Singapore through the lens of Lee's lieutenants

Members of the People’s Action Party Cabinet outside City Hall after the swearing-in ceremony on June 5, 1959: (from left) Yong Nyuk Lin, Ong Eng Guan, S. Rajaratnam, Ahmad Ibrahim, Ong Pang Boon, Goh Keng Swee,Toh Chin Chye, K.M. Byrne and Lee Kua
Members of the People’s Action Party Cabinet outside City Hall after the swearing-in ceremony on June 5, 1959: (from left) Yong Nyuk Lin, Ong Eng Guan, S. Rajaratnam, Ahmad Ibrahim, Ong Pang Boon, Goh Keng Swee,Toh Chin Chye, K.M. Byrne and Lee Kuan Yew.ST FILE PHOTO
Leaders Jek Yeun Thong (left) and Lim Kim San in 1963. The PAP won a resounding victory in independent Singapore’s first elections.
Leaders Jek Yeun Thong (left) and Lim Kim San in 1963. The PAP won a resounding victory in independent Singapore’s first elections.ST PHOTO: LEE TUCK SOON

A revised edition of Lee's Lieutenants: Singapore's Old Guard, edited by Kevin YL Tan and Lam Peng Er, is out. The book recounts the contributions of Old Guard ministers who were part of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's team. Below are excerpts from the preface and epilogue, written by the editors, in the new edition.

When we first assembled a team of young scholars and a journalist to attempt a multi-disciplinary approach (history, law, political science, economics, sociology and literature) to examining the critical roles of the Old Guard, it was with the modest intent to fill a gap in the short history of an independent Singapore.

The eclectic approaches adopted by our team went beyond the traditional archival research of colonial records in English. For example, the editors and Huang Jianli conducted interviews with some of the Old Guard. Huang and Sai Siew-Min also used Chinese sources while Hong Lysa examined the role of ideas and ideology instead of following a historical chronology.

The central argument of our edited volume was that contemporary Singapore was not built by a great, visionary and pragmatic leader (Lee Kuan Yew) alone but by a magnificent team of founding fathers. They complemented each other and made their own unique contributions.

Simply put, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Lee was the brilliant captain but the lieutenants were also leaders in their own right. Indeed, it was a narrative which eschews a reductionist "Great Man" theory where the history of a country is conflated with just the life, thoughts, vision, action and angst of an individual no matter how exceptional.

When it was first published, chapters from Lee's Lieutenants were serialised in The Straits Times (Singapore's leading English language newspaper) for two consecutive days. The first serial was on the front page of The Straits Times. The Singapore Ministry of Education also used Lee's Lieutenants in its history and social studies curriculum for secondary students. Indeed, the central argument of Lee's Lieutenants is no longer controversial today in the city-state and has been embraced by the Singapore state and mainstream society.

It is also gratifying that the academic community has favourably reviewed Lee's Lieutenants in various journals and books. Karl Hack called it a "path-breaking" book, Alan Chong complimented the editors for "sterling efforts", Thomas Bellows wrote that "this is an excellent introduction to the role of the first-generation founding fathers", and Michael Barr opined that it balances the "Lee-centred mythology of Singapore", "contributing to an understanding of the nature of the relationship between Lee and his 'lieutenants'".

Arguably, the first edition of Lee's Lieutenants opened new lines of historical inquiry in Singapore. Many biographies have subsequently been published on individual founding fathers. Lee's Lieutenants and its chapter on Lim Chin Siong also sparked a backlash from the Old Left in Singapore and Malaysia. Apparently, the Old Left and their sympathisers responded with their edited volume Comet In Our Sky which claimed that Lim and his comrades were not communists but anti-colonialists who played a key role in decolonisation from imperial Britain.


    Edited by Kevin YL Tan and Lam Peng Er

    Straits Times Press

    $32.00, inclusive of GST, available in leading bookstores

The Old Left believe that these anti-colonial activists were subsequently betrayed and jailed without trial for their political convictions by their erstwhile comrades - Lee and his lieutenants -in a vicious power struggle.

They are convinced that the dragnet of the February 1963 Operation Coldstore (under which more than a hundred suspected communists and pro-communist activists were arrested, and the People's Action Party's political opposition crippled) was all about politics and not national security.

However, Kumar Ramakrishna's critique of the Old Left's alternate history was to point out that there was undeniably a serious, armed and deadly communist insurgency in Malaya and a Communist United Front in Singapore at the time. Were Lim Chin Siong and his activists a bunch of communists, radical leftists, "fellow travellers" of the left or merely democrats with socialist convictions? The official view is that many of them were indeed communists or pro-communists while the Old Left and revisionist historians claim that they were not. The controversy over the culpability or innocence of the radical left is likely to persist in the years ahead.

Some contributors to Lee's Lieutenants - Kevin YL Tan, Hong Lysa, Huang Jianli, Sai Siew-Min and Kwok Kian Woon - have subsequently conducted interesting research on Singapore which did not adopt a "big man" theory of history.

Indeed, they have enriched and broadened the scope of historical inquiry in Singapore. Other approaches to broadly understanding Singapore history have also proliferated. They include: alternative histories (including history "from the Left"), histories "from below" (ordinary lives and the working class), history through comics, transnational history (Singapore embedded regionally and globally), and reflections on historiography to challenge the historical orthodoxy of the "party-state" and its elites.

Amid these challenges to the dominant narrative, writings based on the traditional narrative have continued to emerge.


In 2019, Singapore will celebrate its bicentennial, taking its establishment as a trading post by the British in 1819 as its founding moment.

Quite predictably, it will be an opportunity to rejoice, celebrate and reflect, and it will be interesting to see how the Singapore state, media, scholars and society will reconceptualise the two centuries of history since its founding by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.

How will the PAP Old Guard fit into that meta-narrative of Singapore emerging from a small fishing port at the tip of the Malaya peninsula into a global city? After all, modern Singapore existed for 140 years before the PAP took over self-government (except for foreign affairs and defence) from Britain in 1959. Arguably, Singapore at the cusp of independence was already an important, thriving and vibrant port city ahead of most Asian cities of that era.

Are the two major bookmarks of Singapore history just Sir Stamford Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew? Or is there a larger cast of characters in the bicentennial-inspired historiography like Major-General William Farquhar (employee of the East India Company, and the first British Resident and Commandant of colonial Singapore), business and clan leaders, educators and philanthropists from colonial to independent Singapore, the PAP Old Guard, the PAP Next Generation, opposition leaders, top civil servants, artists, civil society and ordinary people - the bedrock of Singapore society?

Though the incumbent PAP government remains the dominant interpreter of history, it will no longer monopolise the historical narrative as Singapore society becomes more pluralistic and its citizens better educated, well-travelled and with access to social media and multiple sources of information and interpretation.

A historical gap still remains because sensitive archival material has yet to be readily released to scholars and citizens. Eventually, Singapore history will be what Singaporeans make it out to be. The re-issue of this volume of Lee's Lieutenants seeks to stimulate the reader to think about what was, what might have been, what is and is likely to be in Singapore's historical development.

Whichever historical lens we choose to interpret the city-state through, we believe that Lee's Lieutenants will remain at the very heart of the contemporary Singapore story so long as the country remains a thriving sovereign state. That said, we also believe that the canvas of history is vast and panoramic, with plenty of space for others to make the Singapore Story that much more variegated, compelling and real.

When Toh Chin Chye slammed the phone down on us

Even though this book had been conceived back in 1988, it was not till (Lam) Peng Er's return from Columbia in 1994 that we got down to work in earnest. In all, it took some five years of research and writing before the manuscript was ready. We were fortunate to have commenced the project when we did for many of the Old Guard were still alive and lucid.

More importantly, several of them granted us unprecedented access and interviews. Among those who were interviewed (either by us or by some of the contributors) were: Toh Chin Chye, Lim Kim San, E.W. Barker, Othman Wok, Rahim Ishak, Ong Pang Boon and Lee Khoon Choy.

It was largely thanks to Peng Er's father, Uncle Lam, that we were able to interview E.W. Barker and Ong Pang Boon, as he had been their security officer in the days when they were in Cabinet.

Peng Er had direct access to Toh Chin Chye as they had known each other since 1984 and Peng Er had been involved in the management of the community centre in Toh's Rochor constituency from 1984 to 1985.

We wrote to Lim Kim San who graciously agreed to see us even though he did not know us from any previous encounter. Devan Nair had already migrated to Canada and was not accessible to us, and neither were Goh Keng Swee and Jek Yeun Thong (both of whom had become increasingly reclusive) as well as S. Rajaratnam (who was then already showing obvious signs of dementia).

None of us had a sufficiently tight connection with the Chinese-educated Old Left to interview Lim Chin Siong, who died on Feb 5, 1996, although Lee Khoon Choy did offer to take us to southern Thailand to meet Fang Chuang Pi ("the Plen"). Alas, we found no opportunity to take him up on his offer.

We found the interviews extremely illuminating, with interviewees quite happy to talk about practically any topic - in the absence of a tape recorder. We scribbled quickly and rushed back to type out our notes before we forgot what was said. Regrettably, most of those notes are now missing. I am particularly sore about losing the two sets of notes I wrote up after interviewing E.W. Barker, who vetted them, ran them past his daughter Carla, and then returned them to me, duly approved.

I gave one copy to the National Archives of Singapore but they cannot find it, and my own copy is lost - quite possibly mistakenly thrown out when I moved offices.

Toh Chin Chye proved to be a particularly difficult interviewee. He was cantankerous and irritable and on one occasion slammed the telephone down on Peng Er. One source of unhappiness was the title of our book Lee's Lieutenants. Toh complained that this was an "American" expression and that in the British parliamentary tradition, the prime minister is only primus inter pares (first among equals). Toh, as the former party chairman, never considered himself to be a subordinate of Lee Kuan Yew.

I distinctly remember Peng Er staggering into my office that morning after Toh slammed the phone down on him. I decided that we should go on the offensive. Then and there I drafted a letter telling Toh that he had been rude and that his behaviour was uncalled for and urged him to sit down and discuss any disagreements he had with us "as gentlemen". Peng Er signed it reluctantly, but it worked.

Two weeks later, Toh sent his trusted aide, Ronald Ho, to visit Peng Er to relay a message: "Dr Toh asks why don't you and Kevin visit him again?" We gladly accepted his olive branch and continued our interviews.

Our interview with Lim Kim San was also memorable, mainly because at one point, Peng Er suddenly and boldly asked him: "Mr Lim, everyone including Lee Kuan Yew talks about your ability to size people up; your ability to plumb the depths of a man's heart. So, what do you think of us?"

I nearly fainted, but Lim only laughed. He said: "Well, I was not assessing you for political office, so my antennae were not up; but I can tell that the two of you are genuine scholars, so I trust you."

And true to his word, he later showed us a file of secret correspondences between him and Lee Kuan Yew, detailing Lim's meeting with the Tunku in London. We could not copy it nor repeat it, but he wanted us to read it to "get a sense" of the tensions of the times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 14, 2018, with the headline 'Singapore through the lens of Lee's lieutenants'. Print Edition | Subscribe