Saturday, April 2, 2011

What happened to the Barisan 13?

Apr 1, 2011

Until 10 days ago when he was introduced as a PAP candidate for the coming general election, very few people knew that labour leader Ong Ye Kung was the son of one of the 13 Barisan Sosialis MPs elected in the 1963 General Election. Where are they now and what happened to the most powerful opposition party in Singapore's history?

WHEN National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant

secretary-general Ong Ye Kung, 41, was unveiled as a People's Action Party (PAP) candidate for the coming polls, Singaporeans were astonished to learn that his father was one of the Barisan Sosialis MPs who sought to overthrow the PAP Government in the 1960s.

Mr Ong Lian Teng, who died in 2009 aged 74, was once a firebrand leftist politician and one of the 13 Barisan Sosialis representatives elected in the crucial 1963 General Election.

He was among the group of Barisan MPs who took their party's struggle to the streets. They marched to Parliament House with their supporters to hand in their resignation letters on Oct 8, 1966.

As the picture above shows, they posed behind a black banner with the seven Chinese characters - guo hui min zhu yi si wang, meaning 'parliamentary democracy is dead' - outside the chamber's building before riot policemen dispersed them.

The elder Ong was an active Chinese community leader in rural Singapore in 1961 when he joined Barisan, a breakaway faction of the PAP which came into power three years earlier.

The camp led by leftist trade unionist Lim Chin Siong was opposed to the PAP's founding secretary-general Lee Kuan Yew and company over Singapore's merger with Malaysia and other ideological issues.

Mr Ong was one of the few remaining Barisan MPs who boycotted Singapore's first Parliament session after its independence in August 1965 to resign his seat, claiming that parliamentary democracy was dead after a series of government arrests just before and after the 1963 elections.

The crackdown included Operation Cold Store in February, which imprisoned more than 110 activists, and Operation Pechah in October, which rounded up another 190.

Three of the 13 Barisan MPs - trade unionists S.T. Bani, Lee Tee Tong and Loh Miaw Gong - were among those arrested in Operation Pechah on the eve of an industrial strike planned by the then left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (Satu).

Mr Bani, who was Satu's president, resigned from Barisan and his seat in Parliament on his release, following a public confession on Jan 9, 1966. Both Madam Loh and Mr Lee resigned from Parliament later in 1966 while they were still in prison.

Three other elected members, Mr Chan Sun Wing, Mr Wong Soon Fong and Mr Tan Cheng Tong, were among the original 13 leftist PAP legislative assemblymen who broke away from the PAP to form Barisan in 1961. After escaping arrest in Operation Pechah, Mr Chan and Mr Wong vacated their parliamentary seats. They now live in exile in Southern Thailand.

Mr Lim Huan Boon, a chemistry graduate from the former Nanyang University (Nantah) was the first to quit in December 1965, four months after Singapore's independence. He resigned from Barisan and his seat in Parliament because he disagreed with party chairman Dr Lee Siew Choh's decision to opt for 'extra-parliamentary struggle', claiming Singapore's independence was phoney and there was no parliamentary democracy.

Now 82, Mr Lim, who is better known as a Malay language scholar today, had said that Barisan should not have boycotted Parliament.

Explaining his decision to retire from politics for good, he had said: 'I joined Barisan because I was against merger with Malaysia. With Singapore's independence, there is nothing for me to fight for.'

His departure was followed in January 1966 by that of Mr Chio Cheng Thun and Mr Kow Kee Seng, who were also at loggerheads with Dr Lee.

With the opposition bench empty, the PAP held and won all the by-elections to fill the seats, resulting in its total dominance of Parliament until 1981 when Anson was captured by then Workers' Party secretary-general J.B. Jeyaretnam in a by-election.

So why did the most powerful opposition party in the history of Singapore boycott Parliament, thus handing it to the PAP on a silver platter? This is one question that has long intrigued historians and political pundits.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in the book Men In White, published by Singapore Press Holdings in 2009, called it 'a stroke of destiny' because Barisan's action led to the absence of opposition in Parliament, allowing the ruling party to focus on economic and social development unhindered and undistracted by politicking.

In the book, which featured the voices of many leftists, Barisan chairman Dr Lee defended his decision, saying the 1965 parliamentary walkout was the right move as it drew people's attention to the 'undemocratic practices' of the PAP.

For example, he said, after the September 1962 referendum on merger, Barisan MPs had been pressing the Government for an open meeting on merger, but they were always ignored.

He added: 'For quite a number of months, there was hardly any meeting in Parliament. And while we were waiting, Singapore's independence was declared!'

Instead of holding any Parliament sitting, he charged, 'there were only arrests, arrests and arrests of our people'.

On reflection, Mr Lee Tee Tong, now 79, tells Insight this week that he agreed with Dr Lee. He notes that Operation Cold Store in February 1963 had already nabbed Barisan's top leaders before the general election in September.

They included Mr Lim Chin Siong, Mr Fong Swee Suan, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Mr S. Woodhull and Mr Dominic Puthucheary.

The son of Mr Puthucheary, Dr Janil Puthucheary, a 38-year-old paediatrician in Singapore, was also introduced as a PAP candidate last week.

Mr Lee says: 'After the general election, a second wave of arrests put more of our leaders, including myself and two other elected Barisan members, behind bars. Many others who contested unsuccessfully were also not spared.

'I don't think Barisan lost in the 1963 election for lack of good people or a better party ideology, but because of the wave after wave of arrests of our leaders.'

Another former Barisan MP, Mr Tan Cheng Tong, now 80, says he was in a fix and had no choice but to resign his Jalan Kayu seat because it was the party's position.

'Looking back, it was an extreme position that we had taken, but the actions against us then were really undemocratic,' he adds.

Former Barisan activist C.C. Chin, 70, now an independent scholar on leftist history, however, takes the view that Barisan's boycott of Parliament was political suicide.

'The party should have continued to fight the PAP constitutionally in spite of the arrests and I am sure today it will still be a political force the ruling party would have to contend with,' he argues.

He believes that the party, having taken the fight to the streets by boycotting Parliament, had lost the support and trust of the people almost completely.

He points out that when Dr Lee merged Barisan with the Workers' Party in 1988 and fielded a unified team for Eunos GRC in the general election held that year, it lost, albeit narrowly, to the PAP. Barisan was a spent force, he says.

In the view of National University of Singapore history lecturer Huang Jianli, every current situation would be contingent upon the past and no one could tell what the outcome would have been if all 13 elected Barisan MPs did not resign their seats between 1965 and 1966.

'Hypothetically speaking, there can be a broad range of possibilities. At the optimistic end of the spectrum is the possibility of greater political pluralism with a much less dominating PAP Government. At the pessimistic end is having more or less the same as today.

'This is because, given the overall authoritarian tendency of the PAP leadership, it would still probably have used other avenues and summoned other means to clamp down on alternative voices,' he says.

Dr Cheng Yinghong, an associate professor in history at Delaware State University in the United States, believes that Barisan in the 1960s was greatly influenced by the Cultural Revolution in China. Whether its elected members remained in Parliament after the 1963 General Election or not, he was pessimistic of the party's prospects.

'The Barisan was a Maoist party by the mid- and the second half of the 1960s. Globally, Maoist influence was disastrous not just in terms of its destructive impact on societies but also to leftist movements themselves.

'When I read those ferocious verbal attacks on their own comrades published in Barisan newspapers, I believed that it was fortunate that such a party failed in its struggle for state power,' he says.

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