Lim Cheng Tju
Let me begin with my personal journey. I was teaching Singapore history at a junior college a few years back. It was a source-based paper, using primary and secondary materials to teach the history of Singapore from 1945 to 1965 – from the end of the Japanese Occupation to independence.
The Fajar sedition trial of 1954 was central to the Singapore Story and the formation of the People’s Action Party (PAP). In 1953, the University Socialist Club (USC) was formed by left-leaning undergraduates at the University of Malaya located in Singapore. Their organ, Fajar came to the attention of the British colonial authorities and soon enough, they got into trouble for an editorial they wrote on “Aggression in Asia”, which criticized the formation of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization. The British deemed the article as seditious, arrested and charged the editorial team of Fajar for sedition, but in a twist of events, the students were acquitted in court. One of the lawyers for the students was the young Lee Kuan Yew.
The trial strengthened Lee Kuan Yew’s credentials as a left-wing anti-colonialist and it brought him to the attention of the Chinese student activists. Later that year saw the formation of the PAP on 21 November 1954. The founding members of the PAP had people from Chinese student groups as well as members of the University Socialist Club, the very people who were involved in Fajar. All these facts have been well documented in Lee’s own memoirs. (The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Volume one. 1998).
I thought it would be useful to examine extracts from the alleged seditious article in class but I immediately hit a brick wall. There were no issues of Fajar in the collection of the National Library. The National University of Singapore Library (which inherited the collection of the University of Malaya) has an incomplete set (5 issues short of the total 62; lacking the first 2 issues, numbers 20 and 24 of Volume 1 and number 5 of Volume 2). However, the publication was still under lock and key. Access to it was restricted.
This got me interested in the contributions of the English-educated in the anti-colonial struggle. I had done work on the Chinese-educated and have come across the standard portrayal of the feeble attempts of the English-educated in the anti-colonial movement. This has been a point strongly made by Lee Kuan Yew in his memoirs and speeches, from the 1960s to the 1990s.
I think we have reached a point where we need to reconsider the history of the leftwing as more than the story of the Chinese-educated and include the English-educated as well as the involvement of the Malays and Indians in the leftwing movement. This is in light of recent scholarship by Tim Harper, Huang Jianli and others presented at the 2005 Paths Not Taken conference in Singapore.
Last year, a group of my friends, mostly young researchers, got together to start an independent project to document the history of the University Socialist Club. So far, we have made some preliminary findings, including on the Fajar case.
For this short essay, I will start off with the chronology of the Fajar case, followed by what we have learned from the Colonial Office (CO) papers on this matter and end with some questions that remain unanswered.
Chronology of the Fajar Case
The Fajar 8: Poh Soo Kai (president of club), MK Rajakumar, James Puthucheary, Kwa Boo Sun, Lam Khuan Kit, Thomas Varkey, P Arudsothy and Edwin Thumboo (oldest – James Puthcheary, 32; youngest P Arudsothy, 19; Edwin Thumboo second youngest at 20).
21 Feb 1953 – inauguration of the University Socialist Club.
Mar 1953 – first issue of the organ of the University Socialist Club. It was only renamed as Fajar (Dawn) from the third issue onwards.
Jan 1954 – reorganization of the Working Committee and a new editorial board formed for Fajar (8 members).
10 Apr 1954 – a new tone in Fajar was noted in its No 6 issue. Singapore Police Intelligence Journal No 4/45 noted the publication was becoming “an excellent vehicle for fellow travellers” (Confidential Telegram No 308 from Governor John Nicoll to Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir John Martin on 8 June 1954).
10 May 1954 – “Aggression in Asia” editorial appeared on the front page of the No 7 issue of Fajar (article written by Poh Soo Kai and MK Rajakumar). The Special Branch noted the issue.
13 May 1954 – “513 incident”; Chinese students clashed with police over the issue of Registration of National Service Bill.
18 May 1954 – University of Malaya Students’ Union came out in support of the “513” students.
23 May 1954 – Attorney-General Davis saw the “Aggression in Asia” issue of Fajar and gave instructions to the police to make enquires as to who was responsible for its publication.
26 May 1954 – Director of Special Branch AEG Blades informed the A-G office that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya, Sir Sydney Caine had been consulted on the investigation. Original proposal to confront the Fajar 8 on 27 May, 2.30 pm (SSB 1149/2). Further discussions were made between A-G Davis and Governor John Nicoll.
28 May 1954 – A-G Davis gave written sanction to prosecute the Fajar 8.
28 May 1954 – between 5 to 6 am, the Fajar 8 were picked up by the police. 7 of them were arrested at the University Hostel in Dunearn Road; Poh Soo Kai was picked up from his Katong home. They were charged in court in the afternoon of the same day (Edwin Thumboo was charged on 29 May 1954). Bail of $1000 each was provided by Vice-Chancellor Sir Sydney Caine, who felt it was his duty to bail out the students involved. Lee Kuan Yew (honourary advisor to the club) represented the students in court.
21 Jul 1954 – case was mentioned in court. Trial dates set for 23 to 25 Aug 1954.
11 Aug 1954 – arrival of Queen’s Counsel and leftwing champion, Denis Nowell Pritt, as senior defense counsel for the Fajar 8.
23 Aug 1954 – first day of trial (2 USC members not involved in the Fajar publication were called as witnesses by the prosecution – Jeyaraj Christopher Rajavao and Chua Sian Chin. Chua was later a PAP MP and was Minister for Home Affairs and Education in the 1970s.)
24 Aug 1954 – second day of trial (another USC member was called by the prosecution, Ong Pang Boon, later a PAP MP and Minister for Education, 1963 to 1970. Other than political leaders, future top civil servants were also members of USC – Ngiam Tong Dow was a member who helped to distribute Fajar. But he claimed it never sold a single copy at the newsstand and he wondered who was paying the printing cost)
25 Aug 1954 – District Judge FA (Freddy) Chua threw the case out. Fajar 8 acquitted of all charges.
7 Oct 1954 – Pritt returned to Singapore to appeal for the conviction of the “513” Chinese-medium school students (7 students).
12 Oct 1954 – start of appeal hearings.
15 Oct 1954 – appeal dismissed. Conviction of the Chinese-medium school students upheld.
21 Nov 1954 – formation of the PAP. Founding members included members of the USC (eg. PSG Oorjitham).
Response of the British to the Fajar Case
According to the Colonial Office papers on this matter, CO 1030/361, the British were divided on the action taken to prosecute the students. As I have shown in my chronology, Attorney-General Davis was only aware of the “Aggression in Asia” article on 23 May 1954. Action was taken rather quickly after that. The Fajar 8 were arrested 5 days later on the 28th. Perhaps the British authorities were responding the “513 incident” and saw red when the University of Malaya Students’ Union came out in support of the 513 students on 18 May.
Nonetheless, there is a certain amount of haziness to British decision-making between 23 and 28 May. Governor John Nicoll had discussions with A-G Davis on this matter. The Vice-Chancellor of the University, Sir Sydney Caine was consulted by the police and by the Director of Special Branch, AEG Blades on how to proceed in handling the students. However, after the arrests, Caine said that it was not made clear to him that the police would actually arrest the students to be prosecuted. He was under the impression that they would only be questioned by the police.
After the arrests, more divisions became apparent among the British authorities on whether this was the right thing to do. The key disagreement was between Governor John Nicoll and the Commissioner-General for the UK in SEA, Malcolm MacDonald. MacDonald was of the opinion that the case should be dropped immediately and continuation would do the British Empire more harm than good. In fact, MacDonald drafted a government statement to drop the charges against the students for Nicoll’s consideration.
Nicoll rejected this idea and said that while it might have been a mistake to arrest the students, to drop the case would make things worse. The British would be seen as weak and lose face, so to speak.
All this happened in June 1954, just weeks after the arrests. Reading the correspondence between MacDonald and Nicoll, I get the impression that it might be loss of face that led MacDonald to disagree with Nicoll on this matter. MacDonald was the Chancellor of the University but he was not consulted on the decision to arrest the students. Nicoll, on the other hand, felt that it was his call on how this matter should be approached. MacDonald was known for his enlightened views about the colonies in Southeast Asia. In this case, however, it could well be a case of turf war.
These differences were presented to the Permanent Under-Secretary for the Colonies in London, Sir John Martin. In correspondence dated 30 July 1954, there was some element of Nicoll complaining to Sir John Martin about MacDonald in this matter. In fact, Nicoll was perceived to be seeking moral support from the London office and was described as ‘sensitive’ and ‘lonely’ given the circumstances. Sir John Martin was advised to send an encouraging note to Nicoll to cheer him up, which he did on 16 Aug, just a week before the trial was to start.
The case was a no go almost immediately after the students were charged in court on 28 and 29 May. The British had probably made a tactical error in arresting the students in the first place but once that was done, they couldn’t turn back and drop the charges despite the reservations of some of the British authorities in Singapore and even in London, for fear that such an action would be damaging to the British authority in Singapore.
It was left to District Judge FA Chua to throw out the case on 25 Aug, the third day of the trial, without the defense being called.
Naturally, the event was seen as victory for the students and the left-wing movement in Singapore. However, from the British point of view, they felt that the acquittal ended on a positive note as it showed the independent nature of the judiciary, and was a practical demonstration of British democracy at work. It reminded the students and the people that the Sedition Law existed, and it secured an apology from the Fajar Editorial Board to the City Council. (this fact still needs to be collaborated with the members of USC then) The British felt that they had put the editorial board in their place and Fajar and the club would be more cautious in their writings and activities.
This, of course, turned out to be a total misreading of the situation by the British in 1954. What this event did was to boost the morale of the club and Fajar. They were convinced they were on the right path to secure independence for a free and socialist Malaya and Singapore.
Impact of the Fajar Trial
To quote from Lim Hock Siew’s (a key USC member then and later a Barisan Sosialis member) oral history records:
…the outcome of the trial was that the views of the Socialist Club was ventilated very widely in the papers. The whole Fajar editorial which was alleged to be seditious was read out in court and that was largely re-quoted in various daily newspapers both the English and the Chinese newspapers. And Fajar as a result gained wide publicity in our county…
…it raised the prestige of Fajar amongst members of the public and consequently the Fajar circulation shot up to about 5,000 copies per issue.
The trial of the Fajar students together with the trial of the Chinese school students involved in the May 13th demonstration created an upsurge of public activity and public interest in the political struggle of our people. And it was in the wake of this upsurge of political activity that the PAP was formed in November 1954…These two trials on the part of Lee Kuan Yew greatly boosted his personal image amongst the left-wing circles in Singapore. And it facilitated his becoming the leader of the People’s Action Party when it was formed.
There are questions left unanswered.
– Who actually engaged DN Pritt?
Lee Kuan Yew had said that he did in his memoirs but other sources claimed that it was John Eber (founding member of the defunct Malayan Democratic Union, the first English left-wing party in Singapore) in London who contacted DN Pritt. (Koh Tat Boon’s 1973 University of Singapore history honours thesis on the University of Singapore Socialist Club, 1953-1962) The latter was collaborated recently by Poh Soo Kai who said that Eber telegrammed to Toh Chin Chye, offering a choice of 2 QCs. One was Dingle-Foot (another well-known left-wing solicitor) and the other was Pritt. Poh told Toh to cable back the preference for Pritt.
– Other than the standard view that the Fajar case boosted Lee Kuan Yew’s reputation and led to the formation of the PAP later that year in 1954, what other significance did the Fajar case have?
It was pointed out to me recently by one of the Fajar 8 that the aftermath of the case split the club into two – those who were less fervent about socialism (“fireside socialists”) and left-wing politics soon left the club and henceforth, the USC became a serious left-wing club and a major player in Singapore politics.
– Background of the Fajar 8, what else did they do and what happen to them?
Other than Edwin Thumboo and perhaps James Puthucheary, we do not know much of the others in the Fajar 8. Even student activists and university students of the 1950s and 1960s only remembered Edwin Thumboo as being involved in the Fajar case, but not the rest. A case in point was the recent forum on student activities and activism in Singapore between 1945 and 1965, organized by The Tangent. The two invited speakers, Chinese student activist, Han Tan Juan and former University of Singapore student, Koh Tai Ann, mentioned only Thumboo, Puthucheary and S Woodhull as members of the USC. The rest are forgotten.
The Fajar case has entered national history as it is currently being featured in the postwar section of the Singapore History gallery of the newly-opened National Museum of Singapore. The museum has done an 8 minute video on the Fajar case, but only Edwin Thumboo was interviewed and featured.
Why are we interested in the subject? Because it is part of our legacy as former students of the university, whether it was University of Malaya, University of Singapore, and now, the National University of Singapore. We are products of the system and by remembering significant events such as the Fajar case, we learn what was achieved before by students then and perhaps this could inspire our students today.
 The Malaysians have been active in this area. Two recent publications from across the causeway are a history of the Malay left– Mohamed Salleh Lamry, Gerakan kiri Melayu dalam perjuangan dan kemerdekaan, published by the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press in 2006, and the autobiography of Rashid Maidin (1917-2006), a key member of the Malayan Communist Party.
 On 15 January 2007, I presented this paper in a seminar on the University Socialist Club at the Institute of Policy Studies. During the question and answer session, Ann Wee, who was teaching then at the University, pointed out that the arrests took place during the examinations period. Staff and students were outraged by the police action. Some staff and students of the University had always been sympathetic to students who got into political trouble – students like Hedwig Anwar would visit James Puthucheary regularly at St John’s Island during his first detention by the British in the early 1950s.
 Pritt wrote about the Fajar case in his book, Spies and Informers in the Witness-Box (1958). His autobiography was published in 1966. Pritt has also entered popular culture – he was name-checked in a recent reading of a play by Peter Wesley-Smith about Ho Chi Minh on trial in Hong Kong.
Lim Cheng Tju is a secondary school history teacher who writes about history and popular culture in Singapore. His articles have appeared in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He is also the country editor for the International Journal of Comic Art.