Living in a Time of Deception

Speech at SOAS on May 10, 2016, by Poh Soo Kai

Dr Poh at SOAS

Greetings – Mr Chairman / Madam Chairwoman, ladies and gentleman, friends and compatriots from both sides of the Johor causeway:

Firstly, a word of thanks to SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) and to MBC (Monsoons Book Club) for organizing this launch of my historical memoir, “Living In A Time Of Deception.” Thank you for your hard work.

This book began as a personal memoir but pretty soon, I found this framework rather inadequate. Thankfully, Wong Souk Yee and Lysa Hong came into the picture and helped to fashion this book into a historical memoir dealing with the politics of Singapore in the period 1954 to 1965 – where we witnessed, among others, the very important events in our bilateral history of merger in 1963 and the subsequent acrimonious separation from Malaysia in 1965. So “Living In A Time Of Deception” turned out to be a historical memoir focusing on my role in and my understanding of the politics of that epoch.

What we – Singaporeans and Malaysians on either side of the Johor causeway – are living with today is the fallout of the failed Malaysian Merger plan.

In 1961, after Lord Selkirk became UK High Commissioner for Singapore and Commissioner General for South-East Asia , he assiduously pushed for merger – the cardinal aim of which was to safeguard the efficiency of the British military base in Singapore.

At this juncture, I ask my audience to forgive me for paraphrasing sentences and literally lifting out terminologies and phrases from the correspondences between Lord Selkirk and the colonial office, as found in the British archives, to paint the picture then.

Lord Selkirk took the Malaysia Merger plan – first mooted in the aftermath of the Second World War – from the cupboard, dusted it and offered it to Lee Kuan Yew as a lifeline during the Hong Lim by-elections of 1961. It was obvious to the British then that Lee Kuan Yew was no longer the political force that he was in 1959 when he had swept into electoral victory on the back of left-wing support. As predicted by Selkirk, the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew lost the Hong Lim by-elections to what the British described as “a sea of hostile local population” necessitating the British to throw out a “lifeline” to Lee Kuan Yew and by extension, a “lifeline” to ensure the security of the British military base in Singapore.

Thus, Lord Selkirk’s main aim in giving an old Malaysian Merger plan, a serious and renewed interest was to safeguard the efficiency of the British naval base in “a sea of hostile local population” that had overwhelmingly rejected the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew in the 1961 Hong Lim by-election.

It was British policy at that time to intervene in the sovereign affairs of the countries in Asia. For such a policy to be executed, an efficient naval base was imperative. If we go back to 1946, after the Second World War, the British had sent their troops to Saigon to fight the Vietnamese nationalist movement, as well as to Surabaya to fight Sukarno’s nationalist forces.

Because of this policy, the British decided to separate Singapore from mainland Malaya with the MacMichael Treaty. The Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca could be incorporated into the Malayan Union but the British must retain firm control of the Straits Settlement of Singapore which contained the military base that would provide back up for its policy of intervention.

The people of Singapore and Malaya, headed by PUTERA-AMCJA – a unity of Malay and non-Malay organisations – promoted by the MDU (Malayan Democratic Union), opposed the separation of Singapore from Malaya.

The People’s Constitution written by MDU members John Eber and Willy Kuok had called for the unity of the Straits Settlement of Singapore just like Penang and Melaka with the mainland. The People’s Constitution envisaged dominion status for Malaya, following the Canadian model.

Most strikingly, the People’s Constitution proposed, with agreement from all factions, a citizenship called Melayu citizenship. It explained that it is a non-colonial term for Malayan citizenship. Tan Cheng Lock, one of the leaders, agreed with this definition for our citizenship; and we were to have Malay Melayu, Chinese Melayu, Indian Melayu and so forth.

However, the British governor refused to accept the petition embodying the People’s Constitution. And so Tan Cheng Lock had to call for a one-day Hartal which was a general strike of all people in the country – mainland Malaya and Singapore. He had learned this Hindustani word when he was in India during the Second World War.

The Hartal – the first nationwide joint Malay and non-Malay political action was successful – all economic activities in mainland Malaya and Singapore shut down on October 20, 1947. The British ignored this peaceful show of strength from the people and went ahead to separate Singapore from Malaya – for the sole reason of maintaining effective control of the military base in Singapore to further the British policy of intervention in the sovereign affairs of neighbouring countries in the region.


After the Second World War, the British Empire was economically broke. It ran down its military bases around the world but it was determined to hold onto Singapore because of the growth and strength of the nationalist movements in Asia. The British archive revealed that one of UK strategic aims in the Far East was to “maintain an independent contribution to the nuclear deterrent against China.” It was also necessary for the British to obtain some semblance of recognition from the United States that the weakened British still could play a supportive role in this region to advance the interests of the United States globally.

By 1960, tactical nuclear weapons were stored in the Singapore naval base and heavy bombers capable of carrying them, were stationed in Singapore and ready to fly out to China in case of disputes with the latter. This British nuclear deterrent was independent of the United States’ nuclear deterrent against China.

And disputes with mainland China could not be ruled out.

For example, in 1949, Sir Winston Churchill ignorant of geography, thought the Yangtze River was the Thames where the British Royal Navy could ply up and down with impunity. When the British Royal Navy was stopped from plying up and down, what it thought was the Thames, Sir Winston Churchill threatened to bomb the Chinese Liberation Army.

The base was also important to execute British policy of putting Sukarno’s feet to the fire. One could not put Sukarno’s feet to the fire without the muscles provided by the Singapore military base. Ever since then, the British had been interfering in the affairs of Indonesia, resulting in Confrontasi with Malaysia and the Gestapo or G30S in 1965. Sukarno did not last out his “year of living dangerously.”

Against this background, we – referred to as the “sea of hostile local population” – were arrested on February 2, 1963 under Operation Coldstore. The main reason for it was to preserve the effectiveness of the British military base in Singapore.

There is documentation in the archive that shows that the Tunku had wanted our arrest as a pre-condition for merger with Singapore. There is no doubt on that. Likewise, I have no doubt that Lee Kuan Yew desired our arrest at that juncture in history. Each had his own reason for our arrest. But it was the British who called the shot as it was imperative upon them to drain away that sea of local hostility against their base in Singapore.

Of the three conspirators in this scheme, it was Lee Kuan Yew who stood most to lose should he not find a role within Malaysia. He stated quite clearly to Philip Moore, UK deputy high commissioner to Singapore, that if he had no place in Malaysia, then the chance of Malaysia succeeding would be nil.

In this new scenario where his left-wing opponents had been decimated with the help of the British and the Tunku, Lee Kuan Yew now aspired to replace the MCA as UMNO’s partner in the Alliance. He was fully aware of and completely accept UMNO’s communal or racial policy.

But when the Tunku refused to accommodate him, he then turned around and contested the general elections of 1964 against the MCA with the aim of showing the Tunku, that the PAP not the MCA, had the support of the Chinese in mainland Malaya. Lee Kuan Yew reneged on his promise to the Tunku that he would not raise the communal tension in Malaya by contesting in the general elections of 1964.

In the 1964 general elections, the PAP put up 5 candidates but only one won. Lee Kuan Yew’s political horizon in Malaysia was dim indeed.

The archive quotes Lord Selkirk as predicting that Lee Kuan Yew would now switch to adopt a chauvinistic line. That was precisely what he did. He convened the Malaysian Solidarity Convention. He said that learning Malay as a national language was a way back to the jungle. As expected, Malay radicals retaliated; communal tension was raised which resulted in racial riots in Singapore.

Faced with that situation, the Tunku decided to talk to Lee on ways to solve the problem. But there was no talk of separation at that time.

However two intervening events took place to obliterate the need for a British military base in Singapore. The first concerned the Chinese, who, on October 16, 1964, had exploded their first atomic bomb and with it, a cardinal aim of the British military base in Singapore, which was to blackmail China, evaporated into smoke.

The second deals with Sukarno, who by June 1965, was in a very precarious position. Early that year, Sukarno had alluded to “the year of living dangerously” for he knew and expected that foreign powers were on the verge of toppling him. He did not last out 1965. By June – July, the British who were involved in the Gestapo operations, were aware of Sukarno’s impending downfall and therefore, allowed Singapore and Malaysia to negotiate for a separation. The Albatross files indicated that Lee Kuan Yew was in favour of separation.

These two intervening events made the aims of retaining a British military base in Singapore unnecessary. And so, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia was announced on August 9, 1965 with Lee shedding tears on television!

Today we are living in the fallout of this failed Malaysia merger scheme. The British had ordered our mass arrest in order to maintain their Singapore military base in 1963 and abdicated their responsibility to free us when the base was no longer useful.

Today they present themselves as advocates of democracy and human rights but are silent on their past role in Malaya and Singapore. They arrested us under Operation Coldstore, and failed to release us when they handed Singapore over to Malaysia via the Merger plan.

Hence the British must share in the odium of our continued detention without trial over many long years, in the inhuman treatment of solitary confinement for months and in the subsequent waves upon waves of arrests that followed.

Today, the relations between Malaysia and Singapore are not friendly. Singapore is known to have interfered in the political affairs of Malaysia to enhance its own economic position. An example of such interference occurred during Tengku Razaleigh’s fight against Mahathir for the leadership of UNMO.

Today, the communal tension within the country in both Malaysia and Singapore is heightened compared to the days when I was a student. Very unfortunately, in the process of the Malaysia merger and separation, Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP had played the communal card to the hilt, whipping up both Malay and Chinese chauvinism with the Malaysian Solidarity Conference and Malaysian Malaysia slogan.

The British, having achieved their aim in the region, and finding the base no longer necessary and costly to maintain, had long packed up and gone, leaving us with this fallout today as we stare at each other divided by the Johor causeway.


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A Humble Man

Said1The name Said Zahari sounded familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. Familiar because as of early 1960s, those who kept abreast with the political reality of Malaysia and Singapore had to, at some point in time, be introduced to personalities such as Lim Chin Siong, Said Zahari, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, T.T. Rajah, and Chia Thye Poh. It was also unfamiliar because the name remained a name without really knowing who Said Zahari was and what he stood for. To progressive students studying abroad like those in the Malaysian and Singapore Student Movement (MASS Movement) in London and the Federation of United Kingdom and Eire Malaysian and Singaporean Student Organizations (FUEMSSO) in the UK, his name was synonymous with Operation Cold Store, the Internal Security Act (ISA), and repression in Singapore. In the mid 1970s, student activists in the UK made a commendable attempt at translating three poems of Pak Said “Born Unfree”, “Joy” and “Dungeon of Horrors” into songs. They were rendered at student conferences and gatherings.

It was not after my return from an overseas stint that I began to have better insights into Pak Said’s political landscape. It was around 1982 that I first met Pak Said. The occasion was Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Ever since Pak Said was released from the PAP prison in 1979, he and his family had been holding ‘Hari Raya Open House’ for his friends and comrades at his residence in Upper Changi. A few of us (the so-called UK returnees) visited Pak Said to share with his family the joy of festive celebration. There was already a big crowd nudging every corner of his living room and spilling over to the outdoor spaces. Other than his signature hospitality, Pak Said was too busy to attend to us, the “younger generation”. He left it to his family to make sure we had enough of the Hari Raya delicacies. Who could blame him? A gathering with his contemporaries was after all a rare occasion in those days.

It was years later in 2003 that I got the opportunity to drop in on Pak Said and his family in Subang Jaya, KL. The late lawyer, Tan Jing Quee, his wife Rose and I were attending a conference on “Rethinking Ethnicity and National Building” held at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia which was organized by the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS) and convened by my London-days friend, Professor Rahman Embong and his colleagues. We paid Pak Said a courtesy call. To him I was a total stranger. Had it not been for Jing Quee who was one of his close friends, I would never have dreamt of making acquaintance with this legendary figure in Malayan politics, and then Singapore and Malaysian politics.

While Pak Said’s wife Salama, with Rose’s help, was in the kitchen preparing a meal, Jing Quee and Pak Said were like pals frequently chiding and poking fun at each other. They alternated their bantering between Malay and English, with Mandarin peppered in at appropriate junctures. One thing I notice about these so-called members of the Old Left (both English- and Chinese-speaking) is that many of them are effectively multilingual, and these two veterans could converse in Malay, Mandarin and English without much fuss. Had I been monolingual, I would have lost the fun and nuances of their jokes and altercations. It was a scintillating experience. The show of sodality between them was as natural as the flow of water.

That also happened to be the first occasion I heard Pak Said speak in Mandarin, albeit with a limited lexicon. Since then, visiting Pak Said with my F8 (Function 8) colleagues has almost become a must whenever we are in KL.

Much has been said and written about Journalist Said Zahari who used to rub shoulders with the likes of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaya, and Yusof Ishak, the former president of Singapore. Yet he was arrested during the 1963 Operation Cold Store which saw 111 people being rounded up and detained in one fell swoop. He was released only 17 years later.

Next to me are two volumes of Pak Said’s memoirs: “Dark Clouds at Dawn – A Political Memoir” (2001) and “The Long Nightmare – My 17 years as a Political Prisoner” (2007), in which he writes about his life as a student, a journalist, a political initiator and a political prisoner. 17 years in detention was doggedly sustained by 17 years of resolve. His family was thrown into a limbo and his thoughts were with them all the time. But between “recanting” and upholding principles he chose the latter. For that he had to pay the price of being detained for that length of period by his nemesis, “the vindictive Prime Minster” as he put it.

How can one not revere his indomitable spirit? What made a person take the path of suffering instead of giving in to fabrication, bullying and intimidation? After all, Pak Said’s youngest daughter was only a few months from birth when he was detained without trial by the notorious ISA.

In May 1987, I was, together with 23 other “Marxists”, detained (your guess is right) under the same ISA for being involved in a “Marxist Conspiracy” as labeled by the PAP government. I was detained twice for a period of 8 months, three of which was solitary confinement. Vincent Cheng was kept for the longest period of time, more than three years. This episode is resurrected here not to draw any comparison. There is nothing to compare between a few years and 17 years (or 32 years in the case of Chia Thye Poh). There is nothing to compare between the ill-treatment and torture meted out to the 1987 detainees and those confronted many times more brutally by our predecessors, particularly those in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

A slight incursion could perhaps be made from the subtle impact our predecessors had on us. Indeed, the images of Said Zahari, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Ho Piao and my detainee friends from the secondary school days kept flashing across my horizon where anxiety and uncertainty ruled the days. The question confronted was still the same one: What made a person take the path of suffering instead of giving in to fabrication, bullying and intimidation?

In 1961, the split in the PAP resulted in the formation of the Barisan Sosialis. Particularities aside, the general framework was one of battles between those who were determined to carry out the anti-colonial struggle to its fruition, i.e., independence for Malaya and Singapore, and those who were slated by the British to preserve the neo-colonial interests of the Western powers after they were no longer physically present. However, the anti-colonial forces in Singapore were too weak to take on Lee Kuan Yew and the like, partly due to the massive arrest of left-wing student, trade union and political leaders carefully and sinisterly planned in 1963. Singapore has since paraded a colonial servant, Stamford Raffles, as its national icon.

The books written by Park Said cited earlier draw a vivid picture of the issues and principles Pak Said had to face in leading the Utusan Melayu strikes and venturing into local politics. He refused to kowtow to the leaders of UMNO when they wanted the newspaper Pak Said and his colleagues were running to submit to their whim and fancy. He was banned from re-entering Kuala Lumpur as a result. The steely character I see in many ex-political detainees could have been forged through trials and tribulations such as those Pak Said experienced. In Martyn See’s documentary “Said’s 17 Years” produced in 2006, Pak Said’s ungrudging stance in narrating his ordeals during his imprisonment is out of ordinary. He was momentarily worried for his life only when his interrogators threatened to bump him off on the sly. He worried more about his family than for himself. Otherwise, his reply towards his accuser was tit-for-tat. If you accuse me of being a communist and instigating violence, put me on trial and I will defend myself. But the authority did not seem to have the gall to take on his challenge. Instead, Martyn’s documentary has since its onset been banned in Singapore.

My friends and I often think about this question: would people like Said Zahari, Lim Chin Siong, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, T.T. Rajah, Lee Tee Tong, Ho Piao, and James Puthucheary have done a better job if they had come into power in the 1960s? We are not sure when it comes to the material wealth that is opulently showcased in Singapore today. But as the saying goes: all that glitters is not gold. Material wealth alone is not the sole yardstick by which a society is judged.

One thing we are quite certain is that if political figures such as those mentioned above had turned the Singapore history the other way round, the relationship between the peoples of Malaysia and Singapore would not have been so strained. The income disparity in Singapore would not have been so wide. People would have been more prepared to stand up and speak up for their rights. The media landscape would not have been so flat and monopolized. Nor would the power of government have been so abused and monetized.

When ministers and high officials have to be paid heftily before they are prepared to serve the country and people, the essence of public office is that much denigrated. The call for volunteerism or dedication or patriotism to come forth is that much weakened. Loyalty is only a byword with little substance.

Professionals such as Pak Said and Dr Poh may be paid meagerly or nothing at all for what they have written and contributed. They do not have an entourage of researchers or journalists to assist in their undertakings. That is the case because they are said to have stood on the “wrong” side of history. But history in many countries has also shown that people who stand on the side of justice and persist in their struggle will triumph eventually. They continue to be prolific writers and share their knowledge and experience in spite of the odds. I have found that ex-political prisoners such as Said Zahari and Dr Poh are very jealous about safeguarding their integrity and dignity. This could perhaps be the answer to the question about their unflinching spirit raised earlier.

The last time my F8 friends and I saw Pak Said was in September 2014. He was on a wheelchair and looked frail. He kept saying he was not as robust as he used to be. But that did not stop him from having spirited exchanges with the younger members among us. He might have lapses in his memories but the resonant voice and laughter was unmistakably his. He was still his jovial self. He is no crapehanger.

Just as I was wondering if he could see through the third volume of his trilogy, I was naturally happy when I heard from Rahman Embong that it was indeed in the making. I have utmost respect for Pak Said who is known as “the champion of press freedom”. I was more than delighted to write a short piece when asked.

Yap Hon Ngian (Function 8)
4 May 2015

William Yap wrote this piece in honour of Said Zahari. It is included in the third volume of the latter’s memoirs ‘Suara Bicara – Fragmen Memoir Said Zahari’ published last year.

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Rest in peace, dear Said


SAID ZAHARI (1928 – 12 April 2016)

I don’t know Said’s exact birth date. But I distinctly remember meeting him for the first time in 1981. We were both working under the umbrella of a newspaper organization in Singapore.

Said strikes me as such a very cheerful person, so conversant in Mandarin that it amazes me how trilingual he is. And his world view is so broadly humanistic, his laughter so infectious. Of course, I had known that Said had suffered detention without trial for more than 16 years. His cheerfulness, a perpetual smile as he talks, is all the more unexpected.

 Over the years, my husband and I had occasion to visit Said in Malaysia. Once we enjoyed a meal of salt-baked chicken, brought from Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur! We ate, we talked. Of socialist ideals and the ordinariness of family life.

 I consider Said a renaissance man. It is not in disrespect that I address him as “Said”, without any honorific. He is just that very simple, no fuss sort of person, my ideal of a man who, instead of paying lip-service to racial and religious harmony, truly lives it.

 May you rest in peace, dear Said.

Chan Wai Han
Function 8

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Truth and inspiration replacing deceit and deception

syedhusinali pixI am very honoured for being invited this morning to launch the book Living in a Time of Deception by Poh Soo Kai. I finished reading this book in three days. Once I started, I could not put it down. I found it to be an exceptional work of great historical significance and value. Dr Poh Soo Kai is an outstanding political figure who survived courageously 17 years of severe confinement, in several of Lee Kuan Yew’s prisons, under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA).

Although this book is often referred to as Poh Soo Kai’s memoir, it does not concentrate mainly on his personal life and experiences. Indeed it is much more than that. It is a meticulously written and well-documented alternative history of Singapore. It presents factual evidences which are well-annotated and convincingly negate the lies and deceptions of the so-called Singapore story perpetrated by the writings of the Prime Minister himself and his hacks, the like of which was Denis Bloodworth.

Soo Kai writes about all kinds of thing in his book. In the last chapter he relates about discussion on different types of subject he had with his bosom friend, Dr Rajakumar. Although he does not mention it, I am sure they had discussed about writing together a history of Singapore. I had several times urged Rajakumar to write a history of Singapore, especially under Lee Kuan Yew. But he kept on saying he had forgotten many things and would need the help of Soo Kai, whom he considered to have very good memory of events.

I know that for a while both of them did talk about this project. But before they could start writing, Rajakumar passed away. I also heard that Dr Lim Hock Siew, who was also very close to Rajakumar and Soo Kai, was finally persuaded by friends to write up his memoir. But before he had hardly begun, Hock Siew too passed on.

These three doctors, who became close political associates from their young student days in the University of Malaya, which was situated in Singapore then, followed closely, in fact, involved themselves intimately with the development of Singapore politics under Lee Kuan Yew. But almost right from the beginning, this brilliant threesome had already sensed that Kuan Yew could not and, in fact, should not be trusted.

They saw Kuan Yew as almost a fraud; he was not a socialist as he claimed to be, and he was not at all democratic in his views and practices. There are also some who suspected the nature of his relationship with the British colonialists. The three young doctors were closer to the youthful and charismatic Lim Chin Siong, as well as the progressive trade union movement that he led. Chin Siong cooperated with Kuan Yew at the beginning of the PAP days, but he was later betrayed, imprisoned and politically assassinated by the prime minister.
DSC_0125With the demise of Rajakumar and Hock Siew, the burden fell on Soo Kai to undertake the task of completing an alternative Singapore story. Actually, Soo Kai had begun earlier than that. In about 1993-94, some time after his release from second period of six year detention, Soo Kai was on his way to migrate to Canada. He stopped in London to do research in the Colonial Records Office at Kew Gardens.

There he studied and collected documents that had been opened, and jotted down notes that he shared, among others, with Rajakumar and Hock Siew. There is no doubt all these helped him a great deal when writing his magnus opus later. Soo Kai did not write immediately, but I have no doubt that the death of his two great friends spurred him on.

Meanwhile, Tan Jing Qwee, a lawyer who had been President of the University Socialist Club, like Soo Kai, was planning to compile a book on the club. This was published in 2009 under the title of Fajar Generation. Fajar (the Malay word for Dawn) was of course the monthly that the Club produced. Jing Qwee, who was then getting blind, not only managed to get a long essay for the volume from Soo Kai, but also succeeded to persuade him to be joint editor. Earlier, when Jing Qwee was preparing a memorial volume on Lim Chin Siong, under the title of

Comet in our Sky: Lin Chin Siong in History, Soo Kai did not participate. But later he edited, with an introduction, a revised edition of the book.

Soo Kai and Jing Qwee also jointly edited The 1963 Operation Cold Store in Singapore. This was to mark the 50th anniversary of mass arrests and long detentions of more than a hundred mainly left wing politicians and trade unionists not long after the phony referendum that was engineered by PM Lee Kuan Yew for the merger of Singapore with Malaya. This book contains narrations and analyses of experiences of some of the detainees and a full list of political detainees since the Emergency in 1948. It was published in 2003 about two years after Jing Qwees’s death.

Much later Soo Kai wrote a couple of articles for the journal New Mandala, where he debated with the Singapore High Commissioner in Australia, and exposed several political deceptions that the Singapore government had blatantly committed under Kuan Yew’s authoritarian regime. I daresay that these articles, together with those he contributed to the books he helped to co-edit earlier, provided him with the necessary practice, and more importantly, the determination to complete his book.

Authors of Living in a time of deceptionBut ironically, Soo Kai was not fully confident that he would be able to achieve what had become his life’s ambition. Nevertheless, as he openly admits, his editors and some other friends provided him with great help. A very close friend of Soo Kai who practically saw almost every stage in the development of the book, candidly told me that without the help Dr Hong Lysa, one of the editors, the book might not have seen the light of day in its present form.

Lysa not only edited what Soo Kai wrote but also buttressed them with academic research materials and also numerous foot-notes, which enriched those notes that Soo Kai had much earlier gathered in Kew Gardens. But I am sure that Lysa would be the first person to acknowledge that Living in a Time of Deception is indeed the result of Soo Kai’s own tireless effort. The main content of this book is based on Soo Kai’s memory, observation and analyses of the time that he lived in Singapore. Lysa and the others of course helped to refine it.

I mentioned earlier that in this book Soo Kai did not concentrate on writing about himself, in fact, he appeared to avoid doing this. The closest that he came to writing about himself is in Chapter 8, entitled Medicine and Me. Here he describes his experiences undertaking operations as a houseman and later a junior doctor under two well-known surgeons, a foreigner and a local. It shows his love for the profession, which he had to give up owning to his involvement in politics.

943932_10153902928897453_4447860257006704445_n (1)The first chapter of this book is entitled Family Ties. I thought he would write about himself and his relationship particularly with his nuclear family. Instead, he writes almost entirely about his illustrious grandfather, Tan Kah Kee. This is all because one of Soo Kai’s allegations for detention implied that his grandfather was a communist by association with the government of “Red China”. This is indeed a very cheap allegation. Much later when the Singapore government turned around and practically honoured Tan Kah Kee, this allegation against Soo Kai was never removed.

Lee Kuan Yew’s greatest obsession was to preserve his dictatorial regime. He could not and did not tolerate any criticism or opposition, which he believed were often aimed at toppling him. He always accused his opponents as being communists or pro-communists. There were also other variations, such as involvement with the Malayan National Liberation Front (MNLF) activities and with Euro-communists to undermine the government, or being members of a Marxist conspiracy and so forth. With these accusations Kuan Yew easily used the Internal Security Act (ISA) to arrest and imprison his opponents. The periods of imprisonment have been very long for them.

In Malaysia, to my knowledge, the longest a person had been detained under the ISA was for 15 years. But in Singapore it is common for political detention to go beyond this length of time. Soo Kai, like Said Zahari, was incarcerated for 17 years and Dr Lim Hock Siew for 20 years. There were many more. Chia Thye Poh who was detained without trial for about 27 years, suffered much longer than President Mandela. He is one of the longest prisoners of conscience in the world. What is my six years by comparison?

Collectively I know of only Parti Rakyat political prisoners in Brunei who have been incarcerated as long as the political prisoners in Singapore, especially under Lee Kuan Yew. The stories of physical and mental tortures are common among political prisoners. In Singapore, in addition to these, there are also tales of medical mistreatment that have led to additional sufferings of ailing detainees.

Lim Chin Siong was said to have been given overdose of a certain type of drug for his depression that it caused him to become suicidal. Soo Kai, on the other hand, had the treatment and medication for his severe sinus denied or delayed to the extent that it resulted in him being brain dead for a short while. Look carefully at Soo Kai; he came back almost from the dead! But at his age of 84 years now, he is still a young, strong and determined to fight for justice and against oppression the world over, especially in Singapore.

One of the ways he does this is through writing. He has demonstrated this by his book Living In a Time of Deception. By using factual records from the Colonial Office, Hansard of Singapore Parliament, newspaper cuttings and his own recollections and analyses of the time, Soo Kai has been able to write a comprehensive and challenging alternative history of Singapore.

943942_553763774800601_5235051905815672001_nHe has been able to uncover and expose the deceits and deception of Lee Kuan Yew to survive his years of authoritarian rule. I do not wish to enumerate all these here. They have been summarised well by Lysa in her introduction to the book. I suggest that you read fully the book first and then revert to the Introduction, and not go according to the sequence of the book. The introduction, I think, will help you, as it had helped me, to grasp the full meaning and significance of Soo Kai’s great work.

As I explained earlier, Soo Kai had contributed to and co-edited with Jing Qwee the Fajar Generation (2011) and The 1963 Operation Cold Store (2013). He also published a new edition Comet in Our Sky (2015). Besides these there are also other works such as Our Thoughts Are Free, Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile (2009), Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollection of a Political Prisoner (2010) and The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle School Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s (2011).

Soo Kai called these writings defiant history. They defied Kuan Yew’s regime under which most Singaporeans, especially ex-detainees, have been forced into silence for a long time. The people have now spoken. These works have given many of them new courage and strength. They have also provided another perspective, a more truthful perspective, to Singapore’s political history.

With the publication of Poh Soo Kai’s Living in a Time of Deception, the writing of defiant history in Singapore can be said to have reached its zenith. This book together with those mentioned above, have helped to open the window to understanding the true facts on the alternative people’s history of Singapore. The time of truth and inspiration has arrived, to replace the deceit and deception perpetrated by Sir Harry Lee Kuan Yew, the erstwhile dictator of Singapore.

Syed Husin Ali was one of the speaker at the launch of “Living in a Time of Deception” on 2 April 2016 at Gerak Budaya in Petaling Jaya. This is the transcript of his speech.

Syed Husin Ali obtained his BA and MA from the University of Malaya (Singapore) and his PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was a former professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur). He is currently the deputy president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). He is the author of numerous books including Malay Peasant Society And Leadership (1975), Two Faces: Detention Without Trial (1996), Ethnic Relations in Malaysia: Harmony and Conflict (2008) and The Malays: Their Problems and Future (2008)

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Why the British separate Singapore from Malaya and then engineered the merger of peninsular of Malaya and the island of Singapore


The following is an extract from Dr Poh Soo Kai’s speech delivered at the launch of “LIVING IN A TIME OF DECEPTION” on 2 April 2016. The event was held at Gerak Budaya in Petailing Jaya.

DSC_0138For my audience today in Malaysia, who are not so interested in Singapore history, I want to talk about the period when Singapore came into Malaysia and the subsequent separation.

The cardinal reason why the British engineered the merger of peninsula Malaya and island Singapore in 1963 was to safeguard the effective use of their military base in Singapore.

After the 2nd World War, the British government was short of cash and unable to maintain most of their military bases scattered around the world, yet it was determined to keep the Singapore military base under its direct control.

This was manifestly clear from the MacMichael Treaty, immediately post 2nd World War, which created the Malayan Union that excluded Singapore, leaving it in British hands. The opposition of the people in mainland Malaya and island Singapore towards this Malayan Union scheme, as embodied in the nationwide Hartal movement of 20 October 1947 for a unified and progressive Malaya, was completely ignored by the British.

Britain needed to keep the Singapore military base in this region because the spectacular rise of the anti-colonial movement in the Far East had brought Mao Tse Tung to power in China and Sukarno in Indonesia – the two most populous countries of the region. The threat, posed by China and Indonesia to Britain’s imperialist ambitions in the aftermath of World War II, was palpable. Hence, the British military base in Singapore was essential.

The British archive revealed that one of UK strategic aims in the Far East was to “maintain an independent contribution to the nuclear deterrent against China.” Therefore, by 1961, Britain had stationed planes, capable of carrying nuclear bombs aimed at China, in its Singapore military base. In the same vein, Britain adopted a very pro-active stance towards Indonesia to topple Sukarno.

The effectiveness of the Singapore base in advancing British interests was certainly demonstrated in the role it played in dispatching troops to squash the Brunei rebellion in December 1962.

However, with the resurgence of the left-wing in Singapore in 1961 as seen in the electoral victories in Hong Lim and Anson, Britain was not at all assured that its military base in Singapore would be effective in what the British referred to as “a sea of hostile local population.”

DSC_0149In 1961, Lee Kuan Yew’s government seemed unable to resist the popular left-wing forces calling for independence and control of internal security. As the Singapore military base was still necessary in Britain’s strategic evaluation of the region against China and Indonesia, it must now be protected under a different arrangement.

Britain, therefore, took the Malaysia merger proposal out of the cupboard, gave it a dusting and put it on fast track. Lord Selkirk, the British High Commissioner, made it exceedingly clear that the merger of Singapore into Malaysia was a non-negotiable term of the new political entity.

As far as the Tunku in Malaya was concerned, he was not keen to have what he saw as “a left-wing and Chinese majority” Singapore. The British had to entice him by including the Borneo territories of present day Sabah and Sarawak in the Malaysia package.

As for Lee Kuan Yew under threat from the recent left-wing electoral victories, his hope was that with merger, the Tunku would arrest his left-wing opponents in Singapore for him. But the Tunku would not take that odium for Lee. Finally, Operation Coldstore of 2 February 1963 was a tripartite undertaking of the British, Malaya and Singapore that crippled the open democratic left-wing movement of Singapore.

As we see from here, the three parties involved in setting up Malaysia had no vision of forming a nation; they came together for political reasons of their own.

Once inside Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew sought to replace Tan Siew Sin and the MCA as the Tunku’s Chinese partner in the Alliance coalition. Clearly Lee was not against the communal politics of Malaysia in ideology or principle. However, when he failed to persuade the Tunku to let go of Tan Siew Sin, he then decided that he would enter the Malaysian general election of 1964 to prove to the Tunku that he commanded more Chinese support than the MCA even though he had promised the Tunku that he would not take part in that election coming so close on the heel of merger. Lee broke his word. To Lee’s consternation, the PAP failed miserably in the 1964 general election, winning only one out of five seats contested. Lee was staring into a bleak and dim future in Malaysia!

At this juncture, it is timely to recall an earlier conversation Lee had with PBC Moore, then acting British High Commissioner in Singapore, in which he informed Moore that if he had no place in Malaysia, the odds for success of Malaysia would be nil.

Lord Selkirk, in his clairvoyance, had indicated that in such an eventuality, Lee Kuan Yew would resort to racial politics in Malaysia, and as intended and expected, UNMO would retaliate and communal sparks would fly. And thus was ignited the July 1964 rioting in Singapore.

DSC_0128It was in this unhappy state of affairs that in December 1964, the Tunku wrote to Lee, suggesting that they should discuss the possibility of constitutional rearrangement between the two territories that did not necessarily hive off Singapore. However had it not been for intervening events that were fast changing Britain’s continuing need for the base in Singapore, the Tunku would have been powerless to propose any constitutional re-arrangement with Lee.

The first intervening event was that by October 1964, the Chinese had exploded its first atomic bomb. As a consequence, the Singapore military base’s raison d’etre to contain China by nuclear deterrence was moot.

The second intervening event was the impending downfall of Sukarno. By December 1964, the British were rather confident that their machinations in Indonesia would be bearing fruit and that the end of Sukarno was round the corner. Even Sukarno himself had premonitions as he entitled his speech in January 1965 as “The year of living dangerously.” Sukarno did not last out 1965.

In view of these two factors, the usefulness of the British military base in Singapore was rapidly diminishing; and the British permitted the Tunku and Lee to explore a new arrangement between Malaya and Singapore in the period around the end of 1964 and beginning of 1965.

At this stage, the new arrangement still envisaged defence and foreign affairs to remain in the hands of the Tunku with only some form of autonomy accorded to Singapore. However by July 1965, when it became obvious that Sukarno’s fall was in the cards, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia – an option favoured by Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee – was raised in the talks between Razak and Goh.

To hasten the pace for separation, the PAP held the Malaysian Solidarity Convention in May 1965. It is to be noted that the left-wing parties in Malaya declined the invitation to participate in this so-called “Malaysian Solidarity.” Masquerading under a purportedly neutral and inclusive slogan “Malaysia for Malaysians,” the Convention took on an overtly anti-Malay line, resulting in communal tensions between Malays and Chinese. Thus, to prevent further communal violence, in August 1965, separation – as desired by Lee and Goh – became a reality. Yet Lee shed crocodile tears on television!

By happy co-incidence, as would innocently appear to British imperialist designs, Sukarno fell at the end of September 1965 in the incident known as G30S (which I will not go into here.) Suffice to say any remaining reason for UK to hold on to the Singapore military base became invalid.

Malaysia had come into being – not because there was any genuine desire to build a nation out of the territories of Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo territories. Its raison d’etre was solely to protect the British military base in Singapore. Once the usefulness of the base was gone, UK packed up and left.

Unfortunately in the process, the PAP played the communal card to the hilt – whipping up both Chinese and Malay chauvinism – with its Malaysian Solidarity Conference and Malaysian Malaysia slogan. The result has been communal tension, on both sides of the causeway. Friendly fraternal relations gave way to hostility. Malaya and Singapore are much farther apart today than in 1962.


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(This is the speech by Dr Hong Lysa, an editor of the book, Living in a Time of Deception at its launch on 13 February 2016)


I am extremely honoured to have been able to work with Dr Poh on his memoir. For this I have to thank Function 8, in particular my co-editor Wong Souk Yee. Souk Yee, through her enthusiasm, sincerity and empathy managed to persuade Dr Poh to work on his memoir with her. She then kindly allowed me to get involved when Dr Poh decided that he wanted to use documentary materials to support his analysis of the times and events through which he lived, that his book would be a history of postwar Singapore history with him as the guide.

He calls it his historical memoir.

It is also a historic memoir, a landmark publication. Among other things, this is the first time that an account of Singapore’ history in the 1950s and 1960s is pieced together outside of the logic of the Singapore Story.

We are indeed very fortunate to have Living in a Time of Deception. The chances of us having Dr Poh’s historical memoir are certainly very slim, if we think about it.

Dr Poh is in his 80s. How many people of that age are able to recollect events and experiences in his life sixty or seventy years ago the way Dr Poh has done. In fact for Dr Poh I believe that the passage of time has sharpened his analysis of the past, as he has really never stopped thinking about it.

The passage of time has also meant that he has been able to read Colonial Office documents that have only been recently made available, and which historian Thum Ping Tjin has very kindle made available to him. Some of these documents PJ obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, UK.

Finally we are simply so fortunate to have Dr Poh, who has maintained the stamina and dedication to produce his historical memoir and to continue to give heart to his comrades.

If I were asked what surprised me most as a historian, or what I found most unexpected in Dr Poh’s account of his life, it was how he knew that he wanted to examine the UK archives to find out about the decision behind Operation Coldstore even when he was still in prison. Dr Poh made his way to the National Archives, UK in 1994 when the documents relating to Operation Coldstore would be available with the expiry of the embargo after 30 years.

He is not alone in this. A number of his comrades who had the resources had also made their way to the UK Archives. Among them was the late Tan Jing Quee, who however did not live to write the history that was in his head. But Jing Quee fostered a relationship of mutual respect between academics and former political prisoners. Dr Poh’s book is an outgrowth of that. Dr Poh had said on a number of occasions in doing his book ‘if only Jing Quee was still around for me to discuss this with.’
4b38947d-f930-41eb-a50c-7a05527f5a4eIn the end, Dr Poh is the only person who has taken the final step to writing a book using the documentary materials he has read.

Of the sections in the book, the one which most clearly makes us understand the past differently, the best documented, is the 1950s, from the formation of the PAP in November 1954 to the 1959 general election. It was a period of the movement for independence which the UK was trying to manage and contain. Dr Poh’s analysis shatters our understanding of what this period was.

The mainstream narrative which has not been critiqued so far, is that Lim Yew Hock the chief minister was a stooge/running dog of the British government for arresting the anti-colonial leaders of the labour unions, and the Chinese middle school student leaders, including those in the PAP.

Thus we have been told that the PAP government which came into power in 1959 when it defeated the Lim Yew Hock government marks a fundamental change, from a leadership which was a colonial stooge to one which was anti-colonial.

Dr Poh’s historical memoir sees the two governments as continuity rather than a break or a change. As leader of the opposition, Lee Kuan Yew had encouraged and collaborated with Lim Yew Hock to take the actions which the British demanded before they would agree to further constitutional steps towards self-government for Singapore while he had his pro-forma (for show) speeches condemning the imprisonment of his party members among others, without trial.

Lim Yew Hock and the British knew well that Lim would not have a chance at the 1959 elections for he would have to bear to odium for making the mass arrests. Yet Lim went ahead to do this. This was because Lim was given the impression that he had an understanding with Lee Kuan Yew. The PAP and Lim’s party would enter into some form of an alliance, even a coalition in the 1959 election, so that voters would not have a choice between the PAP and Lim’s party, and Lim would be protected from being punished by the voters who would support the anti-colonial PAP.

Lee Kuan Yew did not keep his word given to Lim Yew Hock.

The copious use of documentary materials as evidence may make the book somewhat heavy-going for readers who are not familiar with the history of the period, and more used to the products of the memoir industry in Singapore. We wanted a book that is written more simply and clearly, without so much information and details, but this is a luxury that this book could not afford. To write without as much full documentation as he has done is a privilege in Singapore, where only those in positions of power can write without giving documentary sources. They write as if their accounts would never be challenged.

Dr Poh on the other hand can expect that his memoir would be subject to the most intense checking and scrutiny, to look for slip-ups, faulty arguments, cover-ups, unsubstantiated assertions posing as facts—as any book which hopes to be taken seriously should. It is hoped that such scrutiny should be done in order to further knowledge rather than to impede it.

So documents give the book its authoritative voice. This book is Dr Poh’s guide to Singapore history. It makes no pretense to be objective; history is not about objectivity, but it is about facts, facts do not speak for themselves; they are given meaning by the historian. This is what Dr Poh endeavours to do.

So he weaves the his story and those of his comrades, the story of the left wing of his generation through the history of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and beyond. Once Operation Coldstore comes in, he brings in what it means to be a political prisoner, not only those who lived through and triumphed over the physical and mental pressures they faced, but also those who were unable to withstand those pressures. He writes about the decisions that they made with understanding and compassion. One of his comrades, a former political prisoner who has read the book said that this is an account by a man of great kindness and understanding for humanity. I don’t think this is an exaggeration.

In his seventeen years in prison, not once did Dr Poh thought of signing a security statement to seek release. What made him so steadfast? He wanted to preserve his credibility, his integrity, the historical responsibility he had as the Assistant Secretary General of the Barisan Sosialis with Lim Chin Siong as the Secretary General. So that he could put on record how he was living in a time of deception. Given the circumstances that befell him, Dr Poh withstood 17 years of being in prison, in order to write this book.

Who did Dr Poh write for?

Firstly it is for his comrades, those present, and those who have passed on. He wanted to give them their place in history, help them understand what impacted their lives, and made it so different. As he said, no one of them escaped unscathed, and he included himself. This is Dr Poh’s gift of a legacy to those of his generation.

He has also given us a gift of historiography, to historians and students of history. By this is meant that he has opened new vistas, new ways of seeing the past, new possibilities for us to explore. He has challenged the claim that the history of Singapore cannot and should not be an open-ended study. History HAS to be an open-ended study. His is certainly not the final word; there is no such thing, there cannot be the final word to history.

Finally, Living in a Time of Deception is Dr Poh Soo Kai’s gift of history to the most important people today: the younger people of Singapore.

We await with hope what they have to say.

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Living in a time of deception
Dr Poh Soo Kai shatters the history of Singapore espoused by Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party. Nine years younger than Lee, Dr Poh exposes the tactics of Lee as a master politician—how he made use of his friends and foes to achieve his goals and how they were discarded or punished when they switched allegiance or were no longer useful to him. Dr Poh’s refusal to let Lee have his way cost him his family and an illustrious career in medicine. He spent a total of 17 years in prison without trial. Singapore today is the result of what Lee Kuan Yew did to his political opponents in the 1960s and 70s. The publication of this memoir more than 50 years after Operation Coldstore is late but exceedingly important to Singaporeans who wish to understand why they are deprived of basic human rights which are taken for granted by people in other first-world countries. I admire and respect Dr Poh for his determination and courage in recalling a painful past.

Teo Soh Lung

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