Monday, April 4, 2016

The Lie at the Center of the Singapore Legend

The meta-narrative of the founding of modern Singapore is that as a young lawyer and activist Lee Kuan Yew beguiled the Communists into backing the People’s Action Party and once in power turned on them, jailing them after riots in 1955 revealed their true colors, into the process making Singapore a crucial bulwark in Asia against the Communist tide.

With Lee Kuan Yew now dead for a year, the veneration of his life has started anew in Singapore. But that legend of the founding of the city state is a lie, according to Poh Soo Kai in a bitter and angry book. In fact, Poh wrote, the people who were arrested were mainly Kuan Yew’s enemies. Poh, a physician, was jailed cumulatively for 17 years, ultimately leaving for Canada in 1989 as a political self- exile before eventually returning to the island republic.

Like his fellow rebel Chia Thye Poh, who served 23 years in prison and nine more under house arrest, he writes, he could have been freed long earlier if he had apologized and confessed. Now Poh, 84 years old, has told his story in a deeply detailed and troublesome 406-page history researched out of declassified British colonial archives and a wealth of other records that he says lay bare the true story.

It is a book that in places is hard going and runs in different directions, mixing in stories of the life of his grandfather, his family’s fight to escape World War II and other accounts with his confrontation with the newly borning independent state of Singapore. But in sum, the tactics described, including what Poh calls the government’s use of a subterfuge to arrest his wife and, using good-cop bad-cop tactics for hours of questioning to turn her against him, presaged too often the tactics of modern Singapore. It is a sad story of the use of a state that would stop at nothing to keep its critics muzzled.

With Kuan Yew gone, the government arguably remains less willing to use any tactic necessary to rid the country of its perceived enemies, as Kuan Yew did. Nonetheless, today it is making sure no dissent rises up on the internet, with relatively timid bloggers going to jail and being driven out of business.


In the 1980s, those tactics included Operation Spectrum, which broke a nonexistent “Marxist conspiracy” of young activists working on social issues. In doing so the government sought to discredit a priest by getting the Straits Times to print salacious articles describing the time the priest was seen entering the home of a woman in the middle of the night and the time he was seen leaving her home.

It included boxcar headlines that a married US diplomat who had met with the activists had a “love child” in the Philippines despite the fact that the diplomat had since adopted the child, which was living with his new family.  It included the disgrace of the late Singapore president Devan Nair as a drunk after he broke with Kuan Yew over the rights of dissidents.

In describing the turning of his wife, Poh writes that “I have held back on a matter that affected me the most, but which I find is almost impossible for me to talk about. It is too painful. But to keep avoiding the issue would be to let Lee Kuan Yew get away with the most heinous crime perpetrated on me, and for me to be forever the silenced victim.”

The couple eventually divorced. 

“Grace and I were both too badly hurt for our marriage to survive,” he wrote. “Our divorce was finalized in 1992, after the requisite period of three years of separation. I cannot pretend that it no longer hurts. It still does very much. But I do not feel humiliated. I refuse to be destroyed. It is the pimp who should have been ashamed and made accountable. And so should those who sat at his feet, and who continue to repeat his lies, defending the use of the Internal Security Act.” 

“I am now ready to take the final step, to defy Lee’s cold and smug calculation that I would never be able to speak about the depth of his vindictiveness towards anyone who crossed him,” Poh writes. In this book, he does so in detail.

Poh originally attracted the attention of authorities by his position as a founding member of the University Socialist Club at the University of Malaya and later as a founding member of the on-campus publication Fajar (Dawn). First arrested in 1954 for sedition along with seven other Fajar journalists, he would be released, then arrested again. He was released in 1973 and on his release called Lee Kuan Yew a “political pimp.” Kuan Yew described him as defiant. He was arrested again and finally released in 1982. I am still defiant,” he said in the preface. “I draw a strict line between what is just and what isn’t.”

A physician and the grandson of Singapore’s richest tycoon Tan Kah Kee, Poh and 132 other people were victims of the infamous Operation Coldstore, as the operation was known, the code name for a covert security operation that got underway in February of 1963. They were detained without trial under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO).

In official accounts, the operation was a security operation “aimed at crippling the Communist open front organization,” which threatened Singapore’s internal security.

 In Poh’s account, Lee was hardly the political innocent he painted himself to be, nor were the communists PAP infiltrators. In fact, he writes, Lee himself accepted several people who were former members of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). Lee needed the support of the left-wing. He also put feelers out to Chinese students who had links with the underground to ask for Chinese speaking trade unionists who knew the ground well. Lim Chin Siong, a member of the Anti-British League, thus joined the PAP.

 Altogether, it is a depressing and deeply disturbing account showing the other side of clearly Asia’s most accomplished statesman, a man who on one front could establish the richest society in Asia, absolutely incorruptible in the conventional sense, a country where permits are granted, contracts are let in the absolute certainty that honesty will prevail. On the other Lee Kuan Yew was a tyrant and a man utterly without morals in working to derail those he could not otherwise control. A year after his death, sadly he leaves a society built in his image on both counts.

I am getting on in years,” Poh ends this harsh book. “Many of my friends from the Fajar and the May 13 generation have passed on. I feel I owe them all a duty to write about our common struggles; I feel I owe the younger generation a duty to leave a record of our country’s history. I hope we will live our lives in the service of our people.”

By John Berthelsen Book Review, Headline, Singapore



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