Ex-political detainee Poh Soo Kai tells his story in memoir

Dr Poh signing a copy of his book at the launch event on Feb 13.
Dr Poh signing a copy of his book at the launch event on Feb 13.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Former political detainee Poh Soo Kai's memoir, Living In A Time Of Deception, is one of several accounts by leftist politicians of the turbulent 1950s and 1960s that tell their version of Singapore history.

The 408-page book in English was launched last month.

But the first books by and about these leftists made their appearance earlier, led by Comet In Our Sky - Lim Chin Siong In History, which was published in 2001.

A Chinese edition was put out later and published in two volumes. The book comprises articles and tributes to the former trade unionist and opposition leader, who died of a heart attack in 1996. He was 62 years old.

In the same year, former detainee Said Zahari, now 88, published the first of his two-part memoirs, Dark Clouds At Dawn, in Malay, English and Chinese.

  • NON-FICTION

    LIVING IN A TIME OF DECEPTION

    By Poh Soo Kai

    Function 8 Limited & Pusat Sejarah Rakyat/ Paperback/408 pages/$35/ Major bookstores

Mr Said, with the late Mr Lim and Dr Poh, was arrested in February 1963 in a security swoop codenamed Operation Coldstore and detained without trial under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance. They were among more than a hundred leftist politicians and trade unionists arrested for suspected pro-communist and subversive activities.

In 2007, two other leftist politicians also published their memoirs, in Chinese. They were Mr Wong Soon Fong, who died last December in the southern Thai village of Bang Lang at age 81, and prominent leftist trade unionist Fong Swee Suan, now 84, who was detained in 1963.

While the books of these men are based on their sketchy recollections of events, Dr Poh's book is better researched and comprehensive.

It comes with footnotes and is properly indexed like an academic paper, to support his interpretation of the tumultuous events in the 1950s and 1960s that he was personally involved in.

His research for the book took him to the Public Record Office in London, where he perused recently declassified British documents to establish, among other things, the reason for his detention between Feb 2, 1963, and Dec 13, 1972.

He was arrested and detained without trial a second time, under the Internal Security Act, between June 4, 1976, and Aug 26, 1982. In all, he spent 17 years in jail.

Besides relying on his memory and secondary materials like newspaper reports, Dr Poh drew on the 1998 memoir of the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story. He quoted quite extensively from it to challenge Mr Lee's account of past events.

For instance, Dr Poh, citing documents from the Colonial Office, disclosed that Mr Lee, who was leading the then opposition People's Action Party (PAP) in the 1950s, had worked hand-in-glove with Singapore's then chief minister Lim Yew Hock to arrest leftist leaders in his own party. They included Mr Lim Chin Siong, who was among those who split from the PAP to form rival political party Barisan Sosialis in 1961.

The book begins with the little-publicised fact that Dr Poh is a maternal grandson of one of Singapore's early Chinese business and community leaders Mr Tan Kah Kee, after whom the MRT station near Hwa Chong Institution in Bukit Timah is named.

Mr Tan was a Chinese community activist, philanthropist and educationist, who founded Chinese High School in 1919, now part of Hwa Chong Institution.

Dr Poh wrote that in the Operation Coldstore's charge sheet against him, his grandfather was said to be a member of communist China's government, implying that he, the grandson, was pro-communist.

The first chapter on his family background also revealed his near-death experience at age 10. It was 1942. He and 23 family members, including an uncle, aunts and their children, were trying to flee Singapore for India on the eve of the Japanese invasion. But they missed getting on board a cargo and passenger ship at Clifford Pier. It later sank at sea.

They left safely the same evening on a luxury French liner and landed in Bombay, now Mumbai, where Dr Poh studied at a Catholic mission school for four years.

He returned to Singapore after the Japanese surrender in 1945 and continued his studies at Raffles Institution.

He went on to the then University of Malaya medical school, where he founded the University Socialist Club and became involved in politics, was charged and acquitted of sedition related to the club's journal Fajar, before graduating with a medical degree.

Dr Poh's excellent memory for places and names of people is displayed throughout the book in details of how his fellow political detainees, with all their names mentioned, were ill-treated, including solitary confinement and beatings by police officers while in prison.

In the chapter, Medicine And Me, he could recall the names of surgeons and even anaesthetists he worked with as well as the kind of surgery they performed more than 50 years ago,

The bulk of his memoir, apart from providing the background to his political awakening and thoughts, is still about the political events from the 1950s to the 1960s.

They include the formation of the PAP in 1954 and its success in the 1959 General Election, the split in the party that resulted in the formation of the leftist Barisan Sosialis in 1961, as well as the 1962 merger referendum to join and form Malaysia.

He blamed Barisan Sosialis chairman Lee Siew Choh for the party's eventual decline which followed Dr Lee's call for its 13 elected party members to boycott and resign from Parliament after the crucial 1963 polls.

On Operation Coldstore, Dr Poh once again disputed the official reason for the arrests, which was that they were carried out because of a communist security threat. He said it was done to get rid of people like himself who opposed Mr Lee Kuan Yew and to prevent them from taking part in the crucial 1963 polls, a claim the Government had rejected. He also dismissed the Government's charge that he had driven to Johor with his wife in 1974 to treat an injured communist bomber - the reason for his arrest a second time in 1976.

"The whole story is pure fabrication," he wrote.

Dr Poh's voice was left out of the 2009 book about the PAP, Men In White, because he was living in Canada then. It is good that he finally has his say on the events which he was involved in.

While Dr Poh's account of some events is contentious, his book is a significant addition to the growing non-mainstream literature on modern Singapore's formative years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'Ex-detainee tells his story in memoir'. Print Edition | Subscribe