Singapore Politics - Insights from the Inside

Saturday, July 22, 2006 

Tribute to Lim Kim San

Another great founding father has passed us, Mr Lim Kim San. He passed away peaceful on Thursday, 5.30 pm, at his Dalvey Road residence. The Straits Times and other major local papers have listed his many achievements in HDB, Ministry of National Development, MAS, PUB, PSA, SPH and the Council of Presidential Advisers. Deservingly so. The list of achievements can go on and on for Lim Kim San but, undoubtedly, he will always be remembered as the man who gave us shelter with the creation of the HDB. With his leadership, Singapore is one of the rare success stories of public housing. Another label that he will always be remembered by is his ability to spot talents and judge one’s character and integrity. Rather than duplicating what most papers are writing by stating his childhood, life and achievements, I’d just add in some of his comments in an interview conducted in 1996 with Melanie Chew. By his quotes, one could feel the personal touch of Lim Kim San and his unwavering commitment towards the Singapore Story.

Qn: You were strictly volunteer. You were not paid at all. (With reference to Lim Kim San joining the the PSC and HDB as a volunteer in 1959)
Lim Kim San: Yes, Although I was the Chairman of the Housing Board, I was just a volunteer. I didn’t get paid a cent. Largely because Ong Eng Guan was the Minister. I thought that if I go in there and get paid, first it is not fair because I have my own business. Secondly, if I am a paid employee, he can kick me out! If I don’t like it, I could just lump it.

I had my reservations about Ong Eng Guan. I felt he was a megalomaniac and rabble-rouser. Well, I explained my feelings about him to the Cabinet, and they scolded me! “He knows Three Kingdoms!” they said. “Can you speak Hokkien like him?” Well, my feelings were proved correct.

Qn: It must have been quite a step, to volunteer to serve in the HDB. The HDB and the building of low-cost housing was a central pillar of the PAP government. It was a huge job, a demanding job. And you took it on as a volunteer!

On reflection, I think it is a case of “fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.” But when you are young, you feel everything is possible.

But there was another reason. Have you heard of a street called Upper Nanjing Street? I went down there to look at the housing conditions for the poor. What a shocking experience it was! I have never been down to that part of Singapore. Of course, I had passed by in the car but I have never been inside the houses.

I went into a three storey shophouse with one lavatory and two bathrooms. We countered 200 tenants living there. It was so dark and damp. It was an inhuman and degrading existence. I saw for myself how really poor they were.

Underneath the staircase was a single plank. A man was lying on the plank. He had rented it. That was his home! And he was lying down covered by a blanket made in China. I paused and asked him if he was sick. “Why are you covering yourself with a thick blanket?” He replied, “I am covering myself out of respect for you. I am wearing only undershorts. My brother is wearing my pants.” They were too poor to afford clothing. In those days, there were shops which pulled clothing and shoes off the dead to sell them. “My God,” I thought to myself, “I must really help these people.”

Qn: You did not begrudge the amount of time you spent in HDB? I am sure there was sacrifice of your time and effort. Did you own business suffer?

When you are working hard and enjoying what you do, you don’t think of it. I am doing something that needs to be done and, in the process I am enjoying myself. Anyway, my own business needed very little minding. Once I don’t owe people money I don’t worry.

Qn: How did you build so quickly?

Firstly, we were never denied of funds from the government. We had a very high priority project.

Secondly, I broke the hold of the bureaucracy. The Singapore Improvement Trust worked by committees. God knows, they had ten or 15 committees, I abolished the whole lot. I said, “I’m the Committee.” There was a secretary there who would give me many reasons why things couldn’t be done. He would cite this law and that law and this Committee and that Committee. I had to get rid of him.

And in fact, if I don’t like a project and I’m pressed to do it, I form a Committee. That really slows things down and sometimes the project just dies.

We broke through all the red tape. No red tape. As I said, “I’m the Committee.”

Qn: What was your formula? What made the HDB so very successful?

In any organization that one goes into, the first few decisions are the most important. If taken correctly, they will set you on the right road. I think there were three important decisions which we made in those early days which enabled us to build 10,000 units a year.

First, we broke the hold contractors’ cartels. Secondly, we decided to do our own earthworks. There were only two companies doing earthworks, Gammons and United Engineers. So every time we asked them to do the earthworks to prepare the site, they said it would take six months. I said, “That won’t do.” We decided to do it ourselves. I had a friend who was a contractor. He later became the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Tan Teck Chwee. I asked him, “Hey, what’s the problem with earthworks? Why does it take so long?” He said, “No problem. I’ll show you how it’s done.” So he did. And then we did our own earthworks and saved valuable time. I would put that as the number two decision.

The third decision was standardization. You know, we used standardized concrete slabs. Standardization made it so much easier to design and faster to build. We also made specifications which we knew were realistic and could be achieved. Plus we made sure that contractors fulfilled the specifications. We went around, inspecting all the buildings very closely to make sure that the contractors fulfilled the specifications. We kept contractors under very close supervision. Yet we managed to keep the quality relatively high through strict supervision.

We had a good competent team, earnest, and honest. Through inexperienced, they were energetic and capable. They showed great interest in the work and by that, stimulated each other. They challenged each other.

Qn: You were a volunteer all that time?

Yes, until 1963, when I became a Minister.

Qn: So for four years you gave your time voluntarily.

Yes! I should have asked to be paid one dollar, and then I could claimed a pension. At that time these things don’t occur to you at all! In fact, I asked for a driver because I was going all over the place, driving all over Singapore. So I asked for a driver. And they said, “You are not a paid employee, you don’t get a driver.” So I had to drive myself. (Laughs)

Qn: What about the statutory boards? You served on the PSC and HDB. Then, after that, the PUB and the PSA.

Yes, I think I did my most satisfying work in the statutory boards. In the ministries you do policy-making. In the statutory boards, you really get involved in implementation. I like to get involved with detailed work. I also like to do several jobs simultaneously. I ran Ministries and statutory boards concurrently. Everyday, I would spend time with several projects. I like that. Otherwise, I would get board. I can’t sit still.

Qn: What was your major task in the PUB & PSA?

It was to build reservoirs, to make ourselves more self sufficient in water. So we would be less dependent. I built Upper Pierce, Seletar, all those reservoirs.

The PSA appointment was because of my own big mouth. I saw PSA building the World Trade Centre for 5,000 people. I thought it was not a good time or place. Well, the lifts were so inadequate, they would have taken all day to get 5,000 people to the top. So I opened my big mouth and before I knew it Prime Minister had put me there as Chairman! Well, it was as interesting post. Within one week, I had ordered 110 million dollars worth of port handling equipment. That was a lot of money in those days. Again, by listening to the experts, I discovered that we were short of handling equipment.

I also redirected the PSA back to its core business. The PSA had containerized its port thanks to Howe Yoon Chong. He was a very good man. He could really get things done. We were already the second busiest port in the world, after Hong Kong. We had overtaken Rotterdam.

One problem we had to face was our very limited cargo handling area. So we had to have computerized handling of cargo, so that we could stack containers six units high. No other port does that! But this requires very sophisticated handling systems. Each container has a computerized tag which says where it is going. The container passes through a gantry and the tag is registered. We know where each container is any time. Incidentally, we used this technology as the basis for the Automatic Road Pricing scheme.

Qn: How did you approach each statutory board? Each was so different in nature.

My job was to get the organization going, build a team, and then leave.

Qn: And you held so many positions! I can’t imagine how you managed to juggle all these jobs!

Oh, well, I probably have a grasshopper mind. It helps! The whole thing boils down to two things: understanding your objective, and man-management. Whether you are in big ministry, or statutory authority, or in Singapore Press Holdings, it is a question of man-management.

Qn: You do it so well! Do you have a policy?

My policy is roughly this: I am not a specialist at anything. Neither am I a professional. But I listen to the specialist and the professional. The electrical engineer, the quality surveyor, the architects. And they may have different points of view. I am open and I listen, and allow them to express their views and opinions.

I use my common sense to ask questions, like “How about this or that?” If they cannot agree, them I must myself decide. But most of the time, if you sit down, talk, listen and discuss, you are likely to find a solution.

But the whole thing is this: listen to people. I listen to them, and I know that this chap can be trusted, he knows his work. Then I leave him alone. He will grow! Instead of me telling him what to do. He is the man who runs the show! He will make suggestions to be to ponder, “Is it OK?” If it is OK, I say, “Proceed.”

Qn: Then you leave him to it?

I leave him! And then he will grow! If I look over his shoulder, well, who am i? I know nothing of that job.

Qn: How do you deal with mistakes?

I always tell my officers that if they do things within the agreed responsibilities, and they make an honest mistake, a genuine mistake, without any vested interest – I’ll back them up all the way. If you back your people, even when they make mistakes, they will learn from their mistakes! Furthermore, they will also learn to make decisions by themselves.

But if you pick up on their mistakes and bawl them out, they will never make another decision again. All decisions will land up on your desk and you will never build your organization.

If they make too many mistakes, however, maybe they don’t deserve the job and you should get rid of them.

Qn: What are your shortcomings as a manager? What do you feel needs improvements?
Lack of patience! But age and experience have mellowed me. Now, I listen more.

But if you are sitting at the top, you must be unpleasant sometimes. Disciplining is never pleasant. Once I called up a chap and said, “You just get out.” He said, “Why?” I said, “You didn’t do your work, that’s why.”

It has to be done. When I was in the PSC, I used to go through thousands of personnel annual reports and not find a single adverse or unsatisfactory report. It is our Eastern way. We don’t want to be unpleasant or break anyone’s rice bowl. But if you are at the top, you must have to courage to speak out when things are wrong.

I can be short tempered and impatient. If you act unreasonably or dishonestly, I will throw you out of my office! I remember a delegation came to see me to ask for tax exemptions for traders. Well, Singapore is a trading economy. Why should they be exempt? I was so fed up. I was wearing a neck collar at that time because I had injured my neck. I took the thing off and threw at them!

Qn: In the 80’s you became known as the government talent scout.


Qn: How did you learn to judge people?

I think that comes from experience. To me, it is instinctive. You listen to the chap talk and you think, “The chap is quite alright,” or “This chap, you can’t trust him.” I think all successful businessmen have that kind of instinct. You meet a chap, you make a deal. You feel you can rely on this man. He’s on the level. You can trust him. For me, it’s quite instinctive.

Sometimes I shake the guy by the hand and I feel revolted. I feel like throwing off the hand. And you look into his record, you find that, sure enough, this man has done something wrong. Have you heard of Slater Walker? I told the Cabinet to stop them from coming into Singapore. They said to me, “You have a suspicious mind!” Businessmen must have such an instinct.

Qn: Have you made bad judgments? Have you trusted people and later, found yourself wrong?

Not in a big way. Not in a big way. Because if I try out a chap I don’t give him the whole project. I watch his progress. I have some nephews who have spent many years running the business. I watch them and halfway through, I know. if they cannot handle nig things, I put them elsewhere. So it is a question of watching and observing.

It’s the same in government. You ask me, how do I find leaders? You don’t. Or rather, you cannot. You can only spot potential leaders.

First and foremost, I’ll look for an intelligent man. Secondly, I look for a man who has a social conscience. Maybe they were giver a chance to progress, for example, a scholarship.

Some of the Ministers that I interviewed felt that they must somehow repay society for the opportunity given by the government or institutions to further their studies. Some of them were very poor. They were given a chance to progress. Now, they wanted to do something in return. Of course, they may not be sincere. But you watch them to see whether they are sincere.

And I look for people with robust health. Because politics is a strenuous thing. In politics, you are under pressure every day. I don’t know what it is like now, but in our time this was the case. You must be able to take it. I have seen chaps literally going mad before my very eyes. They could not take the pressure. Yes!

But in the end, as one General has said, you will never know the man until he is in the firing line. People whom you think will stand, will run. Wait until crisis and you will know!

Qn: Is the problem that we now that we have too little crisis? You have no chance to observe people under crisis?

You need not have a full-blown crisis. You just watch them working under pressure. There are certain policies which are unpleasant to carry out. You make them do it and you can see. Can he take criticism? Can he stand up to it? Can he fight back? Nothing like trying the man on the spot. I also know many men who are very good as number two. But as number one, they fail.

Qn: Why was the Civil Service in Singapore able to function so well without the problems of corruption, red tape and bureaucracy that plague some other countries?

The civil service was something inherited from the British, and at that time the British were known for their honesty. So I think the tradition was there and it was a matter of continuing it.

Out leaders were honest. So if you have honest leaders, the civil service will be honest. If anyone is corrupt, they will get punished. But if you have corrupt leaders, the civil service will just follow suit.

Qn: So the key to getting rid of corruption is to have honest leadership.

Yes! To set the example. Yes! And anyway, now the civil services are so well paid, why would they bother being corrupt? Well, perhaps, you can’t say. Some people can have all the money in the world and they will still be corrupt.

Qn: You have an instinct, which you have derived over many years of experience. If you have to make it into a system, which someone else can apply, how would you do it?

Look for an intelligent person. Look for someone with commitment. With very good health. Someone who shows interest in things. Some people are very narrow. When you see some chap who is very interested in things, possessing an inquisitive, enquiring mind, well, he has the potential.

Mind you, these persons have potential only. You cannot pick them up straight away. They just have potential. You’ll be lucky if you can get three out of ten.

Qn: If you had stayed out of politics, would you have made more money?

I would have.

Qn: It’s been a sacrifice for you.

Well, I cannot ear more than what I eat now. I have enough. I cannot use more. I am quite happy. I don’t want to be the richest man in Singapore. I could possibly have made more money.

You know, some of my Cabinet colleagues were bitter about having to retire. No one gives up power voluntarily. Myself, I was not disappointed. What did it mean to retire? I had to carry my own bags. No one hailed me on the street. Never mind!

I look at it this way: I was given a chance to serve my country. How many people are given this chance? I was fortunate to have been a part of the team which built Singapore. I had some skill and some strength that was useful to others.

To serve your country is a privilege. It is an honour. I am very proud to be able to say, “I have served my country.”

Qn: Do you have any regrets?

No, my only regret is that I should have taken more pains with my work. I did many things in a rush. I should have taken more time to think things through. Well, even working in my rushed fashion, I did not commit many major mistakes. But if I had taken more time, and given more thought to everything, I would have done my job better.

Thursday, July 06, 2006 

History of PAP (Part IV) – Lim Chin Siong
The Man Who Almost Became Prime Minister

Chin Siong was introduced to me by Lee Kuan Yew. Kuan Yew came to visit me in my little office underneath the stairs and said, “Meet the future Prime Minister of Singapore!” I looked at Lim Chin Siong and I laughed. LKY said, “Don’t laugh!” He is the finest Chinese orator in Singapore and he will be our next Prime Minister!” - David Marshall

Lim Chin Siong is an elusive figure in Singapore’s history. He was a charismatic catalyst to the mass movements of the 1950s and early 1960s, and his political personality helped define an era. To Lee Kuan Yew, Lim Chin Siong was probably his greatest adversary that he respected. Lim did what LKY could not do in the 1950s: mobilize tens of thousands ethnic Chinese just by his words. Lim Chin Siong, was not recognized but is one the founding members of the PAP. His very presence in our history shaped not only our independence but also how the concept of detention without trail (by ISD) and the affiliation of the labour union (eg: NTUC) to the PAP.

Time and time again, I’ve mentioned that history is often written by victors, victors of a political dogfight and victors of unfair competition. The winners will get titles that remain across time encapsulating their distinguished successes but not their failures. The losers sometime suffer a fate worse than death, which is that their name being erased of annals. Simply, their lives and their accomplishments never existed. If one mentioned about Dr Goh Keng Swee, the title of “the architect of Singapore’s economic success” comes to mind. Similar, Lee Kuan Yew, the “founder of Modern Singapore”. But if one mentioned about Lim Chin Siong, it might be a slate of blank. At most, he is remembered as the “Communist” or the “vanquished” (mentioned in Lee’s Lieutenants). Personally, I would favour the title “the Man Who Almost Became Prime Minister” for Lim. For this article, I’ll be drawing information from “Comet in our Sky – Lim Chin Siong n History” by Tan Jing Quee (published by INSAN press Kuala Lumpur) and Melanie Chew’s interview with Lim Chin Siong himself.

The Making of the Hokkien Hero
Lim Chin Siong was born in Telok Ayer in the Hokkien heartland of Singapore’s Chinatown in 28 February 1933. Life was harsh in his early years, and had to stop school during the Japanese Occupation when he was around 9 years old. It was during this hardship that shaped his political inclinations and to be supportive to radical anti-colonial causes mashed with Chinese Nationalism.

When the war ended, Chin Siong returned to school at Pei Chun and completed his primary school education; he had lost three years and was considerably older than he would have been if not for the war. The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) had emerged from the war as an ally of the British in the prosecution of the anti-Japanese was and was accorded honours and lawful status in the political life of the country. However, in 1948, MCP’s relations deteriorated to breaking point; widespread labour demonstrations and strikes, arrested and political organization bans led to retaliation, murders and open declaration of war. The MCP was outlawed and took to the jungle to wage an armed guerilla struggle.

In 1949, Chin Siong enrolled into Catholic High School. He soon found school life there restrictive and transferred himself to Chinese High School. He was now sixteen years old and began to show interest in Chinese patriotism, national salvation and social justice, leading him to read writers like Lu Xun and Lao She. He would soon make his mark as an active student leader, espouse radical causes, and become firm friends with Fong Swee Suan, his classmate in Chinese High School.

Baptism of Politics
In 1951, they were in Junior Middle III and required to sit for an external examination, before graduating or advancing to Senior Middle School. This common external examination was a throwback to the pre-1949 Kuomintang era and precondition for access to further education in China. With the China Revolution in 1949, admission to higher education was closed in Mainland China. Hence, the retention and continuance of such common examination was an attempt by the British to limit further education to the Chinese left-wing students.

Chin Siong and Fong organized a body called, “Students Opposing The Junior Middle III Examinations, galvanizing support for boycotting the examinations. They wrote pamplets, made speeches condemning colonialism and advocated fair and equal treatment for Chinese schools and students. It was in these years, Chin Siong joined the Anti-British League (ABL). These activities eventually caught the attention of the Special Branch (British version of ISD). Chin Siong was detained for a week in August 1951 and again in October 1951 over the examination boycott. He was released, but was expelled from school, together with more than eighty students in the class of 1951.

Singapore Factory and Shop Workers Union
In 1954, an innocuous event would transform and catapult Chin Siong into greater prominence. He was elected Secretary of a small union bearing the grandiose name of Singapore Factory and Shop Workers Union (SFSWU) with a membership of barely 300 members. Within a brief period of just a year, the membership of SFSWU had expanded rapidly to more than 30,000, making it one of the most powerful trade unions in Singapore at that time.

Chin Siong would be prominent enough to attract the attention of Lee Kuan Yew and colleagues when they were looking around for grassroots leaders to form a new political Party. Chin Siong was inducted into the fortnightly discussion group in the basement of LKY’s house at Oxley Road to work out an agreement to launch the People’s Action Party (PAP).

Mountain with Two Tigers: Lee Kuan Yew & Lim Chin Siong
The newly established PAP decided to contest the elections on 2 April 1955 in four constituencies. The four were, Lee Kuan Yew (Tanjong Pagar), Goh Chew Chua (Punggol-Tampines), C.V. Devan Nair (Farrer Park) and Lim Chin Siong (Bukit Timah). It was then when the beacon of Lim Chin Siong shined brighter than Lee Kuan Yew’s. James Puthucheary, who was in charge of PAP publicity for the elections recalled the first rally held in a remote Chinese village.

“Toh Chin Chye spoke first, in English! No response from the crowd. Ong Eng Guan was next, in Hokkien, but not very good. The crowd was restless. Then, Chin Siong stood up. He was brilliant and the crowd was spellbound.”

In Lee Kuan Yew’s book, The Singapore Story, he mentioned his experiences and impression of Lim Chin Siong during the election.

“One man emerged from this election as a powerful public speaker. He was young, slim, of medium height, with a soft face but a ringing voice that flowed beautifully in his native Hokkien. The girls adored him, especially those in the trade union. Apart from Chinese culture, his themes were the downtrodden workers, the wicked imperialists, the Emergency Regulations that suppressed the rights of the masses, free speech and free association. Once he got going after a cold start at the first two meetings, there was tremendous applause every time he spoke. By the end of the campaign, Lim Chin Siong was seen as a charismatic figure and a person to be reckoned with in Singapore politics and, what was of more immediate concern, within the PAP.”

LKY later describe Chin Siong’s speeches as having a “hypnotic effect” on the crowd.

Behind the Singapore’s Independence Talk’s Failure
Chin Siong was elected to his seat in the Bukit Timah constituency and entered the Legislative Assembly at the youthful age of 22 years old. At the time, the Legislative Assembly only permitted the use of English in debates. Chin Siong’s hesitant English became a safe target for red-baiting, which he handled as well as he could, but without damage to his standing among the non-Chinese speaking population. During that time, he has his colleague, Devan Nair to draft his parliamentary speeches. Having won 10 of the 25 elected seats in the 1955 Elections, David Marshall emerged as Chief Minister.

In April 1956, David Marshall led a 13 man all-party delegation to London for the scheduled constitutional talks. Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong represented the PAP in the delegation. Despite the rhetoric of “Independence talks”, this underlying premise on the urgency to curb the left wing in Singapore, implicitly accepted as the programmatic consensus for the next phase of constitutional advance by all members of the delegation, except Lim Chin Siong. The talks eventually collapse when the British refused to compromise with the proposal of a Malayan chairman of the Defence and Security Council to oversee internal security. The British wanted control over the Internal Security. The talks collapse on this single issue.

Repression by Lim Yew Hock
The failure of the talks had major consequences on Singapore politics. David
Marshall resigned and Lim Yew Hock took over, initiating a new wave of detention without trial to suspect left-wing activists. Meanwhile, 8 July 1956, Lim Chin Siong was elected to the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the PAP with the largest number of votes, ahead of Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye. But he was not on stage or at the photo taking as he was advised by LKY from it as he has a record of detention which might harm the Party. Months later, Lim Chin Siong and the rest have been made scapegoats for the later success independence talks with the British.

In October 1956, Lim Yew Hock ordered six persons to be arrested under banishment orders from the Chung Ching High School, with several unions being banned. The Special Branch detained Chia Ek Tian, a CEC member in PAP and Soon Loh Boon. At a
rally at Happy World Stadium to celebration the anniversary of the SFSWU, Chin Siong denounced the repression. But the repression escalated further when Minister of Education Chew Swee Kee issued orders to the management committees of the Chung Ching High School and Chinese High School to expel 142 students. When the students went on strike, the Government ordered the closure of schools. At the PAP rally held at Beauty World Park, Bukit Timah, Chin Siong condemned the repression and urged support for the besieged students. Singapore was in the state of riot. 13 people died and 123 injured. All the major Middle Road trade union leaders were detained, including Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, Devan Nair, James Puthucheary, S. Woodhull and Chen Chiaw Thor.

The arrest effectively excluded Chin Siong from participation in the PAP deliberations regarding the new rounds of constitutional talks led by Lim Yew Hock. Only Lee Kuan Yew would represent the PAP. A clause would be adopted prohibiting
Chin Siong and his detained colleagues from contesting the first elections under the new constitution. The result was obvious: the popularity of Lim Yew Hock sank with each new repression, just as Lee Kuan Yew’s star continued to rise with each successive debate. Lee Kuan yew’s identification with the detained left wing leaders strengthened his own popularity and public image as champion of the dispossessed. The spotlight was on him alone, benefiting from the repression launched by Lim Yew Hock. LKY had added confidence knowing that he would be the more natural and obvious choice for the British for the mantle of power as he continued to ride the wave of the martyrdom of his detained left wing colleagues.

The Straits Times report of 5 April 1957 on the return of the conquering heroes summed up the mood of the people back home. “It was an unexpected silent crowd. There was a marked absence of the usual spontaneous shout of Merdeka.” David Marshall described the new constitution as a “fraud” and nineteen trade unions lobbied the PAP leadership to withdraw the mandate given to Lee Kuan Yew to accept the new constitution. LKY took up Marshall’s challenge in By-elections contesting based on the constitution. Marshall lost and quit politics.

Released from Detention
After assuming power, the PAP government released eight left wing
leaders on 4 June 1959, after ensuring that they were excluded from participation in the parliamentary elections to the central committee. Five were appointed as political secretaries, but with little real substantial power to initiate or influence polices. More significantly, none of them were made cadre members, which meant that they would never be in any position to challenge the leadership in future party elections. When Chin Siong was released, he was only 26 years old.

Here, LKY played his political cards to perfection. Being the solicitor of the detainees, he was seen as the freer of the oppressed. Putting Chin Siong and the rest in political office, he could ride their popularity amongst the Chinese population without giving Chin Siong and the rest any power. In that, LKY would not be threatened by his popular rival, but not for long.

PAP: The Empty Shell
Soon after assuming power, the PAP government formed a ten-men secretariat of the Trade Union Congress to reorganize the labour movement. Lim Chin Siong returned to his old post as supreme of the Middle Road Unions. A duel power situation developed; while LKY faction controlled the state and the party, Chin Siong’s faction was dominant in the trade union and other mass organizations.

By mid-1961, following two humiliating defeats for the PAP at Hong Lim and Anson by-elections, it was clear that a decisive break was inevitable. LKY’s government sought a vote-of-confidence at the Legislative Assembly meeting on 20 July 1961. 13 PAP Assemblymen abstained from the vote and were promptly expelled from the party. The expelled men joined forces with the left wing trade unions to form the Barisan Socialis. In August 1961, they formed a rival party, the Barisan Sosialis, led by Dr Lee Siew Choh and Lim Chin Siong. They took 35 branch committees, 19 of the 23 organizing secretaries and an estimated 80 percent of the membership. PAP under LKY was a mere shell, according to Dr Lee.

The PAP government was on the verged of being toppled. Every session, the opposition would motion of no confidence. But across the shores, the Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, Tengku Abdul Rahman, watched the events and feared that Singapore was about to become a Communist State, a “second Cuba” and a danger to Malaya. Thus, this was the start of the intense and frantic, Battle for Merger.

Tunku: LKY’s Last Dice
Barisan Sosialis held sway in Singapore but it knew that in a wider
Malaysia they would be crushed. On the other hand, PAP needed Malaysia to break the Barisan’s hold on the Singapore Electorate. Thus, they enlisted Malayan Tengku and the British as allies, playing on their long standing fear of Communism.

On July 1962, the Barisan Sosialis, led by David Marshall and Dr Lee Siew Choh, appealed against the merger in the United Nations in New York. The Merger Referendum, issued in 1962, was testimony to the murkiness of the Battle. It was deliberately ambiguous. It asked voters to choose what kind of merger they wanted, not whether indeed they wished for a merger. The referendum was not to be a simple YES or NO response to the merger, but included three choices:

Option A endorse merger on terms suggested by the White Paper.
Option B distorted the Barisan Sosialis formula and threatened to disenfranchise 250,000 Singapore citizens
Option C purportedly represent the position of the Singapore Peoples Alliance, which neither it not any other political party advocated or adopted.

25% rallied to the call of Barisan and cast blank votes, objecting to the manner in which the exercise had been carried out. 71% chose Option A. With this controversial tactic, the PAP won the Battle for Merger.

Operation Coldstore: Wiping out Lim Chin Siong
Tengku then decided to clean out the Left Wing with “Operation Cold Store”. Hundreds of arrest was made and effectively decapitated the Left Wing Barisan Sosialis. Nearly the entire central executive committee of the Barisan Sosialis, including Chin Siong, was arrested. Chin Siong was just shy of thirty years old at the time of his third detention. In the decade spanning his entry into the political fray in 1954 and 1963, he had already spent more years in jail than outside.

A snap elections was called, under the protection of the Malaysian Security Council, produced a clear PAP victory. The Barisan, with most of their leaders in prison, garnered only 13 out of 51 seats. On September 1963, the PAP government had won its battle against the Left. By 1965, Singapore was kick out of the Federation after a mere 1071 days in Malaysia. As foreseen by Chin Siong, the merger was never what it was meant to be but could be just an excuse to eliminate political opponents.

End of a Great Singaporean
Chin Siong would remain in jail and suffer severe depressions, until physically broken and mentally traumatized. He announced his decision to quit politics and took off in exile in London (in 28 July 1969), his physical health ruined and his political life destroyed. He married Wong Chui Wan in London, in 1970, had two sons in his marriage. He struggled earning a living doing odd jobs and would continued to suffer bouts of depression. He never recovered. In 1979, he decided to return to Singapore and stayed in Serangoon Gardens until his death in 5 February 1996. Former political colleagues, political foes, former ministers, trade union leaders and ordinary citizens came to pay their last respects to the man who almost became Prime Minister of Singapore.

Many (former and present) leaders have condemned Lim Chin Siong as a Communist. But this was one charge that Chin Siong never acknowledged. In his words, “To brand someone as Communist at that stage was the best and most convenient way to put him in jail.” Perhaps his view on detention without trial was the most awakening,

“The fact is that all of us were detained, without trial for ages. Not knowing when we would be coming out. That, I would say is a torture. A torture. You are detained for years, until such a time that you are willing to humiliate our own integrity. Until you are humiliated publicly. So much so, when you come out, you cannot put your head up, you cannot see your friends. Alright, then they may release you. It is a very cruel torture. It is worse than in Japanese time, when with a knife, they slaughter you. One shot, you die. But this humiliation will carry on for life. It is very cruel.”

He died a broken man, 23 days short of his 63rd birthday and forgotten by Singaporeans today.

Coming Up Next:
SM Goh Chok Tong: The Willing Unseated or the Unwilling Seated?
More details in the coming future, stay tuned and keep guessing the double meaning to the subtitle.

The Idealist

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