Written by Our Correspondent
In an extensive interview with the Sunday Times today, former political detainee and Barisan Sosialist leader Dr Poh Soo Kai spoke candidly about his tumultuous political career and detention.
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.
During his university days, he was active in the University Socialist Club, 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.
One of the first members of the People’s Action Party (PAP), Dr Poh was roped in as an assistent Secretary-General of the Barisan Sosialist after it was formed from a breakaway faction of the PAP in 1961.
Dr Poh insists that contrary to the official view, the leftists within the PAP did not force the split. There was a difference in opinion on issues such as detention without trial, freedom of speech, press and assembly. It was then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who saw it as a challenge to the PAP leadership and forced the split.
Dr Poh was arrested and detained without trial under Operation Cold Store in 1963. He was released in 1972 only to be re-arrested again in 1976 before he was freed in 1982. Altogether, he was detained for a total of 17 years without being ever tried in court.
He was the third longest held political detainee in the history of Singapore after Mr Chia Thye Poh (32 ye ars) and Dr Lim Hock Siew (19 years).
According to declassified documents from the British National Archives, the “communist” threat was “played up” by Lee Kuan Yew who allegedly tried to persuade Lord Selkrik and then Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to arrest several of his former political comrades including Ong Eng Guan who never belonged to the “leftist” camp under a joint operation by the Internal Security Council to give the impression that it was the federal government in Kuala Lumpur who ordered the arrests and not the PAP.
Lord Selkrik wrote to his superiors in London imploring them not to listen to Lee:
“Lee is probably very much attracted to the idea of destroying his political opponents. It should be remembered that there is behind all this a very personal aspect…he claims he wishes to put back in detention the very people who were released at his insistence – people who are intimate acquaintances, who have served in his government, and with whom there is a strong sense of political rivalry which transcends ideological differences.”
[Source: British National Archives]
Recalling his long period of incarceration, sometimes under solitary confinement, Dr Poh said:
“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.
Though Singapore has a first world economy, its repressive political system resembles more than a modern police state. All state institutions such as the police, grassroots organizations and trade unions are controlled firmly by the ruling party.
There is no free or independent press in Singapore. All the major papers are owned by a single news agency Singapore Press Holdings whose Chairman is a former PAP minister Dr Tony Tan.
The economy is dominated by state-linked companies such as SingTel, Starhub, SIA and Capitaland which are owned directly or indirectly by the government via its two gigantic sovereign wealth funds – Temasek Holdings and GIC.
Lee Kuan Yew is the Chairman of GIC while his daughter-in-law Ho Ching leads Temasek Holdings. Both funds reportedly lost billions of dollars during the global financial crisis last year.
Draconian laws are put in place to curtail the civil and political rights of ordinary Singaporeans. A new law was introduced this year making even a solo protest illegal. Protests are legally allowed only at Speaker’s Corner, but the installation of CCTVs at its premises have deterred Singaporeans from going there.
When asked about his assessment of Singapore’s future, Dr Poh argues 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.
Nothing much has changed then. In fact, the situation has deteriorated. After 44 years of continuous “brain-washing” by the state media, most Singaporeans grow up becoming politically ignorant, apathetic and inactive.
An ignorant, disinterested and naive citizenry is the key to the PAP maintaining its political hegemony in Singapore without which its glaring mistakes will be put under intense public scrutiny and questions raised about its legitimacy to govern.