Friends and foes under one roof

Source: ST, 09 Sept 2009

IT WAS a historic moment with friends and foes gathered together under the same roof where they last met more than four decades ago – at the Old Parliament House.

The occasion was the launch of a new book on the People’s Action Party (PAP), which brought together Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his former political rivals.

Against the backdrop of the august chamber, Mr Lee rose to shake the hands of his one-time rivals: people like PAP founder turned Barisan Sosialis leader Fong Swee Suan, and Mr Dominic Puthucheary, a Malaysian lawyer who was PAP assistant organising secretary before he joined the mass defection that led to the formation of the Barisan Sosialis in 1961.

Many of them were later detained or exiled by the PAP Government. Among the 10 or so former leftists present yesterday however, hardly any rancour was evident.

Instead, there were smiles as one by one, they greeted Mr Lee who then requested a group photo.

It was a kodak moment that former PAP leader and leftist unionist Chen Say Jame, 77, had been hoping for but missed as he stepped out for a toilet break.

Still, he returned to the chamber in time to say in Mandarin: ‘Hello, do you remember me’ to MM Lee who replied: ‘Of course, I do. How are you?’

The poignancy of the bittersweet reunion was not lost on Mr Chen, who last saw Mr Lee in the House in 1961 – when the Legislative Assembly took a vote of confidence in the PAP Government. After some harrowing twists and turns, the PAP won eventually by a razor-thin margin of one vote.

Both men went their separate ways as the former PAP assistant secretary-general was detained in 1963 under Operation Cold Store, during which more than 100 leftist leaders were arrested.

When asked about the past, he said in Chinese: ‘No point thinking too much, just let it go.’

About 100 guests attended the launch, most of them former and current politicians. Apart from MM Lee, no current Cabinet minister was present.

Mr Ong Pang Boon, PAP founder and Singapore’s first Home Affairs Minister, declined to speak to the press apart from saying that he was last in the chamber in 1988. He stepped down as PAP MP that year.

Former Speaker of Parliament Tan Soo Khoon, who quit politics in 2006, also declined comment.

Former PAP MP Augustine Tan, who stepped down in 1991, described the gathering as a unique event, saying: ‘Many historical figures are here, which is a once in a lifetime event. It is good as it can help bring some healing.’

Mr Teo Ser Luck, a 41-year-old serving PAP MP, added: ‘MM and the leftists opposed each other; there may be some bitterness still. But to see them bring closure today was really the best moment.’

It was history in the making even as history was unveiled through the book, Men In White: The Untold Story Of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party.

The book, published by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), chronicles the PAP’s rise, fall, split and resurgence in the past 55 years since the party was formed in 1954.

It is written by three senior Straits Times journalists – Mr Sonny Yap, Mr Richard Lim and Mr Leong Weng Kam – who interviewed 300 people, went through 200 oral history interviews, and pored over confidential documents.

It was not an easy process as some interviewees were downright hostile, assuming that the book was a PAP propaganda exercise, the authors noted.

But they managed to persuade most of them to share their stories, resulting in a book which SPH chairman Tony Tan said was ‘a story of the PAP, warts, blemishes and all’.

Dr Tan, who was Deputy Prime Minister until 2005, said in his speech: ‘Whether you are for or against the PAP, knowing the history of the party would mean knowing the political development of Singapore and understanding how Singapore has evolved to what it is today.’

Men In White, he pointed out, captures alternative voices such as those of leftists and communists – some of whom were key players in the founding of the PAP. Many were giving their views for the first time.

‘In some ways, belated as it may be, the book has accorded recognition to their roles and contributions in the political development of Singapore,’ he said. With their input, the book provides a more ’rounded and balanced’ account of Singapore’s history.

He added that the book, which was seven years in the making, would not be in vain if it helped a new generation of readers to rethink the Singapore story.

It will also help ‘overturn some longstanding assumptions, question some conventional wisdom and debunk some myths and taboos’, he said.

To Mr Lim Chin Joo, however, Men In White marks ‘just the beginning’.

The younger brother of the late Barisan Sosialis leader Lim Chin Siong believes more can be done. ‘I hope more can be written as there are still plenty of stories that remain untold,’ he told The Straits Times. ‘If they are told, it may change the picture of the Singapore that is known to us. We owe this much to the younger generation. They ought to know everything, the whole story.’

Mr Lim, who was actively involved in left-wing student and trade union movements agitating for independence from the British, was arrested in the 1960s and spent nine years in detention.

He described it as a ‘wonderful feeling’ to be mingling with the other guests at yesterday’s reception. ‘After all this while, we can still be, and ought to be, friends. As far as I’m concerned, what we’ve done is not for personal interests but for the country.’

PAP founder-turned-Barisan leader Fong Swee Suan, who spent more than four years in detention under Operation Cold Store, was equally peaceable: ‘I’m happy to have seen old friends. Like Mr Lee Kuan Yew…half a century and we haven’t talked face-to-face.

‘Today, I asked him how he is.’

[email protected]