On Singaporean Revisionists: A Critique

So was Lim Chin Siong a communist?

Actually, I don’t think it really matters.

In the early hours of 2 February 1963, just a few months before Singapore’s merger with the Federation of Malaya, to form Malaysia, over a hundred trade union leaders, Nanyang University leaders, rural association leaders were arrested under the orders of the Internal Security Council. This action by the British Special Branch was codenamed Operation Coldstore. They were detained on allegations of a suspected communist plot to overthrow the government, and fomenting public disorder. The most prominent arrest of Operation Coldstore was a man named Lim Chin Siong. At this point in time, he was more or less the biggest thorn in Lee Kuan Yew’s side, being the leader of the PAP’s most formidable opponent, the Barisan Sosialis. The Barisan core had been made of left-wing PAP assemblymen who had defected from the PAP earlier. Your image of the ever-virile PAP is an illusion. Late in 1961, as the Barisan coalesced, the PAP looked so much like a sinking ship that (largely Chinese) supporters were walking out in huge droves. You can imagine how freaked out Lee Kuan Yew must have been. It’s like you set up this group of friends, and you’re the declared leader, but then one of your friends says, don’t want, i want to make my OWN group; come come who want to friend me instead…so what do you do?

In the past decade, a few historians have, in a fit of heroism, emerged to challenge mainstream narratives which allege that Lim Chin Siong was a communist. They say that Operation Coldstore did not foil a communist plot; on the contrary Coldstore itself was a plot by the PAP government to destroy the political opposition. Well, it’s true that the opposition mounted by Lim was destroyed. After Lim Chin Siong was arrested and detained  without trial until 1968, the Barisan Sosialis ceased effectively to be much of a credible political threat to the PAP.

According to these historians, which the current government has branded as “revisionists”, Lee Kuan Yew used Coldstore as an excuse to get rid of his political threats. A lot of detainees have spoken up in recent years too, and the movement has gained some momentum. There’s even been a book published, called Comet in our Sky, to show that Lim Chin Siong was not a communist. Lim Chin Siong contributed to the political development of Singapore. Sonny Liew even developed a whole graphic novel on it, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. They claim that if not for Lee, Lim would have been the first PM of Singapore.

According to the so-called Revisionists, Lee was a calculative, Machiavellian machine; in contrast, Lim was a tragic hero, a brilliant Malayan nationalist destroyed by the heartless, two-faced insecurity of Lee.  Comet shows you how human Lim Chin Siong was. He ate durians. He wore a Western-style cravat once, showing he wasn’t really a Chinese chauvinist. He even had Malay friends who wrote testimonials for him. How can Chinese chauvinists have Malay friends? The book even publishes a lengthy response from Lim himself, published in The Straits Times, asserting that he was not a Communist. That should settle it then – the man himself said he wasn’t a Communist!

So who’s correct? Was Lim a communist or not?

Frankly, in the grand scheme of things, in how Singapore subsequently developed, it doesn’t matter. Why? Because for all intents and purposes, Lim had been negated as a political force after he was arrested in 1963. He had little subsequent influence thereafter.

This is not to deny the privations he suffered. This is not to deny the fear and terror he must have felt when at 4am or 5am in the morning, the police come knocking at his door to take him away, groggy and unprepared, for the next five years. Away from friends and family, on charges that cannot be proven. I wonder how his parents must have felt.

This is not an essay to deny everything that a political and a security detainee must have endured, squirreled away indefinitely. There can be no doubt that Lim Chin Siong must have suffered a lot.

This is an essay critiquing shaky reasoning and the so-called ‘Revisionists’. I intend for this essay to be accessible to people who are not in the field of history as well. So the facts, figures and statistics will be brief, but they exist for anyone who is curious and skeptical (as we all rightly should be). This is an opinion piece – not written by a government drone- but by a critical reader considering the evidence cited on both sides. I have an inherent distaste for people who yell BOOOO TO THE PAP without seriously considering the evidence and the argumentation presented. So let me give you some things to munch over, as I myself have munched over, in the past week. This is a critique of the “revisionists”.

1.Critique of Source: Hagiography is not history

(A hagiography is a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence – Google).  I find Comet in our Sky a good book to read. But this does not automatically make it good history, just because it talks about past events. What is good history? Like good art, there are as many definitions as there are definers. Probably less, because history tries its best to deal with facts, and things that happened. But for me, the bare minimum is credible, contextualised evidence about things that you said happened. Balanced accounts.

What is Comet? Comet is a whole compilation of essays and testimonials written by Lim Chin Siong’s compatriots and fellow detainees. So if we can’t believe the alleged communist, let’s go ask his other alleged communist and detainee friends to show he wasn’t a communist.

There is an exhaustively researched essay by T.N. Harper in there, showing how the Special Branch only had “circumstantial evidence” at one point to prove that Lim was a communist. Although the Governor’s deputy, along with Special Branch officers, had enough “evidence” to be convinced quite thoroughly that Lim was a communist. They had enough proof to write this up into reports, that Lim “is a communist”. Several times.

Aside from Greg Poulgrain’s essay on Lim in the context of British decolonisation in Southeast Asia, however, Harper is perhaps the only credible scholarly work in Comet. The rest of the book is devoted to tributes and eulogies to the man. If you did something epic in your life, and your friends came together later to put together a collection of works on you, this is not a piece of historiography – contextualising your role and place in history, weighing and assessing you and your contributions. This is a historical source, showing what people thought of you.

Ironically Hong Lysa, who wrote the foreword to this book, once said that “Singapore’s history cannot be simply reduced to an account of his [Lee Kuan Yew’s] political career or a study of his pronouncements”. So we understand that One Man’s View of the World cannot be taken as history. And yet a few people’s views of One Man here try very hard to show one man’s heroic contributions to Singaporean history. In understanding the past, the more accounts, the merrier. You get more data points to plot the arc of time. More narratives give us a more nuanced view of what has gone before us. But let us not equate every narrative propagated as equally good.

Comet is an emotional ode to a great man. But this book is not as “bold, courageous and farsighted” a piece of history writing as it keeps insisting it is – both on its blurb and in its pages. Any person or book which has to keep insisting shrilly how good itself is, quickly raises a red flag in my mind. There are far too many outbursts and emotionally charged paragraphs in this book to make this anywhere near a balanced, even-handed story of what happened.

Sure, Lim ate durians with Said Zahari (p.136). He was “boyishly young, handsome, gentle, humble and ever smiling, so sweetly” (p.146) to S. Husin Ali (gosh, look how they cluster all his Malay friends together. Racial harmony! CMIO categorisations! Proof!). He wore Poh Soo Kai’s cravats once. So he was not a monster. He was a human being; a charismatic, winsome one at that. This much is established. But Comet is far from a fair or balanced piece of historical writing. A series of emotional testimonials, and one in which Lim himself protests that he is not a Communist, is unsatisfying evidence. Yes, Harper shows pretty thoroughly that LKY was going all out to get Lim arrested. This by no means acquits Lim Chin Siong. It simply shows that Lee had ambitions, and took steps to fulfil these ambitions. One of which included finding justifications to remove Lim.

2. Critique of Assumptions: Lee/Lim Binary is crudely simplistic

There are works, like Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which try to imagine a “path not taken”. While i really loved the ambition of Liew’s work, and the arresting, thoughtfully conceptualized scenes, this vision is problematic. It simply takes out one character in the narrative, and plops in another one, without realizing the complex, soupy web that was/is the geopolitical scene, the human and political networks each one is tied to.

The “revisionists” try to argue that history is far more complex than the PAP’s Singapore Story. A few sentences, paragraphs or books later – (without trying to understand the tension-filled historical context of 1963, with Singapore on the eve of merger with a right-wing, conservative Malaya) -the revisionists subsequently yell LIM CHIN SIONG COULD HAVE BEEN PRIME MINISTER IF NOT FOR THIS SCHEMING LEE (and probably: BOO TO THE PAP!! BOOOOO).

I think a more plausible scenario, if Coldstore had not been enacted, if LKY had ultimately been kicked out and his PAP trashed, and Barisan risen to power, is that the Tunku would have had Lim arrested. And that would have been the end of that. Why? Because aside from LKY, aside from the British, Malayan leaders were also freaked out by communists. Guess who else thought Lim Chin Siong was a communist. Yes. The conservative Malay leadership across the Causeway. They already saw Lee Kuan Yew’s relatively moderate PAP as being far too extreme. Imagine what they would have thought of Lim Chin Siong, the leader who had been arrested in 1956 on charges of inciting violence. The leader who was well-known to be wildly popular with the Chinese-speaking crowds of Singapore. The leader who was once part of the Anti-British League, which had Communist associations.

Sure. Imagine all you want, about the paths not taken. But we all know how complex reality is. The girl you once thought would be your wife five years ago broke up with you after two months. You once thought you’d be a policewoman, but you’ve decided, as times changed and contexts evolved, that you wanted to be an explorer. The Lim/Lee dichotomy is outrageously simplistic. The idea that Lim would so simply have created a “more humane” Singapore premised on ‘human rights and civil liberties’ is a romantic projection, a critique of our current society more than a clear-eyed assessment of the past. It is far from a sophisticated extrapolation based on the uneasy, uncertain context of the 1960s. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Critique of Historicisation: Failure to Contextualise  

The biggest sin for a historian, or anyone else looking back on the past, is to assume that things as they are now are exactly as they once were. This is a fundamental failure in empathy. A failure to stand in someone’s shoes and look and feel as they did. Atticus Finch points this out to the young Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. I think more historicisation (contextualisation) needs to be done by those who accuse LKY of being a power-hungry maniac bent solely on destroying all his opponents.

You really think this intelligent guy staked the future of his whole country on his power-hunger? You really think he wept crocodile tears on TV? Okay, sure. But let’s not forget how uncertain and chaotic this period was. (Of course, you will tell me this is a construct of the PAP. Just like the Chinese Middle School Riot, which killed 13 people in 1956. Just like the Malayan Emergency, huh?).

The “revisionist” historian PJ Thum has asserted that Lim Chin Siong was wrongfully detained. He quotes one section of a speech made by Lim in 1956, in which Lim says not to beat the police, and then says, aha therefore Lim was actually and automatically non-violent.

If you actually read the whole speech (speech is in the link), you’ll realise how charged the crowd was when Lim was giving his speech. Observers at the speech recorded rapturous applause to Lim, building and building in crescendo as the speech progressed. Lim calls on the crowd then to “take certain action to retaliate against oppressive action”. As Kumar Ramakrishna  points out, even Lim later admits the role of his speech in causing the riots of 1956.

You cannot and shouldn’t look just at part of the speech. That’s like saying your mum said you cannot eat sweets and just hearing the “eat sweets” part. You look at the context of the time too. How emotionally charged the crowd was. How frightened and uncertain the government must have been. You try your best to sense the mood of what is happening. Piecing everything together, rather than reading a speech alone (or emotional testimonials, for that matter), Lim emerges as someone who had incredible potential to cause trouble.

You have a government. You have an opposition with mass support. You have a leader of the opposition who can and has roused crowds to violence before. This very dangerous opposition is opposed to merger, which is going to happen in a matter of months. You have a very dangerous opposition leader who has had past links to the communists. And your understanding of communists since even before 1942 is that they stir shit and are willing to commit violence to achieve political ends. Now, tell me, if you are the PAP who likes to play it safe, what are some of your options?

Whether or not Lim Chin Siong was a communist is irrelevant. Let’s get this straight: Lim was not arrested simply because he was a communist. If you go and read LKY’s memoirs, they already knew that by 1963. Or thought they did, if you’re a “revisionist”. The difference this time was that there was a chance he was going to start using violence. Stirring up public disorder. On the eve of Singapore’s independence-through-merger with Malaya in 1963.

What steps are you going to take to make sure this goes as smoothly as possible? Let this dangerous leader and his fiery rhetoric run wild, in the name of free speech and democratic rights, because you are such a committed humanist? It’s easy to look back now, in the comfort of your HDB flat and on your Macbook, in your air-conditioned, wifi-drenched room, to point the finger at LKY and accuse him of being a ruthless monster. But political intents are not mutually exclusive from security considerations. The distinction is an artificial, arbitrary one. Sure, it served Lee’s political needs. It also made Singapore appear safer ahead of merger with a giant, Malayan neighbour which was just as flighty and frightened of Singapore’s ‘left-wing Communist’ leaders.

Whether Lim was a communist is largely irrelevant, if you are looking at his significance to the Singapore Story. What happened was that he was arrested, sidelined, and could never return to the political arena again. This is what is significant.

Think about it. Even if the “revisionists” did prove beyond a shred of doubt that Lim was not communist – how does your social studies textbook change? A line is removed? Heck, i don’t even think they say Lim is a communist in the textbooks anymore. In the overarching Singapore Story, whether Lim was or was not a communist is an emotional, personal issue than a historiographical one. Does Lee Kuan Yew being an agnostic change anything, given what he has wrought, given how events have unfolded? If not, does Lim not/being a communist actually “revise” anything?


Maybe you’ve noticed the quotation marks I’ve been using the whole piece when i refer to these contrarian historians. This is because I don’t actually think they are revisionists, as much as the Singaporean government would like to anoint them with that title. Despite their self-congratulatory heroics and histrionics, the “revisionists”, at least in the instance of Coldstore, do not fundamentally rework much of what we already understand about this period.

There are many questions to ask about this period. So far the debate has been disappointingly lacking in imagination, choosing to centre itself on “democratic rights”, electing to paint the PAP as a power-hungry hegemon. The state has used school education to entrench its vision of Singapore onto Singaporeans.  Racism still exists in Singapore (where on this planet is racism extinct? On some picture of some African tribe you saw on your Facebook newsfeed?), and so I need to write weepy poems about my discrimination, although there are few places anywhere else in the world where minorities are treated so evenly. Everything is a “covert exercise in state power”. Blah, blah , blah. Yes, okay, we get you, we sort of grew up with that listening to disgruntled uncles nursing Guinness stouts. BOOOOO TO THE PAP. Yes, yes, yes.

But come on. I think it’s time to cast the net more widely. There are so many assumptions about government actions that remain to be challenged, and actually revised. Why are we following such a pathetically American civil rights discourse? Are we still stuck in the 1960s? There remain so many directions and chinks to challenge the dominant metanarrative.

For example. Merger happened for supposedly economic reasons as well. Has anyone actually examined the statistics and figures independently? One thing I want to know is how the complexion of Singapore’s economy would have/not changed if we had stayed in Malaysia. We were already beginning to industrialise even before merger. We sort of continued on the same course after we were ejaculated out of Malaysia in 1965(Oh, and what potent seed we turned out to be). So was the economic argument actually valid? I don’t know – but i think that would make a more robust argument than HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN RIGHTS. Give me a break can, I’ve heard enough from Chee Soon Juan borrowing from ‘murica already (“WE WILL NEVER HAVE OUR FREEDOM AND LIBERTY ON OUR KNEES”. Something like that).

You know what was cool? You know what’s a good revisionist work? A whole rich social history of rickshaw coolies in colonial Singapore. Or the Japanese prostitutes who came all the way from their frigid, poor kampongs to come and work here. Or the explosively exuberant Malay literature that was being churned out; the soul of the Malay World was here, for a while. Stories of creativity, hardship, grief, betrayal , heartbreak that give us a better sense of what the lives of our forefathers were like. That revised how we conceived of the monochromatic past. That fundamentally changed how we imagined this fishing village. A revisionist history isn’t always political. But the few stabs at political revisionism here have been rather questionable, outside of simply giving more shade and nuance to one-dimensional names in textbooks.

So in the final analysis, I don’t think our current crop of “revisionists” have actually changed anything very dramatically. Sure, one man’s image was rehabilitated. What about our view of Singaporean society in 1960s? What was happening to the Singapore River at this time? Were there still tigers in Singapore? What were the living conditions of your average Chinese family (because Chinese majority in Singapore la, not i lacist okay) like, that had led them to rise up so spectacularly in support of Lim Chin Siong? Were they poor, how poor? Where was the Indian community in all this?

What have the ‘revisionists’ actually revised, when they remain trapped and fighting in the very paradigms and frames established by the dominant state narratives?

“To oppose something is to maintain it… To be sure, if you turn your back on [something] and walk away from it, you are still on the [same] road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.”            Ursula K. Le Guin

Picture taken from: http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/pap.jpg

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