Men in White and the forever missing handshake

Hong Lysa

The Pattern

Men in White was, as could be expected, marketed as being different from any other product of its kind. However few in Singapore would have anything remotely comparable to the publicity machinery of SPH, nor indeed the kind of resources that was poured into the book’s production.

Like a Hollywood blockbuster, the sheer scale of the venture was itself newsworthy, complete with the now almost obligatory ‘The making of Men in White‘ (Straits Times 29 Aug. 2009)

The lowdown on the gargantuan effort:

To re-enact this political theatre-cum-human drama, three writers from Straits Times backed by four researchers conducted some 300 interviews in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and listened to about 200 oral history tapes

It is oral history spun in a journalistic mode, spiced unapologetically with anecdotes, quotes and human interest to breathe life into past events. (book jacket)

Those of a certain vintage may find such claims familiar. Men in White does in fact have a distinct genealogy: one of journalists given access to write Singapore’s past. This can be traced to 1968, with Alex Josey’s biography Lee Kuan Yew (1968). A closer match is Singapore: Struggle for Success (1984), whose journalist author John Drysdale mentioned ‘three and a half years of painstakingly combing through public and private archives, oral history collections, interviews with leading personalities, both government and opposition’. The pride taken in claiming ‘this is no academic study’ had earlier been made by Dennis Bloodworth, who boasted about ‘unique access to original source material through interviews with those involved, extensive oral histories, hitherto unpublished official records and security reports.’ Bloodworth also preceded Men in White in announcing that his book presents events ‘seen from both sides, and told with cool impartiality’ (book jacket, The Tiger and the Trojan Horse, 1986) In 1998, a team of three senior local journalists were entrusted with the task of distilling some 2000 of his speeches and 30 odd hours of interviews with him to produce Lee Kuan Yew: the Man and his ideas.

The Plot

The key characteristic of the story of Singapore’s ruling party, told as the nation’s history, is that it fought a life and death battle in the first decade of its existence spanning the mid-50s to the mid 60s with the communist plants within the party itself out of which an independent nation state was born. The anti-colonial movement in which the left clearly led with its mass base is written over as a communist one, save for its Lee Kuan Yew faction, the teller of this tale. Despite its claims to the contrary, Men in White does not deviate from this. While it does acknowledge that the PAP’s election victories in 1955 and 1959 were won on the mass support of the left led by Lim Chin Siong, the implications of this is kept in check by its persistent dichotomous communist/non-communist framework. Lee Kuan Yew’s foreword to the book sets this tone, with his reiteration that Lim Chin Siong had links with the communist party and worked with it to topple the government in 1961. The penultimate chapter of the pre-1965 section dwells on whether Lim was a communist, and while giving voice to various shades of opinion, hands the final say to Ong Pang Boon: that Lim may not have been be a card-carrying member of MCP, ‘but by his actions and speeches in the 1950s, he sounded like a communist and he supported communist objectives.’ Ong’s comment seconds Lee’s own on the subject.

Ong Pang Boon, a government minister who retired from parliament in 1984 at the age of 55 to make way for ‘new blood’ made his unhappiness with the pace and manner in which Lee Kuan carried out the PAP’s self-renewal process. He and similarly disaffected former PAP chairman and deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye told Men in White that at the Central Executive Committee meeting to decide on the prime ministership following the PAP’s victory in the 1959 general elections, Lee Kuan Yew won by a single vote. Lee insists that he has no recollection of this ever taking place. Ong’s account of the incident in Men in White establishes that he is ‘his own man’, and a credible source, bold enough to tell the world a bit of PAP history that Lee perhaps prefers not to remember. Presumably by the same token, his word on Lim Chin Siong should also have credibility.

Being one’s ‘own man’ is what ‘Men in White’ are about—it is the motif that separates the communists who simply act on orders, from those who act on what they consider is for the larger good. Men who demonstrate this quality include (from section 2 of the book) prime ministers Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong, (not mere Lee Kuan Yew’s men), PAP Malay MPs (who refused to play the chauvinist card), PAP branch party members (who stood up to the intimidation of the communist plants who controlled most of the party branches, and of course the authors themselves, and their editors.

The Stereotype

The ‘communists’ are but lackeys, and for all the sound and fury about interviewing the gamut of them, Men in White does not give a clue about how they understood their political roles aside from ‘granting’ that they were loyal to their ‘ideological cause’ (p. 8). They ultimately remain cardboard figures in history, despite interesting updates about what they are up to these days; no room is given to the possibility that they might understand change and development in the rapidly evolving Singapore of the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, their opposition to what has been proven to be a hasty and ill-conceived Merger plan, which led the PAP Left to be expelled, and to form the Barisan Socialis, is seen simply as nothing more than the communists’ fear of being arrested by the Tunku if Singapore became part of Malaysia. Men in White portrays Chan Sun Wing as a communist plant while also crediting him as ‘the most intelligent and politically educated of the political secretaries’. Yet according to the book, Chan tried to stop merger because ‘his boss must have told him to stop it.’ One wonders what Chan’s interview, taped by one of the authors has to say on the question on merger.

Indeed it would be a boon to public education if the unedited tapes and transcripts of the more than 300 recorded, the product of unmatched investment of time, money and expertise were not to simply lie forgotten in the SPH library. The Oral History Department of the National Archives is surely the proper home for them.

The Ritual

Resorting to the chapter title ‘What if Barisan had won in 1963′ to talk about the mass arrests of Operation Cold Store’ and concluding the chapter with a list of the post-65 housing programme, industrialization and job creation and infrastructural development simply justifies the removal of Lee’s most formidable interrogators from the political scene by assuming that they would have been totally opposed to everything his government did or planned to do, and would have sabotaged them. ‘What if’ either Lim Chin Siong or Ong Eng Guan had become prime minister has a set answer: Singapore would have been like Communist China in the 50s and 60s, even though Ong was in the PAP right wing—the PAP imaginary cannot accommodate any alternative scenario than of poverty and primitiveness wrought by communist regimes. Ong Eng Guan rivaled Lee Kuan Yew in popularity at the 1959 elections, when Lim Chin Siong and other left wing PAP leaders were in political detention. The possibility of there having been leaders other than Lee is not seen as an indication of the open politics of the day, only as definitely leading to unmitigated disaster .

The Albatross

One may wonder why the ‘communist threat’ and in particular Lim Chin Siong continues to feature so centrally in books like Men in White. After all, according to the book, James Puthucheary, one of the most senior Barisan members had admitted in hindsight that Dr Goh Keng Swee was right and he himself was wrong on the question of whether to nationalize the steel industry. (p.625) Dr Sheng Nam Chin, another Barisan leader, while noting that the Referendum over Malaysia was stacked in favour of PAP, said in his interview, ‘I am prepared to concede that whatever the PAP did, it was for the better of Singapore.’ (p. 232) Surely there cannot be a more ringing endorsement from its former political adversaries.

Yet the fact remains that Operation Cold Store denied Lim Chin Siong the chance to contest the elections against Lee, and since then, the longest ruling elected party in the world has not been tested seriously at the polls. Myths about Lim Chin Siong’s popularity with the masses and the possibility that he could have become prime minister of Singapore lives on. Lim died in 1996. In one sense then, Men in White comes a little too late. But would Lim Chin Siong have shaken Lee Kuan Yew’s hand? If he had refused, such a book cannot be written. Without Lim’s handshake Operation Cold Store, which effectively decimated the left from Singapore’s electoral politics remains contentious. The PAP’s attempt to claim an untainted origin myth through Men in White will not be the final one.

Hong Lysa, a historian, is the co-author of The scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts (2008). She is a s/porean.