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Comet in our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History
Editor: Tan Jing Quee & Jomo K. S.
Publisher: Selangor Darul Ehsan (Malaysia)
170 pp. B&W photos.
This is a compilation of several efforts to critically understand and appreciate the significant role and legacy of the late Lim Chin Siong in the political history of Singapore. He was undoubtedly the most prominent left wing leader in Singapore in the 1950’s and 60’s. Academics and close political friends in Malaysia and Singapore attempt to give a balanced and objective account of Lim’s contribution to post-war history in Singapore and Malaysia.
Comet in our Sky brings together a collection of twelve essays, poems and memorials offering a multi-faceted view of the life and times of the late Lim Chin Siong, Singapore’s former trade unionist and socialist parliamentarian whose political career was first curtailed and then cut short by arrests and detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
Book Review by Francis Seow: Important Book with a Tale to Tell
by Cheah Boon Kheng
The New Straits Times (Malaysia)
21 Jul 01
Lim Chin Siong, the vanquished other hero of Singapore’s political history. A man who stayed true to his cause and an architect of our struggle against colonialism. In his honour, KS Jomo and Tan Jing Quee have edited a book which is a collection of essays, poems and speeches in a tribute to a great leader who never got true recognition in our history books. History will be re-written for you cannot keep the truth from surfacing forever. Read this review and buy the book, we believe only in Malaysia. But we will try Borders and tell you the results.
Lim Chin Siong – our other hero In place of a full-length biography, these separate individual accounts and memoirs from Britain, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore represent a composite story of Lim’s life and politics, especially when he was a young rising star in Singapore’s political firmament in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Lee Kuan Yew, who had co-founded the People’s Action Party with him, introduced him to David Marshall, then Singapore’s Chief Minister, as “our future Prime Minister” in 1955. Lim’s bright career however, was abruptly destroyed before he could realise its full potential.
It was during his third imprisonment, says his friend Dr M.K. Rajakumar, that Lim was “destroyed, both psychologically and politically”. He had a nervous breakdown, became depressed and suicidal. In 1969, in this state of depression, he was released from detention after announcing that he would quit politics.
He was allowed to leave for exile in London, and did not return to Singapore again until 1979. He died of a heart attack in 1996 at the age of 62.
Essays by Lim’s close friends, especially Tan Jing Quee and Dr M.K. Rajakumar, add an intimate touch and tell an inspiring story of his rapid climb to popularity and as undisputed leader of Chinese workers, trade unions and Chinese middle school students in the 1950s.
He is described as a slim, youthful figure, selfless, dedicated, with a handsome boyish face whose oratory as a speaker in Hokkien among the Chinese masses was legendary.
In his political memoir The Singapore Story, Lee offered ungrudging praise to Lim’s “hypnotic” oratory: “…a ringing voice that flowed beautifully in his native Hokkien. The girls adored him, especially those in the trade unions. 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.”
In 1955 Lim had been elected as Singapore’s youngest parliamentarian. However, a year later, after widespread riots involving industrial workers and Chinese school students, he was arrested and imprisoned on charges of being one of the leaders of the “communist united front” alleged to have been behind the riots.
Lim’s own reputation was a further casualty to the riots’ mayhem and bloodshed, and he was detained without trial. He denied charges that he was a communist, charges which remain unsubstantiated until today.
In a startling and revisionist essay, Dr Greg Poulgrain of Griffiths University observes that the British Governor of Singapore and his Chief Secretary in their reports to London had admitted that the police could find no evidence to establish that Lim was a communist.
Poulgrain claims it was actually Singapore’s then Chief Minister, Lim Yew Hock, who had deliberately “provoked” the bus and other industrial workers and Chinese middle students to riot in 1956 in order to have Lim Chin Siong arrested.
Lim Yew Hock’s own admission to responsibility for the riot appears in an official report to the British Government which Poulgrain found in the Colonial Office records in London which are now open to researchers.
“Lee Kuan Yew was secretly a party with Lim Yew Hock,” adds Poulgrain, “in urging the Colonial Secretary to impose the subversives ban in making it illegal for former political detainees to stand for election.”
In 1959, while Lim was in prison, the PAP won the general elections under which Lee became Prime Minister, and Singapore was granted self-government by the British in all matters except for internal security, defence and external affairs.
Although Lim and other leftist political detainees were released from prison, their co-operation and alliance with Lee ended in 1961 due to disagreements over policies and strategies.
Until then the media presented the PAP as a leftwing party, indicating the pervasive and dominant influence of Lim’s faction within and outside the party. Their rivalry was intense and ideological. Lee finally resorted to arrests to remove Lim and his faction.
When Lim and other political detainees such as Fong Swee Suan and S. Woodhull were released, they were appointed Political Secretaries. But the honeymoon was soon over.
The PAP split in 1961 saw Lim taking away with him almost the entire PAP branches and personnel to form and lead a new party, the Barisan Socialis (Socialist Front).
Not long after this, the Barisan campaigned to oppose the formation of Malaysia which involved Singapore’s merger with Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya on the grounds that Lee Kuan Yew had not sought more favourable terms for Singapore.
The Malaysia plan, mooted by Malaya’s then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, was endorsed by the British Government which had agreed to relinquish its rule of the other three territories.
Fearing the increasing communist influence said to be behind the Barisan, Lee and the Tunku put pressure on the British authorities to arrest Lim and other leftists in Singapore for their opposition to Malaysia. On Feb 2, 1961 the police, under Operation Cold Store, detained over 100 people, including Lim.
In another essay British historian Dr T.N. Harper discloses that these arrests were initially opposed by top officials in the British Commission in Singapore during meetings of the tripartite Internal Security Council with representatives from the governments of Singapore, Malaya and Britain.
The British Commissioner in Singapore, the Earl of Selkirk, and his deputy, Philip Moore, had argued that such arrests would not only be undemocratic and unfair, but also failed to take into account that Lim and his party had been engaged in constitutional struggle.
The Commissioner’s arguments for democracy and fair play were quite extraordinary and out of line with London’s official thinking, but were eventually rejected by superior officials in London, especially the British Secretary of State.
The mood at the time of Lim’s arrest during Operation Cold Store has been likened to “white terror”, vividly described in a dedicatory poem by Tan Jing Quee, a former trade unionist who is now a lawyer and who himself was later detained on charges of being involved in communist united front activities:
On the second day of February thunder raged through frightened streets lightning blighted all lamps
In essays by other close friends, especially those by Dr M.K. Rajakumar, A. Samad Ismail, A. Mahadeva, Dr Lim Hock Siew and Said Zahari, details of Lim’s personal health, suffering, character and political past are brought to light, especially his kind, friendly, charming and charismatic qualities.
To most Singaporeans, their memory of Lim is that of a broken man, a rising star that burnt out. But Tan Jing Quee recalls that Lim “pulled himself out of the depths of despair. Unknown to many people, he made a remarkable recovery.”
One cannot help but be moved by Lim Chin Siong’s tragic story in Comet in Our Sky, where he appears as Singapore’s alternative hero to Lee Kuan Yew.