A Wound That Still Festers in Singapore

by Salil Tripathi

Page source: https://www.globalasia.org/v12no3/book/a-wound-that-still-festers-in-singapore_salil-tripathi

I was a correspondent in Singapore from 1991 to 1999, first for a local newspaper, Business Times, then a regional business magazine, Asia, Inc., and finally the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER). Whenever I tried interviewing Singaporean officials, they rarely drifted from their prepared scripts. It was years before some would guardedly hint at something off the record, and even then it was often about countries in the neighborhood. Singaporean bankers, lawyers and others rarely offered any opinion. Why is it like that? I once asked a Singaporean journalist friend. “Because we are Singaporeans, lah,” he told me. 

Recent history alone was enough for me to realize why. The wounds of Operation Spectrum were still fresh when I reached Singapore in late 1990. At dawn on May 21, 1987, Singapore authorities rounded up 16 men and women under the Internal Security Act (ISA). These people included church workers, theatrical artists, professionals, journalists and lawyers. They were accused of conspiring to overthrow the government to create a Marxist state. I had read those stories when I was in India, where I was a correspondent earlier. 

Operation Spectrum was swift and efficient. Those being arrested had no inkling. The arrests stunned Singapore, because there was no hint of any political tension. Many of those detained were doing what they considered to be God’s work: assisting and working with the poor, making them aware of their rights and helping them navigate Singapore’s official machinery, should they have disputes to be solved. They worked with factory workers and migrants at the Geylang Catholic Centre and Jurong Workers’ Centre. The church supported, even encouraged, their outreach to the poor. The arrests disrupted many lives, sent a chill through Singapore and stunted the development of alternative visions for the city-state by perhaps a generation. 

With the publication of 1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On, edited by three of the detainees — Chng Suan Tze, who was a lecturer, Low Yit Leng, who was a manager, and Teo Soh Lung, who was a lawyer — the lid is finally being lifted on what happened that night and during its aftermath. The book brings together short recollections and essays, drawings and poems by around 40 people, including many of the detainees and their family members. The accounts are personal, autobiographical and subjective. The language is sparse and clean, and given what they experienced, devoid of any loud bitterness. It is a one-sided view, but the authors and editors see it as a corrective to the prevailing, dominant view, which is that of the state. 

Reading these pieces, what becomes apparent is the ordinariness of their lives — and how many of them were resentful of the patronizing governance of the People’s Action Party (PAP). None appears to have harbored any political ambitions. The stories they tell have only been whispered about in the past, and have not been published prominently in Singapore’s official media. 

Yet what’s interesting is that the book is published in Singapore and available there. Soon after publication, some Singaporeans carried the book, with its bright yellow cover with “1987” written in red, to Singapore’s mass transit system, stood in a line blindfolded and pretended to read; it was an act of performance art that symbolized the silencing of debate about that crucial part of Singapore’s history. Coming on the heels of Teo’s prison memoir, Beyond the Blue Gate (2011), Jason Soo’s work-in-progress film, 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy (2015), Tan Pin Pin’s documentary, To Singapore, With Love (2013), which focuses on an earlier crackdown in the 1960s, and Sonny Liew’s graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2016), which deals with Singapore’s early history and clashes with the official narrative, and which won three Eisner Awards this year, it would seem we are witnessing a Singaporean Spring. Perhaps so, but not so fast. 

The ISA remains a law feared by many Singaporeans — it was used in the past against student leaders, trade unionists, and those opposing the government, most notably in 1963, in what was called Operation Cold Store. Most Singaporeans know it is wise not to question or challenge such decisions. In 1987, the day after the arrest of the 16 people, there was a brief report in the pro-government Straits Timesnewspaper. 

But unlike in the past, there were rumblings this time. As this volume recounts, a week later, nearly 2,500 people attended a Catholic Mass, which the republic’s archbishop attended, as did 23 priests. The church issued a press release expressing full confidence in the church workers who had been detained. The indefatigable opposition leader and former Member of Parliament, Joshua Jeyaretnam, protested at the Istana, the official residence of Singapore’s president, and was arrested and later released. 

The government responded. On June 2, Lee Kuan Yew, who was then Singapore’s prime minister, met Archbishop Gregory Yong and his delegation. They were shown confessions signed by the detainees, in which they said they had conspired to destabilize Singapore and were acting under the instructions of Tan Wah Piow, a left-leaning former student leader who had opposed the government, been jailed, and lived in exile in the UK. The delegation was also told the names of four priests implicated in the conspiracy. (The four resigned their church positions two days later). A press conference was held after the meeting, which the book suggests the archbishop was ignorant of but had no choice but to attend, where he distanced himself from the detainees — although the remarks broadcast on television edited out a few caveats he had placed in his statement. 

The supposed ring-leader of the conspiracy in Singapore was a man called Vincent Cheng, who had been trained in the seminary. He was mild-mannered and unassuming, the executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission. On June 9, Singaporeans saw a pre-recorded interview with him in which he confessed to the conspiracy. He was given a two-year detention order; others were given shorter detention orders — some were released in late June, but six more people were arrested that month. More confessions were broadcast. 

But things didn’t go to plan. Nine of the released detainees issued a joint statement in April 1988, saying they were not part of any conspiracy and that the confessions were extracted under duress, and they alleged they had been ill-treated. Several provide graphic accounts of how they were made to stand for hours in air-conditioned rooms, with a blast of cold air directed at them. Some have said they were beaten. Eight (including two of this book’s editors, Chng and Teo) were arrested the next day; the ninth, Tang Fong Har, was abroad, and hence she avoided arrest. 

Some detainees have written depressing accounts of being kept in tiny cells in solitary confinement, but their prose is devoid of any harshness or rancor. There is a deep sense of the injustice they suffered, but there is also steadfast denial that they had any part in a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government. 

Some of the detainees pursued legal means to secure their freedom. Some lawyers refused to accept instructions from the detainees’ families. What comes across clearly is filial love — how the parents, siblings and other family members steadfastly supported their loved ones, not once believing what they were being told about the detainees. There is the near-comical but disappointing account of a lawyer leaving the building after a relative comes to him seeking his services, and sending the relative a message through his secretary that he won’t be returning to the office. Francis Seow, former attorney general and former president of Singapore’s Law Society, did represent Teo, but he too was arrested later. 

Two international lawyers who are now renowned legal luminaries, Geoffrey Robertson and Anthony Lester, took up some detainees’ cases and even secured a procedural victory. But those detainees were immediately re-arrested. Amnesty International and other organizations launched a long campaign from Australia, the US and Europe. A US diplomat was expelled from Singapore. At the Hong Kong harbor and in front of the offices of Singapore Airlines, the republic’s best-known global brand, you could see protests. 

Cheng, Teo and others continued to seek legal redress, but they did not succeed. In June 1990, they were finally released, but stiff conditions were imposed on them, one of which was that they could not associate with one another. Some went into exile. Some adopted a low profile (Cheng became a natural healthcare practitioner). 

Only in recent years have the former detainees begun to speak out. In 2009, some held a protest calling for the abolition of the ISA at Hong Lim Park in downtown Singapore, the one place where public protests are permitted in the city. The next year, some former detainees formed Function 8 as a social enterprise, and they have since published 10 books in English and Chinese, the first of which was Teo’s memoir. In 2012, on the 25th anniversary of the arrests, there was a public exhibition at the park, where several speakers called for the removal of the ISA. It is remarkable and encouraging that the government permitted these activities. 

What led Singapore to crack down on these individuals? The government’s narrative has not changed. It says that there was a plot to replace Singapore’s capitalist society with a Marxist alternative. But as several writers in this volume point out, despite extensive raids on their homes and offices, and surveillance of their activities in the months before the arrests, the raids yielded no incriminating literature nor weapons. True, there were confessions, but several of the detainees have said that the confessions were coerced. 

It may be useful to place Operation Spectrum in the broader context of Singapore’s local politics and the regional environment. In the mid-1980s, Singapore had suffered a recession. In 1981, 16 years after independence, the PAP suffered its first electoral defeat in a by-election, when Jeyaretnam won a seat in parliament. During nationwide parliamentary elections in 1984, Jeyaretnam won again. In parliament, he proved to be an inconvenient voice, speaking of workers’ rights, rising inequality, economic hardship and social problems. He was only one against dozens of PAP lawmakers, but he held his own. Many older Singaporeans recall the spirited debates between him and Lee Kuan Yew. The PAP had enjoyed total dominance in parliament until then; Jeyaretnam’s vocal opposition was contentious, and Lee did not like criticism. From the late 1980s, Lee, his ministers or the Singapore government sued many foreign publications — including FEER, The Asian Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Economist and others — in Singapore courts, winning handsome libel awards against them. 

There was also the broader regional turbulence. Most notably, in 1986, the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown, replaced by Corazon Aquino in a revolution that stunned many in Southeast Asia. There was political unrest in Thailand. And in neighboring Malaysia, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was challenging Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. 

Lee did not want Singapore’s stability to be affected in any way. What if the activities of the church workers, journalists, executives and lawyers who were working with Singapore’s economic underclass led to public disenchantment, and if more opposition candidates won seats in parliament? Lee believed in total control, and by working to solve the grievances of the less fortunate Singaporeans, these do-gooders were pointing out the schisms in Singapore that the government said didn’t exist or it was trying to eradicate. 

To be sure, Singapore’s economic growth since independence had been exceptional, as the outwardly oriented, export-driven, foreign investment-friendly economy had begun to thrive, and its goal was to leapfrog over the region. Since it lacked natural resources and its size was small, it wanted to build prosperity by being a useful middleman, an important cog in the global wheels of commerce, getting lifted by rising global wealth. This meant keeping markets open and the economy hospitable to foreign investment — it meant providing a skilled workforce that was compliant and did not go on strike and accepted competitive wages (which critics would call low) to retain foreign investment. It also meant relying on foreign labor. Many of these were anathema to the left, and because the main trade union, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), was close to the government and the ruling party, workers who felt aggrieved had few avenues to turn to. A joke in Singapore in those days was that NTUC stood for Never Trust Union Chief.

Could the Catholic Church workers and their followers sow the seeds of a future revolution? Could Jeyaretnam’s victory lead to more rabble-rousing opposition MPs in parliament? That was the PAP’s worry — that alternative voices could lead to genuine debates about the development model to be pursued. 

Unwilling to take risks, in 1988, the government changed the way elections were conducted in Singapore, introducing Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), which grouped together individual wards into larger constituencies comprising up to six members per “team,” of which at least one had to be a minority candidate. Its ostensible goal was to ensure that minorities would be represented adequately in parliament. But its effect was to make it hard for opposition parties to assemble teams, because they found it difficult to get well-educated, experienced minority candidates willing to take the political risk of becoming opposition candidates. 

Today, Singapore has 89 elected MPs in parliament, but in effect, there are only 29 constituencies — 13 are single-MP constituencies and 16 are group constituencies, made up of four, five or six members each. In 2015, the PAP won 69.86 percent of the popular vote (a 9 percent upswing from the previous election), which gave the party 83 seats in parliament. The Workers’ Party won from two wards — one single-member constituency and one GRC, giving it six MPs. 

Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015. Much has changed in Singapore today. Books from Function 8 are available. The recent publication of Jeremy Tiang’s novel, State of Emergency, traces political arrests in Singapore and Malaysia from the 1940s to the present. Tan’s and Soo’s films about political arrests are not banned. The availability of Liew’s graphic novel too seems to indicate a more liberal, open environment, where issues that formerly could only be discussed in hushed tones at kopi tiams — local coffee shops — can now be raised more openly. 

But there is a catch. Tan’s film cannot be shown in public — it can only be screened in homes or at private gatherings, and its DVDs cannot be bought or sold in Singapore. Soo’s film can only be seen at one location and only by those over 21, which means younger Singaporeans will have to wait longer to see the film. Amos Yee, a teenager who made an insolent, tasteless video about Lee after his death, was arrested and is now seeking political asylum in the US. Roy Ngerng, who wrote a blog called Heart Truths, about Singapore’s politics and economy, was sued for libel and found guilty in 2014. The National Arts Council withdrew grants made to Liew for his graphic novel and Tiang for his novel about political detentions in Singapore, after discovering that the content of their work was at odds with the official narrative of Singapore’s history. Curiously, the council congratulated Liew after his Eisner Awards. 

Singapore is now at a crossroads. It is difficult for the city-state to impose the kind of controls and restrictions that Lee once could with ease. At the same time, its government remains reluctant to let its far better educated and tech-savvy population enjoy the kind of freedoms others in similarly developed societies take for granted. It is hard to tell what turn Singapore might take. 1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On shows the path to avoid. 

Salil Tripathi, a former FEER correspondent in Singapore, is a writer based in London. Author of three non-fiction works, he chairs PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

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[PUBLIC] STATEMENT: AN URGENT CALL FROM SINGAPOREAN YOUTHS ON THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS

It has been two years since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first acknowledged that climate change is a “life and death” issue. In those two years, however, the climate crisis and biodiversity loss have continued to exacerbateToday, on 5 Nov 2021, designated as Youth Day at COP26, we reflect on Singapore’s progress in climate action. While we acknowledge that the government has released various initiatives and made progress on various environmental issues over the years, we know that our actions are still not yet where they need to be.

In a world ravaged by ecological loss and human-caused devastation, we must ask ourselves what more we can be doing for our home, and for this planet. If we truly want our “children and our grandchildren” to inherit a liveable future, just as PM Lee said, Singapore must and can do more.

It is undeniable that climate change and biodiversity loss are existential crises with far-reaching and world-changing consequences. But moments like this one also give us an opportunity to reflect on the values we want to hold on to, and the world we want to leave behind for our future generations. Singapore aims to honour the values of justice and equality. This means that our approach to mitigating the climate crisis must logically be rooted in these same values. We must ask ourselves: Are we truly doing enough? What is Singapore’s responsibility to our regional neighbours? What does an equal, just and inclusive climate-resilient Singapore look like?

Our sentiments in this statement are guided by these questions. Representing the voices of concerned youths, we set out key recommendations across six topics (emissions and carbon, nature and biodiversity, energy, corporate responsibility and finance, community empowerment and inclusion, economy and people) that we want to see greater action on. This is an unprecedented initiative, with environmental and climate youth organisations across varied interests coming together to collaborate for the first time.

This statement is also a call to connect with people who believe in a liveable future for Singapore. While a core set of individuals and organisations have come together to draft these recommendations, we hope that more groups and more people can join us in finding common ground to advance these goals. Even though we may differ on particular topics, the values that drive our advocacy are the same.

Since this is truly “one of the gravest challenges facing humankind,” we want to be a part of this conversation. We are highly aware that this is an issue with many trade-offs. As such, given the scale of the climate crisis, we want our decisions and choices to be more open and transparent. This is a matter that affects all of us, especially our generation and the ones to come. It is only right then, that we should be recognised as equal partners. We want to have a part in the choices Singapore ultimately makes.

COP 26 has been hailed as the world’s best last chance to limit catastrophic climate change. As countries reckon with our collective future in Glasgow this month, we call on our leaders to boldly accelerate climate action, to redefine our relationships with nature, and to bring everyday Singaporeans, especially the younger generations, into the conversation.

We only have 9 years left to prevent irreversible climate change impacts. In this statement, we want to give Singapore a chance for a liveable future. We hope that whoever is reading this will seriously consider our recommendations. 

And we call for individuals, organizations and leaders who care about giving us a liveable future, to stand with us too.

(The public can submit their support interest here: tinyurl.com/isupportsgyouthcop26)

For the Full Statement, please continue here

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Statement of Function 8 on the Impending Execution of Nagaenthran a/l K Dharmalingam

Function 8 condemns the imminent execution of Nagaenthran a/l K Dharmalingam on Wednesday, 10 November by the Singapore Prison Authority.

Nagaenthran was arrested in April 2009 and found to have in his possession 42.72gm of diamorphine. He was convicted under Singapore’s draconian Misuse of Drugs Act and sentenced to death in November 2010. This was despite the testimony of an independent psychiatrist who assessed him to be suffering from “an abnormality of mind at the time of his arrest, namely: Severe Alcohol Use Disorder, Severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Combined Type and Borderline Intellectual Functioning/Mild Intellectual Disability”. He has an IQ of 69.

Nagaenthran has been in prison under strict death row inmates regime for nearly 12 years now. Throughout these long years, it is unlikely that he had any visitor from his family as they live in Ipoh, Malaysia and are too poor to travel to Singapore.

The Singapore public came to know about the plight of Nagaenthran and his family in recent days. Responding to a request for donations to enable Nagaenthran’s family to come to Singapore to visit him, they donated generously and speedily.

We condemn the Singapore Prison Authority for scheduling Nagaenthran’s execution during this pandemic. It has shown an utter lack of compassion and humanity. In its letter to the family, the Prison Authority sets out a list of complicating quarantine rules that the family must comply with when they come to Singapore. This has added great stress to the family.

Nagaenthran’s family are Hindus. Scheduling execution during this Deepavali season is disrespectful and appalling.

We remind our Government that it ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2013 and is obliged to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedom by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”. Taking the life of Nagaenthran who is a person with disabilities is a blatant breach of the Convention.

Nagaenthran needs medical treatment. Having been imprisoned for 12 years, he has already been severely punished. Releasing him at the earliest possible time would show the world that Singapore is serious in honouring its obligations under the Convention.

The death penalty is a cruel, degrading and inhuman form of punishment to Nagaenthran. As a state party to the CRPD, Singapore “shall take all effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others, from being subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 15).

We look forward to the Singapore Government abiding by its obligations under the CRPD to abolish the death penalty one day. We urge the Government to impose a moratorium on all death penalty cases.

6 November 2021

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I Don’t Like Bullies

by Teo Soh Lung

On 8 October 2021, the state media informed us that 8 individuals and one Facebook page, Wake up Singapore received letters from MHA demanding that they apologise for misrepresenting what the Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam said in parliament. Apparently, he was in a hurry to extract apologies. One of 8 individuals said that she was given just one hour to comply with the demand or face the consequences. All nine parties are reported to have complied even though one of them maintained that she only clarified and did not apologise.

The nine had shared Mothership’s article on the minister’s convoluted and somewhat contradictory speech in parliament when it debated on FICA or Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act.

In his long speech, the minister tried to impress us that he was a disciple of the late Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. While it is true that Lee loved to give long lectures off his cuff, I am afraid the minister is no way near Lee’s eloquence and clarity of thought. Lee could go on for hours and mesmerise his audience in his younger days. He was a convincing speaker and parliament was alive when he took the floor. This is not to say that he was the only orator. There were many in those day.

In Lee’s later years, his skill as a debater declined. He was more a bully and a bad loser when he failed to win a debate. It was understandable why he lost his skill. Too long in a one party government wiped out real debates. I do not think anyone dares to oppose him in cabinet meetings. We see his deteriorating skill in the 1986 debate with Francis Seow, Harry Elias and Warren Khoo at the Select Committee hearing on the Amendment to the Legal Profession Act. He was angry when he lost an argument and took his revenge subsequently.

Mr K Shanmugam became a member of parliament in 1989, just one year before Lee stepped down as prime minister. While it is true that the minister can learn to be like Lee from reading Hansard and all the books that he had written, I don’t think it will be the same. You can watch the minister’s debating skill when he questioned Dr P J Thum in the select committee hearing on POFMA or Protection of Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. Here is a short extract if you don’t have the patience to spend six hours listening to him https://youtu.be/wY_Wrh1UnnM?t=6.

Let me go back to the minister’s speech which in my opinion, was correctly understood and stated in the article in Mothership and shared by the nine parties. You can read the transcript by Lynn Lee here https://tinyurl.com/ykds6mpk I just want to pick out the minister’s salient words and give you my understanding of his words.

MINISTER: In 1989, I was a lawyer, four years out of law school, or four years after being called, and like many other lawyers, my assumption was, every problem, the solution is in the courts. AND JUST LIKE MR SINGH AND OTHERS, I ALSO TAKE SEPARATION OF POWERS VERY SERIOUSLY. (emphasis in uppercase mine)

When I read the above sentences, especially the sentence in uppercase, I had the impression that the minister’s belief in the separation of powers as he was taught in law school has changed over the past 30 odd years.

By way of example of how his belief has changed, he talked about the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) which was enacted in 1990. He said he was uncomfortable with it and spoke about it within limits as a backbencher. The MRHA gives absolute power to the minister to silence any religious person or persons in authority from any acts which he deems unlawful under the law. This I must say is the power of Lee Kuan Yew. He could convince people who are guided by non-human beings to agree that such a law was necessary. He then went on to say:

MINISTER: Now, what has changed, what has made me change my mind? If a man looks at facts, the real world, and refuses to change his mind, he is either stupid, or he is ideological. I am neither, I think.

Don’t these statements lead us to the natural conclusion that the minister has changed his belief from the time he was a law student and a young lawyer to today? He went on to give examples of why he has changed his mind about the rule of law.

MINISTER: You see the issues around the world, where lip service is paid to all these grand concepts, but the societies live in utter misery, where rule of law is a concept for lawyers, but it doesn’t operate in the real world.

Isn’t this clear that what the minister is saying is that the rule of law does not operate in the real world and that it is only a concept for lawyers! He went on.

MINISTER: And then I began to understand the meaning of his [Lee Kuan Yew’s] original speech to the Law Society, when he said, law and order – I reverse it, order first before law.

… If you can’t have the CLTPA [Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act] and arrest the gangsters, how are you going to have law?

The CLTPA is a law that allows detention without trial which is totally against the rule of law. He knows that. Arrest first and let the poor fella scream his innocence later. So the CLTPA must authorise someone (in this case, the minister) to order arrest and detention without trial.

I don’t think I am wrong to say that the minister had openly agreed that he does not believe in the rule of law in certain laws like the CLTPA. These are to him necessary exceptions to the rule of law. But he cannot openly say this. Neither did his mentor or any other minister before him say that. Our judges agree that there can be deviations from our Constitution which is supposed to guarantee an open trial for every person. But make no mistake, such laws are against the rule of law which demands there be an open trial where real evidence are produced and a person is convicted only when he is found guilty based on the evidence before a judge.

The minister rambled on and got himself entangled.

He said: “So I began to understand why we have a strong commitment to rule of law, strong commitment to separation of powers, AND AT THE SAME TIME, OVER TIME, IN SPECIFIC AREAS – FOR EXAMPLE, I SAID, LAND ACQUISITION ACT.”

The minister wants to believe in the rule of law. At the same time, he wants exceptions to be made where the rule of law does not apply. He cited the Land Acquisition Act as an example.

MINISTER: Would we in Singapore be where we are if we had taken the Indian approach? Every matter goes up to Supreme Court on land acquisition and it takes years to deal with it? SO I SAW THE GENIUS IN THE ADAPTATIONS THAT OUR SYSTEM HAS MADE, OR THE FOUNDING GENERATION HAS MADE.

The minister was enlightened by the founding generation who enacted the Land Acquisition Act soon after independence. That law vests the power to acquire land for public purposes in the president who of course acts on the advice of the cabinet. Compulsory land acquisition by the government had enabled it to acquire huge parcels of land at below market prices for decades. It was the Robin Hood law but it cannot boast of compliance with the rule of law. It is indeed an exception to the rule of law and the minister is very proud of its achievement.

The minister then went on to insult former British colonies. He said:

“You look at all the countries in the post-colonial world. They inherited the institutions from the British. A civil service, a judiciary, laws, schools, education. What have they done with it? Most of them have gone down the tube while their grand rhetoric”…

It is clear from the minister’s speech that he does not believe in the separation of powers or the rule of law. But he cannot admit this because he is a lawyer and a law minister in a developed country. Following his master’s voice, he therefore enacts laws which he calls exceptions to the rule of law. These laws are easily enacted as the PAP has a super majority in parliament.

In 2019, POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) was his first attempt. But he soon realised that it didn’t go far enough for the affected party could still proceed to the High Court and the Court of Appeal by way of judicial review. That was what happened to his POFMA directions to the Singapore Democratic Party and The Online Citizen. Was it his oversight or was he testing the waters in 2019?

FICA or Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act takes a bolder step. The minister restricts appeals against his orders to be made to a Review Tribunal which is appointed by the president on the advice of the cabinet. The law prohibits appeals to the High Court except on procedural matters. So judicial oversight is removed unless an affected party has the money and time to take it to the Supreme Court to test out the effectiveness of the law.

The minister tells us that the Review Tribunal is a respectable and independent tribunal because it is presided by a High Court judge. That may be so but he does not tell us that the term of each person in the tribunal is for a period of 3 years and they are not bound by procedures. While it is true that each term of 3 years can be renewed, the tribunal does not have the tenure, status or respect of a real High Court judge. I do not think any respectable judge takes it as an honour to sit in such a tribunal. Having personally appeared before the Advisory Board chaired by a High Court judge when I was an ISA detainee, I do not have a good opinion of the Board.

The minister then tried to be very clear. He said:

MINISTER: All of this [judiciary, civil service, SAF etc] is built up with the foundations of bringing order first, and making sure the law, commitment to rule of law, is there. BUT MAKING THE EXCEPTIONS WHERE NECESSARY. AND I TOOK YOU THROUGH THE EXCEPTIONS. And to me, the best example of how this operated in practice, is when I saw how the Americans were struggling with it.

From the two sentences in uppercase, the minister is telling us that laws such as CLTPA and ISA are exceptions to the rule of law i.e. rule of law does not operate in such laws BUT he cannot admit this. Neither can the late Mr Lee or any of the ministers before him.

The minister then went on to talk about Guantanamo and how the Americans set up this living hell in a territory that is not within the United States and therefore not subject to due process and the rule of law.

MINISTER: Let’s that’s why I said let’s get out of this colonisation of our minds. Let’s look at what works, what is fundamental. Checks and balances are important, but what is wrong with the checks and balances we’ve built in here? So yes, I’m not embarrassed to say that I had certain views, straight out of law school, the first four years. The only mistake is I shouldn’t have become an MP when I was 29. I should have waited a bit longer. BUT I’M NOT EMBARRASSED TO SAY THOSE WERE MY VIEWS, AND THOSE VIEWS HAVE CHANGED BECAUSE OF THE REALITIES OF LIFE. NOT BECAUSE I BECAME A MINISTER BUT BECAUSE OVER TIME, LONG BEFORE I BECAME A MINISTER I SAW HOW LAWS ARE MEANT TO OPERATE AND WHERE THE EXCEPTIONS HAVE TO BE MADE.

Wow, “colonisation of our minds!” I like this phrase. But doesn’t this make it crystal clear that the minister has changed from his youthful idealistic self to a hard core practical minister who is intent on bringing order before allowing the law to take its course? He has like his mentor, taken short cuts, putting away “trouble makers” who disagree with his hardline policies. By doing this, it will reap benefits for his party for it can do whatever it wants. But is he doing terrible damage to our country and its people especially the young who will survive him and his generation of hardline politicians.

The minister finally returns to FICA from his reminiscence of his past. He said:

MINISTER: I saw how laws are meant to operate and where the exceptions have to be made. So as I sit, sat with my officers and drafted this, and the AGC, yes, there were parts that I wished were different. But the threat we face, as I said, are people armed with bazookas. And I describe this legislation as a toy gun.

I don’t understand what he had in mind when he talked about people being armed with bazookas and FICA being just a toy gun. What is the use of a toy gun if the threat of bazookas is real? Why not use the army against those who are armed with bazookas? Why make exceptions to the law or rather to the rule of law by having toy gun legislations?

The PAP is not new to using “foreign interference” as an excuse to enact tough laws which give ministers power to do anything they want in the name of “public interest”. In the name of public interest, the ministers are free to issue orders and are not bound by the rule of law.

In this rambling speech, the minister has finally made it clear that laws such as FICA are exceptions to the rule of law. I give him credit for this admission as no one else has done so in the past. He may not have ruled out the rule of law in all cases, but he certainly admits that the rule of law does not apply to legislations such as FICA. That said, FICA enables the minister to bully small people like you and me. The judiciary cannot help us. I would not encourage any person to take the matter relating to FICA to the High Court and the Court of Appeal. I have tried that in relation to the ISA and failed.

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Universal Periodic Review on Singapore

Besides the countries heaping praises on Singapore, there are NGOs towards the end which didn’t mince words. The lack of progress in issues involving LGBTQI, DEATH PENALTY, DETENTION WITHOUT TRIAL, RATIFICATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS TREATIES AND ABSENCE OF AN INDEPENDENT BODY IN SINGAPORE TO CHECK ON HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES and the danger of the proposed law on foreign interference were raised.

These are towards the end of the video. Listen in particular to Singapore’s ambassador’ s response before the adoption of the recommendations.

https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1e/k1ewosr6fr

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Foreign Interference?

By Teo Soh Lung (first published on F8 Facebook 23 Sep 2021)

I feel really angry about these repeated, unfounded allegations that the late Mr Francis Seow was offered payment by the United States to join opposition politics and contest in the 1988 general election. 

I was in prison when the 1988 general election took place. As we all know, Francis Seow stood as a candidate of the Workers’ Party in Eunos GRC. I was certainly excited that he had the guts to stand for election so soon after he was released from ISA detention. Some senior ISD officers bragged to me that the government had been very decent and magnanimous to release Francis Seow in time for him to contest the election. Big deal!

I do not believe the PAP’s allegation that First Secretary Hank Hendrickson was involved in cultivating lawyers to join the opposition. We must not forget that in 1986, Francis Seow was the president of the Law Society of Singapore. As a president, it was natural for ambassadors in Singapore to want to meet him. And it was also natural that Francis Seow would have brought along fellow lawyers to meet the ambassador.

ISD officers used to tell me that ambassadors are actually spies for their home countries. Their job is to know what is happening in the country and report to their government. I am sure our ambassadors are also spies for Singapore. Meeting people to get a feel of the political and economic situation of the country is part of their duty. And so for Frank Hendrickson to meet Francis Seow and other lawyers was the most natural thing to happen. 

We must also not forget that in 1986, the Amendment to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Bill was presented in parliament. PM Lee Kuan Yew was very angry that the foreign presses had the gall to criticise his government. He accused them of commenting on “domestic politics”. The new law would forbid them from criticising Singapore. Only Singaporean politicians are allowed to comment on politics. Naturally, I think, Hendrickson would be interested to know the views of lawyers on this Bill.

In 1986, Francis Seow and many lawyers opposed the new Bill. As president, he appointed a committee to look into this bill and to present a report to the society to be sent to the attorney general.

I happened to be the chairperson of this committee and we worked very hard to prepare a report for the society. Upon completion, we sent it to the Law Society which in turn sent it to the attorney general, Tan Boon Teik. I was told that Tan did not even acknowledge receipt of the report. Such arrogance of an attorney-general is hard to fathom.

I cannot remember very much of events that took place more than 30 years ago. But I recall that in those exciting and troublesome days, I too met Hank Hendrickson together with a few lawyers, including the Late Mr Subhas Anandan over lunch. I cannot remember where but it could have been the American Club. I also cannot remember what we talked about but it certainly was nothing about him egging us on to join the opposition or promising us political asylum or money for going into opposition politics if we ever want to do so. What benefit would he derive from us joining the opposition? Now that I have disclosed this meeting, I wonder if the ISD would like to interrogate me.

I don’t know how often Francis Seow had lunch with Hank Hendrickson but I wouldn’t think it was a weekly affair or more often than PAP ministers meeting up with him. As for me, I can only remember it was just one occasion.

I recall that soon after the Amendment to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Bill was passed, all the foreign publications were gazetted i.e. they were not allowed to sell more than 500 copies in Singapore. Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, Asian Wall Street Journal, Times of London, Herald Tribune, Newsweek and even the Economist were gazetted within a matter of months. Foreign publications left our shores and Lee was happy. His government didn’t care because it knew that they would return one day as Singapore seems to be a very important city to them. So the PAP continued its oppression of the people after the foreign presses left our shores. It was good for them because no one would be able to criticise the government when it does bad things. The government then took the opportunity to arrest 22 people including me in May and June 1987. We were labelled Marxists not communists as in earlier times.

One would have thought that if foreign influence was the target in the 1987 arrests, I would have been interrogated for meeting Hank Hendrickson. Yet I was not.  In fact, none of us was asked about lunches with the American ambassador. Why then did the ISD and the government raise this issue foreign interference only when they arrested Francis Seow one year later, in 1988?

The reason is very simple. Francis Seow cannot be labelled as a Marxist or communist. No one would believe the PAP if he was called a Marxist or communist. It would have been the joke of the town if they had done so. Francis Seow was a capitalist and loved life. So how can the ISD make up a “credible” story to justify his arrest? The simplest way or so they thought was to accuse him of being cultivated by the Americans to join the opposition. But even if this is true, the allegation is extremely stupid. What is wrong with joining the opposition and fighting against the PAP in a legitimate general election? It is for the people to decide whether to elect him or not.

In the general election rallies of 1988, the cowardly PAP did not accuse Francis Seow of being used by the Americans. Why didn’t they do so?

The answer is simple. Francis would be able to rebut and ask them to show proof. So they kept quiet throughout the election period. It was only after Francis Seow left Singapore that he was again  accused of being an agent for the United States. The PAP knew that he would not be able to return to Singapore after he was denied of his NCMP seat.

But fortunately for us, Francis Seow in a recorded interview denied the PAP’s accusation against him and you can listen to what he has to say here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzOLJE2ysNw

I am sure the ISD knew that I met up with Hendrickson for lunch. Yet when I was first arrested in May 1987, the ISD never asked me about my meeting with Hendrickson. Neither did they ask me about Hendrickson when Francis Seow was arrested when he came to interview me in prison. Why didn’t the government also accuse me of being made use of by Hendrickson? Or arrest Subhas Anandan for having lunch with Hendrickson?

This bogey of foreign interference is just a convenient tool of the PAP. It may have worked in Lee Kuan Yew’s time but I believe it will fail today. Singaporeans are smarter than the PAP leaders think. 

Unfortunately, today’s PAP leaders are like old dogs which cannot learn new tricks. So they follow Lee Kuan Yew’s ways which to his credit, worked very well in his days. 

Come on Ministers. Stand up for yourselves and don’t rely on old tricks of your long gone leaders.

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Freedom Film Fest Fringe

In line with the International Day of Older Persons on 1 Oct, Freedom Film Fest Singapore is proud to present a screening of Meniti Senja (Twilight Years) followed by a panel discussion with film maker Lily Fu.

🎟️ Get Tickets:
https://www.cloudtheatre.com/shows/meniti-senja-the-twilight-years/#about-the-show

📆 When:
1 October 2021

🕰️ Time:
7 – 7.20pm, followed by panel discussion

🎞️ Synopsis:
Reflecting the breakdown of traditional family values in modern Malaysian society that marginalizes the elderly, Meniti Senja explores the alarming rise in the elderly being left to fend for themselves in aged care centers- removed from the comfort of homes they knew and children they raised. The panel discussion will center on older persons, self-determination, carving creative expressions, and the frameworks of support systems that exist in Singapore and Malaysia. Film in Bahasa Malaysia with English and Mandarin subtitles.

🌟 Our Panellists:
Moderator: Pak Geok Choo, Community Advocate and Healthcare Practitioner
Speakers:
Lily Fu, Filmmaker of Meniti Senja (The Twilight Years) and Founder of Seniorsaloud Community
Salty Xi Jie Ng, Artist and frequent collaborator with older persons

🎥 Trailer: https://vimeo.com/483406812

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News from Freedom Film Fest

Apologies we have not been communicating through our mailers.

A new event we would very much like to get you involved is the screening of last year’s Freedom Film Network film grant winner Ayahku, Dr G and the discussion to follow.

Sharing promotional text from filmmakers
English:
We’re back for another screening of “Ayahku, Dr. G” this week in collaboration with Freedomfilmfest Singapore and Transformative Justice Collective on CloudTheatre. As always, our screening event will be followed with a post-screening discussion and we’ve invited Hidayah back again along with Hadhinah Felice and also Sharmila whose sibling is currently facing the death penalty in Singapore.
This event will be a ticketed event and all proceeds will go the families of people facing death penalty in Malaysia and Singapore. For more details, visit
https://www.cloudtheatres.com/shows/ayahku-dr-g
NOTE: the time zone timings for this event is
7PM SGT (UTC+8)
4 AM (PDT)
12 PM (CEDT)
Bahasa Malaysia:

Kami kembali untuk tayangan dokumentari “Ayahku, Dr. G” sekali lagi pada minggu ini dengan kerjasama Freedomfilmfest Singapore dan Transformative Justice Collective di Cloudtheatre. Seperti biasa, sesi tayangan dokumentari kami akan diikuti dengan perbincangan bersama ahli-ahli panel. Untuk sesi ini, kami menjemput Hidayah bersama Hadhinah Felice dan juga Sharmila yang mempunyai seorang adik beradik yang kini berhadapan dengan hukuman mati di Singapura.
Acara ini adalah acara tiket berbayar dan semua hasil kutipan akan diberi kepada ahli keluarga banduan hukuman mati di Malaysia dan Singapura. Untuk maklumat lebih lanjut, lawati
https://www.cloudtheatres.com/shows/ayahku-dr-g
#AyahkuDrG #FreeDrG #BebaskanDrG #KajiBukanKeji

For further info and ticket please go to

https://www.cloudtheatres.com/shows/ayahku-dr-g

Tickets can still be purchased without a Paypal account. Follow the instructions to checkout and there is an option to ‘Checkout as Guest’ (computer) or ‘Pay with Credit or Debit card’ (mobile), click this. 

Hope to see you there.

Regards,

Freedom Film Fest Singapore team

Function 8 play host to Freedom Film Festival, Film Festival Fringe Screening, Changing Worlds talk, F8 book launches, Citizen Cinema Filmlab. You are receiving this as you have signed up to one of the events above. Please let us know if you want to be informed of specific events only.

—————————————————————————————–

FUNCTION 8 LIMITED • 22 MARSHALL ROAD • SINGAPORE 424858 • WWW.FUNCTION8.ORG

COMPANY REGISTRATION NUMBER 201025212E

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Remembering Tan Jing Quee, 14 June 2021

by Hong Lysa

I received a mail from Soh Lung on behalf of Function 8, noting that it is the 10th anniversary of Tan Jing Quee’s passing. A piece to remember him for the benefit of younger Singaporeans is in order.

Indeed it is. I couldn’t agree more.

Jing Quee’s legacy lives on in the friendships and solidarity that he brought together, and in a more critical understanding of our history that he initiated.

It continues to loom large in my academic endeavours as a historian.

It was only a month ago that I mentioned his name in an academic conference where I presented a paper on the short stories of He Jin as historical testimony. He Jin was the author of 巨浪 (Ju Lang).

In 2009, Jing Quee and I embarked on a study of the political activism of the Chinese middle school students in the 1950s. He recalled hearing about a little-known novel in Chinese about the students’ resistance against the colonial authorities which resulted in the May 13 incident where they were beaten up by the police. This event galvanised the mass anti-colonial movement in Singapore.

Through his friends in Malaysia, Jing Quee got a copy of the book and after I had briefed him on it (Jing Quee had by then had almost completely lost his sight) he decided audaciously that we would translate the novel into English, roping Loh Miao Ping who participated in the sit-in at Chinese High to read out sentence by sentence of the book. The Mighty Wave along with The May 13 Generation: The Singapore Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s published in English and Chinese were launched in May 2011, a month before Jing Quee’s passing.

Ju Lang as well as He Jin’s short stories provided an unparalleled account of the life a key student leader in the 1950s who became a member of the Communist Party of Malaya.

The four years that I got to know and work with Jing Quee were the most productive of my life as a historian of Singapore, and I continue to draw on them.

I have written tributes on previous four occasions to commemorate Jing Quee. Two were written shortly after his death. This was followed by one marking the third year of his passing, and another on the ninth year.

To commemorate this, the tenth anniversary of his passing, I have reproduced the first section from each of those essays except for the 9th anniversary, excerpted from the second half of the essay. They are arranged in chronological order, and form an aggregate of his personality, intellect and his scholarship.

Tan Jing Quee, (1939-2011): Setting new directions in Singapore Studies’ in s/pores: New Directions in Singapore Studies, 4 July 2011.

Tan Jing Quee who passed away on 14 June 2011 was a frequent contributor to s/pores. He wrote for our inaugural issue quite by chance, when two s/pores members had just got to know him then, and learnt that he had written obituaries for his friends Linda Chen Mong Hock (1928-2002), and Usman Awang (1929-2001). He was hesitant about letting us publish them, concerned that the new e-journal would attract unwelcome attention from the authorities by associating with him, a former political detainee (1963-1966; 1977), and one who had not avoided a public profile. In 2006, Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez had spoken as former political detainees who were among the more than a hundred people detained in Operation Cold Store and the subsequent Operation Pechah at the Singapore Arts Festival fringe event Detention-Writing-Healing. The event drew a good-sized audience and received press coverage. The Ministry of Home Affairs then issued a rebuke of the two men in The Straits Times Forum, in the form of the oft-repeated but never substantiated litany that they took part in communist subversion and were detained for threatening the security, stability and economic well-being of Singapore, and not for holding different political views or pursuing lawful, democratic political activities.

From ‘Tan Jing Quee and a sense of history’ in Salute to our Socialist Warrior: Comrade Tan Jing Quee 18 January 1939-14 June 2011 (20 August 2011):

At my first meeting with Tan Jing Quee five years ago, I did what I am sure fellow historians who got to know him all did—urge him to write his memoirs….

After ruminating for a week following our meeting, I wrote him a long email, explaining how valuable the insights about Singapore’s history that he let us have a glimpse of in our conversation were, that he should write for the sake of posterity, otherwise Singapore’s political history would remain impoverished for lack of contending voices….

Looking back, it was a naïve letter, written in the excitement of meeting such an informed, critically-minded and eloquent person, and knowing that his generation was getting no younger. Jing Quee replied in polite email, professing that he was only a minor personality in the events of the later fifties and early sixties, and that his recollections would not be particularly significant….

When I got to know him better, I realized a number of things from that reply. Firstly, his emails were brief and carefully-worded, as he had to rely on someone to type it for him, and was careful to be discreet. Also, when Jing Quee said that his role in the political events of his time was a minor one, he meant it. It was not false modesty. And finally, there is no need for academics or anyone else to impress on him the importance for his generation writing their history. That was in fact his lifelong goal. He built up, maintained and treasured friendships with fellow former political detainees and activists among the English-educated, and particularly with the Chinese-educated, including those living in Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and a number of western countries. Accompanied by Rose, he travelled often to meet up with them. This was for the purpose of keeping in touch and maintaining friendships, solidarity, and a sense of community, and also to learn about their experiences to strengthen his understanding of the complex larger historical picture.

In Memory of Tan Jing Quee, 3rd anniversary (Function 8, 14 June 2014)

Tan Jing Quee is best known for his dedication to pioneering the writing of the history of the left in Singapore. He has been acknowledged for conceiving and editing Comet in our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History (2001); Our Thoughts are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile (2009); The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya (2010); and The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s (2011).

At the time, each was a risky enterprise, though less so with every publication.

With the success of these publications, it may be forgotten that Jing Quee’s plans for these books were not necessarily greeted with enthusiasm at the time. There was fear that he might be stirring a hornet’s nest, provoking retaliation from the state after a relatively tranquil decade of the 1990s where the former political prisoners slipped into oblivion, as they went about their daily lives, ostensibly putting the past behind them, and correspondingly the assertion that they were communists or communist sympathisers became somewhat muted.

However, the school textbooks on Singapore history had from 1984 been teaching that the ‘communists and pro-communists’ within the PAP were against merger as the Federation government would crack down on the communists in Singapore. The confidence that the state-sanctioned narrative would not be challenged grew. In 1997, the PAP government launched the National Education exhibition, a full-blown narrative of the anti-colonial movement in Singapore as being riddled with communists from the strikes and riots of the 1950s to the merger issue of the early 60s.

It seemed as if the former political prisoners were determined to ignore all this, and suppress their past. A good number did not even tell their children about what they had been through.

Indeed, Jing Quee was not unaware of the concern that he might be courting trouble, and not just for himself when he embarked on his books.

In Memory of Tan Jing Quee, 9th anniversary (Function 8, 14 June 2010)

I received a note from Function 8 asking if I would mind writing a short article about Tan Jing Quee on the ninth anniversary of his passing.

The note said: This is just to remind people…

… though no student of the political history of postwar Singapore needs to be reminded of Jing Quee. He lives on every time his writings as well those that have grown out of them are being read.

….

To date, Jing Quee remains the only former political prisoner who had signed security statements (he was arrested a second time in 1977) and put that on record in his life-story. It was published posthumously and titled ‘I won them back one by one’. (The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang, and Hong Lysa, 2013).

I worked with Jing Quee on the piece, edited the final version and chose the title.

It was both a painful and a liberating exercise as he relived the humiliation and guilt he bore for decades. He recounted how he was worn down into accepting the script that he recited on television, even though it had been agreed at the start that he could present his own statement.

The final session of working on his chapter for the Coldstore book was quite a rambling one. Jing Quee did not have the energy to continue, but he insisted on trying to remember the occupants of every cell along his corridor during his first imprisonment. He was struggling. Rose phoned his former cellmate, Tan Yam Seng, who came over immediately, and they both pieced together the information.

Jing Quee’s final thoughts were of the most important people in his life: his comrades whom he felt he had let down, and in the end not only won back, one by one, but gave a rightful place in the history of Singapore.

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TAN JING QUEE (18 January 1939 – 14 June 2011)

by Francis Khoo on June 2011

(first published in F8 Facebook on June 2019)

Jing Quee was one of the nicest, most generous persons I have ever known. His self- deprecatory sense of humour – he was always laughing at his own foibles – was devoid of vanity and was just typical of that generation who committed their lives to building a just and equal society. I found this trait not confined to our people in Malaysia and Singapore. South African and Palestinian friends engaged in the struggle for liberation had the same child-like approach to life and, like Jing Quee, never betrayed bitterness.

Jing Quee was my senior at University by several years, but despite my very active involvement in student politics in the late sixties, I had not heard of him. I was not in Jing Quee’s Socialist Club and was a naive liberal believing in the rule of law but lacking any in-depth understanding of why there was inequality and injustice in society. It was only in 1972, when I had just begun law practice, that I first met Jing Quee and A Mahadeva. We were on the editorial board of the graduate monthly magazine, “Commentary”. Something about the two of them drew me to them instantly. In the course of the months ahead, I viewed them as my mentors in understanding how the world worked. It was only much later that I learnt they had been involved in our movement for independence. I am forever grateful I met them then. Maha died a few years ago; with Jing Quee now gone, our loss is inconsolable.

There is a dwindling band of friends who still perform the vital role he played. Jing Quee was the ‘bridge’ in three vital ways. Because the history of our people has only been written by the ‘other side’, the lapse of time and the separation of geography and community meant that our peoples’ story would soon be erased from our collective memory. He sought to redress that.

He was firstly, the ‘bridge’ between the generations. I was a beneficiary of that. It was mainly through him that I had the privilege of meeting many of the patriots in the independence struggle. He also sought out the younger generation to learn from them and to share his experiences with them. His efforts meant that our idealistic youth could now have an alternative view of our history.

He was, secondly, the ‘bridge’ between the territories. I was also a beneficiary of that. Jing Quee consciously kept alive the links between the people on both sides of the Causeway. He believed in the unity of the Malayan people and that Singapore was an integral part of that people.

He was, thirdly, the ‘bridge’ between the communities. I was also a beneficiary of that.He was committed to a non-racial society with Malay as the national language. He was fluent in English, Mandarin and Malay and kept close links with the three societies throughout his life.

A fitting tribute to his life’s work would be the ‘People’s History’ project in KL. Jing Quee was one of its architects and would serve as a repository of the collective works and memory of our people’s struggle for justice and liberation.

Throughout our thirty-four years in exile, Swee Chai, my wife, and I kept in close touch with Jing Quee and his wife, Rose, and his friends.

There was one episode that particularly touched me. I visited Malaysia some years back and he knew my health was failing me. With Rose, he met me in Johore Bahru and brought me on a week-long odyssey swing around the peninsular, starting eastwards through Kuantan in Pahang. We spent time in the east coast states of Trengganu and Kelantan, crossed the east-west highway, spent a night in the National Park, met some Orang Asli and saw my first Rafflesia flower in the rain forest. We entered Perak and then finally to Kuala Lumpur. It was an experience I will never forget and it had been years since I had the chance to travel in that fashion.

I last saw him at the 2009 KL launch of Our Thoughts Are Free, a collection of poems of our political prisoners over five decades. Jing Quee edited the poems, along with Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew, both former political prisoners as well. I had several of my poems and songs in it.

In one of them, I raised the question:
what is a rebel, what is a revolutionary?

“a rebel hates, a revolutionary loves
a rebel hates injustice, a revolutionary loves justice
a rebel attacks the singer and is deaf to the song
a revolutionary retrains the singer and rewrites the song
a rebel sees red, all vision blinkered by the burning grass
a revolutionary see the wondrous colours that is the rainbow
a rebel asks ‘why’, a revolutionary, ‘why not’?
a rebel sees the impossibility of today, a revolutionary the possibility of tomorrow
tomorrow shall come when the rebel matures into a revolutionary”

Tan Jing Quee was a socialist student leader, ran under the socialist party ticket in the 1963 general election and nearly defeated a government stalwart, was arrested and imprisoned for three years that year and then again in 1977 under the draconian detention without trial law.Was he then, a rebel? In my thinking, he was much more than that – he was a true revolutionary, a great human being, friend, husband and father.

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