Fong Swee Suan was one of 113 people picked up under Operation Cold Store on Feb 2, 1963. The big sweep was planned to stop communists and suspected communists from undermining the proposed union between Malaya and Singapore, but the opposition saw it as a sinister move to destroy the left.
The knock on the door of a terrace house on Carlisle Road off Farrer Park came in the early hours of the morning.
As Fong Swee Suan rubbed the sleep off his eyes, he was astonished to see Chew Tong Li, his former neighbour and friend from his hometown in Johor, in a policeman's uniform toting a long gun. Memories of their basketball-playing days in Senggarang flashed through his mind.
But this was no courtesy visit. Chew was part of a team who had come to arrest the Barisan leader and radical trade unionist in an islandwide sweep dubbed Operation Cold Store on 2 February 1963.
Fong recalled: 'He stood there for a few minutes looking stunned. I told him: 'It's okay. You do your duty.' Then he said: 'Wah, it's you. How could it be you?''
Fong was driven in a car with several detainees from his home in Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. It was only when they stopped for lunch did he learn about the scale of the operation. After spending a night in the capital, he was taken to a forested area and kept in solitary confinement for six months.
Then he was packed off to another camp where he found himself in the same cell with fellow PAP founder-convenor and rural association head Chan Chiaw Thor. Fong and Chan were among the eight detainees released on 4 June 1959 as a condition for PAP's assumption of power after winning the elections.
As Fong recollected: 'It was a cement cell. Even the bed was made of cement. Except for a few books, nothing was supplied to us as they wanted to make sure we would not use a blanket or whatever to commit suicide.
'I was interrogated day and night for six months. I was asked about all my activities. They tried to find out if I had a communist connection. At night, they put an alarm clock outside my cell which rang every 15 minutes. I couldn't sleep.'
Other than Fong, the big names caught in the dragnet were Barisan CEC members Lim Chin Siong, Lim Hock Siew and Poh Soo Kai, and unionists S. Woodhull, James Puthucheary, Jamit Singh and Lim Shee Ping. In all, 113 people were rounded up, including 24 Barisan members, 21 trade union leaders, 17 Nanyang University (Nantah) students and graduates, seven members of rural associations, and five journalists.
However, all 13 Barisan legislative assemblymen and party chairman Lee Siew Choh were spared.
Planned by the Internal Security Council (ISC), the round-up was named Cold Store because it was meant to put communists and suspected communists 'away for a little while', explained a former Special Branch officer involved in the operation.
The PAP government told the public that ISC acted against the detainees for seeking to sabotage Malaysia and supporting the armed insurrection which broke out in Brunei on 8 December 1962. Led by Brunei Partai Rakyat leader A. M. Azahari, the revolt was aimed at foiling the entry of the Borneo territories into Malaysia, but it was crushed by British troops flown in from Singapore.
Barisan secretary-general Lim Chin Siong was accused of meeting Azahari in Singapore on the eve of the rebellion and conspiring to stage a simultaneous uprising in Singapore. Fong Swee Suan, however, strongly denied all these charges, saying that what Azahari and Barisan had in common was just the aim of getting rid of colonialism.
The big sweep took place against the backdrop of Confrontation or Konfrontasi launched by President Sukarno of Indonesia on 20 January 1963 to abort the proposed Malaysia union. The unofficial war, which combined military action, political subversion and infiltration of agents, was instigated by Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), or the Indonesian Communist Party, which was allied to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).
Toh Chin Chye maintained that Operation Cold Store was meant to pre-empt the communist united front from mounting any violence or creating any disorder in the closing stages of the establishment of Malaysia. 'Malaya could not allow Singapore to become the Cuba of Malaysia, a safe base from which MCP could launch a political offensive against Malaysia.'
The 'clean-up' was necessary, argued S. Rajaratnam, because of Indonesia's hostility and plans by communist parties in Malaya and the Borneo territories to disrupt Malaysia.
C. V. Devan Nair remembered discussing with Lee the need for such an operation in view of growing public opinion against Confrontation and public disillusionment with Barisan for backing Sukarno. 'As PM once said, you can't afford to be sentimental when you are fighting for the life of a community. The outcome was crucial not only for ourselves but also for the ideals we were working for... We had to grow what is known as calluses.'
According to declassified British diplomatic correspondence, ISC gave the green light for the operation on 16 December 1962, but it was canned after the Malayan and Singapore governments disagreed over the list of detainees. It was revived as Operation Cold Store on 2 February 1963. Fong Swee Suan was in the list of 169 names. So were many of Lee's former comrades. Lim Chin Siong was offered safe passage out of Singapore but preferred to go into captivity.
The crackdown was greeted by cries of foul play by the opposition. Its leaders charged that it was all part of a conspiracy by the British, Malayan and Singapore authorities to demolish the left and destroy organised opposition in the proposed Malaysia. 'The Brunei armed revolt provided a good excuse to put us in,' contended Fong.