Excerpts from “Anti-colonialism. . .Operation Coldstore”

Excerpts from “‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s ‘Progressive Left’, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia”

by Thum Ping Tjin (2013)

PDF Link to Journal Article: Academia.edu


1. Colonialism: Control by one country over another area and its people (M-W).

2. Left-wing: The liberal, socialist, or radical section of a political party or system.

Extracts from Article:

1) A generation of Singaporeans, born around 1930, [were] subjected to ‘some of the most ambitious projects of political development and social engineering in British imperial history’ by authorities tasked with turning them into loyal British subjects.

2) By 1961 the [progressive] left-wing had coalesced into the opposition Barisan Sosialis party and were on the verge of taking power in Singapore.

3) [LKY] sought the achievement of merger to win back popularity. This goal dovetailed with British desires for a federation of its maritime Southeast Asian colonies under the control of a friendly pro-British government.

4) In order to overcome the Federation government’s reluctance to take in Singapore, the British and Singaporean governments marketed the Barisan as communist-controlled, [a] threat to the Federation. . .the arrests were justified using the same argument of communist subversion.

5) Operation Coldstore, on 3 February 1963, decapitated Singapore’s progressive left-wing movement. By the time its leaders were released from detention – some of them after decades in detention – the PAP had cemented its grip on power and closed down any space for political opposition.

6) From 1947, [the British Military Administration] launched a sweeping educational policy that prioritised English-medium education and undermined vernacular education. [Teachers and students of Chinese schools were] arrested and expelled for criticising colonialism.

7) With the outbreak of the Malayan Emergency in 1948, Singapore was turned into a police state. . . It was later estimated that in Singapore alone 90,000 people underwent the detention screening process and 20,000 were voluntarily or forcibly deported over [the] Emergency.

8) In 1951, future progressive left leaders Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, and Chen Say Jame were detained for protesting the colonial government’s orders to sit for a pointless examination. Unable to elicit a confession of communism, Special Branch resorted to torture and beatings.

9) In 1954, Puthucheary, Sandrasegeram Woodhull, Poh Soo Kai, Sheng Nam Chin, Jamit Singh, Lim Shee Ping, and Lim Hock Siew, among others, found themselves charged with sedition after an edition of the [University Socialist Club] newsletter (Fajar) condemned colonialism in Asia.

10) While none of the PAP’s leaders were ever detained or charged with sedition, nearly the entire progressive left’s leadership had personal experience of it.

11) [In 1955, Lim Chin Siong] was elected Secretary-General [of the tiny Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union (SFSWU)]. On the day Lim became its leader, SFSWU had 273 members. Ten months later, it was 29,959. The trade unions [provided] the organisational basis for the PAP election victory in 1959.

12) The PAP’s leadership [demanded] unquestioning obedience and [rejected] the need for consensus. Decision-making was concentrated in the hands of a trusted ‘inner cabinet’.

13) After legislation had been passed, the PAP leadership realised that the trade union movement could form a rival political power base. It abruptly withdrew registrations for all trade union federations and stopped the recently passed Trade Unions Bill from becoming law.

14) PAP members grew discontented over the leadership’s authoritarianism. Political secretaries Woodhull and James Puthucheary criticized the ‘tough talk, arrogance and downright cockiness of some of our Party officials’ in the party newsletter. . . .they were met with a harsh response, with Minister of Culture S. Rajaratnam and Lee Kuan Yew publicly calling them ‘opportunists and turncoats’, a ‘lunatic fringe’ of the party, and ‘bits of scum’.

15) Lord Selkirk (British Commissioner 1959-1963) summarised, ‘What had been noted as self-confidence before the PAP took power soon became touched with arrogance, their energy became aggressive and their party loyalty marked with extreme intolerance of any opposition or criticism. Their discipline was characterised by bullying.’

16) The biggest concern for the progressive left was a growing suspicion that Lee was actively blocking the release of detainees.

17) While the British had been prepared to fully cede control of internal security during the negotiations for the new constitution in 1957, Lim Yew Hock and Lee Kuan Yew had asked for the creation of the Internal Security Council (ISC) instead. This would allow the next Singapore government to deflect blame for the use of internal security laws and continuing detentions.

18) LKY promised that all detainees would be released within three to six months. . .[LKY] tabled a document in the ISC in August 1959 calling for the release of the detainees, then asked for the ISC to veto the document on his behalf so that his government would not have to ‘soil their hands’. Publicly, he continued to blame the ISC for the lack of releases.

19) Selkirk was particularly taken aback by Lee’s ‘dangerous obsession with Lim Chin Siong’ and the degree to which Lee blamed Lim for his own failures.

20) Selkirk pointed out that [LKY’s defeat in the Hong Lim result] was due to his own arrogance.

21) A statement by six progressive left leaders [on] National Day [focused] entirely on reunifying a divided PAP and returning its focus to anti-colonialism. It [called] for the return of internal security powers to a fully elected and representative government.

22) Seeking leverage, Lee proposed to the British that he announce the release of detainees and the ISC countermand it. The British refused, declaring he had ‘lived a lie about the detainees for far too long‘.

23) ‘Lee is not himself prepared ultimately to face the music’, wrote Selkirk, but was ‘asking for the British and Federation to take the public odium.’

24) On 20 July, [the] PAP leadership sought to shift the debate to focus on merger, and declared that anyone who disagreed with them was against merger.

25) A press release signed by the dismissed members attacked Lee for his internal party purge and ending all pretence of democracy: ‘Party members are obliged to be loyal to the objectives and principles of the Party, not the individuals who are trying to monopolise power in the Party.’

26) ‘The fundamental problem is still opposing colonialism,’ said Lim. He pointed out that merger could not be separated from colonialism, because any merger arrangement would have to be approved by Britain, which [would] not agree to an arrangement that did not protect its interests.

27) Lee [ensured] that all alternatives to the PAP option were repugnant, leaving the public with no real choice. The British called this ‘a dishonest manoeuvre’ and the Tunku ‘a dirty game’.

28) If the Barisan adhered to constitutional methods, they could not win a vote; if they resorted to illegal activity, they would be arrested.

29) The Tunku openly worried at Lim Chin Siong’s ‘frightening’ organisation abilities and talismanic presence and the ‘extremely skilful, successful, and devoted’ Barisan leadership. Their arrest on security grounds before the creation of Malaysia would neatly solve this fear.

30) Under Lee’s direction, Singapore Special Branch produced a paper describing an extensive communist conspiracy in Singapore, directed from the underground by the CPM and led in the open by Barisan politicians as part of a Communist “United Front”. The Security Liaison Officer (SLO) Maurice Williams [noted] numerous major deficiencies. Firstly, ‘in spite of intensive investigations, no evidence has been obtained’ of a conspiracy. . . the label Communist “United Front” was so broadly applied that it referred to anyone unhappy with the government.

31) The PAP strained its [1962] campaign to the legal limit, freely using public money and government facilities to promote its Alternative A. It deluged the state with radio broadcasts, advertising jingles, posters, and pamphlets, including 200,000 free copies of Lee’s The Battle for Merger. Goh sent out some 40 trucks fitted with loudspeakers to warn people that blank votes would be considered Alternative B, which would cause Singaporeans to lose their citizenship.

32) [Lim Chin Siong]: “The PAP used threats and cheated to gain victory… the people can clearly see that if the PAP can juggle with the law and threaten and cheat today, they will be able to do so tomorrow.

33) By supporting the Brunei rebellion [in the context of anti-colonialism], the Barisan had provided, Lee declared, ‘a heaven-sent opportunity of justifying action against them,’ [even though Lim] explicitly rejected violence.

34) Operation Coldstore, planned for 16 December 1962, had collapsed when Lee Kuan Yew tried to manipulate the arrests to strengthen his own political survival by inserting the names of fifteen additional political opponents, to the Tunku’s anger.

35) [Lim Chin Siong’s] ‘whole-hearted support’ for Indonesia’s anti-colonial position was misquoted in the next morning’s Straits Times as ‘whole-hearted support’ for ‘Indonesia’s pro-revolt stance’.

36) Anticipating arrests, Lim predicted the ‘establishment of a Fascist and military dictatorship in the country,’ and pleaded that ‘only with the free and unhampered participation of the progressive forces can the constructive energies of our people be released.’

37) Coldstore was finally carried out on 3 February 1963, removing the left’s intellectual and spiritual leadership.

38) The PAP leadership, led by a lawyer and academics intimately familiar with the minutiae of parliamentary procedure, out manoeuvred the trade unionists and physicians who comprised the Barisan’s leadership.

39) It is likely that the progressive left underestimated the willingness of Singaporeans to accept a flawed but concrete package of Malaysia over the ideal but abstract package of freedom and democracy.

Source: “‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s ‘Progressive Left’, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia,” by Thum Ping Tjin (2013)

PDF Download: Academia.edu

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THUM PING TJIN (“PJ”) is a Visiting Fellow at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford; Senior Research Fellow at Sunway University, Malaysia; Research Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia; Research Associate at the Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia.

A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, award-winning student, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, PJ attended Harvard at the age of 16 where he concentrated in East Asian Studies. His work centres on decolonisation in Southeast Asia, and its continuing impact on Southeast Asian governance and politics.

Thum PJ Online: Academia.edu | Project Southeast Asia | Wiki | YouTube | Interview | TOC

8 thoughts on “Excerpts from “Anti-colonialism. . .Operation Coldstore”

  1. And now the future generation has to suffer because our forefathers were afraid of uncertainty of freedom and democracy over totalitarian dictatorship.

    Let’s not repeat the same mistake.


  2. My late relative Tan Sri Dr Too Chee Chiu ( C,C, Too ) the Adviser to the Federal Government of Malaysia on counter-insurgency told me that the Operarion Cold Store was initiated after the Tunku sent down C.C. Too as his emissary to talk to Lee Kuan Yew to take action against the Leftists as he was found to be at a loss about what to do. He met Lee Kuan Yew and George Bogaars, the Police Commissioner for two days. This bit of history was left out by Lee Kuan Yew. After C.C. Too retired, he wrote Lee Kuan Yew a letter seeking the latter’s acknowledgement of his deeds. He was ignored.


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