Operation North Star

They were a bunch of loud and boisterous teenagers at the back of the bus — about five boys and a girl, all probably 17 years old. They began by talking about what subjects they were thinking of majoring in for their junior college years. Depending on the combination they chose, certain university courses would be closed off to them in the future, so a large part of decision they were about to make had to be intrinsically linked to that they wanted career-wise.

At seventeen, it is not an easy decision.

Anyway, at some point, one boy argued about the importance of having Humanities among the chosen majors. It would open a lot of avenues, he argued. There would be plenty of options at university. Among them, he said, was political science.

Yeah, that’s a good option to have, many of the others said. They agreed that it was something they might be interested to pursue.

“Politics can be damn interesting,” the first boy reiterated. “You know, I read somewhere, that there was an Operation North Star some time back.”

“And what was that?” the others asked.

“See, at that time,” the first boy continued, “Singapore had an opposition party called the Barisan, but they were socialist.”

A second boy chipped in: “The full name was Barisan National.”

First boy: “But they were socialist.”

Second boy: “Yes, they were, Socialist.”

“They challenged this Lee Kuan Yew guy, you see, ” the first boy continued with his story. “So you know what this Lee Kuan Yew guy did or not?  He went and secretly told the British that Barisan National was a bunch of communists. And next thing you know, the British came in with guns and arrested them all.”

“When was this?” asked the lone girl in the group.

“1976,” the first boy said.

* * * * *

Overhearing it all, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.  It was quite obvious he was referring to Operation Cold Store (not North Star!), but that took place in February 1963, not 1976. By 1976, British forces had left Singapore already. Moreover, the opposition party was not Barisan National but Barisan Socialis.

And this imagery of  British soldiers coming in with guns (blazing?) was straight out of some video game.

It may be a little depressing, but it did not surprise me. I have known for a while that the typical Singaporean youngster knows virtually nothing about our history. That even one boy in the group had heard of “Operation North Star” was already better than average.

On the other hand, I was amused. They referred to the prime minister of the day as “this Lee Kuan Yew guy”, as if he were just a character in a movie (or video game), as shallow as cardboard (or should I say as shallow as pixels on a screen, in keeping with the times?). Here is a generation that not only does not hold him in awe, but treats him as a character in a story from the past, and not a particularly positive one either.

We all know that a time will come when history will be revisited and our assessment of the man will be revised. Mortality does that. But the process may already have started. While those of us who are older wait for the man to die first before we revise history, our youth has not even imbibed such dated courtesies. They have reduced him to two-dimensional avatar-like thingey mucking around a distant historical story. He’s not even a hero, but more akin to Paris of Troy whose unethical impetuousness led to an unfolding tragedy. The accuracy of facts is not important. What’s the difference between 1963 and 1976 when we’re already in 2011? What’s the difference between Barisan National and Barisan Socialis when nobody even knows what “Barisan” means? For posterity, it’s the excitement of the narrative that matters more than anal regard for precision.

And so I am deflated. It may well be that by the time we finish with the funeral and sit down to revisit history, the whole exercise may well be irrelevant. A new story for a new generation may already have seized their imagination, more sexy, more exciting than any careful history will ever be: Operation North Star and the destruction of Barisan National. Good movie title, that.



16 Responses to “Operation North Star”

  1. 1 yuen 11 February 2011 at 14:08

    I guess these boys on the bus will be different 3 years later, when they finish NS, especially if they attended officer cadet school and/or get PSC scholarships; at least they would know who “this lee kuan yew guy” is

    it suits PAP to have an apolitical majority, provided the elite members are suitably trained

  2. 2 Samuel 11 February 2011 at 15:08

    It strikes me as rather bizarre that 17 year olds would be referring to MM Lee as “this Lee Kuan Yew guy”, as if he were some remote and unfamiliar figure. If they had done well enough in high school to qualify for JC, and were sophisticated enough to be considering their university options at such an early stage, then surely they would be sufficiently familiar with who Lee Kuan Yew is.

    Throughout their high school lessons, be it in Social Studies, History or English class, they would have been bombarded with information about Lee Kuan Yew and his achievements. They would probably have been tasked to write essays or do projects that involved Lee Kuan Yew in one way or another.

    I myself graduated from JC only two years ago, and none of my peers would have referred to MM Lee as “this Lee Kuan Yew guy”. LKY definitely still looms large in my generation (or at least among my educated, JC-going social circle).

    • 3 Anonymous 11 February 2011 at 18:55

      Agreed. I almost can’t believe it. My first thought was that maybe they were from international schools or kids of recent immigrants, but I trust Alex would have been able to pick up some sort of accent. Amazing.

  3. 4 ape 11 February 2011 at 16:27

    Ape shares your response on dunno want to laugh or cry

  4. 5 Alan Wong 11 February 2011 at 18:08

    It’s both ironic and amazing that so many of his fellow countrymen are in fact waiting for the big moment to arrive so that they can go celebrate and rejoice at his demise.

    It will indeed be one of the greatest emotional moment for Singapore, full of both sadness and joy.

  5. 6 Gazebo 11 February 2011 at 18:45

    what i feel most disgusted about the PAP and LKY, is how they twisted “socialism” to suit their whims. PAP rose to power on the very platform of socialism. That is an undeniable fact. They harnessed the power of worker unions, and promised a system of equality and justice. Yet when they finally secured power, they did an about turn, and embraced a twisted form of capitalism that is so hideous and extreme, turning Singapore from a country into literally a corporation.

  6. 7 Tanky 12 February 2011 at 07:49

    With the amount of school work piled on them since primary school, can we blame them for not knowing history? In Japan, percentage of people voting at General Elections has been on a downtrend and is around 30% (voting is not compulsory in Japan). I wonder what the turn out rate will be in Singapore if voting is optional.

    • 8 yuen 12 February 2011 at 08:41

      probably very low; people choosing (forced?) to become apolitical because of school/job work pressure and let the rulers get on with governing; win-win

      • 9 Tanky 12 February 2011 at 09:15

        I think many will chose to walk-over

      • 10 yuen 12 February 2011 at 22:10

        you do not get to -choose- the walkover; the opposition parties make the decision by not standing against the government candidates, partly for financial reasons as a high deposit is required, partly for lack of promising candidates

        if the opposition chooses to stand in your electorate, you are required to go and vote, but can choose to cast a blank vote; however, the percentage of this is low – once there, the voters prefer to take a stand (even if they do not know about operation cold storage)

  7. 11 Anti-Gambling Anon 12 February 2011 at 10:11

    The story parallels that of the rise and fall of the roman empire.

  8. 12 ape 12 February 2011 at 12:08

    This observation is worrying. These youths are supposedly preparing for university. Do they even read the news? How are they going to do their GP?
    Not knowing the Sgp history about Operation Cold Store or Barisan Socialis is one thing. Not knowing who is Lee Kuan Yew is like wtf?
    Ape hope this is really an isolated case.

  9. 13 yawningbread 12 February 2011 at 12:56

    My sense was that the kids knew who Lee Kuan Yew was, but it’s their style of speaking that sounds strange to us. While older Singaporeans speak of Lee either with deference, e.g. referring to him by the Straits Times style of “MM Lee”, or with a hint of disgust, I think these younger Singaporeans see history and current affairs with very different perspectives. Weaned on video-games and action movies with simple narratives of good vs evil, they may see history and current affairs in the same detached way, with persons involved cast as actors or action-characters. I won’t even say if this approach is better or worse — just different.

    • 14 kirsten 12 February 2011 at 16:50

      I agree, I don’t think it is because they don’t know who LKY is – that would be pretty much impossible in Singapore. It’s just that unlike the older generation, these kids aren’t so impressed by LKY’s deeds; they didn’t see it happen before their eyes and now it’s just reduced to part of the story of Singapore. Like Sang Nila Utama and that Raffles fella.

      Like those kids, when I was at school I had never heard of Operation Cold Store (and I am impressed that the one boy at least kind of knew that something like it had happened, because I didn’t). I didn’t find out until I was 20, studying in university overseas and starting to get interested in the history of my country that was NOT told in our history textbooks.

      In school we were taught about Communism in Russia and China and how many people were oppressed, arrested, exiled or even killed. We were shown that Communism was unsustainable and economically unsound and we scoffed at Stalin and Mao and their crazy despotic Communist ideals. In that context we were then taught that LKY had to deal with the Communists when we became independent (how he “dealt with” them was not very clear to us) and we though, “Hurrah for LKY! What a good thing he did for Singapore!”

      Now that I’m older, I feel so very cheated.

      • 15 Jackson Tan 12 February 2011 at 21:42


        In school we were taught about Communism in Russia and China and how many people were oppressed, arrested, exiled or even killed. We were shown that Communism was unsustainable and economically unsound and we scoffed at Stalin and Mao and their crazy despotic Communist ideals.


        I remember my secondary history lesson on modern history involves something about how the Communist Party in China defeated the corrupted and capitalistic KMT who were out of touch with the people. Of course, that was nearing 2000, when China became quite a fertile kingdom for investment.

        Of course, the communists in Southeast Asia are nasty and hell bent on destabilising the region.

  10. 16 kirsten 13 February 2011 at 17:19

    @ Jackson: I don’t remember the exact details of everything I learned in secondary school (2001 – 2004) but I remember the general impression my classmates and I got from learning about Communism was that it was silly and didn’t work and people were being oppressed and look even China now has to become capitalist to survive! And therefore the idea of having the Chinese Communists come into Singapore and gain influence was a big no-no.

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