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.”

Lee Kuan Yew had suggested "instigating riots and disorder" to crush opposition

Update 28 Dec : Police compliant filed against TOC

Ouch! The Online Citizen has received an email from a certain Ms Janet Wee who has allegedly lodged a police complaint against TOC for posting the link to this article which she claimed to contain "seditious remarks" about Lee Kuan Yew. TOC added that the "her email is also addressed to several other people, including MM Lee Kuan Yew, the Attorney-General, Mr Jeremy Au Yeong of the Straits Times, Google, among others."

My response :

1. Thank you, Ms Wee, for catapulting an online article which at best would attract a few thousand eyeballs to possibly tens of thousands of viewership if the mainstream press decides to run your police complaint. It would drive traffic to TOC, to this blog and hopefully more sales for the book Fajar Generation.

2. Ms Wee, you are barking up the wrong tree. TOC merely carried the link to my article. The allegedly "seditious" headline is mine. I have based it on an excerpt from the book The Fajar Generation, which had reproduced a report of a conversation between Lee Kuan Yew and then Acting British Commissioner Philip Moore. Therefore, may I suggest that the proper protocol would be to file a police complaint against me, against the publishers of The Fajar Generation, and finally against the National Archives in UK.

3. While you're at it, I suggest you also lodge complaints against this, this and this.

Dr Poh Soo Kai interviewed by Sunday Times 27 Dec 2009.DR POH: WHY I PARTED COMPANY WITH PAP
By Cai HaoXiang & Jeremy AuYong
Read the full interview here.

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Drawing from the archival records in London, Dr Poh Soo Kai, a founding member of the PAP and former leader of the opposition Barisan Sosialis, debunks a long-held perception that the Barisan was a security threat to Singapore and hence the justification for the mass arrests of Operation Coldstore in 1963.

Below is an excerpt from the newly-published The Fajar Generation.

Barisan Sosialis: A Security Threat?

Holding the post of assistant secretary general (assistant to Lim Chin Siong), and thus the leadership, was one of the accusations. The Barisan Sosialis was labelled a security threat, a communist front organisation and we, as its leaders, were automatically painted as 'Red'. The implication was we were carrying out orders from the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).

In 1957, the leadership of the PAP, wishing to have tighter grip of the party, decided to change the original democratic constitution. The organisational inspiration was said to come from looking at the Vatican. There the Pope appoints the cardinals, who then appoint the Pope. It has lasted the church 2,000 years. So after purging its membership of 'leftist elements' PAP divided the remainder into two sections into an elite cadre membership and ordinary members. Only the carefully chosen and obviously security-screened cadres had the right to vote for the central committee, effectively the leadership. Lim Hock Siew, a founder member was expelled. I, who had attended the meetings to form the PAP at the basement of Lee Kuan Yew's home, was demoted to ordinary membership. The leadership appoints the cadres, and the cadres the leadership. It would appear watertight and should last a few hundred years. But what was lacking was trust if not divine inspiration and faith. When it was necessary to expel Ong Eng Guan, Ong Eng Guan challenged the leadership to face the cadres - those 250 odd chosen men who had appointed him and other central committee members. He maintained his expulsion was illegal and unconstitutional as only a mass cadres meeting had the power to expel him (Straits Times, 30 July 1960). No such cadres meeting was ever called. The PAP leadership dare not face its chosen cadres.

When the Barisan Sosialis was formed these cadres led the PAP branches over, one branch after another. The PAP became a hollowed-out political party, a shell. Its strength lay in the hold it had on the establishment. Even Lee Kuan Yew's Tanjong Pagar branch crossed over. Had the security scrutiny been negligent? These 250 odd cadres were transformed overnight into security risks. And many of them were arrested under Operation Cold Store. The lesson learnt from such a massive exodus of chosen cadres and the total collapse of the party structure was to change the Vatican-structure model into a civil service structure model. Fear and personal gain, not conviction or faith, were the fundamental unifying force. 'He [LKY] said, amongst other things that everyone was afraid and all the civil servants had jitters' (Selkirk, CO 1030/1149, 27 July 1961).

The Barisan Sosialis was a legal, constitutional political party. It was dedicated to struggling for independence by peaceful constitutional means. It did not advocate the violent overthrow of the regime. It was, however, staunchly and uncompromisingly anti-colonial and for democracy and peace. The leadership of the BS believed in democracy and this was reflected in its constitution and its organisational structure. Party decisions were made openly, transparently and democratically, after discussion, by the branches and then by the central working committee. Everybody had a say. Nobody would stick his neck out if he had no say. There was trust and no intrigues. We maintained close democratic relationships with the branches and members. We did not received instructions from any organisation or from any country be it the Soviet Union, China, the UK or the USA. Many in the leadership did belong to trade unions and other civil and constitutional organisations. We were biased - on the side of the working class.

The Barisan Sosialis was then the strongest political force in Singapore and its leadership united and staunchly anti-colonial in their outlook. That was the reason for the alarm. That it believed in democracy and constitutional struggle and was expected to win in any free and fair election was the reason for repressive action. The PAP was afraid of the odium that would go with repression while the colonial power was still around, afraid of going the Lim Yew Hock way. But the PAP leadership desired repression to save itself; thus its neurotic behaviour.

In a conversation with Selkirk, on 28 July 1961, at time of the formation of the Barisan Sosialis, Moore reported Lee Kuan Yew's tactics in the following terms:

He went on to suggest that in order to avoid the Communists taking over, he would create a situation in which the UK Commissioner would be forced to suspend the Constitution. This might be done either by the Singapore Government inviting a Russian trade mission to Singapore thus forcing a constitutional crisis, or by instigating riots and disorder, requiring the intervention of British troops. I did, however, form the impression that he was quite certain he would lose a general election and was seriously toying with the thought of forcing British intervention in order to prevent his political enemies from forming a government (CO 1030/1149, p. 95, para 3).

The 'anti-colonial fighters', the PAP leadership, wanted to ride to power on the backs of British armoured carriers. In a similar vein, the Washington Telegram No. 2186 of 31 August 1961 states:

Para 2. LKY's position is precarious ... emphasise the need for British government to reach a decision on transfer of Borneo Territories as soon as possible, so as to clear way for merger.

Para 3. Americans thinking in terms of the need for repressive measures here to prevent a communist takeover through Barisan Sosialis. The suggestion is that ideally Lee himself should take the initiative and lock up a number of people but that otherwise the British should do it (DO 169/19 Tel. 402).

A fine example of American democratic practice.

- Dr Poh Soo Kai, p. 169 - 172, The Fajar Generation

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Above is only an excerpt of a 361 page book The Fajar Generation. It is published by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre or SIRD. It is edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew. Foreword by Lim Kean Chye, founder member of Malayan Democratic Union (MDU).

The book is available at Select Books at S$24.

Alternatively, you can purchase online by sending an email to:
The price by mail order is S$34.24 (GST included).

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Additional readings :

The Fajar Generation by TOC

Lim Chin Siong vs Lee Kuan Yew: The true and shocking history
Part I: Our man
Part II: Get him!
Part III: The end of Lim Chin Siong
Part IV (final): What they teach in school