Monday, September 7, 2009

A mystery in Singapore's history

Sep 5, 2009

By Zakir Hussain & Lynn Kan

A NEW book on the People's Action Party (PAP) raises a question set to become one of the great mysteries in Singapore's political history.

For years, many publications reported that the PAP's top leaders took a vote in 1959 to decide who should be the Prime Minister.

Two names were proposed to the 12 central executive committee members: party secretary-general Lee Kuan Yew and treasurer Ong Eng Guan.

In the new book, Men In White, to be launched on Tuesday, three of the key players reveal conflicting accounts.

The way PAP founder member and party chairman Toh Chin Chye tells it, Mr Lee became PM by a single vote.

His account is backed up by party Old Guard leader Ong Pang Boon, who was then the party's organising secretary. They say the voting took place at the office of Mr Lee's then-law firm, Lee and Lee, in Malacca Street.

When the votes were split six-six between the two contenders, Dr Toh said, he cast the deciding vote and Mr Lee went on to be Prime Minister of Singapore for 31 years.

But Mr Lee, now Minister Mentor, disagrees. No such vote took place, he said.

'I don't remember any such thing,' he said, adding that he was puzzled by the account of the two Old Guard leaders.

'I cannot understand this, that Ong Pang Boon and Toh Chin Chye would say so. If one said so, I could dismiss it, but two said so...'

He said it was assumed that he would be the leader, as he had led the PAP to winning the 1959 election, had crafted the strategy, made the major campaign speeches and delivered the last major broadcast.

At the time, he added, the prime minister's post was 'a job nobody wanted'.

'Anybody who took the job knew that he was going to meet the communists and have a lot of trouble,' Mr Lee said.

'So it was not a job that I sought. If I thought Ong Eng Guan could do the job, I would have happily given it to him.'

The PAP leaders' recollections of that time are among excerpts published for the first time in The Straits Times today.

The book, by senior journalists Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng Kam, goes on sale after the launch next week.

Asked his view of Dr Toh and Mr Ong's version of how Mr Lee became PM, historian Kwa Chong Guan said that Singapore would have turned out very differently if the vote had gone the other way.

Mr Ong Eng Guan was backed by the Chinese-educated and Chinese-speaking group in the PAP, as opposed to the English-educated Goh Keng Swee-Lee Kuan Yew faction.

Mr Ong's group, he added, was controlled by the Malayan Communist Party underground and looked to communist China 'as inspiration and a possible model for Singapore'.

'If he had attempted to emulate that Chinese model, how far could we have gone, given that we were a British colony, and we were in the middle of two Malay neighbours...these were the geopolitical realities.

[An alternate Singapore.]

'In hindsight, we can see that it would have been a disaster,' added Mr Kwa, a historian with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who also co-authored Singapore: A 700-Year History.

He also said there might well have been a constitutional crisis.

It was at the height of the Cold War and it was doubtful, he added, that the British colonial government, which had yet to hand over power, would have accepted a communist-influenced PAP government led by Mr Ong Eng Guan.

Another historian, Dr Melanie Chew, said Mr Lee was able to draw together a strong team, which included a top economist like Dr Goh Keng Swee, Dr Toh and lawyer Eddie Barker, among others.

It would have been difficult for Mr Ong to have matched that, she felt.

'Under MM Lee and his PAP government we had extraordinary progress. He fixed many problems,' she said. 'Whether Ong Eng Guan could have led a team that fixed problems, we can only guess.'

Another new disclosure in the book is that former PAP assemblyman Lim Chin Siong secretly met an underground communist leader.

The late Mr Lim, who was detained for left-wing activities in the 1960s, held three meetings with Mr Fang Chuang Pi, known as the Plen as he was a communist plenipotentiary.

Mr Lee made the disclosure in his foreword to the book, to show that even though Mr Lim denied he was a communist, he did make contact with the communist underground.

Mr Lee also said he had asked the Internal Security Department (ISD), which detained Mr Lim, if it was all right to make the disclosure.

The ISD agreed to it.

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