Friday, 20 November 2015

The trial of Comrade Bala

The trial of Aravindan Balakrishnan, 75, is on-going in London. Also known as Comrade Bala, he was a former Singaporean communist that is being accused of rape, indecent assault and even imprisoning his own daughter for 30 years. He is said to use the ideas of communist revolution to convince his victims that what they were doing was for the eventual removal of the evil fascist western domination.

Comarde Bala was stripped of Singapore citizenship in 1977 because of his Communist/Marxist/Maoist beliefs and activities. He is known to be close to fellow Singapore communists such as G Raman and Tan Wah Piow, who also sought refuge in London after being wanted by the authorities for his activities with the Malayan communists in the 1970s. 

Aravindan Balakrishnan, 75, known as Comrade Bala, founded his own radical sect known as the ‘Worker’s Institute’ in Brixton, south London in the late 1970s.

He is accused of forcing two of his followers to regularly perform degrading sex acts and subjecting them to vicious beatings.

The communist leader also kept his own daughter captive from her birth in 1983 until she managed to escape the cult in 2013 aged 30, it is claimed.


Today, the woman told the jury how Balakrishnan had treated the women 'like animals' and that he had 'taken over her mind'.

But she said she never told Balakrishnan to stop the abuse because she thought the treatment meant she was 'being taken up a level in the revolution'.

'I felt I was being taken up a level in the revolution,' she told the jury. 'Although one didn't like it, it was almost like something that one had to go through. 

'His authority was so complete, you never thought about resisting and saying "I don't want to go in, I don't want this to happen". We were like animals, we were like animals being trained.

'You couldn't rebel. It was seen as part of your training, as part of being a revolutionary soldier.'

She added: 'I thought it was a special relationship that might get me off of some of the criticism.'

She also described how she was given a time slot to go into his bedroom where she would perform degrading sex acts upon him as he sat on the sofa.


Prosecutor Rosina Cottage QC said Comrade Bala told his daughter to tell him straight away if she ever dreamt about someone else.

But when she confessed her feelings towards the left-wing Labour politician, her father said she was 'getting flu because she was being unfaithful' and that Jackie was preparing to execute her.

'He said that she was getting flu because she was being unfaithful to him, the centre of the world.' 

In another incident, Balakrishnan beat his daughter, and no windows in the house were opened for three years after she had a sexual affair with a neighbour, it is alleged.

In August 2005 the commune moved to a property on the Angel estate in Brixton, south London, when she developed feelings for a neighbour, Marius Feneck, who she called her 'angel', the court heard.

Ms Cottage told the court: 'She developed a consuming passion for him. She wrote him a poem calling him her angel. She started to find opportunities to try to talk to him.'

She sent him photos she had secretly taken of herself and then wrote to him, inviting him to come to her house, jurors heard.

He sneaked in by climbing through her window and the pair had secret trysts, the court was told.

But on one occasion, when he took his cousin over to hers for group sex, they were discovered because his mobile phone rang.

Balakrishnan rushed in and beat his daughter, threatened to 'burn her on the spot' and have her committed to a mental hospital, it is claimed.

Ms Cottage said: 'It was as though she had betrayed a husband.'

She said: 'By the time she left, aged 30, she'd never been to school or other educational establishment, had never played outside as a child or gone out with friends as a teenager or an adult, she had never had a bank or other account, had no national insurance number, she had never had her own key.

'Apart from being registered at birth and with a GP at birth - which lapsed due to returned mail, she was not registered anywhere. Not known to anyone.

Read more of the trial:

Thursday, 1 October 2015

1987 Marxist Conspiracy: Forgiveness and Dialogue is the Only Way Foward

On 18 Sep, Archbishop William Goh spoke at the memorial mass for Fr Guillaume Arotcarena who served in Singapore for 17 years starting from 1982. Fr Arotcarena's stay in Singapore was interrupted mostly because of his alleged involvement in the Marxist Conspiracy.

 In his book, Priest in Geylang, Fr Arotcarena felt that when the arrests happened, then Archbishop Gregory Yong left them out to dry, sort of:
On pg 105, Fr Guillaume Arotcarena wrote,"We also knew that the Archbishop of Singapore (Gregory Yong) would not even try to protect us. We had gone to see him a few months earlier in order to tell him our worries: We had been dismissed. He did not want to get involved."
Again on pg 32, "...the Archbishop (was) always reticent when faced with any kind of change, and above all, anxious to avoid rough weather. Some of his advisors reckoned that we were going to create trouble for the diocese; I must admit, today, that they were right but I regret nothing."  

Archbishop Gregory Yong

But the current Archbishop was wise not get involved in what were possibilities and intentions back in 1987. In his mass, Archbishop Goh said, “there are many sides to the same story. People have different accounts of the same event. Different people have different explanations.”

He continued, and even if the facts can be established, “can you establish the motives of everyone who is involved?” “In truth, the motives of those people who serve, the motives of the authorities who reacted to the situation perhaps will never be truly known.”

What is the Archbishop trying to say here? That the motives of those arrested were closer to what the state charged them with? Or is he saying that the motive of the state were to clamp down on socio-political activities of the church? Or is Archbishop Goh really saying I don't really know and it doesn't matter and let's move on...

Archbishop William Goh

For those familiar with the Marxist Conspiracy, it was often said in the defence of those arrested that they were doing social good, helping the down-trodden and under-privilege without any political or Marxist agenda. 

But Archbishop William Goh had this to say during his memorial mass:
The first lesson is that the Church’s social mission is principally a spiritual one.

“The social mission of the Church is an expression of the proclamation of the Gospel,” he said. “The Church must never ever be reduced to a humanitarian organisation. We are not another NGO.”

Archbishop Goh also quoted from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in which he said that “it is not the task of the Church to preserve social order and justice in the country. The pursuit of a just social order is the work of the state. … The task of the Church is to be a moral spokesman.”

Reading this, it seems that the Archbishop Goh is somewhat disagreeing with the social justice/human rights activist approach (using religious organisation as a platform) used  by those involved in 1987.  It suggests that the Catholic Church can comment and even criticise but it should not be too active in the politics of social order and it should not overtake the state as the main preserver or reformer of social order. 

But not all will agree,  I am sure. 

Regardless, the Archbishop's tone of forgiveness and dialogue can only bring us forward and not back. Because dwelling on who's right and wrong, or if they should be an inquiry or an apology, might not mean we are better off as a society. As Archbishop Goh said, "truth and love must go together" - he couldn't have said it better. 

Read the full article on Catholic News below:  

During a memorial Mass for the late French priest Fr Guillaume Arotcarena, Archbishop William Goh praised him for championing the rights of migrant workers and his compassion towards the poor and marginalised.

“The Church is proud of all of those people who have contributed their time, their resources and their energy in the work of serving the poor,” Archbishop Goh told the 400-strong crowd at the Church of the Holy Family on Sept 18. “By so doing they have done justice to the spreading of the Gospel.”

Paris Foreign Missions priest Fr Arotcarena passed away in France on Sept 3 after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 71.

He arrived in Singapore in 1972 and served here for 17 years. In 1980, he founded the Geylang Catholic Centre to provide support and social services to foreign domestic workers, prisoners and drug addicts.

The centre closed in 1987 in the wake of the so-called “Marxist conspiracy”, which saw 22 people, including many with connections to the Catholic Church, accused of plotting to overthrow the government under the cover of the Church. They were arrested under the Internal Security Act.

In addition, Fr Arotcarena and three other priests were implicated in the so-called “conspiracy”.

Speaking of the pain the Church experienced during this time, Archbishop Goh acknowledged that those who had served the marginalised, including those who worked with Fr Arotcarena, have “felt misunderstood … hurt, wounded and disappointed”.

“We can imagine the pain, the disappointment and even anger, especially against authorities, whether of the state and even of the Church, for apparently not standing up for them,” said Archbishop Goh.

He noted that the immediate reaction of anyone who is misjudged is to seek justice, “to uncover the facts” and “to be vindicated”.

However, “there are many sides to the same story,” he said. “People have different accounts of the same event. Different people have different explanations.”

And even if the facts can be established, “can you establish the motives of everyone who is involved?” he asked. “In truth, the motives of those people who serve, the motives of the authorities who reacted to the situation perhaps will never be truly known.”

Noting that the trauma resulting from the so-called “Marxist conspiracy” will “resurface from time to time”, he stressed that there is “no other way forward” for the Church except “the way of forgiveness”.

“Only God can judge the motives of each individual,” he said.

Archbishop Goh said he believes the painful experience “is not something negative in the Church. I see it as something positive because this event helps the Church to be purified.” There are lessons that the Church can draw from this incident “so that history will not repeat itself”, he said.

The first lesson is that the Church’s social mission is principally a spiritual one.

“The social mission of the Church is an expression of the proclamation of the Gospel,” he said. “The Church must never ever be reduced to a humanitarian organisation. We are not another NGO.”

The Church does not work “simply to save the body,” he stressed. “We want to bring the love of God” to people.

The second lesson is that “truth and love must go together”.

“All those of us who are serving God … we need to search our motives, we need to purify our motives,” he said.

Archbishop Goh also quoted from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in which he said that “it is not the task of the Church to preserve social order and justice in the country. The pursuit of a just social order is the work of the state. … The task of the Church is to be a moral spokesman.”

The last lesson Archbishop shared is that the way forward “is always through dialogue”.

“When there is disagreement, the Church has always encouraged us that the path of faith is dialogue,” he said. “Demonstration, pressurising people will not work.”

During the Mass, Fr Patrick Goh, Mr Lawrence Khoo and Mr Vincent Cheng who had known and worked with Fr Arotcarena, shared their memories of him.

Holy Family Church parishioner Theresa Chan also remembered how people fondly referred to the French priest as “Fr Tom Jones” as he looked like the American pop singer.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Priest in Geylang: Story of Michael and Catherine

If you have not read Part I of the review of Priest in Geylang written by Father Guillaume Arotcarena, click here.

There is this interesting story in the book which kinda indicates the Marxist/historical materialism analysis approach taken by Father Arotcarena. Catherine, the wife of Michael, is of bourgeois background and so when her necklace was stolen by her domestic helper (proletariat), Catherine who was well-off, was quite capable of replacing it, and hence did not "arouse much compassion" from the priest. Although Father Guillaume Arotcarena was quite right to ask Catherine to make a room for her helper, I can't help but to see that the Father was unnecessary bias in his writings against Catherine, who happens to be well-off. This coming from a priest who quoted Antonio Gramsci at the end of his introductory chapter.

If you are wondering who is Michael, the high-ranking magistrate, it would not be hard to guess. He was among the first batch of lawyers to be appointed the rank of senior counsel in 1997 along with Davinder Singh and VK Rajah and his brother was once arrested by the ISD .

I will leave you with this short story of Catherine and Vilma from the book. 


Sometimes I had to get involved in things I would rather keep way from. One day I had a visit from Catherine. I knew her and her family. I knew her husband, Michael, very well, a high-ranking magistrate in the judiciary. They were devout Catholics, about 40 years of age.

Both of them came from a bourgeois background, and they employed a young Filipina even though they have no real need for her; they were childless, lived in a very nice flat downtown which was easy to upkeep. But because they were amahs (servants) in the house in their childhood, it seemed to them that they should similarly have one now to maintain their standing and also relieve Catherine from any domestic chores. Yet Catherine did not work and would have had plenty of time to do the housework.

Anyway, this is how Vilma arrived in their home. She was in her 20s, resourceful but a little scatterbrained. In brief, she was what could be expected of someone her age. I saw her fairly often at the Geylang Centre when she had her day of rest. She would come to chat with the other girls there.

Catherine told me that she lost a gold chain which she was particularly fond of. It was given to her by her husband. Until this point, her story did not arouse much compassion from me because she had the means to replace the necklace with another one which she would like just as much. But she suspected that Vilma had stolen it and I must admit on the face of it, it looked like she was probably right. She was ready to forgive Vilma if the chain was returned to her. Otherwise she would cancel her contract and send her back to the Philippines. What puzzled her was that she had gone through all of Vilma's belongings in her presence and searched the flat thoroughly as well but the gold chain was nowhere to be found. She asked me if I could help.

In the end, I offered to talk to Vilma the next day at her home on the condition that she would not be there herself. She accepted. I went at the arranged time. Vilma opened the door, a bit surprised to see me and told me her boss was not in. I told her it was just as well because I wanted to talk to her, Vilma. I told her without beating around the bush that she had better give me the chain she had taken so that I could return it to her boss or else her contract would be cancelled and she would have to go back to the Philippines. Her parents and her younger siblings relied on her salary for their living. I promised the matter would rest there and she would suffer no consequences if she returned the object.

It did not take her long to admit to the theft and she went to the window in the sitting-room where there was an evergreen potted plant. She dug into the pot, extracted the precious chain and gave it to me. In fact she did not know how to get out of the situation without losing face and regretted having given in to the impulse to hide the chain away. She had hoped her boss would quickly forget about the chain because she had so many other pieces of jewellery. I reiterated my promise and told her not to worry.

That night Catherine came to the Geylang Centre and I returned the gold chain to her. She wanted to know how I found it but I never told her. I brought to her attention that there were two bedrooms in her flat and that I did not understand why Vilma had to sleep in the kitchen. She could free the second bedroom so that Vilma would have a place for herself and enjoy some privacy. She told me that this was how amahs lived when she was a child! Which shows that silliness is equally distributed in all social classes. But she promised that she would follow my advice.

This is how I gained a largely overrated reputation as a Sherlock Holmes among her relatives to whom she was quick to recount the story with embellishments of her own. All in all, the episode ended quite well and the relationship between Vilma and Catherine improved markedly.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Review: Priest in Geylang

Father Guillaume Arotcarena standing

Definitely, this is not an objective account of the events in 1987 from a neutral standpoint. Reading Father Guillaume Arotcarena's account of the Marxist Conspiracy arrests won't shed more light on why 22 individuals were arrested under the ISA in May 1987. What the Father said is predictably similar to what the detainees plead innocence to; that they were only involved in social/church work, helping foreign workers, ex-criminals and other under-privileged people, then the PAP government suddenly accused them of being linked to the Communist Party of Malaya and attempting to topple the state through unconstitutional means. 

But if all these were true, why did the government risk the enormous blow-back from civil society and the Catholic Church, something still felt today, by detaining these people without trial? If these are all social do-gooders, why did the ISD needed to act in such a fashion? What information did the security agencies have?

As expected, the priest did not mention Vincent Cheng's and Wong Souk Yee's links with the Communist Party of Philippines nor the fact that Chung Lai Mei, one of those arrested, had a photo showing her in a LTTE militant training camp in India.

But what's really interesting in this book is the internal workings of the Catholic Church during the Marxist Conspiracy.

For example on pg 105, Father Guillaume Arotcarena wrote of the tension between him and the Archbishop, "We also knew that the Archbishop of Singapore (Gregory Yong) would not even try to protect us. We had gone to see him a few months earlier in order to tell him our worries: We had been dismissed. He did not want to get involved."

Again on pg 32, "...the Archbishop (was) always reticent when faced with any kind of change, and above all, anxious to avoid rough weather. Some of his advisors reckoned that we were going to create trouble for the diocese; I must admit, today, that they were right but I regret nothing."

Archbishop Gregory Yong

The four Catholic priests, Fathers Joseph Ho, Patrick Goh, Edgar D'Souza and Guillaume Arotcarena, who were suspended by the Archbishop in the aftermath of the arrests felt that it was an attack on the Catholic Church: "...nobody believed in a 'Marxist Conspiracy' and everybody agreed that it was operation meant to destroy the Catholic movements which were thought to be too active in social areas."  (pg 112)

Father Guillaume Arotcarena did not have courteous words for the Vicar-General at that time, Monsignor Francis Lau. He alluded to Lau being an ISD mole, "At that time we did not know yet that one of his close advisors, who attended the meeting, was working hand in glove with the ISD." (pg 105)

Similarly, on pg 120, Arotcarena wrote of Francis Lau, "With some men, it is at times difficult to figure out what comes first: hypocrisy or stupidity. The combination of the two is definitely unbearable."

There are more interesting stories in the book, although they are not entirely related to the Marxist arrests. As a clergyman, the author is quite sharp in observing the vicissitudes of the human life. Hope to share more soon. 

Monsignor Francis Lau

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Why there should be no complete declassification

What many people don't realise is that even the most prominent of liberal theorists did not advocate for complete declassification or full transparency of government documents. Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham recognise that democracies had reson to keep security-relevant secrets from public even though transparency and publicity were the foundational principles of a functioning democracy. The capacity for secrecy by states is something activists or historians often try to skim over, because it makes their work more difficult.

Why is there is need for some state secrecy? The case of Snowden leaks is a prime example of how things can go very wrong when information is not properly declassified before it is released to the public. While I do not deny the good of declassification, releasing information lock stock and barrel can potentially harm those who have helped state agencies keep peace and order. It can also prove to be very embarrassing and contentious for bilateral state relations when frank analysis is taken in bad faith. Other times, especially in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore, unadulterated declassification can result in the opening of old wounds along primordial lines. 

Hence, while historians and activists call for declassification, and I agree there should be more, we should remember that the USA often declassify their information but with plenty of censorship, so much so that some do not make sense at all. Similarly, the Brits do not release all their documents under the Freedom of Information Act; they have a variety of exemptions including those that will prejudice defence, security forces, international relations, economic interests, law enforcement, safety of individual etc.

Last, but not least, we should be more concern with how we approach new sources of evidence. Is one so eager to re-write history and seek out the contrarian? Is one writing to further a current and present agenda? After all, we shall find what we seek.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The early life Singapore communist leader Eu Chooi Yip

Eu Chooi Yip (1918-1995) was the Secretary of the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), Singapore’s first political party after the Second World War, and the leader of Singapore’s underground communist movement in the 1950s. He was the leader of the Communist Party of Malaya in Singapore. He took direct orders from Chin Peng, the secretary-general of MCP, and was the superior of Fang Chuang Pi, aka the Plen.

Eu was born in Kuantan, Malaysia and he came to Singapore to attend Victoria School and later Raffles College where he studied economics. Eu came from a poor family, his parents died when he was young and he could only attend college because he won a scholarship. Eu was a brilliant student and was one of the top graduates at Raffles College. He was a close friend of Goh Keng Swee, whom he knew during his Raffles College days.

Another close friend was former DPM and Foreign Minister, S Rajaratnam, who was his housemate at Chancery Lane. Rajaratnam helped Chooi Yip to get medical treatment for his tuberculosisand gave him shelter while he was hiding from the British.

As a ranked communist he was a wanted man in Singapore and Malaysia. Eu stayed in China for many years and he later sought help from Goh Keng Swee to return to Singapore. In 1991, Eu renounced communism and returned to Singapore. He died in Singapore in 1995.

In his own oral history, Eu said that he was indoctrinated by leftist thought and Marxism under the influence of his elder sister, who was herself a leftist and was involved in student activism. At the age of 13, he was arrested by the colonial police for participating in an anti-imperialist march organised by the underground movement. Overseas Chinese were indignant with Western powers as China in the 1930s was severely crippled by colonial powers. His teachers also played an important role in shaping his outlook, many of them were leftist-communist and they inspired Eu with stories of revolution, injustices to the Chinese, Mao Zedong etc. 

You can listen to reel 1 of Eu Chooi Yip oral history in Chinese here.

You can read reel 1 of Eu Chooi Yip oral history in Chinese here.

As the source material is Chinese, I have translated some interesting bits into English here:

Eu: I consider myself to be a little of a leftist since young. I had an older sister, who came to Singapore from 1927 to 1930 and studied at Nan Hua Girls' School (became known later as Zhong Hua Girls' School). My sister participated in underground activities - the past student movements. As a result of the school activist movement, she was sacked and went back to Kuantan. Before 1929, 1930, I was 11/12 years old but precocious, my older sister often chatted with me about politics. She was merely 5 years older than me (16/17 years old) and constantly talked about politics, thus, since young, I was able to absorb anti-imperialist ideologies. China was also undergoing a period of turmoil at that time, every year there was 'The Day of Infamy', 'Jinan Massacre', and I was often affected by such events. The adults frequently talked about national affairs, the Japanese Occupation, how detestable the 'Ang Mohs' were etc.

Eu: Some of my teachers at Yang Zheng (Yeung Ching) were organizing anti-Japanese activities. When an artist called Gu Feng was arrested, I was infuriated. While I was studying and under the influence of my older sister, a member of the underground Singapore Students' Anti-British League came to find me and I was further influenced, reading the newspapers etc. That year was 1931 when I was only 13 years old. I matured earlier and was interested in such things, thus, I went to the book stores often. After school, I would go to Shanghai Bookshop or a new book store at Cross Street to read up which resulted in me being attracted to leftist ideology.

Interviewer: The underground student union, what was the organization like in the 1930s? It consists of some Chinese primary and secondary schools from all over Singapore?

Eu: Probably not so formal, not like the later Chinese School Union (1955), I guess it was started by some teachers, we were too young and did not know much. At that time, I got into contact with one student who came from Bangka (?) to study English in Singapore. He was a Hakka, and through him, I joined the underground student union. Every week there would be a meeting at Mount Emily, under a tree beside the swimming pool and the people who led the meeting would be students from Hwa Chong. That was how I came into contact with them, every week after class, I did not take my studies seriously; after class I would spend time with them, listening to their stories, going to book stores, read books, chat, in actual fact, there wasn't many activities, but this was how I got to know them, then later on something happened.

Eu: That year was 1931, 32. After I studied for about a year or so. One day, the underground organization organized a demonstration. This took place in 1932, probably 1st of August, on a day called 'Anti-Imperialist Day', not sure which day? It happened so long ago, I can't remember clearly. On that night, they asked us to participate. I was young and curious, thus I really went to participate. Around 7-8pm, a group of us walked together, but the police were aware of this and all of a sudden, they came to arrest us.

Eu: At the intersection between Victoria Street and Arab Street. In the past, roughly 50 , 60 years ago, there was a Japanese hospital there. At the beginning, while walking, we started singing as well. We formed a procession, not that many people, around 20/30. The police arrived in their black cars and I was arrested. I was just a child then, around 13 years old, luckily I was still a kid.

Eu: I was brought to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and was interrogated. Around 5-6 people were arrested along with me. Once we were brought in, the 'Ang Moh Big Dog' (Caucasian Senior Officer) started questioning us, those Hainanese (who were older), were beaten by him. We just stood there and he treated us as little children. He asked me and I pretended that I did not know anything. I replied in Cantonese saying that I did not know why I was arrested and claimed that I was arrested by mistake. However, I was still taken to an old prison in Outram Road and was placed under detention.

[Eu was later released on bail due to the lack of evidence and was sent back to Kuantan by his elder brother. He studied for a year in Kuantan.]

Interviewer: Was there any teacher from Yang Zheng school that left a deep impression on you?

Eu: There was a teacher called Wang Si Liang. There were many leftist teachers back then but he stood out. During class he would talk about Marx's historical materialism, we didn't really understood everything, but we would buy some books to flip around. The main things we talked about were patriotism towards China, anti-Japanese movement and Marxism...but it was very superficial. We knew there was the revolution, that imperial powers were evil, we had to crush imperialism, these were the main points.

Interviewer: After you came back from Kuantan, did the underground student union re-established their contact with you?

Eu: No, there was no contact. When I got into Victoria School, there was none. At that time, I was trying very hard to study English and did not read that many Chinese books. Most of the friends that I made spoke English.When I entered university, things changed. At that time, it was 1937 and the resistance had just begun. The whole of Singapore was excited and particularly interested in the domestic situation. At that time, there were a few teachers from Kuantan; one named Liu Xi Wen (from Jiangxi) who taught arts and music. He was a little of a leftist. Liu's younger brother was named Liu Kai Lin and Liu also had a cousin named Liu Dao Nan who used to teach at Nan Zhong. All of them were from Jiangxi and considered themselves to be leftists. Since young, I was influenced by them and they let me read those so-called 'progressive books'. I was very close with these teachers and often listened to their stories (revolving around their life in China). From 1925 to 27 (the time of the Chinese Revolution), they participated in these movements and some of them were also part of the revolutionary army. They talked about the stories of the revolution, of Guo Moruo and Mao Ze Dong, thus, I grew up listening to such stories.

Interviewer: At that time, was there any mention of the Communist Party of Malaya?
Eu: I knew of the Communist Party of Malaya. At that time, the Communist Party of Malaya, 1927..1928..1929.. they had activities at small places. They organized night studies etc... there were people who viewed the Communist Party as the Hainan Communist Party. There were larger numbers of foreign workers and workers from the coffee shops; most of the participants were Hainanese, in the earlier days, there were fewer Cantonese and Hokkien people. After the resistance, there were more Hokkien people (who joined).

Interviewer: After you came to Singapore, that underground student union.. at that time you were still young but were you aware of what went on behind..
Eu: I'm not too sure, I guess many of them were teachers...
Interviewer: Could it (the underground student union) be related to the Communist Party of Malaya?
Eu: That was started by the Communist Party of Malaya.
Interviewer: It was already known then?
Eu: Yes. It had a few underground organizations, one of it was the anti-imperialist league, the other was the student union. I had heard of these two. At that time, the Communist Party of Malaya had just started. The Communist Party of Malaya was officially established in 1930. Ho Chi Minh came to Malaysia to attend the official ceremony marking the formation of the Communist Party of Malaya.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Original Sin? Revising the Revisionist Critique of the 1963 Operation Coldstore

Another upcoming new book on Operation Coldstore...looks like both sides are eager to get their version of history out. On the one hand, I don't think Lim Chin Siong is clean as a whistle but Lee Kuan Yew is definitely someone who would bend the rules if given the chance. There's no black and white in this case, only shades of grey.

By Kumar Ramakrishna


A new book on the 1963 Operation Coldstore debunks attempts by revisionist writers to portray the operation as driven by political motives rather than security grounds.


FIFTY-TWO years ago this month, on 2 February 1963, a historic internal security dragnet known as Operation Coldstore was conducted in Singapore. Mainstream accounts record that the sweep, authorised by the Internal Security Council comprising British, Singaporean and Malayan governmental representatives, approved the detention – under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO) – of ultimately 130 leftwing politicians, unionists, and other activists – that basically destroyed the Communist United Front in Singapore.

This development helped pave the way for Singapore’s political union or merger with the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia, in September that year. Coldstore was hence a defining moment in Singapore’s history. It is thus counterintuitive that a recent Institute of Policy Studies survey found that a paltry 16.6 percent of a sample of 1,516 Singaporeans were even aware of the operation.

Why Coldstore matters

Certainly, the survey results suggest that more can be done to improve the general historical awareness of Singaporeans. Nevertheless, the results are also intriguing: they belie the ongoing controversy about Coldstore that has been going on for more than a year. The debate in this connection is not about whether Coldstore was a defining moment in Singapore’s history, but rather what it really meant.

As noted, while mainstream writers argue that the operation destroyed the CUF that had been destabilising Singapore’s political and industrial fabric since the mid-1950s, “revisionist” historians, former detainees and their online supporters maintain the real implication of Coldstore was that it destroyed not a Communist network but rather a legitimate progressive leftwing political opposition centered on the Barisan Sosialis Singapura (BSS).

Coldstore thus paved the way for the People’s Action Party (PAP) to win the general election in September 1963. Hence Coldstore was – as one revisionist historian puts it, the PAP government’s “original sin”. It other words, the Coldstore arrests were basically driven by opportunistic political motives rather than national security grounds, and hence calls into question the “morality of how the PAP came to rule Singapore”.

The revisionist message is thus a potentially corrosive one. If it gains traction with the younger, well-educated and cosmopolitan Singaporeans who will one day become the business, civil society and even government elites of the next decade or more, the net effect could be to foster even greater levels of the general cynicism and anti-communitarian sentiments one routinely encounters on social media sites nowadays.

From a national security perspective, while diversity of views can broaden what political scientist Cass Sunstein calls a society’s “argument pools”, there are limits. Such anti-communitarian cynicism and excessive individualism would be utterly counterproductive for a society’s longer-term cohesion, stability and resilience – especially a society and polity as socially variegated and globalised as modern Singapore’s.

Little wonder that in 1979 the late former foreign minister, Mr. S. Rajaratnam, underscored the importance of what the great medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun called asabiyya – a commodity blending robust group solidarity with the gumption to surmount challenges.

Revisionist sins

What thickens the plot is that the revisionist message on Coldstore is deeply problematic for four basic reasons, as the writer attempts to argue in his new book Original Sin? Revising the Revisionist Critique of the 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015).

Firstly, the book shows that rather than scholarly detachment, an anti-government ideological agenda seems to motivate at least some revisionist writers. Secondly, the revisionists as a whole seem to possess a very limited definition of what a threat “prejudicial” to public order was at the time of Coldstore, thereby skewing their analysis towards the notion that Coldstore was driven by politics rather than security considerations.

Thirdly, the book shows that the revisionists by and large harbour rather naïve expectations of how incumbent political leaders should behave. Revisionist expositions seem to suggest that even if the Communist United Front were employing all types of illegal stratagems to cynically exploit the constitutional route to power, the incumbent PAP government was supposed to sit back and play by the rules at all costs.

Fourthly and relatedly, the book shows that in general the revisionists as a whole do not seem to have fully grasped the Communist mindset, strategy and tactics that the PAP leaders of that era came to know only too well and were compelled to doggedly counter.

The Lim Chin Siong affair

One of the key strands in the book is its analysis of the political career of the charismatic Barisan leader Lim Chin Siong, portrayed in revisionist analyses as a potential future Singapore prime minister who was purportedly unjustly arrested under Coldstore.

The book – employing both declassified and some still-classified sources – addresses the perennial question of whether Lim was indeed a Communist and why it mattered. In doing so certain relatively obscure facts about how Communism distorted Lim’s life are addressed, with due restraint and sensitivity.

Only by shedding light on these issues can inaccurate revisionist ideas about Lim be effectively debunked. The larger takeaway from the Lim Chin Siong affair incidentally, retains relevance for the current struggle with the violent extremism of the ISIS type: able men can be led grossly astray by evil ideologies.

Reading Original Sin?

Original Sin? makes three general requests of readers. Firstly, be sceptical both ways: revisionist writers and their supporters have every bit of an agenda as they claim that mainstream writers do – hence their arguments should be dissected with equal care. Secondly, Singaporeans should go beyond surface appearances and subject the latter-day complaints of seemingly grandfatherly former CUF activists and detainees to greater critical scrutiny. The advanced age and ostensibly sagely persona of such individuals is hardly reason to lower one’s guard.

Thirdly and finally, the subtext of the book is that while Singapore is not perfect and improvements can be made across a range of policy domains, it is important to have the attitude of what Tommy Koh calls “a loving critic”. One should hence avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Instead, a more systematic national effort should go into nurturing Singapore’s asabiyya, to ensure that the next 50 years of nation-building is as progressive and productive as the previous half century. It would be unwise to be remiss in this obligation. In this 50th year of Singapore’s unexpected independence, it behooves us to remember that in the end, Marx was right about one thing: every society contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

About the Author

Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor and Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. His book, Original Sin? Revising the Revisionist Critique of the 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore will shortly be published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.