Rebutting Burhan Gafoor – Part 1 (Selkirk & Moore)

I refer to excerpts from the 19 Dec 2014 Straits Times column “A ferocious struggle for Singapore’s future” by Singapore’s High Commissioner to Australia Mr Burhan Gafoor.

Dr Thum did not omit mention of ‘incriminating’ information

Contrary to Mr Gafoor’s claims, Dr Thum Ping Tjin did not conveniently omit mention of ‘incriminating’ information from British National Archives. Dr Thum referred to the same ‘incriminating’ information that Mr Gafoor referred to when he specifically wrote in his Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 211 – The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s “Progressive Left”, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia:

Selkirk spent the bulk of his four-page telegram to Sandys explaining that it was now impossible to deny the Federation the arrests they so badly craved without jeopardising merger. In six lines, Selkirk added that recent intelligence demonstrated communist control of the Barisan, and that Lim had never explicitly ruled out violent action.

The evidence which Selkirk cited was accounts of two post-referendum Barisan meetings. Barisan members had complained that the constitution was pointless if it was so easily manipulated, asking if there was another way forward. Selkirk chose to interpret these as calls to abandon constitutional action, and disregarded their unanimous agreement to keep following peaceful constitutional action. Selkirk’s assertion that Lim never ruled out violent action was based on Lim’s statement that ‘so long as the conditions for peaceful constitutional struggle remain available to us, we will persist in the peaceful constitutional method of struggle,’ …

Thus, Dr Thum not only referred to the same ‘incriminating’ information, he also explained why Selkirk had been wrong on that occasion.

Mr Gafor omitted mention of pressure from the Malayan government for the arrests

Mr Gafor’s so-called holistic reading of declassified documents isn’t so holistic after all. He omitted to mention the Malayan Government’s pressing for the arrest of Singapore Leftists as a pre-condition for merger. The British had in fact already agreed to the arrests prior to Singapore’s merger referendum on 1 Sept 1962 and certainly prior to Mr Gafor’s so-called incriminating information about Barisan’s post referendum meetings.

… the Tunku’s wish to see an arrest programme carried out before merger, and Lee Kuan Yew’s desire for concessions over the status of Singapore citizens within Malaysia if his referendum campaign were to receive a much needed boost … The possibility of linking the various issues had, in fact, already been raised by Selkirk with the Prime Minister in mid-May 1962, where the former had mentioned that to secure agreement on the practical aspects of Malaysia, ‘we might have to be prepared to exercise some pressure’ … The Tunku might indeed offer to accept the Cobbold report if he were allowed to lock up all the extremist opposition in Singapore. Lord Selkirk hoped that this bargain would not be put to us as it woud be a difficult one. The outlines of a deal were already apparent: if the British could satisfy the Tunku with an ISC-sanctioned arrest programme before merger then the Tunku might be prepared to be more forthcoming over the terms of federation with the Borneo territories.

That Singapore questions would assume great importance during the London talks was shown by the preliminary meetings held at Admiralty House between the Tunku and Macmillan immediately after the former’s arrival on 17 Jul 1962. As had been anticipated, the Tunku began by pressing the British to ‘clean up’ the Communists in the colony before the new federation was formed, arguing that, ‘In order to get a good result in the referendum [Lee Kuan Yew] needed a good press and the suppression of the communists.

… Putting forward their own requirements on 18 July, the Malayans called for unanimity on the ISC over plans to detain Communists and their sympathizers (starting with 25 members of the Barisan) after the Singapore referendum, but before merger …

… with the British needing every bargaining instrument that they could find to move the talks forward, it began to look increasingly likely that acquiescence in a round-up of the opposition in Singapore would be forthcoming.

Strenuous opposition to any such concession came from the local British officials who would have to implement such a measure, Philip Moore maintaining, ‘It seems to us plain foolishness to decide upon repressive action in Singapore. Doubting that the leading figures in the Barisan were actually engaged in subversion or were the ‘compliant tool of Peking or Moscow’, Moore wanted to ‘stress again that in Singapore today we have a political and not a security problem. We know who most of the portential subversives are and they could easily be gathered in at any time they seemed to threaten the security of the state.’ Moore’s main concern was that ‘to arrest leading members of the main Opposition party without adequate cause’ would merely help to intensify anti-Malaysia feeling and unite opponents of the PAP. In a similar fashion, Selkirk informed Sandys on 27 July that an arrest programme would be a dangerous move and was only likely to provoke more trouble …de Zulueta reported … the British offering to go ahead with the Singapore arrests in order to clinch the whole deal.

… In an oblique reference, Macmillan was also recorded as saying, “It would also be helpful if the question of dangerous Communists in Singapore would be deferred until after the [UK] Parliamentary discussions. The meaning of this remark was soon to become apparent.

… With Lee then putting forward proposals for a post-referendum arrest programme, Sandys duly indicated that previous British resistance on the ISC to such action would be lifted, though … he carefully phrased his comments to suggest that … individual cases would need to be considered on their merits.

The agreement made by the Tunku in London over the citizenship question, for which the British had assented to an arrest programme, paved the way for the staging of the referendum on merger in Singapore.

[Conflict and Confrontation in South East Asia 1961-1965, Matthew Jones, page 89-93]

Thus, Operation Coldstore was already a done deal between the British, the Tunku and Lee Kuan Yew even before Mr Gafor’s so-called incriminating Barisan meeting. The so-called incriminating Barisan meeting wasn’t the raison d’état for Operation Coldstore although it could have served a pretext purpose.

Mr Gafor failed to explain significance of Brunei revolt

As ‘incriminating’ as Barisan’s September 1962 meetings had been, the British and the PAP didn’t make a move to launch Operation Coldstore but waited instead for a better pretext to surface. That better pretext appeared in the form of the Brunei revolt in December 1962 which Mr Gafor briefly mentioned but did not explain its significance. The inability of the British and the PAP to launch Operation Coldstore on the premise of the ‘incriminating’ Barisan meetings of September 1962 shows just how ‘incriminating’ or not they are.

Moreover, Lord Selkirk would eventually be disappointed that subsequent interrogations yielded little credible evidence of Barisan involvement in the Brunei revolt. In other words, the pretext for Operation Coldstore had been false.

The Brunei revolt was also regarded by Lee Kuan Yew, and by the Malayan Government, as convenient cover for the implementation of the arrest programme in Singapore that had been devised by Special Branch officers in the spring of 1962, and discussed with British ministers during the London talks in July. Events in Brunei had done little to inspire Malayan confidence in British willingness to act decisively to forestall an imminent threat, but they now expected measures to be taken against the political opposition in Singapore. When it became clear that Azahari had met with Lim Chin Siong, the Barisan chairman, in Singapore just prior to the revolt on 3 December, Lee considered it a ‘heaven-sent’ opportunity of justifying action’. Nevertheless, the key local officials on the British side, Selkirk and Moore, were deeply reluctant to authorize any large-scale round-up of Barisan leaders and other alleged subversives, despite the tacit understanding previously reached by the Tunku, Lee and Sandys in London.

The Malayan Government had by now come to regard an arrest programme as an essential pre-condition for merger with Singapore, hoping that responsibility for unpopular and tough measures would be taken by Lee and the British rather than themselves once Malaysia was formed. With the Singapore Special Branch able to present new evidence of Communist penetration and control of the Barisan, combined with the alarming events in Brunei, Selkirk faced heavy pressure to drop his previous resistance on the ISC to carrying out arrests. In a telegram of 12 December given personal approval by the Prime Minister, Sandys informed Selkirk: ‘As you know I have all along been reluctant to give blanket approval in advance for arrests of subversive elements in Singapore. But if we are to avoid a dangerous disagreement with the Malayan Government we shall have to take some action of this kind before merger.’ Sandys felt that ‘we should move at once’ with the Brunei revolt providing the ‘best possible background against which to take this action’. The following day the ISC met, and with Selkirk’s agreement given the new evidence produced on the links between Azahari and the Barisan leaders, decided on a series of arrests to begin on 16 December. However, the operation collapsed at the very last minute, when Lee Kuan Yew added several names to the arrest list (including those of anti-Malaysia members of the Malayan Federal Assembly in Kuala Lumpur) prompting the Federation’s representative on the ISC to withdraw amid protests and recriminations.

Another meeting of the ISC was scheduled for 1 February 1963, and frantic efforts were made by the British to remount Operation Cold Store, as the arrest programme was dubbed. Despite Selkirk’s fresh reservations over the names that now appeared on the lists agreed to by Lee and Federation ministers, Sandys issued a terse instruction to the British Commissioner that there was no alternative but to accept majority opinion on the ISC and vote for a unanimous decision. Selkirk acquiesced, and on 2 February, 111 suspects in Singapore and Malaya (including 24 members of the Barisan) were taken into detention.

[Conflict and Confrontation in South East Asia 1961-1965, Matthew Jones, page 117]

Operation Cold Store detained 113 left-wing political leaders and trade unionists, including Lim. Subsequent British investigations found little evidence of Barisan involvement in the Brunei plot, but the detentions decimated the left.

[Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-war Singapore, Michael D. Barr, Carl A. Trock]

Two months after the arrests, however, Sellkirk was disappointed that no new evidence was forthcoming on the connection between the Barisan and the Brunei Revolt, with the only “embarrassing” new point suggesting that the party had been resisting Azahari’s overtures to give more militant support to the rebels. What emerges from these various sources is a solidifying picture of difficult but ultimately unsatisfactory agreements on the arrests …

[The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity, Edgar Liao and Cheng Tju Lim and Guo Quan Seng, page 198]

On 8 December 1962, a leftist rebellion by the self-proclaimed North Borneo National Army broke out in Brunei; two days before, Lim (Chin Siong) had had lunch in the restaurant of Singapore’s aptly named Rendezvous Hotel with Sheik A. M. Azahari, the leading Bunei leftist susequently accused of masterminding the revolt.

It was enough to satisfy the British; yet such was the continued wrangling on the Internal Security Council that it took nearly two months – during which an initial launch of the operation planned for 16 December had to be aborted the night before – for all parties to commit to action. Immediately following the arrests, the Internal Security Council announced that Special Branch had uncovered a plot to make Singapore a ‘Communist Cuba’ – full details would follow. But despite weeks of interrogations, strong evidence to substantiate this claim failed to materialise. Toh Chin Chye later described the political detainees who remained in prison after 1959 as ‘a sacrifice to Merger’ …

[Singapore A Biography, Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasinghamchow, page 406]

Tunku believed Lee Kuan Yew used Operation Coldstore to eliminate opposition

Such was the lack of a clear conscionable purpose that even the Tunku believed that Operation Coldstore was being used by Lee Kuan Yew to get rid of opposition in parliament.

‘Operation Coldstore’, as it was called, had been planned for some time. But for months before it commenced, the Internal security Council, on which the Malayan government was represented along with Britain and Singapore, argued over the extent of the arrests and their timing. Memoirs and top-secret diplomatic correspondence reveal the mutual suspicions that hung over these meetings. The Tungku believed Singapore’s Prime Minister wanted to use the operation to remove his entire parliamentary opposition; Lee was wary of the Tunku not taking equal responsibility for the arrests; meanwhile the British wanted the left-wing movement in Singapore smashed but, so as to give their actions at least a semblance of ‘fair play’, they awaited some clear pretext for doing so.

[Singapore A Biography, Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasinghamchow, page 405-406]

Declassified documents dismiss Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘Battle for Merger’

Mr Gafor also failed to mention that the same declassified document that he quoted from also revealed Deputy UK Commissioner to Singapore Philip Moore dismissing Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘Batte for Merger’ as circumstantial, stale and nothing very definite:

But unless one was prepared to accept uncritically the evidence supplied by Lee Kuan Yew in his “Battle for Merger”, there was nothing very definite to go on apart from circumstantial evidence and stale security records.


Mr Gafor’s fervent accusations of Dr Thum Ping Tjin and others have backfired on himself. It turns out that it is Mr Gafor himself who hasn’t read declassified information holistically and who has omitted critical pieces of information.

A more holistic reading of declassified materials than the one by Mr Gafor will reveal that Operation Coldstore was a political, not a security decision proposed by Lee Kuan Yew, insisted by the Tunku and agreed by the British even before Mr Gafor’s so-called ‘incriminating’ information about communist penetration into Barisan. Communist penetration into Barisan, even if it had been true, was at best a pretext and not the reason for Operation Coldstore.

Straits Times, Excerpts from “A ferocious struggle for Singapore’s future”, 19 Dec 2014

This is a response from High Commissioner to Australia Burhan Gafoor to an article by former Barisan Sosialis assistant secretary-general Poh Soo Kai.


Dr Poh and other revisionists like Dr Thum Ping Tjin have alleged that Operation Coldstore was a political exercise meant to suppress what they claim to be legitimate, presumably peaceful, democratic opponents of the PAP government. A full reading of the declassified documents from the British National Archives shows clearly that Operation Coldstore was a security operation meant to counter the serious security threat posed by the outlawed Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and their supporters in Singapore, working through the Barisan and associated communist united front (CUF) organisations. The revisionists conveniently omit mention of the incriminating information in these documents. For example, they quote selectively some of then UK Commissioner to Singapore Lord Selkirk’s remarks to claim that Operation Coldstore was an act of political suppression with no security basis. But a holistic reading of all the documents debunks their accounts. The documents reveal that both Lord Selkirk and his deputy Philip Moore were concerned about the extent to which the CPM had penetrated the Barisan and had concluded that security action was imperative. Indeed, about two months before Operation Coldstore was carried out, they had begun to urge strenuously that action be taken.

The UK Deputy Commissioner in Singapore at that time, Philip Moore, made a perceptive observation that would apply to those who now feign ignorance or deny knowledge of communist control and influence over the Barisan and other CUF organisations. Reporting to London in December 1962, Moore noted that “knowing what we now do about the extent of Communist penetration within Barisan Sosialis, it will be more difficult to acquit many of the other leading members as unwitting dupes”.

Moore was referring to two reports of meetings at Barisan HQ that he described as “of considerable importance not only for what they reveal of the future intentions of Barisan Sosialis, but they provide more conclusive evidence than we have had hitherto for the belief that Barisan Sosialis are Communist-controlled”.

“It has never been disputed,” he notes, “that the Communists in Singapore are following United Front tactics and that Barisan Sosialis is their principal instrument on the political front… The report on the first of the two (Barisan) meetings shows that those engaging in the discussion were Communists examining quite frankly how best to achieve their ends. Furthermore, we can see that the Communist influence within Barisan Sosialis is not confined to the Central Executive Committee but extends to Branch Committee level…”.

Moore’s superior, Lord Selkirk, concurred with this judgment. A week later, on Dec 14, 1962, after the Brunei rebellion, Lord Selkirk sent a dispatch stating: “I said I had recognised all along that a threat was presented by the communists in Singapore. I had not however previously been convinced that a large number of arrests were necessary to counter this threat. Recently, however, new evidence had been produced about the extent of the communist control of the Barisan Sosialis and also there had been indications that the communists might resort to violence if the opportunity occurred. Recent statements by the Barisan Sosialis and Party Rakyat supporting the revolt in Brunei confirmed this.”

Two weeks later, Lord Selkirk sent another dispatch stating “it would be wise to make arrests of communists in Singapore as soon as possible”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: