Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Revising the Revisionists: Operation Coldstore in History

The battle of the minds on Singapore's early Independence history is heating up. After Dr. Thum Ping Tjin's recent assertion that Operation Coldstore represented a blatantly political exercise by the PAP to destroy the legitimate ‘progressive left wing’ opposition in Singapore, another academic Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna has come out questioning Thum's position and research on the issue. This crossing of swords between Singapore's intelligentsia is exciting to say the least and will help in the recovery of Singapore's historical amnesia. 


The recent controversy over the Indonesian navy’s decision to name a vessel after two marines that had bombed MacDonald House in Singapore on 10 March 1965 is revealing. It has reinforced philosopher George Santayana’s quip that those who cannot remember the past will be condemned to repeat it. The action by the two bombers, Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, killed three Singaporeans and injured 33 others, and was part of the low-intensity war known to posterity as Confrontation. 

This campaign was waged by the left-leaning Indonesian President Sukarno against what he regarded as a British ‘neo-colonial’ challenge to his designs for regional supremacy: the newly inaugurated Federation of Malaysia, which at the time included Singapore. Particularly telling was how much effort the media and several ministers had to invest to enlighten Singaporeans as to why the Indonesian decision was injurious to Singapore’s national dignity. Such collective historical amnesia is not exactly healthy as it renders the body politic vulnerable to distorted versions of defining episodes in our history.

Case in point is another historical episode from the tumultuous 1960s that has received rather sensationalistic treatment recently: the internal security action called Operation Coldstore on 2 February 1963, two years before the MacDonald House bombing. History records that Coldstore was mounted to contain the threat to Singapore’s security posed by the Communist United Front then dominating key interest groups. 

Now Ping Tjin Thum (P.J. Thum), a young Singaporean historian, disputes this. He argues instead that Coldstore represented a blatantly political exercise to destroy the legitimate ‘progressive left wing’ opposition that had hitherto offered the only credible electoral challenge to Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party (PAP).

This is a good story. But reality was not that straightforward. 

The Context

By the late 1950s, in the midst of the Cold War and post-war decolonization, the British Colonial Office sought to transfer power to local governments in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore that would be anti-Communist and friendly to Western geostrategic interests. British Commonwealth forces were meanwhile engaged in a shooting war with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in the jungles of that country. 

South of the Causeway a strong Communist United Front (CUF) had penetrated the Chinese-educated workers’ and students’ associations, as well as the left-wing political party, the PAP, that seemed most likely to win the election for limited self-government in 1959. The British feared that the CUF would ultimately overwhelm the English-educated PAP leadership led by Lee, turning Singapore into a Communist-dominated ‘second Cuba’ in the heart of maritime Southeast Asia.

The Colonial Office in London and Lee hence sought to persuade the politically conservative Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to overcome his fear of upsetting Malay political dominance and power in Malaya with the absorption of Singapore Chinese. To resolve the racial equation, they proposed that the island be absorbed into an expanded Malay Federation that would include the British Borneo territories as well.  The geopolitical calculus was that with control of Singapore’s internal security vested in a staunchly anti-Communist central government in Kuala Lumpur the CPM would be severely curtailed. 

Hence Singapore would develop within the Federation framework in the desired pro-Western, anti-Communist direction.  Because Tunku insisted that Merger with Singapore required its Communists to be first brought to heel, Coldstore was mounted in February 1963. Eight months later, in September, Singapore achieved full independence from the United Kingdom as part of the Federation of Malaysia.

Thum’s Perspective

Thum now appears to question this standard security-driven narrative of Coldstore. His ‘revisionist’ interpretation focuses on PAP leader Lee’s supposed obsession with power and determination to destroy his closest political rival, the charismatic Chinese-speaking ‘progressive leftist’ Lim Chin Siong and his colleagues in the PAP, the unions and other interest associations. 

By late 1962 the supremely crafty Lee had apparently manipulated the British and Tunku into a corner.  In particular, Lord Selkirk, the UK Commissioner in Singapore, expressed misgivings that the list of individuals that Lee wanted detained seemed to be targeted simply for being in political opposition.  

Lim Chin Siong especially seemed to be fingered not because of security reasons but because Lee wanted him arrested so that the PAP would win the upcoming general elections. Because the political clock was ticking away, Tunku warned the British in January 1963 that if the Chinese-educated political left in Singapore were not locked away, Merger would be off. An anxious Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys in London thus overruled the objections of Selkirk and Coldstore went ahead.  Politics had trumped security.

Reality Check

There are two main problems with Thum’s argument. First, he argues – citing Selkirk’s contemporaneous concerns - that at the time of Coldstore there was no direct evidence that Lim Chin Siong and other detainees were engaged in actual Communist subversion.  But the records do show that even careful British officials conceded that Lim was a skilful CUF operative and other detainees possessed a recent history of subversive activities. 

Tunku also agreed that the detentions on preventive grounds were necessary. This was prudent. CPM elements within the utterly penetrated Barisan Socialis that was challenging the PAP for power never ruled out switching strategy to armed violence at any time. Historian T.N. Harper hence considers Selkirk’s attempted distinction between ‘political’ and ‘security’ grounds for detention as ‘problematic’. 

Second, Thum emphasizes how Tunku and Selkirk disliked Lee’s personality and byzantine political machinations. But CUF leaders – said to possess ‘animal cunning’ themselves – in fact regarded the tactically agile Lee as the only serious obstacle to their plans to establish Communist rule in Singapore. British envoy in Kuala Lumpur Geofroy Tory sympathized with Lee’s position, warning that playing by ‘Queensbury rules’ with the unscrupulous Communists would be folly.  

Ultimately, cautious British officials in Singapore conceded that in view of what historian S. J. Ball called the ‘ruthless, fast-moving and mendacious’ nature of local politics at the time, Lee Kuan Yew, warts and all, was ‘the only man who can run this city’.

Revising Revisionism

Singapore celebrates its 50th national birthday next year and the nation seems to be in ‘mid-life crisis’, grappling with issues like immigration, national identity and political change. In this light, the appearance of revisionist historical accounts – aided and abetted by the historical amnesia Santayana warned about - is unsurprising.  Nevertheless, perhaps one positive step to begin salving the national mood is more extensive, innovative and creative public education efforts to promote a greater appreciation for and knowledge of our history. 

As part of this process, Operation Coldstore itself must be seen in context – it occurred during a difficult episode in our history amidst a genuinely dangerous period in the Cold War, as evidenced by the Cuban Missile crisis in October 1962, ongoing advances made by communists in Indochina, the Brunei revolt in December 1962, and of course the Indonesian Konfrontasi from January 1963.  

The revisionist view that Coldstore was utterly driven by Lee’s obsession with political power is hence misleading. A more nuanced analysis suggests that reality at the time was defined by morally complex shades of grey.  Ultimately, following Machiavelli, the moral test of tough policy choices must be whether they benefit a nation in the long run. Fifty-one years on, even critics concede that Singapore has blossomed into a cosmopolitan, politically stable and economically vibrant metropolis. History would therefore - on balance – very likely adjudge that Coldstore passed this test.


Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor and Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University. A historian by background, he has published extensively on the struggle against post-war Malayan Communism. He is working on a longer scholarly analysis of Operation Coldstore. 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

United Front: A Yankee's Perspective

After our previous article sharing how high-ranking Communist Party of Malaya officials Chin Peng and Fong Chong Pik (aka The Plen) acknowledged CPM's links to the United Front and its leader Lim Chin Siong, a reader Peter shared with us an interesting third party perspective illustrating the American's assessment of the Communist situation in Singapore. This could be another interesting research avenue for local history academics to pursue and the findings would undoubtedly be refreshing.

"The MI5 assessment in 1962 that there was no United Front activity must be seen in context that the British could not admit that the communist danger was imminent and that it was before the crucial events leading to launch of Op ColdStore.

In the discourse on a United Front, it is a known tactic of the communist to mobilise workers, trade unions, political parties and others like students for revolution, legal if possible, and violent if necessary. Singapore in the 50s, with the Emergency in the background, was evidence of a communist united front. The significance of that MI5 document is not the assessment per se which is used to challenge the current narrative of Op Coldstore, but why and how that assessment was made, arguably head in the sand, and how it differed from Singapore Special Branch's.

Until December 1962 and just before Op Coldstore, the British in Singapore including Maurice Williams and Lord Selkirk, the British Commissioner, were reluctant to recognise the depth of the Communist threat especially after the perceived defeat of the communists in the Emergency. To admit that the communists were still dangerous was tantamount to concede that the communists were not trounced by the British.

The Americans however were on the other end of the spectrum and appreciated the communist movement seriously and differently. The US government viewed the growing communist problem in Singapore as part of a domino theory of communist revolution across the world including Southeast Asia e.g. the armed conflict in Vietnam and PKI's immense popularity in Indonesia."

"As early as the mid-1950s, in George Weaver's report for the US State Department on the leftwing labour movement in Singapore, he said that he had high praise for leaders such as Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, and their union operations, and although he found no signs of illegal activity, the unions showed all the signs of communist fanaticism.

The Americans, with their anti-communist bias forged in Cold War politics, saw that communism had to be stopped and tried to contain communist influence and growth in Singapore. Kenneth Young, director of the US State Department's Office of Southeast Asian affairs, said in 1956 that "Singapore is probably already lost and little can be done to save it from Communist domination in the near future". The US even saw the PAP as a communist-dominated party and Lee Kuan Yew was also suspect, which was not far from the truth in light of his pact with Fong Chong Pik and until the leftists split from the PAP in 1961.

Thum Ping Tjin's article "The United States, the Cold War and Countersubversion in Singapore" is a good peek into how the British initially did not believe the communists were a danger while the US foreign policy hinged on the fact that the communists were already active in the political parties, Chinese Middle schools and trade unions. In summary, US perspectives while biased gave a bigger picture to what happened in that period, outside of the memories of communists and the British, Malayan and Singapore governments.

Hence, while MI5 hesitated to see a communist bogeyman at first, as they could not admit that the communists were not defeated totally during the Emergency, the US State Department all the way saw communism taking root in Singapore in the shape of a united front, sharing the views of the Federation and Singapore. Nonetheless, events like the Brunei Revolt in December 1962 eventually made the British change their mind, and endorsed the 3-country security sweep, Op Coldstore in 1963.

Lord Selkirk before the launch of Op Coldstore, said that "I had not however previously been convinced that a large number of arrests was necessary to counter this threat. Recently, however, new evidence had been produced about the extent of the communist control of the Barisan Socialis and also there had been indications that the communists might resort to violence if the opportunity occurred". What the evidence was is ostensibly still classified and only future students of history will know."

Friday, 7 February 2014

Indonesian "Konfrontasi": New Nationalism At Work

A few days back, Indonesian authorities made the decision to name a naval ship after marines Osman Haji Mohamed Ali and Harun Said who were executed for bombing MacDonald House in Singapore during a period of tense relations in the 1960s.

As expected, Singapore registered her protest at the decision only to be flatly shot down by the Indonesian authorities. When viewed in the broader context of the upcoming Indonesian General Elections, it could explain Indonesia's move as a means of rousing nationalism and mobilizing the electorate. After all it is not the first and last time that Singapore is being made the bogeyman.

Indonesia has since defended the naming decision, saying that it was in line with its practice of naming vessels after the country's 'heroes'. Below are some of the responses by Indonesian officials:

  1. "There should be no intervention from any other country," said Agus Barnas, spokesman for the ministry for political, legal and security affairs.
  2. Djoko Suyanto, the minister responsible for coordinating the three portfolios, said "Indonesia had the authority to set its own criteria for naming heroes and to name warships after them." 
If you wish to gain a better appreciation of this part of Singapore's history, you may check out this documentary titled "Diary of A Nation" which depicts the key moments during KONFRONTASI. Hopefully it will help our readers better understand Singapore's history and vulnerabilities.