Lim Chin Siong vs Lee Kuan Yew: The true and shocking history

Part I: Our man
08 Jul 07

Lee saw the power in Lim Chin Siong.“The men who led Singapore to self-government and independence were swift to produce an authorized version of their struggle…,” historian T N Harper observes, “it began with Lee Kuan Yew’s dramatic broadcasts as Prime Minister on Radio Malaya in 1961. The plot and the moral of this story are clear: by the political resolve and tactical acumen of its leaders, the fragile city-state weathers the perils of a volatile age and emerges into an era of stability and prosperity.”

However, much to the discomfort of the Minister Mentor who hitherto has had a relatively free reign in portraying “the period as one in which Lim Chin Siong and the left were outmanoeuvred by the tactically more astute Lee Kuan Yew,” Harper cautions that “authoritative new archival research sheds new light on the high politics of the period.”

In other words, Lee’s bravado with which he presently speaks covers up much that took place during those years.

In truth, Lim Chin Siong’s fate was sealed right from the very beginning by the power of the British colonialists – and not Lee Kuan’s political prowess.

At that time British authorities were already devising ways on how to stop Lim’s ascent in Singapore’s politics. Southeast Asia historian, Greg Poulgrain, writes that “In the Public Record Office in London are some of the observations and stratagems pursued by both the Colonial and Foreign Office – revealed now more than thirty years after the events – on how to deal with this rising star, Lim Siong Chin.”

With Singaporeans becoming more educated and the advent of the Internet, events surrounding the heroics of Lee and his PAP during the period of independence and merger with Malaya “no longer looks so unilinear and uncontested.”

The emergence of Lim Chin Siong

The failed 1956 Constitutional talks, Lancaster House, London. From right: David Marshall, then chief minister (7th), Lee Kuan Yew (2nd) and Lim Chin Siong (partially hidden).Harper recounts the “meteoric” rise of Lim Chin Siong as a student and trade union leader in the early 1950s who was at the heart of the anti-colonial politics that had erupted all over Asia following World War II.

By unifying the labour movement and galvanizing the overwhelmingly Chinese-speaking electorate through his formidable oratorical skills (he once told his massive audience: “Saya masuk first gear, lu jangan gostan!” – “When I go into the first gear, don’t you go into reverse!”), Lim captured the attention of the masses.

And Lee Kuan Yew’s too. This led to an association between the two men and the subsequent formation of the PAP. The anglophile Lee (Harry, as he once wanted to be called) saw the power of his younger Chinese-educated comrade.

Even within the PAP, “Lim eclipsed Lee Kuan Yew and other leaders in the popular following he commanded…”

But in his memoirs, The Singapore Story, published in 1998 Lee Kuan Yew condescendingly described Lim as “modest, humble and well-behaved, with a dedication to his cause that won my reluctant admiration and respect.”

The truth is that Lee didn’t have much of a choice. Lim Chin Siong was at the front, back and center of a political movement that commanded national attention. From all accounts, Lee would have been marginalized if his parasitic instincts had not been so acute.

Popular as he was locally, Lim Chin Siong did not confine his politics to within Singapore. Despite British efforts to isolate the island from anti-imperial movements that engulfed much of Empire, Lim would draw inspiration from liberation movements elsewhere in Africa and Asia.

His speeches in the early 1960s repeatedly made reference to events in the colonial world as well as to South Africa, Korea, and Turkey. This sense of internationalism had a “deep resonance” in Singapore.

The colonial government countered by censoring imported reading material. “This,” writes Harper, “would continue, even intensify, after self-government as the PAP government increasingly saw itself as pitted against what Lee Kuan Yew was to term the ‘anti-colonialism’ of global liberation movements.”

In other words, Lee was not the hero who led the fight for Singapore’s freedom. This might come as a shock to some but as declassified documents reveal, it was Lim Chin Siong who insisted that Singaporeans’ freedom and independence were not for compromise.

It was also “what really caused the British authorities to consider [Lim] such a threat.”

The talks collapse…

When David Marshall became the chief minister after his Labour Front won the elections in 1955, he organised a delegation to London the following year to negotiate independence from the British. Marshall included both Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew in his team.

The chief minister fought hard, some say too hard, to wrest power from the British in the internal affairs of Singapore. He opposed Britain’s power to appoint the police chief who in turn had power over the Special Branch, as it was then known. It was the Special Branch that gave the authorities the power of detention without trial.

The idea of retaining the power of internal security whilst granting self-government, Marshall accused the British, was like serving “Christmas pudding and arsenic sauce.”

Lim Chin Siong supported the chief minister on this and demanded a constitution that transferred power to the local government with only defence and foreign relations left in British hands.

The British refused the demand and the talks collapsed. Marshall returned to Singapore frustrated and, amidst condemnation by Lee Kuan Yew, resigned as chief minister.

…Lim Chin Siong is detained…

Lim Yew Hock took over the position and led another visit to London the following year, which again included Lee Kuan Yew. But this time, Marshall and Lim Chin Siong were not part of the negotiating team.

More accurately, Lim Chin Siong could not go because Lim Yew Hock, as chief minister, had placed him under arrest, ostensibly for instigating a riot.

The episode began when Chief Minister Lim closed down a Chinese women’s group and a musical association. A week later, he banned the Chinese Middle School Union which provoked further unhappiness with the locals.

Undeterred he arrested Chinese student leaders and shut down more organizations and schools, including the Chinese High School and the Chung Cheng High School. Given the already tense situation between the Chinese-speaking people and the colonial authorities, this was a highly provocative act.

At that time any Singaporean leader worth his salt could not have sat by idly. And so Lim Chin Siong came to the fore and spoke up for the students. The late Devan Nair, former Singapore president, joined in.

A 12-day stay-in was organised at one of the schools and Lim Chin Siong was scheduled to speak at a nearby park one evening.

It wasn’t long before the police appeared and ringed the crowd. Suddenly a mob started throwing stones at the police who then charged with batons and tear-gas.

Violence erupted and spread, with police stations being attacked and cars burned. By the end of the chaos 2,346 people were arrested and more than a dozen Singaporeans were killed.

The blame was squarely pinned on Lim Chin Siong who was arrested.

But did Lim Chin Siong really cause the mayhem? Who was the “mob” that started attacking the police?

At that time, Chief Minister Lim made no bones that the Lim Chin Siong was the front man for the communists who had started the violence. Lim was arrested by the Special Branch the following day.

Lim vehemently denied this accusation and countered that the chief minister was a colonial stooge. As declassified documents now reveal, Lim Chin Siong was largely right.

Entitled Extract from a note of a meeting between Secretary of State and Singapore Chief Minister, 12 December 1956, the archival note recorded that it was Chief Minister Lim who “had provoked the riots and this had enabled the detention of Lim Chin Siong.”

Poulgrain even documents that full-scale military assistance was requested by prior arrangement. Singapore Governor, William Goode, acknowledged that the colonial government was not beyond employing the tactic of provoking a riot and then using the outcome to “achieve a desired political result.”

Indeed, Poulgrain noted that “[Public Record Office] documents show these were the tactics of provocation that were employed in the 1956 riots that led to Lim Chin Siong’s arrest.”

A few weeks after Lim Chin Siong was behind bars, Lim Yew Hock visited London in December 1956 and was “warmly congratulated on the outcome by Alan Lennox-Boyd, Secretary of State for the Colonies.”

And yet, in his memoirs, the Minister Mentor concludes that the Malayan Communist Party “in charge of Lim Chin Siong” were behind the whole affair and that Lim Yew Hock had purged Singapore of the communist ringleaders.

…and the talks are resurrected

And so in the 1957 with Lim Chin Siong under detention, Lim Yew Hock led the delegation to London. But during the negotiations, it was Lee who “played a crucial role in sweeping away the earlier obstacles to agreement on internal security by resurrecting the proposal for an Internal Security Council (ISC).”

The ISC was structured in a way that Britain and Malaya outweighed Singapore in the outfit. Why was the PAP supportive of such an arrangement?

Historian Simon Ball said it best: “Lee wanted an elected government but not one that could be blamed for suppressing its own citizens.”

Even more damning was an archival “Top Secret” document that recorded: “Lee was confidentially said that he values the [Internal Security] Council as a potential ‘scape-goat’ for unpopular measures he will wish to take against subversive activities.”

But the PAP continues the charade. Recall what Dr Ow Chin Hock wrote in his letter in 1996 about the arrest of Lim Chin Siong and other Barisan leaders: “The [ISC] had a British chairman, two British members, one Malaysian members and three Singaporean members. Together these four non-Singaporeans outnumbered the three Singaporeans on the council.”

In any event, unlike the one led by David Marshall, the negotiations in 1957 had little spine and gave away too much of Singaporeans’ rights. As a result, both sides expeditiously reached an agreement for self-government, an agreement that Marshall called “tiga suku busok merdeka” (three-quarters rotten independence).

But self-government was not the only subject being discussed. On the side, the British also wanted to introduce a clause that would bar ex-detainees, or subversives as the authorities called them, from standing for elections.

Lee supported such a move – one that he would surely have known would cripple party comrade Lim Chin Siong’s political career.

In his memoirs, however, Lee Kuan Yew wrote: “I objected to [the introduction of the clause] saying that ‘the condition is disturbing both because it is a departure from the democratic practice and because there is no guarantee that the government in power will not use this procedure to prevent not only the communist but also democratic opponents of their policy from standing for elections’.”

A declassified British memo contradicts this: “Lee Kuan Yew was secretly a party with Lim Yew Hock in urging the Colonial Secretary to impose the ‘subversives ban’.”

Perhaps this is not surprising as the British had noted that the “present leadership of the PAP is obsessed with the need to persuade the politically unsophisticated masses that the PAP is ‘on their side’ and this involves demonstrating that the PAP is not a friend of the foreigner…”

And this is perhaps the reason why Lee told Britain’s Secretary of State, Alan Lennox-Boyd: “I will have to denounce [the clause]. You will have to take responsibility.”

London to the rescue…again

A few months after Lee returned from the constitutional talks in London in March 1957, the PAP conducted elections of its executive council. Lim Chin Siong was still under detention and could not challenge Lee for the party’s leadership.

Lim’s supporters, however, outnumbered Lee’s rightwing faction and were elected to the executive council of the PAP.

The British, through Lim Yew Hock who was by then “viewed as an altogether more compliant tool of the security apparatus,” ordered the arrest of Lim Chin Siong’s supporters, thereby securing Lee Kuan Yew’s continued control of the party.

Harper records, that despite Lee’s protests against the crackdown of his party’s leftwing, “not all were convinced of his innocence in the matter.”

In his 1998 memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew describes the fateful detention of the PAP’s leftwing leaders by giving much prominence to Lim Yew Hock’s decision while adroitly playing down the role of the British.

After the talks in 1957, and given the stubbornness of Marshall and Lim in the 1956 talks, the British were persuaded that Lee was their man.

Another set of talks were arranged in May 1958 and thereafter “there was an unspoken assumption that the PAP would govern after the 1959 elections.”

Writer T J S George repeated this observation that “repeated [British] intervention to ensure Lee Kuan Yew’s political survival confirmed the feeling that Lee was by now Britain’s chosen man for Singapore.”

Poulgrain recounted his own experience with British intelligence officers who were operating in Singapore in the early 1960s. One told him about a group of officers who were listening in on Lee Kuan Yew making a speech, railing against British imperialism.

“The diatribe,” Poulgrain writes, “brought only a jocular response from this group, one of whom openly commented that Lee was going a ‘bit over the top’ considering that he was actually ‘working with us.'”

The historian states plainly that Lee Kuan Yew personified the essential long-term interests of the United Kingdom in Singapore.

Lee himself played up this position when he told the British government that the PAP was really London’s “best ally.”

The British agreed. Secret documents now show that London’s assessment was that Lim Chin Siong was increasingly bringing pressure to bear on Her Majesty’s Government and “unless forestalled by Lee, may well be able to make the pressure decisive.”

Lee was grateful. He indicated that “he and his other reputed moderates in the PAP regard the continued presence of the British in Singapore as an assurance for themselves.”

From then on, despite the British concerns of Lee’s “totalitarian streak that rides roughshod over all opposition or criticism”, Lee’s PAP and London “became locked closer together.”

Part II: Get him!

In the next instalment read how an emboldened Lee Kuan Yew, with British backing, officially breaks with Lim Chin Siong. To be posted tomorrow. You won’t want to miss this.


In his memoirs, Lee wrote that “Lim Chin Siong wanted to eliminate the Internal Security Council because he knew that…if it ordered the arrest and detention of the communist leaders, the Singapore government could not be held responsible and be stigmatized a colonial stooge.”

What the Minister Mentor did not say, but what Harper reveals in his chapter, is shockingly contradictory: “In mid-1961, therefore, to seek a way out, Lee suggested to the British that his government should order the release of all [the remaining] detainees, but then have that order countermanded in the ISC by Britain and Malaya.”

Such a craven act was even rebuffed by the British. The acting Commissioner, Philip Moore, stated that the British should not be “party to a device for deliberate misrepresentation of responsibility for continuing detentions in order to help the PAP government remain in power.” (emphasis added)

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