The PAP story, blemishes and all
Speech by Dr Tony Tan, chairman of Singapore Press Holdings, at the book launch
What is Men In White all about? How different is it from previous books on Singapore's ruling political party?
Let me clarify what the book is not.
It is not a re-telling of Singapore's transformation from Third World ghetto to First World city, a story which Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew so vividly documented in his memoirs. It is also not about the PAP Government and the art of policy-making.
Men In White is the untold story of the rise, fall, capture, split and resurgence of one of the world's most successful and longest ruling political parties, a story narrated for the first time through the voices of the victors and the vanquished as well as eyewitnesses to its unfolding history.
It is untold because many of these voices had not been heard in earlier books on the PAP - the voices of former PAP stalwarts and grassroots activists and their adversaries.
The story is untold because the voices of the Mandarin- and dialect-speaking, Malay-speaking and Tamil-speaking cast of characters often overlooked are also aired for the first time.
The result is a story of the PAP, warts, blemishes and all.
It is a story which details the ups and downs and twists and turns of the PAP and the pivotal moments in its history. It is a story which combines political theatre with human drama.
It tells of friends who turned foes when they found themselves on different sides of the ideological divide and of ordinary people who rose to meet extraordinary challenges in extraordinary times.
This book marks the culmination of a seven-year journey for our project team led by former SPH editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng and later by Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang.
It all started in May 2001 when then-Prime Minister and PAP secretary-general Goh Chok Tong broached the idea of a book to mark the 50th anniversary of PAP in 2004. Mr Goh and Mr Cheong agreed that it should not be a commemorative coffee-table book, and that it should be well-researched. More importantly, it should be non-partisan and not written for the PAP, but rather the authors' version of the PAP story.
When Mr Goh Chok Tong told then-Senior Minister Lee about the book, the latter said that it would make for compelling reading if it covered the views of all the players in the struggle - those for and against the PAP.
Mr Lee told the team: 'If you're going to tell my side of the story, then you might as well not write the book. This has to be your book.'
He stressed that the authors - Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng Kam - should get the facts right but stand by what they have written.
When the initial drafts were shown to him, he pointed out factual errors but did not question the narrative thread or request that any of the critical and contentious points surrounding him be taken out.
This approach meant keeping an open mind, unfettered by any preconceived notions. Just let the story unravel - through the voices of about 300 people interviewed and of some 200 oral history interviewees recorded in the National Archives as well as the voices resurrected from unpublished memoirs and declassified documents.
The challenge for the team lay in tracking down former political players lost in the fog of history. After locating them, the next great challenge was in cajoling and coaxing them to give their side of the story.
Many were initially sceptical if not cynical. Some were downright hostile, assuming that the book would be just a propaganda exercise.
Typical of their responses were: 'Why should I cooperate with you to do a book on the party whose government locked me up for so many years?
'Are you sure that whatever I tell you will be printed?'
Fortunately, most of the people contacted gave the writers the benefit of the doubt and agreed to be interviewed. Despite being on the losing side and spending years in detention, many former leftists betrayed little bitterness or rancour and extended full cooperation to the team.
Some of them are now with us in the chamber: Fong Swee Suan, Dominic Puthucheary, Lim Chin Joo, Chen Say Jame and Low Por Tuck.
Unfortunately, some had passed away since their interviews.
What proved to be a treasure trove of precious insights were the 200-odd oral history interviews released by the National Archives of Singapore.
They included the voices of Lee Kuan Yew and his wife Kwa Geok Choo, S. Rajaratnam, C.V. Devan Nair, E.W. Barker, Fong Sip Chee, Richard Corridon, Lord Selkirk, David Marshall, S. Woodhull, James Puthucheary, Ong Chang Sam, Soon Loh Boon and Chen Say Jame.
Apart from listening to hundreds of hours of oral history interview tapes, the researchers pored over reams of documents, scanned reels of microfilm, ploughed through volumes of Chinese and Malay newspapers and sought the help of libraries and government agencies for the required information.
The team was also fortunate in gaining access to confidential party documents such as PAP's Analysis of the 1984 General Election; declassified diplomatic records from British National Archives; Mr Lee Kuan Yew's correspondence in the 1950s before he became PM and unpublished papers and memoirs belonging to Francis Thomas, Maurice Baker, SR Nathan and others.
Singaporeans might ask: Why should we know the PAP story?
Since 1959, PAP has won 12 general elections making it one of the most successful and longest ruling elected parties in the world. The 55-year-old party has ruled Singapore for 50 years. So whether you are for or against PAP, knowing the history of the party would mean knowing the political development of Singapore.
As former leftist leader Fong Swee Suan said, modern Singapore and PAP are inseparable. Their stories are intertwined.
They say that history favours the victors but in Men In White the voices of the vanquished are also aired.
Many of the leftists and communists who found themselves on the wrong side of history were idealistic young men and women, fired up by the Chinese revolution and the rise of socialism, to fight against the colonialists and champion the plight of the working class and the poor. Their support for PAP in the early years contributed to the victory of the party in the 1959 elections.
In some way, belated as it may be, the book has accorded recognition to their roles and contributions in the political development of Singapore. Thanks to their inputs and insights, Men In White is a rounded and balanced account of the Singapore Story.
In relating the fortunes of Singapore's ruling political party, the book also highlights the values, convictions, ideals, instincts, beliefs and world views of the generation of politicians who laid the foundation for today's Singapore. Whether as protagonists or antagonists, they were fighting for the future of Singapore.
The reader will be struck by the idealism, integrity and self-sacrifice of the first generation of PAP and non-PAP leaders: Lee Kuan Yew charging little or no fees as lawyer for political activists and trade unionists; Goh Keng Swee bringing soap flakes on his overseas trips to do his own washing to save taxpayers' money; ministers and legislative assemblymen refusing to accept bribes; Francis Thomas requesting the Ministry of Education to drop his expatriate allowance after he became a Singapore citizen; and leftists leading an austere life which compelled PAP leaders to do likewise to win the hearts and minds of the people.
Indeed Men In White can be read as a tribute to the generation born before the war who suffered under British colonialism and Japanese occupation, endured unimaginable poverty and privations, underwent social and political upheaval, and yet were able to overcome the tears and the trauma to lay the foundation for a new nation.
If not for the thrift, frugality, hard work and tremendous sacrifices of the leaders and the people, the present generation would not enjoy the privilege of being the beneficiaries of Singapore's peace and prosperity today.
We believe that the book will be new grist for the mill, a source of reference for future writers, researchers and scholars to pursue new lines of enquiry and expand on the themes and issues raised in the book.
This huge project will not be in vain if the book helps to equip a new generation of readers to rethink the Singapore Story, overturn some longstanding assumptions, question some conventional wisdom and debunk some myths and taboos.
For the project team, it has been an epic journey into a long forgotten and fractious past.
Many of you present here have helped our team to bring the past to life again. We thank you for sharing your recollections of those turbulent days.
Whether you were on the side of the PAP or against the PAP or were bystanders and witnesses to unfolding history, you are honoured guests today.
Directly or indirectly, in one way or another, you have all helped to contribute to the political development and common good of Singapore and your voices deserve to be heard.