Wednesday, 10 December 2014

If Singapore was ruled by Barisan Sosialis

By Kumar Ramakrishna, Published TODAY, 10 Dec 2014

In February, the 51st anniversary of Operation Coldstore — the historic internal security dragnet mounted by the British, Singaporean and Malayan governments against the Communist United Front (CUF) in Singapore on Feb 2, 1963 — took place and social media was abuzz with debate, revisiting the merits or otherwise of the operation.

Revisionist commentators cast doubt on the potency and even existence of such a Communist network, arguing that Coldstore was in fact a political exercise to stamp out a Progressive Left opposition — exemplified by the Barisan Sosialis political party — committed to constitutional means of securing power.

Mainstream commentators, on the other hand, countered that the Communist Front, which included the Barisan, was no imaginary beast and without Coldstore, the Communists could have possibly swept all before them in Singapore. This would have raised the spectre of conflict between a staunchly anti-Communist, Malay-dominated Federation and a Communist, Chinese-dominated Singapore.

Hence, mainstream judgment is that it was fortunate that the non-Communist and, at that time, struggling People’s Action Party rallied to win the September 1963 elections. This development was to ultimately catapult Singapore — in spite of the eventual failure of merger with Malaysia — on its remarkable journey from Third World to First in a single generation.

However, one unimpressed observer passed the following judgment: Just as with any choice we make in life, just because you chose Option A and it turned out well, does not mean Option B would have been worse or a bad option. We will never know.

The observer was suggesting that Option B — a Barisan Sosialis victory in the 1963 elections — could well have turned out historically a better option for Singapore. In fact, some bloggers, in tandem with revisionist scholars and former Coldstore and other detainees, appear engaged in constructing a New Singapore History, recasting the vanquished Communists and pro-Communists of the past in a new light.

Three themes stand out: First, the latter were in fact peaceful Progressive Leftists unjustly accused of being part of some nebulous Communist conspiracy. Second, their life histories and daily struggles should not be forgotten and are as important and as valuable as those of history’s winners. Third, the Option B of a Barisan-led Singapore after 1963 was a tragic path not taken.


The historical record — much of it contributed by senior Communist leaders themselves, such as Chin Peng and the enigmatic Fong Chong Pik, who was called the Plen by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew — suggests that the New Singapore History is flawed.

Two hard facts stand out. First, the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) was no fantasy. It was a real entity formed in 1930 with the long-term aim of setting up a politically unified Communist Republic of Malaya (including Singapore). The CPM saw itself as part of an international fraternity of like-minded parties spearheaded by the former Soviet Union and, later on, Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China.

The struggle against the CPM was thus part of a wider conflict between the democratic capitalist West led by the United States and the Soviet and Chinese-led Eastern bloc.

Singapore, Malaya and South-east Asia in the ’50s and ’60s were hence seen as a theatre in the Cold War, a conflict that in October 1962, threatened to even turn nuclear hot during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The CPM, keeping very much abreast of international trends in Communist doctrine, toggled between the complementary strategies of armed revolution and a peaceful united-front strategy involving penetration of Chinese-based student, labour, cultural and rural associations, as well as left-wing political parties.

The party thus sought to secure power in Malaya and Singapore through armed insurgency from 1948 to around 1954, when declining operational fortunes up north led to a strategic switch to a united-front strategy in Singapore itself.

Between 1954 and 1956, the island under the then-Labour Front government was rent asunder by strikes, riots and disturbances instigated by a CUF which penetrated labour unions and Chinese medium schools.

However, following the government crackdowns of October 1956, the hydra-like CUF switched to a strategy of lying low while intensifying efforts at capturing the PAP.

The struggle within the PAP between the non-Communists led by Mr Lee and the Communists and pro-Communists led by Lim Chin Siong culminated in the Big Split over the issue of the proposed Merger with the Federation of Malaya in July 1961.

The CUF was flushed into the open in the institutional form of the Barisan Sosialis. Chin Peng himself publicly conceded in 2003 that the Barisan was influenced by the CPM. Coldstore was thus mounted to decimate the CUF because, among other things, Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman did not want a CUF-dominated Singapore inside the federation.

The second hard fact is that the pro-Communists only portrayed themselves as peaceful Progressive Leftists for instrumental purposes. Their internal communications — openly accessible today — plainly made it clear that if they were strong enough and the opportunity presented itself, they would not shy away from whatever means — including violence — to secure power.

No surprise, therefore, that between 1950 and 1970, about 27 ordinary Singaporeans — including factory workers, bus drivers, merchants and police officers — were killed by CPM hit-squads, particularly the notorious E Branch. Shootings, bombings, arson, grenade and acid attacks were not unknown.

As late as April 1970, a seven-year-old girl was killed by a booby-trapped bomb in Changi. In December 1974, in Still Road, two CPM members were killed when a homemade bomb they were carrying exploded prematurely.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, the authorities repeatedly discovered caches of weapons, ammunition and grenades. A plot to even assassinate the Singapore Commissioner of Police in December 1976 was foiled. The Malaysian Inspector-General of Police had been murdered two years earlier.

More than 8,000 civilians and security personnel were killed, not to mention the thousands injured and maimed for life as a result of CPM bombs, booby traps and other attacks.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that since Chin Peng’s death in September last year, Kuala Lumpur has steadfastly refused to allow his ashes back into the country?

An Option B with the CPM-influenced Barisan in charge of Singapore after 1963 would thus have been anything but peaceful and successful.

Such an assessment is only reinforced by the abject failure of doctrinaire Communist governance worldwide — powerfully symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Moreover, while the life histories and daily struggles of dedicated, if tragically misguided, CPM members may deserve retelling, should they not also acknowledge accountability for their own past errors?

Do the next-of-kin of the victims of CPM violence — factory foreman Tan Siew Chin, former schoolmaster Ho Ah Beng, bus driver N Govindasamy, traffic police constable Mohamed Senin bin Akim, police commandant Abdul Rahman bin Abdul Aziz, and others too numerous to mention here, names unknown to most Singaporeans today, except to their bereaved loved ones — deserve less consideration?

The unveiling of the Struggle against the CPM marker in the Civic District on Monday is thus timely. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the peace agreements between the CPM and the Malaysian and Thai governments in Hat Yai, which ended four decades of conflict.

The long twilight struggle against the CPM will always be an integral part of the Singapore Story. Hence it is critical that the conflict is remembered and evaluated accurately, with due regard especially for the sacrifices of those Singaporeans who suffered and even perished as a result of Communist violence.

To do any less would be a travesty.

Kumar Ramakrishna is associate professor and head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. His new book on Operation Coldstore will be published early next year.


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