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
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.