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.