Democracy and human rights in deep freeze: the legacy of Operation Cold Store


Guest article by Poh Soo Kai, by invitation from Yawning Bread

Operation Cold Store was launched on 2 February 1963 by the British colonialists with the connivance of Lee Kuan Yew.  Over a hundred left-wing activists, including myself, were arrested.  In one fell swoop, the entire leadership of the Barisan Sosialis, the main opposition force in Singapore, was decimated.

Today we commemorate its 50th anniversary and pay homage to the young men and women cut down cruelly in the prime of their lives on that fateful day and in the relentless waves of detentions that followed.  This is also the moment to honour the sufferings of their families and loved ones throughout those long days, months, years, and decades.  It is time for all survivors to heal from the deep scars of arbitrary detention inflicted by the PAP regime for today we are all vindicated in our past youthful pursuit of a humane society.

About the guest writer

Dr Poh Soo Kai was one of the leaders of opposition party Barisan Sosialis in the 1960s. He was twice arrested under the Internal Security Act and detained without trial: the first time under Operation Cold Store in 1963 and held for 11 years.

He was re-arrested and detained for a further 6 years in 1976.

For more information see the Sept 2011 article in Singapore Rebel: Dr Poh Soo Kai and MHA’s fiction of his involvement with the injured bomber

Operation Cold Store set back our dream in the 1950s and early 1960s of a new and independent nation called Malaya, embracing Singapore – a multicultural nation in which all communities would be treated equally; a nation independent of colonial rule, where there would be economic betterment for the poor and full democratic rights for all people – both political and civil.

There was magic in the air in 1953 when a group of university students in Singapore had dared to form the Socialist Club and published a paper, “Fajar” (Dawn), which very soon was repressed in 1954, its 8 members editorial board being charged with sedition by the British colonialists.  However, taken aback by the outpouring of popular support for the Fajar 8, the case was dismissed without the defence being called.

Again, magic drifted in the air with the founding of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954.  Its constitution pledged to set up a socialist Singapore!

Call it by whatever name, the idealism embodying world peace and justice, a more equal and humane society was “socialism” in post World War II.  The people had experienced, at first hand, the inhuman ravages of capitalism and its conjoint twin, imperialism, which had dragged the colonies into a catastrophic world war.

So powerful was this imagery that even Lee Kuan Yew had to hold himself out as a socialist to be acceptable to the people of Singapore. In his record, he had attended the International Socialist centenary celebrations in Brussels in September 1964.

Unfortunately, no sooner had the PAP been voted in, on an anti-PPSO (precursor of the Internal Security Act) platform, than the PAP-LKY faction began to backtrack.[1]  The magic in the air with the PAP government began to dissipate.

Apart from the highly publicized release of Lim Chin Siong and a few other prominent PAP left-wing leaders, before Lee took the prime minister’s oath on 3 June 1959, no further release of political prisoners was forthcoming from the new PAP government.  On the contrary, some ex-Chinese Middle School Students Union’s members, including Tan Kok Poon, treasurer of the union, were arrested.

No transparency was accorded by Lee to the people in this matter.  The procedure in place in the Internal Security Council was that Singapore would propose the release of political prisoners to the ISC for consideration.  Lee never made any such proposition.

To register their dissatisfaction with the PAP government, the people delivered two resounding defeats to the PAP in the by-elections of Hong Lim and Anson in 1961, where non-PAP candidates won on the platform of release of political prisoners.

Rather than heed Lim Chin Siong’s call to return to the PAP’s founding tenets of democracy and socialism, Lee chose to expel the party’s left wing members.  On 17 September 1961, they formed the Barisan Sosialis with a constitution that mirrored the PAP’s, and were poised to contest the 1963 general elections.

Hence, Operation Cold Store, to lock away all credible opponents of Lee was carried out in the wee hours of 2 February 1963.  Whither Westminster-style parliamentary democracy?

After the Barisan, the next target was the trade unions.[2]  In September 1963, the three key union members of SATU[3] namely, General Employees’ Union, Singapore Bus Workers Union, and Singapore Commercial Houses and Business Employees’ Union were deregistered, $400,000 of their collective funds seized, and leadership arrested.

With the backbone of the left labour movement broken, the PAP turned on the students in the four institutions of higher learning (i.e., University of Singapore, Nanyang University, Singapore Polytechnic, and Ngee Ann College).  In 1965, a “Suitability Certificate” was introduced to screen students’ admission based on their extra curricular (i.e. political) activities at school.  The primary target was the Chinese educated students as the hundreds of middle school students who had engaged in militant protests in the 1950s entered Nantah in 1957.

The University of Singapore Socialist Club was eventually deregistered in 1971 or 1972 when mounting restrictions failed to deter recruitment to the club.

Academic autonomy at the institutions of higher learning became a luxury.  The independent minded Vice Chancellor of the University of Singapore, Dr. B.R. Sreenivasan, who was inspired by the model of the “Free University of Berlin,” was ousted.

The struggle for academic autonomy, galvanized by the “Suitability Certificate,” climaxed with the largest student protest of about a thousand students at Bukit Timah campus in 1966.  The same struggle also unified the English and Chinese educated students as they came together to demand for the registration of a “National Union of Singapore Students” to represent all four institutions of higher learning in November 1966.  Faced with this high tide of student militancy at tertiary level, led by the University of Singapore Students’ Union, the PAP found the opportunity for repressive action when the Ngee Ann Students’ Union gathered outside City Hall for a mass protest (supported by students from the other institutions) against the “Thong Saw Pak” report which recommended its continuation as a community college contrary to the students’ aspirations for its upgrading to university status.  According to student eye witness’ accounts, a “riot” was provoked by the police.

Mass arrests and expulsions followed for several dozens of those involved at Nantah and Ngee Ann.  For the first time since the Fajar sedition trial in 1954, the state took punitive action with the expulsion and deportation of four foreign (i.e., Malaysian) student leaders at the University of Singapore.  This was repeated in December 1974 against six foreign student leaders.

Singapore’s university involvement in political repression continues as illustrated by the cases of Dr. Chee Soon Juan[4] (1993) and Dr. Christopher Lingle[5] (1994).

On 9 January 2013, Malaysiakini had a comment entitled “Sex charge an academic persecution of law professor?”  Coincidentally in 2011, NUS law professor Tey Tsun Hang had published “Legal Consensus – Supreme Executive, Supine Jurisprudence, Suppliant Profession of Singapore.”  The book sounds like compulsory reading on the lack of human rights and democracy in Singapore.  I quote Malaysiakini below:

It relates the many court cases of defamation, in particular political defamation, that have effectively silenced critics of the government from the large damages imposed that bankrupted them. It was a blow-by-blow account of how Singapore judges had been a party to such an achievement.

This is followed by the subject of scandalising the Singapore judiciary, where there has been significant prosecution of contempt of court over the decades. The legal thinking, often narrow and ignoring other competing interests in the society, of the judiciary is elaborated, with the case-law meticulously mined and examination of a jurisprudence assembled over decades.

The Singapore judiciary has in fact become diminished, or rather, has chosen to diminish its role, having “internalised the supreme political ideology, resulting in excessive deference to the executive determination of public interests, and the watering down of both criminal and civil-political rights”.

The final blow to the legal profession is how the Law Society, being the body vested with statutory powers, had its role and authority diminished over the decades. The book deals with this subject extensively in its final chapter, detailing the many confrontations (that) occurred between the government and the Law Society in the 1980s.

Last but not least, it is equally important to lay bare the British imperialist hanky panky behind Lee Kuan Yew’s government.  For all their outward talk of democracy and human rights, the British government (Conservative and Labour alike) had, and has absolutely no qualm in supporting a fascist state in Singapore or any part of the world, just to advance its economic and strategic interests.  This is, still, the truth behind British “humanitarian intervention for regime change” that we hear about so much today.

British Assistant High Commissioner, P.B.C. Moore wrote in 1961, “Lee, I thought was a little relieved to hear that there was no disposition on our part to abandon him as a future political prospect.”[6]  High Commissioner Selkirk reported to London in 28 April 1962, “I must however warn you that Lee Kuan Yew is quite clearly attracted by the prospect of wiping out his main political opposition before the next Singapore elections.”[7]

The British had analysed Lee’s undemocratic tendencies correctly, yet they had reassured him of their support in such an endeavour.

Today, we see the bubbling of discontent among Singapore’s youth, connected by the Internet, which plays an important role in breaking the monopoly of information by the PAP.  Would there be an “Occupy Wall Street à la Singapore” to protest the obscene disparity in income between the ministers and ordinary people?  Would there be magic in the air to reclaim democracy and human rights?

— Footnotes —

[1]  On 26 April 1955, Lee Kuan Yew, as opposition, had declared in parliament,  “I think it is refreshing if this House could be reminded that it was the Peoples Action Party which carefully weighed and consider the emergency regulations, and as its election programme said, not a repeal of the emergency regulations but ‘repeal of the arbitrary powers of arrest and detention without trial, of the restrictions on freedom of speech, of assembly, and of publication which are all contained in the emergency regulations.’  It is said with care, with circumspection, and with deliberation as the Peoples Action Party always makes its pronouncements – we do not issue statements and then afterwards want to retract them, amend them, and if possible tear them up, and forget that we have ever said them.” (Vol.1, Col.58, dd 26.4.55 Hansard)

[2]  British colonial archive (CO: 1030/977 tel.256): At the Internal Security Council meeting on 28 June 1960, “Lee Kuan Yew (advocates) changes in TUC constitution, i.e. deregister unions rather than using Trade Union Bills. The PAP Government is concentrating on whittling down SGEU and “subsidiary unions”, and if necessary by “judicious” detentions.”

[3] Singapore Association of Trade Unions

[4]  Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the first Singaporean academic to join an opposition party and contest in the general election, was sacked by his employer the National University of Singapore for allegedly using research funds to send his wife’s doctoral thesis to the United States.

[5]  Dr. Christopher Lingle, a foreigner who had fled, was found guilty of contempt of court, in absentia, for a commentary he had penned that was published in the International Herald Tribune.

[6] CO 1030, 1961, para. 2.

[7] CO 1030998 para.5, p.177.

19 Responses to “Democracy and human rights in deep freeze: the legacy of Operation Cold Store”

  1. 1 Lye Khuen Way 2 February 2013 at 09:33

    Dare we dream of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry on this issue while some of the main actors are still around ?

  2. 3 ignoramus 2 February 2013 at 10:54

    I was very little then and my growing up years were indoctrinated with associating Barisan Sosialis with Communist Party of Malaya.

  3. 4 Wong Souk Yee 2 February 2013 at 11:02

    Hi Alex, great article as usual. Just a small typo error: the photo caption below Dr Poh Soo Kai should read “… arrested under Operation Cold Store in 1963 (and not 1962).

  4. 5 Pat Low 2 February 2013 at 18:11

    If Spore had been governed by the Barisan Socialis instead of the PAP we’ll all be living in a garden of Eden now. All HDB apartyments will be free and we all just need to study one littlew red book. Life will be so simple.

  5. 7 bryan 2 February 2013 at 18:35

    I’ve read factual accounts of these collated on wikipedia awhile back and was shocked to learn these things really happened in Singapore.

    Operation Spectrum is also worth mentioning where Singaporean activists with some influence, probably equivalent to the vocals bloggers you see today, were detained for years. I’ve never heard the other side’s story so I am very curious to what they have to say in defense.

    Also, how come we haven’t we had a proper independent investigation panel set up to look into some of these issues? Some of them are very disturbing.

    • 8 D 3 February 2013 at 18:15

      Read “Beyond the Blue Gate” by Teo Soh Lung. It describes her arrest and detention under ISD as part of operation spectrum. Also “To Catch a Tartar” by Francis Seow

  6. 9 joyce poh-lim 2 February 2013 at 20:41

    Thanks so much for sharing this, something I can share with the next generation. Thank you, Mr Poh and those who stood by you, in the true name of democracy and truth. To our forefathers who came here and built this nation, but whose contributions are blanked out, thanks to the man and his party. How can one person build the nation alone?

  7. 10 Anon ikG9 2 February 2013 at 22:06

    What are the avenues of redress available now? International courts?

    • 11 D 3 February 2013 at 18:17

      There are no avenues of redress. The government of LKY rewrote the constitution to prevent any legal appeals or oversight on ISD cases when Teo Soh Lung was trying to appeal her detention. You can read more in her book “Beyond the Blue Gate”

  8. 12 Anon vSr4 2 February 2013 at 22:59

    I tried but without success to look for Tey’s book online. Could somebody point me to where I can buy the book?

  9. 14 yuen 3 February 2013 at 17:05

    historical events become part of the political culture; barisan could be identified with leftists, hence with malayan communist insurgency, when it was still fresh in people’s mind; Francis Seow, after standing on a workers party ticket in eunos, was caught for contact with a US embassy official; chee soon juan, jeyaretnam and tang liang hong were sued for defamation

    subsequently opposition parties carefully avoided any activities that might land them in the same situations, and looked for new ways to appeal for votes; for WP at least, the tactics are working, and it is not yet clear how PAP plans to deal with the novel political scene

  10. 15 Duh 3 February 2013 at 17:46

    I am sure there is bad karma generated from this – am I right, LKY?

  11. 16 megabigBLUR (@blurvirus) 3 February 2013 at 21:20

    There won’t be an Occupy Singapore. The culture of “kiasu and kiasi” has been carefully cultivated to discourage any form of communal uprising. Public assemblies are pretty much illegal in Malaysia too, but tens of thousands of people turned out in KL for the last 3-4 big rallies because hey, they can’t possibly arrest all of us! Whereas even Singaporeans who have a conscience are thinking, I can’t do anything, they might arrest ME.

    Tey Tsun Hang’s book is available from Hong Kong University Press.

  12. 17 eremarf 4 February 2013 at 00:44

    I talked to my mother about this and she ended up telling me interesting stories again – like how Lim Chin Siong was her Malay language teacher, and how her ex-students were arrested in Operation Spectrum, and how at Nantah in the ’70s there were intermittently arrests (ok this wasn’t a new story) and (thankfully temporary!) disappearances of classmates. (And she also complained about the disenfranchisement of the Chinese-educated students which affected her personally.) She concluded by lamenting that Lee Kuan Yew is a very ruthless person. Thanks YB/Dr Poh for the opener into inter-generational bonding?

    My own thoughts are that we all owe the communists and left-wingers a debt of gratitude – especially after reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, and early accounts of Malaya/Singapore’s independence e.g. Chin Peng’s memoirs – because you get a sense that neoliberal ideology was restrained only because of the Cold War – because neoliberal politicians didn’t dare to unleash the full extent of hardship and suffering neoliberal economics entailed on populations who could throw them out of power (violently or not) and switch to supporting socialist-ish policies.

    And look what has happened since the end of the Cold War. Look at how ugly full-blown neoliberal-style capitalism has been for all countries. Look at the new globe-trotting bourgeoisie, and the new proletariat (rich people have more in common – lifestyles, worldviews, etc – with rich people elsewhere than their middle class or poor countrymen, and they promote their views and myths endlessly, e.g. by calling it “meritocracy” in Singapore, with Big Money’s subversion of various aspects of democracy in the US, etc).

    Look at West Europe since the fall of the wall: liberalised markets – fraud by capitalism’s elites – and now austerity. Look at Russia: major grabs of public assets by connected persons in “free” markets. Look at East Asia: liberalisation leading to the ’97 crisis – and how IMF handed austerity out. Look at ourselves! At how (self-imposed!) liberalised labour flows have affected us. Everywhere we see rising inequality in wealth and power – something that didn’t occur in the Cold War years (even the Soviets were uniformly poor).

    Latin Americans seem different – they suffered the Washington Consensus coming out of Chicago University’s Economics Dept early on. (Did I mention PAP’s Desmond Choo is an Econs graduate from there?) They didn’t have the benefit of Red Russia like W. Europe, or Red China/NK/Vietnam like East Asia (Cuba is just small fry) – and have learned the hard way – and now some elect leftist leaders like Chavez and Corea. Others are still bewitched or enthralled though? I don’t know. It’s hard to pierce the veil of propaganda and misinformation manufactured by the elites of neoliberal capitalism.

  13. 18 locke 6 February 2013 at 23:26

    I would like to add, Economics History teaches us that liberal market capitalism has its flaws and excesses. It also teaches us that communism has failed and has been proven to fail. The USSR, Mao Stalin are clear examples. Stick with liberal capitalism and adapt and adjust to it or try communism which has failed to utterly.

    Chin Peng was an awowed communist and was as ruthless as LKY. Lets not kid ourselves communist were not big huggable teddy bears. LKY won and for the better of Singapore and thus we were on the right side of history


  14. 19 alan shadrake 7 February 2013 at 17:04

    The victims and heirs of this obscene human rights violation should bring a class action multi-million dollar lawsuit against all those responsible in the relevant international court. That would really put them all in the dock where they belong!

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