James Joseph Puthucheary

James Joseph Puthucheary (b. circa 1922, Kerala, India–d. 3 April 2000, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) was an economist, trade unionist and lawyer. He was a founding member of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore, and broke away from PAP to join the Barisan Sosialis in 1961. He was detained during Operation Coldstore in 1963 and was subsequently banned from entering Singapore until 1990.

Early life
Puthucheary was born in India in 1923 to a well-respected Indian family. His family later moved to Malaya. He was the eldest of 12 children. His father was a senior government officer and his mother was a devout Catholic housewife.

He studied at the elite Johor English College in Malaysia and could speak Malayalam, Malay, Tamil and Hindi.

Indian National Army
In 1943, Puthucheary enlisted in the Indian National Army in response to a call for volunteers to fight for Indian independence. This was the military wing of the Indian National Congress Party. Puthucheary was posted to a guerrilla regiment. He fought in the Burmese jungle and survived the disastrous Battle of Imphal. He later went to Calcutta where he witnessed the Indian Independence. He was inspired to return to Malaya to support its struggle for independence.

Detained in 1951
In 1947, Puthucheary enrolled for tertiary education at the Raffles College (later known as University of Malaya) in Singapore. He formed the Malayan Students' Party with other students. The party's agenda focused on the development of a Malayan consciousness, a Malayan culture and a Malayan nation. The party argued that Malayans should abandon their narrow racial identities and embrace a larger Malayan identity for the sake of national unity.

In January 1951, Puthucheary and several others were arrested by the Singapore Special Branch. They were the first large group of English-speaking intellectuals to be arrested under the Emergency regulations of the Internal Security Act. The arrest was the headlines of the daily news. Puthucheary was detained without trial for one and a half years.

Puthucheary returned to the university after he was released in 1952. On 23 February 1953, he established the University Socialist Club with other students. He graduated in 1954 with an honours degree in Economics.

Imprisonment in Changi in 1956

Puthucheary was a founding member of the PAP in 1954. In 1956, Puthucheary was implicated in the strikes organised by Lim Chin Siong’s group and was imprisoned for three years under the Internal Security Act. During his time in the Changi prison, he wrote an analysis of the country’s political economy, Ownership and Control in the Malayan Economy. He would give his wife, Mavis, the list of books that he needed, which she then borrowed from the University of Malaya. Besides the periodic interrogations by Special Branch officers, Puthucheary was left alone to read and write. In addition to writing, Puthucheary also worked on his London law degree.

Prior to the Legislative Assembly general election of 1959, PAP chairman Toh Chin Chye held a press conference where he reiterated the PAP’s position that the party would not take office “unless former members of the party who were intimately connected with the central committee” were released. On 30 May 1959, the PAP won the election with an 84-percent electoral win. Among the eight detainees subsequently released were Puthucheary, Devan Nair and Lim Chin Siong.

After his release, Puthucheary held various senior positions on government committees and boards. One of his key appointments was director of the Industrial Promotion Board (replaced by the Economic Development Board in 1961). However, he found himself increasingly at odds with the PAP’s policies. He therefore resigned from his positions and from active political life to study law.

Operation Coldstore
When left-wing PAP members departed to form Barisan Sosialis in July 1961, Puthucheary joined them. As part of the “Big Six” trade unionists, Puthucheary campaigned for the abolition of the Internal Security Council. The “Big Six” felt that the abolition was a more important issue than the pending merger with Malaya.

On 2 February 1963, Puthucheary was again arrested by the Singapore Special Branch, this time in a security raid known as Operation Coldstore. He was among the more than one hundred persons detained. After six months of solitary confinement, he was released. He was banned from entering Singapore and settled down in Kuala Lumpur to practise law. He eventually became a partner of the law firm, Skrine & Company. The ban on him was lifted in November 1990.

A stroke rendered Puthucheary speechless for the last five years of his life. In 2000, he suffered another stroke and died in his home in Petaling Jaya. A memorial was held for him. Among the people who gathered to pay tribute to him was the then Malaysia Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Ownership and Control in the Malayan Economy
Puthucheary had long been interested in the link between the economy and the various races in Malaya and how this link constrained political cohesion in the country. He believed that labour organised under colonial rule inhibited racial cooperation. He argued against the notion that the Chinese controlled much of Malaya’s wealth. He also warned that creating a group of capitalists would not automatically alleviate the poverty of the majority of the population. He examined why the majority of the ordinary Malaysians remained poor despite living in a country that is rich in resources. He published a book on this subject in 1960, and it was reprinted in 2008 by Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur.

“The theory that investment by Government should be complementary to private investment and that inter-governmental loans can only be supplementary to supplies of private foreign capital has to be reversed.” – James Puthucheary

Lee Hwee Hoon


A fountainhead for political leaders. (2007, February 23). New Straits Times. Retrieved 5 December 2008, from Factiva database.

Brown, R. A. (1981). The Indian Minority and Political Change in Malaya, 1945-1957 (p. 216). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
(Call No.: RSING 325.25409595 AMP)

Clutterbuck, R. L. (1985). Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia, 1945-1983 (p. 159). Singapore: G. Brash. 
(Call No.: SING 959.57 CLU -[HIS])

Dr Mahathir attends memorial service in honour of Puthucheary. (2000, May 7). New Straits Times. Retrieved December 5, 2008 from Factiva database.

Drysdale, J. (1984). Singapore, Struggle for Success (pp. 222-224). Singapore: Times Book International.
(Call No.: SING 959.57 DRY -[HIS])

Ex-detainee quits Govt. for varsity. (1961, August 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Fernandez, M. (2000, April 29). Puthucheary – a brilliant man who was also a radical. New Straits Times. Retrieved 5 December 2008, from Factiva database.

Govt lifts entry ban on nine Malaysians. (1990, December 1). The Straits Times. Retrieved on February 28, 2011, from NewspaperSG.

Hooker, V. M. (2003). A Short History of Malaysia: Linking East and West (p.201-203). New South Wales: Allen & Unwin.
(Call No.: 959.5 HOO)

Mutalib, H. (2004). Parties and Politics: A Study of Opposition Parties and PAP in Singapore (p.73-118). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic.
(Call No.: SING 324.25957 HUS)

Ngaim, T. D. (2006). A Mandarin and the Making of Public Policy: Reflections (p.33). Singapore: NUS Press. 
(Call No.: SING 959.5705 NGI)

Stone walls do not a prison make. (2004, February 18). New Straits Times. Retrieved 5 December 2008 from Factiva database.

Toh: Free detainees or we won’t take office. (1959, May 22). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved form NewspaperSG.

Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (p.245). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call No.: RSING 959.57 TUR -[HIS])

Unlocking the gates. (1959, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved form NewspaperSG.

Further Readings
Puthucheary, D. and Jomo, K. S (Ed.) (1998). No Cowardly Past: James J. Puthucheary: Writings, Poems, Commentaries. Kuala Lumpur: INSAN.

(Call No.: RSING 959.504 NO)

Puthucheary, J. J. (1960). Ownership and control in the Malayan economy: a study of the structure of ownership and control and its effects on the development of secondary industries and economic growth in Malaya and Singapore. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
(Call No.: RCLOS 330.9595 PUT)

The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Law and government>>Political ideologies>>Socialism
Puthucheary, J. J., 1923-2000
Personalities>>Biographies>>Political Leaders

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