Political Repression: Suppressing Left-Wing Movements

Memoirs and Personal Histories

Kirsten Han, Tom White, Thum Ping Tjin. “Remembering Coldstore: Former detainees speak,” New Naratif, March 1, 2018.

  • It has been 55 years since Operation Coldstore, a major police operation in February 1963 in which over 110 anticolonial activists, union workers, students and politicians were arrested and detained without trial in Singapore. Carried out under the guise of fighting communism, the arrests severely undermined the left-wing anticolonial movement in Singapore and crippled the main opposition party, the Barisan Sosialis, who held 14 out of 51 seats in the Legislative Assembly (the governing People’s Action Party, led by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had 25 seats). Some detainees would go on to spend over a decade behind bars without ever being formally charged with a crime. Operation Coldstore remains the largest round of arrests and detentions ever carried out in Singapore. Over the years, the stories of these leftists have been largely obscured or erased from Singapore’s official narrative. A survey done by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2015 found that Operation Coldstore was among one of Singaporeans’ least remembered historical events. But the Old Left remembers: they gather every year during the Lunar New Year period for a big reunion lunch. It’s an opportunity to catch up with friends and also commemorate events from their past. This year, New Naratif spoke to some of the former detainees at the annual gathering.

Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee, and Koh Kay Yew (editors). The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2010.

  • The University Socialist Club (USC) was formed in February 1953. In the 1950s and 1960s the USC and its organ Fajar were a leading voice advocating the cause of the constitutional struggle for freedom and independence in peninsular Malaya and Singapore. In May 1954, the British colonial government arrested the entire editorial board of Fajar and charged them with sedition. In the subsequent high profile trial the Fajar Eight, as the members of the board had become popularly known, were acquitted. The monthly periodical continued to be published until it was banned in February 1963, following the massive wave of political arrests codenamed Operation Cold Store.

Poh Soo Kai. “Singapore’s ‘Battle for Merger’ revisited,” New Mandala, 3 December 2014.

  • For more than twenty years following the release in 1982 of the last of the political prisoners then (save for Chia Thye Poh) we maintained silence about our wrongful imprisonment. The political climate was stifling; we were warned of re-arrest should we ‘cause trouble’, which included maintaining contact with one another. There was also the need to focus on making a living. Only gradually were attempts made among ex-political prisoners to meet up socially.

Poh Soo Kai. Living in a Time of Deception. Function 8, 2016.

  • This is the historical memoir of Dr Poh Soo Kai, a man of medicine and a founder member of the People’s Action Party, but cruelly locked up in the political prison of Lee Kuan Yew for a total of 17 years.

Political detainees in Singapore,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 1, no. 3, 1971, pp. 117-118.

  • The following open letter written by families of political prisoners in Singapore was published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia in 1971. It gives us a window into deep anguish caused by the PAP to countless families in those years.

Poo Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa (editors). The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 years. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2013.

  • Operation Coldstore remains the most contentious event in the history of postcolonial Singapore. Despite attempts by the state to silence ex-detainees, by warning that they would not be permitted to rewrite the state’s official version of history, the authors in this volume have done just that.

Said Zahari. Dark Clouds at Dawn: A Political Memoir. INSAN, 2001.

  • This book is the personal story of Said Zahari, once a leading figure in Malaysian politics, the editor of the foremost Malay language newspaper Utusan Melayu until the strike he led in 1961 failed. He was jailed in Singapore in 1963 by Lee Kuan Yew in the cynically named and notorious “Operation Cold Storage” and kept without trial for 17 years.

Said Zahari. The Long Nightmare: My 17 Years as a Political Prisoner. Utusan Publications, 2007.

  • Autobiography of Said Zahari, a Malay journalist in the 1950s and 60s and political prisoner in Singapore.

Tan Jing Quee and Jomo K.S (editors). Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History. INSAN, 2015 [2001].

  • Lim Chin Siong was the most prominent left-wing leader in Singapore for a decade until he was eliminated from the political scene by the infamous Operation Coldstore on February 2, 1963. This book is an account of Lim’s significance in Singapore’s political developments in the decade preceding. It also contains tributes by his friends and colleagues in Singapore and Malaysia. This new edition features an essay by Dr Poh Soo Kai and an extract from Lim’s posthumous manuscripts. It will redefine the debate on the post-war history of both countries and the legacy of continuing political repression in them.

Tan Jing Quee, Tan Kok Chiang, and Hong Lysa (editors). The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2011.

  • The May 13 generation was the first belonging to the immigrant communities from China to grapple with the issues of being Malayan/Singaporean, breaking irrevocably with the received wisdoms of their elders, and in a political climate where their explorations were deemed to be subversive. This book comprises the recollections penned by the participants of the era of the 1950s, where their generation was in the forefront of the anti-colonial movement, and the work of academic researchers who have examined the historical framework and context of the period, as well as how it has been made to fit into the country’s mainstream history. The researchers have also examined the students’ cultural expressions, whether it is in art, drama, dance or literature and found them to be socially engaged, and grappling with the question of who they were as a people. The cultural explorations of that period have been forgotten or repudiated. It is revealing just how this amnesia and silence has become so set. It is also impossible to imagine the demands that the age had put on this generation of youths.

Tan Jing Quee, Teo Soh Lung, and Koh Kay Yew (editors). Our Thoughts are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile. Ethos Books, 2009.

  • Nietzsche’s words, now a popular saying, asserts that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. What is seldom observed, however, is that the real threat often isn’t an external force but an internal one. The real danger, for example, from physical incarceration and enforced exile – as this collection Our Thoughts Are Free shows – is the mental and spiritual asphyxiation that isolation, loneliness and deprivation can cause. To survive these is the greater struggle and, as history has given us in countless examples, language as creative tool may be instrumental in saving us from ourselves. This collection of poems and writings is such a record of survival; of those who knew by instinct to let words open doors and windows to connect with a world denied them, the outside, and the one within, the more imperilled. Highly articulate, their voices uphold the inviolability of the human inner life, and attest to the fruitful relationship between art and adversity. It is said that adversity introduces a man to himself. This collection has the potential to do that: to surprise us with our own empathy, and to move and fortify us with the conviction of our essential freedom within circumstances few of us will experience at first hand. – Lee Tzu Pheng

Teo Soh Lung. Beyond The Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner. Function 8, 2011.

  • This is a moving and detailed account of the author’s tribulations while under detention without trial. Singapore lawyer Teo Soh Lung has written this careful account of her experiences and feelings when detained in Whitley Detention Centre 21 from May 1987 to 6 September 1987, and from April 1988 to 1 June 1990. Accused of involvement in the alleged “Marxist Conspiracy”, Soh Lung discusses many legal aspects of the case, including Singapore’s banning of London QC Anthony Lester and her various Appeal attempts. She tells of the regime and her physical and emotional suffering, as well as the strategies and beliefs which enabled her to retain her integrity and balance in circumstances intended to subdue her. Relevant official documents are appended.

Novels

Sonny Liew. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Epigram Books, 2016.

  • Now in his early 70s, Chan has been making comics in his native Singapore since 1954, when he was a boy of 16. As he looks back on his career over five decades, we see his stories unfold before us in a dazzling array of art styles and forms, their development mirroring the evolution in the political and social landscape of his homeland and of the comic book medium itself. With The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Sonny Liew has drawn together a myriad of genres to create a thoroughly ingenious and engaging work, where the line between truth and construct may sometimes be blurred, but where the story told is always enthralling, bringing us on a uniquely moving, funny, and thought-provoking journey through the life of an artist and the history of a nation.

Gopal Baratham. A Candle or the Sun. Serpent’s Tail, 1991.

  • “Early in my working life I had discovered that salesmanship consisted not of providing people with what they needed, but with that was essential to their dreams. I was confident that our dining-room suite, complete with carpets, curtains and an artificial fireplace, would shortly be snapped up by people occupying oven-hot semis in the newer and, as yet, treeless, housing estates on the island. The possibility of winter is essential to the happiness of people living in the tropics.” Hernie Perera runs the furniture department in Benson’s, the largest store in Singapore. In his spare time, he writes stories. Suddenly, his comfortable life is shattered. His father is found to have terminal cancer, he loses his job, and his lover joins the ‘Children of the Book’, a Christian sect committed to overthrowing an oppressive government. An old acquaintance and government official promises Hernie literary success in exchange for information on the ‘Children of the Book’. He must now decide between the rewards of political corruption and his conscience. With passion and humour, A Candle or the Sun reveals a Singapore far different from the tourist brochures.

Documentaries

Tan Pin Pin. To Singapore, with Love. 2013.

  • Director Tan Pin Pin travelled to Thailand, Malaysia and United Kingdom to interview Singapore political exiles about their feelings about Singapore. Some have not been home for 50 years. The film, though banned in Singapore for undermining national security, has moved audiences the world over.

Jason Soo. 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy. 2015.

  • A film examining Singapore’s history through the depiction of narrow corridors, a suit and a tie, and a pristine book. In 1987, 22 people were arrested under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). Accused of being involved in a Marxist conspiracy to establish a communist state, many detainees were tortured and then coerced into implicating themselves and their friends on public television. Featuring interviews with ex-detainees and political exiles, the film focuses on the first 30 days of their ordeal. The ex-detainees describe various physical and psychological techniques used by their interrogators. This ignoble history of the ISA is a damning indictment of how detention without trial is not just a special kind of law, but a suspension of law

Martyn See. Zahari’s 17 Years. 2006.

  • In the early hours of 2nd February 1963, security police in Singapore launched Operation Coldstore – the mass arrests and detention of more than a hundred leaders and activists of political parties, trade unions and student movements, for their alleged involvement in “leftist” or “communist” activities. One of those arrested was former newspaper editor Said Zahari, who had been appointed the leader of an opposition party just three hours earlier. A staunch anti-colonialist, Zahari had assumed that the mass arrests, set against the backdrop of Singapore’s struggle for independence, was no more than yet another turn of event in a politically volatile era. Freedom for him and the others, it seemed, would be secured once Singapore gained full independence. On 9th of August 1965, by way of its separation from Malaysia, Singapore finally gained full independence and sovereignty. And as the republic embarked on a determined quest for economic prosperity, it dawned on Zahari that his new-found Singaporean citizenship did not accord him freedom. By the time he was released in 1979, he had spent a total of 17 years in detention without trial. He now holds the distinction of being the second longest-serving political detainee in Singapore after Chia Thye Poh. Ex-detainees of the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, are often reluctant to publicise their experiences. Zahari’s 17 Years marks the first time that an ex-political detainee has broken his silence on film. Said Zahari’s upcoming book, entitled The Long Nightmare: My 17 Years as a Political Prisoner, is the second volume of his trilogy of memoirs which recount his experiences in detention and the anti-colonial struggles of his generation.

Academic Books and Articles

Gareth Curless. “‘The people need civil liberties’: trade unions and contested decolonisation in Singapore,” Labor History, vol. 57, no. 1, pp. 53-70.

Liew Kai Khiun. “The Anchor and the Voice of 10,000 Waterfront Workers: Jamit Singh in the Singapore Story (1954-63),” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 35, no. 3, 2004, pp. 459-478.

  • Jamit Singh’s legacy as a charismatic trade unionist and political activist on Singapore’s waterfront coincided with its changing political developments. He was instrumental in bringing about this change by transforming the dock workers into an effective political force. His subsequent banishment by the People’s Action Party government brought an end to a colourful episode in the history of Singapore’s harbour.

Loh Kah Seng, Edgar Liao, Lim Cheng Tju and Seng Guo-Quan. The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity. Amsterdam University Press, 2012.

  • The book, using a small group of left-wing student activists as a prism, explores the complex politics that underpinned the making of nation-states in Singapore and Malaysia after World War Two. While most works have viewed the period in terms of political contestation groups, the book demonstrates how it is better understood as involving a shared modernist project framed by British-planned decolonization. This pursuit of nationalist modernity was characterized by an optimism to replace the colonial system with a new state and mobilize the people into a new relationship with the state, according them new responsibilities as well as new rights. This book, based on student writings, official documents and oral history interviews, brings to life various modernist strands – liberal-democratic, ethnic-communal, and Fabian and Marxist socialist – seeking to determine the form of postcolonial Malaya. It uncovers a hitherto little-seen world where the meanings of loud slogans were fluid, vague and deeply contested. This world also comprised as much convergence between the groups as conflict, including collaboration between the Socialist Club and other political and student groups which were once its rivals, while its main ally eventually became its nemesis.

Michael Barr and Carl Trocki (editors). Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore. NUS Press, 2008.

  • Singapore’s era of pluralism between the 1950s and 1970s was a time of extraordinary cultural, intellectual and political dynamism. Students, labour unions, ambitious political contenders, and representatives of the various ethnic communities all stepped forward to offer alternate visions of Singapore’s future from across the entire political spectrum. They generated a ferment of ideologies, priorities, perspectives and social visions such as mainstream ‘official’ Singapore politics had never known before and has not seen since. Post World War II histories generally follow a central theme of progress to establish the PAP political, economic and social model. Alternatives receive cursory treatment as problems, false starts, or difficulties to be overcome. This book reveals a more complex situation that involved a much larger cast of significant players, and gives due weight to the middle years of the twentieth century as a period that offered real alternatives, rather than a chaotic age before the dawn. The book will remind older Singaporeans of pages from their past, and will provide a younger generation with a novel perspective at their country’s past struggles. For outside observers, it offers a fascinating glimpse of a side of Singapore that has received relatively little attention.

Philip Holden. “‘Is it manipulative? Sure. But that’s how you tell stories’: The graphic novel, metahistory and the artist in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 4, 2016, pp. 510-523.

  • Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has become a cause célèbre in contemporary Singapore. Much popular discussion of the novel has, however, been reductive, often describing it as simply presenting alternative histories in contrast to a hegemonic historical narrative celebrating Singapore’s rise as a developmental state. Close reading of the novel’s use of both graphic and textual elements reveals that The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye does not simply counterpoise other histories to a dominant national narrative, but rather asks questions about the historical memorialization of decolonization and storytelling in a postcolony such as Singapore. While the medium of comics provides Liew with an expanded toolbox of metafictional techniques, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye also celebrates the redemptive possibilities of narrative. In doing so, and through its status as a fictional biography, it also asks uncomfortable questions regarding the agency of the artist, and, by extension, the individual, in a society marked by postcolonial processes of neo-liberal subjectification, questions that resonate beyond the city state of Singapore itself.

Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied. “Political Memoirs as Contrapuntal Narratives: Said Zahari’s Dark Clouds at Dawn,” Interventions, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 512-525.

  • Said Zahari was a journalist and leftist political activist who was detained without trial for seventeen years in Singapore during the premiership of Lee Kuan Yew. This essay examines his memoir, Dark Clouds at Dawn, and argues Said Zahari’s principled political position was informed by his religious beliefs and his status as a Malay man of letters. His memoirs challenge dominant national narratives portraying Malay identity during the 1950s and 1960s as ethnically insular or chauvinistic, as Said Zahari always held a cosmopolitan and coalitional outlook. His memoirs remind us that ethnic and racial identities, both historically and in the present, cannot be essentialized and require analysis in relation to social and political struggles.

Thum Ping Tjin. “‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s ‘Progressive Left’, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia,” ARI Working Paper Series, no. 211, 2013.

  • Decolonisation often involved picking from competing nationalist visions for the shape of the postcolonial nation-state. The visions which lost out are no less important for their impact on decolonisation and the nation-state, but they are often poorly understood. In Singapore, the rise of Singapore’s “progressive left” gave the opportunity and drove the timing for the merger of Federation of Malaya and Singapore in 1963, before its leadership was removed by Operation Coldstore. However, the nature of the progressive left – their values, motivations, and goals – has never been adequately understood. It is usually attributed to some degree of Communist subversion, and Operation Coldstore presented as the solution to a security problem. Using vernacular sources and newly declassified documents, this article analyses Singapore’s progressive left. It deconstructs the origin of the progressive left as a generational unit, reconceptualises the events of merger from their perspective, and re-evaluates their role and impact on the process of merger. In resituating the progressive left in the narrative of merger, it expands our understanding of Singapore’s decolonisation.