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

10 July 2007

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Part II: Get him!
9 Jul 07

After securing control of the PAP with the aid of the British, Lee Kuan Yew was still left with the problem of the detained Lim Chin Siong and his supporters.

This was a source of embarrassment for him. Seeing this, Lee announced that he would secure the release of his party comrades before taking office if the PAP won the elections in 1959.

Behind the scenes, Lee negotiated and secured the private agreement of then British Prime Minister Harold Lim Chin Siong garlanded upon his release on 4 Jun 1959.Macmillan that the prisoners would be released by promising that he (Lee) would "move against them if they departed from the party line."

In return for promising to secure their release, Lee had secured Lim Chin Siong's and other detainees' pledges of allegiance to the party's manifesto.

Following PAP's victory in the 1959 election, Lim and six other detainees, were released.

Question: If Lim Chin Siong had really been the one who started the riots in 1956, shouldn't he have been charged and imprisoned, rather then released?

In truth the PAP and the British themselves were playing fast and loose with the law. The affair confirmed suspicions that all the backroom dealings was for political ends, not national security.

In any event, Lee assigned Lim – who, if not for all the machinations, would have been the leader of the PAP and prime minister – the post of political secretary in the ministry of finance, the Siberia of politics at that time.

In the meantime, detentions without trial continued under the new Lee government and the ISC continued to be used as a front for the PAP's acts.

An indecent proposal

Fed-up with Lee's autocratic style and the delay of releasing the remaining detainees, PAP MP and mayor Ong Eng Guan denounced the government for its dictatorial methods and moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly to abolish the ISC.

Harper wrote that because of the secrecy under which the ISC operated "not all members of Lee's cabinet were aware that the Singapore government had not pressed for the releases since early 1960."

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)

Moore suggested that the best solution would be "to release all the detainees forthwith." Lee, however, "was unwilling to present the left with such a victory."

In a most damning indictment, Moore said that Lee "has lived a lie about the detainees for too long, giving the Party the impression that he was pressing for their release while, in fact, agreeing in the ISC that they should remain in detention."

And if one thought that Lee Kuan Yew could not sink any lower, he did. He turned to his saviours and warned that should he lose in an upcoming by-election, he would call for a general election, which he fully expected to lose.

This was because he was facing defections in the Legislative Assembly on his refusal to release the remaining detainees. And should he lose the elections, he warned the colonial masters, David Marshall, Ong Eng Guan and Lim Chin Siong would form the next government.

This, he calculated, would be so distasteful to the British that it would rally them to his side.

He presented the scheme at a dinner with Commissioner Lord Selkirk, Philip Moore (Selkirk's deputy), and Goh Keng Swee: Lee would order the release of the prisoners, the British would stop it through the ISC, and he would then announce a referendum on merger with Malaya (the story behind merger is explained below).

This would provoke opposition from his party mates as well as Lim's supporters whom he would then banish to Malaya.

A 1961 memo between the then Commission in Singapore and the Colonial Office in London revealed that Lee calculated that this move "would force Lim Chin Siong to reveal his hand completely and resort to direct action, in which event the Singapore Government would relinquish power and allow the British or the Federation to take over Singapore."

In short, Lee was willing to sacrifice the efforts to secure the independence of Singapore to achieve his own political ends!

As it turned out, Selkirk wanted to have nothing to do with the "unsavoury" proposal.

Merger – on one condition

At about this time, Malaya's Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman revived the idea of a federation of Malaysia consisting of the Borneo territories (now Sarawak, Sabah, and Brunei), Malaya (now peninsular Malaysia), and Singapore.

In exchange for territorial concessions in Borneo, the Tunku as the head of the federation would allow Britain to maintain a strategic presence in Singapore.

The proposal was put forward because the Tunku was having problems of his own with the left in Malaya. This was not helped by the strength of Lim Chin Siong's left in Singapore. Kuala Lumpur saw the necessity of crippling Lim's support and wanted Lee to be its hit-man.

For the British, the idea of a Malaysian federation was an acceptable compromise because it allowed London to maintain influence in the region while relinquishing its colony which it was going to lose anyway given the irresistible anti-colonial sentiment fanning the globe at that time.

As for Lee Kuan Yew, the idea was heaven sent. Harper documents that Lee saw the Tunku's concept of a "Malaysia" as crucial to his own political survival because of the growing strength of the left.

The left's strength was amply demonstrated when Lee's rightwing faction lost two by-elections in quick succession – the first to Ong Eng Guan in April 1961 (Hong Lim) and the second three months later to David Marshall (Anson).

Lee was rattled. Then PAP chairman, Toh Chin Chye, recalled: "He was quite shocked. He drew me aside after the results were announced and asked me what to do. I said, 'Hang on!'"

Toh also revealed that Lee had written to him that "the trade unions, the Middle Road crowd wanted him to resign" and that they wanted him to replace Lee as the prime minister.

Toh did not recommend Lee's resignation. But the reason he gave was that it "would divide the government and it would appear to the people of Singapore that we were being unsteady," hardly a ringing endorsement of Lee's leadership.

These developments precipitated an open split between Lee and Lim Chin Siong. Lim's group suspected – correctly – that Lee was up to no good in his pursuit of merger with Malaysia and they openly called for the abolition of the ISC.

In July 1961, legislative assemblymen, parliamentary/organising secretaries, and members of the PAP split from the party and formed the Barisan Sosialis. Lee's party was shaved to bare bones.

At the time, Harper writes, "there was an immense political momentum, a sense that the future lay with the Barisan Sosialis."

Even then, Lim Chin Siong never wavered in his commitment to governing Singapore in a democratic way when he wrote in a press statement that "any constitutional arrangement must not mean a setback for the people in terms of freedom and democracy."

This contrasts with the PAP's demonisation of Lim as a front for the communist out to destroy the democratic way.

Closing in on Lim

Meanwhile In Malaya the Tunku insisted that Lee re-arrest Lim Chin Siong before he would allow Singapore into the federation.

One of the reasons was because if the detention was conducted after merger, the Kuala Lumpur government would be responsible for it and it would be seen as cracking down on the Chinese in Singapore, increasing communal tensions.

As for Lee's part, he saw the detention of Lim as his trump card and wanted to secure the merger first before he moved against the Barisan leader; Abdul Rahman would have no incentive to proceed with merger once the threat of Lim was removed.

But the Tunku was firm: No detention of Lim, no merger. Lee knew he had to act.

And so a two-part plan was hatched to bait Lim and colleagues: "In the first phase, the Barisan would be harassed by the police and the government. This was designed to provoke it into unconstitutional action, which would initiate a second phase of detentions, restrictions and other actions to be sanctioned by the ISC."

Lim's opposition of allowing the British to retain powers of detention during the constitutional talks in 1956 rang truer than ever and Marshall's colourful description of "Christmas pudding and arsenic sauce" were beginning to sound very apt.

The diabolical scheme was vehemently opposed by the British Commission in Singapore. Lord Selkirk told his superiors in London that "in fact I believe that both of them (Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew) wish to arrest the effective political opposition and blame us for doing so."

In the months leading up to Lim's arrest, Selkirk wrote to his superiors in London again, imploring them not to cooperate with Lee:

"Lee is probably very much attracted to the idea of destroying his political opponents. It should be remembered that there is behind all this a very personal aspect…he claims he wishes to put back in detention the very people who were released at his insistence – people who are intimate acquaintances, who have served in his government, and with whom there is a strong sense of political rivalry which transcends ideological differences."

Contrast this to what Lee wrote in his memoirs in 1998: "Lim Chin Siong…knew that if he went beyond certain limits, [the ISC] would act…"

Lim need not have gone "beyond certain limits" as declassified documents now reveal, Lee was determined to put him in prison, communist or not, limits or no.

More shamefully, Lee will not admit that he was the one who had pushed for Lim's detention.

Selkirk's deputy, Philip Moore, reviewed intelligence reports and concluded that there were no security reasons to detain Lim Chin Siong: "Lim is working very much on his own and that his primary objective is not the Communist millennium but to obtain control of the constitutional government of Singapore."

But London was determined not to allow democratic scruples from getting in the way of its strategic presence in Southeast Asia. It acquiesced to Lee's plan.


Part III: The end of Lim Chin Siong

The next instalment will examine the treatment of Lim Chin Siong in Lee Kuan Yew's hands. More evidence of Lim's persecution.


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