Saturday, 21 June 2014

Who orchestrated the Anti-National Service riot of May 1954

Last month, veteran historians CC Chin and Hong Lysa have published their reflections on the role of the Communist Party of Malaya in the events leading up to the National Service Riots of 1954. The battle between these two historians, who hold diametrically opposing views on the CPM’s role, is undoubtedly thought provoking.

According to Chin, the clandestine CPM student movement committee was responsible for leading the Singapore student protest on 13 May 1954 against conscription by the British colonial power. This protest was met with fierce opposition from the colonial government which eventually resulted in 10 students severely beaten up and 48 students arrested by the police. Chin proceeded to pinpoint one CPM cadre Chiam Chong Chian as the person-in-charge of organising the protest on 13 May 1954.

However, in her article on May 19, 2014, Hong rebutted and disagreed that the protest was masterminded and led by the CPM, questioning whether the CPM student movement committee was effective enough to lead the students. Hong argues that Chin’s assertions conveniently support the PAP’s exaggeration of the CPM’s strength which justifies the PAP’s subsequent arrests of suspected communists and sympathisers.

While Hong is entitled to her opinion on the facts of the 13 May protest, Hong’s suggestion that Chin had written his article to support a political position is quite harsh, even in academic circles. Speculation about an opponent’s political affiliations, unfortunately, does not lead to more historical inquiry.

Interestingly, Hong also concedes that historians need more research and recollections from the individuals involved to form a clearer picture of the event.

Recently in February 2014, one such volume of recollection essays by former CPM cadres has been published in Malaysia. The book “Chiam Chong Chian Memorial Collection” edited by Huo Shi and Ding Jing Lei aims to commemorate the life of Chiam, the CPM cadre in-charge of leading the 13 May protest.

Chiam was born in Kuantan, Pahang in 1931 and had come to Singapore to study at the Chinese High School in 1947, where he and many other classmates were recruited into the Anti-British League movement. On 31 May 1950, he evaded arrest by the police and went underground, eventually taking on official CPM work from 1952.

For more Chiam's background, read the earlier post here.

Chiam subsequently went on to incite and direct many of the mass protests in the 1950s, including the student protest on 13 May 1954.
CPM cadre Huo Shi recalled that Chiam had coordinated the 13 May protest by relaying the CPM leadership’s instructions through him to the various cadres organising the protest and other CPM front organisations.

Chiam also conveyed the leadership’s instructions to Huo Shi on the final conditions which would be used to negotiate with the colonial government for the resumption of classes. Huo Shi was operating partially in the open and was the point of contact for the Communist underground.

As a mark of his commitment to the Communist cause, Chiam even risked arrest by going down personally to observe the protest at Chung Cheng High School so as to formulate tactical strategies. Huo Shi wrote that Chiam was nearly arrested but he cleverly used his Malay language to avoid arrest.
Click on the picture to enlarge

Interestingly, Huo Shi related one incident which suggests that the CPM had come prepared to confront the colonial government and maximise political gain from any outbreak of violence.

Immediately after the 13 May 54 protest, Chiam had handed to Huo Shi 36 photographs of students being beaten by police at the scene of the protest to serve as proof of police brutality. These photos were subsequently reproduced by the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students Union and sold to students as keepsakes. The speed at which the photographs were developed and distributed in those days goes to show organised the Communist movement was.

Click on the picture to enlarge

Reading the accounts of these former CPM cadres, it is apparent that the CPM did have a tangible influence on the 13 May student protest. Why then do some individuals try to omit the CPM’s role in the protest?

It could be a result of the secrecy of the CPM’s underground operations, where the risk of arrest by the police forced CPM cadres to masquerade as student activists, thus giving others the impression that the 13 May protest was free from CPM influence.

Ultimately, perhaps one could better deal with this conundrum by remembering that all historical accounts are merely incomplete memories of the past. Some may recall the 13 May protest as a student-led phenomenon, with little knowledge of the political intrigue that went on behind the scenes. Others, like Chiam’s comrades, will remember the event as a time when the CPM struggled against the colonial government through the students, who responded resoundingly in their favour.

Friday, 20 June 2014

A portrait of the struggling life of Chiam Chong Chian

The following is a loose translation of the biography of Chiam Chong Chian, who was an underground CPM cadre leader in Malaya during the 1950s.

Born in Kuantan, Pahang, Malaya in 1931, Chiam Chong Chian was a Malayan son that died on PRC soil because of the tumultuous struggle for independence and the battle between nationalists and communism during the 1950s and 1960s.

Chiam was the third child in a Hainanese family of six children. His father came to Malaya at the end of the 19th century, first becoming a baker and later a plantation supervisor.

Chiam was only 11 or 12 when the Japanese invaded Malaya during WWII. During that time, Chiam followed his family to hide in jungle and began to lived off the land. He joined the adults in hunting, fishing and delivering supplies while entertainment was Chinese classic stories of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin.

In 1946, after the war had ended, Chiam returned to school in Kuantan and a year later enrolled in Chinese High Singapore. Not only were Chiam's results good, he was also charismatic and well-liked by fellow students. He was surrounded by a group of close friends who would later become his comrades. Many of these friends would later end up as liaison officials (with overseas Chinese) in China after the Chinese Communists took power.

1950 was a watershed year for Chiam who was senior high year 2. There was a surge in anti-colonial sentiments and seniors like him began to infect the younger ones in Chinese High with the need for Malaya's independence.

As the waves of anti-colonialism continued unabated, authorities began the clamp down of student activism with the closing of Chinese High, shutting down of student organizations, arresting progressive teachers and students and the expulsion of 50 senior high school student activists with Chiam being one of them.

On May 31, 1950, when military police surrounded the school to arrest them, Chiam was hidden in the school canteen by student sympathizers and managed to escape the school. As the surrounding area of Chinese High were houses of wealthy residents who typically employed Hainanese as housekeepers, Chiam was able to escape the dragnet by seeking help from his kinsmen.

From then on, Chiam bade farewell to his student life and joined the communist underground to battle against the British colonial power and achieve independence for Malaya.

In 1951, Chiam returned to Kuantan to teach in a primary school. He was humble, well-liked and earned the respect of the students. On the side, Chiam continued to work for the Communist Party of Malaya and received instructions to carry out reporting and research for the party.

In 1952, Chiam began to be tasked by the party to carry out organization work and operations. As he was passionate, responsible and honest, he was trusted by the party and began to take on more responsibilities. Under Chiam's leadership, the political environment began to open up and progress was made with mobilization of the masses.

In the early 1960s, Lee Kuan Yew began to work in cahoots with the British colonial power to exterminate the communists. Chiam was forced under these circumstances to escape to Indonesia.

When in Indonesia, he faced immense difficulties as he was unfamiliar with the country and did not speak the language. The 30 Sep 1965 purging of the Communists, where tens of thousands of Indonesian Communists were killed by the Indonesian military, made his situation increasingly unbearable.

To exacerbate matters, Cultural Revolution erupted in China and Chiam was criticized for his previous actions. He was criticized for his wrongdoings, forced to apologized and ostracized from the party. But he was said to be steadfast and hung on to his beliefs, never betrayed his comrades even though he was exiled from the party and lead a precarious life.

The only consolation Chiam had was in the mid-1990s when CPM leader Chin Peng met Chiam in a Guangzhou hotel. Chin reverted previous criticisms of Chiam and reaffirmed Chiam's lifetime commitment to the Communist cause.

Chiam passed away on Apr 26, 1998, due to multiple illnesses. He was 68 years old.