Living in a Time of Deception is a long-awaited memoir of Poh Soo Kai, a victim of state repression and having had to spend a total of 17 years in jail without trial in Singapore. This memoir not only challenges the official interpretation but also rewrites part of Singapore history. In confronting Lee Kuan Yew and his official historiographers, the author made use of Lee’s memoirs as well as official People’s Action Party (PAP) publications. The author then did what researchers usually do and visited the UK National Achieves at Kew and unearthed declassified documents, from 1956 to 1963.
The materials were reports of colonial officials in Singapore and Malaya, as well as reports made by Special Branch to the Colonial Office. The disparity between such revelations and history as written by the PAP and its supporters was devastating for the latter. The brutal truth finally came out. The fates of political prisoners in Singapore are worse than those of common criminals. Convicted criminals are sentenced by a trial court while political prisoners, under the Internal Security Act, can be imprisoned without trial for two years, with a renewed sentence thereafter. The Act has been abused by the state and has usually been employed against left-wing critics.
Indeed, in her introduction to the book, historian Hong Lysa points out that “… history continues to be considered by the state as one of the most sensitive of subjects, which it has to dictate and control”. She continues: “A government that controls the writing of history as vociferously and menacingly as Singapore’s indicates just how much it has to justify its use of the Internal Security Act to come into power and to maintain its rule”. This “historical memoir,” a term preferred by Poh Soo Kai, is part of the suppressed histories of Singapore, as well as that of Southeast Asia.
Born to a rich family, Poh was educated in elite schools. His grandfather, Tan Kah Kee, was a patriotic businessman who supported Mao Tse Tung and was later appointed a member of the National People’s Congress and to other positions in government. In the pre-World War II period and up to 1949, Tan was a significant leader of the Chinese community in Singapore, President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and a philanthropist in both Singapore and China. According to Poh, despite his patriotism, his grandfather was subjected to the whims of Chinese and Singaporean leaders and their political struggles: “Political leaders in Singapore and in China have continuously tried to define his legacy to support their respective policies”.
The author was also subject to the political whims of the PAP government in post-colonial Singapore. He was arrested in February 1963, during Operation Coldstore, charged with involvement in allegedly subversive activities aimed at establishing a communist state. The charge sheet stated that his grandfather was a communist, thereby linking ancestral affinity to communism. By 2015, his grandfather’s “communism” seems to have been forgotten. The Singaporean authorities even named an MRT Downtown Line station after him.
He enrolled in the medical faculty of the University of Malaya and co-founded the University Socialist Club (USC), together with others including Wang Gungwu. To propagate socialist views, the periodical Fajar was launched by the USC in March 1953. It became an important publication in the anti-colonial struggle and, later, against the repressive policies of the PAP. Fajar lasted a decade and was banned in 1963 for alleged sedition. It was also during this period that a British agent, by the name of Alex Josey, who became Lee Kuan Yew’s hagiographer, tried to infiltrate Fajar while working as a journalist, but failed.
The Fajar sedition trial, in which, after a hearing of just three days, the judge acquitted all defendants. The defence case was originally handled by Lee Kuan Yew, then taken over by D. N. Pritt, a famous anti-colonialist lawyer, who had successfully defended Ho Chi Minh’s extradition case in Hong Kong in the 1930s. By May 1954, the anti-colonial struggle in Singapore reached a new height. Trade union militancy expanded. Some of the big left-wing unions were Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union (SFSWU), led by Lim Chin Siong, and the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union, led by Fong Swee Suan. USC members such as James Puthucheary and Sydney Woodhall, among others, became union officials. At the same time, the author and some other USC members became founding members of PAP.