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."

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