Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dr Poh Soo Kai : I would not shake Lee Kuan Yew's hands

By Cai HaoXiang & Jeremy AuYong

Publication: ST Sunday Times
Date: Sunday, 27 December 2009
Page: 12
(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited

If you met Lee Kuan Yew today, would you shake his hand?

You wouldn’t shake his hand? Would you say anything to him?
Nothing more to say.

Former Barisan Sosialis leader and Operation Cold Store detainee Poh Soo Kai returned to Singapore two years ago after living as an emigre in Canada for nearly two decades. The 77-year-old doctor wants to tell his side of the Singapore story before it is too late.
Sipping tea over the dining room table at his two-storey terrace house in East Coast Road, Dr Poh Soo Kai exudes an old-school gentility that belies his 17-year political incarceration and hardened socialist convictions.

As his wife Margaret urges the reporters to help themselves to freshly cut papaya and Penang pastries, the 77-year old gives a genial chuckle: “My life story! So where do you want to start?”
Looking at the soft-spoken balding man in his polo T-shirt, it is hard to imagine that he was once regarded as a threat to national security.
The former Barisan Sosialis leader was arrested in 1963 for alleged pro-communist activities. He was released at the end of 1972 and re-arrested in 1976, accused of plotting to revive communist united front activities.

After his release in 1982, he practised as a doctor for eight years before emigrating to Canada with his wife in 1990. He returned to Singapore for good two years ago.

Among his peers, Dr Poh is remembered as the student activist who co-wrote the anti-British editorial entitled “Aggression in Asia” in Fajar, the journal of the then-University of Malaya Socialist Club (USC), in May 1954. It led to his arrest together with seven other students for sedition.

Today, Dr Poh joins a growing group of ageing former leftists who are stepping into the open to give their side of the Singapore story.
He is a key collaborator behind the book The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club And The Politics Of Post-war Malaya And Singapore, launched at the Alumni Medical Centre at Singapore General Hospital on Nov15.

In four articles, Dr Poh wrote about the founding of the club, the political circumstances surrounding his detention, and the future of socialism.

The first question that springs to mind: After living in Vancouver for 17 years as a rose-planting retiree, why did he return to Singapore in 2007?

His reply: I wanted to be with my family.
“My sister who lived in Canada has passed away. I’m getting old. The National Health Service there is very good but when you go to the hospital, nobody comes to see you.”

All his surviving family members, who include two brothers and two sisters, are in Singapore.

Dr Poh was born in Singapore, the fourth child of six in a privileged Straits-born Chinese family.

His maternal grandfather was prominent millionaire businessman and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee, and his uncle was Mr Lee Kong Chian, another famous philanthropist and founder of OCBC Bank.
Just before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, his family moved to India. He spent the four war years in a Catholic missionary secondary school in Mumbai.

He moved back to Singapore after the Japanese surrender and entered Raffles Institution, before going to the medical faculty of the University of Malaya, the predecessor of the National University of Singapore, in 1950.

His nascent socialist views can be traced to his coming of age years in a colonial society that was undergoing tremendous political ferment after the war.

On campus, he joined like-minded students in USC. Formed in 1953, it was a debating forum for students who were against colonialism and sought independence for Malaya and Singapore. They believed in freedoms of speech and assembly, and opposed detention without trial.

Its founding members included Dr Wang Gungwu, now an eminent China scholar, Mr James Puthucheary, Mr S. Woodhull, Mr Ong Pang Boon, Mr Chua Sian Chin, Mr Abdullah Majid and Dr Lim Hock Siew.

Dr Poh served as the club’s first treasurer and second president, and chaired the editorial board of Fajar, which means “dawn” in Malay.
He and Dr M.K. Rajakumar co-wrote the May 1954 Fajar article which condemned Western imperialism and criticised the South-east Asia Treaty Organisation, a military pact formed by the Western powers to oppose communism in the region.

Enraged, the British authorities launched a dawn raid on the Bukit Timah campus and arrested the writers and six students for sedition just before they were about to sit for their final examinations. The six were Professor Edwin Thumboo, Mr Puthucheary, Mr Kwa Boo Sun, Mr Lam Khuan Kit, Mr P. Arudsothy and Mr Thomas Varkey.
Their defence was led by Mr D.N. Pritt, a Queen’s Counsel from England assisted by a junior lawyer, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The charges were thrown out without the defence being called.

The case became a cause celebre, imprinting Mr Lee’s name in the public consciousness, helping him to garner widespread support among English- and Chinese-educated intellectuals and students.

As Dr Poh recollects, after the Fajar trial, Mr Lee would invite him to his house at 38 Oxley Road every fortnight to “drink beer and talk”.

He notes that he was involved in the embryonic discussions that eventually led to the founding of the People’s Action Party (PAP) three months later. “But Lee did most of the work, I just attended to give my views.”

He says his relations with Mr Lee began to cool when he began to suspect that the PAP leader did not share the same ideological platform as the leftists.

Nevertheless, he remained an ordinary PAP member and was inactive in politics as he was tied down by his career.
In 1957, he had graduated from medical school. In 1959, when the PAP swept to power, he was in government service, training to be a doctor in surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology.


In 1961, the political temperature was coming to the boil. The PAP was racked by challenges from its powerful leftist faction over the issues of merger with Malaya, Chinese education and the continuing detention of leftists.

After losing two by-elections, the party was on the brink of collapse. The beleaguered Mr Lee moved a motion of confidence in the 51-seat legislative assembly. The PAP survived when 27 voted aye but 13 dissident assemblymen abstained.

The dissidents and other leftist members were expelled from the party. They formed a new party, Barisan Sosialis, led by Mr Lim Chin Siong as secretary-general and Dr Lee Siew Choh as chairman.
Dr Poh was roped in as assistant secretary-general. He remembers being in charge of discussions on party issues and ideology.

He says he had to give up a scholarship to pursue higher studies and a job in the government service to join Barisan. Why? “It was a duty to fight the PAP leadership’s stand.”

He felt the PAP leadership had betrayed its earlier position on freeing students and unionists locked up for participating in labour unrest.

Touching on The Big Split of 1961, which saw the leftists leaving the PAP to form Barisan Sosialis, Dr Poh insists: “We did not split from the PAP. That’s a fact...none of the official views wanted to stress on that. We had a difference of opinion.”

He referred to statements by six PAP unionists in the run-up to the 1961 Anson by-election, which came out openly against the ruling party.

The Big Six – Mr Lim, Mr Fong Swee Suan, Mr Woodhull, Mr Dominic Puthucheary, Mr S.T. Bani and Mr Jamit Singh – had stated that while they supported the PAP in the coming by-election, they would not compromise on issues such as detention without trial and freedoms of press, speech, assembly and organisation.

Dr Poh argues that these statements amounted to a “request”, not an “ultimatum”. But Mr Lee, he says, saw this as a challenge to the PAP leadership and decided to make the split.


Feb2, 1963, was the day that changed Dr Poh’s life forever.
As he wrote in The Fajar Generation about the pre-dawn arrests: “There were the fierce barking of the dogs, a swarm of fully armed Gurkha police, the Jeeps and the Land Rovers.”

More than 100 leftists and unionists were arrested in a massive security exercise known as Operation Cold Store, aimed at putting communists and suspected communists behind bars.

As he recounts his years in detention, he draws a diagram of his prison on the back of an envelope.

The first period of detention involved months of solitary confinement, where he could sometimes hear prisoners shouting incoherently from their cells.

The strain detainees faced was more psychological than physical, he says, as they were interrogated about whether their friends were communists or involved in pro-communist activities.

Dr Poh admits he is a socialist, even a Marxist, but denies being a communist, that is, being a card-carrying member of the Malayan Communist Party.

In his recollection, detainees were asked to implicate their friends. He speaks about a man who had just come out of solitary confinement to live with detainees at the Moon Crescent Centre in Changi. Day or night, the man would wear dark glasses.
Puzzled by his behaviour, Dr Poh approached him one evening and asked him why. “Bo min kua lang (no face to see people), the man replied in Hokkien. He feels bad, he feels that he’s let down his friend.”

Reflecting on the experience of detention, he says that every detainee is scarred to some extent but that traumatic memories will wear off gradually. Yet his words, delivered in perfectly enunciated English, betray an occasional trace of bitterness and frustration: “No regrets, but you are unhappy, you know. It’s very obvious. I mean, you can’t keep a person in prison and lock him up, you know, without a valid reason.

“You ask him (Lee) to bring you to court, he doesn’t bring you to court. I mean, you feel they have to change the system. You can’t have a system like this continue. You don’t want your children, your grandchildren to live in a police state.”

He would not shake Mr Lee’s hand if he met him. “There’s nothing more to say,” he says.


The long years in prison cost him his first marriage, and as a result he has no children. He had a divorce after he was freed in 1982.
Later, he set up his own clinic in Upper Serangoon and practised until 1990, when he decided to emigrate.

Asked why, he says he felt uneasy about his life then. Friends were afraid to see him, and there had been arrests three years earlier, made under the ISA, of 16 Singaporeans accused of involvement in a “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the Government.
An older sister, who was living in Canada, asked him to join her. In 1990, Dr Poh emigrated with Margaret, but would return regularly to meet old friends.

While in Canada, he started to prepare material for a book. He often visited the British archives in London to ferret for information.
The Fajar Generation, which had been in the making for 10 years, he says, is meant to honour the memory of many of his fellow activists who died.

“I particularly feel I owe a duty to all my friends who have gone... I owe a duty to all of them to describe the conditions, the struggle, the difficulties we had because we were all together in the struggle.”
Such an account was timely, he notes, as the younger generation had shown a growing interest in alternative accounts of Singapore’s history.

Many young people, he adds, did not know what their parents went through during the 1950s and 1960s.

“It’s about time the younger generation in Singapore knew the struggle, the different views and political forces pulling this way and that.”

To this day, Dr Poh still holds strongly to his socialist ideals. His eyes light up when he waxes eloquent about how the profit motive should not be as important as that of the welfare of the people.
Now that he is back observing Singapore’s development, what does he think of its future?

He gives a bleak assessment, arguing that Singapore is too dependent on an export-oriented economy.

In his view, if there was no Operation Cold Store, Barisan would have won the 1963 election “hands down”. Then, he says, Singapore might have been less dependent on foreign direct investment, and there might have been more freedom and discussion about the country’s development.

But he is through with politics. He laughs when asked if he intends to work for a political party: “No, no, no. We are too old for that.
“I wish to do nothing,” he laughs again, saying he intends to spend his days looking around and talking to people.

Looking back on his life, Dr Poh says he has no regrets. There is no point thinking about what his life might have been. “You must see all these decisions were taken consciously. I try and see as far ahead as I can, right?”

Referring to The Road Not Taken by American poet Robert Frost, he says: “You take this road, you’re not sure where it leads but once you take it, another road comes in, another junction comes in. So you really do not know because you’ve not taken that road.”

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