Saturday, 17 May 2014

38 Years on: Goh Lay Kuan The Red Ballerina

Browsing the Straits Times forum section yesterday, I was surprised to see a letter talking about Goh Lay Kuan and her arrest under the ISA in 1976, written by Lionel De Souza. Mr De Souza, a former policeman, is apparently someone close to the establishment; and one does wonder why the sudden need to bring up the fact that Goh, who is also wife of Kuo Pao Kun, joined a splinter group of the CPM and visited a communist training camp in 1975. 

It was only with careful reading of the recent ST interview of Goh Lay Kuan that one can conjecture the deeper meaning behind the letter. In that interview with Goh dated 3 May 2014, she said ISD was looking to detain those who had received communist military training and she was lucky that she didn't know how to draw a gun.

This was despite the fact that she had met a high ranking communist cadre named Sister Fong and together they made a trip to a communist guerrilla military camp in the Malaysia-Thailand border where Goh received instructions from Fong to recruit more members and raise funds.

Goh made another interesting claim during the recent ST interview. She said she "overturned" tables when she was being interviewed by ISD officers. I am not sure whether Goh meant it in the literal sense of the word, or was it figurative?

Nevertheless, after this supposedly valiant act, she submissively went on national TV to "confess" her role in the communist plot and also pinpoint others who were involved. It must be day and night to go from overturning tables to appearing meekly on TV; but alas only those who were there would really know the truth.

Moving to the larger picture, Goh was one of the 50 people arrested in that operation. These 50 were charged with being affiliated to a group trying to rekindle the cause of communist subversion and terrorism. The group was the Malayan National Liberation Front (MNLF), a violent splinter group of the Communist Party of Malaya. Items seized from this group include, field directives, photographs of communist guerillas training in Malaysia-Thailand border, cash, booby-trap paraphernalia, including detonators and sketches of military installations.

Earlier in June 1974, another ISD operation nabbed 31 members of the same group, MNLF, and seized one pistol, 42 bullets, one hand grenade, 16 detonators, 3 homemade bombs and 5 improvised detonators.

Historically speaking, there was no definitive answer to say Goh was guilty or not, because the group was arrested before they could carry out any real attacks. But, it would be injustice to history if a reader reads the ST interview at face value, without understanding the facts behind the event.

Friday, 16 May 2014

The genealogy of criticism against National Service

It gets picked up so regularly among the men during class gatherings and the festive seasons' idle chat that many would not think National Service could be such a heated and sensitive issue. It seems almost given that National Service is an institution in today's Singapore. Many a times, it has been quoted as an example where Singaporeans across all races and social classes bond together in a common cause; despite the many criticisms that Malays are excluded from certain military vocations due to geopolitical considerations.

Nevertheless, NS does have its fair share of criticism and in the recent years the most common complain is not against the fundamentals of NS, but rather how it has hindered individuals in our increasingly competitive economy where time away from improving one's career is only accentuated by the foreign workforce who do not have such obligations. 

Today, we mostly criticise the form in which NS should take. But how Singapore has moved away from questioning the very basis of why we perform NS, to protesting the form in which it takes place is a reflection of how we have grown as a nation.

It was not so long ago that Singaporeans actually denied the idea of doing NS. The first of these were actually on 13 May 1954 where students of Chinese middle schools who were protesting against conscription by the British colonial power, clashed against riot police resulting in 26 injured. For many historians, the National Service Riots of 1954 marked the beginning of communist subversion in the Chinese middle schools, which subsequently became the breeding ground for communist sympathisers in Singapore.

In fact, just a couple of days ago, these same pioneers celebrated the 60th Anniversary of this event with a lunch, singing of old battle songs and solace in common memories of a past struggle. The event was well attended with a crowd of about 700 including members of the opposition political parties, mainly NSP and SDP.

Photo source:

In analysis, protests broke out in 1954 because the colonial government expected full compliance from the students of the Chinese middle schools, who at the same time were excluded from many economic opportunities that were available to those who were English educated. 

"The National Service Ordinance ruling angered the Chinese middle school students because they were compelled to defend the same British order that had discriminated against them and in which they saw no future in. Many Chinese who felt that they were not being treated as equals by the British also did not feel obliged to serve the colonial government."

So, despite the fact that the idea had public support, and registration for national service went smoothly with 98% of eligible students having registered themselves, the tide slowly turned against the Brits and culminated in the National Service Riots of 1954.

Due to the strong opposition, the colonial government had no choice but to postpone the implementation of the National Service Ordinance. Thereafter, it was said that this episode awakened the Chinese students' political consciousness and strengthened the influence of student leaders and they subsequently formed the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students Union (SCMSSU) - which became a pro-communist organisation that was sometimes radical and violent.

Looking at the anniversary event held 3 days ago, it was interesting to note that the event was organised by F8, which is an organisation formed by the Marxists detainees of 1987.

And, it was not surprising to see that the the detainees of 1987, especially Vincent Cheng, produced various publications in the 1980s, such as the Singapore Highlights to question the need of National Service and a high defence budget. In one article, it asked "Why do we teach the young minds to hate and kill?"

Another publication produced by the so-called Marxist conspirators was the Commscord, which was a newsletter aimed at NS men, giving them a hostile view of the military life and using Marxist arguments to convince readers that NS was setup to further the evils of a capitalistic society. 

Looking back, while NS has become less controversial today, it can still be a touchy subject, because ultimately NS is a liability whether in 1954, 1987 or 2014; and no matter how much the state compensates the individual, the golden years of one's youth can never be recaptured, except through a common consensus that we do so for the survival of this little red dot. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

Thum PJ: "Public anger" caused the 1956 riots

It is with some interest that I read the latest assertions by historian Thum PJ on how Lim Chin Siong was wrongfully arrested for inciting a riot in 1956.

According to Thum, he had discovered an archival record which contained the transcript of Lim Chin Siong's speech during the night of the riot and that in this record, Lim Chin Siong did not ask the people to “pah mata” (beat up the police) but wanted the police to join him and his cause. Thum proceeds to assert that the subsequent arrest of Lim is wrong and thus, fits into his persistent historical assessment that Lim was not a communist - although Lim had joined the outlawed communist Anti-British League and rose to prominence in several communist trade unions.

If it was not Lim's fault, than whose fault was it? Why was the crowd so worked up that day and not any other day? Having absolved Lim from all responsibility, Thum's historical investigation is reduced simply to the claim that “public anger was too strong” and therefore the riots occurred.

So the elephant in the room was, why was public anger so strong on that day, as claimed? This, Thum did not bother to find out.

A dusty piece of paper from the colonial archives cannot convey the emotions of a fiery night when words spoken from the podium carry a lot of underlying meanings. One cannot even know the tone that was used. It could be “mai pah mata...” or it could very well be “mai...PAH MATA!”

Only those present at that historical moment can understand what Lim spoke ahout and what he wanted the people to do. If I were to read this historical document now, I would also wonder why I was so angry then. UNLESS you read through the entire document, you will find how words were played with sparks and could possibly set off fire.

And I quote Lim Chin Siong:

“(let's) quickly unite together for tonight there is a possibility that something big will happen. But, dear brothers and sisters, if any of our sons are assaulted we will not tolerate it.”

“We must also use method to get rid of this oppressive Government and to attain our final objective..We must take certain action to retaliate against their oppressive action.”

“Mayday is the workers' struggle for better living and to commemorate past events of bloodshed (believed to be referring to Hock Lee Bus riot). Workers must zealously celebrate and be united to fight to the end.”

As a historian, Thum is entitled to make his assessment. But even my lecturer constantly drilled me to question sources and not make simplistic prima facie assessments from one single historical source.

For example, CPM chief Chin Peng said in his memoirs that left-wing trade unions in Singapore were receiving instructions from the communists. The Plen, Fong Chong Pik, in his memoirs, said that he had a “special acquaintance” with Lim and had met him 3 times. In fact, it was the British Security Council assessment that also pinned Lim as a Chin Peng, The Plen and the Brits were all lying about the same thing?! So there were no communists, no riots, no bombings? Or all these just random acts of “public anger” also?

Now, for Thum to put the blame of the riot on “public anger” is perhaps somewhat disrespectful to those who there on that night.

Cuz Lim Chin Siong would never lay the blame on the people.