Learning to talk through differences – a reply to Ms Chan Heng Chee

Dear Ms Chan Heng Chee,

I refer to your 2 Aug 2014 Straits Times column “Learning to talk through our differences”.

Never static doesn’t mean Singapore’s national identity should be rapidly and artificially changed.

PM David Cameron’s call for Britishness has little to do with Scottish independence and everything to do with immigration influx.

Nation building, in the context of Singapore, predates our independence. For nearly 150 years prior to our independence, the British government along with Singapore pioneers built this nation, carving a beautiful city out of virgin jungle. By the time of our independence, all the essential trappings and hallmarks of a prosperous nation – roads, buildings, schools, hospitals, civil service, law, police force, 5th most important port in the world, airport, industry, commerce, businesses, running water and even flats – were already existing. All that independent Singapore had to do was to continue and to improve on this solid foundation.

While PAP may be obsessed with identity creation, Singaporeans have, since colonial times, come to see one another as Singaporeans.

There is no birth of our nation in so far as 1965 is concerned for the receipt of our independence is not equal to our birth. Neither were our leaders then founding leaders for they did nothing that remotely qualified them as founding. They didn’t create but inherited Singapore. They didn’t fight but left the fighting for our independence to others.

The struggle between communist and non-communist had been a fairy tale written to make the bad look good and the good look bad.

The merger with Malaya was just the short sighted wish of one man and Singapore was lucky that it all came apart in the end.

The language policy was the extension of the political policy. Just before the merger, Malay became compulsory, once we were out, it became not compulsory.

Communism

The following texts show that our triumph over the communists was quite a piece of cake:

• 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 [page 134]
[Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare from the], [James R. Arnold]

• 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 [page 101]
[Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control], [Carl A. Trocki]

• 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 [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 [page 26]
[Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-building Project], [Michael D. Barr, Zlatko Skrbiš]

The epicenter of the Cold War was in faraway Berlin, not a good bogeyman for stirring up fear for communism in Singapore. The above evidences show that Singapore had little to fear of China’s communism export. The MCP largely operated in Malaya; hardly in Singapore. The above evidences also show that the Special Branch had all but wiped out communism in Singapore.

‘Moderate’ is not a word you would use to describe someone capable of locking up political opponents for longer than Nelson Mandela had been.

There are two reasons why it is wrong to say that the PAP collaborated with the communists. Lim Chin Siong, the central figure that the PAP supposedly collaborated with was actually a PAP founder. It is oxymoron to refer to a PAP founder as collaborating with the PAP while he was still a PAP central committee cadre. Secondly, declassified British government documents have proven that Lim Chin Siong was never a communist. Even Tan Kah Kee and Tan Lark Sye who were both banished from Singapore for communism have had their names rehabilitated. It is understandable why the British, the Lim Yew Hock and then the PAP governments found it convenient to label the Leftists as communists because it gave them the perfect excuse to lock these trouble makers away for no reason. The Leftists had been so maligned it isn’t surprising that even the Tungku believed they were communists. The fact remains that all of them were detained without trial but if we were to apply the fundamental principle of law today, we ought not to continue labeling them as communists unless we show iron clad proof that they were.

Public housing, public education and public health had already existed before PAP took power. Singapore’s first high rise flats were built by our colonial government. Singapore’s first public school, Raffles Institution was also founded by the British. Singapore hospitals like KK Hospital and Tan Tock Seng have histories that stretch to the early colonial years. Whatever cut backs Reaganomics and Thatcherite ideas recommended still provided far more than Singapore ever did.

Blaming inequality on globalization, while fashionable, is ultimately wrong because globalization has been happening since the 1960s; MNCs have been investing overseas since the 1960s. How can something that has been happening since the 1960s explain our recent inequality? Globalization touched all nations, not just Singapore. How can globalization simultaneously cause inequality in Singapore and hardly cause inequality in the West, particularly Northern and Central Europe?

No matter how fiercely the United States and Britain debates, they are still doing a lot more than what we have been doing.

Malayan merger

If most people had wanted merger with Malaya, why would Lee Kuan Yew set up a false referendum that even included spoilt votes as votes for merger?

The special position of the Malays had already been codified in Article 153 of the Malayan constitution prior to Singapore joining Malaysia. For the purpose of the merger, Article 153 was expanded to include the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. These, Lee Kuan Yew, a lawyer himself, could not have missed. Having married Singapore into Malaysia with his eyes wide open, to then cry foul of Malay special privilege is simply hypocritical. Mr Lee’s Malaysian Malaysia slogan was nothing than political mileage designed to further his political career in Malaysia. If he had been sincere in fighting for racial equality in Malaysia, he should have done it before the merger, not after the merger, not after agreeing to Article 153.

There was no reason why Singapore could not have existed harmoniously in Malaysia like the Chinese in Malaysia do today. What came sooner than later was Lee Kuan Yew’s challenge for power in Malaysia. The May 13 riots in 1969 were the culmination of the power struggle between Lee and the Tungku.

Language

Sri Lanka’s riots after the 1958 Sinhala Only Act mirrored clashes in Singapore arising out of Chinese language / Chinese education issues [1].

The supposed significance of Lee Kuan Yew’s achievement in making Malay our national language is merely skin deep only for which national language in this world is spoken only by ¼ of its population? The language issue in the 1950s couldn’t merely have been political; it was at its very core a struggle by the Chinese to defend its own language and culture. The decision then wasn’t just to retain English but to expand it as much as possible to crowd out Chinese.

The watershed in our bilingual policy wasn’t 1972 but 1953 when Mr Lee Kong Chian became the first person to propose the bilingual policy, close to 20 years before Lee Kuan Yew did. The conversion of Singapore society to English by 1972 was the result of the harsh culling of the Chinese language by the PAP. Colonial era Singaporeans who communicated by learning one another’s languages were no less united than post 1972 Singaporeans speaking the common English language.

Civility has never been lacking from the dissenting voice. Civility shouldn’t require humoring and fawning should it? Learning to negotiate through differences should not mean acquiescing to the government’s ivory tower view, should it?

Race equality and others are our independence values, not our founding values for Singapore was never founded in 1965 but in 1819. It is not up to the government to unilaterally reinterpret the spirit of our values without the approval of our people.

[1]
• The second issue was the conversion of Chinese middle school structure into an English-medium, multi-ethnic school system and the repeated denial of full government support for the newly established Chinese-medium Nanyang University. When the battle over educational reforms fused with the 1961 internal party split within the PAP …, the campuses of these four tertiary institutions were rocked with protests. Students from these institutions often banded together to launch manifestos, classroom boycotts, hunger strikes and street marches so as to protest against government raids, arrests, expulsions … The post-independence period from 1965 was similarly turbulent as the PAP was determined to follow through with its educational reforms by using the Wang Gungwu Report on Nanyang University … In October and November 1966, hundreds of students again had another serious clash with the police at the Ministry of Education
[The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts, Lysa Hong and Jianli Huang, page 138]

• … in another major student protest, the examination strike of 1961, which was also sparked by the government’s initiative to change the Chinese school system. The examination strikes that took place in 1961 were prompted by changes made to the Chinese school system. Traditionally, the Chinese middle schools followed the so-called “3-3 system” … Lim Yew Hock’s … government announced that … Chinese middle school system would be changed to a four-year system in line with the English school system … this new system was opposed by Chinese educators. One major concern was that Chinese schools would disappear … There were also worries that students who failed the Middle Four examinations would lose two years of education … When the PAP took over … in 1959 … the new government planned to go ahead with the change from the “3-3 system” to the “4-2″ system.” … the new government also announced that, starting in 1962, all students in the Middle Four classes would have to take a general school-leaving examination set by the government before they would be allowed to go on to the next level (pre-university). The implementation of the new policy caused conflict between the PAP government and the Chinese educators and eventually led to the examination strikes by the Chinese students.
[Singapore Chinese Society in Transition: Business, Politics, & Socio-Economic Change, 1945-1965, Liu Hong, page 153]

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