Interview With Lee Sing Tiong

Lee Sing Tiong discusses his student days in Singapore and Taiwan during the Cold War, his understanding of political theory and the global events of the time, and the contrasting developmental paths of Taiwan and Mainland China.

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Born in 1933, Lee Sing Tiong discusses his childhood in prewar Singapore and the disruption of his primary education by the Japanese Occupation. He shares how he was influenced by his father's positive experiences with the Kuomintang in his own youth, and how his father eventually joined the Nationalist Party. Coming from a strongly traditional Chinese background that valued education, he decided of his own accord to pursue secondary education. He read voraciously during his schooling years, focusing on political theory, history, and commentaries on current affairs, even using his allowance to purchase books. Throughout his secondary education at Catholic High School and Chung Cheng High School, he stayed away from politics while witnessing the development of pro-Communist student movements, notably the anti-National Service riots (1954).

He then turns to discussing the presence of the KMT in Malaya and the structure of their organization. To that end, he shares his impression of the pro-Kuomintang community leader Tan Kok Chor and the political inclinations of major Chinese language newspapers in Singapore during the 1950s. While many of his peers read left-leaning publications, his family was unique in subscribing to multiple tabloids, such that he gained a more circumspect understanding of politics in China and Taiwan. In so doing, he knew more about the causes his classmates claimed to fight for than their very proponents in the school.

Further, he discusses the circumstances which influenced his decision to pursue tertiary education in Taiwan in 1957; and recalls his impression of Taiwanese society. He was a self-funded student and flew to Taiwan via Hong Kong. The second Taiwan Straits crisis and political developments in Taiwan had a limited impact on him, as his experience as a university student in Taiwan was generally enjoyable. While international students were a minority, thousands of Singaporeans and Malaysians attended the National Taiwan University. He and his peers were very impressed with the success of Taiwan’s land reform and industrialization during the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, they were not keen to participate in the mandatory military preparedness drills. While they could have merely complained to the university administration, they raised it to the Malayan foreign affairs office, which intervened to have Malayan students exempted from the rudimentary drills. When he first left Singapore for his degree, he felt Taiwan was less developed than Singapore, but that the situation reversed upon his return, as he found Taiwanese manufactured goods being sold locally.

Finally, Sing Tiong also shares his views on the People’s Action Party’s alliance and split with leftist political figures, the Chinese Communist Party, its relationship with the Malayan Communist Party, and political movements on mainland China. He feels that the major flaw of the mainland Chinese political system was its failure to separate the state from the ruling party. He contrasts this with Taiwan, where the military apparatus swore allegiance to the state, irrespective of the governing politicians of the day. He feels such “democratization” (in his diction) is essential for healthy politics and the development of the country.


Interviewer: Chen Yishen

Interviewee: Lee Sing Tiong

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Transcript Notes

Biographical Info: Lee Sing Tiong was born in Singapore in 1933 and received a Chinese education. He belonged to the same clan as Lee Kong Chian in Nan’an county, Fujian province. He graduated from the History department of National Taiwan University.

  1. How does Lee Sing Tiong’s transnational account of Chinese politics and its impact on Singapore allow historians to re-examine the Cold War as a global conflict?

  2. In light of Lee Sing Tiong’s discussion of his student days and the student bodies in his schools from secondary to university education, consider what the Cold War meant for the youth, particularly the generation of students who grew up during the Cold War.