Re-evaluating a turbulent era

I refer to the 16 May 2014 Straits Times letter “Recalling a turbulent era” by Mr Lionel De Souza [1].

Mr De Souza highlighted an ST report [2] detailing Madam Goh Lay Kuan’s supposed recruitment into a splinter group of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), her stay at a CPM jungle camp along the Thai-Malaysia border and her arrest by the ISD in 1976 for supposed communist activities.

Madam Goh’s televised confession in return for her freedom after 2.5 years of incarceration was not unlike some medieval confession extracted through torture – you don’t know how much was wholeheartedly agreed upon and how much was begrudged. Whatever the case maybe, one thing is clear – Madam Goh had noble intentions. What comes across clearly in her recent interview with the Straits Times [3] is that Madam Goh was driven by anti-colonialism, social justice, championing for the poor and for the children, not having to bow to authority and freedom to speak up for justice. These virtues coincided with those of the CPM and perhaps brought their paths together. The bottom line underlining the Leftist saga in Singapore and Malaya had been social injustice that continues to dog both nations today.

Mr De Souza also highlighted CPM’s assassination activities in Malaysia and professed to still feel the real threat of Vietnamese communism in the 1970s, the Cold War, the fierce Malayan communist insurgency in the 1970s that killed hundreds and Chin Peng the Butcher of Malaya.

It’s strange that Mr De Souza should fear Chin Peng or the Malayan communist insurgents given that neither operated in Singapore but from within Malaysia. Stranger still is Mr De Souza’s fear of the Cold War whose epicenter was in far away Berlin.

The Malayan communists’ use of violence cannot be condoned. Nevertheless, there are other aspects that should be considered.

The Malayan communists resisted the Japanese during the Occupation for which Chin Peng was awarded the Order of the British Empire. They were true patriots who deserve our gratitude for putting their lives on the line to fight the enemy.

The Malayan communists then fought British colonialism and it can be argued that this accelerated the British granting Malaya independence. Both Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh also waged independence wars against their respective Dutch and French colonial masters, yet neither is seen as villain but hero instead in their respective nations.

It is double standards that Nelson Mandela is revered throughout the world while Chin Peng is reviled for employing violence in pursuit of their respective revolutions.

Both sides of the insurgency exhibited brutality and that thousands of insurgents perished as well. There was not one but many butchers on both sides of the contest.

If the British had granted Chin Peng’s wish for peaceful contest through elections in exchange for laying down arms, the second communist insurgency in the 1970s might not have happened.

The Mar 2008 protest by 10,000 Indians in Malaysia’s central Kuala Lumpur against racial discrimination is an example of what Chin Peng had been fighting for.

In conclusion, noble intentions led individuals like Madam Goh Lay Kuan to cross path with the communists. The communists’ use of violence cannot be condoned. Nevertheless, a number of considerations suggest they deserve better than their eternal condemnation.


Straits Times, Recalling a turbulent era, 16 May 2014
I HAVE been following The Straits Times’ The Pioneer Club series as I belong to that generation of Singaporeans, and I read the interview with ballet teacher Goh Lay Kuan with particular interest (“The ballerina who overturned tables”; May 3).
As a police officer from 1961 to 1988, I still have vivid memories of Singapore during those days. I remember ST reported extensively on Madam Goh’s detention in 1976. The report (“The red plot…”; May 28, 1976) stated that 50 people were detained for communist activities that sought to undermine Singapore’s stability.
It gave a detailed account of how Madam Goh had been recruited into a splinter group of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), and that she had stayed at a CPM jungle camp in Betong along the Thai-Malaysia border, where she observed about 60 armed persons training with guns.
The report even had a photo of this camp, which was recovered from one of the other arrested persons.
Related online articles described the links this group had to an ultra-violent splinter cell of the CPM that had assassinated the Malaysian Inspector-General of Police in 1974, and the Chief Police Officer of Perak in 1975.
In fact, according to former senior Malaysian Special Branch officer Aloysius Chin’s book, The Communist Party Of Malaya: The Inside Story, this same group had sent agents to tail the late Mr Tan Teck Khim, a former commissioner of the Singapore Police Force, under whom I had served, for an assassination attempt that fortunately never materialised.
These events may seem distant, but they are still very real to me.
The 1970s was a time when the Red threat was high. South Vietnam had fallen to the communist North. We were in the midst of the Cold War, and there was a fierce communist insurgency in the Malay peninsula where hundreds were killed in the 1970s. The CPM leader, Chin Peng, nicknamed the “Butcher of Malaya”, made peace only in 1989 from his base on the Thai-Malaysia border.
It is good that ST has been reporting on the experiences and memories of the pioneer generation, so that younger generations of Singaporeans can understand the challenges we had to overcome, and the choices we had to make as individuals and as a country to arrive at where we are.
Lionel De Souza

• Straits Times, I Confess, Bitter tales and then a warning to youths, 29 May 1976
• Straits Times, Did their parents know what was up?, 29 May 1976

Another report that detailed the same event was “Communist plot revealed, 50 arrested”:

Communist plot revealed, 50 arrested, 27 May 1976
A well-known ballerina, a flour mill sales manager and a naval officer were among 50 people arrested over a communist plot to undermine the stability of Singapore. Some of those detained – such as ballet teacher Goh Lay Kuan and her husband, Kuo Pao Kun, a secretary of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce – were from the middle and upper-middle class. This indicated that the communists were planning to cast their net beyond their classical base of old bys’ associations and non-unionised workplaces, the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement. Police also seized documents, including photographs of communist guerrillas in a training camp on the Thai-Malaysian border, and cash for financing underground activities. According to the ministry, the plot to destabilise Singapore involved collecting funds and channeling supplies to several communist groups. According to the ministry statement, the communists had planned to infiltrate government departments, statutory boards, cultural groups and schools. They hoped to use gangsters to rob local and foreign capitalists, and to carry out terrorist acts. The ministry said that “only timely action by the ISD (Internal Security Department) has foiled the communists before any real damage is done”.
[Chronicle of Singapore, 1959-2009: Fifty Years of Headline News, Peter H. L. Lim]

THE PIONEER CLUB, Goh Lay Kuan on being detained under the ISA, 3 May 2014

Q: You received a Chinese education up to age 19. How has it influenced your thinking?

During the colonial period, English schools provided “slavery education” to produce people who knew English, but were obedient. You first learnt, “Yes, sir”, followed by “British is the best”.

In Chinese schools, we were linked to our traditional culture. We were taught to be sensitive to social issues.

When I saw children weaving through traffic and endangering themselves to sell mah piu poh (Cantonese for newspaper carrying horse racing results), I was disturbed and unhappy. The Malay children were also out on the street selling curry puffs.

So, I wrote a musical about children selling rice dumplings. It wasn’t welcomed because it was seen as political criticism.

Q: What main challenges did you and your husband face in starting a performing arts school in 1965?

We had a skit called gai si de cang ying (Chinese for “damn the fly”) around the time of the Keep Singapore Clean campaign (a yearly campaign that then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew started in 1968).

Lee’s authority struck fear in the people at the TV station.

Once, there was a fly when he arrived to give the National Day address. You can imagine how everybody reacted. Turn off the light! Ten minutes later, the light was turned on and they resumed. But the uncooperative fly came back. The light was turned off and Mr Lee was asked to rest in a dressing room. They had to do the recording a few times before it was finished.

Pao Kun, who was the producer-announcer, felt it was very funny. It was just a fly, but everyone was so frightened, as if a whole army had arrived. So at a drama camp, gai si de cang ying was performed. It was about the funny situations created by a fly at a fruit stall. We did not make any direct criticism, but they thought we had a Communist ideology.

Q: You and your husband were accused of communist activities in 1976. Looking back, why do you think you were detained?

It’s cumulative. They called you to account for each one of the performances you put up. We had also raised issues about children and their poverty, sometimes in songs, short plays or on stage.

When Singapore was just founded, we needed huge foreign investments. We especially wanted the Japanese investors.

I had heard of an award-winning story about the Second World War where the Japanese were out to kill a Malayan freedom fighter. But someone hid the man. The Japanese said they would kill the whole family of this courageous rescuer.

I felt it was good material for a dance performance but it was not approved. We argued that the story was out in the open, and it did no harm to our country.

Q: Why did you put up those performances?

Theatre is about life. It’s about people, about how we see, how we think, how we feel. It is so simple, yet so powerful. When I see some wrongdoing, I will talk about it. This is my right. This is why I became an artiste.

Q: What happened during your detention?

Many things happened inside there. I found it funny that when they detained me, they asked me to draw a gun. I didn’t even know how to draw a toy gun.

I said: “Why do you want me to do this? I have no idea.” I drew (an inverted L shape). I said I knew where they pulled the trigger, but I didn’t know where they put the bullets.

As I spoke, they kept laughing, and I also kept laughing.

Later, I discovered their intention was to charge those of us who were detained with having received military training. Luckily, I didn’t know how to draw.

When they threatened me, I told them: “If I don’t care whether I’m alive or dead, what can you do with me?” I was not easily intimidated. I even overturned their tables.


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