pay of civil servants. To me it smacked of a personal vendetta, vindictiveness, and was thoroughly antisocialist in principle. These things should have no place in the thinking of a political leader. The English speakers had been politically misled by the colonialists. Rather than condemning and further alienating them with insults, effort should have been made to unite them in the common struggle with the workers. I made my views clear in no uncertain terms through people whom I knew in the party. I was then working in the Kandang Kerbau Maternity Hospital. Many of the senior doctors in the government service were thinking of resigning en masse, not so much on account of the pay cut but the indignity they suffered. I was placed in a rather difficult position because many of them thought I was still a member of the PAP. I did not want to say anything to embarrass the party. At one meeting, some doctors advocated strike action. I suggested they think it over carefully, for any strike action would be a prolonged one and could result in the total restructuring of the medical service. They eventually dropped the idea, but their frustration grew.
The PAP victory was no surprise. It merely cashed in on the mass discontent with the colonial system which had already been there when the PAP was formed in 1954, and with the oppressive and incompetent Lim Yew Hock government. The people wanted change. There was a general understanding that the trade unionists would lend support to the PAP on condition that their leaders would be freed, and this played a significant part in the party’s victory. Without the support of the trade union faction the PAP would be very weak. The top-ranking eight, including Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, James Puthucheary and S. Woodhull, were duly released, but not the dozen or more others.
Within less than a year, the PAP faced a serious struggle within the party between Ong Eng Guan and Lee Kuan Yew. As far as we know, it was over purely personal ambition. There was no real conflict of political ideology between the two, though Ong made the clever move of championing popular mass issues such as the lack of party democracy and other agendas of the PAP left. Ong’s sixteen resolutions were issues which the trade unionists would support. But he was an opportunist. The trade unionists decided that they had to give open support to the PAP which had expelled Ong. He then resigned his parliamentary seat and handsomely won the byelection at Hong Lim, where he had a strong personal following. Short of fielding Lim Chin Siong to challenge him in the by-election, which of course Lee would not do, Ong would have retained Hong Lim.
The Merger Proposal and the Barisan Sosialis
Following the Hong Lim by-election of 29 April 1961 Tunku Abdul Rahman surprised us with his Malaysia plan. It was obvious, however, that the move for merger was not actually initiated by the Tunku but the British, as it involved merging of the British colonies of North Borneo (as Sabah was then known), Sarawak, Singapore and the sultanate of Brunei with Malaya. The British were trying to perpetuate colonialism in a new guise, or neocolonialism. They did not want to give Singapore full independence for its predominantly left-wing political movement would easily win in a free and fair election. To maintain his position Lee was willing to go along with the scheme of the British and the Tunku to bring Singapore under the domination of the Federation of Malaya, in the form of a merger, whereby the people of Singapore would not have equal political status within the Malayan nation. It was a British communalist scheme of submerging Singapore as well as the Borneo colonies into the Federation of Malaya, with its conservative leadership, to perpetuate its economic and military domination over the region.
It was the left wing who demanded most strongly the reunification of Singapore with Malaya, since Singapore became a separate colony while the other two components of the Straits Settlements (Penang and Malacca) became part of Malaya in 1946. But what we were faced with in 1961 was not reunification but a British scheme to perpetuate its economic and military domination of the region. In July 1961, after it lost the Anson byelection, the PAP expelled its 13 dissident legislative assembly members and the political secretaries who refused to give unreserved support for its terms for joining Malaysia, which were not clearly spelt out. The 13 and the trade union group decided to form the Barisan Sosialis.
At this point I decided to be involved, as the Barisan Sosialis was the only meaningful party that could carry our anticolonial struggle one step forward. When Woodhull approached me to join, I believed that I could make some meaningful contribution to the socialist struggle of our country, particularly as most of the Barisan Sosialis members were Chinese educated. Poh Soo Kai and I resigned from our jobs in the government hospital in accordance with the civil service regulations and joined the Barisan Sosialis. We were elected to the CEC.
The Barisan Sosialis had no shortage of candidates to contest the next general election in 1963. A tremendous number of people offered their services to the party. Most critically, our leaders had contact with the mass movement and could reflect the views and aspirations of the people. About 75 to 80 per cent of the really dynamic and effective sections of the PAP membership walked over en masse to join us. Had there been democracy within the PAP the dissidents would have taken control of the party. The Barisan Sosialis actually emerged from the majority of the PAP. I had the privilege of helping the Barisan Sosialis assembly members prepare their speeches for the debate on the White Paper on merger with Malaysia, and did a major part of the research and drafting of the speeches for Lee Siew Choh and S.T. Bani. It was my deep conviction in the Barisan Sosialis’s position on the issue that in great measure helped me withstand the torments and efforts to destroy my morale in the long years of imprisonment. My stand and that of the Barisan Sosialis have been vindicated by historical events.
The major part of the Barisan Sosialis’s speeches in the assembly set out to demolish the falsehood of the official stand and to enunciate our concept of merger. For the Tunku and the PAP to say that just because we were opposed to their version of merger, we were against the concept and goal was an absolute misrepresentation of our position. Our argument, which we made clear to the public, was that their proposal was not for the genuine reunification of the two territories, but a means of suppressing the strong working-class movement in Singapore. The British were not prepared to go against the tide of independence and openly suppress the genuine anticolonial forces in Singapore, so they were expecting friendly conservative governments to do that with their backing. But neither the Tunku nor Lee wanted to take sole responsibility for such action. The British also saw its Greater Malaysia plan as a way of taking care of the problem posed by the strong left-wing movement in Sarawak, led by the Sarawak United People’s Party. In addition, the inclusion of the Borneo states pacified the Malay racialists who dominated the Federation government.
What the Barisan Sosialis wanted was for Singapore to enter the Federation of Malaya as one of its constituent states, with all Singapore citizens automatically becoming citizens of the Federation of Malaya on merger day, and enjoying proportional representation in the parliament of the Federation like citizens from the 11 states. But the Tunku kept emphasising that he was not prepared to allow Singapore citizens to become federal citizens, on the grounds that there were too many Chinese and too many communists in Singapore. This constant harping on racial numbers was to us a very dangerous political game. To us, the Malayan people comprised various races and there should not be discrimination on the basis of race. We believed that there were sufficient grounds for unification between workers and peasants of all races, in our struggle for economic freedom among the oppressed people of our country who comprised the vast majority of the population.
Independence had to mean real change in the political, social and economic character of our society, not just a legalistic show, as was happening in countries which supposedly gained independence but found themselves dominated by colonial rule in a new guise. Belgium granted independence to Congo and its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, who advocated nationalising the country’s main industries, was immediately toppled by mercenaries paid by the Belgian colonialists and then murdered. The country continued to be ruled indirectly by vested colonial interests.
To us, a realistic method of struggle in Singapore was to put pressure on the Federation government to accept Singapore as a state within Malaya in a genuine complete merger, and for the socialist forces in Singapore to combine with those in the Federation to bring about meaningful changes through peaceful, constitutional means. We thought on a pan-Malayan basis. As Lee Siew Choh said in the assembly, we saw merger as nothing short of complete political integration of Singapore and the Federation, with a common federal citizenship, electoral register, central administration and legislature, a common life and destiny. The PAP’s scheme castrated the people of Singapore politically, for without proportional representation in the federal parliament its political influence would be minimal. Thus the Barisan Sosialis saw the proposed merger as highly prejudicial to the political interests of the people of Singapore, which would also aggravate the racial tension between the Malays and Chinese. Indeed race riots broke out in July and September 1964, a year into merger.
My exact words in a public debate with Lee Kuan Yew just before the referendum of 1 September 1962 were: ‘This merger plan of the PAP would be a step backwards and not forward in our struggle for genuine reunification between the people of Singapore and mainland Malaya’. We predicted that the failure of the merger plan would result in the increased dichotomy between the people of Singapore and mainland Malaya. Not only was the golden opportunity to forge a reunited Malayan nation missed because of the opportunism of the PAP, the Federation government and the British, but the whole Malayan outlook of the people in Singapore was killed by the PAP to cover up the failure of its merger scheme.
During the referendum campaign I found, to my surprise, that the people were largely antimerger, much inflamed by the Tunku’s statement about not accepting Singapore in a fully-fledged merger because it had too many Chinese. The Barisan Sosialis refused to play on this by fanning racial sentiments. Instead it tried to convince them that genuine reunification was beneficial to all races, and theoffending remarks were made by a small group of racialists in the Federation. The PAP painted us to the Federation as pro-Chinese, but to the people of Singapore we were accused of being pro-Malay, ready to hand over the Chinese to be suppressed and discriminated against by the Federation. They played up the so-called autonomy of education and labour against us, claiming that they were protectors of the interests of the Chinese-speaking in Singapore.
The Barisan Sosialis pointed out that the PAP was using the autonomy over labour and education as an excuse to cut down on the meager representation that Singapore had in the federal parliament. We in Singapore were predominantly socialist in outlook. Unhindered, the products of ours schools and universities would be more progressive in their political outlook than what the Federation government would have allowed. They would end up crowding the jails of Changi and Batu Gajah with the PAP’s sell-out. Similarly, the only guarantee for safeguarding workers’ rights was to have a strong, independent trade union movement. The workers had seen their trade union leaders labelled as security risks and imprisoned without trial. They knew that control of internal security held by a central government unsympathetic to labour would make a mockery of any so-called autonomy of labour.
Lee Siew Choh pointed out in the legislative assembly on 21 November 1961 that the Tunku was reported as saying in relation to the clash of the Singapore system with the Rahman Talib report, which was extremely unfavourable and unsympathetic towards Chinese education in Malaya, that ‘if it was found later that changes should be made, then steps would be taken to do so’. So much for autonomy in education. Lee Siew Choh continued to press the Barisan Sosialis’s point that the PAP was playing a ‘double edged communal line’. It tried to appeal to chauvinist feelings of the Chinese by harping on about autonomy in education, and the question of the fourto-one preferential treatment for Malays in the federal civil service, which would apply to Singapore if we had genuine merger. The PAP was using a distinctly racialist approach to fight the Barisan Sosialis stand. We had stated clearly that the Barisan Sosialis was against racial preferential treatment, but would strive to change this within the context of constitutional pan-Malayan politics. Such issues should be hammered out in the federal parliament, and the decision taken had to be applicable to the whole of Malaysia.
The Tunku’s ‘too many Chinese and communists’ comment posed a great difficulty for the PAP. They had to camouflage a policy of discrimination as a policy of equality. In one of the radio forums attended by Goh Keng Swee and Lee Siew Choh, Goh stated that if Singapore were to enter the Federation equal to any of the 11 states such as Penang and Malacca, then half of Singapore’s citizens would automatically lose their citizenship. This was manifestly untrue. Tommy Koh discovered upon reading a study of theMalayan constitution by the professor of law at the University of Malaya, Lionel Sheridan, that in fact clause 22 of the constitution of the Federation of Malaya stated that the federal parliament had the right to lay down conditions for citizenship for the people of any statejoining the Federation. So in fact everything was open to negotiation; it was a question of whether the federal parliament was prepared to negotiate. We accordingly drafted a public statement to refute Goh’s arguments, but the press ignored it and kept on repeating his words.
The whole PAP strategy was apparently to mouth a lie as a truth; the more shocking the lie, the more effective they seemed to think would be the propaganda line. The bright sparks in the PAP leadership then came up with a federal nationality, and a second tier of federal citizenship and Singapore citizenship. They said that everyone would be granted federal nationality, and we were thus equal, as we would all have the same passport and were also equal before the law. We pointed out that this logically meant that to enjoy being equal in these two aspects, one needed to be overseas on a Malaysian passport or facing a court of justice in the country. But we were not otherwise equal. A Singapore citizen could not stand for election in any of the other states in the Federation of Malaysia. S. Rajaratnam then said that this was equality as the people in the other states could not stand for election in Singapore either. The whole merger scheme was under such clouds of confusion, and the PAP spread all kinds of rumours and threats in the build-up to the referendum.
The PAP also alleged that the Barisan Sosialis was afraid that internal security would be controlled by the central government under its merger scheme. We emphasised, however, that we would welcome a complete and genuine merger, with the internal security of Singapore under the central government. We were prepared with reunification to make sacrifices which our socialist comrades in the Federation were already making. In this regard, Lim Chin Siong was quoted in The Straits Times on 18 September 1961 as saying: ‘As one who has tasted political detention as a repression, I say we are prepared for this sacrifice. As socialists we should not allow our personal security to stand in the way of national unity’.
The Barisan Sosialis position, as Lee Siew Choh espoused in the assembly, was that:
Merger cannot be achieved by politicians with a communal outlook. Or even by those who outwardly profess to be noncommunal but willingly pander to communal ills…. [T]here is no conflict of interest between the vast majority of the Chinese in Singapore and for that matter in Malaya, and the Malays in the Federation for the majority of both communities are poor…. [I] n Singapore the Chinese workers work together with Malay and Indian workers, they struggle together against the exploiting class of whatever race, for a better livelihood.
The Barisan Sosialis member, S.T. Bani elaborated:
As a trade unionist who all the time works with them, I have seen workers of all races sharing the same difficulties, the same problems and the same hope for a better standard of living…. If the poor of each of these communities were to struggle separately for a better living, they will not achieve as much as they would, if they struggle as a united body. (1 Singapore Legislative Assembly Debates, 30 November 1961, col. 1029.).
Bani reminded the assembly that it was the socialist movement in Singapore which persuaded the Chinese, Indian and other non-Malay communities to adopt a non-communal line and to accept the Malay language as our national language.
The PAP leadership’s merger scheme was sheer domination of Singapore by the Federation. If it had fought for a genuine reunification with the Federation, the socialists would have supported it wholeheartedly and we would have had a very good chance of succeeding. We joined politics to uphold the rights of our people and to struggle for their aspirations. For this, I firmly believe that it is necessary to have some modicum of integrity, intellectual honesty and basic principles. To me, it is astounding that the PAP leadership was concerned more with immediate political aims.
The Referendum on Merger
Debate on the referendum bill started around March 1962 and dragged on till the referendum itself, held on 1 September. It was a sham perpetrated by the government against the people of Singapore and unprecedented in its fraudulent character, demonstrating the readiness of the ruling party to go to any extent to hold on to its power position. First, the choice was not whether to accept or reject merger. The PAP brought in two other alternatives, so voters had to go for one of the three. Alternative B was meant to be the Barisan Sosialis’s proposal, but the government interpreted it as meaning that half the citizens of Singapore would automatically be deprived of their citizenship rights. Alternative C was the terms offered to the Borneo territories. I remember that when Lee made his case at the United Nations (UN), he gave a categorical assurance that the Singapore government would not hold the referendum on merger until the third alternative – Singapore to merge with Malaysia along the lines of the Borneo territories – was clarified. But the referendum was held on 1 September 1962, not long after we returned from the UN, and way before anything was settled about the terms of merger for Sarawak and North Borneo.
A law was passed, stipulating that blank votes would be counted as supporting the government alternative, but PAP propaganda made this confusing by frightening people that the votes could well be counted as alternative B ones instead. It was a criminal offence to destroy ballot papers, punishable with a fine, jail sentence and deprivation of voting rights for even years. No opposition party would possibly call upon the electorate to openly commit a criminal offence. Voting was compulsory; those who failed to vote would be dropped from the electoral register. The law also permitted the government to not reveal the number of blank votes or spoilt votes cast.
Right from the start of the debate on the referendum bill the government made very clear that they would not resign should the people reject alternative A. Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye repeatedly stated that the exercise was merely a consultation with the people; the government’s position was not at stake. This heightened the atmosphere of fear of recriminations should the people vote against the PAP option, which the party did nothing to dispel. This was unlike in previous elections when the government election machinery repeatedly emphasised the secrecy of the ballot. In the house-to-house visits that we made in the course of our campaign, the people expressed this fear repeatedly, rather than being concerned about the merger issue. The Barisan Sosialis knew that, in such a situation, we could not call for a boycott of the referendum, for it was easy for the government to identify those who did not cast their vote.
Also, should the government call a snap election, our supporters who boycotted the referendum would have been struck off the electoral register. We were confident of electoral victory and did not want to do anything to jeopardize our prospects. So we called for the casting of blank votes, as our rank and file members informed us that the PAP had frightened the electorate into believing that alternative B would lead to the disenfranchisement of half of our citizens. Towards the end of the campaign there was also a widespread rumour that should a large majority of the people reject alternative A, the Federation government would cut off the water supply to Singapore. We were not allowed to present our views over the radio, while the PAP went on air repeatedly to put out their propaganda. Opposition parties were also denied the use of vans with public address system facilities. We knew that the threats were too great, the fear too deep, for the people to not vote for alternative A.
In July 1962, about two months before the referendum, Lee Siew Choh, S. Woodhull and I set off for New York to present the Barisan Sosialis position before the United Nation’s committee on colonialism, which was set up to expedite decolonisation. We felt that the mechanics of the referendum certainly did not give the people of Singapore the right to express their aspirations and choose their political destiny. We did not have any illusion that the committee was only a platform for ventilating our views, for the Americans and British held sway at the UN. I believe we made a very commendable effort. The committee called on Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee to reply. Goh made the first reply, but he spoke in such a monotonous manner that Lee cut in, practically grabbing the microphone from him, and made a very long defence of his position.
The result of the referendum in favour of alternative A did not change our analysis at all. As the Barisan Sosialis urged in the legislative assembly, the genuine way of allowing the people of Singapore to decide on it was by a general election during which we would be prepared to persuade our people to give us a mandate for a full and complete merger, to have independence within the context of the whole Malayan nation. But in the face of realities when the Federation government refused to accept Singapore as a constituent state in complete merger with the rest of the Federation of Malaya, or even as an autonomous state in the context of confederation, we would have no alternative but to continue pressing for more and more freedom from colonial rule. We certainly did not subscribe to the PAP’s stand that we should remain politically stagnant.
We had absolutely no illusion whatsoever about the prospect of arrest and widespread repression of political opposition in Singapore by the Federation government after any form of merger had taken place. And none either about the PAP, armed to the teeth with all sorts of repressive powers. The PAP’s manoeuvring was for short-term political expediency, but it set the whole momentum for reunification completely backwards. It resulted in the breakup between Singapore and Malaya, the increased enmity between the ruling cliques in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and the feverish attempt by the PAP leadership to drum up a separate political identity for the people in Singapore.
The consequence was a severe setback in the historical process of reuniting Singapore with mainland Malaya. What the British had attempted to do temporarily – the separation of Singapore from Malaya for its colonial interests – the political opportunism of the PAP and the Alliance government in the Federation succeeded in making permanent. The destruction, indeed the havoc they created to national unity, might require generations of our people to remedy.
We had anticipated right from the formation of the Barisan Sosialis the likelihood of a mass arrest of the top leaders of the left-wing movement in Singapore, and expected that the moment had arrived with the outbreak of the Brunei revolt on 8 December 1962 when it was clear that the British totally rejected the Partai Ra’ayat Brunei’s motion in the state legislative assembly to call for independence and rejection of the Malaysia plan. A.M. Azahari, the leader of Partai Ra’ayat Brunei, and of the armed revolt, had attended the inaugural meeting of the Barisan Sosialis, along with leaders of other socialist parties in Malaya. He also visited the Barisan’s headquarters a few times when he was in Singapore. With the outbreak of the revolt, the Barisan Sosialis had been careful to merely express moral support for that nationalist uprising in our party publications and the legislative assembly. We had earlier on even cancelled our 3 June 1962 National Day celebrations at the last minute, for the permit for our rally came with so many restrictions that had we proceeded, the police, with the help of agents provocateurs, would have been able to find ample excuse to move against us.
We knew that they had to have us arrested before the coming general election, but right up to 2 February 1963 there were no disruptions that they could pin on us. One month earlier we had information that the British, the Federation government and the PAP government had each drawn up lists of people to put in prison, with the PAP’s being the longest. The left-wing leaders decided not to go abroad to evade arrest, but to expose the enemy by going to prison. In the end, the Barisan Sosialis was indeed falsely accused of having a hand in the Brunei revolt, as the justification for Operation Coldstore.
On 1 February it was clear that the number of Special Branch agents tailing us had increased. Woodhull, who had information from friends in Kuala Lumpur that the arrests were going to take place, stayed with his wife at our place that evening. They had been married for a much shorter period than even my wife and I, and were not fully prepared emotionally. I was wide awake and psychologically prepared when the police came at about 4 a.m. In The Straits Times of 4 February, Lee Kuan Yew tried to deny responsibility for the arrests by claiming: ‘If it were an action by the Singapore government we would never have contemplated it. It would not be necessary because we could have carried on till 31 August’, when merger was to come into effect. Detentions after that would be the responsibility solely of the Malaysian government.
When my wife and I got married we knew that sooner or later we had to part, probably for many years. Despite that, we were emotional when I was being taken away. We had been married for over a year only; our son was about five-months-old. But we plucked up courage, and I told her that we would probably be reunited in seven or eight years, which was what the longest-serving political detainee at the time was put through. In the car I was preparing myself for the worst, having heard about the horrible things that the British inflicted on detainees.
The men who were arrested were all taken to the hall of Outram Prison. Those who had Malayan citizenship were sent back to the peninsula. They included James and Dominic Puthucheary, S. Woodhull, Fong Swee Suan and Tan Teck Wah, a prominent leader in the Singapore General Employees’ Union. I did not expect this as they had been detained in Singapore before. But this time the Malayan government itself as a member of the Internal Security Council was involved in the mass arrests. I knew they were going to face harsher treatment than us.
The Unravelling of Singapore as Part of Malaysia
Lee Kuan Yew had kept promising the people of Singapore that Malaysia would come into being on 31 August 1963, but the Tunku decided to await the results of a UN mission sent to ascertain the wishes of the people of Sarawak and North Borneo. So on 31 August we saw on television Lee pull the stunt of declaring the independence of Singapore, which the British did not recognise, and addressing a forlorn gathering at the Padang.
When the preparations for establishing Malaysia were launched in late August the PAP leaders built so-called victory arches all over the island to celebrate the event, and made tours of the constituencies.This was in fact a ruse for their campaign for the forthcoming general election. Sure enough, the election was set for 21 September, after a nine-day campaign period instead of the usual four weeks.
As far as I was concerned, Malaysia or not, we would be remaining in prison. Of more immediate importance was the general election. Some of us discussed whether we should run for election from prison, but discovered that the PAP had sneaked in a legal amendment stipulating that candidates had to hand in their papers in person on nomination day. This was not widely known and we found out only when we checked the law just prior to the election announcement. Hitherto this could be done by proxy, for example by a candidate’s lawyer. We were also told of those candidates designated for nomination by the Barisan Sosialis who had to go into hiding for fear of being arrested to prevent them from filing their papers. This happened to Singapore Business Houses Employees’ Union vice chairman, Tan Siew Chwee, who was detained at a police station on nomination day along with four or five other former political detainees. So there were elaborate plans to keep the candidates safe and for sneaking them into the nomination centres. I had reservations about the Barisan Sosialis’s electoral chances given the undemocratic conditions of campaigning. All the top Barisan Sosialis leaders were in prison and the experienced cadres as well. The PAP rumour machine was busy spreading stories that should the Barisan Sosialis win there would be race riots in Singapore and that the central government would cut off our water supply.
The PAP won 37 and the Barisan Sosialis 13 of the 51 seats (46.9 and 33.2 per cent of the votes respectively). When the results were announced, a good number of the detainees were demoralised. They had hoped for a Barisan Sosialis win, followed by their release. I, on the other hand, had expected that such a result would bring about an even more massive round of arrests. Those who had illusions of being released were really mistaken in their political thinking and analysis. Very soon, a good many of them recovered, but there were also those who succumbed to the demands of the authorities to sign statements lending credence to the falsehoods used to justify their detention in order to seek release.
Within a week of the election results, on 27 September, the police raided Nanyang University (Nantah) and arrested 20 students and graduates, including three defeated election candidates. The Nanyang University students had volunteered en masse to help the Barisan Sosialis election campaign. Soon E hall in Changi prison was filled with Nantah graduates and undergraduates.
The Nantah arrests were followed by those of the trade unionists. Before the general election of September 1963 the PAP had already given notice to the seven major trade unions, with a combined membership of over 100,000, to show cause why they should not be deregistered. This was after a mass rally at the Padang at which Lee Kuan Yew was booed over the Japanese blood debt issue. Lee claimed that the booing was organised by the trade unions at the behest of the communists. When the deadline drew near the unions called for a general strike. Over 30 people were detained, including the Barisan Sosialis members of parliament, S.T. Bani, Lee Tee Tong and Loh Miaw Gong (Loh Miao Ping). Second-wave trade union leaders like Wee Toon Lip and Tan Jing Quee were also swept into prison.
We tried to keep a close watch on political developments via the newspapers, television, radio and news from fresh detainees. From these sources, I found that the 1964 Malaysian election showed the ambition of the PAP in Malaysian politics. They were attempting to win the Chinese population from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a member of the ruling Alliance government. Out of the 14 candidates that it fielded only one won. What was most incredible to me was that Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches were critical of the merger conditions, which made Singapore citizens second class as Malaysians. The Barisan Sosialis had been saying that from the start. After the PAP failed to win over the urban Chinese in Malaysia by becoming more chauvinist than the MCA, generating antagonism among the Malay racialists among others, Lee kept focusing public attention on racial differences in Malaysia, to force the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to accept the PAP within the Alliance government as a sort of assurance for racial peace. This was the underlying basis for his campaign for a so-called Malaysian Malaysia. The antagonism between the UMNO racialists and the PAP brought racial feelings to such a height that blood was spilt in the two race riots in Singapore. I remember distinctly that at the time, Utusan Melayu labelled Lee the ‘father of communalism in Malaysia’. It took many years before the relationship between the Chinese and Malays in the country was brought back to normal.
I must stress that although the PAP leaders were playing racial politics, they were not racialists, meaning people whose political views are completely dictated by the colour of one’s skin. Jaafar Albar, the UMNO extremist who was set against Lee, was such a racialist. By comparison, the PAP’s approach was more akin to that practised by the British colonial rulers, a highly sophisticated political game which played on the racialist feelings of various communities. Their racialist policy was essentially one of playing the feelings of one race against another in order to create dissension, disunity and discord so that they could benefit from this confusion in order to achieve their political ambition. The British had hitherto played this game of harping on racial differences of our population, and claiming that they were needed to keep the situation in check.
In May 1965 the PAP led in the formation of the Malaysian Solidarity Convention, a grouping of political parties fighting for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’, heightening the animosity between UMNO and the PAP. The byelection on 10 July 1965 at Hong Lim was held at the height of the campaign waged by the PAP to get itself accepted into the Alliance. It was occasioned by the resignation of Ong Eng Guan from his parliamentary seat. There was widespread belief that this was at the instigation of the central government in order totest the level of support for the PAP, so that the Tunku could decide how best to handle Lee Kuan Yew. We had heard that the Alliance government was considering releasing top Barisan Sosialis leaders to fight the PAP in the by-election, and that some senior Internal Security Department (ISD) officers had sounded out Lim Chin Siong in prison. We were not thrilled by this prospect, knowing well that after we had done the dirty work for the Alliance by defeating the PAP we would be put back in prison.
In the end, the central government evidently decided against this strategy. The PAP’s Lee Khoon Choy defeated the Barisan Sosialis candidate, Ong Chang Sam, which apparently discouraged UMNO leaders from arresting Lee Kuan Yew, who in any case had the support of Britain, Australia and New Zealand, which then had military forces fighting Indonesian confrontation. The PAP chairman Toh Chin Chye, during his visit to Australia and New Zealand, mentioned the possibility of Lee’s arrest, alerting their governments to the possibility that their troops were not defending a democratic but a repressive government. As if the PAP government, which imprisoned its top political opponents, was any better.
On 21 July, less than two weeks after the PAP’s by-election victory, race riots broke out during the procession celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. This convinced the Tunku that Singapore would have to leave Malaysia. When the separation was announced we were taken completely by surprise, as were the British and also the top PAP leaders who were not taken into confidence by Lee.
We had been proven right for warning that Malaysia as defined by the PAP would not work, but were pained by that outcome, for the antagonisms fanned by both sides meant a greater setback to our struggle for a permanent unity between the peoples of Singapore and peninsular Malaya. Even though we had been against the 1963 merger, we thought that once Singapore was part of Malaysia, the correct path would be to struggle for unity within the context of Malaysia. All the 100-odd detainees in the E dormitories crammed into the small room to watch Lee’s television press conference, when he broke down at the point where he said that all his adult life he had aspired and struggled for unity between Singapore and Malaya. We expected that if he really believed in Malaysia he would stand by his belief, even if it might land him in jail.
Lee Siew Choh had ordered a boycott of the 9 December 1965 parliament session to table the Singapore Independence Bill and the Constitutional Amendment Bill. On 1 November 1966 all Barisan Sosialis MPs resigned their seats as directed by the party. The boycott was to protest against the lack of democratic freedom in parliament and in the country as a whole. Throughout the period when Singapore was in Malaysia parliament hardly met. As the Barisan Sosialis statement also pointed out, such an important issue as the separation of Singapore from Malaysia was decided by a couple of men. It was not debated in parliament, making a mockery of it. However, by this time the Barisan Sosialis lacked unity in its ranks, and the leaders did not carry out an effective campaign to focus on the meaninglessness of further participation in parliament. Unfortunately the debates within the party and left-wing unions lost sight of the main issues, and ended up splitting hairs. I would not be surprised if this was fuelled by agents provocateurs. If the key Barisan Sosialis leaders had not been arrested, all this would have been settled amicably. As socialists we were certainly in agreement with the Barisan Sosialis leadership that Singapore’s independence was phoney as we were not economically self-reliant, as well as with the presence of foreign military bases. These issues were vital for internal party debates, but I for one held that harping on phoney independence as the main propaganda line against the PAP was the wrong course, for the battle over slogans only confused the people.
Imprisonment as Political Detainees
On the second day of my imprisonment I was interrogated by two Special Branch officers, one of whom happened to be my classmate in Raffles Institution. They asked me all kinds of questions which only exposed their ignorance. I simply toyed with them, knowing that what I said or did not say would not matter in the least; clearly it was just a formality. The one significant question they posed was if I were prepared to go abroad, hinting that if I agreed to leave Singapore for good I would be released immediately. I made it very clear to them that I was fighting for the freedom of my homeland, and it was unthinkable for me to leave this country, for which I was making so much sacrifice. In the three and a half months at Outram Prison, I was in solitary confinement aside from the first month in the prison hospital for a very bad case of viral conjunctivitis. I was ‘interrogated’ only once. I learned later that this was common with most detainees in the prison.
Solitary confinement is one of the worst forms of mental torture. Under prison regulations, a convicted prisoner could be punished for breaking these regulations by solitary confinement, but no more than two weeks at a stretch. Medical authorities state that solitary confinement could cause mental derangement in an ordinary human being. However, political detainees were routinely put into solitary confinement for more than two months. I know of a case where a detainee was kept in solitary confinement for more than two years. It is a testimony to his willpower and strength of character that he emerged from that mentally intact. We were allowed weekly visits from immediate family members. Cousins, in-laws and fiancées and girl/boyfriends were not permitted to visit political detainees, unlike for convicted prisoners.
These hardships made me even more resolute as they gave me a closer insight into the true character, the dictatorial and cruel nature of the regime. Unfortunately there were those who were not prepared psychologically for the harsh treatment inside prison. I know of one or two cases where the detainees developed claustrophobia. They became mentally deranged and suicidal. The Barisan Sosialis chairman, Lee Siew Choh, and other Barisan assembly members visited and investigated our living conditions. When the assembly met in April 1963 Lee Siew Choh gave a lengthy speech detailing the harsh conditions in Outram Prison. We had no illusions that it would make any difference to the treatment we received, but it served as a historical record. In fact, conditions became even harsher as a punishment for our speaking out. Those kept at the holding centre for political detainees in the Central Police Station had it even worse.
After three months I was transferred to E hall of Changi Prison, to be with 60 to 70 others, and led a collective life of sorts. We were allowed to pool our prison rations and prepare our own meals communally, and also had food supplies from home. We also organised Malay, English and maths classes, could do some gardening and also sporting activities. We set up a livelihood committee.
I appeared twice before the advisory board, a judicial body to give detainees an opportunity to appeal against their detention. It had absolutely no judicial powers and was calculated to give a false impression that detainees had the opportunity to appeal to a judicial body. A High Court judge was chairman, with two assessors who were civil servants or appointed members of the public. Detainees were not informed of their recommendation, which in any case the government could choose to ignore. In late 1963 I was told out of the blue at about 5 p.m. one evening that I was to appear before the board the next day. I was given half an hour to read four foolscap sheets of closely typewritten text which were the charges I had to answer the next morning. I asked to speak to my lawyer. I was told that it was my right but that none of them had instructions to make the arrangement. I quickly jotted down almost everything in the sheets of paper, which had a good number of lines that were left blank.
The chairman of the board was Justice A.V. Winslow. I asked for advice on how to contact my lawyer. He replied that he had no powers to help me do that. I then asked for the hearing to be postponed so that I could get in touch with my lawyer. He said it was beyond his powers to allow that. I told the board that, for the record, my detention was ordered by the Internal Security Council to suppress political opposition, and that I did not expect the board’s recommendation to mean anything at all. The charges contained factual errors. One of the grounds for my detention was the allegation that I was a member of the Fajar editorial board charged for sedition in 1954.This was not true. In any case, those who were charged were acquitted without their defence being called. But even if they had been found guilty, it was an honour to be seditious against a colonial government.
I asked Winslow about the blank spaces between paragraphs in the charge sheets. He explained that those were grounds which the authorities thought that I should not know about, though the board could read them. It was so ridiculous that I had to laugh. I told the judge that if I were in his position I would resign rather than be coerced into being immorally involved in the sham display of judicial proceedings. He kept quiet.
I appeared before the board a second time to put on record their reply to my demand to be informed about the decision on my first appeal. What really irked me was that having completely debunked on factual grounds the statement that I was a member of the Fajar editorial board that was charged for sedition, this lie was still in the charge sheet. As expected, I was told that the board was in no position to tell me their decision. With that, I told the board that I refused to be part of the sham proceedings. In early May 1965 the detainees in E hall collectively sent a letter to the chairman of the advisory board declaring that henceforth we were boycotting the board, spelling out the reasons for this decision. Those in the other halls also sent a similar letter and agreed to boycott the proceedings as well.
On 21 November 1965 we received news that Lim Chin Siong had been warded in the General Hospital. The next day The Straits Times reported that a fight had broken out between Lim’s pro-Moscow and my pro-Beijing group, and he was badly injured. This was impossible as he and I were kept in separate sections of the prison and had no contact with each other. The newspaper item gave us an opportunity to sue for libel and several of us went to court to give evidence.
The detainees also staged a two-day hunger strike to protest against the authorities feeding such lies to the press. It turned out in the course of the court hearings that the misinformation came from none other than the head of the ISD, Tay Seow Huah himself. Taking action against such lies and other forms of persecution boosted our morale. Whatever difficulties or disagreement faced by the Barisan Sosialis or other left-wing organisations, we in prison were determined to persevere with our struggle of maintaining our stand and demanding immediate and unconditional release. Our morale came from the conviction that we were struggling for a just cause, for a united socialist Malaysia, and that it had been vindicated by history.
We had our day in court again in July 1966. Chia Thye Poh and Koo Young, two Barisan Sosialis MPs, were prosecuted for having alleged in the party paper that the government had attempted to murder Lim Chin Siong. There had been reports that Lim had tried to commit suicide. At that stage the government was going all out to demoralise detainees in prison, attempting to compel all of us to issue statements of repentance, appear on television and so on as conditions for release. The Barisan Sosialis article also mentioned that the government had been ill-treating and persecuting the political detainees. At the initial stage of the trial the chief prosecutor, Francis Seow, asked the two defendants to produce evidence for their allegation. The defence lawyer, T.T. Rajah, asked me to find out who among the detainees were willing to testify about ill treatment they received. When I announced this at E hall the response was very emotional. So many wanted to that we almost had to draw lots.
One of the government’s aims was evidently to portray Lim Chin Siong as a mental berserk. However, Lim happened to be in complete command of his mental faculties at that time, and stood up very well to the marathon cross-examination by Seow. He recovered his political image at least in the eyes of the public and among the detainees. I had the opportunity to testify that the basic diet supplied to detainees was below the standards recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Even though the two defendants were found guilty as expected, the trial was a political victory to the detainees. Giving evidence on the ill treatment we were subjected to provid relief to our years of pent-up feelings. A few weeks after the trial, the government changed the regulations and further reduced our food rations.
Lim Chin Siong was released in July 1969 when he signed a statement to obtain release. He had a relapse of psychotic depression and had to be guarded by three Special Branch men round the clock, until he was taken on board a plane to Britain, accompanied by a government psychiatrist and a senior Special Branch officer. We were shocked to learn of his condition, as we thought that he had recovered from his illness in 1966. However, this development did not have much impact on the morale of the detainees. By then we were seasoned and used to this sort of thing. Long before that we had resolved that no matter who was demoralised, or were broken down by long-term detention, each political detainee was to act according to his or her own conscience. Lim Chin Siong’s statement made some of us resolve that it was even more important to stand steadfastly and persevere in our struggle in prison in order to expose the injustices and lack of democratic rights and fundamental human liberties in our country.
The PAP state did its best to wear us down. Mention has already been made of solitary confinement for prolonged periods, mostly in cells that were practically not fit for human beings. Some were also assaulted. The meager prison diet was also below international standards. We would have been malnourished without food supplies sent from home. In 1971, when we went on a prolonged hunger strike in Moon Crescent Centre, one of the demands was for the right to have greater freedom to bring in supplementary food from home. Hunger strike was the mass action that we took in prison on matters of principle. The first hunger strike I participated in was in early 1965, in protest against the assault inflicted on three detainees when they were taken to the holding centre in Central Police Station. In June 1967 detainees in Changi Prison went on a one-week hunger strike to protest against the deteriorating conditions and ill treatment as punishment for the court testimonies about prison conditions, which we gave in the course of the sedition trial of the editors of the Barisan Sosialis newsletter. We undertook hunger strikes only when everyone was in agreement that we should proceed with the grueling mental and physical struggle. Members of the livelihood committee would decide if there was justification for a hunger strike and if they decided there was they would quietly approach each and every person in E hall to seek his opinion. In August 1971 the authorities wanted to compel detainees to do manual work like convicted prisoners did, under the guise of rehabilitation and vocational training, and brought in costly machinery for metalwork, carpentry and leatherwork. I pointed out to the superintendent who spoke to me that this contravened the Geneva Convention’s guiding rules and principles for the treatment of political prisoners and that, in my case at least, it was absurd to say that I needed to be ‘retooled’ to be able to make a livelihood on my release. They left my hall alone. We heard they started the imposition one hall at a time, but the detainees all stood fast. When the detainees resisted they were locked up in their cells, deprived of reading materials and of visits. This went on for a month. Finally the authorities tried to force them to go to the workshops. They were carried down bodily one by one, and in the process were punched and kicked. The detainees refused to touch the equipment, and were carried back to the cells and locked up.
Towards the end of December 1971 I heard that they were going on an indefinite hunger strike. We decided to join them in solidarity, timing it with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Singapore in 1972. Relatives of political detainees held a press conference which was attended by the foreign correspondents. The strike in my hall went on for three weeks before the superintendent said that he would not impose manual labour on us. Detainees in some of the other halls continued their hunger strike for as long as three months. Each hall had to struggle in accordance with their concrete conditions. We heard that those who went on with the prolonged hunger strike were force-fed in a most cruel and harsh manner. They were seated with their hands handcuffed at the back of the chair. A warder stepped on the handcuff and pulled at the detainee’s hair to raise his or her head. The pain was so excruciating that the detainee would open his or her mouth, whereupon a rubber tube would be shafted down and milk poured down his or her throat. A hefty guard would be sitting on the detainee to prevent him or her from struggling. One detainee suffered from aspiration pneumonia as the milk went into his lungs, and was admitted to the General Hospital on the dangerously ill list, where he continued with the hunger strike. The doctors warned the ISD that the man would not survive if he kept this up. The authorities decided to release him unconditionally for a death on their hands would be a bad blow to the government’s image. In another instance a female detainee in this situation vomited whatever was poured into her throat, and the superintendent ordered four male guards to lift her up and wipe the soiled floor with her skirt. In the end the prison superintendent had to give in to the detainees’ conditions in order to end the strike.
‘I would never lift one finger to justify my own detention’
In mid-1966 Goh Keng Swee inaugurated the government-sponsored Ex-Political Detainees’ Association. He announced that it was the policy of the government not to release political detainees until they repented, a policy which the government resolved not to ever change. It was in effect a threat to keep us in prison for the rest of our lives if we did not repent. The association was evidently a wing of the Special Branch, ostensibly to rehabilitate former detainees but meant to keep an eye on them. No detainee was allowed to be released unless he or she became a member.
‘Repentance’ included making press statements and a ‘confession’ on television. The substance of the scripted statements was dictated by the requirement of the government at that particular stage for their propaganda use. When the Barisan Sosialis were protesting against the American Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1965, detainees released at the time had to condemn the Barisan’s protests. Before the separation of Singapore from Malaysia detainees’ statements mentioned their support of the establishment of Malaysia; after separation, they had to support the separation.
When I was approached to make such a television appearance I told them that they needed an actor, not me. In early 1971 the ISD told me that it had proposed to settle my case together with that of my brother Lim Hock Koon, who was arrested a year earlier. They put the two of us together in the relative comfort of the holding centre in Central Police Station. All I had to do was issue a statement on behalf of the both of us. For the first time since my arrest the ISD made a serious attempt to discuss my case. They said that there was no point arguing about what had happened. They explained that looking forward, my case was somewhat difficult to settle as I had been proven right on Malaysia, and if I were released without some kind of statement, Lee Kuan Yew would ‘lose face’. Of course I found this to be an absurd proposition. They wanted me to issue a simple statement containing two points: that I believed in parliamentary democracy and that I would give up politics. I pointed out that the statements were clearly self-contradictory and it would make me look like a fool, for if I believed in parliamentary democracy why would I agree to give up politics? In any case, my record shows clearly that I was very effective in parliamentary politics, which was why I was put in prison to be silenced. I refused to let them twist the facts. It was the PAP leaders who should state that they believed in parliamentary democracy for their actions showed otherwise. I was sent back to Moon Crescent.
Sometime in late 1972 or early 1973 Douglas Hyde, the former editor of The Morning Star, the official organ of the British Communist Party, was sent to see me. He explained that he left the party when the Second World War broke out, frustrated that it called on everyone to fight Nazi Germany only when the latter attacked the Soviet Union. Hyde then embraced Catholicism. Evidently he had the propensity towards extremism, from extreme left to extreme right. Some years earlier he had been sent to talk to Lim Chin Siong, Said Zahari and Poh Soo Kai.
I have absolutely nothing but utter contempt for this chief salesman of anticommunism to the fascist regimes in Southeast Asia, a foreigner sitting in judgement over whether an opposition leader like me should have the right to enjoy my fundamental human liberties. I regard this man’s visit and the use of him to break up the political leadership of the opposition in Singapore as an insult to my political rights.
In late April 1975 I was transferred to one of the big bungalows at Mount Rosie, the residence of senior ISD officers, and later to another in Jervois Road. These served as rehabilitative centres for detainees who had signed statements to recuperate their health before their media appearance and release. In my case, it was probably for them to assess if it was safe to release me without embarrassment to the PAP government. This time they wanted me to sign a statement of repentance renouncing violence, which I retorted was like asking me to announce that I would stop beating my wife, giving the impression that I had been a wife-beater and had been arrested for that. I told them that as far as I was concerned my arrest and detention were completely unjustifiable. I would never lift one finger to justify my own detention.
I was taken back to Moon Crescent in early 1977. Conditions in Moon Crescent had deteriorated even further. We mounted a protest in 1978 by refusing to walk back to our cells after a family visiting session. We were dragged up three flights of stairs, carried into our cells and locked up for 24 hours a day for one week. My brother was put into a cell just above the prison ovens. It was so hot in there that water sprinkled on the wall would immediately evaporate. He had a stroke not long after.
On 17 November 1979 I was transferred to Pulau Tekong and told that I was released, but I insisted that this was just another prison. That evening I was interviewed by The Straits Times, and subsequently by local and foreign correspondents. I stated that this was a sham release staged to pacify local and foreign public opinion against the appalling lack of human rights and democratic freedom in the country. To my mind, the charade was to pacify in particular the Carter administration, which was concerned about human rights issues. I also declared that I would continue to resist and so refuse all demands to repent, recant or to renounce my convictions as a condition for my release.
I was confined to Pulau Tekong for four years. Towards the second half of 1982 they made serious attempts to ‘solve’ my case, as they put it. The twentieth anniversary of my detention was approaching. Finally they asked me to agree to a simple statement with two points: that I would abide by the conditions of my release, and that I would concentrate on my medical practice.
It must be noted for the historical record that I had never stated in point of fact that I would abide by the conditions of release. Whenever they asked me if I would abide by the restrictions after I was released, my reply would be: ‘has the victim any choice?’ The statement issued by the government was entirely their responsibility; it was not my statement.
After I was told that I was to be released the ISD added in a most sober manner that the government had given it a standing order that should I show defiance I would be put back in prison. This was not stated as a threat, but laying the ground rules, as it were. I had no doubt they meant what they said.
The political reality has been that the PAP government would never tolerate anyone who has shown a capacity to be effective in their opposition to government to participate in the political life of Singapore. The PAP government would not tolerate an effective opposition let alone an alternative government. Anyone who does not appreciate this simply doesn’t understand the ABC of politics in Singapore.
I was released on 6 September 1982 after almost 20 years of continuous detention without trial. At the time I was the longest serving political detainee in the history of Malaya.