Singapore story cannot masquerade as history of Singapore: Dr Poh Soo Kai

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By Howard Lee

“One may have different interpretations of the facts, but the facts must be there,” said Dr Poh Soo Kai to a room packed with more than 300 participants, at the launch of his book, Living in a Time of Deception on 13 February at Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium.

The book, said Dr Poh, was not just his personal story, although it was peppered with personal accounts of his grandfather Tan Kah Kee, his extended family, his flight to safety during the Japanese occupation, and his life as a student and a medical doctor.

Dr Poh Soo Kai
Dr Poh Soo Kai

Dr Poh was also cognisant that his was a historical memoir of how he lived through the early years of Singapore’s history, and as such, he and his co-writers have taken great pains to verify the facts, including drawing from British declassified documents, the Hansard and the National Archives of Singapore, in order to provide as accurate as possible an account of what happened to Barisan Socialis during the arrests of Operation Coldstore.

In his book and in his speech during the launch, Dr Poh debunked some of what he considered factual inaccuracies perpetuated by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in particular the circumstances that led to the arrest and detention of Barisan’s charismatic leader Lim Chin Siong.

In writing the book, Dr Poh fully expects a rebuttal from the establishment, and said that he “welcomed criticism if they were based on facts and evidence.”

Dr Hong Lysa
Dr Hong Lysa

“We welcome scrutiny, but for the purpose of furthering knowledge,” also said Dr Hong Lysa, a former National University of Singapore senior visiting fellow, who also helped with researching for the book.

In writing him memoirs, Dr Poh had noted wryly that, should Lee Kuan Yew still be alive, he would have called him “a medical doctor masquerading as a historian”, in an oblique reference to what Lee once accused Lim Chin Siong of.

Nevertheless, Dr Poh said that “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.”

But resistance was also to be felt beyond the establishment. In his opening, Dr Poh thanked his publisher Function 8 for trying to help him secure a venue for the book launch, first failing with the Medical Alumni Auditorium, and then with the Tan Kah Kee Auditorium owned by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI).

SCCCI had accepted the booking and deposit, then cancelled and refunded within a week, without giving a reason.

“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,” said Dr Poh. “This, to me, is a sign of a very sick society.”

Dr Thum Ping Tjin
Dr Thum Ping Tjin

The book launch event also saw a Q&A session moderated by historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin. Questions asked include those ranging from background stories of Lee Kuan Yew’s political manoeuvres, to Dr Poh’s relationship with Lim Chin Siong.

“He was patient and could analyse things clearly,” he said. “(Barisan members) admired him for his education, his honesty… We respect him because he is a thinker, not just acting with policy but thinking about their consequences.”

Dr Poh was also asked for his nuggets of wisdom for political parties. A number of members from alternative political parties were spotted among the audience.

Dr Poh noted that many things were different since his days – for one, unions in his time were a lot stronger than today. But he did offer a few principles that those in politics need to be mindful of.

Panel of speakers and researchers at the book launch of Living in a Time of Deception
Panel of speakers and researchers at the book launch of Living in a Time of Deception

“Those in power will do anything to keep themselves in power, so the road (to political diversity) will be tough. But you must feel committed. You have to be totally and absolutely honest, with the people and with yourself… Do not do it thinking of your own dissatisfaction, be very clear what you want. And finally, you have to work for unity.”

Living in a Time of Deception is published by Function 8. For those who would still like to speak to Dr Poh Soo Kai, he will be hosting another book signing and dialogue at The Agora, 21 February, 2pm-5pm.

SCCCI’s president and former Nominated Member of Parliament Thomas Chua has yet to respond to TISG about the cancellation of the booking made by function 8 for the launch of Living in a Time of Deception.

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