Ex-PAP man recounts 1957 'kelong meeting'

In memoirs, he tells of event which led to short-lived leftist takeover of key party posts

Mr Tan Kong Guan was vice-chairman of the PAP for nine days before being arrested for being a communist.
Mr Tan Kong Guan was vice-chairman of the PAP for nine days before being arrested for being a communist.

Former leftist Tan Kong Guan, who was vice-chairman of the People's Action Party (PAP) for nine days before being arrested, has published his memoirs, including an account of a 1957 "kelong meeting" which led to a short-lived leftist takeover of key party posts.

Mr Tan, 84, who lives in Zhuhai, China, published the book in Chinese recently to recount his political career from when he was founding chairman of the PAP Bukit Timah branch in 1955 to his years in exile in Beijing in the early 1960s.

The book, titled Kelong Meeting - Truth On The Bid For Power, has three of its 20 chapters devoted to an overnight meeting at a kelong off the Jurong coast attended mainly by branch leaders.

This was a month before the fourth PAP conference on Aug 4 at the Singapore Badminton Hall. The kelong meeting, organised by Mr Tan, is widely regarded as when leftists hatched a plot against then secretary-general Lee Kuan Yew to deny him control of the central executive committee (CEC).

The late Mr Lee was among many senior party members who believed there was a plot against him and that the party CEC election was rigged by leftists.

Mr Tan denies the accusations.

"We never planned to take control of the CEC, but were simply helping to rally support for Mr Lee against the extreme-left members within the PAP," he told The Straits Times in a telephone interview from Zhuhai last month.

At the party conference, the leftists won six of the 12 CEC seats, two more than they had previously. Mr Lee and his colleagues reacted by refusing to take up CEC leadership posts.

This led the six leftist leaders - comprising Mr Tan, then a welder, bookkeeper Tan Chong Kin, lawyer T.T. Rajah, unionist Chen Say Jame, clerk Ong Chye Ann and unionist Goh Boon Toh - to fill the posts of vice-chairman, chairman, secretary-general, assistant secretary-general, treasurer and assistant treasurer, respectively.

But their hold on the posts they took up on Aug 13 was short.

Nine days later, all except for Mr Rajah were arrested by the then Lim Yew Hock government for being communists.

A fresh CEC election followed and Mr Lee and other non-leftists were returned to the positions. Mr Tan Kong Guan, Mr Tan Chong Kin, Mr Ong and Mr Goh were deported to China in September 1957.

While he denies the kelong meeting was to plot a takeover, Mr Tan Kong Guan said he wanted to "tell my version so readers can better judge for themselves".

But Mr C.C. Chin, 75, an independent scholar of leftist history, believes the kelong meeting was held to strengthen the left's influence. "Why were there non-PAP members and extremist leaders from the left at the meeting if there was no plot?"

Mr Tan ran a food manufacturing business in Macau and Zhuhai until he retired about a decade ago.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline Ex-PAP man recounts 1957 'kelong meeting'. Subscribe