“May 13 is our day, at the foot of Fort Canning Hill…”
On 13 May 1954, a group of Chinese students delivered a petition for exemption from military conscription to the acting colonial governor of Singapore. Hundreds of others assembled at the foot of Fort Canning Hill in solidarity, waiting for their representatives. They were met with a show of force by the riot police. Over forty students were arrested and dozens injured, but the movement only continued to grow.
This was a pivotal moment for the struggle against British colonialism in Singapore. The student activists’ movement against their colonial masters played a major role in Singapore achieving full self-governance in 1959, and independence from the British through the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. The merger fell through two years later, and Singapore became an independent nation.
60 years later, these student protesters proved that they still have the ability to mobilise. 750 people showed up on Tuesday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the protest. The leftist activists, now in their 70s and 80s, reminded younger generations that there was once a Singapore where students organised and political dissent was fierce.
It’s been six decades, but the student protesters still remember their protest songs. A common refrain? “Unity is strength.”
This period in Singapore’s history stands in stark contrast to today’s Singapore, where protests and civil disobedience barely seem to feature, and the “political arena” is considered no place for ordinary citizens. It is also ironic, as it was this movement that helped bring Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party (PAP) into power in 1959. The PAP has remained the ruling party ever since, and critics say that it is precisely their oppressive laws and “OB markers” that have taken away Singaporeans’ civil liberties.
Lim Hock Siew, a founding member of the University Socialist Club that had supported the anti-colonialist struggle, had campaigned for the PAP during the elections in 1955 and 1959. But his PAP membership was later not renewed and he joined the Barisan Sosialis instead, a new party formed by left-leaning unionists and individuals who had been expelled from the PAP. In 1963 he was arrested as part of Operation Coldstore, a large-scale crackdown on alleged communists accused of engaging in subversive activities. He was arrested, detained, and remained in custody for 19 years without trial.
“Like a gigantic tidal wave these activists swept the PAP into power in 1959, hoping that the newly formed political party would bring about political freedom and social justice to our people,” he wrote in 2011, a year before his death at the age of 81. “But it was not to be. Subsequent repressions conducted by the PAP after it came to power proved to be more ruthless and relentless than those carried out by the colonial rulers and they have to be seen through and through as a massive political betrayal in Singapore history.”
The existence of the Internal Security Act (ISA) has often been described as a tool of repression, and following Operation Coldstore it was used again in 1966. Chia Thye Poh was one of those arrested that year, and went on to become Singapore’s longest-serving political prisoner: 23 years. Although he was released in 1989, he was placed under house arrest in Sentosa, — one of the smaller islands surrounding Singapore — for another nine years. Only in November 1998 were all restrictions on his movements and activities lifted. By that point he had been deprived of his freedom for over three decades.
Operation Spectrum was another high-profile use of the ISA in 1987. Those detained were accused of trying to overthrow the government to establish a Marxist state, but were never charged or given the chance to defend themselves.
These arrests — and the knowledge that the ISA is still on the books — deterred others from participating in activism, and political dissent was increasingly pushed to the fringes. Unlike the students of May 13, later generations of Singaporeans became more and more cautious and unwilling to fight for their rights. Protests and strikes, firmly regulated by laws, were relegated to the history books.
Lim Hock Koon, the brother of Lim Hock Siew, was the main speaker at the commemoration event. He had other thoughts on why younger Singaporeans aren’t stepping out as they did: “We went through the Japanese Occupation. We knew how it was to struggle, and it made us passionate about politics. It’s different now. The youth have grown up in a different time and been through a different education system. Their parents are focused on them getting professional jobs, so the upbringing is different too.”
Dr Poh Soo Kai is also no stranger to repression and the consequences of political dissent in Singapore. He too had been arrested during Operation Coldstore, and detained for 17 years. But when I mentioned that Singaporeans might now be averse to speaking out, he disagreed.
“I think people are starting to worry. They are speaking up. Especially now, online, you can publish so many things,” he said.
Many Singaporeans feel like they’re struggling in a crowded city where the cost of living rises in ways salaries don’t, and where the PAP government is clearly not the same as the one the student activists had supported all those years ago. And now, with online spaces like blogs, forums, social media platforms flourishing, they don’t have to keep quiet about it. Singaporeans are finding more ways to vent their frustrations and criticise the government.
Since I wrote about Singapore’s lack of a protest culture in 2012, a growing number of Singaporeans have started stepping forward to make their displeasure known. Around 4,000 showed up at a protest against the government’s Population White Paper in February last year. (The organiser of that protest, though, has since become a controversial figure, disturbing many with xenophobic remarks and bizarre ideas.) Smaller protests and events have taken place since. Exactly three years after a general election in which the PAP received the lowest vote-share in the party’s history, Singaporeans woke up to the words “F**K THE PAP” spray-painted across the roof of a block of flats.
Singapore’s migrant workers have not been silent either. In November 2012 Chinese bus drivers went on strike, the first major strike in Singapore for over 20 years. Last December emotions boiled over among South Asian migrant workers in Little India after a worker was run over by a bus; the short-lived riot that ensued was also the first in decades.
Now added to this chorus of discontent are the voices of those who had so long been silenced. Political detainees are speaking up, writing books and giving speeches, debunking the establishment narrative that has been presented to Singaporeans all these years. Historians have also come forward to shed more light on the period.
It was an article by historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin that Dr Poh felt compelled to draw attention to at the end of his speech during the event. The article had reproduced archive material to show that Lim Chin Siong, the co-founder of the PAP, had been misquoted to justify his arrest by the government in 1956. This misrepresentation persisted even after the PAP came into power, and in 1963 he was again arrested under Operation Coldstore. He was detained for seven years, his reputation still tarnished as a supposed rabble-rouser who had incited crowds to violence.
In his speech, Dr Poh had this to say to Lee Kuan Yew: “Why did you not defend your party’s assistant secretary general and Member of Parliament […] when, after his arrest, this misquote was raised in Parliament to justify his arrest […]? […] Therefore, to Lee Kuan Yew, I would advise: apologise to the people of Singapore, before it is too late.”