Wednesday, 29 October 2014

William Cheng: A life of former Special Branch officer

Special Branch Headquarters at Robinson Road (1948-1976)

A Civil Servant and Anti-Communist: William Cheng, former Deputy Superintendent (Special Branch, Police Force), Principal Assistant Secretary (Education), Permanent Secretary (Labour) and first Trade Representative to the Republic of China (Taiwan)

By Mark Wong, Oral History Specialist 


Former top civil servant William Cheng passed away on 10 November 2010, about a month and a half shy of his 82nd birthday. When the Oral History Centre interviewed him in 1994 for our project, “The Civil Service - A Retrospection”, Cheng recounted some of his most memorable experiences in the public sector, where he began in the Special Branch of the Police Force, moved into the Administrative Service at the ministries of Education and Labour, and later came out of retirement to be a diplomat. What stood out most strongly in his interviews was his role in battling communist elements in the 1950s and 1960s, and how, by the 1970s, a more stable society had developed in part because of the contributions of civil servants like himself.

Born 1928 in mainland China, William Cheng was the son of an official in the Chinese nationalist government. The elder Cheng was the first post-war Chinese Minister to Australia and later appointed Ambassador to Iran. However in 1949, following China’s turn to communism, the elder Cheng resigned from the government and moved his family to Hong Kong. William Cheng was then studying Modern European History at Oxford University, but joined his family in Hong Kong upon his graduation in 1951.

After a year of teaching History at Queen’s College, Hong Kong, William Cheng accepted an assignment to Singapore, which came about as a result of his father’s extensive diplomatic contacts.

“You know […] my father was anti-communist and I am also anti-communist. So at that time Malcolm McDonald was the British High Commissioner for Southeast Asia. Now his Deputy […] Christworth was the Secretary of the British Embassy in Iran. So he knew my father well. So my father wrote to Christworth, I think then he took it up with McDonald. And McDonald arranged for me to come over to Singapore […] to fight […] against the communist insurgency. I was put into Special Branch. I joined the Police Force.”.

Having seen his homeland China turn communist, Cheng decided to play a part in preventing Singapore from meeting the same fate. Starting out as Chief Inspector before ending his stint as Deputy Superintendent of Police, Cheng spent 11 years at Special Branch from 1953 to 1963. His experience there was almost wholly shaped by the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960, marked by intensive underground communist activity against the colonial government. These were dangerous times and Cheng himself had a brush with death, as he recalled:

“I was nearly killed by the communist underground. That was I think in early ’53 or ’54. Now, you know […] next door to Raffles Hotel the Beach Road side, there was a small petrol kiosk. I used to go to that petrol kiosk to get my petrol […] Working at the petrol kiosk was a woman who was a member of the underground. So she succeeded in identifying me as a Special Branch officer which was very high on the hit list of the communist underground […] The plan was that when I went for petrol, two gunmen would come from left and right side and just open fire. I was sitting in the car waiting for my petrol [and] I would be attacked on both sides. So there is no escape. I was lucky […] a week or ten days before they were due to carry out the execution we arrested the Worker’s Protection Corps chief - their section chief. From him we Special Branch recovered a list of car numbers which all belonged to police officers, Special Branch officers down for elimination. And my car number was there.”

As a young officer involved in the intelligence gathering of subversive elements, Cheng was at times tasked to assess where particular public individuals lay on the political spectrum. One early assignment was to evaluate the politics of an up-and-coming young lawyer named Lee Kuan Yew, who, five years later, would become the Prime Minister of Singapore.

“I think it is sometime in 1954. At that time the British were not quite sure how, LKY’s stand was because he was running with the pro-communist front […] The Special Branch at that time […] there was a section called the ESI, English Speaking Intelligent section […] monitoring the English speaking intellectuals in Singapore. The officer-in-charge at that time was a British officer called Finch and I was his number two […] Finch […] arranged to invite LKY over for a drink in his house […] I still remember LKY sat opposite me; Finch on my left and Mrs Lee on my right. Generally we were chitchatting. The main objective was to make an assessment to see whether LKY was a communist or not.

So I was telling LKY… “骑虎难下” - it is easy to ride a tiger but you can’t get off because once you get off you will be eaten by the tiger. So I told LKY that the way he was playing with communist […] was like riding a tiger. When he gets off, I told him, he will be eaten by the communists. And he turned around to me, he said, ‘No, you are wrong. I’ll get off the tiger and I beat the communist.’ That is a very vital statement he said at the time [….] Fortunately he was right and I was wrong. If I was right he would have been eaten by the communist. But I was wrong. So we had Singapore today.” 

Source: Singapore Press Holdings
Just 29 years of age, Lee Kuan Yew (2nd from left) was gaining a reputation for fighting on the side of workers against unfair treatment by the colonial government. Here, a member of the Singapore Post and Telegraph Uniformed Staff Union is presenting a garland to him at Victoria Memorial Hall, 11 April 1953, after he had successfully represented postal clerks in a wage dispute against the government, which saw the clerks receiving 28 months' back pay.

Cheng’s evaluation of his years at Special Branch was balanced, finding the experience thrilling but also conceding the difficulties of staying too long in this line of work.

“For a short period, yes, it’s very exciting especially dealing with the communist insurgency and United Front. It’s very exciting. But if have been there for 10, 15, 20 [years], I think it’s not good for your mind, ‘cause your vision gets very narrowed. You’re focusing everything on security and nothing else. So I think one spell in Special Branch, or in ISD [Internal Security Department], or in whatever security work should not be more than five years. Too long is no good for you.” 

From the Police Force, he moved on to the Ministry of Education and was appointed Principal Assistant Secretary. Ironically, despite this career change into the Administrative Service, he found himself again dealing with communist elements, this time focusing on student agitators in the schools and universities.

“At that time there were many student societies in Nanyang University, all communist controlled. Then they all affiliate and come under the Nanyang University Students Union […] Outside the university they have the Nanyang University Graduate Association - also communist controlled. So one in[side], one out[side]. They controlled it very, very firmly. They control the flow, the supply of the communist cadres. 

Source: Singapore Press Holdings
Nanyang University was the site of student political activism. In response to a Security Branch crackdown on left-wing student leaders on 26 September 1963, large numbers of students at Nanyang University barricaded the grounds and a riot ensued, resulting in injuries sustained by both students and policemen.

So in order to fight the communist, I was instrumental in forming the Nanyang University Friendship Association […] That time was a very, very difficult task because [of] the fear prevalent in the University. The students - nobody dares to move against the pro-communist students who were very firmly entrenched. But there were a group of students who were very firmly entrenched. But there were a group of students who were very anti. I organised that group of students and they will form the Nanyang University Friendship Association […]

They were the front men fighting them. We broke the hold of the communist grip by using that association [….] Once we start to break the hold, a lot of waverers who were outwardly pro-communist left wing they wanted to come over. Come across. So what we did was that the fellowship groups would identify them, bring them to the Ministry to see me and I assess them their willing[ness] to come over and they want to clear their name. To come clean, we called it.”

By the 1970s, the social-political climate of Singapore had stabilised immensely from a decade or two before. When Cheng took up the appointment of Permanent Secretary (Labour), he found that his job had been made easier by the foundations of tripartism - the relationship of cooperation between unions, employers and the government - that had been laid down before him and led to a new era of industrial peace.

“1971. I went over to Labour. But then when I went to Labour the turbulent years were already over. The unions all settled. The Employment Act was instituted. So it’s a matter of monitoring, to ensure the tripartite relationship […] My duties were actually to maintain harmony in the labour movement. And tripartism to be maintained, which I think was done […] The other [task] is Industrial Safety. These are the two. Because that ties up to safety of the workers, welfare of the workers.”

Cheng retired from the civil service at age 50, but was soon asked by Minister for Labour Ong Pang Boon if he would go to Taiwan to take up a diplomatic appointment. Cheng accepted, becoming Singapore’s Trade Representative to the Republic of China (Taiwan) for nine years (three terms) from 1979-1988.

Spending a total of 36 years in the civil service, Cheng was witness to the many changes in the public sector, from the time Singapore was still a British colony, through the transition period of self government and finally when we attained full independence. During those years, the very essence of what it meant to be a civil servant transformed significantly, as Cheng explained:

“We used to have a joke. The British used to sign their letters and finished, ‘Sir, Your Obedient Servant, Yours so-and-so”. We used to say: you are neither obedient nor servant; you are the law sitting on the people. In those days, when I say civil servants, the top echelons are the British, and the middle and lower echelons were the Asians, the locals. As I said, you aid your masters. The British were overlord. They also acted as overlord. The civil servants were not popular […] in those days the civil servants belong to the ruling class. It’s only the PAP came in the attitude has changed.

So we called ourselves servants. [The] Taiwanese talked about officials in Chinese called ‘官’ [officials] - ‘做官’ [to be an official]. I keep on telling them: Singapore has no ‘官’. We have only civil servants. We have ‘公务员’ [public servants], not ‘官’.”

Saturday, 25 October 2014

From London with Love

Dear Editor,

This is my letter:

Two perhaps questionable moves by Tan Jee Say in his early efforts to gather public support for his next run for office -- one is to rely on the widely circulated but maybe questionable research findings of a relatively new professor (Thum Ping Tjin). The other is to parrot what this fresh researcher wrote and said without due diligence of his own, like cross-checking with other historians and sources.

Having recently retired and now splitting my free time between Singapore and London, researching into the social history of Singapore, let me cite just 4 reasons why both Tan and Thum might not get a reply the government:

Firstly, unknown to many non-historians and members of the public, Thum has given a simplistic account of the communist threat and Operation Coldstore in his talks and articles. Thum has ignored several colonial dispatches and Internal Security Council (ISC) minutes that clearly showed the existence of a serious communist threat. Lord Selkirk, the UK Commissioner in Singapore and his deputy, Philip Moore, were concerned about the communist threat and had advocated firm action as early as 1960. See for example these extracts from the British archives:

In a May 1960 ISC meeting, Lord Selkirk:

“…expressed his appreciation of the skilful way in which the Singapore Government were trying to deal with the problem of subversion in the trade unions, but said that it was obviously necessary to keep a careful watch on any pressure building up to subvert the TUC [Trade Union Congress].” ISC (60) Revised Minutes of 9th Meeting, 19 May 1960 (para 4) (See JPEG Selkirk1)

Later, during another ISC meeting in October 1960, Selkirk commented that the Singapore Government:

“…was faced here by a challenge against the democratic system over the whole of Malaya. To a large extent this challenge was now being made through the trade unions in Singapore. The Government could not allow itself to be knocked about by the Communists acting through the trade unions. The strength of the Government's case was that these people were pressing the Communist cause by subversive methods. By sticking to its line, the Government would emerge stronger in the end. It should not, therefore, be deterred by fears of any temporary unpopularity.” ISC (60) Revised Minutes of 14th Meeting, 7 Oct 1960 (para 8) (See JPEG Selkirk2)

Second, whatever reservations Selkirk or his deputy Philip Moore might have had about arresting the communists, they later became fully convinced of the need for security action when more evidence emerged about communist control of the political party Barisan Sosialis Singapura (BSS), the discussion BSS leaders had about the question of armed struggle, and when the BSS came out in support of the armed rebellion in Brunei. On 7 December 1962, a day before the outbreak of the Brunei rebellion, Moore wrote:

“I enclose copies of reports which came to us last month from a reliable and well placed source on two meetings held at the headquarters of the Barisan Sosialis last September. These reports are of considerable importance, not only for what they reveal of the future intentions of Barisan Sosialis, but they provide more conclusive evidence than we have had hitherto for the belief that Barisan Sosialis are Communist controlled…It has never been disputed that the Communists in Singapore are following United Front tactics and that Barisan Sosialis is their principal instrument on the political front…The report on the first of the two meetings shows that those engaging in the discussion were Communists examining quite frankly how best to achieve their ends. Furthermore, we can see that the Communist influence within Barisan Sosialis is not confined to the Central Executive Committee but extends to Branch Committee level…”. CO 1030/1160, Moore to Wallace, 7 Dec 1962 (paras 1 and 2) (See JPEG Selkirk3)

A week later, on 14 December 1962, after the Brunei rebellion, Lord Selkirk sent a dispatch to Duncan Sandys, the Secretary of State for the Colonies:

“I said I had recognised all along that a threat was presented by the communists in Singapore. 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 Sosialis and also there had been indications that the communists might resort to violence if the opportunity occurred. Recent statements by the Barisan Sosialis and Party Rakyat supporting the revolt in Brunei confirmed this. Accordingly H.M.G. [Her Majesty’s Government] were prepared to see [arrest] action taken in Singapore…”. CO 1030/1160, Selkirk to SSC, Tel. 582, 14 Dec 1962 (para 5) (See JPEG Selkirk4)

Third, the above British declassified documents show that it is a big folly to read the MI5 report in isolation. Thum Ping Tjin and then Tan Jee Say have brandished the MI5 report without realizing that it should be read in the context of active and robust discussions about the extent of the communist threat. Thum is seized by the MI5 report without considering its context and taking into consideration the totality of evidence. I do hope that Tan Jee Say will reconsider his position, because as a opposition politician and he shouldn't bet so many eggs in this basket. 

Fourth, what Thum (and Tan) fail to realize is that the MI5 report by the British SLO Maurice Williams was not the norm, and it is a gross error of judgment for a historian, even if new, to rely heavily on such a report to make momentous conclusions. Revelations from many sources, including CPM sources, confirmed without a shadow of a doubt, the existence of a communist conspiracy and the communist united front. CPM chief Chin Peng and the Plen had revealed in their books about sabotaging PAP’s plans for merger and Malaysia. The Plen had revealed how he had used the Chinese press to disseminate his opposing views. He also revealed how he had had secret meetings in Jakarta to lead the united front in Singapore and target the PAP for subversion, how he had ordered a top CPM cadre in the Workers Party to resign, and how he had ordered all support for Partai Rakyat to be withdrawn during the 1959 General Election. Chin Peng in turn had disclosed how Deng Xiaoping had ‘advised’ him in July 1961 in Beijing to continue with the armed struggle and how he accepted the ‘advice’ and Deng’s offer of financial help. These are just some facts that clearly contradict the claims by Thum, Tan and others that there was “no evidence” of a communist conspiracy.

Bottomline for all interested readers is this -- we should read new interpretations of history with a curious mind and not take everything at face value. As a Singaporean who has been a long time working resident of London, I will say that the British public is also somewhat skeptical of the British archives because one might never know if ALL documents were declassified or if officials writing the reports have other motivations. Nevertheless, Singaporeans should never forget our own history because if we do, then Singapore would really become just a place for people to make money!

Abdul Salim Rahim

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Lim Chin Siong was never a communist...?

As much as LKY wanted him to be a communist, he could never prove LCS as one, conclusively. Even if he was one, he would never publicly admit to be a member of the Communist Party of Malaya as that would land him in jail. The CPM was an outlawed organisation.

Similarly, a gangster would never admit to be a member of a secret society. And because criminal cases against prominent gangsters are so hard to clinch, we often find that these people are held in detention without trial under the CLTP, or what is commonly known as "Section 55" - albeit less controversially as compared to the ISA although technically they are similar.

The Plen, Chin Peng, etc, were clearly communists because they were the top leadership of the hierarchy and they eventually joined the armed struggle in Peace Villages in Southern Thailand. However, other communists who were tasked to work in the Communist United Front weren't so upfront with their allegiances as it was precisely their job to appear leftist, socialist, communalist; anything but communist, in order to continue to manage political affairs from behind the scenes.

How is it possible then for someone to say such and such person is highly likely a communist?

In this entry, we would look at the instances whereby LCS' deeds and association indicated that he could be a communist. While the information was sourced from Albert Lau's article titled "The Battle for Merger-The Historical Context", the original information was actually from various sources such as academic writings, memoirs and other periodicals.

If we read the body of evidence in its entirety, we will find that LCS' links with the communists cannot be simple.

Meeting with The Plen (CPM Singapre Chief) on various occassions

"Within days of the Malayan leader's speech (Tunku AR's speech on formation of Malaysia), Lim Chin Siong conferred with Fang Chuang Pi, one of the communists' top three leaders overseeing Singapore..."[Dennis Bloodworth, The Tiger and the Trojan Horse, p227]

"On 16 July (1961), a day after PAP lost Anson (to Workers' Party), Fang Chuang Pi again conferred secretly with Lim Chin Siong. Two days later, an urgent approach was made to see Lord Selkirk, the UK Commissioner, who invited the pro-communist group, which included Lim and three others, for tea the same day." [Sonny Yap, Richard Lim, and Leong Weng Kam, Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Political Party, pp ix and 323] 

Click to enlarge

A member of the Anti-British League which was communist controlled

"Lim did admit to being a member of the underground Anti-British League (ABL) even though he insisted that "being in the ABL does not mean you are communist"...the ABL was...a dedicated clandestine arm of the CPM set up in September 1948 (after the Emergency was declared) for the purpose of overthrowing the British colonial government...the main duties of ABL members were to "learn revolutionary" and "undergo various clandestine activities such as recruiting new members, distributing flyers and putting up slogans"..They also purchased medicine and supplies to support the CPM's armed struggle."[Melanie Chiew, Leaders of Singapore, p118, Zhong Hua, "A Preliminary Study on the history of Singapore People's Anti-British League and Zhou Guang, 'First Anti-British League group in Singapore Chinese High School in Mainstays of the Anti-Colonial Movement; The Legendary Figures of the Singapore People's Anti-British League ]

"According to Bloodworth, Lim had reportedly initiated a Chinese High School student activist, Seet Chay Tuan, into the ABL. Seet "remembered the night the previous year he was summoned to a secret rendezvous...and stood obediently in front of a picture of Stalin pinned to a wooden post, his fist raised, while Chin Siong read out a declaration of allegiance which he was then to swear and sign with his new Party name and so become a full member of the 'Organisation'."" [Bloodworth, p69]

Click to enlarge

Oral History of Devan Nair

"Nair recalled how Samad Ismail, a CPM member since 1949, had introduced him to Lim and that "Chin Siong was getting his guidance then from South Johor. Nair, who used to spend his evenings and nights at Lim's Middle Road union headquarters, remembered occasions when "somebody from the underground who is not know to the police" arriving to pass Lim a note. "And Chin Siong would read it and straight away burn it." [Devan Nair, Transcript of Oral History Interview]

Essay of CPM member Zhang Taiyong

"In his essay in the 2013 book, Zhang disclosed that the CPM had transferred Lim from underground activities in the ABL to open front work. After Lim's explusion from the Chinese High School for his role in an examination boycott, he "continued his studies at an English-stream school but later accepted the organisation's decision and devoted himself to trade union movement and constitutional struggle." [Zhang Taiyong, "Our cohort's commander - Lu Yexun" in Mainstays of the Anti-Colonial Movement, p61] 

Retired Malaysian Special Branch officer Aloysius Chin

"the Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police who held a long-standing watch over the communists in Malaya, also divulged that CPM leaders Siu Cheong and Ah Hoi cited Lim as an example of CPM members who were deployed in open front activities in political parties" [Aloysius Chin, The Communist Party of Malaya, The Inside Story, p67]

Documents in LCS' handwriting

"Two documents in Lim's own handwriting were among several he wrote for CPM records and for the instruction of recruits to the CPM who were under his leadership. One of them was on the talk he gave in the commemoration of Stalin's death. Another contained guidance notes for his ABL subordinates on the CPM's secret journal STUDY." 

Click to enlarge

LKY's challenge to LCS after accusing him of being a communist

"Lim Chin Siong issued a signed statement accusing the prime minister of "sensationalism". To Lim's retort that he was "sick and tired" of having to deny association with communists, Lee Kuan Yew gave this risposte at a press conference on 27 January 1962: "If the documents were not written by him, he should deny it, sue me and the Government printers for libel and forgery." Lim never did. 

Click to enlarge

And former Director of Internal Security Branch, Yoong Siew Wah, when writing on his own blog noted the following:

"It was a well-known fact that Lim Chin Siong, the former general secretary of the powerful Singapore Factory & Shop Workers Union was the undisputed leader of the communist united front and controlled the mass base. Lee Kuan Yew could not have been unaware of this fact and knew that he had to depend on Lim Chin Siong and his mass base to advance his political ambition."

So while there are mentions in British archives to suggest that LCS was not a communist, it should be noted that those who say otherwise are aplenty.  

Monday, 13 October 2014

All hail the reprint of Battle for Merger?

So it seems all men are cowed by ElderLee, even as he is old, frail and distant...

When the Battle for Merger was relaunched, I was looking forward to a battle for ideas and interpretations between old thoughts and new revisions. So maybe I was a little disappointed when the new wave of revisionists treated the reprint with almost equal delight. From their previous arguments that there was no communist conspiracy and no red star over leftist politics in Singapore, and that LKY/PAP essentially jailed the political opposition, I was quite surprised that they did not urge caution over One Lee's view of things.

Side note: BfM is a primary source because LKY was an actor. I am not sure if you would call the works of Tim Harper, Hong Lysa and Geoff Wade primary sources.

Previously, I had written about the special acquaintance between communist boss Fong Chong Pik (or Fang Chung Pi) and Lim Chin Siong, and the Battle for Merger presents more details of Fang as the hand that rocks the cradle. According to BfM (read Albert Lau article appended below), Fang was the one who instructed Lim to thwart the plans of Merger after Tunku Abdul Rahman announced that it was possible that Singapore and the Borneo territories gained independence thru Merger.

Next, Fang met Lim after the Anson by-election and immediately before the Eden Hall Tea Party, the exact details were unknown. Again, according to BfM, it was a British ploy (during Eden Hall) to trick Lim into believing that they would have an equal chance to form the government if they guaranteed British military bases. After which, Lim had the confidence to began his open warfare with LKY, resulting in an open split of the PAP and the forming of Barisan Sosialis. LKY later pressed that it was Fang that gave the instruction for all communists to leave PAP and join BS. The resulting exodus was 19 of the 23 PAP organising secretaries and 60-70% of the PAP membership leaving to join BS.

Now it was interesting to read that LKY could say this of Fang and Lim with such accuracy and details (and not encounter strong resistance). Did he have access to the files of Special Branch who were definitely conducting surveillance on communist operatives in Singapore. Or access to other foreign intelligence services such as the Brits and Yankees who were informing him of the communist underground?     

On the question of whether Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan were communists, it was interesting to read another book, Singapore: A Biography, who also drew on British sources regarding the Eden Hall Tea Party. It showed that Lim and Fong couldn't answer for themselves when asked point blank if they were communists:

OUR TEXT (from page 396):
Still mulling over their response to the merger discussions, Lim, Fong, Woodhull and Puthucheary (following a phone enquiry from the latter) went to see Lord Selkirk ... at his Eden Hall Residence. They asked him point-blank whether the British would arrest them and suspend Singapore's constitution should Lee Kuan Yew be voted out of office. Selkirk replied that the constitution was a fair one which the British would respect, as long as any new party stuck to constitutional means and refrained from violence.
See Stockwell (ed.), pp. 145-147. Often the second part of this conversation is overlooked. Apparently, Selkirk then told his guests that for Singapore to survive it would need economic stability and he asked Lim and Fong whether they were communists. The Colonial Office report of the meeting reads: 'They [Lim and Fong] seemed to be embarrassed by this question and failed to give a clear reply. Mr Woodhull, on the other hand, stated categorically that he was not a communist.'
I've long been intrigued by why Lim and Fong, at this critical moment, 'failed to give a clear reply' to Selkirk's question and why they suddenly 'seemed to be embarrassed'. Only a little while later, Lim would make a categorical statement in front of the press that he was 'not a communist, or a communist front-man, or for that matter anybody's front-man'. So why were he and Fong so tongue-tied when talking to Selkirk back at Eden Hall?


By Albert Lau

The year was 1961. One Wednesday evening in September, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew took to the airwaves to begin the first of his "fireside" chats to the people. There was as yet no television, which was still 17 months away from putting out its pilot broadcast.

So radio was used.

At first glance, there seemed nothing unusual about the Prime Minister making a radio broadcast. Except that in the space of less than a month, Mr Lee would make an unprecedented 11 more broadcasts in a row over Radio Singapore, each within days of the other, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Even more remarkable, the Prime Minister would relay each broadcast in three languages - English, Malay and Mandarin - to reach the widest audience.

These 12 talks were no ordinary radio broadcasts. Aired between Sept 13 and Oct 9, they were in fact the opening shots in what would soon become a keenly fought battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Singapore.

The immediate context was a referendum that Mr Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) Government intended to hold in a year's time to decide on a matter that would vitally affect the lives of the people on the island: merger with Malaya.

However, behind Mr Lee's "battle for merger" lay a related - but no less important - purpose: He wanted to expose the conspiracy of his shadowy communist opponents and their proxies to prevent merger. The stakes for the Prime Minister could not be any higher. If merger failed, not only would the outlook for his non-communist government be in jeopardy, but the future of Singapore also could possibly take a dramatically different turn - not necessarily for the better...

The communist conspiracy

RIGHT from the start, the PAP had communist and pro-communist elements within the party. In their desire to form a mass-based anti-colonial political party in 1954, the English-educated non-communist founders of the PAP solicited the help of Chinese-educated communist and pro-communist activists, like trade union leaders Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, to bridge the gap to the majority Chinese-educated world.

By then, the outlawed Malayan Communist Party (MCP) had all but lost the jungle war; a disappointing setback that prompted its secretary-general, Chin Peng, to leave his jungle hideout and meet Tunku Abdul Rahman to discuss the latter's amnesty terms at the historic Baling talks in December 1955.

Though agreement was not reached at Baling, the failure of its guerilla campaign in the Federation (of Malaya) had left the MCP with no practical option but to defer its goal of a united communist Malaya for an indefinite period and settle on achieving socialism in a smaller place - Singapore.

To pursue its anti-colonial activism in this new urban setting, the MCP needed a legitimate left-wing political party to provide cover for its subversive activities and it found willing collaborators in the PAP's English-educated leaders.

Thus, for reasons of mutual political expediency, the two groups were able to forge a united front.

Collaboration, however, had its hazards, for the communists and pro-communists the PAP attracted soon endeavoured on numerous occasions - famously in May-June 1955 and October 1956 - to enmesh the party in supporting or condoning their advocacy of forceful mass agitation, using the Chinese-educated middle school students as their shock troops and their control of strategic trade unions to precipitate widespread industrial action accompanied by debilitating riots.

To deny the British and the Labour Front government of (David) Marshall and his successor, Lim Yew Hock, a pretext for smashing the party, the PAP's non-communist leaders had to publicly disassociate themselves on numerous occasions from the rough tactics of their pro-communist associates...

The more critical dilemma facing the united front, however, lay in the two groups' conflicting attitudes towards merger. From its founding, the PAP's objective had always been to take Singapore into Malaya. When the PAP formed the government in 1959, the goal of "independence through merger" was pursued unwaveringly as the next logical constitutional step for Singapore.

This, however, was not in the interests of the communists. After Malaya was granted independence in 1957, the MCP had lost its raison d'etre as far as anti-colonial agitation in the Federation was concerned. Only Singapore, which was still in a semi-colonial state, offered the communists scope for continuing their anti-imperialist struggle. For this reason they opposed the PAP's strategy of "independence through merger".

A Singapore independent together with the rest of Malaya would make it more difficult for the communists to camouflage their battle on behalf of communism as an anti-colonial struggle.

Moreover, merger would also mean placing internal security in the hands of a rabidly anti-communist Kuala Lumpur government, which had since 1959 shared joint custody over Singapore's internal security through its participation in the Internal Security Council (ISC) with Britain and Singapore.

The Federation government would certainly spare no effort to put down the communists on the island. But even though the extreme left-wing in the PAP fundamentally opposed merger, they were willing, for the sake of the united front, to pay lip service to it - at least so long as the possibility of fusion remained remote.

This state of uneasy tension remained until May 1961. The Tunku's Malaysia announcement, however, fundamentally changed all that. Once merger became a genuine prospect, the communists took alarm. Within days of the Malayan leader's speech, Lim Chin Siong conferred with Fang Chuang Pi, one of the communists' top three leaders overseeing Singapore and known to Mr Lee, who met him furtively on several occasions, as "the Plen" (for plenipotentiary).

Beginning in June, the extreme left came out openly to oppose merger. Through six leading trade unionists led by Lim, and backed by some 42 unions in a show of force, the pro-communists obliquely threatened to withhold support for the PAP candidate in the July 15 Anson by-election (occasioned by the death of a PAP assemblyman) unless the CEC substituted its "independence through merger" line for the communists' agenda of "complete internal self-government", that is, without the ISC. When the PAP leaders refused and proclaimed unequivocally their commitment to achieve "independence through merger" by 1963, a war of words ensued, with escalating intensity as both sides exchanged blow for blow, knowing full well that it would lead either to one side or the other giving in, or to a complete break. Meanwhile, Lim had been luring disaffected assemblymen to his side for the purpose of assembling a shadow team ready to capture the PAP and take office.

Two days before polling day, eight dissenting PAP assemblymen, led by Dr Lee Siew Choh, came out openly to denounce the party leadership and throw their support behind the trade unionists. Lim also threw his weight behind the Workers' Party candidate, David Marshall, who went on to win Anson by a narrow margin.

On July 16, a day after the PAP lost Anson, Fang Chuang Pi again conferred secretly with Lim Chin Siong. Two days later, an urgent approach was made to see Lord Selkirk, the UK Commissioner, who invited a pro-communist group, which included Lim and three others, for tea the same day. In his radio talks, Mr Lee subsequently charged that the British, with consummate skill, had deliberately tricked Lim and his radical group into open conflict with the PAP moderates by giving them the impression during their meeting at the UK Commissioner's residence on July 18 that if they left the British bases alone, they could form the government, provided they acquired power constitutionally.

Confronted by such treachery, Mr Lee called for a vote of confidence in the Legislative Assembly on July 20, five days after the polls, before Lim could win over more assemblymen. The debate lasted until the pre-dawn hours of July 21. When the vote was taken, 26 PAP assemblymen and one independent supported the Government against eight who opposed the motion. There were 16 abstentions, 13 of which were by PAP assemblymen. The delaying tactics of the pro-communists to gain time for more defections failed.

After the meeting, Mr Lee proceeded to break up the united front and expelled the 13 PAP assemblymen who abstained. Fang Chuang Pi then instructed all communist members to leave the PAP and form a new proxy political party. Six days later, they launched the Barisan Sosialis, which was officially registered on Aug 13, with Dr Lee Siew Choh as chairman and Lim Chin Siong as secretary- general. Some 19 of the 23 organising secretaries in the various PAP branches and possibly 60 to 70 per cent of the PAP membership crossed over to the new party.

Not all who defected were communists or pro-communists. Some thought the days of the PAP were numbered and wanted to join the winning side. At this stage, the PAP was in the doldrums. It had lost two by-elections in succession. Its organisation was shattered. And, in the Assembly, its position had become precarious in the extreme, clinging on to power by a majority of one.

Nevertheless, the abrupt ending of its united front with the communists gave the PAP the clean slate it needed to rebuild the party from scratch, this time without communist influence.

- See more at:

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Govt fears amnesia as Battle for Merger goes for reprint

As the government machinery goes up a gear to promote the latest launch of Battle for Merger, maybe we should slow down and think why we have come to this juncture where the government frets that Singaporeans will one day forget our roots, and how historical debates are only the concern of a very very small group interested persons.

Yes, materialism is one main reason because of how our small island state has been tuned to survive through economic relevance in the global markets. Another reason is really because the education system has been giving local history a stale treatment, explaining how each stage of  historical socio-economic development was lacking until PAP came along. I am sure all A level history students can attest how histories of China, India and modern Europe was much more interesting than local history.

The last reason, which could be also the most damning, is that Singaporeans simply can't be bothered to learn their own history, and easily accepts what is presented to them. PAP supporters would want to believe that the communist threat was so violent that it was only through Lee's grace that extermination of the communists was not carried out. Conversely, many in the opposition chuckle at the "communist conspiracy" and take the view LKY was merely using the ISA to jail the opposition. If only historical truth was this simple duality...

The Battle for Merger was actually a series of 12 radio talks given by Mr LKY in 1961 in English, Malay and Mandarin. He argued that the Malayan Communist Party had used violence and sought to prevent the merger of Singapore with Malaya.

But if one is interested, especially those who read noveau interpretations of history and get all excited, they would find that the series of 12 radio talk that spoke on the dangers of the Communist Party of Malaya and the Communist United Front, were in fact all along available for listeners from the national archives websites, at no charge. They only needed your time and attention

But why should anyone read what this man has to say? Well, if one desires to get as close as possible to a historical truth, one should read and analyse from a variety of sources and not just depend on British, American or Communist sources to tell a version of events. Although I am quite sure some are just quite dismissive of Mr LKY because of what they went through under him rather than what they read of him. But surely it is important to read what he has to say if you want to understand the historical circumstances of Singapore, because LKY was one of the main actor.

And the main reason why you should read (but you may not agree) is the fact that after all has been said and done, an large majority of Singaporeans, at that time (in 59, 63 and 68) voted PAP/LKY into power, believed in their ideology and trusted the PAP with their livelihoods. You may argue that LKY won because he removed the opposition, but the same could be argued that if the support for opposition was so strong, they would have spoiled the votes, revolted and protested in the streets...but they did not. It passed its test of legitimacy although not with flying colours, some might argue.

A compelling point to remember when reading this book is - to argue his points, LKY, (in 1961, still not all-powerful as he would be in 1965), was very open about his personal encounters with British officials, the UMNO politicians, the Communists, the Leftists and even his own colleagues - and to date, there has been no noteworthy contestations to the version of events as he presented it.

For example, in The Battle for Merger, LKY shared a thereafter oft-quoted story where he met the PLEN, otherwise known as Fong Chong Pik, a powerful representative of the Communist Party of Malaya, in 1958. The PLEN was proposing that the PAP work together the CPM to form an anti-colonial united front. LKY was hesitant as the communists then were lending their support to David Marshall's Workers' Party. To verify that the PLEN was as powerful as he claimed, LKY asked the PLEN to prove his good faith by asking pro-Communist trade unionist Chang Yuen Tong to resign from the WP and City Council, so that David Marshall and WP can go on their own without communist support. Several weeks later, Chang Yuen Tong did just that. The PLEN had proven his credentials. And WP failed miserably in the 1959 elections.

Now, you might ask, how does that square with the latest assertions that trade unionists and politicians arrested during 1963 were not communists but merely leftists? Was Chang a lone wolf or just one of the many communist-inspired pawns that CPM could move? If so, who were those keeping their allegiances and associations secret?   

Another example, in 1959, after LKY secured the release of Lim Chin Siong, Devan Nair, Fong Swee Suan, Sidney Woodhull, James Puthucheary and Chan Chiaw Thor, (who were detained by the Labour Front and Brits for suspected communist activities), all except for Lim told to LKY that they not again let CPM make use of the PAP. They declared that if the CPM fought the PAP because of this, they would fight with the PAP against the CPM. To this end, they signed a declaration renouncing communism.    

So, if the assertion is that Lim Chin Siong was not communist, why did he not make the same gentleman's agreement like the rest of the above stated leftists? Another historical riddle rings up the register...

In conclusion, as we reaped what they have sown, as those who went before us slowly wither, as our genesis sometimes seemed more like a bad dream, I think it is ever so important for those who care about Singapore's history to pick up this book and read about the people, deeds and events of that era before coming to a conclusion. 


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

1956 Labour Govt White Paper on Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Students' Union

I came across an interesting Labour Front government White Paper dated 1956 on the issue of the Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Students’ Union (SCMSSU).

In brief, the SCMSSU (October 1955 – September 1956) was a mass student organisation for Chinese Middle School Students that participated in leftist and anti-colonial struggle against the unfair treatment of Chinese education. It was banned by the Labour Front government on 24 September 1956 over charges that it was a communist front organisation. Leftists and revisionist historians have challenged the government’s accusations of CPM subversion and claimed that the SCMSSU did not engage in political struggle. However, such revisionist accounts do not square entirely with documentary evidence.

The following is a commentary about the SCMSSU based on the White Paper and other sources. The original White Paper can be accessed here.


In 1954, a delegation of over-aged Chinese Middle School students stood up to oppose the colonial government’s attempt to enforce conscription in Singapore. The students’ opposition to National Service culminated in riots when student demonstrators clashed with police on 13 May 1954 resulting in many injuries. This clash was followed by two years of student-led political action against the government. This same delegation of students eventually formed the SCMSSU with fiery student leader Soon Loh Boon as its president.

Even at this early stage, some of the leaders of this delegation may have been CPM members or subsequently became targets of cultivation for the CPM.

The following is a quote from a CPM directive dated 11 June 1956 (See White Paper, p.1):

“The work of winning over the school children is very important and must not be overlooked. Especially in circumstances where the enemy is stronger than we are, the work of winning support from school children and organising them to struggle is more important than military activities.”

According to historian CC Chin, in 1954, it was the CPM Students’ Committee leaders Huang Mingqiang and Chiam Chong Chian who put together a seven-member “National Service Task Force” to lead the student protests against conscription. This is supported by a statement made in 1955 by a Chinese Middle school student who was an SCMSSU leader and an undercover CPM agent (See White Paper, p.1):

“At one stage the Government was about to permit registration (of the Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Students’ Union) under the conditions that students should not take part in political activities or interfere with labour disputes. Representatives of the Preparatory Committee refused to accept this proviso and this was considered by the Party Organisation to be stupid … The Union should accept such conditions outwardly but carry on with political activities afterwards … The decision to register the Union with the proviso was undoubtedly made by the Party Organisation and accepted by the S.C.M.S.S.U.”

For more Chiam Chong Chian, read the earlier posts talking about his early life and how he organised the Anti-National Service Riots.

After its formal registration on 6 October 1955, the SCMSSU became involved in more anti-colonial activities with leftist organisations such as the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union led by pro-communist Lim Chin Siong, and the Singapore Women’s Federation led by CPM member Chen Mong Hock. Their struggles prompted the government to ban the SCMSSU on 24 September 1956, causing even more anger among the Chinese Middle School students.

In this context, the government issued the 1956 White Paper to justify the dissolution of the SCMSSU for being a “Communist Front Organisation”.

In his recent book “My Youth in Black and White” published in 2014, pro-communist leader and former ISA-detainee Lim Chin Joo (brother of Lim Chin Siong) dismisses communist involvement in the SCMSSU and argued that the CPM was not the leader or instigator of leftist student movements. He further claimed there was no conclusive proof that the SCMSSU was engaged in any leftist political activity.

Although the White Paper suffers from anti-communist bias, the facts of the White Paper clearly demonstrate that the SCMSSU was a prominent pro-CPM participant in the leftist and anti-colonial politics of that time.

According to the White Paper, although the government had registered the SCMSSU on condition that the students abstain from politics, the SCMSSU still managed to involve itself in leftist rallies, labour disputes and propaganda work to defend against any perceived threats to Chinese education, Chinese students and workers rights.

The White Paper also singled out the SCMSSU’s “Hsueh-Hsih” (Study) campaign as evidence of CPM influence. According to the White Paper, the term “Hsueh-Hsih” is derived from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) slogan, which approximately means “Study for Action”. However, it is not clear whether the SCMSSU’s definition of “Hsueh-Hsih” was truly communist in nature. At the time, there were conflicting interpretations of the term even within the SCMSSU itself.

Regardless, the methods of the Hsueh-Hsih campaign as stated in the White Paper did offer the CPM an avenue to discreetly influence the students. By organising picnics, meetings and study groups outside of their parents’ and teachers’ supervision, the CPM could isolate the students’ from sources of reactionary influence. Interestingly, the White Paper stated that the SCMSSU had even adopted “Criticism and Self-Criticism” exercises to foster solidarity amongst the students. In these exercises, students would undergo a round of public criticism in front of their peers for errors in their ideology and personality. The White Paper claimed that such “criticism” exercises can trace their origins to the CCP’s indoctrination tactics and was allegedly used by the SCMSSU to pressure political opponents.

In its closing paragraphs, the White Paper also declared that the government had detained “several student members who have had Communist connections, one of them a Union official who produced copies of M.C.P. [Malayan Communist Party] secret and illegal publications on subversion”.

One of the arrested SCMSSU officials handed over documents explaining the CPM view that Hsueh Hsih “helps comrades to gather sufficient strength to meet the high tide of revolution” and defined Criticism and Self-Criticism as “the propelling power of the revolution”. There were also instructions to apply the lessons of the CCP’s victory in China to the “National Liberation movement in colonies and semi-colonies” (including Malaya). One of the arrested students was eventually convicted and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for possessing these CPM materials (See White Paper, p.18).

All this lends credence to academics who have long acknowledged that the CPM had established an extensive network of communist and leftist sympathisers among the Chinese Middle School students.

Nevertheless, not all leftist student leaders were acting for the CPM. Indeed, CPM operations were aided by the growing anti-colonial sentiments of many Chinese school students. Had the communists been more patient and harvested the enthusiastic student and labour movement for a showdown at the ballot box, the history of Singapore would have been different. But what happened between the years 1954 and 1956 was that societal unrest, in part instigated by communists, gave the colonial authorities reasons to target what they saw as CPM front organisations and detain any CPM leaders involved. Such was the fate of the SCMSSU.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

What did the Communists say about Operation Coldstore?

So it seems even former Permanent Secretaries, the highest of life form in the public service if you don't want to wear white on white, can't help but to wade into the historical debate. Over the weekend I saw this:

In case you didn't know who's Bilahari, he is none other than retired Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Bilahari Kausikan, who by the way gave one a kick-ass speech to the privileged boys at RI. But you wonder why was he talking about a TOC article that was already much talked about in Dec 2013? Maybe he missed out on the party back in Dec?  

Of course the former Permanent Secretary was not alone, and he was quickly rebutted by the rising star of local revisionist historian, Thum PJ:

Anyway, I have earlier written what I think about the current revisionist history here. Maybe both sides are trying too hard to prove the other wrong? One uses (extensively) records from the British Colonial offices and the other quotes history books written by what some may call sanctioned historians. Maybe one should get creative when official records are still held closely by the tightfisted Ministry of Home Affairs...

So what did the communists themselves have to say about Operation Coldstore and the Communist United Front? Has anyone researched the memoirs of former Communists operatives? For example, Chiam Chong Chian, a CPM cadre who was said to orchestrated the May 1954 Anti-National Service riot.

This is what Chin Peng, the former leader of Communist Party of Malaya wrote about Operation Coldstore and Communist United Front:

- Referring to the "numbers of people we controlled" in Singapore in 1959, Chin Peng wrote, "I can certainly say that most of the island's workers sympathized with the left-wing trade unions and members of these unions were well appreciated they were under the control of the CPM. (p.409).

- On plans to sabotage merger, Chin Peng, Siao Chang and Eu Chooi Yip had a discussion in Beijing in mid-1961. Chin Peng wrote: "Our Peking meeting also examined in the detail the Malaysia Plan that was being hatched between London and Kuala Lumpur. The three of us came to the conclusion that it would be in the best interest of our Party if we plotted to sabotage this. If we couldn't derail it, at least we might substantially delay its implementation." (p. 437) (This is in line with what the Plen and Lim Chin Siong did in Singapore to frustrate merger?)

- On Operation Coldstore, Chin Peng wrote that it "shattered our underground network throughout the island. Those who escaped the police net went into hiding. Many fled to Indonesia." (p.439) (The clearest admission by CPM that those arrested were CPM or CUF members?)

The leader of Communist Party of Malaya in Singapore, Fong Chong Pik, better known as The Plen, also wrote about Singapore's security situation from the mid 50s to 60s:

- The Plen wrote that at a secret meeting with other CPM leaders in Jakarta in 1957 (after the the 1954-1956 strikes, demonstrations and riots): "We were informed that the Central Committee took a positive view of the widespread development of the open mass movement in Singapore and sent its praises." (p.124) (That is, CPM approve of what their front men had been instigating in Singapore in the mid-50s.)

- The Plen wrote that the CPM "central leadership had decided to establish a working directly and completely lead the struggle in Singapore" and that "both he [Eu Chooi Yip] and I had been appointed to the working group". (p. 122) (This reiterates CPM role behind the scenes in Singapore.)

- The Plan frankly revealed that he had used the Chinese press to delay merger. He wrote: "A lot of opinions expressed in the newspapers originated from me. These included slowing down the process of merger, and adopting the form of confederation." (p.161) (Wonder if revisionist historians can spot The Plen writing in the newspapers?)

- On his relationship with Lim Chin Siong, who was said to the CPM open front leader, the Plen wrote cryptically, "LIm Chin Siong and I did have a "definitely not normal association" and that Lim was a person "with whom I have had a special acquaintance." (pp. 170, 176-177)


All this debate and research is a good sign for the understanding of Singapore's history, especially the period of 50s and 60s where there has been a lack of neutral scholarly work. While some say that there was no communist conspiracy in Singapore's pre-independence political landscape, the memoirs of several communists leaders and operatives had indicated that they were active in the fight for independence of Singapore and against the LKY's idea of merger with Malaysia.

Maybe next year when Singapore celebrates our 50th birthday, the government would decide to declassify more information for scholars to discover, discuss and debate.