Alt history: A political prisoner’s view of Singapore’s early years


  • Books
  • Friday, 15 Jul 2016

In his book, Poh Soo Kai challenges the mainstream version of the actions taken by Singapore’s People’s Action Party in the early years. Photo: Straits Times

More than 50 years after Singapore arrested 113 Barisan Sosialis party leaders and labour unionists in Operation Coldstore, another of the former political prisoners has published his historical memoir.

Launched in both Singapore and Malaysia earlier this year, Dr Poh Soo Kai’s Living In A Time Of Deception has sold out. The English version, printed in Singapore, is now in its third run while the Chinese version, printed in Malaysia, is in its second run.

“I did expect good sales, but not this good,” says the 84-year-old, who spent a total of 17 years in prison. Four books by or about his fellow detainees had already been published in the first decade of this millennium.

“The momentum had been built up,” he explains in a recent interview. “I put the jigsaw puzzle together and made the connections.”

When the records of the British archives were partially declassified in 1994, for the period up to 1963, Poh headed to London’s Public Record Office to find “the facts to back up the stand that my friends and I took, that we were arrested under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, and later the Internal Security Act, for political reasons and not on any account of security or subversion,” he writes in the preface to his memoir.

Poh was one of the founders of the University Socialist Club in 1953 (at the University of Malaya) and, as a member of the editorial board of its publication Fajar, was charged with sedition in 1954.

All of the eight who were charged were later acquitted. He and fellow socialists Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew published The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club And The Politics Of Postwar Malaya And Singapore in 2009.

The thrust of that book, however, “was against British imperialism and not directly at the PAP”, he writes.

But with encouragement from friends and additional material from Britain, Poh was inspired to write more about the “tumultuous events of the 1950s and 1960s” in which he was involved.

str2_smodeception_ma_2_MUSTUSEBUTUSESMALLWith historian Hong Lysa and academic Wong Souk Yee, he spent about five years on research for his memoir.

“We knew if we, who were non-mainstream, wrote, we would have to back up every fact or we would be hit hard, so we did,” he says.

And, he notes, there have been no contradictions since the book was published.

The retired medical doctor challenges the republic’s late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s version of the People’s Action Party’s early years.

For example, he writes about the anti-subversion Clause 30 in the draft Constitution during the second round of Constitutional talks in London in 1957. The clause prevented detainees – which included Bukit Timah member of Parliament and PAP assistant secretary-general Lim Chin Siong – from standing in the 1959 general election for self-government.

“Lee said he had opposed Clause 30 – when it actually came from him,” says Poh.

Documents from London’s Public Record Office “showed that Lee advised the British to see Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock and him separately, and that he was the one who asked Yew Hock to propose Clause 30 to the British”.

The Colonial Office’s initial reaction “was that there was no way that the secretary of state could ‘pull this chestnut out of the fire for them’,” writes Poh. “Detainees who were convicted of crime could not be prevented from standing in elections by any fiat of the secretary of state’s but only by the electoral laws of Singapore.”

Finally the British agreed, notes Poh. When the report about the second Constitutional talks was brought to the Legislative Assembly in Singapore, Lee said he would have Clause 30 removed before the new Constitution came into force. And in the Tanjung Pagar by-election that year (1957) he said he would remove the clause if he won, recalls Poh. “But he didn’t.”

When he was released from his second stint in prison in 1982, and after his father’s death, Poh moved to Canada as a permanent resident. “I never gave up my Singapore citizenship,” he stresses.

“I always wanted to come back. Singapore is my country and what I was fighting for, partly to set the record straight.”

He moved back to Singapore after 16 years and then to Malaysia through the Malaysia My Second Home programme in 2010; here, he helped to set up Pusat Sejarah Rakyat (People’s History Centre; pusatsejarahrakyat.org) “to provide an alternative history”.

Poh at a well-attended book signing event earlier in the year in Singapore. Note the number of young people
Poh at a well-attended book signing event earlier in the year in Singapore. Note the number of young people

Asked whether the socialist movement was too aggressive in the events that they planned, causing Lee Kuan Yew to take drastic action, Poh argues that they were too passive.

“We should have protested when the Lim Yew Hock Government arrested Chinese middle school students in 1957,” he points out. “And when left-wing PAP leaders Lim Chin Siong, James Puthucheary and S.S. Woodhull came out from prison in 1959, Lee promised he would release all the political detainees but he didn’t.

“We should have protested openly with rallies and a signature campaign, but we did nothing.”

In his memoir, Poh writes that one lesson learned was that anti-colonialists should have worked with as many parties and groups on as much common ground and as wide a range of issues as possible.

“The left wing was a weak, nascent organisation,” he says. “To get stronger, it needed to form a united front on a common minimum programme. If any of the parties in the front had betrayed that common minimum programme, then we should have fought that party, explained to the people and not kept quiet.”

But the left limited themselves to the PAP instead, he says, and, “That was a mistake”.

Today, two of the PAP members of Parliament are sons of former Barisan Sosialis leaders. Asked for his thoughts on this, Poh replies, “In Singapore today, the way to improve one’s economic and social position is to be an active member of the PAP.”


Poh Soo Kai will discuss Living In A Time Of Deception at the Nusantara Forum, presented by the Penang Institute and Gerakbudaya Bookshop, in George Town on July 20 at 7.30pm at The Star Pitt Street (1st Floor, No.15, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling). The talk is free but registration is advisable; e-mail enquiry@penanginstitute.org or info@gerakbudayapenang.com by Tuesday. For inquiries, call 04-228 3306 / 04-261 0282.

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