(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.’
In 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.