Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Play Review: Square Moon - A Moon That Struggles to Illuminate

Square Moon is a play that narrates a series of cover-ups by the fictional Homeland Security Department after a terrorist, Golden Hartono, escapes, and Hartono's lawyer, Kristina Hu, is unlawfully detained without trial. Hu develops feelings for a fellow detainee, River Yang, who is an opposition politician that subsequently gains political office. When in office, the hopes of Hu being released are dashed as Yang did not abolish the Homeland Security Act.

If the audience were expecting a multi-dimensional, satirical, and intense reflection of the Internal Security Act and the issues surrounding detention without trial juxtaposed against how it infringes upon individual liberties, they would be disappointed as I was.

As it turned out, the play Square Moon does little to merit the 26 years that former Marxist detainee, Wong Souk Yee, has kept her silence on the theater stage. Fans would no doubt call it advocacy theater where Wong's political bias was laid bare throughout the play, from the power hungry and nefarious royal family (read Lee family) to the evil and dimwitted intelligence officers of the Homeland Security Department (read ISD).

Critics would, however, argue that the characters were under-developed, with the dichotomy between good and evil, weak and powerful, so clearly separated that there was almost no room for moral maneuvering and meaningful debate. The ending was as predictable as a Stallone action film and a far cry from The Live of the Others (a superb film about Stasi spying in defunct East Germany). Still, it should be applauded that former ISA detainees have found the courage and outlet again to participate in the arts and public life.

Part 1

The play opens by bringing the audience straight into the theme of torture with the prison guards and directors of the HSD dressed in BDSM-inspired leather bondage gear (but not to worry, there is no actual beating involved). Kristina Hu and River Yang, played by Zelda Tatiana Ng and Lim Kay Siu respectively, are seen cowering under the power that their captors have over them. The captors are kept in line by Neo Swee Lin, who acts as the evil but pious “Madame Minister”, daughter of the reigning political party, desperately hanging on to power.

The opening act is the weakest part of the play as Wong Souk Yee's script and Peter Sau's direction hardly gels together. The BDSM theme and Catholic imagery appears awkward and coerced, as torture of the inmates are portrayed blatantly (perhaps needlessly) when instead “torture” would be better understood as a more subtle form of psychological warfare; of threats, fears against one's principled beliefs in democracy and freedom. Here, the playwright could have added a layer of sophistication by delving further into the decision-making process of the Homeland Security Department officers and the minister, rather than the simplistic portrayal of them as unsophisticated evil-doers.

The highlight in this first part was played by Erwin Shah Ismail, who as a prison guard and political fence sitter, helped Hu and Yang to deliver their written notes and feelings. The point of casting Erwin Shah as a cross-dresser is lost on me, or perhaps that was just to show his identity crisis as a Liberal-Socialist sympathiser. It is also a pity that his role as a political fence-sitter was not further developed.

Part 2

The second part of the play is much better, but still doesn't escape the simplistic binary tale of good and evil, lacking humanisation and dilemmas. Surely, if the Homeland Security Department and Homeland Security Act were so cruel and evil as portrayed by Wong, they would have been removed by the general populace already? So, for the sake of analysis, if they have survived for such a long time, it is a pity that the writer did not grasp the opportunity to illuminate the tensions between the politics of majority against the rights of individual liberty. It was also a missed opportunity to contrast how the ISA was used somewhat unpopularly in the 70s and 80s, with its less controversial use in the recent decade against radical Islamic terrorists, who were accused of plotting to cause mass destruction.

The climax of the second part of the play is when Yang gains political power and it becomes apparent that, despite being imprisoned by the Homeland Security Act himself, the Liberal-Socialist sinks familiarly back into self-preservation as the Act is not repealed. The Director of Homeland Security Department, along with everyone else, ingratiates themselves to Yang and more prisons are built. Nothing seems to have changed, as those in power can only think of ways to stay in power, just as Yang urges Hu to compromise for a just and strong nation. Hu rebuffs Yang's attempts to make her sign a confession saying that she was a “terrorist” and remains as a detainee.


In all, the play spoke plainly from the voices of the former 1987 detainees, Wong Souk Yee and collaborator, Chng Suan Tze, who must have felt injustices after being detained without an open trial; hence the constant theme of evil and power vs good and weak in their play. We and many Singaporeans know of their hardship and it is only for the better that they put out their art for the public's benefit and debate.

What was missing was from this artistic display was an analysis of the issues surrounding detention without trial. Should individual liberties be at any time suspended because of security concerns? And to what extent? In what sort of situations? Who are these people who carry out these draconian laws? Are they humans or plain villains? Why hasn't the general Singapore populace called for a repeal of the ISA?

26 years later, it seems the same Square Moon is equally capable of illuminating as well as casting a shadow.

Monday, 9 December 2013

A Second Glance: United Front Were No Communists

Last week, Singapore alternative online news outlet The Online Citizen published an article titled United Front were no communists: British intelligence. In gist, the article revealed the contents of a British classified document illustrating Maurice LB Williams, the Security Liaison Officer (title of the Head of the British intelligence unit, MI5 office in Singapore), evaluating the evidence presented by the Singapore Special Branch on the security situation in Singapore in 1962. 

In his report, Maurice LB Williams evaluated that the United Front was not being dictated to or controlled by the communists and this ran counter to the PAP government’s claim that the opposition was involved in a communist conspiracy to topple the government. Maurice also mentioned that "they are united only in their dissatisfactions with the P.A.P. Government, and they cannot be considered to form a monolithic Communist edifice under strict Party management ".

This is no doubt an interesting perspective that would spur readers to delve further into this topic and inject much needed academic vigour and vibrancy into this phase of Singapore's history. It is strange though for a MI5 officer to expect a "monolithic Communist edifice under strict Party management" as a smoking gun when these trade unions, as well as peasant and student organisations were simply proxies of the CPM. Did Maurice honestly expect the CPM to officially subsume the United Front and legitimize police action against them? Maurice's assessment is all the more confounding when Chin Peng himself admitted that "most of the island's workers sympathized with the left-wing trade unions and members of these unions well appreciated they were under the control of the CPM".

CPM's control of the United Front is further supported by the memoirs of high ranking CPM cadre Fong Chong Pik (aka The Plen) when he admitted to having a special acquaintance with Lim Chin Siong, the top United Front leader in Singapore.     

However, like in all historical academic writing, one should be cognizant of the need to present evidence from multiple sources rather than depend on only those that fits one's assertion. As the Security Liaison Officer in Singapore, Maurice must have sent more than one report back to the Colonial Office and it would be beneficial to review all his reports for a complete view on Singapore's then security situation rather than cast judgment based on a singular report. 

Moreover, the launching of Operation Coldstore was ordered by the Internal Security Council comprising of governmental representatives from the United Kingdom and the Federation of Malaya and Singapore. Any decision taken by the council must be approved by the majority of council members and in the case of Coldstore the decision was unanimous. Hence, Maurice's single assessment may not represent the final assessment made by the British government.

Having said these, I like to introduce a few more interesting excerpts from CPM leader Chin Peng's autobiography My Side Of History which unexpectedly contradicts MI5's assessment.

In his book, Chin Peng gave a stoic assessment of Operation Coldstore. He described Operation Coldstore as Lee Kuan Yew lowering "the boom on the CPM" and that it "shattered our underground network throughout the island". In saying this, Chin Peng recognised that the main target of Coldstore was the CPM and admitted to the efficacy of Operation Coldstore in eradicating the Communist influence in Singapore. Ironically, these statements by Chin Peng go against recent articles by Dr Thum Ping Tjin who asserted that Operation Coldstore was a crackdown on political dissidents in Singapore.

In spite of Chin Peng's acknowledgement for Operation Coldstore, he categorically denied having any direct control over the Barisan Socialis. Chin Peng also refuted allegations that politicians like Dr Lee Siew Choh nor other prominent figures like the Puthucheary brothers had ever been CPM members. He did however admit to influencing these politicians.

Note: Dr Lee Siew Choh, Party Chief of Barisan Socialis was never arrested under the ISA 
This is where the play with semantics occur. When can one be considered a Communist or not a Communist? Can someone qualify to be a Communist if one is inclined to the ideology or does one have to be a card-carrying member? This is a question for readers to ruminate on and arrive at their own conclusions.

To conclude, rather than give clarity to this tumultuous period of Singapore history, TOC's article raises more doubts than answers. Hence, it is up to all like-minded history buffs to sieve through the numerous resources available and hopefully piece together a balance and credible narrative for all Singaporeans.


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Marxist Sojourn of Comrade Bala

Shocking news gripped the United Kingdom when a 73-year-old man named Aravindan Balakrishnan (aka Comrade Bala) was arrested on suspicion of holding three women captive in a south London flat for 30 years. According to the UK press, the victims were brainwashed by the Marxist Comrade Bala, held against their wishes for years, and were often beaten by Balakrishnan and his wife. 

The three victims were Josephine Herivel (daughter of a renowned Bletchley Park codebreaker during the Second World War), Aishah Wahab (a Colombo plan scholar who came to Britain to study in 1968) and Sian Davies, who died in 1997 (a high-flying law student who studied at Cheltenham Ladies’ College). Having an academic discussion about Marxism is one thing but taking it to the extreme is disconcerting to say the least. Furthermore, the victims being western educated individuals rekindles the point that Communism is not reserved exclusively for the typical Chinese chauvinist but also Western intellectuals who are equally attracted to the ideology.  

In a weird turn of events, the perpetrator of this heinous crime is apparently a Singaporean so obsessed with Marxist ideology that he left for England to set up a commune in the 1960s. By the 1970s, he had worked his way up and became a member of the Communist party of England's central committee. However, he soon left the party in 1974 and set up a separatist group styled as a direct component of Maoist China, calling on the Red army to come to south London to liberate working people. 

Because of his Marxist ideology, the Singapore government deemed him to be pursuing "activities that are prejudicial to the security of Singapore" and stripped of his Singapore citizenship for his close ties with Eurocommunists in 1977 (see below for newspaper clippings). Was this a blessing in disguise for Singapore? No one can say for certain but history has its unique way of eventually unravelling the truth. 

Another interesting point observed was the time period (1960s) in which Balakrishnan left for England. If we recall it was in 1963 that Operation Coldstore was launched to counteract the spread of Communism in Malaya. Was Aravindan Balakrishnan one of those Communists who slipped past the security dragnet and escaped to the United Kingdom?

In the 1960s, the United Kingdom was viewed as a safe haven for Communists and notable local Communists like Lim Chin Siong went into self-exile in the UK after being released from detention. This trend of Communists/Marxists relocating to the UK stretched till the late 70s; the most notable of whom was Singapore Marxist Tan Wah Piow who fled to the UK with forged immigration renewal endorsement and sought political asylum.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

More Questions Than Answers in New Coldstore book

Recently, a book "The 1963 Operation Coldstore inSingapore: Commemorating 50 Years" was launched in Singapore. The book edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang & Hong Lysa aims to present history from the perspective of those arrested during Operation Coldstore. (Note: Poh Soo Kai was one of those detained during Operation Coldstore)

From excerpts and articles published online, Operation Coldstore was positioned as a political move that aimed to shore up Lee Kuan Yew's waning political support during 1963. Apparently, Lee Kuan Yew's own party base was not supporting him and due to that, he sought help from the Malayan Communist Party and then the British. Furthermore, it is claimed that Lee Kuan Yew inserted names onto the arrest list to ensure that even if his own popularity collapsed after the arrests, there would be no real alternative to the PAP. 

With such mouth watering details extracted from de-classified British documents, I look forward to reading the book! To make this even more mouth watering, what the British documents said were in contradiction to other British documents and the records of the local government and Special Branch. For the uninitiated, read Dennis Bloodworth's Tiger and the Trojan Horse.

Strangely though, amongst the publicity there was little mention of the links between these individuals and the Malayan Communist Party, especially for those who were in the Barisan Socialis. This is problematic as we know for certain that Lim Chin Siong, the leader of the Barisan Socialis was a Communist and this important fact was conveniently omitted. Even Fong Chong Pik, the leader of the then Singapore underground  Communist network admitted in his book written in 2008 that he possessed a special relationship with Lim Chin Siong. 

Interestingly, perhaps in their attempts to whitewash their relationship with the Communist cause, it is such glaring gaps in narrative that draw further attention to their relationship with the Communist Party of Malaya. 

Despite this historical tug of war between the PAP government and ex-ISA detainees, one fact is for certain - the Communists were an armed insurgency that caused undeniable physical damage to Singapore's infrastructure and terrorized the population. At the end of the Communist insurgency, no less than 12,000 people perished. This violent doctrine only officially ended in 1989 when the CPM signed a peace treaty to cease all hostilities. Therefore, maybe it is the CPM's violence that presented the advantage and legitimacy to Lee Kuan Yew's PAP government to clamp down on the Malayan Communist Party and its affiliates.

That said, there were innocent individuals scooped up for their political allegiances and became the collateral damage in this Communist insurgency.  But at a time when the CPM waged a physical insurgency and conducted shrewd political manoeuvrings through its political proxies, weeding out the Communists at its bud would be no easy task.

For your viewing pleasure, I have embedded a History Channel documentary on the Malayan Emergency depicting the the dire situation at the height of the Communist insurgency (1948 - 1950s). 

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Mystery Behind Tan Wah Piow's Flower Wreath

On 29 September 2013, theonlinecitizen.com published an article claiming that Tan Wah Piow denies having sent the flower wreath to Chin Peng's funeral. Aside from his denial, Tan added that "the Sin Chew report was ... publicised in a Singapore blog which was devoted to demonising me and those detained in 1987 Operation Spectrum as 'Marxist conspirators'".

Upon reading this, the history buff in me came alive, ever so hopeful to find another like-minded individual who blogs about such long forgotten historical issues. Alas to my dismay, a simple search on the internet turned up only two blogs which mentioned the Sin Chew report. My own blog and another titled Where Bears Roam Free which carried a rather dim view of Tan Wah Piow, calling him "a commie sympathizer" who "achieved nuthin in life". The commentary may be crass but to each his own.

Just to clarify, my interest in this long forgotten past of Singapore is rooted in facts scoured from openly available resources and painstakingly pieced together as a coherent whole for the reading pleasure of like-minded history buffs.

From this latest development, the question that begets me was: "why would anybody "plot" against Tan Wah Piow'"? There are a few plausible conjectures:

Firstly, there may be the possible involvement of the Malaysian tabloids. The media focus after Chin Peng's death revolved around the Malaysian authorities' refusal to allow him back in to Malaysia. What better way to differentiate oneself from the other run of the mill press articles than to get a firsthand scoop of Chin Peng's close affiliation with Singapore activist Tan Wah Piow? In this cut throat industry, reporters are constantly looking for new sexy angles to publish their articles and we should not be surprised at what reporters are willing to do.

Secondly, there is also the nefarious possibility that the Malaysian authorities are the orchestrators behind this entire facade. The mounting flak heaped on the Malaysian government after their high-handed handling of Chin Peng's passing, the Malaysian authorities turned to their favourite bogeyman Singapore to deflect some of this negative attention. Just recall the number of times Malaysia made use of little brother Singapore during periods of domestic crisis and such a plot is not entirely impossible.

The third possibility may be as what Tan Wah Piow claims and "the person or persons behind the “mysterious wreath” falls on his “detractors in [Singapore]", in particular the Singapore government. On account of the past antagonism Tan Wah Piow had with the Singapore government, the government of Singapore does indeed have an axe to grind.

But then again, my lonely sojourn on this part of Singapore's history reflects an unfortunately dismal public and academic interest in this topic. Hence, this "sleek piece of dark propaganda" appears rough at the edges and only succeeds in shining the spotlight on the Singapore government. An ill-conceived move like this by the Singapore government ultimately provides a platform for Tan to hit back at his detractors and backfires spectacularly on the Singapore government.

This brings us to the last possibility where Tan Wah Piow staged this entire show to bring further attention to his case. Having explained the negative trade offs for the Singapore government in the previous point and the somewhat unsophisticated method employed, this potential soliloquy by Tan Wah Piow should not be rejected outright.

If we were to juxtapose Tan's public denials of being a member of the Communist Party of Malaya together with his penchant for offering assistance to known CPM elements in the past, Tan Wah Piow's words and actions do not often go hand in hand. Just as the Singapore government has an axe to grind with Tan Wah Piow, I am sure Tan is no pushover either.

All these are but speculative talk and the mystery of the flower wreath remains unresolved. What we do know for sure is the attempt by someone to leverage on the death of an old man to further their own selfish agenda.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

From London to Bangkok: A Comrade Remembers

Seeing Chin Peng's portly self in his later years, few would believe that this was the man who once waged a bloody Communist insurgency in the Malaysian peninsula. For years, he fought with his brothers-in-arms but was finally forced into exile in Thailand. Others who fought alongside him, both physically and ideologically, were similarly forced to flee into exile around the world. In recent years, Chin Peng fought to return to Malaysia and was denied entry every single time. Such is the fate of a man who was at the losing end of history. Maybe it is in his honour that even his ashes wrecked such apprehension in the BN government that they were denied entry for the fear of reopening old wounds.

Now in his death, with his former comrades scattered all over, tributes began to trickle in for a man they once revered and struggled alongside with. From distant London, a flower wreath sent by Tan Wah Piow, rekindled a long forgotten connection. In this dog eat dog capitalistic world that we live in now, such loyalty and sentimentality is a breath of fresh air. Self-exiled in the UK, constantly fighting for his innocence against the Singapore government's charge of being the mastermind behind the Marxist Conspiracy, he once stated vehemently in his book Let the People Judge that he was no communist.

"How could there ever be such a plot to establish a communist state when the so-called "mastermind", that is, my humble self, confessed in no uncertain terms that I oppose the very idea of turning Singapore into a communist state? Why does the Singapore goverment insist on calling me a communist when I am not one?" Tan Wah Piow in his book Let the People Judge

In the same vein, Wah Piow's sentimental self was already evident in 1982, when despite his own trying circumstances, he was instrumental in securing political asylum for another five members of Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in Europe. Be it Communist or Nationalist or Socialist, the display of camaraderie that neither time nor distance can hope to extinguish is indeed worthy of a mention.  

(Source: http://news.sinchew.com.my/node/324537?tid=1)

Rough Translation:

"Former Singapore student movement activist Tan Wah Piow, who went into exile in the United Kingdom in 1976 and had a close relationship with former Communist leader Chin Peng, sent a wreath to the latter's wake today. From self-exile, he instigated a movement to abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Malaysia and Singapore and asked for the release of Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) members.

Tan was a student at the University of Singapore in the 1970s and became the president of the student's union in 1974. In the same year, he was charged by the Singapore Government for organising and taking part in an illegal gathering and sentences to a one year jail term.

Information revealed that Tan was influenced by Marxism when young and therefore became passionate about student movements.

Based on online information, after his release from jail in 1976, Tan flew to UK on a Singapore passport with forged renewal endorsements to seek political asylum and stayed there till today.

In the UK, he continued to lobby for the abolishment of the ISA and release of CPM members.

Although Tan fled Singapore in mid 1970s, the Singapore Government named him as the mastermind of the Marxist Conspiracy in 1987."

Side Note: Ms Teo Soh Lung, one of those arrested during the Marxist Conspiracy, shared her views on Chin Peng's passing.

Ms Teo: "it is not right to say that the MCP wanted to establish a communist Malaya. They were prevented from joining the political process after the war even though its members fought against the Japanese when the British fled".

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the MCP did try to participate in the political process but they were repeatedly outwitted by the English-educated neo-colonialists, namely LKY and his comrades. The MCP did participate in the political process, first through Lim Chin Siong when he shared the leadership of PAP with LKY, and later through Barisan Socialis when they participated in the 1963 General Elections; but sadly chose to boycott parliament thereby depriving Singaporeans of an alternative to which we still seek today. Hence, MCP members had two major forays into the political arena and both ended in disappointment.

I shall end this post with a quote by German scholar Martin Luther:

Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.