I 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.
With 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.
But 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.
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.
He 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)