Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote to the widow of former leftist union leader Fong Swee Suan on Sunday (Feb 5), expressing his condolences at Mr Fong's death.
In his letter to Madam Chen Poh Cheng, PM Lee recounted how Mr Fong was a convenor of the People's Action Party (PAP) when it was formed in 1954, and sat on its first central executive committee.
He noted that the non-communist group led by his father, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had later clashed with Mr Fong and his pro-communist colleagues. But he also highlighted how the non-communists were inspired by the latter's selflessness and commitment to their cause.
PM Lee recalled in his letter how the almost wholly English-educated, non-communist group led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew found in Mr Fong and Barisan Sosialis leader Lim Chin Siong "a bridge to the Chinese-educated world".
The non-communists and pro-communists had joined forces to "rid Singapore of the British colonialists, knowing full well that the real battle would come after the British left and Signaporeans had to decide who was to govern them".
After Mr Fong and his leftist colleagues were arrested after a series of strikes and riots, Mr Lee Kuan Yew acted as their lawyer and visited them at St John's Island every three to four weeks. PM Lee recalled how he would regularly take a police boat together with his parents on those trips, which he had regarded as Sunday outings.
But there was a serious purpose behind those visits for Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who spent hours trying to persuade the detainees "of the folly of the Communist Party of Malaya's policy", PM Lee wrote. All the detainees later signed a document which they had drafted themselves, setting out their support for the PAP's non-communist objectives.
Mr Lim Chin Siong, Mr Fong and six other detainees were released from prison after the PAP won the 1959 general election and formed the go vernment. They were all appointed Political Secretaries in various ministries - Mr Fong went to the Ministry of Labour. "Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) and his senior colleagues were hopeful that all but Mr Lim were sincere in their declarations of support," Mr Lee wrote.
In 1961, Mr Fong, Mr Lim and other trade union leaders split from the PAP to form Barisan Sosialis due to differences over Singapore's merger to form Malaysia. The pro-communists also formed the Singapore Association of Trade Unions, with Mr Fong as secretary-general.
"A ferocious battle for hearts and minds ensued," PM Lee wrote.
At a referendum in 1962, 70 per cent of Singaporeans voted to merge with Malaysia. In the general election a year later, the PAP was re-elected to office with 37 out of 51 seats, with Barisan winning 13.
"It is difficult for Singaporeans who did not live through the events to appreciate the passion of those times. This was a serious battle of ideas between two groups of people with diametrically opposed visions of our society," PM Lee wrote.
"Singapore's history would have been utterly different if Mr Lim and Mr Fong had prevailed. Fortunately, they did not, as several of those who took their path recognised years later, after the dust had settled," he added.
PM Lee also stressed that the battle was not one between "good men and women on one side, and crooks and charlatans on the other."
"There were dedicated, and disciplined, deeply courageous people on both sides," he wrote. "Indeed, Mr Lee and his colleagues liked and respected their opponents, admiring them for their simple lifestyles, selflessness and commitment."
Mr Fong met Mr Lee Kuan Yew for the last time in Sept 2009 in the old Parliament House at the launch of 'Men in White', a book on untold stories of the PAP. They shook hands warmly, and stood next to each other for a photograph.
PM Lee cited how Mr Lee Kuan Yew wrote that the PAP learnt "the meaning of dedication to a cause" from Mr Fong and his colleagues, who were prepared to sacrifice everything for their cause.
The late Mr Lee said their dedication prompted the PAP to set "high standards of personal integrity and spartan lifestyles to withstand their political attacks. They were ruthless and thorough. We became as dedicated as they were in pursuing our political objectives."
PM Lee also noted that in his obituary note on Mr Lim in 1996, Mr Lee Kuan Yew recalled his differences with Mr Lim were ideological and deep, but never personal. "He would have said the same of Mr Fong," PM Lee said.
Read the full letter here
This article was first published on Feb 5, 2017.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.