Few historical figures in Singapore’s post-war history excite as much controversy as does Lim Chin Siong (1933-96). Emerging from a humble background, Lim quickly rose in the 1950s to become an exceptional trade union leader and organiser. He joined the People’s Action Party (PAP) as a founder member in 1954, and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly the following year as a PAP candidate. He proved himself an absolutely first-rate Chinese-language orator, able to move large crowds with his folksy anti-colonial speeches.
Was he a Communist? Lim never admitted that he was. When Lim was at his political zenith in the 1950s, the British colonies of Singapore and Malaya were embroiled in confrontation with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). This was not a geopolitically isolated contest. It was very much part of the wider Cold War that pitted Western democratic capitalist forces against the politically and economically centralised Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union and China. While the CPM was engaged with British and Malayan forces in a low-intensity shooting war up north in the Malayan jungles, its campaign in relatively more urbanised Singapore took the form of clandestine subversion and the fomenting of industrial unrest.
In the period 1954-56, for instance, Singapore was beset by Communist-instigated work stoppages and paralysis of public transport. Daily life was punctuated by running battles between workers, Chinese middle school students and the police. Cars were burnt, property was destroyed, people were injured, and some lost their lives. In 1955 alone, there were 275 strikes and 946,000 man-days lost compared to a total of 12 strikes and 182,000 man-days lost in 1953 and 1954.
Against this backdrop, the Labour Front leader Lim Yew Hock, who became Chief Minister in June 1956, following the resignation of Chief Minister David Marshall – deemed by the worried British as too soft on the Communists – sought to assure London that his government could restore public order and calm. Lim Yew Hock recognised that the British required assurance that a decolonised Singapore would remain politically stable and anti-Communist, before they could consider any serious constitutional advance toward self-government and eventual independence.
His government hence took a series of tough actions in September and October 1956. Communist agitators were arrested and banished while several Communist-subverted organisations were deregistered. It was in this context that Lim Chin Siong led mass protests against these actions. Amidst the growing tension with student demonstrations and camp-ins in two schools involving 4,000 students, meetings were held in nearby sites where Lim and others were said to have delivered inflammatory speeches.
The standard account records that on the evening of 25 October 1956, Lim apparently made an inflammatory speech at a protest meeting at Beauty World, not far from Chinese High School, accusing the Government of oppressing workers and victimising students. After his speech, a number of those who attended the meeting went down to the school to join the crowds that had already gathered there. Riots broke out not long after. As a result of the violence, 13 people died, 123 were injured, 70 cars were burnt or damaged, two schools were razed and two police stations attacked. Speaking in the Legislative Assembly later, Labour Front Education Minister Chew Swee Kee alleged that Lim had urged the crowd to “pah mata” or “beat the police” and had thus “sparked off the riots”. Lim was subsequently arrested under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO) on 27 October.
The “Pah Mata” Incident: A New Finding?
The “pah mata” episode at Beauty World has now become the subject of a new controversy concerning Lim., In a recent post on The Online Citizen1 website the revisionist historian Thum Ping Tjin, citing recently declassified British Special Branch records, argues that the Labor Front government’s arrest of Lim Chin Siong for allegedly inciting the Beauty World crowd to mob violence was unjust. Thum attaches a copy of the actual Special Branch report of Lim’s Beauty World speech on 25 October, and highlights that Lim did not tell the crowd to “pah mata”. What Lim actually said was as follows:
“With regard to police… they are all wage-earners and they are all here to attend this meeting to oppose Lim Yew Hock. (Loudest cheers of the meeting so far) We gladly welcome them, and the more of them that attend will make us even stronger. (crowd cheers wildly) A lot of people don’t want to shout Merdeka! They want to shout “pah mata”. This is wrong. We want to ask them to cooperate with us because they are also wage-earners and so that in the time of crisis they will take their guns and run away. (Laughter and cheers).”
In short, Thum argues that “the government deliberately misrepresented Lim Chin Siong’s speech”, and that the “Special Branch files show that Lim was framed”. Thum adds that after Lim’s English-speaking colleagues in the PAP won power in 1959, they did not allow “Lim to clear his name either”.
The Basic Problem with Thum’s Analysis: “Cherry-Picking”
Thum’s case however is compromised by his “cherry-picking” approach to the historical record. He appears to selectively emphasise certain facts while ignoring others in order to promote his preferred narrative. This results in four major gaps in his analysis.
Gap One: The Communists were not regular folks
Thum never provides an adequate sense of the Communist threat to Singapore and Malaya. The novice reader can be forgiven for coming away after reading Thum thinking that the CPM represented merely another political option for the people of Singapore and Malaya. It was not. The Communists were utterly ruthless in the quest for power, and their doctrine granted their leaders the flexibility to toggle between “peaceful constitutional struggle” and “armed struggle” depending on their assessment of the evolving political situation.
In Eastern Europe after the Second World War, “United Front” tactics were employed in which Communist agents would form coalitions with civil society associations, unions and political parties, lie and manipulate their way to the top, subvert them from within and take over eventually. The CPM followed suit in Malaya and Singapore as well. Moreover, the Malayan Communists were not beyond using extreme, shocking violence to attain their ends. Bombings, assassinations, hackings, sadistic acts of mutilation, torture and murder of individuals and entire families were not unknown and have been fully documented.
Gap Two: Lim Chin Siong did have Communist links and sympathies
In 1955, Lim Chin Siong declared publicly that he was “not anti-Communist” and “should not support the colonial officials in spreading negative hysteria of anti-Communism”. There is no doubt that Lim did at the very least have strong associations with known Communist United Front (CUF) organisations. For instance, he was a member of the underground Singapore Students’ Anti-British League (ABL), which he joined when he was still a student at Chinese High School. While Lim later claimed he did not know that the ABL was a CUF entity, the Special Branch unearthed documents that flatly contradicted this notion. One was a note Lim made of a talk he gave in commemoration of Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin’s death to his ABL subordinates. Another contained guidance notes by Lim to his ABL charges on the CPM’s secret journal Study. Moreover, even CPM leaders such as Fang Chuang Pi, better known as the Plenipotentiary or “The Plen”, admitted later that he had been in clandestine contact with Lim, asserting in his memoirs that they had a “special relationship”.
Meanwhile, Philip Moore, the deputy high commissioner in Singapore, who was noticeably less hardline in his attitude toward Lim than some other British officials at that time, nevertheless conceded in confidential correspondence in September 1961 that Lim Chin Siong “was a really clever United Front Communist operator”. Interestingly, during the famous 18 July 1961 “tea party” meeting between Moore’s boss Lord Selkirk, Lim and his fellow extreme left PAP members Fong Swee Suan, S. Woodhull and James Puthucheary at Eden Hall, the official residence of the High Commissioner, Lim and Fong had “seemed embarrassed” when Selkirk asked whether they were Communists. The official record notes that both men “failed to give a clear reply”. Such behaviour on the part of Lim even prompted relatively sympathetic observers such as C.J. WL Wee to admit in 1999 that “Lim might be accused of being disingenuous in not directly stating his own position vis-a-vis communism”.
Gap Three: Lim did have a direct role in fomenting unrest
Further exacerbating matters is the evidence that Lim had a direct role in key violent episodes in the 1950s. The first was the 13 May 1954 riots in which Lim and Ng Meng Chiang alias Comrade D – the CPM directing figure in Singapore then – took advantage of the controversial issue of national service to stoke the anger of Chinese middle school students. Lim instructed his subordinates to participate in the demonstrations and told his students to hold their ground if the police resorted to force. 27 students and policemen were injured. A year later, during the infamous Hock Lee Bus dispute in April and May 1955, Lim and Fong Swee Suan exploited their strong union links to escalate tensions by inciting numerous strikes and making rousing speeches, leading the Government to accuse them of instigating the use of violence.
Significantly, Singapore’s future President Devan Nair – then belonging to the PAP extreme left faction – recalled that, although the Hock Lee bus dispute could have been quickly settled, Lim opted to stoke the fires, arguing that “the anger of the workers must first be allowed to explode”. It did, and the violence of May 1955 resulted in four deaths and 31 injured. In the aftermath, an angry Acting Governor William Goode accused Lim of having deliberately organised as many strikes as he could in the lead-up to the riots, while even Chief Minister David Marshall – whom Thum incidentally praises in his article – chastised Lim and his extreme leftist compatriots, noting that the “pattern of developments” closely conformed “to the Communist technique in seeking to foment industrial unrest on any excuse and to obstruct peaceful solutions” (Straits Times 13 May 1955). Marshall actually demanded in the Legislative Assembly “that Lim Chin Siong declare publicly whether he spoke in the Chamber as a communist or communist sympathiser” (Singapore, A Biography, p. 363).
Gap Four: The Beauty World Speech encouraged the crowd to “pah mata” in spirit if not in letter
Finally, Thum takes the “pah mata” comment of Lim Chin Siong totally out of context. One has to view the episode in wider context and read the whole speech – not just the snippet Thum reproduces – to get a clearer sense of what Lim was trying to achieve that evening. What does a fuller reading of the entire speech reveal? Only that the speech was indeed – as so many contemporary and later observers have recounted – inflammatory and aimed to stoke anti-government resentment towards the Lim Yew Hock government. The basic message was that Lim Yew Hock was a stooge of the British, utterly reliant on them to maintain power. Lim Yew Hock did nothing for the people, and was more interested in buying a new car for himself. He was never going to change. Lim Chin Siong moreover warned that “tonight” Lim Yew Hock “may beat the students’, and ‘use force to oppress the innocent students”. Tellingly, Lim Chin Siong added that “we warn him if he uses force against the students, we the people of Singapore will not tolerate it”; that “tonight there is the possibility that something big will happen” and that “we must take certain action to retaliate against their oppressive action” (emphasis mine).
Any student of social psychology would recognize a skilled demagogue’s classic construction of a victimised, morally superior in-group – the workers and students – and a morally evil, materially more powerful out-group – Lim Yew Hock and the British. In addition, by the use of dehumanising language – “Lim Yew Hock has clearly shown today he has become a running dog of the British (ang moh lang)”; “the British in Malaya today are like dogs”; “look at the British and spit, filthy spit” – Lim not only succeeded in whipping the crowd up to a wild frenzy (as the Special Branch note-taker clearly records) he consigned the out-group members to a state of what Orlando Patterson calls a state of social death. When that happens, out-group violence is not too far off. As we know, following Lim’s speech, violence did ensue.
It does not matter that Lim Chin Siong did not literally tell the crowd to “pah mata”. Perhaps he was trying to drive a wedge between the police and the government they were representing. Or more likely, he was being sarcastic, and the crowd knew it and lapped it up, as the record hints at. The bottom line is Lim Chin Siong’s October 1956 Beauty World speech as a whole, would today be regarded as a good example of non-violent extremism. Non-violent extremist leaders do not actually tell their followers to go out and attack specific targets. They merely focus on creating a psychological climate in which out-group violence in general is fully legitimised – which prompts some of their followers to go out and take action of their own volition. As Lim said in his speech: “We must take certain action to retaliate against oppressive action” – and he adroitly left it to his followers to figure out what that “certain action” meant. Hence the ensuing violence was not – as Thum suggests – because “public anger was too strong”. Violence broke out because Lim had skillfully fostered an emotionally combustible climate in which any small skirmish with police was bound to spark a full-fledged riot.
If all this sounds familiar, there are good reasons for it: “I am only a craftsman making knives”, a well-known violent Islamist extremist leader in Indonesia asserted famously not so long ago, “so how am I responsible for how those knives are used?” Notwithstanding the differences in ideology, time and space, such words might as well been uttered by Lim Chin Siong on the evening of 25 October 1956. In this light, Thum’s assertion that Lim Chin Siong’s detention was unjustified because he did not literally tell the crowd to “pah mata” misses the point completely. A case could arguably be made that up to and as a result of that speech, Lim had done little to suggest why the full force of the law should not have been applied against him.
Lim Chin Siong remains a morally complex historical figure. On the one hand, as Lee Kuan Yew, Devan Nair and other members of the founding generation of Singapore’s political leadership have said publicly, Lim deserves much admiration and respect for his dedication, austere lifestyle and unflinching commitment to his cause. Nevertheless Lim did embrace the Communist world view. He seemed to interpret the world through the lens of “dialectical materialism”, in which impersonal world historical forces appeared more important than – and decisive in shaping – individual life trajectories.
As he once put it rhetorically, “was it my mistake or was it the mistake of history that I had become a member of the ABL at that time?” Such intellectual commitment proved costly, because Communism suffered from a basic internal contradiction. Its founder Karl Marx envisaged it as a scientific, historically inevitable system for overcoming the dehumanising impact of industrial capitalism in separating the working class from enjoyment of the fruits of its labour. Ironically, however, once in power Communist regimes were even more dehumanising, emphasising class interests over individual happiness. “In spite of its glowing talk about the welfare of the masses”, the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “Communism’s methods and philosophy strip man of his dignity and worth, leaving him little more than a depersonalised cog in the ever-turning wheel of the state”. Such logic ultimately legitimated violence against putative class enemies. Lim appeared to sincerely believe that the ends of global Communism, with its promise of material plenty for the hitherto oppressed working classes, justified practically any means – including prevarication and violence – to attain it.
Lim’s personal moral paradox – like other like-minded intellectuals of the time – was thus intertwined with that afflicting Communism itself. C.J. WL Wee rightly asks: How could “a doctrine of liberation” lead “to the atrocities that it did?” This is a good question: Communist regimes only brought decades of misery to their populations. Little wonder that they were subsequently overthrown in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union by 1989. Furthermore, massive reforms have been required in China and Vietnam, whose governments are now trying to restructure in a more capitalist direction. Remaining communist regimes like North Korea and Cuba meanwhile remain pariah states in the international community.
Singaporeans should therefore take care to avoid uncritically embracing revisionist historical representations like Thum’s. Despite all his personal qualities, Lim Chin Siong ultimately erred. It is moreover important to acknowledge the crucial contributions of all those who fought in the struggle against Communist violence and oppression. In the end this is perhaps the real story to be told, of how such unsung heroes suffered threats and abuse from the Communists and some even gave their lives in the process. It was these courageous souls who ultimately helped to build modern Singapore, free from the yoke of Communism – what the former British Labour politician Richard H.S. Crossman called – the “god that failed”.
Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor and Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University. A historian by training, he has published extensively on the struggle against post-war Malayan Communism. He is working on a longer scholarly analysis of Operation Coldstore.
1Accessed 8 May 2014, available at (http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2014/05/lim-chin-siong-was-wrongfully-detained)