Monday, September 7, 2009

On the brink of collapse

Sep 6, 2009

After losing two by-elections in Hong Lim and Anson in 1961, a weakened PAP was challenged by its dissident legislative assemblymen who opposed the proposed merger with Malaya. The Lee government teetered on the brink of collapse as its 43-8 majority in June 1959 was whittled down to 26-25 by July 1961.

Lee Kuan Yew decided that it was time to draw a line in the sand. What better way to do it than to move a motion of confidence in the legislative assembly - every PAP member would be compelled to stand up and be counted.

He knew that at least eight dissidents had turned against him during the Anson campaign.

It was a dangerous gamble to take in the 51-seat chamber. If 26 assemblymen voted against the motion, his government would fall leading to the possible formation of a leftist government or precipitating a general election in which the PAP was more than likely to lose in the wake of the double by-election fiascos.

As Low Por Tuck recalled, the prime minister convened a City Hall meeting and called on all PAP assemblymen to support merger and sign a form pledging full confidence in him. Low expressed reservations saying that 'it was like signing a blank cheque to support merger' and requested a postponement for the signing. The next day, he received a notice for the motion of confidence sitting.

Ong Chang Sam said that some assemblymen appealed to Lee to change his policies in the light of the by-election failures and loss of popular support for the party. They expressed concerns that the merger could be used against the leftists but Lee turned them down and so they did not sign the forms.

Meanwhile, the leftists were zealously soliciting support too. After being rebuffed by the CEC in their bid to stage a conference of all 51 party branches to challenge Lee, they held a flurry of meetings to cajole and coax their uncommitted colleagues to line up with them.

Buang Omar Junid, the then-member for Kallang, was roped into a City Hall meeting held by Lee Siew Choh and attended by a dozen assemblymen. He listened to Wong Soon Fong, Lin You Eng, Ong Chang Sam and Chan Sun Wing declaring that they no longer believed in Lee's leadership and urging the group to unite and leave the PAP.

'Everyone was asked in turn and each indicated his support...When I was asked to speak, I said I wanted to find out if what was said was right or not,' recounted Buang. Later he told Lee Siew Choh he would not join them as he had full confidence in the prime minister.

Lee Khoon Choy referred to another City Hall meeting held by Chan Sun Wing among the parliamentary secretaries. They talked about taking over the Cabinet following Lee's threat to quit as prime minister. At one point, he said, Sheng Nam Chin turned to him and uttered: 'You be the prime minister.'

K C, as he was better known, remembered that he almost burst into laughter when they discussed what portfolios they should take over - Chan Sun Wing as minister for education, Sheng Nam Chin as minister for health and Low Por Tuck as minister for finance. When he realised they were using him against Lee, he left the meeting. Chan Sun Wing and Sheng Nam Ching had since denied that there was ever such a meeting. Sheng retorted: 'Who am I to offer him the post of prime minister?'

Yaacob Mohamed, one of the nine parliamentary secretaries then, cited a similar bid by leftists to topple Lee and seize power. His recollection was that Siew Choh would be prime minister with Lee Khoon Choy as deputy prime minister and Sheng Nam Chin as health minister. He said that he was offered a ministerial post if he were to join them.

In former British journalist Dennis Bloodworth's account, Lee had collected 24 signed pledges of support when he entered the house to move his motion of confidence. The whip was lifted to allow a free vote. The debate lasted a record-breaking 13 hours and 21 minutes, having started on 20 July at 2.34pm and ending the next day at 3.55am.

The jam-packed public gallery was treated to an unprecedented spectacle which saw PAP assemblymen lunging at one another's jugular with acidic barbs and stinging metaphors. Lim Yew Hock and his Singapore People's Alliance (SPA) colleagues gloated over the intra-party fighting. One UMNO representative derided PAP as a gadoh-gadoh ('quarrelling' in Malay) party.

They mocked Lee for bringing a party dispute into a public chamber at taxpayers' expense. The PAP leftists joined in the condemnation arguing that the motion should be thrashed out in the party rather than in the assembly. But Lee's key contention was that the ruling party must know where it stood as it prepared for merger with Malaya and settle the conditions before presenting it to the people.

As the time to call for a division or to take a vote neared, Lee made a headcount and found that he was short of one vote to secure a majority. All attention was focused on PAP member for Siglap Sahorah binte Ahmat, a plump Malay housewife who was then laid up in hospital with a big question mark over her party allegiance.

Chan Chee Seng volunteered to fetch her from hospital to vote for the motion. 'At first PM dismissed my suggestion saying I would be wasting my time as the leftists had already won her over. But Toh Chin Chye told Lee to let me give it a try. And so off I went.'

At Singapore General Hospital, Chan found Sahorah in tears.

Complaining that no one in PAP cared about her, she said she had given her word to the leftists. Chan appealed to her not to switch sides saying that if she did not vote for her party, the PAP government would collapse.

She relented and Chan arranged for the hospital to send her to the assembly house in an ambulance. 'Sahorah was carried up to the chamber. We walked in, the door closed and the bell rang. She voted just in time. I flashed a V sign to a smiling Lee,' said Chan.

A July 22 report in Nanyang Siang Pau said that Sahorah was rushed by ambulance to the chamber to cast her decisive vote. It noted that she was helped to her seat by Chan Choy Siong and Ismail Rahim at 3.25am when Lee was delivering his closing speech.

When the motion of confidence was finally put to a vote, the result revealed a fragmented house: 27 ayes, 8 nays and 16 abstentions. PAP clinched 26 votes from its own assemblymen plus one more vote from independent member C H Koh. Workers Party's David Marshall and all SPA members voted against the motion. In all, 13 dissident PAP assemblymen abstained, joined by their former colleagues in the United People's Party (UPP) - Ong Eng Guan, Ng Teng Kian and S V Lingam.

Why did they abstain? Ong Chang Sam explained that they could not vote against the motion as they were still PAP members and were hoping that the government could be pressurised into changing its policy on merger. Low Por Tuck said that they had no intention of throwing out the PAP government.

A new opponent

Ploughing through the speeches in the Hansard, or verbatim record of the marathon sitting, you could sense the poignancy of friendships lost and relationships severed.

For The Big Split was not just a political episode about the break-up of a ruling party, it was an all-too-human story about people caught up in a vortex of emotions as they turned against one another.

You could discern the note of sentimentality in Lee's voice when he said that it was with sadness that he watched the resolve of his friends and comrades melting in the heat of the battle. They were not crooks and rogues, he lamented, but they lacked the sternness of purpose in the face of strong persuasion and silent intimidation.

Referring to S T Bani as a friend twice, Lee recounted how they fought together to stop the Singapore Traction Company Employees' Union (STCEU) from falling under communist domination. Goh Keng Swee spoke movingly of his friendship with Lee Siew Choh, how it began over the chessboard and lasted through the years.

For Lee, perhaps 'the most unkindest cut of all' came from his own parliamentary secretary, Chan Sun Wing, whom he had trusted as his aide and friend. He was shocked when he learnt from Special Branch that Chan was plotting against him in the Canning Rise quarters. Ditto for Goh when he found that his own parliamentary secretary, Low Por Tuck, whom he liked immensely, had also switched sides.

The PAP leaders also found that their faith in supposedly non-communist professionals was sadly misplaced. Medical practitioners Lee Siew Choh and Sheng Nam Chin had no qualms about crossing to the leftist camp and leading the charge against them.

To Lee, it was as clear as daylight that if you did not vote for his motion, you were against it. The 13 PAP assemblymen who abstained were sacked from the party. They comprised the five parliamentary secretaries - Lee Siew Choh, Sheng Nam Chin, Chan Sun Wing, Leong Keng Seng and Low Por Tuck, and backbenchers Wong Soon Fong, Ong Chang Sam, Tee Kim Leng, Lin You Eng, Tan Cheng Tong, Teo Hock Guan, S T Bani and Fung Yin Ching. The three non-elected political secretaries, Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan and S Woodhull, were also given the boot.

On the day of their expulsion, Low Por Tuck recalled, the assemblymen gathered at - where else? - the house on the hill to ponder their next move. They decided to form a new party called Barisan Sosialis ('Socialist Front' in Malay) to provide an alternative government for Singapore.

Formed on 13 August 1961 and registered on 17 September 1962, it became the biggest opposition party in the house. Lee Siew Choh was elected chairman, Woodhull vice-chairman, Lim Chin Siong secretary-general, Poh Soo Kai assistant secretary-general and Low Por Tuck treasurer. Its CEC members included Lim Hock Siew, Wong Soon Fong, Fong Swee Suan, Chan Sun Wing, Ong Chang Sam, S T Bani, T T Rajah and the Puthucheary brothers.

A five-pointed red star set in a blue circle against a white background was adopted as the Barisan logo. Its uncanny resemblance to the star on communist China's flag discomfited James Puthucheary who lobbied for a change to a four-pointed or three-pointed star without success.

But what really shook PAP to its very foundations was the mass defections of its branches and members. Some 35 out of 51 branches crossed over to Barisan together with 19 out of 23 branch secretaries. To Lee's dismay, he learnt that his Tanjong Pagar branch had been pulled like a rug from under his feet. His branch secretary, Chok Kor Thong, turned out to be the ringleader involved in mobilising all 51 PAP branches against the leadership.

When Toh went to his Rochor branch, he found that his branch secretary had vanished. K C said that his Bukit Panjang branch 'just disappeared' when more than half of his committee members, including his chairman and secretary, joined the exodus.

Many branches were literally stripped bare when their officials scooted. Desks, chairs, teacups, kettles, clocks, cupboards, fans and sewing machines were carted away only to re-appear at the Barisan branches. Barisan signboards were displayed brazenly at some PAP branches.

Giving their side of the story, Ong Chang Sam said that all the committee members of his Chua Chu Kang branch decided to join Barisan after he warned them that the government would use merger against the leftists. Sheng Nam Chin said that he would have been isolated if he had not allowed his Nee Soon branch to defect.

For PAP, the loss of 35 branches was just the first staggering blow. Two more, aimed at delivering the knockout punch, were to come.

To reach out to the people, the government had set up the People's Association (PA) in 1960 with its network of community centres. The Works Brigade (WB) was formed to train unemployed youths in bricklaying, farming, water pipe repairs and other vocational skills.

But unknown to the party leaders, communist agents had burrowed deeply into both organisations. A stark admission of communist infiltration came from a former MCP member who said that the underground gave him the signal to join PA.

Pro-Barisan PA employees mounted a 10-month strike from September 1961. Joining them were many community centre leaders as well as PA staff members. And when the strikers realised they could no longer return to PA, he said, they resorted to political agitation over merger against the government.

Over at the WB, some 2,000 unruly members staged a mutiny when they defied instructions and refused to work. The Cabinet decided on an overwhelming display of force to overawe the strikers. It worked. When soldiers surrounded the camp with fixed bayonets, the youngsters capitulated.

Behind the uprising in the PAP branches and PA was none other than the prime minister's parliamentary secretary, Chan Sun Wing. Ong Pang Boon said that Chan was able to convince Lee to appoint many of the defecting PAP organising secretaries despite their security records. As Chan was also in charge of staff recruitment for PA, he enlisted many of the community centre leaders into his camp.

As for the instigator of the Works Brigade incident, all fingers pointed at Wong Soon Fong, who was attached to the labour ministry as 'chief of staff' of the uniformed group. Goh believed that Chan and Wong were deliberately planted in the government by MCP cadre Fang Chuang Pi to outmanoeuvre Lee.

Chan Chee Seng and Wong were colleagues in the brigade when hostilities broke out. The tension spilled over into their Canning Rise quarters. When they went to bed in the same room, they turned away from each other without wishing one another good night.

Teetering on the brink

Two by-election defeats. Mass defections from the party. People's Association and Works Brigade under siege. Labour movement led by leftists. Rural, youth and student organisations captured by pro-communists. Public opinion swinging towards the opposing camp.

PAP faced its darkest hour in history as it teetered on the brink of collapse. From 43 seats in the 51-seat assembly in June 1959, its massive majority had dwindled to a wafer-thin 26-25 by July 1961 when the 13 PAP rebels crossed the floor.

Like a punch-drunk boxer, the party was reeling on the ropes. Lim Kim San recalled a despondent Goh saying that there were times when they thought of calling it quits and asking Lim Chin Siong to take over.

In a despatch to London dated 17 July 1961, Selkirk referred to a dinner with Lee and Goh and recorded: 'I found them pretty broken men, extremely jumpy and uncertain of their political future.'

Lee told him that he could rely on only 23 certain votes in the assembly and that he could hold on for another three months before the communists took over. 'He now has considerable doubts whether Singapore can be governed on the basis of one man, one vote, and that the government of Singapore must now pass to the communists, the British or the Federation of Malaya,' wrote the UK commissioner.

At a Special Branch briefing, its director Richard Corridon commented that what took place in the weeks after The Big Split was an 'exact repetition of what happened under Lim Yew Hock with unions in full cry and rapid rebuilding of open front organisations'. He warned that PAP was no match for Lim Chin Siong and the Middle Road unions.

As the merger debate gathered momentum, each sitting lent itself to high drama and cliffhanger suspense. The opposition smelled blood and called for a division at every opportunity. What grated Lee and company even more was that they had to depend on the support of their legislative enemies in SPA to fend off the advances of their former comrades.

One more turn of the screw came during a crucial debate on the Malaysia plan on 3 July 1962. Ho Puay Choo resigned from the party to be an independent saying that she did not agree with the terms for merger.

When she joined Barisan on 11 August 1962, the pendulum swung to a perilous 25-26. The PAP had lost its majority.

As luck would have it, S V Lingam resigned from UPP and rejoined PAP, and it was back to 26-25. Phew!

Fate then intervened to give the power equation another hair-raising twist. On 21 August 1962, Ahmad Ibrahim, the minister for labour, died of liver disease at the age of 35 and the house was deadlocked at 25-25.

As the prospect of another by-election loomed - with talk of Lim Chin Siong standing - the spectre of Hong Lim and Anson rose to haunt PAP all over again.

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