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.



About fn8org

For computers, it means to start again in safe mode. For us, we hope we can also start again in safe mode. But it's more like re-booting our systems and starting from much needed basics for democracy in Singapore.
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