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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Singapore's 2nd longest-held political prisoner speaks out

Read Dr Lim Hock Siew's 1972 press release here.

A review of the launch of Fajar Generation here.

A review by a Malaysian blogger here

An interview with Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai here.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The 3 tiers of censorship in Singapore

A symposium organised by regional NGO Forum Asia entitled 'Freedom of Opinion and Expression in Cyberspace' was held in Seoul, Republic of Korea, from the 13th to 15th October 2009.

Three human rights defenders from South-east Asia were present to highlight their respective countries' situation. They were Ms Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the executive director of Thai website Prachatai, Mr K Kabilan, chief editior of Malaysiakini and Singapore's Mr Martyn See.

Among those in attendance were Mr Frank La Rue, United Nations' Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, representatives from Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, and local NGO leaders, lawyers, activists, academics, students and the media.

The 3 tiers of censorship in Singapore

The Singapore Government adopts a two-faced approach to civil and political liberties, no less encapsulated in Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution, which states that every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, expression, association and peaceful assembly. These rights are then subjected to the next two clauses which states that Parliament may by law impose restrictions on these rights in the interest of national security, foreign relations, public order or morality.

Singapore has 84 Members of Parliament, 82 of whom are members of the ruling People's Action Party, which has governed the country since 1959.

There are three tiers of censorship in Singapore. The 1st tier are the legislations passed by Parliament which restricts freedom of expression. The 2nd tier of censorship are those imposed by government bodies which are authorized by law to draw up guidelines and policies pertaining to political expression. A key feature of this 2nd tier of censorship are the non-transparency and the nebulous nature of its implementation, which leads to a blurring of the the line of what is acceptable and non-acceptable speech. This in turn creates a climate where writers, bloggers, artists and politicians self-censor their speech in order that they do not overstep boundaries. This climate of self-censorship forms the 3rd tier of censorship in Singapore.

1st tier of censorship

What are some of the laws that restrict freedom of expression in Singapore?

Internal Security Act

The Internal Security Act give broad discretion to the Government to detain, without filing charges, anyone who is deemed to be a threat to national security. Detainees under the ISA have no recourse to the normal judicial system. The longest-held prisoner is Chia Thye Poh. He was a opposition Member of Parliament who was arrested and detained in 1966 and granted unconditional release in 1998, capping a 32 year incarceration. Suspicion of torture – including interrogation under freezing air-conditioned rooms, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and physical assaults – still persists to this day. The government has repeatedly denied these charges, but acknowledged that “psychological pressure” is used on detainees. Human rights groups have been denied permission to visit detainees. At the end 2008, it ws reported that 22 detainees remain under detention. The Government says they are held for terrorist-linked activities. Also, under the ISA, the Government may place restrictions on publications that incite violence, civil disobedience, threaten national interests, national security and public order. Residents in Singapore generally believe that the secret police, the Internal Security Department, monitors political speech and activity.

Newspaper and Printing Presses Act

All publications in Singapore require a Government license. Under the the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the Minister has the discretion to grant and withdraw press licenses as he deems fit. Appointments and dismissal of shareholders and directors of newspaper companies are subjected to Government approval. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH) and MediaCorp, owned all nation-wide circulated newspapers, radio and TV stations. Many international newswire agencies and publications do operate out of Singapore. However, under the NPPA, the Government may limit the limit the circulation of foreign publication that it deems to be “interfering” in domestic politics. The Far Eastern Economic Review is currently banned in Singapore after it published an interview in 2006 with opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Juan. The importation and possession of FEER in Singapore is a criminal offence.

Broadcasting Act

The Broadcasting Act authorizes the Media Development Authority to censor all broadcast media, internet sites, and all other media, including movies, videos, computer games and music. The Act also allows the minister of information to place restrictions on foreign broadcasters deemed to be “engaging” in domestic politics. The Government may also impose restrictions on the number of households receiving a broadcaster's programming, and a broadcaster may be fined up to $100,000 SGD for failing to comply.

Sedition Act

Another colonial-era law, the Sedition Act criminalizes any act, speech, words, publication or expression that incite disaffection against the Government or the administration of justice in Singapore, or to incite hatred amongst the citizens, or to create hostility between different races and classes in Singapore. It also allows the court to suspend any publication that is deemed to contain seditious content.

On October 7 of 2005, the Act was invoked for the first time in Singapore's history when two men were sentenced to jail terms for making racist comments on the internet. 27 year old Benjamin Koh Song Huat was convicted under two charges and jailed for one month while 25 year old Nicholas Lim Yew was given a nominal one day jail and fined a maximum $5000 SGD. Two weeks later, another blogger, a 17 year old student, pleaded guilty to making racist remarks on his blog and was sentenced to 24 months supervised probation.

In 2006, it was reported that a 21 year old blogger with the moniker “Char” was placed under police investigation for posting cartoons of Jesus Christ on the internet.

On July 10 this year, 50 year old Ong Kian Cheong and his wife Dorothy Chan were sentenced to eight weeks jail under the Sedition Act for possessing and distributing anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic publication. They have withdrawn their appeals and are currently serving their sentences.

Civil and Criminal Defamation

Defamation and libel suits filed by Singapore's political leaders against their critics have been so successful that it's chilling effects upon political expression in Singapore is by far the most severe.

In 1999, ten members of a Tamil-language publication, including a Government minister, filed a petition to wind up the opposition Workers' Party after the Party failed to pay over $500,000 SGD in libel damages over an article published in the Party's newsletter. The Party did not collapsed, but its leader JB Jeyaretnam (JBJ) was declared bankrupt and barred from contesting in elections. JBJ was Singapore's most sued politician. Over the course of three decades, he has paid millions of dollars to Singapore's leaders in libel damages. He had lost his house, his job and parliamentary seat. After returning to the political scene in 2008 with the formation of a new party, he passed away in September the same year.

Another opposition politician, Dr Chee Soon Juan, has been twice bankrupted by the courts for failure to pay government leaders. His party, the Singapore Democratic Party, is currently facing closure after it was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew over an article published in an election campaign newsletter in 2006. The plaintiffs sought and were awarded aggravated damages after they pointed out that the offending article was also available on the internet, and thus increasing its damage to the Lees' reputation.

Local opposition politicians are not the only ones who have faced the brunt of defamation and libel suits. Foreign publications like The Economist, Newsweek, Business Week, Asian Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Bloomberg and Financial Times have been sued by Singapore officials or made to apologize and pay hefty fines. Last week, the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that the Far Eastern Economic Review had defamed Lee Kuan Yew and his son Lee Hsien Loong in a 2008 article that featured an interview with opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Juan. Due to shut down its operations in December, the 63 year old magazine still carries the offending article on its website.

Aside from civil defamation, Section 499 of Penal Code states that whoever makes or publishes any imputation intended to harm the reputation of another shall be charged for criminal defamation. In 2002, internet activist Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff had his computer seized by the police for possible criminal defamation after an posting he made had criticized Lee Kuan Yew. Shortly thereafter, Zulfikar left for Australia and the case has not been followed through. Convictions of criminal defamation may result in prison terms of up to two years.

Often, the mere prospect of libel action is sufficient deterrent for most bloggers. In 2005, student blogger Chen Jiahao, under the online moniker of Acid Flask, posted a series of articles critical of A*Star, a government agency tasked to spearhead the development of the life sciences industry. It was met by a stream of emails from its chairman Philip Yeo who demanded that Chen delete all postings mentioning him and A*Star and threatened libel action if Chen did not comply. On 26 April 2005, Chen shut down his blog altogether and replaced it with a message of apology to Yeo. Other blogs who had reproduced the remarks also posted apologies or shut down out of fear of libel action.

Parliamentary Elections Act

Singapore does not have an independent elections commission. The Elections Department comes directly under the Prime Minister's office. The Parliamentary Elections Act gives the minister wide discretionary powers to regulate election advertising on the internet. During the General Elections in 2001, the Elections Department sent notices to local NGO Think Centre, the Singapore Democratic party (SDP) and Workers' Party to remove articles and links deemed to be unlawful. Government controls stepped up a notch in 2006 when a blanket ban on all political podcasts and videocasts was imposed during the General Elections. On April 25 2006, the SDP were warned that action would be taken against them if they did not remove podcasts from the party website. Within hours, the Party posted a notice on their website that the podcasts was suspended. The Act also requires that websites that “persistently promote political views”(Sadasivan, 4 April 2006) be required to be registered with the Government.

Miscellaneous Offences ( Public Order and Nuisance ) Act

Under this Act, a police permit is required for any assembly or procession of 5 or more persons in any public space that are intended to demonstrate opposition to the views and actions of any person, to publicize a cause or campaign or to commemorate any event. Currently, there are four ongoing trials pertaining to the alleged violation of this Act, all of which involves members or supporters of the opposition SDP. Last week, in a rare judgment, District Judge John Ng acquitted five SDP activists for an illegal procession which was carried out in 2007. The convictions under this act carry a maximum fine of $10,000 SGD or six months prison terms.

Public Entertainment and Meetings Act

The Public Entertainment and Meetings Act states that all public entertainment, including political meetings and rallies, require a police permit. In practice, while exemptions are made for events featuring cultural, arts and entertainment, the police routinely rejects permit applications for outdoor political protests, demonstrations and assemblies. Opposition politician Chee Soon Juan has been charged numerous times for speaking in public without a licence : 20 days jail in 1999, $3000 SGD fine in July 2002, five weeks jail in October 2002 and five weeks jail in November of 2006. He is currently awaiting appeal on three other convictions and awaiting trial for four more counts for alleged violation of this Act.

Undesirable Publications Act

The Undesirable Publication Act states that any material, including publication, discs, tapes, photographs, paintings, graphics, sculpture or article, which has content that are likely to deprave or corrupt a person viewing or hearing them, will be deemed objectionable. The powers of the Act allows for arrest without warrant and the conviction carries a maximum fine of $10,000 SGD or two year prison sentence.

Films Act

Section 14 of the Films Act require that all films and videos be submitted to the Board of Film Censors for licensing. The Act makes no exception to video formats so it would include video images stored in mobile phones and videos produced for the internet. In practice, the authorities does not enforce this law strictly except when the films are screened to an audience in a public space. In a rare operation undertaken on May 17, 2008, officers from the police and censorship board turned up in force at the Peninula-Excelsior Hotel to disrupt a private premiere and seized a dvd copy of a film entitled One Nation Under Lee.

It's director Seelan Palay is currently undergoing police investigations for the screening of an unlicensed film.

Section 33 of the Films Act criminalizes the making, import, distribution and exhibition of any film that makes biased references to political persons or matter in Singapore. The convictions carry a maximum sentence of $100,000 SGD fine or a two year imprisonment. For 15 months between 2005 and 2006, I was placed under police investigation for making a film on opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, entitled Singapore Rebel. During that time, I was made to surrender all my tapes and even the camera to the police. Over three interrogation sessions, questions were asked about my blog, my source of funding, my meeting with opposition members, my interest in politics, my association with other political persons or groups. Meanwhile, the film was leaked onto the internet and was generating interests around the world. In August on 2006, the police dropped the investigation by issuing me a “stern warning” in lieu of prosecution. Just a month ago on Sept 11 2009, the ban on Singapore Rebel was lifted.

While undergoing investigations for the above, I made a second political film. Entitled Zahari's 17 Years, the film is a protracted interview with former political prisoner Said Zahari. On 10 April 2007, the Government issued a public statement stating that the film would be banned under Section 35 of the Films Act, which allows the Minister discretionary powers to ban any film which he deems to be against public interest. Again, I had to surrender my tapes to the authorities. But unlike the previous case, there was no police probe. Again, the video found its way on the internet. To date, there is no reported case of Government intervention to remove political videos uploaded on the internet.

Internet Freedom

Singapore has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world at 66.8% and its broadband capacity covers 99% of the island. All Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are government-owned or government-linked and they are subjected to Media Development Authority's (MDA) Internet Code of Practice. The MDA is empowered to order service providers to block websites that are deemed to undermine public security, national defence, racial and religious harmony, or public morals. Although the MDA ordered ISPs to block 100 sites that the government considered pornographic, in general only a few websites are blocked. Sites that are blocked include a few pornographic URLs, an illegal drug site and a fanatical religious site. An Open Net Initiative study notes that Singapore's technical filtering system is among the most limited. However, the study concludes that while free speech in Singapore is less constrained than in China and Saudi Arabia, where there are significant internet filtering, Singapore imposes far more stringent constraints on its citizens’ expression.

2nd tier of censorship

The 2nd tier of censorship involves a combination of rules and policies enacted by government bodies, particularly the Media Development Authority, and a general pervasive fear of being monitored by the authorities.

Indeed, the law permits Government monitoring of internet use. A range of laws, such as the Computer Misuse Act, grants the police broad powers to search any computer without a warrant. There is no general data protection or privacy law in Singapore. The US State Department Human Rights report states that "law enforcement agencies have extensive networks for gathering information and conducting surveillance and highly sophisticated capabilities to monitor telephone and other private conversations. It was believed that the authorities routinely monitored telephone conversations and the use of the Internet. It was widely believed that the authorities routinely conducted surveillance of some opposition politicians and other government critics." The Singapore Government has not refuted this allegation.

In May of 1999, after a law student complained to police that someone with an account in the Home Affairs Ministry had hacked into her computer, the Ministry disclosed that it had secretly scanned the computers more than 200,000 SingNet customers, ostensibly for viruses.

On Oct 1st 2009, the Government announced the setting up of the Singapore Infocomm Technology Security Authority (SITSA), an agency dedicated to counter 'external threats to national security vis-a-vis cyber-terrorism and cyber espionage.' This new unit will come under the authority of the Internal Security Department (ISD), known within the country as Singapore's very own version of the KGB.

The Media Development Authority

The Media Development Authority (MDA) is a government body which has been authorized to regulate internet use. Although it publicly advocates the use of a "light-touch" approach to governing the internet, the body has wide ranging powers to draw up subsidiary legislations for internet use. For instance, under its Internet Code of Practice, MDA can direct any Internet Content Provider to remove any material deemed to be objectionable on grounds of public morality, public order, public security and national harmony. Under its Broadcasting (Class License) Notification, the following are required to register with the authority.

1. Internet Service Providers, including localised and non-localised Internet Service Resellers.
2. Political parties' websites.
3. Any website that propagates, promotes or discuss political or religious issues relating to Singapore.
4. Any website that provides online news for a subscription fee.

In August of 2001, just before the General Elections, political discussion website Sintercom came after pressure from the Government to register as a political site. Its webmaster Dr Tan Chong Kee said that registration would made the website vulnerable to libel suits and that the site would have to practise self-censorship as a result. Instead, he chose to close the site, which had operated for eight years prior to Government pressure.

Since 2001, there has been no reports of any websites that has come under the same scrutiny. But due to the uncertainty of when and how such a law will be enforced, most political blogs today are created under pseudonyms, as many are unsure if they will be targeted by Government authorities for registration, which requires the applicant to disclose personal details such as name of employer and salary. Two bloggers who did identified themselves came under under swift attack from the authorities.

Robert Ho

Robert Ho Chang is Singapore's leading cyber dissident. Since 2001, he has been arrested no less than on five occasions for articles posted on the internet.

During the General Elections in 2001, the 58 year former journalist posted an article on two websites entitled “Break the law and get away with it, like your PAP leaders,” urging opposition candidates to enter polling stations, an act deemed illegal by law even though PAP candidates committed the same act in the previous elections of 1997. A month later after the General Elections, on 16th of November 2001, eight police officers entered his home and carted away his computer, CD ROMs, modem and cables. Next day, he was produced in court and charged for “an attempt to incite disobedience to the law,” marking Singapore's first-ever prosecution of online speech. Ho was then taken to the Institute of Mental Health for “psychiatric evaluation”. On 14th of December 2001, the press reported that Ho was acquitted because “he was found to be mentally ill.”

On July 3rd 2002, Ho was arrested again in his home and his computer seized. The alleged offense was criminal defamation over two unspecified articles which he had posted in an online forum. Three weeks later on July 26th 2002, he was forcibly taken by two policemen from his home, driven to a prison cell in the police station and then transferred, yet again, to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

On 27 February 2005, Ho was again arrested after he had gone to a shopping mall to distribute anti-government leaflets. Again, he was driven to the IMH for further psychiatric tests.

More recently, on 3rd of June 2009, after Ho had posted online a police complaint he had filed against the Government for an alleged rigging of the 1997 General Elections, three policemen entered his apartment and seized his computer.

Despite all the arrests, Ho has yet to be convicted of any of the charges leveled against him by the authorities. And despite the repeated seizing of his computers over the years, Ho has never stopped blogging, even as he currently undergoes yet another round of police investigation for possible criminal defamation.

Gopalan Nair

59 year old Gopalan Nair was a former Singaporean opposition politician who had emigrated to the United States and taken up US citizenship. In May of 2008, he attended a three-day court hearing in Singapore to assess damages in a defamation suit that Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had won against the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.

In his blog posting dated 29th of May 2008, Nair wrote that the presiding judge Belinda Ang was “throughout prostituting herself during the entire proceedings, by being nothing more than an employee of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his son and carrying out their orders,” and further challenged Lee to sue him for his remarks.

A day later, five plainclothes police officers arrested Nair as he stepped out of the elevator of his hotel. After being held in a police lock up for 5 days, Nair was produced in court to face charges. Over 4 days, State prosecutors filed a flip-flop of charges against Nair, including insulting a judge in an email, insulting a civil servant in a two-year old email and the Sedition Act for insulting a judge in his blog posting. All three charges were eventually dropped in favour of Section 228 of the Penal Code for insulting a High Court judge in his blog post.

After an 8-day trial, on September 17th 2008, Nair was sentenced to three months imprisonment. Prior to the conviction, Nair had removed all postings deemed by the Attorney-General to be unlawful.

After his release from prison, on 28th November 2008, Nair wrote from the United States on his blog that he would be withdrawing all undertakings and apologies made while under Singapore custody, and proceeded to repost all the articles which he had removed while in Singapore. He is currently barred from entering Singapore again unless he obtains prior permission from the Singapore Government. Throughout 2009, he has posted an monthly average of 15 articles on his blog, all of which highly critical of Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore Government.

3rd tier of censorship

In Singapore, every time politically sensitive subjects are raised in public, there is great uneasiness that one's phone is being tapped, emails monitored, movements and speech recorded. The defense against this perceived State surveillance is often avoidance – that is to say – stay away from discussing politics in public, stay away from activities or speech that may put one under surveillance. This climate of political fear creates a culture of self-censorship, even on the internet.

Conclusion - One step forward, two steps back

The Singapore Government adopts a one step forward, two steps back approach in calibrating space for political expression.

The rules governing Speakers' Corner, the gazetted free speech zone in the city-state's downtown business district, was amended in September of 2008 to allow for protests and demonstrations. However, in July this year, the police installed five CCTVs in the vicinity of the park with a view to monitor activities on its grounds. Similarly, a Films Act amendment in March this year had allowed for some types of political films to be made, such as live recordings of political events and election mainfestos, but introduced new restrictions such as the prohibition of dramatisation, animation and scenes of illegal activities in political films. A new Public Order Act exempts cultural and recreational events from police licences but tightens the noose on all cause-related activities. By the time the APEC Summit gets underway in Singapore, the Act will require that all public protests be licensed by the police, including those staged by one person.

In conclusion, even as the internet has provided an avenue for Singaporeans to express themselves, much of what gets said in cyberspace remain in cyberspace, as the laws governing political expression in general has not changed, and in some cases, further tightened.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

One Country, Two Systems Part lV

There are two rules of law in China, one for the ordinary citizen and the other for 76 million members of the Communist Party. And the judges will do what they know what the leaders require to keep the country stable.
- Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, interview with Charlie Rose, Oct 22 2009

He might as well be referring to his own country.

One Law For Her

Permanent Resident Zhang Yuanyuan incurred the ire of Singaporeans when a video of her pledging full loyalty to China was uploaded on the web. Zhang was participating in a military parade to celebrate China's 60th year under the Communist Party. Singapore's Members of Parliament have since defended her publicly.

Another For Them

Former MPs Chia Thye Poh [right] and Lim Chin Siong were leaders of the opposition Barisan Sosialis when both were accused by Lee Kuan Yew of being members of the Communist United Front and detained without trial under the ISA. Chia spent 32 years in detention and is Singapore's longest-held political prisoner. Lim passed away in 1996.

One Law For Them

Another For Them

One Law For Them

Police officers taking down the particulars of activists who had distributed flyers at Raffles City during the lead-up to the IMF-World Bank meetings in 2006. Three of whom are currently undergoing trial for participating in an illegal assembly.
Links here.

Another For Them

A flash mob organized in Raffles City as part of the Esplanade dance festival.

One Country, Two Systems Part l, Part ll and Part lll

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Zahari's 17 Years remains banned : MICA

Email received from the press secretary to RAdm(NS)Lui Tuck Yew, Acting Minister for Information,Communications and the Arts.

Appeal to review ban of Zahari's 17 Years

We refer to your email dated 22 Sep 09 in which you asked for a review of the film, Zahari's 17 Years, which is prohibited under Section 35(1) of the Films Act.

We have given your request due consideration. The prohibition stands as the film gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Said Zahari's arrest and detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and is an attempt to exculpate him from his past involvement in communist united front activities against the interests of Singapore. The film was assessed in its entirety, and every part of the film should be taken in the context of the entire film which presents a distorted portrayal of Said Zahari's arrest and detention under the ISA.

On why the anti-Islam film Fitna was not gazetted, the reason is that the film was never submitted to the Board of Film Censors (BFC) for classification. It is not practical and realistic for the BFC to review films that have not been submitted to it.


JULIA HANG | Director, Corporate Communications / Press Secretary to Minister | Corporate Communications Division Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts Tel 6837 9920 Fax 6837 9816

Creative People, Gracious Community, Connected Singapore

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lee Kuan Yew has tarnished my reputation : ex-ISD director

Yoong Siew Wah, a former director of the Internal Security Department in the 1970s, has claimed on his blog Singapore Recalcitrant that his reputation has been tarnished by an inaccuracy in the book Men In White.

I reproduce Yoong's full post here. And is proceeded by an email reply from Francis Seow which I received in my mailbox at 3.32am Oct 11.

An Unconscionable Injustice

Occasionally, there can happen to an unsuspecting person an underbelly attack on his reputation from not entirely unexpected quarter.

Quite frankly, I am baffled by the motive of the ebullient authors of the overhyped political book "Men in White" in giving me unflattering mention in it. Whilst it is purported to give an objective history of the PAP struggle I wonder what have I got to do with the intra-party struggle. Anyway, in page 441 of the book the ambitious authors made the following unverified disparaging statement about me under the sub heading "Another Foreign Hand" : "But in 1971, after a police raid on his (Francis Seow's) woman friend's apartment, he used his influence and friendship with the then director of the Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau, Yoong Siew Wah, to have the four officers who had conducted the raid sacked. The attorney-general Tan Boon Teik intervened to reinstate the four officers. Seow was allowed to resign rather than have his actions investigated because of his track record in the Legal Service. Yoong was also asked to quit."

On 28-9-09 I wrote to the Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Press Holdings drawing his attention to this disparaging statement about me and requesting that a correction be made in his newspaper. I explained that the CPIB was duty-bound to investigate all formal complaints. Mr. Francis Seow made a formal complaint and CPIB carried out investigations of the four detectives. The investigation papers were sent to the Deputy Commissioner of Police who made the decision to dismiss the detectives. There was a prima facie case against the detectives. There was no question that I was asked to quit. I was appointed Director of Internal Security Department following my CPIB stint.

My letter was passed to Mr. Richard Lim, one of the three authors of the book. Mr. Lim replied on 1 October that the material for the disparaging statement was taken from a speech made by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Select Committee Hearing of the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill which was published in the Straits Times on 10 October 1986 of which a copy was attached.

It did not come as a surprise to me as the then PM Lee Kuan Yew was like a god to some people and the accuracy of his denigration of a person's reputation was invariably taken at its face value. That he made the disparaging statement about me in the heat of the moment without regard to its accuracy in his heated exchange with a cool-headed eloquent Francis Seow at the Select Committee Hearing could not be ruled out. He is not unknown to have behaved erratically with venom in his speech when highly agitated. He was obviously so infuriated by Mr. Francis Seow's biting taunts that it escaped his normally lucid mind that I was not boarded out but appointed Director ISD after my CPIB stint. It was subsequently pointed out to him but humility is not his forte and he has not been known as one to apologise for his mistakes. Mr. Richard Lim, one of the authors, has assured me that he would add a line after the sentence that I was also asked to quit to indicate that I was actually appointed Director ISD after my CPIB stint in his next and future editions of the book in order to be fair to me.

It was reported that the then attorney-general Mr. Tan Boon Teik intervened to have the four detectives reinstated. Very gallant of him. He must have read the CPIB file on the investigations and could not have missed that the dismissal of the four detectives was made by the Deputy Commissioner of Police. How the then PM Lee Kuan Yew was given the impression that I had the four detectives unlawfully dismissed is something I would like to get to the bottom of.

Mr. Francis Seow was the solicitor-general at the time when I was director CPIB. He had overall supervision of CPIB investigation files sent to his department for final direction. That I should have had a cordial relation with Mr. Francis Seow was natural in human relationship development. For the then PM Lee Kuan Yew or for that matter the attorney-general Mr. Tan Booin Teik to give a sinister connotation to such a relationship seemed to raise doubt as to the soundness of the detractors' mind. Why should the affinity between Mr. Francis Seow and me be seen as something unwholesome?

The most decent thing for the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew to do now is to undo the harm he has caused me and to restore my reputation. But will he?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Email from Francis Seow (received Oct 11, 2009)


Thank you for the email. It sets out the facts fairly and accurately. One thing you seemed to have overlooked -- and that is, after the CPIB investigations, I believe the four police officers were the subject of disciplinary proceedings whose recommendations were made to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, who then took the disciplinary action(s) alleged.

If my memory serves me right, J.B. Jeyaretnam represented those police officers in the proceedings. And he later made representations to TBT, who used the opportunity to even out old scores. I, however, stray ....

Keep me informed if there are further developments.


Francis Seow.

P.S. What is Willie doing these days?


Further readings:

Interview with Yoong Siew Wah by Temasek Review
here and here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Martyn See writes to Minister on Zahari's 17 Years

Sent to RAdm(NS)Lui Tuck Yew, Acting Minister for Information,Communications and the Arts on 22 Sept 2009.

Appeal to review ban of Zahari's 17 Years

Dear Minister,

I am See Tong Ming, Martyn, the director of Zahari's 17 Years, a documentary film which is being gazetted as a prohibited film under Section 35(1) of the Films Act.

In a press statement released by your Ministry dated 10 April 2007, it stated that :

1. The film gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Said Zahari's arrest and detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1963 and is an attempt to exculpate himself from his past involvement in communist united front activities against the interests of Singapore.

2. The Government will not allow people who had posed a security threat to the country in the past, to exploit the use of film to purvey a false and distorted portrayal of their past actions and detention by the Government.

3. The film could undermine public confidence in the Government.

This film was banned by your predecessor Dr Lee Boon Yang. I have no other recourse except to appeal to you now to review the ban on the film. My reasons are as follows :

1. It cannot stand to reason that the entire 49 minutes of the film is objectionable for the above 3 reasons. I am willing to consider amending or deleting any part of the film which the Government had deemed to be of against public interest. Therefore, I request that you state clearly which portion of the film you deem to be of against public interest.

2. The film has been freely available for viewing by anyone on the internet since it was officially banned in 2007. It has been watched by over tens of thousands of people. Has there been any evidence whatsoever that public confidence in the Government has been undermined because of this film?

3. I refer to the publication and publicity of Men In White : The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Party by the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). The book features insights from former ISA detainees about their past and during its launch, a video containing comments by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was reportedly played to the audience. How is it that such a book and video be allowed while Zahari's 17 Years continues to be banned? Is the Minister applying the law equally?

4. I believe Zahari's 17 Years is the first and only film to be gazetted under Section 35 of the Films Act. Even the reportedly anti-Islamic film Fitna is not gazetted. Banning a locally-made film that is no more than an interview with a former political detainee while not gazetting films like Fitna under the same law creates the impression that the Government is more preoccupied with censoring their own artists than they do foreign ones.

5. Zahari's 17 Years does not address issues of race or religion. It is merely an honest interview with a Singaporean citizen, a former newspaper editor and political prisoner whom, like many others of his time, still believes that his long incarceration under the ISA was unjustified. I believe that the continued prohibition of this film will only serve to increase the public's desire to find out more about the darker aspects of Singapore's political history. Here, I quote the Minister Mentor, "When writing memoirs, you are talking to posterity. Among them will be historians who will check what you write against the accounts of others. So do not shade the past." (ST, July 17 2007)

Considering all the above factors, I ask that the prohibition of Zahari's 17 Years be given its due review.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,
See Tong Ming, Martyn

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Men In White author responds to Martyn See's blog post

Sonny Yap, one of three authors credited in the publication of Men In White, The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Party has responded by email to my earlier blog post. We also briefly spoke on the phone. I reproduced his email in full.

Dear Martyn,

I would like to respond to your posting on ''the glaring omission'' which has been making the round in cyberspace.

I contacted Dr Lim Hock Siew sometime in 2002 or 2003. Unfortunately, he refused to be interviewed and gave me a tongue lashing instead, accusing SPH of being closely linked to the government.

Our research head Leong Ching also paid a visit to his clinic and spoke to him. I asked the former leftist whom I got Dr Lim's contact number from and who knew him very well to explain to Dr Lim that we did try to call him contrary to the claim making the round in cyberspace. Dr Lim admitted that he might have forgotten the call.

Note that although Dr Lim refused to be interviewed, we drew material from his oral history transcript lodged in the National Archives for the book.

Again with the help of our former leftist contacts, I called Dr Poh Soo Kai's home around that time and was told that he had emigrated to Canada. I understand he has been back in Singapore for the last year or so but we were not aware of it.

The project has been so long drawn out that even some interviewees who were invited for the launch forgot that we interviewed them. Janadas Devan forgot that he arranged for me to interview his mother. And he's a much younger man than Dr Lim.

My response :

1. Sonny Yap has now said that Dr Lim was indeed approached twice for Men In White. Dr Lim told me earlier he was never approached. This is obviously a case of "your-word-against-mine" which can go on indefinitely so I'll leave it at that.

2. But let's say we give Yap the benefit of the doubt that he is right. For a book that took 7 years and more than a million dollars (my estimate) to produce, isn't it imperative that the views of a founding PAP member who was detained for 19 years (2nd longest in Singapore's history) be accorded more than 2 attempts (one for interview and one for permission to publish his oral history) over 7 years? Moreover, the authors admitted to Straits Times that many former leftists may not have spoken up earlier. Shouldn't Yap not have attempted to approach Dr Lim again since that one previous call in 2002?

3. To imply that Dr Lim may have forgotten a call in 2002 or 2003 (7 years ago!) is a no-brainer.

4. Leong Weng Kam, the other author of Men In White, was spotted at the launch of poetry collection Our Thoughts Are Free in March this year where both Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai were present. No attempts were made by Leong to seek their views. (Yap responded over the phone to me that the book would have gone into print by that time).

5. Michael Fernandez, a former detainee and personal friend of Sonny Yap, was interviewed for Men In White and had attended its launch. After reading an advance copy, he wrote in an email to his friends that "the Feb. 1963 "Cold Store" arrests of more than 120 leaders of the leftwing, which practically decimated the effective opposition to the PAP was not given due historical evaluation."

I am not going to ask you to buy the book. It's your hard-earned money. You make your own call.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ban on 'Rebel' lifted; film by Young PAP under review

Singapore lifts ban on film about opposition politician
(AFP) SINGAPORE — Singapore on Friday lifted a ban on a film about a local opposition politician under revised guidelines introduced earlier in March this year. The Media Development Authority (MDA) announced the lifting of the ban on "Singapore Rebel" on its website, saying the documentary no longer violates the revised Films Act. Previously, the 26-minute documentary about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan was banned because under the old guidelines, it was classified as a "party political film. Before the amendments were introduced this year, the Films Act prohibited the making and distribution of films containing partisan political references or comments. Under the amended Films Act, the documentary "should therefore not be regarded as a party political film," the MDA said in a statement posted on its website. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last year the government accepted that its policies must evolve to remain relevant in the current media landscape in which Internet use has become more widespread.

Singapore has often been criticised by human rights and media groups for maintaining strict political controls despite its rapid modernisation but the government says the strict laws are necessary to maintain law and order -- a pillar of the country's economic prosperity.
Ban on film lifted
by Teo Xuanwei ,Today AFTER more than four years, film-maker Martyn See's Singapore Rebel, a documentary on opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, has finally been approved for viewing here by those aged 18 years and above. While commentators see as "irrelevant" the audience impact of the Media Development Authority's (MDA) lifting of the ban on Friday - given how the 26-minute video has been available online and viewed more than 400,000 times to date - they hail it as a symbolic move that marks the first signs of a more relaxed political space. It follows changes to the Films Act in March, which saw the easing of a decade-long ban on all political films. Those with factual footage, documentaries and recordings of live events are now allowed. Still, just how much clarity did the authority's decision on Singapore Rebel bring to film-makers hoping to explore the new OB markers? In a brief statement, the MDA said the Political Films Consultative Committee (PFCC) "is of the view that Singapore Rebel is a documentary film" falling within statutory exclusions. It, therefore, "should not be regarded as a party political film". While hailing this milestone as having "set the stage for future political films others might want to make", MP for Hong Kah GRC Zaqy Mohamad noted: "Elaborating on the considerations in evaluating films would serve as a guide for future projects, and people would be less worried about making such films." Though Mr Tan Tarn How views the ban's lifting as a "big step forward to a more liberal regime", the Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow said: "The M18 rating is largely meaningless because in an Internet era, anybody of any age can access the film." And the mere fact that the Government still sets markers shows the amended laws remain "problematic", he argued. Whether this first clearing of a banned film signals "true and genuine liberalisation", in legal counsel Siew Kum Hong's view, will depend on how the PFCC rules on the next three to five new films. Both Mr Siew and Mr Tan also wished the "reasons and thinking process" of the PFCC had been revealed to the public. When asked for elaboration by Weekend Today, Ms Amy Chua, who chairs the Board of Film Censors, noted that the Films Act amendment allowed for more political films that "do not dramatise and/or present a distorted picture". Mr See had "requested his film be assessed as a documentary without any animation and composed wholly of an accurate account depicting actual events, persons or situations", she said.

Approving, law Professor Thio Li-ann said: "Singaporeans should be exposed to the lives and works of Singaporean politicians who are not from the establishment, so they can get a fuller picture of politics here and to make up their own minds ... You cannot be informed without viewpoint diversity." For now, Mr See said he has no plans to screen Singapore Rebel locally or abroad. He intends to submit his other banned film Zahari's 17 Years for evaluation. Only one other film has been referred to the PFCC for assessment - For I am a Young Singaporean submitted by the Young PAP, still under review.
Martyn See's "Singapore Rebel" film gets green light
By Satish Cheney, Channel NewsAsia

SINGAPORE : The government has lifted a four-year ban on the film "Singapore Rebel". The film, about Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan, is now rated M18, which allows those above 18 years old to view it. It is the first political film to be allowed since the Films Act was amended in March. This follows the formation of an independent Political Films Consultative Committee to assess if such films are suitable for public viewing. Even though the film was banned in 2005, "Singapore Rebel" has been extensively viewed by about half a million people online, according to its filmmaker Martyn See. In May this year, Martyn resubmitted the film to the Board of Film Censors for vetting. The Media Development Authority said on Friday that the Board of Film Censors had referred the film to the Political Films Consultative Committee (PFCC) for advice on whether it should be regarded as a party political film under the Films Act. And after reviewing the film, the committee said "Singapore Rebel" is a documentary and not a party political film. Amy Chua, chairman, Board of Film Censors, said: "The government has amended the Films Act to allow for more types of party political films that do not dramatise and/or present a distorted picture, as part of the government's move to further liberalise and expand the space for greater political discourse. The applicant (Martyn See) has requested that his film be assessed as a documentary without any animation and composed wholly of an accurate account depicting actual events, persons or situations. "The PFCC had assessed that the film would fall under the statutory exclusion set out in section 2(3)(e) of the Films Act." It is the first film to be assessed and allowed by the new committee. While the man behind the film has welcomed the move, he still has mixed feelings about the lifting of the ban. Martyn said: "First of all, it is symbolic. Symbolic because it has been watched by half a million people on YouTube and Google Video for the last four years. "In that sense, I am not too elated about it but on the other hand, it is a good step forward in the sense that other future film makers who want to attempt to do the same kind of films will know where the boundaries are." Martyn has no plans to screen the film any time soon. But he is hoping that his other film, "Zahari's 17 Years", about former political detainee Said Zahari, will get the green light as well. - CNA/ms

Censor okays Martyn See film on Chee
Singapore Rebel passed with M18 rating under the revised Films Act
By Sue-Ann Chia , SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT THE film Singapore Rebel, which features opposition figure Chee Soon Juan, was passed by the censors with an M18 rating on Friday - four years after it was banned. Produced by film-maker Martyn See, it is the first political film to make the cut after the Films Act was amended in March to relax the rules on such films. Instead of a blanket ban on what are deemed 'party political films', the law was changed to allow films which fulfil certain criteria, such as those featuring factual footage or live recordings of speeches and events. It prompted Mr See to re-submit his film to the Board of Film Censors (BFC) in May. 'I had no expectations,' the 40-year-old told The Straits Times on Friday, after receiving official word that his film had been passed. His nonchalance stems from his experience, since the film was was barred from being screened at the annual Singapore International Film Festival in 2005. It led to a 15-month police probe over its content - which revolves around Dr Chee and his activities - and his intent in making it. Since then, the film has been uploaded to video-sharing website YouTube and Mr See has become a staunch supporter of scrapping the Films Act. As the film has been viewed 'thousand-over times' online, Mr See views the BFC's decision more as a 'symbolic gesture'. However, he agrees it could embolden other film-makers to make more political films. On Friday, the BFC said it had referred Singapore Rebel to the Political Films Consultative Committee (PFCC), set up in May to vet political films. 'Having reviewed the film, the PFCC is of the view that Singapore Rebel is a documentary film falling within the statutory exclusions set out in section 2 (3)(e) of the Films Act and should therefore not be regarded as a party political film,' the BFC said, in a statement posted on the Media Development Authority's website. The film is the first passed by the PFCC. Another film under review is For I Am A Young Singaporean, produced by the Young PAP, the youth wing of the People's Action Party. The lifting of the ban on Singapore Rebel received a lukewarm welcome from observers and the arts community. Film-maker Tan Pin Pin said it was a step in the right direction, as it gives some clarity on what kind of political films will make the cut. "But more films will have to go through this process to give a clearer picture of where the OB markers are," she said, referring to "out-of-bound" markers that set the perimeter of what is allowed. Ms Tan, however, is highly perturbed by the M18 rating. "It is unclear why it needs to be there. Does it mean that if you're not yet 18, you're not mature enough to watch films on opposition politicians?" Nominated MP Audrey Wong, however, believes it shows a certain liberalisation that films on opposition politicians are more accessible to the public. "More access to information means people have more data and facts to judge for themselves," said Ms Wong, co-artistic director of arts venue Substation. "It might also send the signal to film-makers that it is safe to submit political films." But former Nominated MP and lawyer Siew Kum Hong said it would be better if the BFC listed in detail why the film was passed and viewed as a documentary. "It will a useful guideline for future film-makers," he added. Asked if it signalled that more political films will be given the green light, he replied: "One swallow does not a summer make. Let's wait and see." Still, MP Zaqy Mohammad, who is the Young PAP's vice-chairman, believes the passing of Singapore Rebel is significant as it "paves the way for other films to go through this process". Mr See is now on a mission to get the ban lifted on another of his films, Zahari's 17 Years, on former political detainee Said Zahari.

"The political left story needs to be heard fully," he said, citing the new book on the PAP, Men In White, which includes the account of leftists.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ban on 'Singapore Rebel' lifted, rated M18

After four and a half years, the Government has lifted the ban on Singapore Rebel today.

It was first banned in April of 2005 whereupon I underwent 15 months of police investigation. After a "stern warning", the police dropped prosecutions, but the ban on the film remained in effect until today.

 Click here for a summary of the saga On May 29th 2009, I resubmitted the film under Films (Amendment) Act. Zahari's 17 Years remains banned under Section 35 of the Films Act. Only the Minister has the authority to lift that ban.

  Govt retains ban on Zahari's 17 Years

From the website of the Media Development Authority (MDA) BFC rates “Singapore Rebel” M18 with Consumer Advice Singapore, 11 September 2009: The Board of Film of Censors (BFC) has rated the film "Singapore Rebel" M18 with a consumer advice of "Mature Content".

 The BFC had referred the film to the Political Films Consultative Committee (PFCC) for advice on whether it should be regarded as a party political film under the Films Act. Having reviewed the film, the PFCC is of the view that “Singapore Rebel” is a documentary film falling within the statutory exclusion set out in section 2(3)(e) of the Films Act and should therefore not be regarded as a party political film.

 "Singapore Rebel" is the first film to be assessed by the PFCC, and allowed following the amendments to the Films Act in March 2009.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

What the left-wing stood for : Dr Poh Soo Kai

In a belated email reply to my questions about his views on the publication of Men In White, ex-political detainee Dr Poh Soo Kai has confirmed that he was never approached by any of its authors.

In 1954, along with other founding members of the PAP, Dr Poh had attended that historic meeting at the basement of Harry Lee Kuan Yew's house on Oxley Road to discuss the PAP constitution. When asked why he joined Lee at that time, he wrote, "you should read the original credo of the party at its founding."

On 2nd of February 1963, the former Assistant Secretary-General of the Barisan Sosialis was arrested and detained under Operation Coldstore. He was released unconditionally at the end of 1972 but re-arrested four years later. After spending a total of 16 years under detention without trial, he was finally released in August of 1982. Now 77, Dr Poh currently resides in Singapore.

In reply to my question on why he and other left-wing members broke from the PAP in 1961, he wrote :

I am of opinion you have framed it incorrectly. The conventional view is that the left wing of the PAP took the initiative to break with the party. (Thus your question why did left-wing split from the PAP to form the Barisan Sosialis.) There has been no convincing evidence to support this view.

The left-wing leadership had campaigned on a genuine anti-colonial, democratic platform. They had called for an end to arbitrary arrest and continued detention, an end to the restrictions on freedom and for observation of human rights, and an end to the obstructions put in the way of trade union unification.

It had invited the government to :

- Release immediately all political detainees;
- Assist in the speedy unification of the trade union movement;
- Grant the right of citizenship and franchise to all those loyal to the anti-colonial struggle;
- And to allow freedom of the press, speech and assembly and organisation.

Of note is that they regarded themselves as part of the PAP. There was no talk of a structural split. Harry Lee had threatened to resign if he lost Anson. The unionists said that was his business. A tougher tone than the statement before Hong Lim by-election.

The PAP leadership before the 1957 annual genaral meeting had decided to discard its powerful left wing. The issue was how, when and the consequences. Consequences both from the Singapore electorate and the Tungku who would much like to replace him.

By 1961 secret negotiations for merger and "the grand design" were well underway between Harry, Tungku and the Colonial masters. The PAP leadership grasped the safety line of merger initiated by the British. He decided to discard his powerful left wing, but the fight was now shifted from release of detainees, freedom, etc to that of merger. The initiative for the split thus was from the PAP leadership, not from the left-wing.

Poh Soo Kai

Review of Our Thoughts Are Free
Vistas of detention... voices of freedom

Thursday, September 03, 2009

New PAP book neglects founding members detained for 19 years

"It was a no-holds-barred report", gloats Richard Lim, one of three senior journalists who were commissioned to write the history of the People's Action Party in a new book entitled Men In White, The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Party.

The untold story of S'pore's ruling party
Making of Men In White

In the above reports, the Straits Times goes to great lengths to depict the book as a definitive and objective account of PAP's history, supported by interviews with its opponents - including former communists now exiled in Thailand and leftists (a catch-all byword for staunch anti-colonialists) who had left the PAP to form the breakaway Barisan Sosialis.

But remarkably, the two full page report mentions not a single whiff of Operation Coldstore, the infamous 1963 mass arrests that decimated the entire leadership of the political opposition to the PAP.

Another glaring omission was how the writers failed to contact two founding PAP members, Dr Poh Soo Kai and Dr Lim Hock Siew, who were arrested under Operation Coldstore and detained without trial for periods of up to 19 years. Along with Said Zahari, Lee Tse Tong and Ho Piao, both of them were Singapore's longest-held political prisoners after Chia Thye Poh.


Dr Lim Hock Siew was a founding member of the PAP. But like many of his anti-colonialist colleagues of the PAP, Lim broke away from the PAP and formed the opposition Barisan Sosialis in 1961. On 2nd February 1963, he was arrested and detained under Operation Coldstore. Even after Singapore's independence in 1965, Lim continued to be detained under the Internal Security Act by Lee Kuan Yew's government. On 6th of September 1982, he was finally released, capping a 19 years 8 months incarceration - making him Singapore's longest-held political prisoner after Chia Thye Poh. Dr Lim has confirmed with me that he was never contacted by the writers of Men In White. He is now 78 years old and continues to operate his clinic on Balestier Road.

Dr Poh Soo Kai and Dr Lim Hock Siew in the front row during the launch of Our Thoughts Are Free in March this year.

In a rare press statement released in 1972, nine years into his incarceration, Dr Lim Hock Siew recalled an interrogation session with the ISD where the jailers attempted to strike a "bargain" with the prisoner..

Dr Lim Hock Siew Speaks from Singapore Prison (Date - 18.3.1972)
(through his legal adviser)

(Released by Dr Beatrice Chen, wife of Dr Lim Hock Siew)

I and hundreds of others were arbitrarily arrested on the 2nd of February, 1963. Many are still in prison. Ever since that day, we were, and are, unjustly and arbitrarily detained in prison without any kind of trial whatsoever for over 9 years. We have gone through various kinds of persecution, struggles, hardships and difficulties during this very long period of over nine years of detention in prison. Recently an unusual development took place. On the 13th of January, 1972, I was taken to the Headquarters of the Special Branch at Robinson Road where I was detained for 40 days together with my brother, Lim Hock Koon.

Two high-ranking special branch agents of the P.A.P. regime indicated to me that if I were to issue a public statement of repentance, I would be released. They told me that 9 years had passed since the date of my arrest and that it was time that my case be settled. They admitted that 9 years was a long time. I told them that it was pointless to remind me of this long period.

A week after my transfer to the Special Branch Headquarters, the same two high-ranking employees spelt out the conditions of my release. They demanded from me two things. They are as follows: -

(1) That I make an oral statement of my past political activities, that is to say, "A security statement." This was meant for the Special Branch records only, and not meant for publication.

(2) That I must issue a public statement consisting of two points : -
(a) That I am prepared to give up politics and devote to medical practice thereafter.
(b) That I must express support for the Parliamentary democratic system.

I shall now recall and recapitulate the conversation that took place between me and the same two high-ranking Special Branch agents during my detention at the Special Branch Headquarters.

Special Branch - You need not have to condemn the Barisan Sosialis or any person. We admit that it is unjust to detain you so long. 9 years is a long time in a person's life; we are anxious to settle your case.

Dr Lim Hock Siew - My case will be settled immediately if I am released unconditionally. I was not asked at the time of my arrest whether I ought to be arrested. Release me unconditionally and my case is settled.

Special Branch - The key is in your hands. It is for you to open the door.

Dr Lim Hock Siew - To say that the key is in my hands is the inverted logic of gangsters in which white is black and black is white. The victim is painted as the culprit and the culprit is made to look innocent. Four Gurkha soldiers were brought to my house to arrest me. I did not ask or seek arrest or the prolonged detention for over 9 years in prison without trial.

Special Branch - You must concede something so that Lee Kuan Yew would be in a position to explain to the public why you had been detained so long. Mr Lee Kuan Yew must also preserve his face. If you were to be released unconditionally, he will lose face.

Dr Lim Hock Siew - I am not interested in saving Lee Kuan Yew's face. This is not a question of pride but one of principle. My detention is completely unjustifiable and I will not lift a single finger to help Lee Kuan Yew to justify the unjustifiable. In the light of what you say, is it not very clear that I have lost my freedom all these long and bitter years just to save Lee Kuan Yew's face? Therefore the P.A.P. regime's allegation that I am a security risk is a sham cover and a facade to detain me unjustifiably for over 9 years.

My stand on the Making of a Secret Oral Security Statement for the records of the Special Branch

I cannot and will not make any statement to condemn my past political activities. My past political activities were absolutely legitimate and proper. Whatever I had done or said was in the interest of and in the service of the masses of our people and of our country. Even an accused person need not say anything to incriminate or to condemn himself. Why should I who am arbitrarily detained without any kind of trial for over 9 years be coerced to act as an agent to the Special Branch by making a secret deal behind the backs of the masses? I resolutely reject this demand. Furthermore, I have not the slightest obligation to account my past political activities to Lee Kuan Yew.

A. My Stand on the Demand of Making a Public Statement

I completely reject in principle the issuing of any public statement as a condition of my release. This is a form of public repentance. History has completely vindicated my position. I was arrested for opposing merger with "Malaysia" because I held the view that "Malaysia" was a British sponsored neo-colonialist product and the creation of "Malaysia", far from uniting our people and our country, would cause greater dis-unity and dissension among our people. I believe that the formation of Malaysia would be a step backward and not forward in our struggle for national unity.

I have nothing to repent, to recant or to reform. If anything I have become more reinforced in my convictions, more reaffirmed in my views and more resolute to serve the people of Malaya fully and whole-heartedly. I have nothing to concede to Lee Kuan Yew. By right, he should make a public repentance to me and not I to him.

B. My Stand on the Demand that I must give up Politics in Exchange for my Release

I hold the view that these two demands are self-contradictory, because if there is democracy, I need not give up politics. The fact that I had been detained for over 9 years in order to coerce me to give up politics is proof enough that there is no parliamentary democracy. The question of taking part on politics is a fundamental right of the people.

An indirect offer was made to me to leave Singapore for further studies. I have replied to the P.A.P. regime that if I had to leave the country at any time, it must be on my own free volition and not under coercion by the P.A.P regime.

C. My Stand on the Demand for support for Parliamentary System

I hold the view that to support the P.A.P. regime's so-called parliamentary system would mean giving the public and the masses a false impression that there exist today a genuine parliamentary democratic system in Singapore Island. It is an undeniable and unforgettable fact that comrade LEE TSE TONG who was elected by the people of Singapore in the 1963 General Elections, was arbitrarily arrested and detained without trial soon after he was elected. Subsequently, he was deprived of his citizenship and he is still under detention as a so-called "banishee" in prisoner's clothes in Queenstown prison. The arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention of Comrade Lee Tse Tong affords concrete proof that the so-called parliamentary democracy is a cruel mockery. It does not exist in Singapore Island. Giving support to such a sham parliamentary system means complete betrayal of the people. I will never betray the people of my country under any circumstance. Bitter sacrifice strengthens bold resolve.

Parliamentary democracy does not mean merely casting of votes once in 5 years during election time. Far more important than this is the freedom of thought, the freedom of expression, the freedom of association, the freedom of organisation everyday during the 5 years period and continuously thereafter. I was arrested when the Barisan Sosialis was actively participating in the parliamentary system. For such participation, the colonial government, the Lee Kuan Yew and Rahman regimes had rewarded me with over 9 years of imprisonment. This again amply indicates the utter shamness of the so-called parliamentary democratic system. After over 9 years of detention, I am now asked to give support to their so-called parliamentary system in order to secure my release. I firmly refuse to give my support for the sham and illusory democracy in Singapore Island.

My Stand on the Request by the Agents of the P.A.P. Regime to Concede something to save Lee Kuan Yew's Face

Since history has fully vindicated my stand and my position, Lee Kuan Yew should openly and publicly repent to me and to all other political detainees, now unjustifiably detained in prison. By right a just and proper base for my release from my prolonged and unjustifiable detention (and this equally applies to all political detainees now under unjustifiable detention) should be : -

(a) Our unconditional and immediate release from detention and the complete restoration of all our democratic and human rights.

(b) Payment of adequate compensation to me and to all other political detainees for the prolonged and unjustifiable detention in prison.

(c) The issuance of public apology by Lee Kuan Yew to me.

We are willing and prepared to concede the last two conditions as listed above. We do not believe that an arrogant man like Lee Kuan Yew will apologise or to compensate us.

On the first condition that is to say, our demand for unconditional and immediate release from detention, and for the complete restoration of all our democratic and human rights - we must resolutely say : WE WILL NEVER CONCEDE, BITTER SACRIFICE STRENGTHENS BOLD RESOLVE.

+ + + +

The above was published with permission from Dr Lim Hock Siew.

Dr Lim is currently penning his memoirs.

Dr Lim's speech at the launch of Said Zahari's book in Johor Bahru can be viewed here.

Dr Lim is featured in a 10 minute video tribute to Lim Chin Siong which can be viewed at the Singapore History Museum.

Zahari's 17 Years remains gazetted as a prohibited film. Any possession constitutes a criminal offence.

The Straits Times is a publication of the Singapore Press Holdings, who commissioned the book.

Thanks to Isrizal for finding the above press release.


Further readings

Political detention in Singapore : Prisoner case histories

Detention of journalists and lawyers under the ISA

Surviving long-term detention without trial

The ISA as a political tool