The Youthful and Idealistic: The University Socialist Club in History
It’s hard to imagine a small group of university undergraduates playing a key role in Singapore’s struggle against colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet this can be said of the University of Malaya Socialist Club, a political club formed in 1953 by mainly Medical and Arts students.
A cloud of fear hung over the student population on the Bukit Timah campus, after an earlier group of student activists were arrested by the Special Branch for their involvement in communist underground activities in January 1951.
But that did not deter some undergraduates from forming a political club. In fact it was quite possibly that as students, they had a keen sense of the status which they and the Colony of Singapore shared – deemed to be politically immature and to require British tutelage in a slow constitutional process towards self-rule.
As Lim Hock Siew, a founder of the Club, said, “We felt very proud we were the small group of students who had the courage to stand up to the arrogance of the British colonial administrators at a time when the majority of the students did not have the courage”.
Important, too, was the fact that the institution of learning remained the only public space in Singapore where political activism could take place. Since 1948, the Emergency Regulations, which empowered the state to detain a person indefinitely without trial, had turned the political and trade union scene silent. Only in the institution of learning could an anti-colonialist criticise the system and dream aloud of a better future.
James Puthucheary, who together with Dollah Majid proposed the idea of a political club to the Vice-Chancellor Sydney Caine, was already aware of this in 1949: “If the University is to play its important role in the development of the country it must become the advocate and guardian of the concept of the Malayan Nation and work for the achievement of this ideal”.
Like the overseas graduates such as Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye who returned from Britain to play a leading role in Singapore’s politics, the local undergraduates had an influence out of proportion to their actual numbers.
The Socialist Club sought to raise the level of political consciousness at the university and published a journal called Fajar (meaning “dawn” in Malay). Its initial aim was limited to playing an academic role within the university. But it was swept off its feet by the flow of events after its editorial board published an article titled “Aggression in Asia” in the seventh issue of Fajar, which called Singapore a “police state” in May 1954.
The eight members of the board, James Puthucheary (an Arts Honours student), Lam Khuan Kit (Arts Honours), M. K. Rajakumar (4th year Medical), Poh Soo Kai (3rd year Medical), Kwa Boo Sun (2nd year Arts), Thomas Varkey (1st year Arts), P. Arudsothy (1st year Arts), and Edwin Thumboo (1st year Arts) were arrested and charged with sedition.
The students brought in the Queen’s Counsel, D. N. Pritt, from London to defend them, with Lee Kuan Yew acting as the junior defense counsel. The case was thrown out by the judge and the students acquitted without being called to answer the charges.
The outcome boosted the Club’s political standing but it had a more crucial bearing on Singapore’s history. Through members of the Club, the Lee Kuan Yew group was able to meet the student leaders of the Chinese Middle Schools. This set the stage for the formation of the People’s Action Party in November 1954, a genuinely anti-colonial party made up of English- and Chinese-educated leaders. Several Club members were founder members of the PAP and were instrumental in drafting the party’s manifesto, particularly its criticism of the Emergency Regulations.
The Socialist Club did not fade into obscurity thereafter. Many of its members upon leaving university joined the anti-colonial trade union movement and political parties in Singapore and Malaya. Others played prominent roles in the formation of the Pan-Malayan Students’ Federation, also in 1953. The Federation, which incorporated student unions from the University of Malaya, Technical College KL and College of Agriculture, Serdang, was an attempt to establish a Malaya-wide union of students.
The Club itself went through different generations of leaders and members but never abandoned its basic pursuit of an independent, socialist and non-communal Malaya. Although a group of highly-educated intellectuals, they were not content solely with criticism but in action and in words made independent, constructive contributions to this endeavour.
The question of welding the different ethnic groups in both countries into a “Malayan Nation” concerned the Club deeply over the years. In the debate in Singapore in 1961-62 over its merger with Malaysia, the Club organised study groups on education, labour and citizenship. The Education Study Group concluded that Singapore’s control of education was meaningless without overall political control. The Club protested at the communal and neo-colonialist nature of the “Greater Malaysia” scheme, which ended in failure, at least for Singapore, in 1965.
In 1959, the Club organised a seminar on the national language issue and, seven years later, another seminar on communalism and national unity. These seminal issues of language, culture and education were of wide concern at the time and arguably remain so in Singapore and Malaysia today.
The story of the Socialist Club is a forgotten history of the heady days when those who were young and idealistic stood up to the authorities with visions for a better future. It is also a prism through which the political history of Singapore and Malaya can be clearly seen.
In the last year, the passing of several of the PAP Old Guard in Singapore has ignited interest in the formative years of our nation’s history. In the recent debate over the naming of our streets, we have also grappled with the important issue of what our past means to us.
The University Socialist Club’s story is in this light a deeply meaningful one. Students and young Singaporeans need not wait for their future to be pre-determined; they can approach it and help shape it with hope and idealism. The Club’s members certainly did not wait for their future to be made for them.
By Loh Kah Seng. The author, together with Michael Fernandez, a former member of the Socialist Club, and fellow researchers Lim Cheng Tju, Liew Kai Khiun, and Seng Guo Quan are working on a book project on the history of the University Socialist Club.