Remembering Coldstore: Former detainees speak

It has been 55 years since Operation Coldstore, a major police operation in February 1963 in which over 110 anticolonial activists, union workers, students and politicians were arrested and detained without trial in Singapore. Carried out under the guise of fighting communism, the arrests severely undermined the left-wing anticolonial movement in Singapore and crippled the main opposition party, the Barisan Sosialis, who held 14 out of 51 seats in the Legislative Assembly (the governing People’s Action Party, led by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had 25 seats). Some detainees would go on to spend over a decade behind bars without ever being formally charged with a crime. Operation Coldstore remains the largest round of arrests and detentions ever carried out in Singapore.

Over the years, the stories of these leftists have been largely obscured or erased from Singapore’s official narrative. A survey done by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2015 found that Operation Coldstore was among one of Singaporeans’ least remembered historical events. But the Old Left remembers: they gather every year during the Lunar New Year period for a big reunion lunch. It’s an opportunity to catch up with friends and also commemorate events from their past.

This year, New Naratif spoke to some of the former detainees at the annual gathering. We present excerpts from short interviews with them alongside their photographs below, juxtaposed against the entire Special Branch summary which Singapore’s Internal Security Council (comprising seven members: the British Commissioner, two other senior British colonial officials, three PAP politicians including Lee Kuan Yew, and the Federation of Malaya Internal Security Minister, Tun Dr. Ismail) used to decide on their arrest and detention, along with commentary by New Naratif. These declassified Special Branch documents are found in the British National Archives.

Chua Wee Puan

Age at time of arrest: 23
Chua Wee Puan was a member of the Singapore Bookshops, Publications and Printing Press Workers’ Union. Credit: Tom White

They wanted us to sign documents to ‘renounce’ communism; if you didn’t sign they wouldn’t let you out. I was part of the Singapore Bookshops, Publications and Printing Press Workers’ Union. I was detained for about 10 years. I spent time in various prisons: Changi, Queenstown, Central [Police Station], Moon Crescent Centre [a detention centre, now closed, within Changi Prison]… I didn’t get tortured, but I was kept in solitary for three months.

From the British Archives

Security Classification: Suspected Communist
Was first introduced to Communism as a student in the Chung Cheng High School. Later became an active member of the SCMSSU [Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Student Union] and was expelled from school for pro-Communist activities when the SCMSSU was banned in 1956. First entered the T.U. [trades union] field in 1959 as paid Secretary for the Singapore Spinning Workers’ Union. Acting probably on the instructions of the underground CPM he was one of the sponsors of the move to field pro-Communist trade unionists as independent candidates in the 1959 General Elections in view of the split with the P.A.P. leadership at that time. For some unknown reason this was dropped although a number of candidates had already been selected. In June 1960 was advanced to a more responsible post in the Communist-controlled SGEU. He served on the Committee responsible for publishing the SUARA KESATUAN, the organ of the SGEU, and was particularly active in conducting cadre training classes teaching Communist theory to members of the SGEU. In November 1961 he conducted similar Communist training classes in the SBPPPWU in which he was by this time General Secretary. Throughout the Communist campaign of opposition to merger he consistently supported Communist United Front executives and afforded them an opportunity to put over their propaganda at cadre training classes within his own Union.

Chua’s summary is a classic example of the smears, innuendo, and speculation used by Special Branch to dub many anticolonial activists as “communists”. As anticolonial protests grew, and more and more Singaporeans demanded independence, the British colonial authorities responded by expanding the definition of communism to justify their suppression of the anticolonial movement. In August 1956, an internal memorandum by Special Branch Director Alan Blades and Colonial Secretary William Goode argued that all opposition to government policy, legitimate or otherwise, supported the Malayan Communist Party’s aims, and therefore had to be classified as communist subversion and treated as such. Armed with this “definition”, Special Branch proceeded to arrest numerous anticolonial activists. Yet Special Branch did not have a shred of evidence for its assertions above. Where it did have evidence, it was very quick to act and bring charges; where it did not, it was forced to detain the activists without trial.

Ang Eng Siong

Age at time of arrest: 23
Ang Eng Siong was a member of the People’s Association. After the split in the People’s Action Party, other People’s Association workers—many of whom supported the Barisan Sosialis—chose Ang to be their representative to talk to Lee Kuan Yew. Credit: Tom White

My arrest was because of Kuan Yew, because when I confronted him on behalf of the workers he told me he’d sent me to Japan [for education and training] and “now you come back you are against me.” So I think [my detention] was because of Lee Kuan Yew’s personal vendetta. I was detained for eight years and four months; I’ve been all over Singapore’s prisons!

From the British Archives

Security Classification: Suspected Communist Sympathiser
Became paid secretary of the Communist-controlled Singapore Textiles and General Merchants Employees Union (STGEU) in 1959 and General Affairs Officer of a pro-Communist Old Boys’ Association in 1960. Resigned from the STGMEU in June 1960 when he was appointed Organiser in the People’s Association. Played an active part in the Communist-inspired agitation of employees of the People’s Association against the Government in 1961. Has disseminated Communist propaganda through lectures at cadre training classes of unions and played an active part in the Communist United Front agitation against merger, Malaysia and the Referendum in 1962.

Ang was arrested and detained for over eight years despite not being a communist, nor a communist sympathiser, but merely being a suspected communist sympathiser. Lee Kuan Yew had placed him in the People’s Association in June 1960, thinking that he would be a reliable supporter of Lee’s faction in the PAP. To Lee’s surprise, Ang took his job of speaking up for workers seriously, and opposed Lee’s attempts to undermine the independent trades union movement. One personal disagreement—and one single paragraph—drastically changed Ang’s life forever.

Tan Kok Fang

Age at time of arrest: 23
Tan Kok Fang at the annual lunar new year lunch gathering of Singapore’s ‘Old Left’. Credit: Tom White

I’d just graduated from Nanyang University. I was a student activist with the Nanyang University Student Union—I was Chairman of External Relations for two sessions. I was detained for four and a half years. They accused me of being a Communist sympathiser. They didn’t accuse me of being a Communist. But I considered myself to be an anti-colonialist.

From the British Archives

Security Classification: Suspected Communist Sympathiser
Expelled from school in 1954 for activities in support of the Communist-led agitation against National Service Registration. In SEP 57 was one of the leaders responsible for organising “Hsueh Hsih” indoctrination classes in the Chinese High School. Was arrested on 25 SEP 57 but released on 9 OCT 57. In 1960/61 was External Relations Officer of Nanyang University Students Union and attempted to establish close relationship between the NUSU and the International Union of Students (a Communist Front organisation). Played an active part in the Communist-inspired agitation against the 4-2 education system. Returned from a NUSU tour of Australia in AUG 62 and was found in possession of Communist literature.

The forced alteration of the Chinese education system from “3-3” (three years of Lower Middle and three years of Upper Middle) to the English “4-2” (four years of Secondary and two years of Pre-University) was hugely controversial. This was not because of the principle of streamlining all systems of education into a common system (which had widespread support), but because the transition was incredibly rushed (Chinese schools were only given a few months notice to prepare), it was extremely poorly communicated (even then-Education Minister Yong Nyuk Lin and his officials were bewildered by the speed of the changes, and communicated inaccurate information at times), it was accompanied by other fundamental changes to Chinese education (including the length of the school week, teachers’ pay, and educational standards), and there was no policy formulated regarding what would happen to the Chinese students left stranded by the changes. Naturally, the Upper Middle 1 students who were told in mid-1961 that they would suddenly have to face school-leaving examinations at the end of the year were furious, and angrily protested. Unfortunately, this happened at the same time as the PAP split, leading Lee Kuan Yew to accuse the students of being in league with the Barisan.

Yeh Kim Pak

Age at time of arrest: 27
Yeh was born in Malaya, and was stripped of his citizenship and banished under Singaporean law. He was not the only one; a 1976 Amnesty International briefing on Singapore noted that “[t]he usual pattern is for political prisoners to be detained without trial under the provisions of either the Internal Security Act or the Banishment Act.” Detainees who were not born in Singapore lost their citizenship and were deported. Credit: Tom White

They came to the coffee shop in Joo Chiat where I was working at 2am. About five or six officers came, and they took me to Outram [police station], where there were already many people. I was detained for four and a half years. I was a Singapore citizen but I lost my citizenship; they took me to the border. I couldn’t return to Singapore for years, but now I can because I finally got Malaysian citizenship two, three years ago. [To Kirsten] You weren’t even born yet; there were so many things happening at that time: independence, elections, organising… People like me are witnesses to history.

From the British Archives

Security Classification: Suspected Communist Sympathiser
In 1956 he strongly criticised Government’s action in arresting Communists and gave full support to the Civil Rights Committee in its agitation for their release. He is a staunch admirer of Communist CHINA and consistently echoes the Communist stand in all current issues. He has served in various posts in the Singapore Coffee Shop Employees Union and associates closely with Communist suspects. He is actively concerned with ensuring maximum support for the Policies of the Communist controlled SGEU from members of his Union.

The irony of this summary is that in 1956, the People’s Action Party were the leading opposition party, and led criticisms of the government’s actions. From October 1956, then-Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock arrested and detained without trial many anticolonial activists, union workers, students and politicians, and banned numerous anticolonial associations. Many People’s Action Party members were among those arrested. Lee Kuan Yew led the criticisms of Lim Yew Hock in the Legislative Assembly, accusing him of undertaking the arrests for political reasons and calling him a colonial stooge. Seven years later, Lee would use the same actions against his political opponents, justifying them the same way Lim had done in 1956—as an action against “communists”, done in the name of “national security”.

The hunger strike of 1970/71

There have been more discussions of Operation Coldstore in 1963 and Operation Spectrum in 1987 in recent years, but they aren’t the only times where individuals have been detained. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean stated in Parliament in 2011 that 1,045 people were detained under first the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO, renamed the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1963) between 1959 and 1990. A list of political detainees from 1950 to 2015 compiled by Loh Miao Ping—herself a former detainee—counts over 1,300 names. These include only people detained under section 8 of the ISA, which permits detentions (indefinitely renewable) up to 2 years. Approximately 1,000 to 1,500 more people have been held under section 74, which permits people to be held without a warrant by the Internal Security Department merely on suspicion of being a security risk for up to 28 days. Many such detainees were released after 28 days and immediately re-arrested when they stepped out of the ISD compound.

Conditions in detention are often described as poor. A 1976 Amnesty International briefing stated that “food is said to be poor, with only limited supplement by the families allowed.”

From left: Toh Siew Tin, Sim Teong Hiok and Goh Peng Wah at the annual lunar new year lunch gathering of Singapore’s ‘Old Left’. Credit: Tom White

Toh Siew Tin, Sim Teong Hiok and Goh Peng Wah, detained in 1970, provided New Naratif with more details, some of which corroborates the description in the Amnesty International report: visits from family members were conducted by telephone, with a thick glass pane between them and the detainee. Conversations were monitored by prison officers, who would cut the call off the moment talk veered in a direction they did not approve of. Detainees would not be allowed certain books, even if those titles were not actually banned in Singapore. Newspapers would come to them with big holes where articles once were—a crude form of censorship to prevent them from receiving particular pieces of news from outside prison.

Then came another condition that was found to be unacceptable: the authorities wanted the detainees to work, doing menial labour for hours each day. “They wanted to soften our minds and make us cooperate with them,” said Toh, who had been 20 years old when arrested.

The detainees sought to negotiate with those in charge. “We wanted dialogue for a long time, but it went nowhere,” Goh said. She had been only 19 when detained.

The detainees eventually decided to take drastic action in December 1970. Eight women, including Toh, Goh and Sim, began a hunger strike. A number of male political detainees in the men’s prison did the same. “For the first week we drank water. After that, nothing,” Toh said.

The hunger strikers were then subjected to brutal force-feedings, first once, then twice, and eventually three times a day. The three women still have clear memories of that experience:

“They’d stick a tube down your throat; if they couldn’t get it down your throat they would stick a smaller tube through your nose. There would be a funnel on the other end and they would pour milk down the tube that way. Later, they would add a lot of supplements to the milk.”

They recounted bruises all over their bodies; on their arms from being handcuffed to chairs, and their faces as prison officers forced their mouths open. Their throats would be rubbed raw  by the tubes; Sim, who had been 25 at the time of arrest, recalled that there would sometimes be blood in their vomit when the hunger strikers threw up the milk being force-fed.

“We wanted them to agree to our requests [to not work in detention, and for better conditions]. We wrote to our parents telling them that we wanted to have a hunger strike because the conditions were so harsh,” Goh said.

As the hunger strike wore on, the families of the detainees sought to put pressure on the government to improve conditions for their loved ones in detention. “Today if the lives of the political detainees should be seriously affected in any way, the LKY authorities would have to bear all the dire consequences. The LKY authorities must immediately stop all persecution and ill-treatment of political detainees, settle the reasonable demands of the detainees, unconditionally release all detainees,” they wrote in a letter published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia in 1971.

Despite the painful and humiliating treatment, the hunger strikers persisted for over 130 days before the authorities relented. The detainees were no longer required to work, and some conditions were improved.

Dr Poh Soo Kai, who was detained for a total of 17 years, greets a friend at the annual lunch for Singapore’s ‘Old Left’. Credit: Tom White

Today, members of the Old Left reminisce while surrounded by friends and family, but people are still being detained without trial under laws like the Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. Without charges, trials, or access to the detainees, there is no way to verify the claims made by the Ministry of Home Affairs in its public statements justifying such detentions.

To Learn More

The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2013), edited by Dr Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang, and Prof Hong Lysa, provides a diverse view of Operation Coldstore from the perspective of academics and former detainees.

”The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s “Progressive Left”, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia’ by New Naratif Managing Director Dr Thum Ping Tjin (Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No 211, 2013), provides historical context to Operation Coldstore, which was part of Singapore’s contentious path to merger with the Federation of Malaya.

If you’re interested in the primary sources quoted above in the body of the article, you can view the Operation Coldstore summary case files (PDF, 14MB) retrieved from the British National Archives which were used by the Internal Security Council to decide upon the arrest and detention of 175 people.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to join our movement to create space for research, conversation, and action in Southeast Asia, please join New Naratif as a member—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week)!

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