Monday, 9 December 2013

A Second Glance: United Front Were No Communists

Last week, Singapore alternative online news outlet The Online Citizen published an article titled United Front were no communists: British intelligence. In gist, the article revealed the contents of a British classified document illustrating Maurice LB Williams, the Security Liaison Officer (title of the Head of the British intelligence unit, MI5 office in Singapore), evaluating the evidence presented by the Singapore Special Branch on the security situation in Singapore in 1962. 

In his report, Maurice LB Williams evaluated that the United Front was not being dictated to or controlled by the communists and this ran counter to the PAP government’s claim that the opposition was involved in a communist conspiracy to topple the government. Maurice also mentioned that "they are united only in their dissatisfactions with the P.A.P. Government, and they cannot be considered to form a monolithic Communist edifice under strict Party management ".

This is no doubt an interesting perspective that would spur readers to delve further into this topic and inject much needed academic vigour and vibrancy into this phase of Singapore's history. It is strange though for a MI5 officer to expect a "monolithic Communist edifice under strict Party management" as a smoking gun when these trade unions, as well as peasant and student organisations were simply proxies of the CPM. Did Maurice honestly expect the CPM to officially subsume the United Front and legitimize police action against them? Maurice's assessment is all the more confounding when Chin Peng himself admitted that "most of the island's workers sympathized with the left-wing trade unions and members of these unions well appreciated they were under the control of the CPM".

CPM's control of the United Front is further supported by the memoirs of high ranking CPM cadre Fong Chong Pik (aka The Plen) when he admitted to having a special acquaintance with Lim Chin Siong, the top United Front leader in Singapore.     

However, like in all historical academic writing, one should be cognizant of the need to present evidence from multiple sources rather than depend on only those that fits one's assertion. As the Security Liaison Officer in Singapore, Maurice must have sent more than one report back to the Colonial Office and it would be beneficial to review all his reports for a complete view on Singapore's then security situation rather than cast judgment based on a singular report. 

Moreover, the launching of Operation Coldstore was ordered by the Internal Security Council comprising of governmental representatives from the United Kingdom and the Federation of Malaya and Singapore. Any decision taken by the council must be approved by the majority of council members and in the case of Coldstore the decision was unanimous. Hence, Maurice's single assessment may not represent the final assessment made by the British government.

Having said these, I like to introduce a few more interesting excerpts from CPM leader Chin Peng's autobiography My Side Of History which unexpectedly contradicts MI5's assessment.

In his book, Chin Peng gave a stoic assessment of Operation Coldstore. He described Operation Coldstore as Lee Kuan Yew lowering "the boom on the CPM" and that it "shattered our underground network throughout the island". In saying this, Chin Peng recognised that the main target of Coldstore was the CPM and admitted to the efficacy of Operation Coldstore in eradicating the Communist influence in Singapore. Ironically, these statements by Chin Peng go against recent articles by Dr Thum Ping Tjin who asserted that Operation Coldstore was a crackdown on political dissidents in Singapore.

In spite of Chin Peng's acknowledgement for Operation Coldstore, he categorically denied having any direct control over the Barisan Socialis. Chin Peng also refuted allegations that politicians like Dr Lee Siew Choh nor other prominent figures like the Puthucheary brothers had ever been CPM members. He did however admit to influencing these politicians.

Note: Dr Lee Siew Choh, Party Chief of Barisan Socialis was never arrested under the ISA 
This is where the play with semantics occur. When can one be considered a Communist or not a Communist? Can someone qualify to be a Communist if one is inclined to the ideology or does one have to be a card-carrying member? This is a question for readers to ruminate on and arrive at their own conclusions.

To conclude, rather than give clarity to this tumultuous period of Singapore history, TOC's article raises more doubts than answers. Hence, it is up to all like-minded history buffs to sieve through the numerous resources available and hopefully piece together a balance and credible narrative for all Singaporeans.



  1. The real commy is the old fart who sings endless praises for communist China, has now proven that he is Chinese chauvanist with his extentive promotion of Mandarin and who lately has started dressing like a chinese commy.

  2. The MI5 assessment in 1962 that there was no United Front activity must be seen in context that the British could not admit that the communist danger was imminent and that it was before the crucial events leading to launch of Op ColdStore.

    In the discourse on a United Front, it is a known tactic of the communist to mobilise workers, trade unions, political parties and others like students for revolution, legal if possible, and violent if necessary. Singapore in the 50s, with the Emergency in the background, was evidence of a communist united front. The significance of that MI5 document is not the assessment per se which is used to challenge the current narrative of Op Coldstore, but why and how that assessment was made, arguably head in the sand, and how it differed from Singapore Special Branch's.

    Until December 1962 and just before Op Coldstore, the British in Singapore including Maurice Williams and Lord Selkirk, the British Commissioner, were reluctant to recognise the depth of the Communist threat especially after the perceived defeat of the communists in the Emergency. To admit that the communists were still dangerous was tantamount to concede that the communists were not trounced by the British. The Americans however were on the other end of the spectrum and appreciated the communist movement seriously and differently. The US government viewed the growing communist problem in Singapore as part of a domino theory of communist revolution across the world including Southeast Asia e.g. the armed conflict in Vietnam and PKI's immense popularity in Indonesia.

  3. As early as the mid-1950s, in George Weaver's report for the US State Department on the leftwing labour movement in Singapore, he said that he had high praise for leaders such as Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, and their union operations, and although he found no signs of illegal activity, the unions showed all the signs of communist fanaticism. The Americans, with their anti-communist bias forged in Cold War politics, saw that communism had to be stopped and tried to contain communist influence and growth in Singapore. Kenneth Young, director of the US State Department's Office of Southeast Asian affairs, said in 1956 that "Singapore is probably already lost and little can be done to save it from Communist domination in the near future". The US even saw the PAP as a communist-dominated party and Lee Kuan Yew was also suspect, which was not far from the truth in light of his pact with Fong Chong Pik and until the leftists split from the PAP in 1961.

    Thum Ping Tjin's article "The United States, the Cold War and Countersubversion in Singapore" is a good peek into how the British initially did not believe the communists were a danger while the US foreign policy hinged on the fact that the communists were already active in the political parties, Chinese Middle schools and trade unions. In summary, US perspectives while biased gave a bigger picture to what happened in that period, outside of the memories of communists and the British, Malayan and Singapore governments.

    Hence, while MI5 hesitated to see a communist bogeyman at first, as they could not admit that the communists were not defeated totally during the Emergency, the US State Department all the way saw communism taking root in Singapore in the shape of a united front, sharing the views of the Federation and Singapore. Nonetheless, events like the Brunei Revolt in December 1962 eventually made the British change their mind, and endorsed the 3-country security sweep, Op Coldstore in 1963.

    Lord Selkirk before the launch of Op Coldstore, said that "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 Socialis and also there had been indications that the communists might resort to violence if the opportunity occurred". What the evidence was is ostensibly still classified and only future students of history will know.

  4. See how Chin Peng didn't want to say Lim Chin Siong, Poh Soo Kai and Lim Hock Siew were not communist. That is a the real truth? Sometimes what is not said is as important as what was actually said.