Friday, December 18, 2009

Return of the left?

Dec 18, 2009

This is the year when history made news and a generation of young Singaporeans scratched their heads and asked Fong who? Poh who? Today, we take a look at what happened when the past revisits the present.
By Jeremy Au Yong

LOOKING at the faces and headlines that popped out of The Straits Times this year, the reader might be led to believe that Singapore was witnessing a resurgence of the left.

Indeed, leftists of all hues and shades from Singapore's past made a public appearance on Sept 8, reawakening the interest of older Singaporeans but leaving younger ones scratching their heads. Fong who? Hoe who? Low who?

Not since the Big Split of 1961 when a radical faction broke away to form Barisan Sosialis had there been such a gathering of former leftists and dissident PAP legislative assemblymen in Parliament.

The occasion on Sept 8 was a book launch officiated by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. The roll call included Mr Fong Swee Suan, Mr Lim Chin Joo, Madam Hoe Puay Choo, Mr Low Por Tuck, Mr Ong Chang Sam and Mr Dominic Puthucheary.

At another book launch two months later - on Nov 14 - former Barisan Sosialis leaders and Operation Cold Store detainees Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai made fiery speeches giving their side of the Singapore story in a packed auditorium.

Then no less than the former head of the Malayan Communist Party Chin Peng also re-emerged in the news with a poignant plea.

Here's a recap of what happened when the past jumped into the present.


THE last time the former leftists were making waves in the hurly-burly of politics, circumstances on the island were very different.

Back then, the future of Singapore hung in the balance. These men and women, in their own way, became famous or infamous - depending on your ideological point of view.

Take Mr Fong Swee Suan. He was one of the most prominent opposition activists and union militants regarded as the man who started the Hock Lee bus strike which quickly escalated into a riot in 1955.

He is also known as one of the founding members of the People's Action Party who became a political secretary in the first PAP government before he and his close ally Lim Chin Siong broke away to form the Barisan Sosialis.

Accused of being involved in communist activities, Mr Fong was arrested together with 100 others under Operation Cold Store in 1963.

The operation decimated the leftist movement and ended his political career.

Later he was exiled to Malaysia. The ban on him was lifted only in 1990. He returned to Singapore in 1998 and kept a low profile until September this year, when he resurfaced for that 'historic handshake' with his former adversary MM Lee.

Like Mr Fong, Dr Lim and Dr Poh were also detained under Operation Cold Store.

Both medical doctors first came into public attention because of their involvement in the then-University of Malaya Socialist Club.

In 1954, Dr Poh was among eight students charged with sedition by the British colonial government following the publication of the journal, Fajar, by the club.

An article in the journal had called Singapore a 'police state'.

MM Lee was then the club's legal adviser who assisted Queen's Counsel D.N. Pritt in getting the students acquitted.

Chin Peng's notoriety was of a different league. He led the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) guerillas in a brutal insurrection that began in 1948 and lasted into the 1980s.

He has been held responsible for the gruesome deaths of many innocent civilians and servicemen.

The communist insurgents finally laid down their arms in 1989 after signing a peace treaty with the Malaysian and Thai governments.

Chin Peng, in exile for more than 40 years, now lives in Thailand.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the treaty.


NOW in their 70s and 80s, many former leftists have mellowed. Meet them in person and they appear no different from any other senior citizen.

All have long since left the political arena. For some, the time had come to let go of old grievances and grudges.

That seemed to be the case for the group who met MM Lee in Old Parliament House during the launch of Men In White, a Singapore Press Holdings book chronicling the history of the PAP.

Indeed, it was a familiar setting for some of them as they shook hands and posed for photographs with the man with whom they had crossed swords years ago in the august chamber. The picture of MM Lee and his former foes made the front page of Chinese and English newspapers the next day.

Speaking to The Straits Times after the reunion, Mr Fong, 78, came across as one keen to set aside the differences of the past.

Focusing on the significance of the handshake, he said: 'The main thing is the gesture, to show that we are all sincere about meeting each other again. I felt it was a very happy occasion.'

Closure would, however, be much more difficult for Dr Lim and Dr Poh, who were detained for 19 years and 17 years, respectively.

At the launch of the book titled The Fajar Generation, they spoke passionately about the importance of setting the record straight. Fajar was started in 1953 to raise political awareness among students of the university.

At the well-attended launch last month, Dr Lim made no bones about how aggrieved he was by his treatment by the PAP Government.

Referring to fellow activists who had since died, Dr Poh, 77, said in an interview: 'I owe a duty to all of them to describe the conditions, the struggle we had, the difficulties we had because we were all together in the struggle.'

But for Chin Peng, 85, his return to the spotlight had more to do with wanting to forget than to recall the past.

The Malaysian-born ex-communist chief had gone to court in a bid to get his ban from entering Malaysia lifted. He said he could not be at peace if he did not fulfil his filial duties and visit the graves of his elders. The court turned him down.

In his interview with The Straits Times in October, he laid down his case for returning to Malaysia and urged those who opposed his bid to let bygones be bygones.

'I think we should not pay too much attention to what happened in the past. We need to start to build a new relationship. People will say it is easier said than done. But if we dwell on the past there will be no end,' he said.

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