Let’s do a little quiz.
How many of you know who Lim Chin Siong or James Puthucheary were?
Or this formidable sounding dude called “The Plen”?
Stumped? Don’t worry. I was just as clueless.
Hopefully that will change with the re-launch of The Battle For Merger. Narrating how our first PM Lee Kuan Yew wrestled control for Singapore from communist insurgents, the book is published jointly by the National Archives of Singapore and Straits Times Press.
Brainchild of DPM Teo Chee Hean, the reprint of The Battle For Merger chronicled the series of radio broadcasts by former PM and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (LKY). Updated from the original edition published way back in 1962, it contains the transcripts of 12 radio talks written and delivered by Mr Lee between 13 September and 9 October 1961.
Accompanying the book launch is an exhibition featuring photographs, newspaper articles, documents and other artefacts from that tumultuous period. Jointly curated by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), it is open to the public at level 7 of the National Library Building from now till 30 November 2014.
At a blogger’s event specially organised for the launch, the “elephant in the room” in everybody’s head loomed large. Was the reprint of the book a strategy to counter Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, with Love?
After all, both PM Lee Hsien Loong and MCI Minister Dr Yaacob Ibrahim spoke out against Pin Pin’s film, stating that it gave a one-sided account of what occurred back in the 1960s and did not do justice to the people who gave their lives to fight against the communist threat back then.
MCI clarified that the trigger behind the book and exhibition wasn’t To Singapore, with Love. First mooted about one year ago by DPM Teo, it was timed to coincide with the anniversary date of the radio broadcasts which ended on 9 October 1961. Indeed as I perused the book and toured the exhibition, it was clear that there was no intent to rebut the views of political exiles featured in Pin Pin’s film.
What I found intriguing were the political “cloak and dagger” moves made by different parties during those chaotic years. They include Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) leader Fang Chuang Pi/ Fong Chong Pik (also known as “The Plen” which is short for plenipotentiary) and PAP co-founder Lim Chin Siong, a trade union leader who never openly admitted to being affiliated to the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).
A leftist known for his role in the “Hock Lee Bus Riots” and “Chinese Middle School Riots“, Lim was also known to be an “anti-colonialist” who formed the communist-affiliated Barisan Sosialis party on September 1961. Some of his compatriots then included Fong Swee Suan, former Singapore President CV Devan Nair (who later reformed and supported PAP), and James Puthucheary.
The clandestine moves made by political friends who became enemies, and enemies who became allies, were so convoluted that they made my head spin!
The most important takeaway was that the proposed merger with Malaya was not just a strategy to ensure Singapore’s long-term survival but an attempt to negate the communist threat. A merger with Malaya would certainly stamp out the Chinese-dominated CPM.
Quoting DPM Teo’s speech:
“Our hard-fought attempt to gain independence by merging with Malaya was in fact a battle for the future of Singapore. On the surface, it was a battle for merger. But this was only on the surface. Below the surface was another deeper, more momentous, more dangerous battle – that between the communists and non-communists in Singapore.”
OK, enough talk. Let us take a walk through the exhibition.
Laid out over several panels, the exhibition featured audio recordings of Mr Lee’s radio broadcasts, spread over 12 different “Talks”, as well as key artefacts preserved during that period.
Each of the panels were shaped like an old-school radio, with audio recordings that you can listen to, and key highlights of each talk laid out in text. Photographs of the different players were also displayed.
These original artefacts were never displayed before. The three hand-written documents in Chinese were determined to be written by Lim Chin Siong after careful handwriting analysis by forensic chemists despite being signed with a different pseudonym.
A closer look at the faded and mottled document, circa 1953-1954, which was later deduced to be a note which Lim Chin Siong made of a talk he gave in commemoration of the death of Stalin. The talk was made to his immediate subordinates in the Anti-British League cell.
Some of the books you can read about the “Merger” era, written and published by authors both for and against the PAP-led government. The idea here is to make available all the facts, perspectives and views surrounding this issue so that readers can decide for themselves.
For some of the panels, infographics (ala social media age) were used. Reading through this panel, I learned that the PAP then was in imminent danger of losing its seat in Parliament as large numbers of cadre members and unionists defected from the party to join their communist sympathetic counterparts.
A closer view of the action then. 82 unions switched allegiance from the PAP to Barisan Sosialis, while 33 of the 51 PAP branches changed sides. Perhaps the only person who believed that the PAP would prevail then was LKY himself.
The sentiment of the day can be captured by this quote from Mr Lee:
“But we knew that there were severe trials ahead of us. And it was better to face these trials with men who are prepared to face up to them.”
Through multi-media screens like this, the story behind individual incidents could be presented. What appeared to be just a car crash in Katong was actually deemed to be the work of communist terrorists in 1974.
This chart showed that almost a million man-days were lost due to strikes in the mid 1950s. According to Mr Lee, many of these were initiated by unionists working in cahoots with the pro-Communist cadres led by Lim Chin Siong and his allies.
Quoting once again from his speech:
“The Communists always do this. Exploit a real or imaginary grievance through cadres and sympathisers not generally known to be connected to them. We will always view with sympathy any genuine unhappiness of the English school teachers over the six-day week (a response to strikes by teachers initiated by the Singapore Teachers Union), but we cannot be expected to view with sympathy the efforts of pro-Communist cadres to heat up and exploit this unhappiness.”
This panel narrating Mr Lee’s final talk outlining the vision for Singapore if it were to merge with Malaya. It was the pièce de résistance which helped seal the fate of PAP’s Communist-leaning opponents.
Hearing it once again in Mr Lee’s forceful and direct voice:
“You judge the truth for yourselves from what I have said, and also what the persons involved have not been able to deny. You will notice that yesterday, October 8, these persons about whom I had told you in disclosing the Communist conspiracy have only said that all this is a smear. What we want to ask them is: which particular part or statement in any one of my talks is untrue and therefore just a smear?”
This final panel details a key timeline of the events, outlining the historical contexts behind Communism and its spread across the Asian sub-continent.
More information on The Battle For Merger book and exhibition could be found in NLB’s website here. You can also listen to the radio talks made by Mr Lee in English, Mandarin and Malay from the National Archives of Singapore here.