Monday, September 14, 2009

When Lee lost control of PAP for 10 days

Sep 12, 2009

The People's Action Party was thrown into turmoil in August 1957 when a group of leftists engineered a takeover of the party. It was a dramatic episode which marked a turning point in its history as Lee Kuan Yew never trusted the left again and the party was never the same again.

STAND amid the cavernous emptiness, close your eyes, let your imagination roam and you might just hear reverberating echoes of the fiery smashes and fancy footwork that gripped the whole of Singapore on June 5, 1955.

Who knows, you might have been there as a child yourself to cheer Wong Peng Soon's breathtaking wristwork and Ong Poh Lim's dazzling 'crocodile serve' which brought the world's greatest badminton prize - the Thomas Cup - to Malaya for the third time in this very hall.

Memories of the ear-splitting ovation for the world's unsurpassed players of the day when they thrashed Denmark 8-1 will forever be intertwined with the Singapore Badminton Hall on Guillemard Road.

Opened in 1952 and funded by public donations and a loan from 'Tiger Balm King' Aw Boon Haw, the nondescript building trapped in an architectural time warp has been designated as a historical site.

Its walls did not just rock to the smashes of sporting history and the sounds of musical history - the legendary P. Ramlee performed there in the 1950s and the Rolling Stones in 1965. They also bore silent witness to political history when the hall became the counting centre for Singapore's early elections and the venue where PAP members turned up by the thousands to elect their leaders.

One Sunday morning on 4 August 1957, lorry after lorry and bus after bus rumbled to its driveway pouring out a stream of humanity which soon swelled to about 3,000. The event: the PAP fourth annual party conference. The agenda: to elect a new 12-man central executive committee (CEC) to govern the party.

Mrs Lee Kuan Yew remembered the occasion because of the poor acoustics and the sight of garish banners and crude caricatures hanging on the stage. Toh Chin Chye sensed a 'strange, tense atmosphere'. Seated at the back, Goh Keng Swee found it hard to shut his ears off to the non-stop playing of communist-inspired music.

Party secretary Lee Kuan Yew was perturbed to see so many unfamiliar faces. Who were they? Were they really party members? Why were people whispering and casting quick sidelong glances?

The Lee group had put up a team of nine candidates including eight from the outgoing CEC and were prepared to concede three or four slots to the leftists. They also put forth six resolutions which included affirming the goal of an 'independent, democratic, non-communist socialist Malaya' and endorsing the party line at the recent constitutional conference in London.

The party gathering came in the wake of two controversial events.

The first was the marathon debate at party HQ on 24 March 1957 when the Middle Road trade unionists demanded a withdrawal of the mandate for Lee at the second constitutional talks in London. The second was the Tanjong Pagar by-elections on 29 June 1957 which saw Lee re-contesting and winning his seat following a challenge from David Marshall in the legislative assembly; the disgruntled leftists had worked covertly to support Marshall.

The party position was to accept the constitutional concessions and then work for independence through merger with Malaya. Self-government was seen as a step forward. Refusal to accept the terms would mean a deadlock and create a power vacuum which could be exploited by corrupt elements.

Applause greeted the candidates as they went up the stage one by one.

Lee began to smell a rat when he realised that the more left the candidate was, the louder the applause.

One leftist candidate was Liang Chye Ming, who attended the same primary school in Johor as Lim Chin Siong. Recounting the varying intensity of the clapping, Liang said: 'The applause given to the leftist members was very enthusiastic, more so than that given to Lee and his non-communist group. Mine was quite good.' The applause was meant to signal to the audience which leftist candidates they should vote for, according to Liang, an English-language tutor in Hong Kong in 2003.

Although Lee and company had got wind of the challenge, the results from the secret ballot still came as a rude shock. They scored a thumping win with their resolutions which were carried by a vote of 1,150 to 112. But of the 12 highest vote-getters, only six of their candidates were elected. It was scant consolation to Lee that he clinched the highest number of votes (1,213). Toh took 1,121 votes followed by Ahmad Ibrahim (966), Goh Chew Chua (794), Tann Wee Tiong (655) and Chan Choy Siong (621).

The other three candidates were booted out, the most ignominious being the downfall of party treasurer Ong Eng Guan, who with Lee and Toh made up the Big Three of the PAP then. The rejection of Haron Kassim and Ismail Rahim had the added effect of upsetting the party's Malay fraternity.

The leftists grabbed the other six seats. Three were from the outgoing CEC - Tan Chong Kin (with 811 votes), an English-educated bookkeeper from Farrer Park branch; T.T. Rajah (977), a Ceylonese lawyer and legal adviser to left-wing trade unions; and Goh Boon Toh (972), secretary of the Singapore Cycle and Motor Workers' Union.

The three new CEC officials were Tan Kong Guan (751), a welder and vice-chairman of Bukit Timah branch; Chen Say Jame (651) who took over as secretary-general of the Singapore Bus Workers' Union after the arrest of Fong Swee Suan; and Ong Chye Ann (762), a clerk in a car spare parts firm and vice-chairman of Farrer Park branch.

At six versus six, Lee's group and the leftists were deadlocked.

Suddenly, the English-educated elite who had ruled the party from day one had lost its majority - and its grip on power.

IF THE Lee people were flummoxed by the tie, it was because they thought there was a tacit understanding with the leftists that the latter should take only three or four seats in the ruling body. As the ratios in previous party elections showed, the leftists occupied four spots in the last CEC, virtually none in the second CEC and three in the first CEC.

Under this power-sharing arrangement, Lee and his lieutenants were supposed to control the party while the leftists had free run of the party branches, trade unions, students' bodies, farmers' associations and other grassroots organisations.

This agreement was crucial to Lee as he had no illusion that the leftists could have captured the CEC anytime if they wanted to as the party was open and loose with so many party members belonging to the Middle Road unions.

Goh Keng Swee was convinced that the communists had already taken over the party from the start and could have ejected Lee, Toh and him in its formative days. The reasons they baulked, he believed, were that they knew they could not perform in the legislative assembly and that the party conferred respectability on them. Furthermore, as Toh noted, they still needed Lee as legal adviser to their unions.

Unquestionably, the left had exerted a strong influence on the party from the outset. The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) had instructed its open front operatives to join the party. Fang Mingwu, a former underground activist in Singapore who lived in exile in Thailand, explained that MCP supported Lee 'because he was the best person at the time to partner us in the united front against the colonial power'.

Among the 14 PAP convenors on inauguration day, 21 November 1954, four were leftists - Devan Nair, Samad Ismail, Fong Swee Suan and Chan Chiaw Thor. Nair, Fong and Chan went on to serve on the first CEC.

In the aftermath of the Hock Lee bus riot in May 1955, the leftists disappeared completely from the second CEC ostensibly to avoid tarnishing the name of PAP and giving an excuse to the Labour Front government to ban the budding party.

Fong, who led the Hock Lee bus strike, said they abstained from the CEC elections on June 26, 1955, to pre-empt any government action against the PAP leadership. James Puthucheary's account was that at Lee's request, Samad Ismail persuaded Lim Chin Siong and other leftists not to be in the power line-up. Nair said he advised the leading leftists to stay clear from the CEC to avoid a Special Branch crackdown.

Whatever the version, the upshot of it all was that the left withdrew from the second CEC elections. Nair, Chan and Fong did not offer themselves for re-election while Lim Chin Siong, S. Woodhull and James Puthucheary stood down. According to press reports, Lim spoke to a thunderous reception at the conference saying that it was not necessary to be a CEC member to 'get things done'.

The Straits Times editorial commented that although 'an air of beautiful unanimity and good party comradeship pervaded the PAP annual conference throughout the four and a half hours, it was possible to detect the echoes of muffled thunder behind the scenes on the PAP stage'.

Headlined 'Forked Lightning', it warned that 'the lightning may have forked but it is still the same streak of lightning'.

Then the leftists staged a rousing comeback in the third party conference on July 8, 1956. They said that they were returning to the CEC at the request of Lee who felt isolated and needed the left to boost party support. Lee, however, took the view that the leftists wanted to use the PAP CEC as cover as they anticipated further action against them.

Four leftists were elected then - Lim Chin Siong, Chia Ek Tian, Devan Nair and Goh Boon Toh. Lim chalked up the highest number of votes (1,537) followed by Lee (1,488). When Lim became assistant secretary, Toh said, it signalled that 'if the Middle Road group had wanted to do so, they could have ousted Lee and his colleagues and captured the PAP central executive'. Lee Khoon Choy interpreted the results as the first attempt by the left to capture the CEC.

Before the third CEC elections, Lee had made it clear that the leftists should be in the minority and was re-assured when they took only four out of 12 seats. So what happened at the fourth CEC elections? If the leftists were supposed to stop at four, why did they capture half the CEC depriving the Lee people of their majority? Was it a coup? Who orchestrated it?

TWO days after the Aug 4 party polls, T.T. Rajah and his five leftist colleagues turned up for the first CEC meeting at the Neil Road PAP HQ.

When it broke up four hours later at 12.30am, there was no sign of any office-bearers.

'Lee Kuan Yew shocked us by saying six of the 12 members would not hold office. We tried our best to persuade Lee but he was firm,' said the Middle Temple-trained lawyer who acted as spokesman for the group.

Lee had dropped his bombshell - his team of six refused to hold office on the grounds that they had lost their moral right to enforce the resolution for an independent, democratic, non-communist, socialist Malaya. As he reflected later, they felt that they 'should pass the ball to them' and let them be in charge when the party came to grief. If he and Toh had carried on, they would have become their prisoners and given them cover. 'By turning the tables on them, we exposed them and we watched what they were going to do,' he said.

The leftists were shocked to find themselves in such a quandary - yes, they wanted to dominate and dictate to the party but they wanted to do so with Lee and company providing the veneer of legitimacy. They were fearful that if they took over the party, their cover would be blown; the British were fighting a war against the communists in Malaya and would have no qualms about incarcerating them.

Furthermore, they did not want to split the party and weaken PAP's chances in the coming elections under the new constitution for self-government.

They needed the party to win the polls so that they could secure the release of their beloved leaders in Changi Prison.

In increasing desperation, the leftists tried to persuade Lee to change his mind and assume office. Ong Chye Ann said he was the first to offer to give up his seat to any Lee nominee. Then Tan Kong Guan followed up with a similar offer. Lee's answer was no and no.

More peace offerings were made but Lee refused to budge. The party was thrown into disarray. The divided CEC met once more on 13 August 1957 to break the impasse. There was still no solution. Forced into a tight corner, Rajah said they had 'no choice but to hold positions'.

Rajah replaced Lee as secretary because he was English-educated and a legal adviser to the trade unions, said Tan Kong Guan who became the vice-chairman. Ong Chye Ann, who assumed the treasurer's post, remembered checking the party's kitty and finding that it contained only a few thousand dollars.

Tan Chong Kin took over Toh's chairmanship, Chen Say Jame became assistant secretary and Goh Boon Toh, assistant treasurer. What happened to the other six? Lee, Toh, Ahmad Ibrahim, Goh Chew Chua, Chan Choy Siong and Tann Wee Tiong remained as CEC members.

The new team drew up its plans to unite the party and open more new branches. But its reign was short-lived, lasting only 10 days. Just as Lee had predicted, grief came but earlier than expected when the Lim Yew Hock government rounded up five office-bearers as part of a massive anti-communist operation.

If there was a silver lining in the factional strife, it was that the educated public began to realise that the PAP was not a monolithic left but was split into two opposing camps - non-communist versus pro-communist.

Even the hostile English language press became more discerning, dubbing the Lee people as 'moderates' and stigmatising their opponents as 'extremists'.

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