Friday, April 01, 2011

1963 - The death of two-party democracy in Singapore

Out the 13 Barisan Sosialis Members of Parliament elected in the 1963 Elections ( held after Operation Coldstore), five of whom were arrested under the ISA, two are in exiled, and another sued for bankruptcy by a PAP leader.

Two of those arrested are Dr Chia Thye Poh and Mr Lee Tee Tong (or Lee Tse Tong). Dr Chia's detention of almost 32 years is shortened by 6 years in the report below. Mr Lee was detained for almost 18 years.

Read and watch everything in this link to understand Singapore's legacy of adversarial politics.



What happened to the Barisan 13?
Straits Times, 1 Apr 2011

Until 10 days ago when he was introduced as a PAP candidate for the coming general election, very few people knew that labour leader Ong Ye Kung was the son of one of the 13 Barisan Sosialis MPs elected in the 1963 General Election. Where are they now and what happened to the most powerful opposition party in Singapore's history?

By Leong Weng Kam, Senior Writer

Barisan Sosialis MPs posing outside Parliament House with a banner proclaiming the death of democracy, after resigning their seats on Oct 8, 1966. They are (from left) Mr Koo Young, Mr Ong Lian Teng, Mr Tan Cheng Tong, Mr Chia Thye Poh and Mr Poh Ber Liak. -- ST FILE PHOTOS

WHEN National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general Ong Ye Kung, 41, was unveiled as a People's Action Party (PAP) candidate for the coming polls, Singaporeans were astonished to learn that his father was one of the Barisan Sosialis MPs who sought to overthrow the PAP Government in the 1960s.

Mr Ong Lian Teng, who died in 2009 aged 74, was once a firebrand leftist politician and one of the 13 Barisan Sosialis representatives elected in the crucial 1963 General Election.

He was among the group of Barisan MPs who took their party's struggle to the streets. They marched to Parliament House with their supporters to hand in their resignation letters on Oct 8, 1966.

As the picture above shows, they posed behind a black banner with the seven Chinese characters - guo hui min zhu yi si wang, meaning 'parliamentary democracy is dead' - outside the chamber's building before riot policemen dispersed them.

The elder Ong was an active Chinese community leader in rural Singapore in 1961 when he joined Barisan, a breakaway faction of the PAP which came into power three years earlier.

The camp led by leftist trade unionist Lim Chin Siong was opposed to the PAP's founding secretary-general Lee Kuan Yew and company over Singapore's merger with Malaysia and other ideological issues.

Mr Ong was one of the few remaining Barisan MPs who boycotted Singapore's first Parliament session after its independence in August 1965 to resign his seat, claiming that parliamentary democracy was dead after a series of government arrests just before and after the 1963 elections.

The crackdown included Operation Cold Store in February, which imprisoned more than 110 activists, and Operation Pechah in October, which rounded up another 190.

Three of the 13 Barisan MPs - trade unionists S.T. Bani, Lee Tee Tong and Loh Miaw Gong - were among those arrested in Operation Pechah on the eve of an industrial strike planned by the then left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (Satu).

Mr Bani, who was Satu's president, resigned from Barisan and his seat in Parliament on his release, following a public confession on Jan 9, 1966. Both Madam Loh and Mr Lee resigned from Parliament later in 1966 while they were still in prison.

Three other elected members, Mr Chan Sun Wing, Mr Wong Soon Fong and Mr Tan Cheng Tong, were among the original 13 leftist PAP legislative assemblymen who broke away from the PAP to form Barisan in 1961. After escaping arrest in Operation Pechah, Mr Chan and Mr Wong vacated their parliamentary seats. They now live in exile in Southern Thailand.

Mr Lim Huan Boon, a chemistry graduate from the former Nanyang University (Nantah) was the first to quit in December 1965, four months after Singapore's independence. He resigned from Barisan and his seat in Parliament because he disagreed with party chairman Dr Lee Siew Choh's decision to opt for 'extra-parliamentary struggle', claiming Singapore's independence was phoney and there was no parliamentary democracy.

Now 82, Mr Lim, who is better known as a Malay language scholar today, had said that Barisan should not have boycotted Parliament.

Explaining his decision to retire from politics for good, he had said: 'I joined Barisan because I was against merger with Malaysia. With Singapore's independence, there is nothing for me to fight for.'

His departure was followed in January 1966 by that of Mr Chio Cheng Thun and Mr Kow Kee Seng, who were also at loggerheads with Dr Lee.

With the opposition bench empty, the PAP held and won all the by-elections to fill the seats, resulting in its total dominance of Parliament until 1981 when Anson was captured by then Workers' Party secretary-general J.B. Jeyaretnam in a by-election.

So why did the most powerful opposition party in the history of Singapore boycott Parliament, thus handing it to the PAP on a silver platter? This is one question that has long intrigued historians and political pundits.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in the book Men In White, published by Singapore Press Holdings in 2009, called it 'a stroke of destiny' because Barisan's action led to the absence of opposition in Parliament, allowing the ruling party to focus on economic and social development unhindered and undistracted by politicking.

In the book, which featured the voices of many leftists, Barisan chairman Dr Lee defended his decision, saying the 1965 parliamentary walkout was the right move as it drew people's attention to the 'undemocratic practices' of the PAP.

For example, he said, after the September 1962 referendum on merger, Barisan MPs had been pressing the Government for an open meeting on merger, but they were always ignored.

He added: 'For quite a number of months, there was hardly any meeting in Parliament. And while we were waiting, Singapore's independence was declared!'

Instead of holding any Parliament sitting, he charged, 'there were only arrests, arrests and arrests of our people'.

On reflection, Mr Lee Tee Tong, now 79, tells Insight this week that he agreed with Dr Lee. He notes that Operation Cold Store in February 1963 had already nabbed Barisan's top leaders before the general election in September.

They included Mr Lim Chin Siong, Mr Fong Swee Suan, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Mr S. Woodhull and Mr Dominic Puthucheary.

The son of Mr Puthucheary, Dr Janil Puthucheary, a 38-year-old paediatrician in Singapore, was also introduced as a PAP candidate last week.

Mr Lee says: 'After the general election, a second wave of arrests put more of our leaders, including myself and two other elected Barisan members, behind bars. Many others who contested unsuccessfully were also not spared.

'I don't think Barisan lost in the 1963 election for lack of good people or a better party ideology, but because of the wave after wave of arrests of our leaders.'

Another former Barisan MP, Mr Tan Cheng Tong, now 80, says he was in a fix and had no choice but to resign his Jalan Kayu seat because it was the party's position.

'Looking back, it was an extreme position that we had taken, but the actions against us then were really undemocratic,' he adds.

Former Barisan activist C.C. Chin, 70, now an independent scholar on leftist history, however, takes the view that Barisan's boycott of Parliament was political suicide.

'The party should have continued to fight the PAP constitutionally in spite of the arrests and I am sure today it will still be a political force the ruling party would have to contend with,' he argues.

He believes that the party, having taken the fight to the streets by boycotting Parliament, had lost the support and trust of the people almost completely.

He points out that when Dr Lee merged Barisan with the Workers' Party in 1988 and fielded a unified team for Eunos GRC in the general election held that year, it lost, albeit narrowly, to the PAP. Barisan was a spent force, he says.

In the view of National University of Singapore history lecturer Huang Jianli, every current situation would be contingent upon the past and no one could tell what the outcome would have been if all 13 elected Barisan MPs did not resign their seats between 1965 and 1966.

'Hypothetically speaking, there can be a broad range of possibilities. At the optimistic end of the spectrum is the possibility of greater political pluralism with a much less dominating PAP Government. At the pessimistic end is having more or less the same as today.

'This is because, given the overall authoritarian tendency of the PAP leadership, it would still probably have used other avenues and summoned other means to clamp down on alternative voices,' he says.

Dr Cheng Yinghong, an associate professor in history at Delaware State University in the United States, believes that Barisan in the 1960s was greatly influenced by the Cultural Revolution in China. Whether its elected members remained in Parliament after the 1963 General Election or not, he was pessimistic of the party's prospects.

'The Barisan was a Maoist party by the mid- and the second half of the 1960s. Globally, Maoist influence was disastrous not just in terms of its destructive impact on societies but also to leftist movements themselves.

'When I read those ferocious verbal attacks on their own comrades published in Barisan newspapers, I believed that it was fortunate that such a party failed in its struggle for state power,' he says.

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WHY BARISAN LOST
'I don't think Barisan lost in the 1963 election for lack of good people or a better party ideology, but because of the wave after wave of arrests of our leaders.'
Mr Lee Tee Tong
-- ST PHOTO: LEONG WENG KAM


Barisan's rallies before the 1963 General Election attracted large crowds. -- ST FILE PHOTOS


Of the 13 former Barisan Sosialis MPs, six are in Singapore, two live in exile in Thailand, four have passed away, and the whereabouts of one is unknown. Here's an update.



Photos from Singapore Notes

MR LEE TEE TONG
Bukit Timah, 79
Former treasurer of the defunct Singapore Bus Workers' Union.
Detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for alleged pro-communist activities for 17 years from October 1963 to February 1981.
After his release, he married a nurse and worked as an electrician until his retirement in the early 1990s.

MR TAN CHENG TONG
Jalan Kayu, 80
One of the original 13 leftist PAP assemblymen who broke away from the ruling party to form Barisan in 1961.
After quitting Parliament and retiring from politics in 1966, he took up chicken and pig farming in Punggol before moving to other businesses.

MR KOW KEE SENG
Paya Lebar
Former secretary of the Singapore Bus Workers' Union. In the 1972 election, he contested in Paya Lebar as an independent, losing to PAP's Tay Boon Too.
In 1974, he was made a bankrupt after a libel suit against him by then Singapore Ambassador to Indonesia, Mr Lee Khoon Choy. He died several years ago.

MR ONG LIAN TENG
Bukit Panjang
Former treasurer and assistant general affairs secretary of the defunct Singapore Rural Dwellers' Association.
The tropical fish farm owner died in 2009, aged 74. The older of his two sons, Mr Ong Ye Kung, 41, has been named a PAP candidate for the coming polls.

MADAM LOH MIAW GONG
Havelock, 75
Former branch vice-chairman of the Singapore General Employees Union.
Detained under ISA for seven years between 1963 and 1970.
She worked for the former Shanghai Book Company for many years before retiring, and now looks after her grandchildren.

MR CHIA THYE POH
Jurong, 70
Former university lecturer and Nantah graduate.
Detained under ISA for 26 years between 1966 and 1992.
After his release, he has spent most of his time in Europe.

MR KOO YOUNG
Thomson
Former Chinese primary school teacher.
Detained under ISA for seven months between June 1967 and January 1968.
After his release, he worked as a private tutor. People who knew him said he died from a heart attack many years ago.

MR WONG SOON FONG
Toa Payoh, 76
Former Works Brigade commander.
He was a founding member of Barisan Sosialis in 1961. After the 1963 elections, he fled to Indonesia to escape arrest. He joined MCP and was an armed guerilla along the Thai-Malaysian border until 1989. He lives in Hat Yai today.
In 2007, he published his memoirs in Chinese.

MR CHAN SUN WING
Nee Soon, 77
Parliamentary secretary to then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew after PAP came to power in 1959. One of the 13 leftist assemblymen who broke away from PAP to form Barisan in 1961.
After the 1963 polls, he fled to Indonesia. He joined the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and was an armed guerilla until 1989. He now resides in Hat Yai.

MR S.T. BANI
Crawford
Former president of the defunct Singapore Association of Trade Unions.
Detained under ISA between October 1963 and January 1966.
After his release, he joined the People's Association and became principal of the National Youth Leadershp Training Institute. Later, he went into personnel management. He died in 1985, aged 51.

MR POH BER LIAK
Tampines, 74
The Nanyang University (Nantah) history graduate has been running his publishing firm, Intellectual Publishing Company, since 1970. It publishes mainly Chinese-language books and magazines.

MR CHIO CHENG THUN
Chua Chu Kang
Former rural community activist and trade unionist.
After resigning from Barisan and Parliament in 1966, he joined the People's Association. In 1980, he was an industrial relations officer with the then Singapore Industrial Labour Organisation.
His whereabouts are unknown. He would be 70 if he is still alive.

MR LIM HUAN BOON
Bukit Merah, 82
The Nantah chemistry graduate is better known as a Malay language scholar after retiring from politics. Two years ago, he published a compilation of Malay phrases with Chinese translations.

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