Unraveling Lee Kuan Yew’s communist paradox

I refer to the 11 Oct 2014 Straits Times column “The Communist Paradox”.

Communist paradox

The quintessence of Lee Kuan Yew’s so-called communist paradox is that some condemned communists or pro-communists in the 50s and 60s have paradoxically become non-communists since the 1990s. Tan Kah Kee and Tan Lark Sye, two great men who contributed so much to Singapore education went from condemned communists in the 50s and 60s to role models today. That is Lee Kuan Yew’s communist paradox – one can be communist one day and non-communist the next day even though what one did or did not do stayed the same. The communist label isn’t based on some fundamental truth that can stand the test of time. Instead, it is a frivolous tag that can be put on or taken down depending on the whim and fancy of the victors of Singapore politics. How much more paradoxical must it get before Singaporeans finally understand the ridiculousness of Lee’s so-called communist paradox?

Foremost among these men are Tan Kah Kee and Tan Lark Sye. Both … operated in pre-independent Singapore but were hitherto linked with the communist cause by the state: Tan Kah Kee professed admiration for Mao … while Tan Lark Sye had his Singapore citizenship papers revoked in 1963 on the grounds that he had “actively and persistently collaborated with an active antinational group of communists.” Hence recent public references to both men have been singularly focused on their munificence toward education … Their politics as understood by the state is left unmentioned, as is the context of Singapore’s anticolonial history. Singapore’s heroes are thus in limbo – an intermediate state of simultaneous exposure and suppression …

With the clarification of the “misunderstanding,” that the two men were actually selfless champions of Chinese education rather than communists, both men have become fit for emulation in public discourse, for their enterprise and public spiritedness. A PAP member of Parliament who considers himself to be the voice of Chinese-educated Singaporeans … prescribed the emulation of heroes such as Tan Kah Kee. Recalling the tycoon-philanthropist image and erasing the communist label have made them suitable heroes …

Tan Kah Kee’s and Tan Lark Sye’s posthumous rehabilitation and transformation from communists to communitarians, effected collaboratively between the state in search of local role models, and the scions of the families … perpetuates a pop-up story-book dimension … of their human agency.

[New Terrains in Southeast Asian History, Abu Talib Ahmad and Liok Ee Tan, page 226-230]

During the election campaign, the Barisan tried to capitalize on Tan Lark Sye’s status, his activism in the struggle for Chinese education, and his antagonistic relationship with the PAP leadership. They asked Tan for financial support and later for a public endorsement of the Barisan candidates who were Nanda graduates or students. Tan did both, donating $20,000 towards the campaign cost of the 10 Nanda candidates while publicly urging Chinese voters to support them in the election. His hope was that a Nanda graduate would become the Minister of Education in the Barisan government … On 22 September, the day after the election, the Singapore government began legal proceedings to revoke the citizenship of Tan Lark Sye on the grounds that he had “collaborated with a group of communists at Nanda”. Lee Kuan Yew wrote: We had decided to make an example of prominent figures who had acted as front men for the communists, believing that their wealth and standing in the Chinese-speaking community gave them immunity. Number one on the list was Tan Lark Sye, then honorary president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the founder of Nanyang University.

The PAP used this reasoning as pretence to take out a strong leader with much clout amongst the Chinese electorate, eradicating a possible avenue for an alternative to its own power base. Tan Lark Sye could remain in Singapore only because he had gone through the process of British naturalization in the 1950s. Disgruntled, he later took some of his business ventures abroad … In Ipoh, Malaysia, he set up the Tasek Cement complex. At the launch of this industrial venture, he emphasized the considerable financial involvement of Taiwanese partners, defiantly asking the Singapore government why these fiercest of Chinese anti-communists would ever cooperate with him if he had really been a communist sympathizer. He had a point because as a businessmen and a multi-millionaire he was not interested in a communist ideological line. He did think that Chinese language, culture and identity were important issues … however, that did not make him a pro-communist.

[The Business of Politics and Ethnicity: A History of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Sikko Visscher, page 155]

… the key leadership in the majority Chinese community were millionaire philanthropists who would thus make good candidates for canonisation, but they either displayed sympathy for the … Chinese Communist Party as was the case with Tan Kah Kee, or like Tan Lark Sye, the largest donor of funds to building Nanyang University, did not necessarily support the PAP’s cultural politics; in fact Tan was stripped of his Singapore citizenship by the government. Pan Shou, the assistant to Tan Lark Sye in the early years of running the Nanyang University, suffered a similar fate.

Nevertheless, in the 1990s these men were conscripted as heroes, after being rehabilitated as exemplar visionaries who supported the cause of education and culture.

Tan Kah Kee’s nephew … responded … to the ‘rehabilitation’ of his uncle’s name by emphasizing that for years ‘some people mistook him to be a communist or a communist sympathizer, but he was neither. He has simply focused his energy to help China and win a place for ethnic Chinese in the world, by contributing to education here and in China. This was not valued in the beginning. But now, it is recognized that there is a need to revive the Tan Kah Kee spirit – this spirit of contributing to society.’

[The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts, Lysa Hong and Huang Jianli, page 163, 173]

The prominent businessman so celebrated in Singapore’s history today, Tan Kah Kee, for example, was not allowed to return to Singapore following his visit to Peking in 1950. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce … was incensed in 1950 over an immigration bill which restricted immigration of Chinese suspected of Communist sympathies.

[Forging a Singaporean Statehood, 1965-1995: The Contribution of Japan, Robin Ramcharan, page 111]

Lee’s communist paradox was nothing but a myth that must be rejected. All subsequent appearances of the word “communist” in his radio talk will be replaced by the word “Leftist”, “Barisan” or “Lim Chin Siong”.

Singapore not independent under Malaysian rule

Lee was being ridiculous about Singapore becoming independent with the rest of Malaya in 1963. Our merger with Malaya was merely a transfer from British overlordship to Malaysian overlordship. The simultaneous independence from Britain and dependence on Malaysia meant that on the whole we were no more independent than before. In fact, Singapore enjoyed more independence when Britain granted us statehood in 1959 than when we joined Malaysia. Joining Malaysia resulted in us losing, not gaining some of the independence we had previously. Our judiciary and legislature ended up being overruled or nullified by the Malaysian judiciary and legislature.

One result of Singapore’s entry into Malaysia was that the Supreme Court of Singapore became, by virtue of … the (Federation of Malaya) Malaysia Act, 1963 the High Court in Singapore and subject thereafter to the provisions of the (Malaysian) Court of Judicature Act 1964 …:

In the event of inconsistency or conflict between the provisions of this Act (Malaysian) and the provisions of any other written law other than the Constitution in force at the commencement of this Act (Malaysian), the provisions of this Act (Malaysian) shall prevail

Appeals lay from the High Court in Singapore first to the Federal Court of Malaysia …

A second result of Singapore’s entry into Malaysia was that the Singapore Legislative Assembly became the Legislature of Singapore with legislative powers restricted to those matters set out in Lists II, IIB … of the Ninth Schedule of the Malaysian Constitution …

If any State law is inconsistent with a federal law, the federal law shall prevail and the State law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.

[Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley, page 634]

Leftists not camouflaging their struggles as anti-colonial

Lee was being ridiculous when he said the Leftists preferred British rule over Malaysian rule because it allowed them to disguise their struggle as anti-colonial. The British didn’t leave Malaysia but continued to stay on in Malaysian bases so if the Leftists had wanted to make use of the anti-colonial pretext, they could jolly well have continued to do so even after Singapore joined Malaysia.

Instead a September 1957 Defense Agreement perpetuated Britain’s right, and obligation, to defend Malaya and to station forces there after independence on 31 August that year. Indeed, it even gave Britain the right to use Malayan bases in defence of other British territories in the Far East, including Hong Kong and Borneo.

Above all … British bases and military services personnel remained deeply desired by communities from Nepal to Singapore, with Lee Kuan Yew fighting to keep British bases until the last gasp, in 1968

[Colonial Armies in Southeast Asia, Tobias Rettig and Karl Hack]

Struggling in Malaysia wasn’t struggling to destroy independence

Lee was being silly when he argued that a struggle within Malaysia would be a struggle to destroy independence and to set up a communist government because he himself had claimed to have struggled against communalism in Malaysia. Since Lee too had struggled in Malaysia, by his own definition, he was struggling to destroy independence and to set up a communist government.

Leftists not seeking matrydom

Lee was being silly again when he claimed that the leftists were seeking martyrdom through imprisonment by the British. Would those detained without trial for so many years have preferred martyrdom in prison or the freedom to fight what they believed in?

Strange example of Dr Nkrumah

Lee was silly to have held Dr Nkrumah up as an example to contrast against Lim Chin Siong and his fellow Leftists when Dr Nkrumah also had Marxist leanings, organized civil disobedience, non-cooperation, boycotts and strikes, was similarly “martyred” in jail and even received a Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union in 1963. Dr Nkrumah couldn’t have been more similar to Lim Chin Siong in beliefs and actions yet Lee hailed Dr Nkrumah but vilified Lim Chin Siong.

However, after Dr Nkrumah came to power, he became more authoritarian and more like Lee, detaining innocent people without trial, illegalizing strikes and transforming his country into a dictatorship. So if Lee thought that hailing Dr Nkrumah meant hailing himself, he should be well advised that it also meant hailing his reputation as an incorrigible dictator.

Just because Nehru or the Tungku didn’t lock up nationalists didn’t mean Lee wouldn’t. Because Lee was neither a Nehru or a Tungku, he was therefore capable of locking up nationalists and anti-colonial fighters.

Where was House of Commons?

Lee was silly to have said that the Leftists preferred to be detained by the British because they would then have the House of Commons speak on their behalf.

Where was the House of Commons or what good was it:

• When Tan Kah Kee was banned forever from entering Singapore in 1950?

• When Tan Lark Sye was stripped of his citizenship in 1963?

• When Lim Chin Siong and his fellow Barisan colleagues were detained without trial during Operation ColdStore?

The Communist Paradox, 11 Oct 2014

Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s 8th radio broadcast on Sept 29, 1961, was titled The Communist Paradox. This is an excerpt of it from the book, The Battle For Merger:

“I want to explain this paradox, that the communists prefer Singapore still under British control but with the Internal Security Council abolished, to a Singapore independent with the rest of Malaya.

The most important reason why the communists prefer a Singapore still under British control to a Singapore as part of Malaya, is that with the British in control, their struggle for a communist Malaya can be camouflaged as an anti-colonial struggle.

But if they continue their struggle in a Singapore which is independent with the rest of Malaya, it is quite clearly a struggle not against colonialism, but against an independent elected government. Their object will then be obvious, that is to destroy an independent national government and to set up a communist government.

Moreover, when they are dealt with by the government, as they have been from time to time, it is far better for them to have a British colonial government take action against them than an independent elected Malayan government.

To be imprisoned by the British colonialists is to be a martyr, in the company of (India’s) Mr (Jawaharlal) Nehru, (Ghana’s) Dr (Kwame) Nkrumah, (Malawi’s) Dr (Hastings Kamuzu) Banda and many other anti-colonial nationalists.

But to be locked up by Mr Nehru, Dr Nkrumah or (Egypt’s) Colonel (Gamal Abdel) Nasser or the Tungku (Abdul Rahman of Malaysia) is an entirely different matter.

Mr Nehru, Dr Nkrumah, Col Nasser and the Tungku do not lock up nationalists, who are the real anti-colonialists. In fact, they welcome anti-colonial fighters who are nationalists to their ranks.

It is only those who are out to destroy the independence won by the nationalists and to supplant it with a totalitarian or communist government who are locked up by nationalist leaders like Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser and the Tungku.

There is this added consideration.

If a communist is detained by the British, questions can be asked in the House of Commons in England, resolutions passed in anti-colonial conferences all over the world and speeches made by friendly delegates in the United Nations.

But if a communist is locked up by an independent nationalist government, there cannot be much noise or propaganda made out of it either here in Malaya, or in London, or in the United Nations, or in Belgrade and the other meeting places of the Afro-Asian nations. The Afro-Asian nations are concerned with protecting nationalists and not communists.”


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