Operation Coldstore (sometimes spelled Operation Cold Store, Chinese: 冷藏行动) was carried out on 2 February 1963 and it led to the arrest of over 100 individuals who were detained without trial under the Preservation of Public Service Security Ordinance (PSSO). In official accounts, the Operation was a security operation “aimed at crippling the Communist open front organisation,” which threatened Singapore’s internal security. The operation was authorised by the Internal Security Council which was composed of representatives from the British, Singapore and Malayan Federal governments.
Part of a series on the
|History of Singapore|
|Early history of Singapore (pre-1819)|
|Founding of modern Singapore (1819–26)|
|Straits Settlements (1826–67)|
|Crown colony (1867–1942)|
|Battle of Singapore (1942)|
|Japanese Occupation (1942–45)|
|Post-war period (1945–62)|
|Internal self-government (1955–62)|
|Merger with Malaysia (1962–65)|
|Republic of Singapore (1965–present)|
- 1 Background & Contexts
- 2 Developments leading to Operation Coldstore
- 3 The Operation Coldstore
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Debates & Controversies
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Recommended Readings
Background & Contexts
Post-WWII conditions & rise of left-wing movements
The post-war conditions in Singapore were harsh for the working class as they had to grapple with poor working conditions which were exploitative and discriminatory. In the same period, British decolonisation of Singapore resulted in the installation of a new constitution in 1955 which encouraged “local participation in politics.” The liberalisation of Singapore’s political environment led to the emergence of “pro-labour left-wing movements,” that represented the rights of the working class. The Barisan Socialis would emerge as a prominent and popular left-wing group in 1961 along with Jamit Singh. Many of the left-wing groups organised demonstrations to achieve concessions for the workers. Some of these labour movements graduated into movements promoting self-determination and independence from the British for economic progress. They drew inspiration from global anti-colonial struggles across Asia and Africa occurring in the post-WWII era.
Against the backdrop of global decolonisation and independence, the Communist Party of Malaya (MCP) emerged in Malaya. The British and Malayan leaders’ efforts to contain communism resulted in the Malayan Emergency. Under the emergency conditions, individuals suspected to be involved in communist activities could be detained without trial. This restricted and regulated environment was replicated in Singapore which facilitated the execution of Operation Coldstore in 1963 under the provisions of the Preservation of Public Service Ordinance (PSSO).
The experiences from fighting the MCP in the 1950s led the British and Malayan leaders to formulate the view that the Chinese were linked to Communist movements and were seen as proxies of China. As a result, the emergence of left-wing movements which were largely led by Chinese students and workers became perceived to be detrimental to British interest in Singapore and Malaya.
Political situation in Singapore
In Singapore general election of 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP) led by Lee Kuan Yew, contested and emerged triumph by winning 43 out of the 51 constituencies. However, victory was short-lived as they were later defeated in the Hong Lim by-election in April 1961 and the Anson by-election in July 1961. The PAP candidates lost to Ong Eng Guan and David Marshall in both by-elections.
The PAP was also increasingly divided and these schisms became visible between 1960 and 1961. On 20 July 1961, left-wing members of the PAP defected from the PAP after Lee Kuan Yew’s call for a motion of confidence in the government. Most of these members later formed the Barisan Socialis (Barisan) on 30 July 1961, led by Lim Chin Siong. As many of the members who defected to the Barisan were prominent grassroots leaders, the Barisan had a strong support base and became a strong opposition party to the PAP.
Given the Barisan’s large support base, political onlookers speculated that the Barisan could potentially win the 1963 general election. The British colonial records reveal that Lee Kuan Yew, felt threatened by the powerful left-wing movements and he had on several occasions tried to remove his opponents by invoking the PSSO to detain his opponents.
Decolonisation & formation of Malaysia
After WWII, the British began the process of decolonisation in Singapore but they wanted a strong anti-communist government to protect British interests in the region by acting as a defense base. Therefore, the British believed that independence for Singapore should be granted with a merger with Malaya so that economic resources could be shared and British's Cold War concerns of Singapore becoming an “independent predominantly Chinese, polity” could be alleviated. The PAP which was led by the English-educated Lee Kuan Yew temporarily allied their fears in 1959.
Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP also favoured merger with Malaya because the assistance of Malaya was required to suppress the growing left-wing which challenged the PAP, particularly in the wake of losing the two by-elections in 1961. Lee Kuan Yew was adamant that communism could only be eradicated through merger. In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew believed that the communist threat was real throughout the 1950s and 1960s in Singapore, and also perceived that Lim Chin Siong was one of the key communist leaders. Such sentiments were also evident in the Malayan government and it feared that a weakened PAP would become replaced by the radical Chinese left-wing groups and pose a threat to neighbouring Malaya which was predominantly Malay. Thus, Malaya slowly agreed to merger with Singapore, but on the pre-condition that communist sympathisers from the left-wing movements are arrested. On 27 May 1961, following PAP’s loss at the two by-elections, the Malayan Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman announced that, “sooner or later Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo territories should work together for close political and economic cooperation.”
Developments leading to Operation Coldstore
Disagreements over specifics of arrests
By 1962, it was clear that the Malayan government considered the arrests of Singapore’s left-wing groups, which they perceived as communist breeding grounds, as one of the two pre-conditions for the creation of Malaysia. The debates over the specific of the arrests resulted in a power struggle in 1961 between the British, Singapore and Malayan leaders. In February 1962, the Malayans insisted on the apprehension of opposition leaders in Singapore and warned that they would pull out from the ISC if their requests were ignored. However, the British officials in Singapore opposed such oppressive measures and argued that evidence had to be presented before arrests could be made. Observing that the Malayans were pushing for an arrest programme, Lee Kuan Yew jumped onto the bandwagon in March 1962. The Malayans' call for arrests could revive Lee’s earlier attempts in 1960 to remove “certain communists close to Lim Chin Siong” by invoking the PSSO.
In May 1962, a joint report was produced by Singapore and Malaya and presented to the Malayan, Singapore and British governments. The report advocated for an “intensification of efforts to expose the communist, and deny them facilities, culminating in detention of those shown to be Communist conspirators… with Lim Chin Siong at the top of the list…” George Selkirk disagreed with the report’s recommendations by highlighting that “the Singapore Special Branch have virtually failed to identify directly any communist threats during the last three years” and opined that “Lee Kuan Yew is quite clearly attracted by the prospect of wiping out his main political opposition before the next general elections.” Therefore, cautioning against using the PSSO for political rather than security reasons.
By 28 June 1962, the absence of concrete arrests led Geofroy Tory, the British representative in Kuala Lumpur, to report that the Malayans were on the verge of withdrawing from merger if the pre-condition for arrests was unmet. This inaction was in part due to Selkirk and Philip Moore’s continued belief that insufficient evidence existed to demonstrate the existence of subversive communist activities. Moore, the Acting British Commissioner for Singapore, reasoned that Lim Chin Siong’s political actions were constitutional and could not warren an arrest. In July 1962, Moore opined that “Lim is working very much on his own and that his primary objective is not the communist millennium... It is far from certain that having attained this objective, Lim would necessarily prove a compliant tool of Peking or Moscow.” Distrust continued to mount between the British, Singapore and Malayans leaders over the specifics of the arrest as Selkirk reported to Sandys that “the Malays talk of arrested 25 for security reasons; Lee Kuan Yew talks of arrested 250 for security and political reasons; in fact, I believe both of them wish to arrest effective political opposition and blame us for doing so.” The leaders disagreed on who would assume responsibility for the impending arrests. However, while the pre-conditions remained unresolved, the issue of citizenship for merger had been decided. Malaya and Singapore agreed that with merger, internal security would come under the purview of the Federal government. Singapore’s citizens will also attain Malaysian citizenship, but they were not entitled to vote or run for elections across the causeway.
Meanwhile, as discussions for merger and the arrests were underway, the discussed terms of the merger were disclosed in August 1961 in Singapore. Left-wing groups such as the Barisan were appalled as they perceived merger terms to be discriminatory and deprived Singaporeans of his/her voting rights in the Federal elections. In addition, internal security would come under the purview of the Federal government which Singaporeans could not vote for. The Barisan vehemently questioned the terms of the merger and encouraged their supporters to cast blank votes in upcoming referendum on the merger. The Barisan also argued that merger was a neo-colonial construct because it was conceived under the auspices of the British. However, Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs that these were “delaying tactics” that directed “people to concentrate first on the anti-colonial struggle” and conflating the Barisan with the communist, Lee Kuan Yew wrote that Barisan’s larger goal was communist subversion. To the dismay of the left-wing, the referendum results of the merger revealed that the PAP’s merger scheme had won 71% of the votes. The results encouraged Lee Kuan Yew to believe that he now had the mandate to pursue merger and remove the left-wing groups.
Breakthrough with the Brunei Revolt
The breakthrough in the discussion on the arrests came when a rebellion led by A.M. Azahari from the Party Rak’yat occurred in Brunei on 8 December 1962. Lim Chin Siong and the Barisan expressed their support for the movement as an anti-colonial struggle but it was unclear if they were directly involved in the revolt. In any case, it was quickly discovered that on 3 December 1962, Azahari had had a rendezvous with Lim. Colonial records reveal that in a conversation with Moore, that Lee Kuan Yew had described the rebellion as “heaven–sent opportunity” to legitimise the arrests of Lim Chin Siong and left-wing groups.
In response to the rebellion, the Malayan government called for an ISC meeting to discuss the arrest of the Barisan leaders. While the meeting of Lim Chin Siong and Azahari reinforced the Singapore Special Branch's belief in an imminent communist subversion, Selkirk still had his reservations about making the arrests. However, Sandys, the Colonial and Common Wealth Secretary pressured Selkirk to “take advantage of the Barisan’s declaration of support for the Indonesian-sponsored insurrection in Brunei. Selkirk was to push through the arrest under the cover of the Brunei emergency.” The arrests were approved by the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan on 12 December 1962 and the ISC promptly reconvened on 13 December to firm up details of the arrests.
Failure of the first Operation Coldstore
The arrests were scheduled for 16 December 1962 at 2.00 a.m. but shortly before the scheduled date Lee Kuan Yew expanded the list of arrestees to include Malayan Parliamentarians, Lim Kean Siew and Ahmad Boestaman because they had opposed to merger. Lee Kuan Yew also wanted the Malayan government to assume responsibility for the arrests and even composed a draft public statement for them to present in the federal parliament. Tunku rejected Lee’s demands on the grounds that insufficient evidence existed to justify the arrest of the Malayan parliamentarians.
In preparation for the arrests, a meeting was held at the Malayan Prime Minister’s office on 15 December 1962 at 10.00p.m. Lee continued to insist that the Malayan parliamentarians had to be arrest and was compelled to cancel the Singapore operation if his request was not granted. Tunku, who was “holding a party next door” did not accede to Lee Kuan Yew’s request and said that Lee was trying to “use him to justify the arrest of Singapore opposition.” Consequently, the Operation fell apart and Lee Kuan Yew went on vacation in Cameron Highlands.
Negotiations & compromises
Following the failure of the first Operation Coldstore, Selkirk feared that the plans for merger would not materialise. In addition, he was uncomfortable with the presence of the “communist united front members continuing to work in Singapore in the light of Indonesian activities in Borneo.” Thus, Selkirk repositioned his stance and wrote to the Secretary of State for Colonies advocating for prompt round-up of Communists in Singapore and estimated around 70 arrestees to be apprehended. The Malayan leaders were also anxious to employ the Brunei rebellion as to make the arrests, but Lee remained uncontactable in Cameron Highlands. Colonial records reveal that Goh Keng Swee had mentioned that “there was no need for the Singapore government to do anything since the British would be forced by the Tunku to take action.”
In January 1963, the Tunku was alarmed when Lee Kuan Yew continued to expand the arrest list to include “some members of Marshall’s and Ong’s parties” despite “protestations of Singapore Special Branch.” Nevertheless, on 18 January 1962, the Malayan government agreed on the specifics of the arrests “except for two matters... the UPP members and the proposal that Lim be offered by Lee the opportunity to leave Singapore after the arrest.” The Malayan and British governments acquiesced to Lee Kuan Yew’s demands and 2 February 1962 was selected for the commencement of Operation Coldstore. Lee opted for this day because holding the Operation “before the Chinese New Year celebrations … would dampen any adverse reaction.”
The Operation Coldstore
At 2.15 am on 2 February 1963, Operation Coldstore commenced. The police and special branch officers gathered in Johor before heading out to Singapore at 3.15am to round up suspected communist sympathisers. Those detained included “31 in the political sphere…40 trade union leaders, 18 from the education sphere, 11 from cultural circles, 7 members of rural committees of hawkers, nine people only identified as members of the MCP and 14 others.” Among those arrested from the political sphere were 24 members from the Barisan Socialis. The arrests were defended by invoking the PSSO with claims that the arrestees had “the long-term aim of the Malayan communist Party to infiltrate and take over left-wing political parties, workers’ associations and trade unions in the colony in order to foment violent unrest.” A representative from the PAP, S Rajaratnam justified the operation by stating that “action was taken not because they are Communists but because the danger of subversion and violence by communist in aid of these alien interventions.” The ISC report stated that those arrested were “hard core organisers and their collaborators of the Communist conspiracy in Singapore believed that the armed struggle remains a weapon to be employed whenever the opportunity arises.”
List of detainees:
|Name of detainee||Position||Political Party/Organisation|
|Lim Chin Siong||Secretary-General||Barisan Sosialis|
|S Woodhull||Vice-Chairman||Barisan Socialis|
|Fong Swee Suan||Secretary-General
Executive Committee Member
|James Puthucheary||Legal Advisor||Barisan Socialis|
|Dominic Puthucheary||Committee Member
Singapore General Employees' Union
|Poh Soo Kai||Assistant Secretary General||Barisan Socialis|
|Lim Hock Siew||Committee Member||Barisan Socialis|
|A Wahab Shah||Chairman||Party Rakyat|
|Tan Teck Wah||President
|Singapore General Employees' Union
|Said Zahari||Editor||Utusan Melayu|
|Sandra Woodhull||Vice Chairman||Barisan Socialis|
|Lim Shee Ping||Committee Member||Barisan Socialis|
|Tan Yam Seng||Committee Member||Barisan Socialis|
Official accounts represent Operation Coldstore as a tough but necessary action to safeguard the internal security of Singapore as well as those of Singapore’s neighbouring countries. At a press conference on 4 February 1963, Lee Kuan Yew claimed that the “open front communist organisations were ready to mount violent agitation to coincide with events outside Singapore” which could also “endangered the security of Malaysia.” He also stated that “if left alone without outside factors, Singapore would never have contemplated such sweeping actions.” However, Lee Kuan Yew’s comments were not well-received by the British and the Malayan governments as it shifted the responsibility for arrests on them while denying Lee’s active involvement in the events leading up to the operation.
The execution of Operation Coldstore was followed by a series of protests and demonstrations. On 22 April 1963, four Barisan leaders, along with Lee Siew Choh, demonstrated against Operation Coldstore on the Prime Minister’s Office but were later apprehended and “charged with abetment to overawe the government by force.” 
Operation Coldstore led to the arrests of Nantah students who had been involved in opposing the referendum in 1962, and the termination of the Nantah student publication permit. These actions triggered widespread student protests against the repressive PSSO. In addition, the student unions of Polytechnics, Nantah and the University of Malay jointly produced a proclamation against the arrests and termination of their publication permit.
The international human rights group, Amnesty International came to the fore and campaigned against the Operation Coldstore from its headquarters in London, although the their efforts were not successful.
Criticisms of treatment of detainees
The conditions that the detainees were subjected to came under scrutiny by the Singapore Assembly when it was revealed that the detainees were kept in “solitary confinement until their interrogation had been completed” while “the interrogation process itself appeared to be unnecessarily protracted.” The extended length of interrogations also alarmed the British. In addition, in late May 1963, the British investigating team of Labour Party MPs which included Fenner Brockway, questioned the manner in which Coldstore detainees were treated.
1963 Singapore General Elections & formation of Malaysia
The Barisan was the PAP’s strongest contenders in politics. However, Operation Coldstore had substantially weakened the Barisan as most of its key personnel had been detained. According to Matthew Jones, “the Barisan never recovered from the combined effects of the outcome of the referendum result and the ‘Cold Store’ detentions.” Jones also highlights that numerous Barisan leaders and members were bogged down with lawsuits and its followers were “demoralised.” In addition, Tan Jing Quee mentions that “the two main pillars of the left wing movement in Singapore, the Barisan Socialis and SATU, were decapitated,” following operation Coldstore.
The Operation Coldstore also set off the May Day Rally in Farrer Park which was popularly supported by 39 left wing unions and amassed a crowd of approximately 10,000 people. The rally was accompanied by a call by ST Bani, the president of SATU, who “urged that a general election be held in Singapore under UN auspices.”
In the end, the PAP won the 1963 election and Singapore merged with Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo to form Malaysia on 16 September 1963.
Debates & Controversies
The extent of communist threat
An on-going debate on Operation Coldstore is whether the extent of communist threat in Singapore had been inflated in the 1950s and 1960s. Individuals such as Said Zahari and Chin Peng suggest that the communist threat could have been exaggerated. Said Zahari, a journalist and one of those arrested during Operation Coldstore, said that Coldstore was not about arresting the communists as "the Communist Party of Malaya in Singapore was no longer active." Instead, the Operation was used to weaken the opposition to the PAP in Singapore. Chin Peng, the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Malaya then, said in his memoirs that "Contrary to countless allegations made over the years by Singapore leaders, academics and the Western Press, we never controlled Barisan Socialists". He also wrote that "Operation Cold Store shattered our underground network throughout the island. Those who escaped the police net went into hiding. Many fled to Indonesia". However, historians such as Kumar Ramakrishna disagree and assert that the communist threat was real. He argues that the absence of subversive communist activities is because they had adopted a clever strategy of working within the constitution to subvert Singapore to communism.
Declassification of official documents
The maturation of the 30-year rule has led to the release of declassified British archival documents pertaining to Operation Coldstore. However, the documents in the ISD archives of Singapore remain classified. Privilege access to these classified documents has been granted to scholars such as Kumar Ramakrishna. This situation has prompted historians such as Tan Tai Yong to urge the government to "widen access to the archives" as "such access should not hinge on who is asking for them" so that historians can "offer different perspectives."
- Matthew, Jones (2008). "Creating Malaysia: Singapore Security, the Borneo Territories, and the Contours of British policy". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 28 (2).
- Ee, Boon Lee; Lim, Boon Tee (February 3, 1963). "Who's who in the big round up".
- Thum, Pingtjin (2013). "‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s "progressive left," Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia". Asia Research Institute.
- Liew, Kai Khiun (2004). "The Anchor and the Voice of 10,000 Waterfront Workers: Jamit Singh in the Singapore Story". Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 35 (3).
- Wade, Goeffe (2013). "Operation Coldstore: A Key Event in the Creation of Modern Singapore". In Hong, Lysa; Poh, Soo Kai; Tan, Kok Fang. The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore, Commemorating 50 years. Malaysia: Vinlin Press Sdn Bhd.
- Ball, SJ (1997). "Selkirk in Singapore". Twentieth Century British History 10 (2).
- Lee, Kuan Yew (1998). The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Prentice hall.
- Tan, Jing Quee (2001). "Lim Chin Siong – A Political Life". In Tan, Jing Quee; Jomo, K.S. Comet in our sky. Kuala Lumpur: INSAN.
- Barr, Michael; Trocki, Carl A. (2008). Paths not Taken: political pluralism in post-war Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press.
- Zahari, S. (2007). "The Long Nightmare: My 17 years as a political prisoner" Malaysia: Utusan Publications & Distributors.
- Chin, P. (2003). "Chin Peng: My side of history" Singapore: Media Masters.
- Ramakrishna, Kumar (2015). Original Sin: Revising the Revisionist Critique of the 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.
- Lim, Yan Liang (April 13, 2015). "Revisiting Operation Coldstore". The Straits Times.
- Hussin Mutalib (2004). Parties and Politics. A Study of Opposition Parties and the PAP in Singapore. Marshall Cavendish Adademic. ISBN 981-210-408-9
- Lee Kuan Yew. (1998). The Singapore Story. Federal Publications. ISBN 0-13-020803-5
- Mathew Jones, “Creating Malaysia: Singapore Security, the Borneo Territories and the Contours of British Policy, 1961-1963” in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 28, No. 2, May 2000. pp. 85–109
- Ball, S.J. “Selkirk in Singapore.” Twentieth Century British History, 10 (2) 1997: 162 – 191.
- Liew Kai Khiun, “The Anchor and the Voice of 10,000 Waterfront Workers: Jamit Singh in the Singapore Story,” in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35 (3) 2004: 459 – 478.
- Jones, Matthew. “Creating Malaysia: Singapore Security, the Borneo Territories, and the Contours of British policy.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. 28 (2) 2000: 85 – 109.
- Thum, Pingtjin. “‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s “progressive left,” Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia,” in Asia Research Institute, Working Paper Series No. 211: 1 – 25.