Mahadeva, Singapore’s wronged hero
This is not and will not be a popular topic. Teo Soh Lung reviewed the book in June and only managed to get 33 likes on Facebook. I doubt I can do better after reading a copy of the back which was borrowed from the library (approved by the government).
I’m reviewing this book not to gain hits but as a matter of principle. Books published on either side of the political divide constitute “Singapore’s History Wars” as described by Australian academic Geoff Wade. Just like the way I treat my interpretation of the Three Kingdoms (deviating from mainstream legend), it is my belief that the alternative Singapore Story must be told.
Arunasalam Mahadeva was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1931 while his father was working at the railway board. His father enrolled him at the Wellington English School at Rangoon Road after his mother passed away when he was only 5 years old. His father remarried in 1940. His stepmother taught him Tamil literature. In 1942, the Japanese invaded and occupied Singapore. Mahadeva worked briefly at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. In 1943, he joined the Indian National Army and went to Burma where he fought against the British for India’s independence, after which he turned his attention towards the struggle for independence in Singapore and Malaya.
The anti-colonial movement back then was made up of 2 major groups. One group comprised the local democratic socialists with extensive grassroots networks. Members included Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, Jamit Singh, ST Bani, Dominic Puthucheary, Sydney Woodhull and Said Zahari. They came from different language streams and formed a multiracial movement even without any attempt to set racial quotas.
The other group comprised returning scholars like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye and S Rajaratnam. They were all English-educated. While both groups were democratic socialists, the local student leaders were more inclined towards independence with a non-aligned position while the scholars wanted Singapore to be aligned to British strategic interests even after independence. This would be the major flashpoint in the future conflict between these two factions in the somewhat tentatively formed People’s Action Party.
After the war, Mahadeva enrolled in Victoria School where he became close friends of Edwin Thumboo and Shamus Frazer. He later enrolled in the Faculty of Arts in the University of Malaya which was then based in Singapore. Even while he was a student, he was already a political activist. In 1954, the British started implementing military training for all men between 18-20. It was widely seen as an attempt to contain the anti-colonial movement. Many overaged students whose education had already been deferred due to the war staged protests against the recruitment. The same year, the editorial board of the magazine Fajar was detained for sedition. His friend Edwin Thumboo was among them. The Fajar team was robustly defended by Queen’s Counsel DN Pritt and Lee Kuan Yew. All the accused were later acquitted.
Feeling encouraged, Mahadeva joined the University Socialist Club. He would later campaign for the PAP candidate Devan Nair and Lim Chin Siong. Mahadeva graduated with a major in Economics in 1957. He would then receive an invitation to a meeting with PAP secretary general Lee Kuan Yew. Mahadeva thought that it was just a simple job interview. However, Lee wanted to recruit him into the PAP and the questions which Lee asked him made him realise to his astonishment, that the PAP was splitting up.
Mahadeva left without accepting any of Lee’s offers. He went on to become a journalist at the Singapore Tiger Standard. While covering a PAP event, he noted that PAP members were sweeping the street in front of City Hall. When he returned to the office, he was appalled that his colleague was distorting the news, reporting a chaotic scene. He insisted on writing the truth about what happened. That day, the paper’s report on that scene in front of City Hall differed markedly from the Straits Times report titled Council Chaos Again. Mahadeva was fired from his job. He joined the Straits Times.
In 1958, Mahadeva joined the Singapore National Union of Journalists (SNUJ) which brought together journalists from all language media. The organisation dealt with grievance concerning dismissals, transfers, promotions and demotions. An unemployment insurance scheme was set up to help members who had lost their jobs. They also organised talks, forums and debates. They also sttod up for journalists detained under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance. The organisation was officially inaugurated by the government in 1961. Its main role was to act as a watchdog for press freedom. Mahadeva’s proudest achievement in the union was his success in securing a fair salary, grading structure and employment benefits for all journalists in Singapore and Malaya.
Barely 2 weeks after the PAP came to power in May 1959, Lee Kuan Yew warned journalists that he would not hesitate to use the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance on any media worker who dared to strain relations between Singapore and the Federation. It rang many alarm bells. Law student Tommy Koh wrote in Fajar that the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance should be amended. Ironically, Fajar was banned by the Lim Yew Hock government in 1957 but the PAP lifted the ban after it came to power in 1959. Tommy Koh wrote:
“It is a cherished tenet of democracy that a person should not be deprived of his liberty except for violation of a specific provision of the law and having been convicted of such violation by the ordinary courts of the country. The Preservation of Public Security Ordinance is contrary to the democratic spirit. The present Prime Minister of Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew) had described it as a repressive law. On 21 September 1955, speaking during debate on the Preservation of Public Security Bill in the Legislative Assembly, the PM said:
“What he (then Chief Minister David Marshall) is seeking to do in the name of democracy, is to curtail a fundamental liberty, and the most fundamental of them all, freedom from arrest and punishment without having violated a specific provision of the law and being convicted for it.”
Tommy Koh’s article was supported by most journalists. Mahadeva believed that the PAP would never stay intact even though the scholars faction released the local members who were imprisoned by Lim Yew Hock’s government. By 1957, the PAP’s executive committee was already dominated by the scholars. As support for the PAP declined, the split occurred with a splinter left faction forming the Barisan Sosialis.
In July 1961, UMNO handed over to Utusan Melayu, a Malay language newspaper based in KL which published in Arabic script, 4 demands:
- Give full support to the ruling party
- Limit news headlines for other parties
- Publish more news reports under big headlines about all Alliance ministers including important policy statements.
- Support the Alliance Party when action has already been taken and offer constructive criticism when a bad decision was made.
Editor Said Zahari refused to comply and 150 newspaper workers staged a strike. In the Singapore branch of the Utusan Melayu, editor and PAP member Othman Wok, urging him to go on strike with them, but to no avail. Mahadeva argued that journalists themselves could be the greatest threat to press freedom if they could be induced to prostitute their profession and their integrity.
Perhaps Mahadeva and others in the Barisan Sosialis sealed their fates when they opposed the way the referendum to merge with the Federation was served to them. Lim Chin Siong called the terms undemocratic and unfair to Singaporeans. Mahadeva organised debates and discussions on the Bill. I won’t go into all the complex details. Suffice to say that in 1963, Mahadeva was detained under Operation Coldstore along with many others. One month after his arrest, his father was dismissed from the HDB. His family was likewise given a letter of dismissal from the Straits Times. His family suffered financial difficulties.
Mahadeva was kept in solitary confinement at Outram Prison for 4 months and then transferred to Changi Prison. He was later served his charges. The University Socialist Club and other organisations he was associated with were found to be infiltrated by communists. James and Dominic Puthucheary, Lim Chin Siong Said Zahari et al, were all accused of having communist orientations. He was charged for his communist-inspired actions. There was a total of 4 charges. You can find them in the book.
Then, the huge bombshell fell on 20 May 1967. Mahadeva was served a notification in Changi Prison that that he would be deprived of his citizenship. Mahadeva refused to acknowledge the notification and made an urgent request to see his lawyer. Some of the accusations included “consorting with strikers” when he was interviewing them for a news report. Another charge alleged that he had med up with supporters of the Communist Party of Malaya in the UK. The alleged communists were also well-known anti-colonial activists defended by Lee Kuan Yew himself. He had also been accused of using the SNUJ’s publication to attack the government when the SNUJ publication was licenced by the government who could have simply revoked its licence. Lawyer TT Rajah pointed out the errors and contradictions in Mahadeva’s charges, all to no avail.
As a condition for his release in 1968 when the General Elections were due, he had to write about his “communist” political beliefs and how they were formed. Mahadeva believed that the government had to extract confessions from the detainees to justify such a massive purge. Mahadeva was moved to a bungalow where he had to read his scripted pseudo confession about his association with the “Communist United Front” an organisation whose very existence has been questioned by historians like Dr Thum Ping Tjin. The book includes some of what Mahadeva wrote and what they wanted him to say. He was finally released in October 1968 – as a stateless person. It took 2 years before the restrictive conditions for his release under ISA expired. He tried to apply for British citizenship and later the reinstatement of his Singapore citizenship. He became a property manager at People’s Park Development but it was not till 1985 that his Singapore citizenship was finally reinstated.
On the international front, the Singapore government faced strong criticism for its treatment of critics and the political opposition. Most shocking is Lee Kuan Yew’s statement to the Commonwealth Press Union in September 1974:
“Well, in addition to all the convention pressures we learned from the West, we also have special inquisitional instruments, ancient modes of torture, specially graduated to inflict pain more excruciatingly than that the journalists inflict on the politicians, plus, of course, interest added for grave injury done to the public good. We have also modernised these ancient forms with the addition of electrical and electronic gadgetry, stereophonic sounds to amplify the terror and low sound waves to give sensations of an earthquake. In this way, we can transform a bold and fearless critic into a willing and compliant sycophant.”
Socialist International raised objections to such practices and the PAP left the organisation in 1976. Suddenly, there was renewed “interest” in former political detainees. Dr Poh Soo Kai and Gopalan Raman were detained. Mahadeva knew that he must be on the hit list too. Others included Straits Times journalists Arun Senkuttuvan and Ho Kwon Ping who wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review.
This time, it was different. Those who were only arrested during Operation Coldstore should count themselves lucky, because those arrested in 1976 faced very different treatment. True to Lee Kuan Yew’s “promise”, they were beaten and tortured at Whitley Detention Centre. Mahadeva was repeatedly slapped in the face. Others were placed in freezing rooms and beaten with a hood over their heads. Under such coercion, false statements were extracted from some detainees to implicate others. This was in sharp contrast with Mahadeva’s first detention during Operation Coldstore. It was straightforward detention and he even managed to have meaningful conversations with those who watched him. Obviously, the “anti-communist” facilities had been upgraded. This time, Mahadeva’s detention only lasted 3 months.
The book also included statements by Devan Nair who felt that he had to speak out for the “Marxist conspirators” in 1987. The rest is best dealt with in another book. The last couple of chapters deal with Mahadeva’s observation of the PAP’s ideological turns and how we became a phony Western society steeped in eugenics and culture-centrisms. He worked as a property manager with Sim Lim Investments. He also became fascinated with China and learned to speak, read and write Chinese. What irked Mahadeva and others who played a very big role in the formative years of Singapore is that the Singapore Story has been formulated as Lee Kuan Yew’s story. In 2001, Mahadeva wrote an essay “Remembering Lim Chin Siong”. It opened many wounds and brought forth a steady stream of biographies and autobiographies by dissidents and activists who have been unjustly persecuted. Singapore might still have been successful if these folks had been allowed to voice their views. This is something we will never know. What is certain is that these were decent folks who contributed positively to the nation in its formative years.
Mahadeva passed away in 2005. Singaporeans today are mostly not interested in the alternative Singapore Story. As we honour our “Pioneer Generation” (to which Mahadeva belongs), even the curious are often able to forgive the PAP for their atrocities in exchange for economic gains made by the party over the last 50 years. For the sake of our nation’s conscience, the alternative story must be told.
In conclusion, I must say that Completing The Singapore Story? is an extremely difficult book to read! Firstly, there’s simply too much information and digressions. It would have been much easier for the reader if author Arun Bala had kept its focus on Mahadeva and included side stories only when they helped to move the main plot. Chronologically, the chapters are a bit jumbled, jolting the reader every now and then and requiring him/her to flip back to recall. Most valuable are the various documents, notes and receipts that strengthen some of the powerful claims.