Former political detainee Poh Soo Kai launches memoir


Former political detainee Dr Poh Soo Kai autographs copies of his book. Photo: Nicholas Yong

It took almost seven years of writing and two changes of venue before former political detainee Dr Poh Soo Kai finally launched his memoir on Saturday (13 Feb).

Almost 300 people were in attendance at the Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium, where “Living In A Time Of Deception” was launched.

Written by Poh and edited by historian Hong Lysa and playwright Wong Souk Yee, the memoir covers much of the history of Singapore during the turbulent 1950s and 60s, as well as Poh’s 17 years’ imprisonment without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

The source materials for the memoir include recently released documents from the National Archives in the UK, with the research process beginning as early as 1994.

Poh, former assistant secretary-general of the Barisan Sosialis, the breakaway faction of the ruling People’s Action Party, was among 113 left-wing politicians and union leaders detained under Operation Coldstore on 2 February, 1963.

After the Coldstore arrests of a number of the top leaders of Barisan Sosialis, including its chief Lim Chin Siong, the opposition party took part in the general elections 21 September, 1963 and lost to the PAP.

The authorities have maintained that those arrested were communist subversives who posed a threat to Singapore.

Now 84, Poh insists that Coldstore was a political exercise aimed at opponents of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. “I am still defiant. I draw a strict line between what is just and what isn’t,” writes Poh, who once called Lee a “political pimp” in 1973.

“We all have lived through the very dark period of fear, uncertainty, dilemma and downright frustration that followed on the heel of the mass arrests,” said Poh in his address at the launch.


Poh Soo Kai (seated left) with (clockwise from left) Ngoh Teck Nam, who translated the book into Mandarin, Hong Lysa, Wong Souk Yee, R. Joethy and Tan Kok Fang. Photo; Nicholas Yong

The book deals with his life in the context of historical developments in Singapore, said Poh. “History, to me, is a subject that is based on facts. History is not a tale that can be fabricated or conjured out of thin air. A Singapore story cannot masquerade as the history of Singapore,” he added. He welcomed criticism of the book, so long as it was based on “facts and evidence”.

Poh was scathing in his criticism of the Medical Alumni and the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI), who had denied him the use of their venues for his book launch. He chided the Medical Alumni for its “discourteous attitude”, especially in light of his stature as a founding member of the Singapore Medical Association.

In particular, he noted that the SCCCI had initially agreed to his use of the Tan Kah Kee Auditorium, owned by the SCCCI, before abruptly cancelling the reservation without giving a reason. Poh is a grandson of the late 19th century philanthropist Tan Kah Kee.

“It is sad to note that I, a grandson, cannot make use of a hall that is in my grandfather’s name to launch my memoir, which also pays homage to the old man. This, to me, is a sign of a very sick society,” said Poh.

At times, the event had the feel of a political rally. Opposition figures such as the Workers’ Party’s Chen Show Mao, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss of the Singapore People’s Party and SingFirst chief Tan Jee Say were in attendance.

Poh’s address was also preceded by speeches from two former ISA detainees, Tan Kok Fang and R. Joethy. Strident criticisms of the late Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP were often greeted with loud applause.

Tan, who was also detained under Operation Coldstore, was particularly impassioned. “The need to debunk Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore story comes as a clarion call to action,” said Tan.

The question and answer session at the launch was moderated by historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin, who also helped Poh with research for the book. Thum asked Poh if he had a parting message for young Singaporeans, and for the opposition politicians in the audience.

In response, Poh urged those in the opposition to be committed to the cause and to human rights, to be “totally, absolutely honest” with the electorate and with themselves, and to unite.

He added, “Those in power will do everything possible to keep themselves in power. So those who are opposed will have to realise that the road ahead will be tough.”

Published by social enterprise Function 8, Living In A Time Of Deception is available at major bookstores.