Explained: Operation Cold Store
A report released on 25 January by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) listed the events that were most and least remembered by Singaporeans. Controversial events like the discovery of a Marxist Conspiracy plot, and Operation Cold Store were least remembered.
Since an ancient Chinese proverb instructs us to keep learning till our hair turns white, here are the need-to-knows about the one event kept out of school textbooks: Operation Cold Store.
The background of Operation Cold Store
First of all, the Operation has nothing to with a certain supermarket we all know and love.
Instead, Operation Cold Store was a security operation that took place in 2 February 1963. More than 111 anti-government left-wing activists, including key people in opposition political party Barisan Sosialis were arrested and detained.
Left-wing politics is not communism per se, but a form of political thought that believes in equality for all, over the freedom to fail. For example, Medishield Life with its “pooled healthcare costs” is a form of left-wing thinking.
Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP won the General Election and established the PAP-majority government after it garnered 43 out of 51 available seats. Lee had promised to release some political prisoners earlier in order to gain support for his campaign. One notable prisoner released was Lim Chin Siong, one of the founders of the PAP, and imprisoned for his role in the Hock Lee Bus Riots. Lim would later re-join the PAP after his release.
PAP was in favour of merging with Malaysia, as LKY saw it as a way to assure peace and economic stability for Singapore’s future. However, the left-wings in the PAP were against it as they felt that a merger would wipe themselves out.
PAP was then defeated at two by-elections, prompting Lee Kuan Yew to call for a vote-of-confidence (members of PAP were asked to indicate that they still supported LKY). 13 PAP members abstained from voting and were hence expelled. Lim Chin Siong was one of them.
These 13 members then formed the left-wing political party: Barisan Sosialis.
The Barisan Sosialis appealed against the merger at the United Nations in New York. The Merger Referendum was ambiguous because it only included options concerning the mode of merger, and not a simple yes or no to merger.
After Singapore merged with Malaysia, Tengku Abdul Rahman attempted to remove the left-wing politicians in Singapore for fear that they would influence the united Malaysia. This removal is known as Operation Cold Store.
PAP vs Barisan Sosialis
PAP viewed Barisan Sosialis as a communist-controlled organisation, although Lim Chin Siong never admitted to it even up till his death in 1996.
The arrest of key members of Barisan Sosialis was originally a condition that Tungku Abdul Rahman wanted satisfied before merger. PAP was unwilling to do so at first as they feared it would lead to a loss of popularity. However, Barisan Sosialis then issued a statement in support of a Brunei uprising against British colonialism, and PAP jumped at the opportunity to justify the arrests.
This arrest was done with Lord Selkirk’s approval, who was the then UK Commissioner to Singapore.
“I said I had recognised all along that a threat was presented by the communists in Singapore. I had not however previously been convinced that a large number of arrests was necessary to counter this threat. Recently, however, new evidence had been produced about the extent of the communist control of the Barisan Socialis and also there had been indications that the communists might resort to violence if the opportunity occurred. Recent statements by the Barisan Socialis and Party Rakyat supporting the revolt in Brunei confirmed this.”
Official government records state that Operation Cold Store was a “safeguard against any attempt by the Communists to mount violence or disorder in the closing stages of the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia”.
However, Said Zahari, former journalist and one of those arrested, said that it was more of a method to “weaken the opposition to the PAP in Singapore”.
Ever wondered why the PAP and NTUC seem to be so closely linked? Their close relationship actually stems from this operation. The original trade union in Singapore then was called the Singapore Trade Union Congress. However, after Operation Cold Store, it split into two divisions: the left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) and the pro-PAP National Trade Union Congress (NTUC). SATU was deregistered after its Barisan Sosialis leaders were arrested, and NTUC became the one and only trade union ever since.
Operation Cold Store today
It seems as though history never does quite truly leave us.
Former detainee Dr. Poh Soo Kai published a commentary on 3 December 2014 in Australian website New Mandala, questioning the motives and legality of the crackdown. Poh confirmed that Barisan Sosialis had wanted merger with Malaya, but not on Lee Kuan Yew’s terms.
“The PAP had accepted that Singapore would have fewer seats than its population size warranted, weakening its representation in the Federal government.”
“Operation Coldstore was a set-up against Lee’s political opponents.”
This drew the attention of PM Lee Hsien Loong and Burhan Gafoor, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Australia, who both responded to the commentary. PM Lee said that there was “no doubt” in his mind that the Barisan Sosialis was formed at the instruction of communists, and that leader Lim Chin Siong was a communist as well.
Mr. Gafoor, in a nine-page letter addressed to New Mandala, stated that “they (Barisan Sosialis) were ready, when the opportunity arose, to use violent unconstitutional means to overthrow the Government”.
On the other side of the debate, researcher Dr. Thum Ping Tjhin maintained that the Special Branch (now known as the Internal Security Department) did not have any evidence to support their claim that the detainees were communists. According to him, the Malayan Tunku was worried that Barisan Sosialis, along with their charismatic leader Lim Chin Siong, would affect the politics of a united Malaysia. Hence, Tunku Abdul Rahman wanted their arrests as a condition for Singapore’s merger.
Did the PAP really manage to remove Barisan Sosialis? Not really. It merged with the Workers’ Party in 1988.
So who speaks the truth?
Was the Barisan Socialis really a political party affiliations to the Communists? Without the revelation of official Singapore government records, it is quite impossible to put an end to the debate. As Dr. Thum put it,
“The government can and should clear this entire controversy up by declassifying its own documents. It has no need to cite British documents when it has its own.”