Dr Wong Wee Nam
29 December 2014
In 1848, Karl Marx stirred the world when he wrote, “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
“Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?”
This was to become the preamble to the famous publication known as The Communist Manifesto.
Indeed, the spectre did cause a lot of paranoia, of which the most celebrated of its victims was Joseph McCarthy, a US senator, who in 1950 started a witch-hunt for the adherents of Communism.
People were accused of subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence, and threats posed by persons with leftist ideology were greatly exaggerated. People were sacked from their jobs and some were imprisoned.
With the end of the Cold War and the advent of globalisation, the spectre of communism has faded and it is now perfectly acceptable to do business with Communist countries and co-exist with them.
Up to end of 1959, Malaya and to some extend, colonial Singapore, also had their share of problems with the Malayan Communist Party. Though the MCP has now surrendered and laid down their arms and disbanded, there are still the periodic reminders of the threat of communism in Singapore and the harping ad nauseum of how lucky Singapore had been to be saved by the PAP from the clutches of the communists.
Over the last few days, there have been a lot of articles in the press to support the PAP’s position that it had been right to suppress its opponents in the early sixties because it was beyond the shadow of doubt that they were communists. In its view, Lim Chin Siong was clearly a communist even though he had publicly declared he was not and evidence from the Colonial Office corroborated this. The British intelligence believed he was not acting for the MCP or taking instructions from them. Chin Peng had confirmed he was not under their influence.
Dr Poh Soo Kai was under high suspicion simply because as a doctor he had treated a communist.
Dr Lim Hock Siew was deemed guilty too. He said, “My detention is completely unjustifiable and I will not lift a single finger to help Lee Kuan Yew to justify the unjustifiable.” To him it was like ordering him to renounce violence against his wife when in fact he had not even beaten her.
It appears the spectre of the past is still haunting the PAP government today even though economic progress and globalisation have exorcised the ghosts of the red menace all over the globe.
It is even deemed necessary to erect a marker to commemorate the struggle against “the violence and intimidation of the Communist Party of Malaya” so as to remind future generations of the life-and-death battle that had taken place. It was unveiled in the Esplanade Park on Dec 8th 2014.
Who do the markers glorify, I wonder? The major combatants were the Malayan Communist Party, the Malayan Armed Forces and the British Armed Forces. Rightly so, the Malaysian and the British Armed Forces deserved to be heroes for containing and eventually defeating the MCP. Much as the PAP would like Singaporeans to see it as Singapore’s saviour for defeating the communists, records had not shown that it had really done battle with the MCP. There was no record of any armed uprising in Singapore. So how did the PAP come to fight a deadly battle with the communists?
The PAP was formed by the surge of nationalism prevalent at that time. There was a sudden political awareness and feeling of duty by Singaporeans to look after our own affairs and get rid of colonialism. Many people, most without ideological leanings, some socialists of all shades, a small number of communists and even a number of elites decided to come together and launch a new left-wing political party. The Chinese-educated formed the bulk of the party and the English-educated provided the leadership. Many uneducated workers were the nuts and bolts.
The Sunday Times in a sarcastic editorial on 28th November 1954 on the launch said, “There was a fair crowd at the Victoria Memorial Hall, though fewer than at a performance of an absurd film about a Persian Princess and a shifty barber…at which place a more intelligent dialogue could be heard I am unable to say.”
The Straits Times thought the party was a non-starter but they were wrong. By 1959 the PAP had become a major player, thanks to the conviction of the ordinary people. As expected of a new party made up of diverse opinions, it did not take long for an internal squabble to start.
In June 1961, there was a major rift amongst comrades over the question of merger. One month later in a vote of confidence in the Legislative Assembly, 13 of the PAP members abstained from supporting the government. These rebels were expelled from the party the next day.
In less than a month, the defectors and their supporters announced the formation of the Barisan Sosialis. In terms of intellectual muscle, the BS compared favourably to the PAP. In area of organisation and grassroots strength, the BS was far superior.
The only way to beat the BS was to use the communist bogeyman. It did not take much difficulty to brand the new party as a pro-communist party as most of these defectors, though not necessarily adherents of MCP, belonged to the left of the PAP. The only way to defeat the BS was to use force. Thus on 2nd February 1963, Operation Coldstore was launched and over 100 accused of being anti-national and being communists were arrested in an island-wide swoop.
In one stroke, the Barisan, which was seen as likely to win the coming General Election, was decapitated and rendered impotent. What was essentially an internal split within the party became framed as a fight against the barbarians at the gate.
The act of putting a label and arresting people without trial under the ISA subsequently became a convenient tool to deal with troublesome people. So the threat of Communism continued to be a reason to arrest the labelled Euro-communists and Marxist conspirators. The incarceration of “stupid novices” and “do-gooders” was made in the name of national security. Those “stupid novices” were planning to overthrow the government by force by cyclostyling pamphlets and staging a play about a Filipino maid.
I cannot imagine people like Francis Khoo and Vincent Cheng being communists, but the erected marker will remind future Singaporeans they were once a threat to Singapore. An enemy of the State in perpetuity? Even Khoo’s widow, a renown orthopaedic surgeon and humanitarian, Dr Ang Swee Chai, cannot even till today enter her own country unless she applies for and is granted a special pass.
Markers are important to a country because they help people to remember a significant part of the past. However, it is going to be of no historical or cultural value if it does not give a complete picture and the story is only told from one side.
I would have thought the 50th anniversary of Singapore would be a good time for reconciliation. Instead it could not make things any worse by equating Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love with some Jihadist glorification and labelling historian PJ Thum’s work as revisionist history.
Without enlightenment, how can we be a first world country?