I refer to the 10 Oct 2014 Straits Times report of DPM Teo’s speech “A close call in the battle for the future of Singapore”.
Lee’s merger decision wrong and calamitous
Lee Kuan Yew’s decision to merge Singapore with Malaysia had been wrong and calamitous for it led to riots between the Chinese and the Malays who have co-existed peacefully throughout our colonial years.
Lim Chin Siong, not Lee Kuan Yew electrified Singapore pioneers
More likely than not, it was Lim Chin Siong, not Lee Kuan Yew who mesmerized and electrified Singapore pioneers instead:
Lee knew that in terms of influence, he was no match for Lim Chin Siong who led the Barisan Sosialis. Chin Siong was a thorn in his side. For his political salvation, that thorn would have to be taken out in any way possible.
[The Long Nightmare: My 17 Years as a Political Prisoner, Said Zahari, page 87]
After all, Lim had the charisma and the eloquence when addressing crowds at the hustlings and he certainly had the Chinese majority in thrall … James Puthucheary, who was in charge of election publicity for the People’s Action Party (PAP), had said of Lim at their first rally, held in a remote Chinese village:
Toh Chin Chye spoke first, in English! No response from the crowd. Ong Eng Guan was next, in Hokkien, but not very good. The crowd was restless. Then, Lim Chin Siong stood up. He was brilliant, and the crowd was spell-bound.
In his memoir … Lee says that Lim had: … a ringing voice that flowed beautifully in his native Hokkien. The girls adored him, especially those in the trade unions. Once he got going after a cold start at the first two meetings, there was tremendous applause every time he spoke.
[Dissident Voices: Personalities in Singapore’s political history, Mesenas and Clement]
Lee Kuan Yew recruited him into the People’s Action Party (PAP) precisely because of his skills as a Chinese orator. Indeed, his oratory skills and his handsome charm were critical factors that the PAP needed for tapping the support of the Chinese-speaking masses. On joining the PAP in 1954, his popularity soared as he became the leader of Chinese workers, trade unions, and Chinese middle school students in 1950s’ Singapore. His popularity with the Chinese-speaking population and his ability to sway listeners with his oratory meant that as early as 1955, the PAP recognized him as a figure to be reckoned with in Singapore politics and within the PAP. Lim continued to dazzle the Chinese-speaking population with his speeches so much so that at the age of twenty-two, he was elected into the legislative assembly …
[Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent: A Biographical Dictionary (Vol 1 & 2), Leo Suryadinata, page 599]
Singapore’s precarious, tumultuous beginnings
Singapore’s 50th independence anniversary next year won’t be our 50th anniversary but our 196th anniversary. Independence anniversary is not the same as birth anniversary.
Singapore’s precarious and tumultuous beginnings in 1819 were eventually overcome by our ex-British colonial masters. The years prior to our merger were neither precarious nor tumultuous as the British had already defeated the communists and lifted the emergency in 1960.
The British fight against the communists was successful. While the state of emergency lasted until 1960, the insurgency was put down earlier, giving birth to the Malay Federation as an independent state on August 31, 1957.
[The History of Singapore, Jean Abshire, page 114]
The British responded by appointing Sir Gerald Templer as high commissioner and commander-in-chief in February 1952. Using near dictatorial powers, Templer broke the military power of the communists in two years, and by 1955, they were no longer a serious threat to the British. This allowed for independence … and the proclamation of the Federation of Malaya in 1957.
[Historical Dictionary of Singapore, Justin Corfield, page 167]
Our road to independence
Contrary to what Mr Teo said, our road to independence did not begin with our merger with Malaya but began with the end of the Japanese Occupation.
After the Second World War and a traumatic occupation by the Japanese, a political awakening occurred in Singapore … as they began to anticipate independence … The late 1940s and early 1950s were characterized by labor unrest, strikes, and demonstrations. In 1955, they forced the British to introduce a new constitution proposed by the Rendel Commission … However, the 1955 elections were followed by more riots and social unrest, constitutional negotiations were reopened, and new elections were planned for 1959 with Singapore granted almost complete internal self-rule.
[Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Daron Acemoglu, page 8]
The war ended suddenly with Japan’s surrender on 14 August 1945 … While the returning British troops were welcomed, the occupation had eroded the innate trust in the empire’s protective embrace. New political forces were at work and the road to independence had begun.
[Singapore, Joshua Samuel Brown and Matt Oakley, page 25]
To defuse hostile sentiments against colonial rule, the colonial government in Singapore had agreed to accept the reformation of the local constitutions in 1954, granting Singapore greater internal self-government. Elections held under this constitution in 1955 eventually paved the way for a local government to be formed.
[Singapore in Global History, Derek Thiam Soon Heng and Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, page 220]
The Rough Road to Independence: 1945 – 1963
[The History of Singapore, Jean Abshire, page 109]
Merger wasn’t independence
Mr Teo was wrong to equate merger with Malaya to independence because the simultaneous independence from Britain and dependence on Malaya meant that Singapore was on the whole no more independent than before. Also, what was so hard fought about a merger brought about through a rigged referendum?
No communist battle
Mr Teo was wrong to characterize our 1963 merger as a battle between communists and non-communists because Singapore communists had already been crippled by the Special Branch and fled to Malaya so they could not have continued to wage battle in Singapore then.
The Malayan Communist Party … was not particularly effective. It hosted a meeting … most notable … for the comprehensive surveillance by the British Special Branch … Subsequent mass arrests decimated the MCP
[Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq, James R. Arnold, page 134]
In December 1949 the Special Branch obtained the full list of the STC through a planted informer, and conducted a raid on 1 May 1950. Singapore Town Committee Vice Secretary Ah Har and three other committee members were arrested … Later that month, 20 more MCP and ABL members were arrested. Seven months later, on 5 December, because of an alert Special Branch officer, STC Secretary Ah Chin and his assistant, Ho Seng, were caught …the mass arrests caused the near collapse of the MCP’s operations in Singapore
[Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-war Singapore, Michael D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki, page 61]
The first thing to realise is that although left-wing and anti-colonial radicalism flourished to unprecedented levels during the first half of the 1950s, the Communist Party itself was diminishing as a controlling force in Singapore over the same period
[Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-building Project, Michael D. Barr and Zlatko Skrbiš, page 26]
The MCP itself … seems to have been more a figment of the imagination of … the British Special Branch and the right-wing forces in Singapore. Its “ghost” may have lived a much longer and more active life than the real one ever did. While the party … attracted idealistic recruits from Singapore … we may question the extent of its organization and power in Singapore, particularly during … 1952-63. Repeated waves of arrests, banishments and defections between 1948 and 1963 severely limited its ability to launch an effective organization
[Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control, Carl A. Trocki, page 101]
No contrasting vision of ordering / governing society
Mr Teo’s so-called contrasting vision of ordering and governing society wasn’t so contrasting at all. In all likelihood, Lim Chin Siong and the Barisan would have depended on capitalist businessmen like Tan Kah Kee and Tan Lark Sye to run the economy. There was no reason why true blue capitalists like Tan Lark Sye would have ordered Singapore’s economy any differently from the way they ordered their capitalist businesses. We would have been more like Hong Kong, more entrepreneurial, more democratic and no less prosperous.
Communist fight in Malaysia wasn’t our fight
The gunning down of the Malaysian Police Inspector-General in 1974 wasn’t the gunning down of our Police Inspector-General. Communist hits squads in Malaysia weren’t communist hit squads in Singapore. Mr Teo should not equate Malaysia’s fight against communism as being our fight too.
1963 merger did not represent spirit of Singaporean pioneers
Mr Teo should not taint the spirit of Singaporean pioneers by linking them to this ugly episode where Singapore was literally sold out to Malaysia. The rigging of the 1963 referendum was no testament to resourcefulness but to Lee’s underhandedness. What critical, difficult choices or dilemma confronted our pioneers when any choice, even a blank choice was “yes” by default? The merger is next to irrelevant to our history except to highlight Lee’s blunder of selling Singapore out to Malaysia.
Singapore no communism hot spot in 1961
Singapore was no longer a communism hot spot in 1961. The state of emergency had been lifted a year before in 1960 with the successful defeat of the communists by the British a few years earlier (same evidence given in “Singapore’s precarious, tumultuous beginnings”).
Singapore communism wasn’t on the ascendant in 1950s, early 1960s
Communism was not on the ascendant in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Special Branch had obtained the full list of Singapore communists in 1949 and crippled them a year later through mass arrests so much so that Singapore communists was a dwindling force throughout the first half of the 1950s (same evidence given in “No communist battle”).
The so-called violent armed insurgency was in Malaysia, not in Singapore. Mr Teo should not equate the communists’ armed guerilla war in Malaysia to an armed guerilla war in Singapore.
In Singapore, most of the effects of the state of emergency were political. The declaration of emergency permitted considerable restrictions on political freedoms, including detention without charges or trial, deportation of noncitizens, and restrictions on meetings, rallies, strikes, organizations, etc. The anticommunist focus stifled all left-leaning politics and left space only for conservative political organizations.
[The History of Singapore, Jean Abshire, page 114]
Mr Teo’s own admission that Singapore communist hit squads only operated between 1950 and 1955 adds to the evidence that the British had defeated them in five short years and contradicts his claim that Singapore was still a communist hot spot in 1961 or that communism in Singapore was on the ascendant in the early 1960s.
Strikes, demonstrations due to real anger and frustrations, not due to communist manipulation
Contrary to Mr Teo’s so-called communist united front controlling and manipulating student bodies, labour unions, political parties or cultural and rural organizations, evidence suggests that the unrests and demonstrations were due to real societal injustices.
At that time, workers worked 12 to 14 hours a day with only two days leave during Chinese New Year. Of the 1955 strikes, half were sympathy strikes while subsequent ones were mostly economic in nature. The strikes brought about an increase in pay, sick pay and two weeks’ annual leave for workers. Various ordnances between 1955 and 1957 gave workers eight-hour work day and Sunday off, something we take for granted today. The unions sought to address genuine workers’ grievances and to restore their rights and dignity.
[Michael Fernandez and Loh Kah Seng, Paths not taken – political pluralism in post-war Singapore, Chapter 11]
The National Service ruling angered Chinese Middle School students because they were compelled to defend the same British order that had discriminated against them and in which they saw no future. Largely, the Chinese who felt that they were not treated as equals by the British did not feel obliged to serve the colonial government.
… it is important to note that even though some Leftist members of the CEC were associate with the MCP, their actions were not directed by the Party. Their aggressive push for power grew from local frustrations and not from any sort of strategic planning or instructions … it seems that even at this senior level, the Party was unable to keep control of events … since 1956, the MCP had considered the Singapore operations as a whole to be overly ‘left’ and too militant and had criticised the 13 May 1954 riot and the May 1955 Hock Lee Bus riot as overly ‘left’. A directive … reached Singapore in late 1956 urging moderation, but the political situation in Singapore was moving faster than the courier communication system. Isolated directives arriving months after the events … had little impact on the ground
[Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-war Singapore, Michael D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki, page 65]
Even the Security Liaison Officer then, Maurice LB Williams, also reported no evidence of the united front being directed by communists and that the united front was nothing more than a broad coalition of nationalistic, grieving and frustrated populace.
In spite of intensive investigations, no evidence has been obtained of C.P.M. directions to open United Front workers as to how they should carry out their activities.
As the scope of the United Front widens to include a major element of the trade unions, as well as peasant and student organisations, it must become increasingly difficult, if not impossible for a secret caucus of Party members (assuming that such exists) to control all its ramifications and direct all its activities.
If they were indeed doing this successfully, it is inconceivable that Special Branch investigations would have failed to yield any evidence of such control and direction.
It is far more likely (as was envisaged by the Party themselves in the October Resolutions of 1951) that the “United Front” represents an amalgam of different and conflicting interests, individual ambitions, industrial grievances, Chinese nationalism, housing problems of the peasant population and educational frustration of the students.
At present 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
The people voted for Lim Chin Siong not Lee Kuan Yew
The people elected PAP in 1959 not because of Lee Kuan Yew but because of Lim Chin Siong.
In the 1959 elections with the implementation of compulsory voting, the PAP reaped the full voting force of the Chinese-educated and lower income groups … Lee was assured of not being over-shadowed by the charismatic Hokkien-Mandarin speaker, but yet was free to ride on the wave of Lim’s popularity.
[Phyllis Chew Ghim Lian, A Sociolinguistic History of Early Identities in Singapore: From Colonialism to Nationalism, Chapter 9 Language, Power and Political Identities: The 1959 Singapore Political Elections]
Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan gave the party access to trade union, student and cultural organisations that could be harnessed to mass political mobilisation. It was an uneasy but powerful alliance, ultimately bring the PAP to victory in 1959 polls.
[Haig Patapan and John Wanna and Patrick Moray Weller, Westminster Legacies: Democracy And Responsible Government in Asia And the Pacific, page 112]
No Communist Party of Singapore so what?
If CPM had indeed viewed Singapore as integral to Malaya, it would have named its Singapore operations CPM (Singapore) instead of some unrelated name like Singapore Town Committee wouldn’t it?
The name Singapore Town Committee instead of Communist Party of Singapore is no proof that Singapore was therefore integral to Malaya in the eyes of the CPM.
Chin Peng, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Malaya, did not seem to place much weight on the activities of the communist Singapore Town Committee in the overall context of the Malayan insurgency. This is borne out in the scant attention that he paid to Singapore in his autobiography, Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History.
[Malaya's Secret Police 1945-60: The Role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency, Leon Comber, page 5]
Leftists did not oppose quick end to British rule
Mr Teo was wrong to say that Lim Chin Siong and the Leftists opposed a quick end to British rule in order to continue their anti-colonialism disguise because Lim Chin Siong and the Barisan fought for complete independence which would have meant a quick end to British rule anyway.
Lee stated later in his memoirs that Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan and Woodhull had been “stirring up demands for an independent Singapore without a merger” from the time of their release from detention in Jun 1959.
[The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity, Edgar Liao and Cheng Tju Lim and Guo Quan Seng, page 173]
At the Anson by-election on 15 July, Lim Chin Siong and seven other left-wing PAP assemblymen withheld support from the government’s candidate and instead backed David Marshall … who stood for immediate independence.
[Malaysia, A. J. Stockwell, page 145]
What did the pro-communists want Lee to fight for in London? It was immediate independence. This was their goal, and the reason why Lim Chin Siong had supported Marshall all the way in the failed negotiations of the previous year.
[Singapore: The Unexpected Nation, Edwin Lee, page 141]
Leftist walkout from parliament to protest Lee regime
The Barisan withdrew from parliament and took to the streets not because they didn’t believe Singapore could be independent of Malaya but to protest against the death of democracy under Lee’s regime.
Mr Chia Thye Poh told reporters: I have just tendered our resignations from the House. We cannot remain in Parliament because parliamentary democracy is dead … What is the use of saying in Parliament when the PAP stop us from speaking? What is the use of going in Parliament when there is no democracy. There will only be democracy when the PAP hold general elections under the eight conditions we have made.
The eight conditions include unconditional release of all political detainees, revision of “undemocratic” election laws and revocation of “all undemocratic” laws.
[The Straits Times, 9 October 1966, Page 1, The B-I-G Barisan flop]
The Barisan walkout was also not unanimous and opposed by many rank and file Barisan supporters.
The former Barisan Sosialis Opposition leader in Parliament, Mr. Lim Huan Boon, said …”I cannot in good conscience draw $500 a month for not doing what my voters elected me to do.” He was convinced that the present Barisan Sosialis boycott of Parliament was basically wrong. “By boycotting Parliament, we have broken faith with not only the democratic system but with the people who elected us,” … He said that many Barisan Sosialis rank and file supporters did not accept the “ridiculous thesis” that Singapore’s independence was “phoney”.
[The Straits Times, 6 January 1966, Page 6, 'Conscience won't let me draw $500 a month']
Lee’s talks failed to defeat anti-merger group
The Leftists (not communists) no more wanted power than the PAP did in 1961. Their goal wasn’t to establish communist rule for Lim Chin Siong wasn’t communist.
Lee’s broadcasts were pivotal at nothing other than generating the smoke screen for his communist conspiracy theory and rigged referendum.
If Lee’s so-called talks had defeated the anti-merger group, why did he have to rig the referendum such that there were no “no” options and even blank votes were counted as “yes”? How many of the 71% would have voted “no” if given the choice, no one will ever know.
The rigged referendum of 1962 cannot count as proof that support for merger was unequivocal.
It was Lee’s thirst for power, not race or religion that caused the merger to fail. Lee had already accepted Malaysia’s Bumiputra policy when he married us into Malaysia which he cannot subsequently deny without sounding hypocritical.
Singapore prospects in 1965 not so bad
Although there was high unemployment due to the post war baby boom, Singapore’s economic prospects in 1965 weren’t as bad as Mr Teo depicted. We were the 3rd richest in Asia (Penn World Tables) then and a per capita GDP that put us in the middle income group (World Bank classification).
Our fraught communal relations were the direct consequence of Lee’s ambitions against Malaysia’s Tungku.
Cold war wasn’t so cold for Singapore
Singapore’s threat of communism in the 1960s was nowhere as high as Mr Teo described. The Cold War’s epicenter was in faraway Berlin and there was significant infighting within the communist bloc as China – Soviet Union relations deteriorated over this period which led to a brief war in 1969 followed by wars between China and Vietnam.
the Third Indochina War, which lasted throughout the 1980s, saw a cementing of the China-ASEAN political relationship as a consequence of China’s need for ASEAN’s diplomatic backing against China’s man Cold War adversaries, Vietnam and the Soviet Union, and ASEAN’s commensurate reliance on Chinese support in its diplomatic effort to prevent non-communist South-East Asia from falling into Vietnamese hands … Crucial developments such as the Sino-Soviet split during the late 1960s and the Sino-American rapprochement of the early 1970s likely contributed, if not indirectly, to ameliorating concerns among ASEAN states regarding collaboration with China.
[Rising China: Power and Reassurance, page 170]
The Vietnam War, while intensifying, never spread far beyond Indochina while the Cultural Revolution, according to Dr Goh Keng Swee, benefitted Singapore immensely.
It is a matter for speculation whether in the absence of the upheavals caused by the Cultural Revolution in the mid and late 1960s, the large American multinationals – among them, National Semiconductors and Texas Instruments – would have sited their offshore facilities in countries more familiar to them, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. These resources had skills superior to Singapore’s. My own judgment remains that these three areas were too close to the scene of trouble, the nature of which could not but cause alarm to multinational investors.
[Wealth of East Asian Nations, Goh Keng Swee, page 256]
The CPM’s revived armed struggle in the 1970s was in the jungles of Malaya, not Singapore. The lone victim of a communist planted bomb in 1974 is no justification for saying that Singapore was therefore in the midst of an armed struggle with the CPM in 1974.
Communism in Malaysia receded before China withdrew support
The spectre of communism in Malaysia had receded even before China withdrew support for the CPM in the 1980s while communism in Singapore had long been expunged by the British since around 1955.
In December 1989 … the Communist Party of Malaya were disbanded. Guerilla fighters … were pardoned … through an amnesty scheme arranged by China … This gesture by China, which was largely symbolic since communist insurgencies in the later 1980s did not present incumbent governments with a credible challenge.
[Realism and Interdependence in Singapore's Foreign Policy, Narayanan Ganesan, page 48]
Some hard core CTs (communist terrorists) remained in the jungle till the 1980s but were quite ineffective by then.
[To Have Borne Witness, Barry Cogswell, page 107]
Lee’s one sided accusations lacked legitimacy
The battle for merger was no more than Lee’s one sided accusations whose only flavor was stench because of Lee’s repugnance in not giving his rivals a fair chance at explaining themselves over the radio. Since it was Lee’s monologue, there was no exchange let alone intensity of exchange, no battle but mere proselytism, no struggle between communists and non-communists but one man’s storytelling.
Revisionist writers grounded in solid evidence
Revisionist writers do not base their writings on thin air but on solid evidence released from British archives. The communists had been ejected by the British and the Special Branch and escaped to Malaysia so they could not have played a vital role over the merger issue let alone try to seize power through subversion or armed revolution or to destabilize Singapore. Contrary to Mr Teo’s claim, Chin Peng stated categorically that Lim Chin Siong wasn’t communist while Fong Chong Pik stated they didn’t use violence in Singapore.
Even Chin Peng, head of the Malayan Communist Party stated that Lim was not a part of the party.
[Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent: A Biographical Dictionary, Leo Suryadinata, page 600]
Firstly, without the struggle by the leftists, their negotiations would have lacked strength. Secondly, what the CPM did in Singapore at that time had, in fact, nothing to do with violence. It was really trying to carry out a constitutional struggle. I will challenge them to produce the evidence. Did I talk about overthrowing someone by force? I did not. We did not touch a single one of them.
[Straits Times, The Plen: What S'pore would have become, 22 Jul 1997]
Mr Teo’s so-called multiple sources do not support Lee’s communist conspiracy theory, for how could it be that these historians have found the evidence to convict Lim Chin Siong of his communist crime while Lee and his vast state apparatus couldn’t? The fact remains that throughout the years of his incarceration, Lim Chin Siong was never once convicted in court of any communist crime.
Lee’s compulsion came from his desire to win power by hook or by crook and what he so-called exposed was worth nothing in the eyes of the court. The re-publication of Lee’s speeches provides a reality check on Lee’s false accusations and helps educate young people of the wrong doings and injustices that actually happened then.
A Leftist Singapore would have been prosperous just the same
If Lim Chin Siong and the Barisan had won, in all likelihood, the economy of Singapore would have been left in the hands of prominent Chinese businessmen like Tan Kah Kee and Tan Lark Sye. There was no reason why these self-made millionaires would have turned away from their capitalist roots. They would most likely have turned Singapore into another Hong Kong – entrepreneurial and enterprising.
False praise is no praise
Mr Teo’s praise of Lim Chin Siong and the Barisan as dedicated communists served two purposes; it softened his own image in the eyes of his audience while perpetuating the falsehood that Lim Ching Siong was communist.
There was no need for Singaporeans to have the courage and wisdom to reject the CPM since they had already been ejected by the Special Branch in the early 1950s and escaped to Malaya. Mr Teo should not inject the violence of communists fighting in Malaya into the Singapore story and mix up communists fighting in Malayan jungles with Left leaning patriots struggling for Singapore’s betterment.
Singaporeans rallied behind Lim Chin Siong, not Lee Kuan Yew
Singaporeans rallied to support Lim Chin Siong, not Lee Kuan Yew (same evidence given in “The people voted for Lim Chin Siong not Lee Kuan Yew”).
Lim Chin Siong was eventually defeated not through democratic contest but through the undemocratic tool of the Internal Security Act which the British used only during emergencies but which the PAP happily continued to use right up to the roaring 80s and 90s.
Senior CPM members who fled Singapore in the 1950s ended up fighting Malaysia, not fighting Singapore.
In retrospect, the close call wouldn’t have made any difference because Singapore eventually left Malaysia anyway. If it had gone the other way, Singapore would have become independent just the same but without the tumultuous religious riots born out of our ill fated merger.
Lee’s unscrupulousness is not Singapore pioneers’ spirit
Mr Teo should not mix up the spirit and determination of our pioneers with the unscrupulousness of Lee making callous and unfounded accusations about Lim Chin Siong and Tan Lark Sye being communists or pro-communists. The merger hardly exemplified Singapore pioneers’ spirit for it was nothing more than an internal power struggle that was relatively bloodless and mostly political in nature.
The period in Singapore history that best exemplifies our pioneer’s determination to rise above hardships was the Japanese Occupation and the struggle to defend Singapore before that. Heroes and villains were born from that period. Lim Bo Seng and Lt. Adnan both made the ultimate sacrifice for Singapore. It is they, whom we should honor, recognize and emulate. Lee Kuan Yew on the other hand showed his true colors in Singapore’s hour of need, by working for, not fighting against the enemy. Mr Teo should not insult Singaporeans by asking us to honor, recognize and emulate the underhandedness and unscrupulousness of someone who would have been branded a traitor in many countries with a strong sense of patriotism and national pride.
Communists and communism in Singapore after their defeat by the British were myths perpetuated by the victors of Singapore politics upon which the tall tale of their own false ‘heroism’ can be fabricated.
Straits Times, A close call in the battle for the future of Singapore, 10 Oct 2014
I AM lucky to own a copy of the original The Battle For Merger printed in 1962. It belonged to my father. I remember hearing these radio broadcasts as a child. Although I was too young then to understand them, I could sense the magnitude and gravity of the events that were swirling around us. But Singaporeans of my father’s generation, and those just a little older than me, will certainly remember those tumultuous days and Mr Lee’s radio broadcasts.
It was a time when momentous decisions had to be made for Singapore. A wrong decision then would have been calamitous and Singapore might still be trying to shake off the dire effects today. Mr Lee’s broadcasts electrified the population and were crucial in making Singaporeans understand what the battle was about and persuading them to support merger with Malaysia.
The battle for merger
SOME may wonder: Why should The Battle For Merger be reprinted now? In 2015, we celebrate Singapore’s 50th anniversary. This is a significant milestone, especially when we consider our precarious and tumultuous beginnings. While we became an independent nation only in 1965, our road to independence began earlier, with our attempt to forge a shared destiny with the then Federation of Malaya. Our hard-fought attempt to gain independence by merging with Malaya was, in fact, a battle for the future of Singapore.
On the surface, it was a battle for merger. But this was only on the surface. Below the surface was another deeper, more momentous, more dangerous battle – that between the communists and non-communists in Singapore.
At the heart of this battle were two contrasting visions of how society should be ordered and how we should govern ourselves. It was not simply a fight to get rid of British colonial rule; rather, the communists and their allies had a larger agenda. Their objective was to impose a communist regime in Malaya and Singapore through all means, including subversion and, ultimately, armed revolution. They never gave up on this larger agenda. That is why the communists continued to pose a security threat to us long after both Malaya and Singapore had gained independence in 1957 and 1965, respectively; and even after all British forces had left in 1971. In one incident in June 1974, the Inspector-General of Police in Malaysia was gunned down in broad daylight by a communist hit squad.
The events vividly described in The Battle For Merger bear testament to the resourcefulness, will and spirit of pioneer Singaporeans, led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues in the Government and the PAP. Our pioneers were confronted with difficult challenges and dilemmas, and had to make critical choices not just for themselves, but also for future generations of Singaporeans. This is why, despite the vast changes that have taken place in the world and in Singapore over the past 50 years, this crucial turning point in our history continues to be relevant to us today.
Singapore in 1961
WHAT was Singapore like in 1961, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew made these radio broadcasts? What was the broader strategic environment?
The Cold War between communism and the free world was at its height. The Berlin Wall, which for decades signified the divide between the two contending sides, had just been built. In fact, construction started on Aug 13, 1961, exactly a month before the first of Mr Lee’s broadcasts on Sept 13, 1961. Proxy wars and ideological battles were being fought in many countries. South-east Asia was a hot spot. Malaya and Singapore were not spared. There were grave security concerns over the growing communist influence in Malaya and Singapore.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, communism was in the ascendant in Singapore. The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) had waged a violent armed insurgency since 1948 and fomented urban strife in its attempt to establish a communist Malaya (which included Singapore). The CPM targeted those who opposed them, including civilians and security and police personnel. In Singapore, between 1950 and 1955, CPM hit squads carried out at least 19 known murders, as well as numerous acid attacks, arson and other acts of violence. When the CPM’s violent, armed guerilla war and its intimidation of the civilian population failed to turn Singapore and Malaya “red”, the communists switched strategy to place more emphasis on subversive Communist United Front (CUF) tactics instead.
Through the CUF, the CPM intended first to drive out the British from Singapore and then to topple the Malayan government. From 1954 to 1963, the CPM penetrated student bodies, labour unions, political parties and cultural and rural organisations in Singapore to spread their ideology and influence, attract supporters and mobilise activists to mount a campaign to destabilise and take over Singapore. The CUF organisations instigated unrest and dissatisfaction among the population by exploiting unhappiness over socio-economic issues and particular government policies. Singapore went through a period of great upheaval and civil unrest. Protests, sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations were frequent. The trade unions and student bodies were the front organisations for these confrontations. But they were controlled and manipulated from behind the scenes by communist hands. Some of these events resulted in the deaths of innocent Singaporeans and security personnel. The result, which was intended, was tension, anxiety and instability in Singapore.
Why did the CPM and its pro-communist allies operating in the CUF organisations decide to oppose merger?
When Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues in the People’s Action Party (PAP) were elected to form the government in June 1959, it was on a pro-merger platform. Merger was also supported by the communists and pro-communists who, at that time, were in the PAP.
Other political parties also had similar pro-merger agendas. Merger was deemed essential for Singapore’s economic survival. People travelled across the Causeway frequently and co-mingled freely. Even the CPM considered Singapore a part of Malaya – there was no “Communist Party of Singapore” because, in its eyes, Singapore was an integral part of Malaya. There was only the Singapore Town Committee of the CPM.
Yet, when the PAP announced its support for merger and the concept of Malaysia to attain full independence from the British, the communists and pro-communists opposed it and tried to capture the PAP and the Singapore Government in July 1961. Merger was against the communists’ interest, for two reasons. First, it would result in the quick end of British rule in Singapore and make it harder for the CUF to disguise its agenda to establish a communist regime as an anti-colonial struggle. Second, the CPM expected the anti-communist federation government to clamp down on them as internal security would come under the central government in Kuala Lumpur once merger was achieved.
The CPM never believed that Singapore should be independent of Malaya. Indeed, much later, when Singapore separated from Malaysia in August 1965, the CPM denounced Singapore’s independence as “phoney”. The Barisan Sosialis took the same line, when it decided to boycott and later withdraw from Parliament and take to the streets instead.
But in 1961, the communists wanted to capture power in a self-governing Singapore and use that as a base to subvert the Federation and, in due course, establish communist rule over the entire Malayan peninsula.
As Mr Lee said in his preface, the battle for merger broadcasts were pivotal in lifting the curtain on the communists and exposing their hidden manoeuvrings. It was necessary for Mr Lee to make public the communist threat and reveal key CPM personalities, as well as how the communists operated, including their objectives and methods. Singaporeans, whether they were for or against merger, needed to know the real communist agenda in order to make their choice.
This was why Mr Lee decided to speak to Singaporeans directly on the matter. He gave three talks a week, each one delivered in English, Mandarin and Malay, totalling 36 broadcasts in less than a month. This gruelling effort left him thoroughly exhausted. But he got his message across. The talks played a vital part in defeating the anti-merger campaign of the communists and pro-communists. In the referendum on merger held in September 1962, 71 per cent supported the PAP’s position while 25 per cent cast blank votes as advocated by the anti-merger group.
Although public support for merger was unequivocal in 1962, and Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963, the differences in views between the Singaporean and Malaysian governments as to how a multiracial, multi-religious nation should govern itself caused merger to fail. In 1965, when independence was thrust upon Singapore, we were struggling with poor economic prospects, fraught communal relations and a continuing communist threat. The Cold War raged on and the Vietnam War was intensifying. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led the US to engage in Vietnam, had occurred in 1964. The Cultural Revolution, which brought turmoil to China for a decade, started the next year in 1966.
Even after independence, the communists persisted in their violent attempts to destabilise Singapore. The CPM revived its armed struggle in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970, a seven-year-old girl was killed by a booby-trapped bomb in Changi planted by a CPM unit. In 1974, three communists were on their way to plant home-made bombs in Telok Kurau when one bomb exploded prematurely in Katong, killing two of the bombers. The third bomber was injured but escaped and eventually fled to Johor with the help of CPM supporters. The following year, in 1975, the security authorities recovered two caches of 298 hand grenades in Loyang and Tampines accumulated by another CPM unit which had carried out vicious attacks in Singapore in the 1950s.
The spectre of communism receded only after the People’s Republic of China abandoned its support for the CPM in the 1980s. The CPM finally ceased hostilities and signed the Peace Agreements in Hat Yai with the Malaysian government and the Thai authorities. The date, Dec 2, 1989, when the CPM finally laid down its arms, was barely a month after the Berlin Wall was breached on Nov 9, 1989 – that same Berlin Wall, the symbol of the Cold War, whose construction began in 1961, just a month before the first battle for merger broadcast.
Significance of battle for merger today
TODAY, the events surrounding merger are no longer at the forefront of the minds of Singaporeans. For the older ones, the tumultuous years described in The Battle For Merger are a receding, distant memory. The younger ones, especially those born after 1965, would have no personal memory of these events. They would know of these years only through history books or from their parents and grandparents.
The Battle For Merger provides a powerful contemporaneous account of the events at that time. It captures the flavour and the intensity of the exchanges, the battle for the hearts and minds of Singaporeans over merger; and, more fundamentally, the fierce struggle between the communists and the non-communists over the future of Singapore.
As we approach our 50th year of independence, some revisionist writers have attempted to re-cast the role played by the communists and their supporters on the merger issue. They portray the fight as merely a peaceful and democratic disagreement over the type of merger. They ignore the more fundamental agenda of the communists to seize power by subversion and armed revolution. The CPM’s armed struggle and the CUF’s efforts to destabilise Singapore before, during and after the battle for merger, have been well-documented by various academics and writers, including top leaders of the CPM such as Chin Peng and Fong Chong Pik.
These multiple sources support the argument that Mr Lee Kuan Yew made in the battle for merger more than five decades ago: namely, that there was a communist conspiracy to take power being played out over the merger issue, which he felt compelled to expose in his broadcasts. The re-publication of the book will provide a reality check to the revisionist views. I hope it will awaken interest among younger Singaporeans in the events of this crucial period in our history, educate them into what actually happened, what the battle was about and why it was so crucial that the right side won.
Indeed, one might ask: What if the communists and their pro-communist CUF allies had won, and Singapore had fallen under communist rule in the 1960s? We would have gone on a completely different path. Where would we be today?
Singapore would probably not have survived as a small communist outcast in South-east Asia as the Cold War raged in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Even if Singapore had survived, life would have been harsh and miserable. We need only look at the communist world since the Russian Revolution of 1917, and countries that continue to subscribe to communism today. The more successful ones have made major adaptations in recent decades and adopted drastic reforms and policies to make themselves more competitive and to enable the standard of living of their citizens to catch up with the free market economies.
The 1960s were tumultuous times. We should respect the personal conviction and determination of those who held different views then and fought on the side of the communists. As Mr Lee said in his broadcast, “they are not crooks or opportunists. These are men with great resolve, dedicated to the communist revolution and to the establishment of the communist state, believing that it is the best thing in the world for mankind”.
But we should, even more, acknowledge and give our respect and appreciation to the Singaporeans who had the courage and wisdom to reject the CPM’s ideology and tactics, including its violent methods and those of its pro-communist supporters. Singaporeans who rallied to support the non-communist cause under the leadership of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who, fortunately, mustered a majority to defeat the communist side in a democratic contest.
Among those who have contributed to our nation-building are some who initially joined or supported the communists. It took special courage for them to turn away from the communist cause after recognising its serious flaws and inadequacies. They made a brave choice in the face of intimidation and threats to their lives and their families. They had the courage to acknowledge that the path advocated by the CPM was the wrong one, and to join the majority of Singaporeans who had made that critical choice for a non-communist, democratic, peaceful and constructive path forward.
There were others, including several senior CPM figures, who had fled Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, but returned home with their families after the CPM laid down its arms in 1989. They made no pretence about their past activities and beliefs, and were reconciled to the fact that theirs was not a cause shared by the majority of Singaporeans. They had seen the road that communism had travelled and admitted that it had failed. After providing an account of their communist activities to the security authorities, they and their families settled back into Singapore as loyal citizens and contributed to our country’s progress.
But it was a close call. Then as now, Singapore has little room to manoeuvre. The wrong decision, and it would have gone the other way, and Singapore would have turned out very differently.
Our pioneers’ spirit and their determination to rise above the hardships of the moment, including the dire threat of communism, and to focus on making Singapore a better country for the next generation is an inspiration for all Singaporeans. This spirit, epitomised in The Battle For Merger, is a precious heritage which we all as Singaporeans should honour, recognise and emulate.