Sixty years ago, over 110 people were arrested in Singapore as part of a sweep code-named Operation Coldstore. They were activists, students, unionists and politicians, united in their stance against colonialism. Claiming to be fighting communism, the government detained them without trial. For some, like Dr Poh Soo Kai, many years were spent behind bars without any charge against them heard or proven in court. Because of these and other arrests, political parties like the Barisan Sosialis — then the People's Action Party's most serious rivals — and a variety of civil society and grassroots groups were weakened and never recovered. The state of civil society and activism in Singapore today can be traced to such instances of oppression.
Today, on the 60th anniversary of Operation Coldstore, former political detainees have signed on to a statement issued by Dr Poh to demand three things:
- The immediate abolition of the Internal Security Act, which allows the government to detain people without trial in the name of national security,
- An apology from the PAP government for the injustice they had endured, and
- Compensation for former political prisoners—or the families of former political prisoners who have since passed on—"for physical and psychological mistreatment, and consequential deprivation of livelihood".
"Today, I demand accountability for myself and all political prisoners, so that Singaporeans can understand the roots of our draconian political system," Dr Poh, who had been a founding member of the People's Action Party, wrote in his statement. He was detained for a total of 17 years over two periods in the 1960s and 1970s, spending months in solitary confinement with little to no access to information about what was happening outside prison.
"I strongly maintain that I was arrested under Operation Coldstore because of my political beliefs, which were based on the anticolonial and pro-working-class manifesto and constitution of the PAP when it was formed."
He added: "Operation Coldstore was about Lee Kuan Yew, the compliant successor of the British colonialists, needing to keep his position as prime minister."
The PAP has consistently defended the detentions, insisting that those detained had been involved in "subversive activities" that threatened national security. They claim that the detainees had been part of Communist United Front activities and were part of the Communist Party of Malaya, hell-bent on the violent overthrow of the government. This is the narrative that has been perpetuated in the mainstream—yet none of this has ever been proven in a court of law. The summary case files used by the Internal Security Council, now declassified and available at the British National Archives, reveal how flimsy many of the cases against the detainees were: classifications could be as vague as "suspected communist", "communist sympathiser", "suspected communist sympathiser" and even "fellow traveller".
Instead, historians who have gone against the grain of the establishment narrative have faced the ire of powerful people. The PAP government still refuses to declassify documents in its possession related to that period, instead granting access only to select people.
"After 60 years, the PAP government should go beyond just repeating unsubstantiated allegations," Dr Poh said in his statement. "It should provide evidence to support the justifications they gave for launching Operation Coldstore."
Many of those arrested during Operation Coldstore were only in their twenties. Being locked up in the prime of their life was a heavy price to pay for their ideals and their activism. Years later, they continue to insist they hadn't been dangerous subversives, just people heavily invested in the direction of their young country. But PAP hegemony has been so overwhelming that the efforts of the anti-colonial left has been largely excised from our collective Singaporean consciousness.
Anniversary or no anniversary, it is unlikely that the PAP government will pay much heed to the detainees' demands. Instead, Singaporeans woke up today to a Straits Times front page announcing that an 18-year-old has been detained without trial under the Internal Security Act for alleged radicalisation and support for the Islamic State. At the press conference to release the statement, Teo Soh Lung — who had been detained under Operation Spectrum in 1987 — interpreted this as a message to Singaporeans that the Internal Security Act will not be going anywhere.
The ruling party is unlikely to admit that it consolidated power by arresting and detaining its political opponents under flimsy or false pretences. Dr Poh and the former detainees know this. But they believe it is important to put their demands on the record. While their statement makes demands of the PAP government, it is also directed towards Singaporeans — an appeal to everyone to remember Coldstore.
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