Operation Coldstore: my first ever piece

Image: “Barisan’s Lost Candidates” published in 阵线报, the defunct official Chinese language paper of the Barisan Sosialis.

Thursday was the 60th anniversary of Operation Coldstore, in which Lee Kuan Yew’s government arrested and jailed over 120 people in Singapore. Yesterday Fiachra Ross and I co-wrote an essay for Jom. Be

The world still lives with the scars of the 20th century’s Communist conflicts. On the one side, totalitarian dictatorships, led by the likes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, killed their own people, through purges of landowners and other enemies, agrarian and industrial dystopias, and various forms of wilful neglect. They inspired and supported insurgencies around the world, as a romantic theology of liberation and equality mesmerised millions living for centuries under the thumbs of aristocrats and colonialists. In its seductiveness lay its capacity for violence. (More enlightened expressions of Communism, such as in the state of Kerala, India, would forever be overshadowed by the ideology’s excesses.)

On the other side, driven by an intense paranoia about a red wave crashing across their lands, numerous centre- and right-wing governments, from Argentina to Taiwan, arrested, detained, tortured, “disappeared” and massacred suspected communists. Many anti-Communist regimes were covertly supported by the US, itself in the throes of a post-war, global capitalist dogma. They displayed a wanton disregard for facts, for the reality of any individual’s convictions. Socialists and other peaceful thinkers were caught up in this dragnet, transformed by association, alongside genuine threats, into enemies of the state. In the decolonising world, many who were merely anti-colonial were branded “communist”.

The sheer arbitrariness of it all is evident from documentaries like “The Act of Killing” (2012), which exposed, in semi-fictional farce, the bloodthirsty rampage unleashed by Suharto’s junta, with tacit support from the CIA, as it slaughtered some half a million Indonesians; and “Nostalgia for the Light” (2010), which blends astronomy and archaeology into an exploration of memory, family and loss, several decades after Pinochet, another US-backed general, sent Chilean leftists to gulags in the Atacama. From the humid, sea-level tropics to dry, high-altitude deserts, the world still lives with the scars.

But not Singapore. Our exceptional country was spared the atrocities of this global, anti-Communist purge. While politicians everywhere succumbed to the “Red Scare”, our unimpeachable Mister Lee Kuan Yew did not. In his infinite wisdom, Lee cracked down only on actual Communists and their supporters who posed a violent security threat to Singapore.

This is the story that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) would like us to believe. Every year there are more reasons to doubt it.

We know that from 1959 to 1990, Lee’s government arrested and jailed without trial over a thousand people in Singapore. Chia Thye Poh, arrested in 1966 and fully released only in 1998, is considered one of the world’s longest-ever prisoners of conscience. Singapore neither gave detainees their day in court, nor has it ever shared any concrete evidence to substantiate these claims.

Conversely, over the past decade Dr Poh Soo Kai, founding member of the PAP, whom Lee jailed in 1963’s Operation Coldstore, and a number of Singaporean researchers and historians such as Hong Lysa and PJ Thum, have unearthed newly-declassified documents in the UK that cast even more doubt on Lee’s actions and motives.

Yesterday, on the 60th anniversary of Coldstore (Feb 2nd 1963), the 91-year-old Poh, sprightly as ever from his current home in Seremban, Malaysia, issued a statement of demands on behalf of many imprisoned without trial under the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA): calling for the abolition of the ISA, and asking for an apology and compensation from the PAP government. This comes in the wake of Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s current president, expressing “strong regret” for the “gross human rights violations” that have occurred in that country.

It’s important that we give Poh, a key player in Singapore’s journey to independence, a fair hearing. Because even if Lee did act in Singapore’s best interests, and even if he was responding to a genuine fear of being overthrown by a violent insurgency, it’s entirely possible that he overreacted, causing different arms of the state to inflict torture and other grave injustices on our fellow Singaporeans.

If true, then 1963’s Coldstore was Lee’s “original sin” (as Hong puts it), the one that emboldened him, that convinced him that the path to hegemony required extra-judicial manoeuvres—ones he could get away with.

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