WILLIAM CHENG: A LIFE OF A FORMER SPY
William Cheng: A life of former Special Branch officer
A Civil Servant and Anti-Communist: William Cheng, former Deputy Superintendent (Special Branch, Police Force), Principal Assistant Secretary (Education), Permanent Secretary (Labour) and first Trade Representative to the Republic of China (Taiwan)
By Mark Wong, Oral History Specialist
[ORIGINAL ARTICLE is here]
Former top civil servant William Cheng passed away on 10 November 2010, about a month and a half shy of his 82nd birthday. When the Oral History Centre interviewed him in 1994 for our project, “The Civil Service – A Retrospection”, Cheng recounted some of his most memorable experiences in the public sector, where he began in the Special Branch of the Police Force, moved into the Administrative Service at the ministries of Education and Labour, and later came out of retirement to be a diplomat. What stood out most strongly in his interviews was his role in battling communist elements in the 1950s and 1960s, and how, by the 1970s, a more stable society had developed in part because of the contributions of civil servants like himself.
Born 1928 in mainland China, William Cheng was the son of an official in the Chinese nationalist government. The elder Cheng was the first post-war Chinese Minister to Australia and later appointed Ambassador to Iran. However in 1949, following China’s turn to communism, the elder Cheng resigned from the government and moved his family to Hong Kong. William Cheng was then studying Modern European History at Oxford University, but joined his family in Hong Kong upon his graduation in 1951.
After a year of teaching History at Queen’s College, Hong Kong, William Cheng accepted an assignment to Singapore, which came about as a result of his father’s extensive diplomatic contacts.
“You know […] my father was anti-communist and I am also anti-communist. So at that time Malcolm McDonald was the British High Commissioner for Southeast Asia. Now his Deputy […] Christworth was the Secretary of the British Embassy in Iran. So he knew my father well. So my father wrote to Christworth, I think then he took it up with McDonald. And McDonald arranged for me to come over to Singapore […] to fight […] against the communist insurgency. I was put into Special Branch. I joined the Police Force.”.
Having seen his homeland China turn communist, Cheng decided to play a part in preventing Singapore from meeting the same fate. Starting out as Chief Inspector before ending his stint as Deputy Superintendent of Police, Cheng spent 11 years at Special Branch from 1953 to 1963. His experience there was almost wholly shaped by the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960, marked by intensive underground communist activity against the colonial government. These were dangerous times and Cheng himself had a brush with death, as he recalled:
“I was nearly killed by the communist underground. That was I think in early ’53 or ’54. Now, you know […] next door to Raffles Hotel the Beach Road side, there was a small petrol kiosk. I used to go to that petrol kiosk to get my petrol […] Working at the petrol kiosk was a woman who was a member of the underground. So she succeeded in identifying me as a Special Branch officer which was very high on the hit list of the communist underground […] The plan was that when I went for petrol, two gunmen would come from left and right side and just open fire. I was sitting in the car waiting for my petrol [and] I would be attacked on both sides. So there is no escape. I was lucky […] a week or ten days before they were due to carry out the execution we arrested the Worker’s Protection Corps chief – their section chief. From him we Special Branch recovered a list of car numbers which all belonged to police officers, Special Branch officers down for elimination. And my car number was there.”
As a young officer involved in the intelligence gathering of subversive elements, Cheng was at times tasked to assess where particular public individuals lay on the political spectrum. One early assignment was to evaluate the politics of an up-and-coming young lawyer named Lee Kuan Yew, who, five years later, would become the Prime Minister of Singapore.
“I think it is sometime in 1954. At that time the British were not quite sure how, LKY’s stand was because he was running with the pro-communist front […] The Special Branch at that time […] there was a section called the ESI, English Speaking Intelligent section […] monitoring the English speaking intellectuals in Singapore. The officer-in-charge at that time was a British officer called Finch and I was his number two […] Finch […] arranged to invite LKY over for a drink in his house […] I still remember LKY sat opposite me; Finch on my left and Mrs Lee on my right. Generally we were chitchatting. The main objective was to make an assessment to see whether LKY was a communist or not.
So I was telling LKY… “骑虎难下” – it is easy to ride a tiger but you can’t get off because once you get off you will be eaten by the tiger. So I told LKY that the way he was playing with communist […] was like riding a tiger. When he gets off, I told him, he will be eaten by the communists. And he turned around to me, he said, ‘No, you are wrong. I’ll get off the tiger and I beat the communist.’ That is a very vital statement he said at the time [….] Fortunately he was right and I was wrong. If I was right he would have been eaten by the communist. But I was wrong. So we had Singapore today.”
Cheng’s evaluation of his years at Special Branch was balanced, finding the experience thrilling but also conceding the difficulties of staying too long in this line of work.
“For a short period, yes, it’s very exciting especially dealing with the communist insurgency and United Front. It’s very exciting. But if have been there for 10, 15, 20 [years], I think it’s not good for your mind, ‘cause your vision gets very narrowed. You’re focusing everything on security and nothing else. So I think one spell in Special Branch, or in ISD [Internal Security Department], or in whatever security work should not be more than five years. Too long is no good for you.”
From the Police Force, he moved on to the Ministry of Education and was appointed Principal Assistant Secretary. Ironically, despite this career change into the Administrative Service, he found himself again dealing with communist elements, this time focusing on student agitators in the schools and universities.
“At that time there were many student societies in Nanyang University, all communist controlled. Then they all affiliate and come under the Nanyang University Students Union […] Outside the university they have the Nanyang University Graduate Association – also communist controlled. So one in[side], one out[side]. They controlled it very, very firmly. They control the flow, the supply of the communist cadres.
So in order to fight the communist, I was instrumental in forming the Nanyang University Friendship Association […] That time was a very, very difficult task because [of] the fear prevalent in the University. The students – nobody dares to move against the pro-communist students who were very firmly entrenched. But there were a group of students who were very firmly entrenched. But there were a group of students who were very anti. I organised that group of students and they will form the Nanyang University Friendship Association […]
They were the front men fighting them. We broke the hold of the communist grip by using that association [….] Once we start to break the hold, a lot of waverers who were outwardly pro-communist left wing they wanted to come over. Come across. So what we did was that the fellowship groups would identify them, bring them to the Ministry to see me and I assess them their willing[ness] to come over and they want to clear their name. To come clean, we called it.”
By the 1970s, the social-political climate of Singapore had stabilised immensely from a decade or two before. When Cheng took up the appointment of Permanent Secretary (Labour), he found that his job had been made easier by the foundations of tripartism – the relationship of cooperation between unions, employers and the government – that had been laid down before him and led to a new era of industrial peace.
“1971. I went over to Labour. But then when I went to Labour the turbulent years were already over. The unions all settled. The Employment Act was instituted. So it’s a matter of monitoring, to ensure the tripartite relationship […] My duties were actually to maintain harmony in the labour movement. And tripartism to be maintained, which I think was done […] The other [task] is Industrial Safety. These are the two. Because that ties up to safety of the workers, welfare of the workers.”
Cheng retired from the civil service at age 50, but was soon asked by Minister for Labour Ong Pang Boon if he would go to Taiwan to take up a diplomatic appointment. Cheng accepted, becoming Singapore’s Trade Representative to the Republic of China (Taiwan) for nine years (three terms) from 1979-1988.
Spending a total of 36 years in the civil service, Cheng was witness to the many changes in the public sector, from the time Singapore was still a British colony, through the transition period of self government and finally when we attained full independence. During those years, the very essence of what it meant to be a civil servant transformed significantly, as Cheng explained:
“We used to have a joke. The British used to sign their letters and finished, ‘Sir, Your Obedient Servant, Yours so-and-so”. We used to say: you are neither obedient nor servant; you are the law sitting on the people. In those days, when I say civil servants, the top echelons are the British, and the middle and lower echelons were the Asians, the locals. As I said, you aid your masters. The British were overlord. They also acted as overlord. The civil servants were not popular […] in those days the civil servants belong to the ruling class. It’s only the PAP came in the attitude has changed.
So we called ourselves servants. [The] Taiwanese talked about officials in Chinese called ‘官’ [officials] – ‘做官’ [to be an official]. I keep on telling them: Singapore has no ‘官’. We have only civil servants. We have ‘公务员’ [public servants], not ‘官’.”