‘Comrades’ in People’s Action Party

Is the People’s Action Party (PAP) the only non-communist party to call members “comrades”? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his speech at the party conference yesterday said:

After GE (general election), six senior CEC (central executive committee) members retired to make way for younger leaders:

Comrades Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, Lim Boon Heng, Wong Kan Seng, George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hua

Actually, the word is also used by South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), which had links with the South African Communist Party during the apartheid era, and by the Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) led by President Robert Mugabe.

Like the PAP, the ANC and ZANU also led their countries to independence.

The ANC is still a member of the Socialist International, to which the PAP once belonged.

As Jimmy Yap wrote in Petir magazine in December 2008:

The People’s Action Party started out as socialist party, and it is still a party that cherishes those ideals, outgoing Young PAP chairman Vivian Balakrishnan reminded the youth wing.

“Don’t ever let the opposition paint us as people who don’t care about citizens who are less well off, less educated or less connected,” he said. “We have done more for the poor than almost any other system I can think of.

“If you go anywhere in the world and you pick the poorest 10 per cent and you compare the homes, the schools, the hospitals and the jobs, I say we’ve done better than both communist and capitalist systems in terms of looking after people who would potentially be the most disadvantaged.”

Straits Times 1955
Straits Times 1955

Lee Kuan Yew, however, was annoyed when he was addressed as a “comrade” in a letter in 1955.

“ ‘Dear Comrade’  letter annoys Lee,” said a Straits Times report on July 26, 1955. Here’s a close-up of the report.

Straits Times report close-up
Straits Times report close-up

The Straits Times report said:

People’s Action Party assemblyman, Mr Lee Kuan, last night warned those who addressed him as “comrade” that they could be detained under the Emergency Regulations as communist sympathizers.

Mr Lee was referring to a letter from Mr Ameer Jumabhoy, leader of the Progressive Party youth section, which addressed him as “Comrade Lee Kuan Yew” and began with “Dear Comrade”.

In the letter, Mr Jumabhoy described Mr Lee’s attack on Young Progressive leaders as unfair.

Mr Lee had derided the retirement of what he called Progressive heavyweights and the assumption of office by younger members whose “only virtue is their youthfulness”.

Mr Jumabhoy said he was an admirer of Mr Lee but disagreed with Mr Lee’s method of trying to achieve independence.

According to Oxford English Dictionary, “comrade” originally meant

One who shares the same room, a chamber-fellow, ‘chum’; esp.among soldiers, a tent-fellow, fellow-soldier (also comrade-in-arms); hence gen., an associate in friendship, occupation, fortunes, etc., a close companion, mate, fellow.

So why are communists called “comrades”? Oxford explains:

Used by socialists and communists as a prefix to the surname, to avoid such titles as ‘Mr.’ Hence, a (fellow-) socialist or communist.

It gives the following example of the word used in this sense by the socialist magazine Justice in 1884:

A meeting was held on Sunday last by Comrades Kelly and Maguire… Comrade Maguire spoke at some length on the ‘Aims of Socialism’.