An account of Singapore’s most prominent left-wing leader, Tan Jing Quee, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, and Poh Soo Kai’s “Comet in our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History” is a challenge to reductive, unbalanced historical accounts, and it is also a reminder that a broader discourse about Singapore’s past would be useful for the future. This need “to pay attention to the oft-conflicting claims from different sides”, I reflected, when I reviewed Dr. Poh Soo Kai’s “Living in a Time of Deception” – published earlier this year – would ensure that our understanding of the past “will be more nuanced, and a little more complete”. In this vein perhaps my reading of “Comet in our Sky” is overdue, especially when it has exposed gaps in my knowledge of “The Singapore Story” and therefore the need to read even more, from both sides of the story.
While the individual accounts and tributes by Lim’s colleagues and friends were moving, the contributions by Dr. Tim Harper and Dr. Greg Poulgrain – who weaved archival research into their pieces – placed Lim within the context of the 1950s and 1960s, and made for more informative reads. Dr. Harper emphasised the political significance of the left-wing leader, highlighting the differences between British colonial officials in the process, and Dr. Poulgrain wrote that the police had found no evidence to establish that Lim was a Communist. The label of a Communist in the period of the Cold War, of course, was a way to justify detentions without trial. Along this tangent, Dr. Poulgrain further elaborated on the broader decolonisation plans of colonial Britain, contending that “The preferred mode of decolonisation in the British colonial territories, and Singapore was no exception, involved the positioning of a political leader in accord with, rather than an adversary of, long-term British interests”.
Amidst the other collection of essays, poems, speeches, and interviews about Lim, the essay by close friend Tan Jing Quee stood out for its attention to biographic, chronological detail and its socio-political commentary. Tan was a former political detainee and a Barisan Sosialis candidate in the 1963 election, and after a second stint in detention in 1977 he contributed to and edited a number of texts about developments in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s. One of his observation was that the crisis in those years was political, and not security:
“Despite severe repression, left-wing influence under the second echelon leadership within the trade union movement and the PAP remained strong and durable, perhaps leading to a naïve belief by the left that as long as it stayed united, relied on mass support and remained unprovoked, it could endure and overcome all odds. It failed to take cognisance of the growing realisation among most observers that British strategy called for nothing less than the destruction of the left as a potent political force as a precondition for further constitutional advance.”
Tan also wrote about the implications of these past events; how they remain applicable to today, for instance:
“It is often asked: are there heroes in our midst? … After all, the larder is always full and brimming, the garden is forever green, the streets are immaculate, the skies are always of the proper hue of blue, and rains are reminders of nature’s whims to be controlled by cavernous malls, subterranean walkways and mass rapid trains. Dissent under such heavens is treachery and exile, and silence is not only golden, but sacred and sacrosanct.”
Concluding “Comet in our Sky” with Lim’s posthumous manuscripts was especially meaningful, not only because of his personal version of past events – and of his political aspirations (which reminds me of the panel in “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, depicting what might have happened if Lim had become prime minister instead) – but because of the questions he raised, about Singapore’s future. “I would gladly acknowledge Singapore’s achievements so far”, he wrote nearly three decades ago, “But I would often ask, ‘At what price?’” In fact, his concerns over the disproportionate focus on the English language over the other vernacular languages, over our population policy, and over our reliance on foreign investments and the corresponding inability to produce entrepreneurs seem prophetic. Only by looking back more critically through our past, giving events and accounts fair evaluations, I think, can we make more tangible steps forward.