By Teo Soh Lung


Source: Function 8


Four days ago, Kenneth and I were asked by journalists from Hong Kong (click here) if we were going to pay our respect to Lee Kuan Yew. Kenneth replied that he would not. When pressed for an answer as to why, he muttered something like it was not necessary.
The young journalists were persistent in finding an answer and they turned to me. I too replied that I was not going. They pressed for an answer and I gave them the lame excuse that the queue was too long. I was dismayed at my own answer but didn’t know why.

For days during the week of “national mourning”, I have been asked by neighbours who were ardent fans of Lee Kuan Yew, if I was going to pay my respect. My answer was simply “no”. I did not elaborate and they never probe further. If I could interpret such an answer now, I think it was my way of respecting the dead, that I didn’t want to hurt the questioner that the dead had harmed me and my family and friends during his term of office as prime minister.

For days before the funeral, group chats had been flooded with reports of the long queue in the sun, the plans and funeral arrangements, the longer bus and train schedules, the unbelievable achievements of the dead and so on and so forth. On the sixth day, I could no longer tolerate such messages and left the groups. I did not give a reason, again perhaps out of respect for the dead.

Friends who knew my past had asked incessantly if I was going to write about Lee Kuan Yew. I did intend to write but for 20 days or more, my mind was a blank. I just could not put anything sensible on paper. It was as if an inner voice was telling me to remain silent and not disrupt the nation’s grief. Let them grieve in peace. I did however write a short piece about my mother’s thoughts on 24th March, a day after Lee died. I had no intention of doing so but the piece came naturally, as if my mother was instigating me to write for her. That morning, I had visited my mother’s niche, it being the third anniversary of her death. Suddenly, my sister started to talk about the past. She was having a conversation with my mother. I didn’t know much about what she went through and how she felt about my arrest, how she detested the dead and how she refused to watch the television whenever his image appeared. On the long journey home, I penned her thoughts. I didn’t care about Lee Kuan Yew. My mother’s grief was larger than that of the dead and the national mourning. I cried when I finished writing and posted it on my facebook. It was about the time of her death at home three years ago.

And so coming back to the journalists. I thought for many hours. Why was I not able to give an honest, direct answer? Why didn’t I say that I was not going because Lee Kuan Yew had imprisoned me up for two and a half years without trial and for no good reason? The more I pondered, the more ridiculous and stupid I felt. It was something in the sub-conscious that prevented me from giving an honest answer. I was angry. It was truly absurd.

After thinking for a few hours, it suddenly dawned on me that the reason was Fear – fear that people will think badly of me especially at a time when they were in deep mourning and hysteria, fear that they would conclude that I was angry and bitter, unforgiving, a person who refused to “move on” as the archbishop said. It was like the reaction of rape victims. They decline to report the crime because they were afraid that the investigator would not believe them or even accuse them that they had asked for the rape to happen because of the way they behaved or dressed. They were afraid that their own reputation and safety would be damaged with the report. How would the public view them? What would their reaction be? It was all just too complex, risky and intimidating and it was best to remain silent, forget about the nasty incident and “move on”. Let the rapists escape punishment and commit more crimes. Let more women suffer.

Realising that fear was the reason which prevented me from giving an honest answer to the journalists, I suddenly felt liberated. It was as if a heavy load was lifted. I immediately resolved that the next person who asked me if I was going to Parliament House to pay my respect, I would let it be known that I do not respect a leader who imprisoned citizens without trial, who caused so much suffering to those imprisoned, their families and their friends.

That evening, someone who had just paid his respect to the dear leader after waiting for several hours before day break, asked if I was going. I replied: “No, after what he did to me, imprisoning me for two and a half years, how can I go and pay respect to him?” Taken aback, he asked why I was imprisoned. I told him about the ISA and asked him to google my name if he wanted to know more. He said he didn’t know the other side of the great leader. Indeed, he didn’t know and was probably shocked at my answer. He asked two friends that evening if they knew about my imprisonment. One said he did and the other pretended she didn’t know.

In 1987 and 1988, Lee Kuan Yew and his ministers arrested and imprisoned 24 people without trial under the ISA. They were:

1 Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan, Church worker
2 Teo Soh Lung, Lawyer
3 Kevin de Souza, Lawyer and Church worker
4 Wong Souk Yee, Researcher and journalist
5 Tang Lay Lee, Lawyer and Church worker
6 Ng Bee Leng, Church worker
7 Jenny Chin Lai Ching, Journalist
8 Kenneth Tsang Chi Seng, Advertising executive
9 Chung Lai Mei
10 Mah Lee Lin, Polytechnic graduate and Church worker
11 Low Yit Leng, Project manager
12 Tan Tee Seng, Sales executive
13 Teresa Lim Li Kok, Publisher
14 Chia Boon Tai, Engineer and businessman
15 Tay Hong Seng, Translator and subtitling editor
16 William Yap Hon Ngian, Translator and subtitling editor
17 Tang Fong Har, Lawyer
18 Chew Kheng Chuan, Harvard University graduate and Businessman
19 Chng Suan Tze, Polytechnic Lecturer
20 Ronnie Ng Soon Hiang, Polytechnic student
21 Fan Wan Peng, Polytechnic student and president of the students’ union
22 Nur Effendi Sahid, National serviceman

In 1988, eight of the above were rearrested after issuing a press release together with their lawyers, Francis Seow Tiang Siew, former Solicitor General and President of the Law Society of Singapore and Patrick Seong Kwok Kei, Lawyer and member of Council of the Law Society of Singapore.

In the two years, two friends who were then in Europe had their Singapore citizenship revoked. They were Tan Wah Piow, an Oxford University undergraduate and Paul Lim Huat Chye, a PhD student in Belgium. They became political exiles together with Tang Fong Har, a signatory to the press release but escaped rearrest as she was then in the United Kingdom. In subsequent years, Francis Seow too became a political exile after nearly winning the general election in 1988. It was political persecution.

While Lee Kuan Yew’s children and grandchildren were able to be by his side during the last days of his illness and funeral, the political exiles, including those who left Singapore in the 1960s and 70s were not able to see their loved ones or attend the funerals of their parents and spouse who died in Singapore.


Zhen Xian Bao


It is common to hear people say that for the good of the nation, it is perfectly in order to sacrifice some of its citizens. I never understand such a statement. Would they have the same opinion if they and their loved ones were arrested and imprisoned without trial?

Lee Kuan Yew as an astute politician knew the nature and character of who he demanded arrest. He knew Lim Chin Siong was as capable if not more capable than he as the prime minister. He knew that Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai were intellectually his equal if not superior to him. He knew that Pak Said Zahari commanded the respect of the Malay community and was capable of challenging his way of managing Singapore. If they had been permitted to contest in the 1963 general election instead of being arrested in Operation Coldstore and imprisoned for decades, their presence in the legislative assembly may have helped our nation to achieve even greater heights. There would have been genuine debates on policies and laws in parliament for the good of our country instead of bad policies and laws being rammed down our throats by one man and his docile cabinet. The “Stop at two” and restrictive marriage policies of Singaporeans and foreigners may not have been implemented and Singapore would not need to fret about its dwindling population and labour shortage. Languages and dialects may have flourished, making Singapore a unique and exciting multicultural and multi racial society. Casinos may not be necessary to propel the economy resulting in Singapore becoming a nation of gamblers.

Even among the 1987 and 1988 detainees, many were working on the ground and knew the precarious nature of importing foreign labour to boost our economy while not looking after their well being and providing them with a minimum living wage. They knew that the way the government managed the foreign workers would ultimately have an adverse effect on our citizens.

What good can such arrests bring to our nation? If the government had listened to the detainees and worked with them to improve policies, Singapore may be a better country today. You may disagree but please don’t tell me that arresting a small number of people who were or have the potential of being future leaders is for the good of our country. Don’t tell me to move on when you don’t even know what happened in the past and what Lee Kuan Yew had done to his own citizens.

Fear is dead. Abolish ISA.

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Freedom Film Festival 2014 – Film Review

The May 13 Generation


The day is 2 June 1954. About 800 Chinese middle school students occupy Chinese High School (renamed Hwa Chong Institution in 2005) on Bukit Timah Road. The students are fighting for exemption for 125 fellow students who refuse to register for National Service under the British colonial government as they have not yet completed their studies. The 20-minute film depicts the three-week occupation of the school which ends on a victorious note for the students after the Ministry of Defence agrees to postpone the enlistment of all students of call-up age.

The polished production is one of Jason Soo’s first forays into the exhilarating yet hazardous world of filmmaking. It is an ambitious project because with a small budget, the director has to paint a broad historical sweep of an important period of Singapore’s political development, whose impact reverberates throughout Singapore’s post-independent days.

Soo decided to shine the light on the daily activities of the students during those three momentous weeks: singing, classroom learning and drama performance. He succeeds, without sentimentalism, in exuding the youthful passion and idealism of the middle school students in colonial Singapore who were fighting for not only exemption from National Service but also the larger goal of independence, though it was not articulated as such in the film. To a large extent, the young but experienced cast helps to endear the audience to the film even though many of the actors had little knowledge of the Chinese middle school student movement before the casting auditions.

As the film is essentially a mood piece, the audience is left to piece together the wider context of the Occupy Chinese High episode. This reviewer thinks that the scriptwriter/director could have selected a set piece that might better ignite the spirit of the time. An example would be a late-night discussion that turns into a fierce argument among the student leaders in face of the tactical as well as existential manoeuvrings with family, the school board of directors, agent provocateurs and the omnipresent police. This scenario could draw out the hopes and fears, desires and apprehensions of the characters. Such a scene might work better thematically and dramatically than the comic re-enactment of the court trial of the four students charged for protesting outside the Governor’s House against national conscription.

The 21-day occupation of Chinese High in 1954 was a precursor to the resuscitation of the left-wing student and trade movements that were clamped down with the imposition of the Emergency in 1948. The film, however, only hints at the pivotal role played by the Chinese middle school students in the subsequent formation of the then left-wing People’s Action Party (PAP) in November that year and the party’s resounding victory in the 1959 general election. Similarly, the film darkly alludes to the betrayal by the Lee Kuan Yew-led PAP of its socialist democratic cause, with the ending title: The monkeys departed. The wolves are here …

It is hoped that The May 13 Generation has whetted the audience’s appetite for a full-length feature film that gives another reading of our anti-colonial history which has often been described ad nauseum in the official narrative as a “fight against the Communists”.

The short film could not have been screened at a more appropriate time. This year, 2014, marks the 60th  anniversary of the 1954 students’ protest against national conscription and the subsequent occupation of Chung Cheng High and then Chinese High. The presentation of The May 13 Generation at the Freedom Film Festival in November also coincided with the intrepid students and residents of Hong Kong occupying Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. The starkness of the comparison cannot be lost on even the most casual of observers. That we have only something that happened 60 years ago to show for is a sad reminder of how effectively the PAP government has sapped away our spirit and replaced it with only material yearnings.

Lessons in Dissent   


Premiered in April 2014, Lessons in Dissent gains currency once more in recent months due to the headline-grabbing 75-day (at the time of writing) occupation of business districts in Hong Kong, led by students from universities and high schools. The 97-minute documentary juxtaposes the words and deeds of two young activists: Joshua Wong and Ma Jai. Both are in their teens and are passionate about their cause to fight for greater democracy in Hong Kong. The similarities end there.

Joshua Wong’s spunky protest against the Moral and National Education curriculum in 2012 has catapulted him to the international limelight as well as earned him the odium from the Chinese government. The Occupy movement to fight for genuine universal suffrage has put the Scholarism leader on the cover of Time magazine while at the same time got him labelled as an “extremist” by China’s state-run media.

In contrast, Ma Jai quit school to devote his young life to the work of the left-wing League of Social Democrats (LSD). The self-effacing Ma toils behind the scenes in social movements against issues that affect the lives of ordinary Hong Kong people. His quiet persistence sees him in protests against the government’s plan in 2009 to build a high-speed railway line to mainland China; the annual June 4th march to the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the HKSAR; campaigns against small-circle election of the Chief Executive; the anti-Moral and National Education movement; and in the 2012 Legislative Council election campaign for LSD candidate, Avery Ng.

The most obvious lesson for activists in the audience to take away is to have the mainstream media on your side. Ma notes that Wong shot to prominence when he was interviewed by the media as the convenor of Scholarism, and his answers were logical and well structured. The interview went viral on Youtube, receiving over 170,000 views in seven days. Social media adds impetus to Hong Kong’s free-wheeling mainstream media . Scholarism was formed during the proposal to implement the Moral and National Education programme in secondary schools. Students met on Facebook and decided to do something.

Ma observes that Wong’s way in civil society is to become famous through the mainstream media so that people would listen to what he says. Wong himself is only too conscious of his exalted status as the voice of a generation. ” I hope people can get from my words and actions the meaning of perseverance. That everyone can care about society and be a true citizen of society.”

While Ma does not disagree with Wong’s approach, he argues that the real battle is to develop a mature and politicised civil society and not events like the protest outside the Government HQ that attracted 100,000 people to call for the withdrawal of the Moral and National Education curriculum.

“They were waiting for the next Joshua Wong to lead them. If there is no increase of awareness about society, then, I don’t think it means much.”

Another lesson the film seems to advocate is that you can participate in a civil disobedience movement in a peaceful, rational and non-violent manner. Every year, the LSD has taken part in the candlelight vigil for victims of the June 4th Tiananmen massacre until they think that mourning for the dead could not achieve much and liken it to consumption of June 4th feelings. They decide to do more and that is when Ma and Avery Ng lead a march without a police permit to the Liaison Office to demand that the Chinese government account for its action. They reckon that the law protects the status quo and prevents progress, and as such is not worth respecting.

“The point of activism is promotion, education and raising awareness. It is the process of being politicised,” Ma says in the film. He adds prophetically, “More Hong Kong people are ready to accept more radical approaches such as pushing the barricades or blocking the road.”

Lessons in Dissent tries to provide a smorgasbord of maxims of organising social movements. Which ones to pick depends on your own sensibilities and vision for society.

Wukan, the Flame of Democracy


Wukan, the Flame of Democracy sounds the warning bell that democracy is no guarantee of social justice. But unlike the aftermath we see of the Arab Spring where free elections ushered in more or less old wine in new bottle, Wukan shows us that while the struggle for democracy is a long and hard one, the road to righting the wrongs suffered under the old regime is even longer and harder.

Singapore’s filmmaking duo, James Leong and Lynn Lee, made this 97-minute documentary about how the villagers of Wukan, a village in the Chinese province of Guangdong, expel their corrupt local Communist government and elect their own village committee, an exploit not seen for over four decades. Weeks of uprising and the death of an activist leader, Xue Jinbo, under police custody, has led to the victory of the people.

After the new village committee comes into office in an election watched by the media from across the globe, it finds itself staring into the dark abyss left behind by the old committee who have sold off extensive land in Wukan without a cent from the proceeds returned to the villagers. The village chief and his committee members not only have to recover the land sold, but also take care of daily municipal matters such as clearing rubbish, mediating disputes, securing water and electricity supplies, implementing birth control and settling problems with the fishing industry.

Three months after the historic elections, the committee faces increasing pressure from the villagers who are losing their patience with the new committee for failing to get back their land. The villagers carry out protests and a road blockade to force the local and county governments to resolve their land woes. The film appears to be sympathetic to the village committee and shows the villagers to be concerned only about their land and little else. The village chief laments, “The provincial government has been working hard, but nobody knows how we can meet the demands of the villagers.”

The daily taunting from the villagers soon produces its first casualty. Zhuang Liehong, who feels that he has not lived up to the expectations of the villagers who elected him some months back, resigns from the village committee. The next one to follow is Zhang Jiancheng. He sighs, “The pressure is too much. The villagers’ resentment has only increased as days pass. It’s internal unity and our mental health that we are worried about.” However, a few days later, Jiancheng decides to carry on the struggle and bear with the strain.

“I hope there will not be any more resignation, especially since it was the first popular election in Wukan that brought us to power, and the whole world knows about us. If we resign, we will affect the morale of society at large. The flame of democracy has been lit; people will be disappointed with Wukan if we extinguish it.”

Though the film ends on a somewhat sombre note, it is a timely reminder that in the euphoria of a just victory, it is easy to forget that the gargantuan task of rebuilding society has only begun. Many sceptics in Singapore often ask, if the opposition is to form the next government, whether they will be able to run the country. My response to that is when that day comes, I hope Singaporeans will step up to the plate and play their part in active citizenry and not be like the villagers in Wukan who let their self interest overwhelm other things that matter as well.

By Wong Souk Yee

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人权组织“功能8”(Function 8)就陈彬彬所制记录片《星国恋》的官方禁映发表意下声明:




人权组织“功能8”(Function 8)就陈彬彬所制记录片《星国恋》的官方禁映发表以下声明:


新加坡媒体发展局已宣布禁止这部影片在新加坡的公开上映,功能8 (Function 8)对此深表关注。禁止知识产品的作法诚然与新加坡作为第一世界国家的形象格格不入,它更像是中世纪时期一些统治者无知幼稚的计谋。新加坡不是说要大肆庆祝建国50周年,鼓励国人交流对话、畅所欲言吗?然而,这对话的精神实质哪里去了?





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Call on the authorities to allow an honest appraisal of our history

The history of a nation can aim to be accurate only if various and divergent voices are heard. In recent years, books like “Escape from the Lion’s Paw”, “The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore”, “We Remember”, “That We May Dream Again” and “Youth on Trial” have added other perspectives to the memory of a very significant period in Singapore’s nation-building.

Tan Pin Pin’s documentary film, “To Singapore With Love”, on Singapore’s political exiles who fled the country, some as long as 50 years ago, adds another dimension to this on-going writing of our history.

Function 8 is deeply concerned that the Media Development Authority has banned this film from being screened in Singapore. Banning of intellectual products is far from being the hallmark of a first-world country; it smacks of medieval ignorance and naivety. Where is the spirit of conversation so much hailed and lauded as our country is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her birth?

We call on the authorities to allow an honest appraisal of our history, so that we can develop as an intelligent nation, not just in hard-wire terms, but in the heart and soul of our people.

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A birthday note to Singapore

waihanBy Chan Wai Han

Singapore is a country. Singapore is not a nation. Not yet.

A country has a physical boundary, although sometimes disputed. It has a political system that governs the life of its citizens. A flag, an anthem, all these and more – trappings of a country – Singapore has.

Passion, love for the nation, with the people being ready to die for Singapore… these we do not have. Well, at least not many are ready to die for the country. Yet there are some who are passionate and care enough to try and make a difference, with or without accolades and fat pay cheques.

What brings about this scenario? My view is that the people are treated as economic digits, workers for Singapore Inc. with hard-nosed accounting taking precedence in every facet of our policy-making. When this happens, our relationship with the country is merely transactional. You try to get the most out of the country. And if it doesn’t suit you, just up and migrate if you have the ability. If you can’t, then swallow your pride and try to make a life on this little diamond.

National TheatrePeople need to share memories and pass them on for a collective identity to evolve and survive. I think of the National Library’s red-brick building at Stamford Road, the National Theatre at River Valley, my primary school at Queen Street… all gone. Soon my childhood memories at Tanglin Halt will give way to the bulldozers of SERS. So too my secondary school at Anderson Road. The unspoken truth is that some of these sites are too valuable to be left to a mere school, even one with 135 years’ history. In the surroundings of Anderson Road, more and more multi-million condominiums have sprung up. The state’s land bank probably would be silly to pass over this piece of real estate and leave it as a school.

The ever-increasing minimum sum of our CPF accounts gives the sense that we’ll never be able to use our hard-earned savings in our own lifetime. Even the Pioneer Package comes with so many strings wrapping up the gift. I’ve seen thin old folks in one-room flats who can do with better meals. Why keep the “gift” wrapped in medical benefits? Why not give outright so they can get better nutrition and hopefully won’t become so ill that they need to use the medical benefits so soon?

Politicking need not come at the end of every four or five years. When boundaries are re-drawn and new names given to electoral wards ever so often there is no opportunity for residents to develop an affinity to a place. (In 30 years, I have lived in Fengshan, Kaki Bukit, East Coast GRC… all without moving an inch from Bedok North.) Fanciful names like Rainbowville, Eunos Ville, etc crop up overnight on big structures of precincts. These do not make for community bonding.

rallyOf course, much has been done for the country by the dominant ruling party, as fair-minded people would acknowledge. But I feel great discomfort that the achievements are on the back of the injustices inflicted on many human beings, among them:

  • Political opponents of the ruling party who had been placed under detention without trial.
  • Foreign workers who do not have fair recourse to abuse by employers.
  • Home-makers who do not receive any significant economic recognition (other than the wife relief granted to taxpaying husbands).

And a very frightening divide in the us-versus-them attitude is practised in the $100 daily levy imposed on Singaporeans entering the casinos in the country. The message seems to be: it is alright for non-Singaporeans to empty their pockets… they are welcome to gamble away their fortune here. But our citizens need to be protected (the $100 levy being a futile attempt anyway in deterring the gamblers). What kind of value does this beggar-thy-neighbour policy imbue in our people?

On Singapore’s 49th birthday, an accidental political construct by the way, I wish that we be a more caring and accountable country. Both towards our citizens and towards other nations. We don’t always have to be the top dog. There is a place to progress together, not progress at the expense of others.

Too idealistic perhaps. But without ideals, is life really worth living? And without ideals, can we truly build a nation?

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60th Anniversary of May 13, 1954 Incident

Below is the speech of Dr Poh Soo Kai delivered at the lunch commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the May 13, 1954 Incident and the arrests of all the members of Editorial Board Fajar, a student publication of the University Socialist Club of Malaya. Dr. Poh Soo Kai was President of the club and Chairman of the Editorial Board. The students were charged for sedition.

Dr Poh Speech

“Comrades & friends,

Selamat petang! Zhong wu hao! Good-day! Firstly, let me take this opportunity to thank MARUAH and F8 for organizing this gathering today – 60 years after the historical event on May 13th 1954. (See photos)

May 13th 1954 marked an important watershed in reviving the people of Singapore’s struggle towards independence. We have to keep in mind that in 1954 Singapore was still a colony and the post Second World War’s cries for independence in the island as in the Malayan peninsula had been muted by the brute force unleashed by the British declaration of Emergency in 1948. The Batang Kali massacre, being litigated today, is one such grim reminder of those dark days. However, the May 13th 1954 student movement was to change all that for Singapore and lift the people’s struggle for independence from Britain. 

A month before, in April 1954, the British colonial government had introduced national service conscription for male youth of Singapore. In its commentary on it, the University Socialist Club wrote in its May 10th Fajar issue that we did not understand the meaning of the word, “national” since we were a colony; the British did not deem us fit to rule over ourselves, yet we were deemed fit to fight and die for them!

Most affected by this new regulation, since they were the majority of the youths, were the Chinese middle schools students, who logically decided to petition the British Governor in Singapore for exemption from national service. On this fateful day of May 13th 1954, eight student representatives were to hand over the petition. Many other students turned out en masse to support their representatives and lined the pavement from River Valley Road /Clemenceau Avenue to Government House. The peaceable nature of the student assembly is borne out by postings on YouTube – an alternative media. However, they were set upon by baton wielding police of colonial Britain. 

As a result, the students were beaten up and chased from Clemenceau Avenue to Stamford Road. They got a baptism in police brutality. Forty eight students were arrested on charges of obstructing police officers. Eventually, seven were found guilty and sentenced to three months’ rigorous imprisonment. 

513cThese young innocent Chinese middle schools students had been dealt a bitter lesson that politicized them. They saw clearly who the dogs were and became keenly aware of themselves as the underdogs with no rights at all; no human rights that colonial Britain needed to respect or even pretend to respect. Alas! The only way forward for the students was to unite and unite ever more firmly with all other underdogs in Singapore society to pursue justice.

513bThe momentous year of 1954 also saw on May 28th, the arrest for sedition of the Fajar editorial team for its May 10th issue. Sedition was a very serious charge to level on these youths for patriotism and editorial independence. One of the recorded reasons for the arrest was that the police had found copies of Fajar among the belongings of the Chinese middle schools students and falsely assumed that, we, the Fajar boys were behind the Chinese middle schools students’ May 13th protest. Indeed, we Fajar boys and the University Socialist Club had given full support to the Chinese middle schools students. We also turned up as members of the Pan-Malayan Students’ Federation to demonstrate our solidarity when they occupied the Chinese High School. The unity of the English and Chinese educated students was forged at these moments when the mighty force of colonial Britain rained down unreasonably upon them. 

D.N. Pritt Q.C. had defended us in the Fajar trial leading to our acquittal. This Queen’s Counsel had a reputation for strident anti-colonialism, battling imperialist Britain on behalf of her colonies. The Chinese middle schools students decided to approach Harry Lee Kuan Yew, who had been junior counsel in the Fajar case, to engage Pritt for their appeal. As expected, they lost their case. But that was how Harry Lee came to gain a foothold among the Chinese middle schools students

The Chinese middle schools students’ demand for respect of their human rights had set the example. Workers were encouraged. They too wanted their labour right to organize their own unions. This is a fundamental human right. Article 8 of the United Nations’ Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes the right of workers to form or join trade unions and protects the right to strike. 

On November 1, 1954, Jamit Singh had joined the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association as a paid secretary. Jamit had hailed from the University Socialist Club. On May 1, 1955, Jamit led the Harbour Board staff association – the white collar workers – on a 67 days strike which culminated in victory. Jamit became a hero! He had stood firm in demanding just wages for union members, and brought the strike to public attention with pickets deployed at the gates of the harbour and outside key government institutions. Inspired by their white collar counterparts, the Habour Board’s blue collar workers demanded to join Jamit’s union; they did not want to be represented by unions set up and controlled by management. Jamit went on to strengthen workers’ unity by amalgamating the various small waterfront unions into a giant union of 10,000 members – the Singapore Harbour Board Workers’ Union. 

Here I want to pay tribute to this comrade: Jamit Singh fought for what was fair and what was right and paid a very heavy price for his conviction and courage. Jamit, your struggle was not in vain; your fine example will continue to inspire us.

The workers’ struggles for their human and labour rights were naturally viewed with sympathy by the Chinese middle schools students who had been through the baptism of bruised and broken bodies on May 13th. They knew what it was like to be the underdogs fighting for their human rights to be respected. Hence, the Harbour Board white and blue collar workers and Jamit Singh received expression of solidarity from the Chinese middle schools students. A good number of students turned up at the picket lines to offer sympathy and support.

Around the beginning of 1955, the majority of the workers in Hock Lee Bus Company decided to form a branch of the Singapore Bus Workers Union that was led by Fong Swee Suan, Chen Say Jame and Lim Teow Peng. They did not want to be represented by the yellow union set up by management. However, management refused to recognize the genuine workers’ union and would only deal with its own workers’ union. An industrial dispute ensured. It was momentarily settled when the two unions agreed to arbitration presided over by a neutral party who was Dr Gamba of the University of Malaya. His proposal to carve out bus routes was accepted by both unions. The ink was barely dry on the agreement, when under pressure from management the yellow union changed its mind. This obviously resulted in further industrial disputes. The management then sacked the striking workers and brought in scabs to forcibly drive the buses out. The sacked workers – with their livelihood gone – decided to prevent the buses from leaving the depot. Water hoses were turned on them.

Again this strike received the overwhelming support from the Chinese middle schools students. They brought food and drinks to the striking workers to reinforce their spirit. Other workers turned up too in support and solidarity. 

The police moved in to beat and arrest the resisting Hock Lee bus workers. Scuffles broke out. And then, there was a gunshot and an unarmed student was tragically killed. These were the real days of tears and righteous indignation where students and workers stood up for their basic and legitimate human rights, where the people of Singapore stood up against their white colonial masters.

Today, 60 years on, the Singapore authorities are denigrating these days of righteous indignation as days of rage with their version of destruction and mayhem instigated by the hidden hand of the MCP – the sinister bogeyman that they touted every so often. Nothing could be further from these cheap official propagandas. 

Devan Nair was – ironically now on looking back – a union leader of the left in the midst of all these happenings. It may be fitting at this moment for me to say to his son, Janadas: I hope your father had not said to you that Chin Siong had told him that the communists were behind May 13th 1954 or the Hock Lee bus workers’ strike. Lim Chin Siong is no longer alive and it is not fair to attribute statements to him that cannot be verified. 

Dr. P.J. Thum has confirmed that Special Branch reports for 1954-1955 reveal that the MCP did not instigate either the 13 May student protest or the Hock Lee Bus strike and riot.

In the mid 1990s, I went to London to look up the British archives. My main purpose was, of course, to look at the then recently declassified material on Operation Coldstore of which I had been a direct victim. I went through the files on the Hock Lee bus rioting and found NO mention of any communist complicity or manipulation in the strike or riot. Yet, 2 profiles in the files caught my attention.

Serial No. C5 Tang Thiam Meng S4T 03943 Bus driver (Communist) 1955. One of the principal agitators in the Hock Lee Bus strike. Responsible for spreading communist ideology among STC bus workers. Active in riots 1956. Released in 1958 and immediately reverted to his old union activities. Joined STC employees union, now in the Central Council. A strong supporter of Ong Eng Guan. Committee member of Aljunied branch, U.P.P. 

Serial No. C6 Na Ho alias Wong Ho alias Wong Or S2Y 6230 Taxi driver. Suspected communist sympathizer. Official of Hock Lee branch of Singapore Bus Workers Union. Active part in October 1956 riots. Detained October 1956, released on DIRECT ORDER 4 March 1957. Now CEC member UPP and chairman of Tiong Bahru branch. [Emphasis mine. Source: I.S.C. paper No. (S)(63)1; 24 January, 1963; telegram 57]

These are very interesting profiles indeed. Both men C5 Tang Thiam Meng and C6 Na Ho were allegedly communist or pro-communist; both were accused of being active or making trouble in the Hock Lee bus strikes and subsequent riots. Yet both were treated with kids’ gloves. C5 Tang received an amazingly short imprisonment not exceeding two years while the treatment of Na Ho, was even more incredible. He was released after a few months on DIRECT ORDER! 

All of us who have been detained – none had been released on Direct Order. You and I know that this option did not exist for us at all. I, therefore, suspect these men to be British agent provocateurs of the so-called Days of Rage. 

My suspicion that C5 and C6 were agent provocateurs was reinforced when, fast forward from 1956 to early 1963, I read of Lord Selkirk, (the British High Commissioner for Singapore) declaring to his boss, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, that:

… The U.K. government for its part is not prepared to agree to the inclusion in the list, of Numbers C4, C5 and C6 for which there is no security justification. [Lord Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies, telegram No. 59; 29 January 1963]

Wow! Despite the profiles describing C5 and C6 as communist and pro-communist, Lord Selkirk did not find them to be security risk and opposed including them in the list to be arrested under Operation Coldstore. Apparently Lord Selkirk was privy to information that the small SB mata2 on the ground were not told. They were just reporting in the profiles what they saw with their eyes, unaware of the master-puppeteer behind the scene. 

C5 and C6 profiles came up again in early 1963 when Lee Kuan Yew, Tunku and the British were preparing the list of persons to be arrested in Operation Coldstore. Lee was “quite insistent” that C5 and C6, (together with another profile C4) be arrested under Operation Coldstore although he knew that:

… there were no grounds for saying that they were involved in the communist conspiracy and (that) … he (Lee) had stated publicly that Ong Eng Guan had taken great care to keep communists out of key positions in the U.P.P. [Lord Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies; point 6; telegram No. 53; 28 January 1963]

Why did Lee Kuan Yew want members of Ong Eng Guan’s party to be arrested under Operation Coldstore in the face of British opposition that these men posed no security threat at all? Lee, in effect admitted to the British that the object of the U.P.P. arrests was to strengthen his own chances of political survival. Lee was afraid that Ong Eng Guan’s party, the U.P.P., would fill the void left by the impending arrests of Barisan Sosialis leaders in Operation Coldstore, i.e. the U.P.P. would be “the next best vehicle for wrestling power from Lee Kuan Yew.” [Lord Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies; point 4; telegram No. 56; 29 January 1963] We must not forget that the P.A.P. had lost to Ong Eng Guan in the Hong Lim by-election of 1961.

So much for the motives behind these arrests. Nor do the cases (serials C4, C5 and C6) stand up to examination. These are the best cases within the U.P.P. that Singapore Special Branch could find and the security records (…) have been “written up” as much as possible. [Lord Selkirk to Secretary of State for the Colonies; point 3; telegram No. 56; 29 January 1963]

From the records, we learn that Lee Kuan Yew had read the profiles of C4, C5 and C6; he was also keenly aware that the British considered C4, C5 and C6 to be non-security threats. Hence we must assume that Lee knew that the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955 and the Chinese High School’s students’ riots of 1956 were instigated by these agent provocateurs as we also know today, thanks to the declassification of the British archive. Yet, Lee has not prevented Singapore’s public funds to be wasted by Channel News Asia in sending a team to Nepal to interview ex-gurkha policemen. The team certainly was on an ‘excellence’ joy trip! 

In 1956, trouble broke out again when union leaders were arrested, the women’s organization as well as the Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Student Union were banned. In protest, the students staged sit-ins and camped at Chinese High and Chung Cheng. Riot broke out on October 25 before the students could disperse. 

Among the more than 70 persons arrested on 26 October 1956 was Madam Wu Cai Tang, chairperson of the Singapore Chinese School Parents’ Association. Here I want to end my speech by paying homage to this revolutionary mother who had brought up a revolutionary family. Her son Fang Xiao Lang was also among those detained in 1956.

Indeed, May 13th 1954 was the watershed event that re-launched the people of Singapore’s struggle for independence. 

I should end my speech at this point. However, permit me to modify my already printed speech at this juncture, for I believe it is timely that I give a piece of advice to Lee Kuan Yew now before it is too late: Lee, apologize to the people of Singapore.

Lim Chin SiongThere is mounting evidence from the archives of Lee’s deception and lies to the people of Singapore. The latest exposure just a few days ago came from Dr. Thum’s article in The Online Citizen on the “Mai Pah Mata” (Do Not Beat the Police – in Hokkien) speech of Lim Chin Siong on 25 October 1956 which has been infamously misquoted as “Pah Mata” (Beat the Police). This misquote was used to justify Lim’s arrest two days later by the Lim Yew Hock government. This misquote has hovered over Lim Chin Siong for 60 years to paint him as an irresponsible rabble rouser that instigated the riots of 25 and 26 October 1956. 

Now that we have proof that Lim Chin Siong was willfully misquoted from the police archive that had made a recording of Lim’s speech at that rally which, for your information, was also attended by PAP big guns like Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye, I would like to ask this question to Lee:

Why did you not defend your party’s assistant secretary general and Member of Parliament for Bukit Timah when, after his arrest, this misquote was raised in Parliament to justify his arrest by Lim Yew Hock’s government? Why did you not jump to your feet with alacrity and shout, “That is a lie, a most blatant lie. I was on the stage. Lim Chin Siong did not say that!”

Why did you not use the PETIR, your own PAP organ, to rectify this misquote? Why such an un-honorable deafening silence for 60 years?

This was sheer treachery to Lim Chin Siong!

Therefore, to Lee Kuan Yew, I would advise: Apologize to the people of Singapore before it is too late – apologize to the people of Singapore before it is too late.

Thank you once again to F8 and MARUAH for this lunch to honour all who had aspired for Singapore’s independence and sacrificed in the movements and struggles towards it. 

May we remember their days of tears and righteous indignation and carry on their work to achieve the independence they had aspired for – AN INDEPENDENCE WITH FULL RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND DIGNITY FOR ALL SINGAPOREANS. MARUAH! DIGNITY!

Terima kasih, xie xie, thank you.”

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In memory of Tan Jing Quee (18 Jan 1939 – 14 Jun 2011) by Hong Lysa

jing queeTan 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.

He accordingly planned his moves carefully. Comet in Our Sky was launched in Kuala Lumpur, but not in Singapore. When he accepted the invitation to speak at the Detention-Writing-Healing fringe arts festival in 2006, becoming with Michael Fernandez the first former political prisoners to narrate their experiences at a public event, they both stuck strictly to the fact of their prison days, but still earned a rebuke from the Ministry of Home Affairs about how ‘the government had allowed the detainees to put their past behind, and enabled them and their families to enjoy the prosperity of Singapore, but it would not allow them to re-write history’ and ‘take advantage of young Singaporeans who had not lived through the period.’

This statement did cause anxiety that there would be repercussions on any further attempts to push the issue. Some were concerned that he was rocking the boat. Others held the view that should there be a backlash, younger Singaporeans involved in civil society work who had no links or knowledge of Operation Coldstore and the other detentions, would become fearful and discouraged. It was better not to burden them with the past.

Jing Quee did not share this view, but he was mindful of it.
There were certainly indications that his pursuits were not to be encouraged. A regional branch of the National Library had initially agreed to provide the venue for the book launch in February 2009, but was to change its mind. In the end, the launch was held at a private gallery.

For the launch of the Fajar Generation at the end of that year, Jing Quee and Rose kept the venue secret until a day or two before the event, and only those who had registered were informed of it. There was concern that pressure would be put on the venue hosts to back out. The launch for the translation of Ju Lang and the May 13 Generation two years later on May 14, 2011 turned out to be exactly one week after the landmark 2011 GE. But even before that, he had already discerned that this time, it was fine to advertise the book launch widely.

Jing Quee had been taking calculated risks.

The above account would be familiar to those who know Jing Quee’s work. His vision, perseverance and the quality of the publications have all been acknowledged.

But it is Jing Quee’s courage manifested in his posthumous publication that I would argue may have the most profound impact. In writing about his life for the book on Operation Coldstore (2013), Tan Jing Quee laid bare the fact that he had signed a confession and made a television ‘confession’ to obtain release 2 years and 7 months after being imprisoned in October 1963. He gave a detailed account of how he made up his mind to seek release, and how he tried to negotiate on the wordings of the signed statement, and the conduct of the television appearance. ISD started with sounding open-minded, allowing him to write the first draft of the statement, but slowly wore him down to accepting humiliating terms after raising his hopes of release and then dashing them. Jing Quee also described how he had to brace himself to face his friends when he was released. Indeed, TT Rajah expressed his disappointment, and asked why he gave in. Jing Quee’s reply was that it was a matter that he had to answer to himself.

Rightly do we reserve the greatest respect for the political prisoners who did not capitulate, who spurned all offers and threats to get them to sign for their release, which as Dr Lim Hock Siew pointed out, would be used by the state to legitimize their arrests and imprisonment (for two decades, and more in the case of Chia Thye Poh). Theirs is a moral and political victory achieved at the highest cost to their personal lives.

Jing Quee’s story in contrast is the more common and mundane one. It is one that has by and large been avoided in personal narratives. He knew that the chapter for the Coldstore book would be the last chapter that he would write, given his failing health, and decided to speak plainly of his decision to sign the ‘confession’ after a relatively short period in prison. It was not a story to be proud of, and it took courage to write it. It is also about the high price that the ISA exacted from those who chose this path. At the most extreme, such individuals would be scorned for their weakness, and even accused of falsely implicating friends just to get out (the latter did not apply in Jing Quee’s case).

What Jing Quee had done is to demonstrate that the defeat and setback that he and the others met need not be a permanent one. He faced up to his deed, and thus freed himself from the ignominy that it entailed. He patiently, humbly and sincerely rallied the former political prisoners, winning back their friendship, organising social occasions for get-togethers and rebuilding solidarity among comrades.

And he wrote his history of the left, which in the end they could embrace if they chose to, and proudly reclaim their historical role.


The Mid-fifties

I first met Jing Quee in 1954, 60 years ago, when we both entered Raffles Institution. Its campus was where Raffles City now stands. Entry into RI was based on the results of the state-wide entrance examination, the predecessor of the present PSLE. The best were admitted to RI. Jing Quee had already displayed brilliance at an early age.

We are products of our age. The social and political forces at play determine our values and attitudes. 1955 was the year of the protest by Chinese middle school students against conscription for national service. The French had been defeated by the brave Vietnamese people at the Battle of Diem Phien Phu under General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Barely five years earlier, Mao Tse-tung had stood on the parapet at Tiananmen Square calling upon the Chinese people to “stand up”. One-fourth of humanity heeded his call and stood up.

Though the Korean War had ended dividing the nation into two, the Cold War was raging. Russia and China were ring-fenced by military treaties stretching from the North Atlantic (NATO) through the Middle East (METO) to East Asia (SEATO). Russia and China were experimenting with a new social order to establish a more equal and egalitarian system. Russia had succeeded to a certain extent and China was adopting the socialist model of economic and social development.

Anti-colonial and liberation movements were raging from the Caribbean to Asia through Africa. The UN had launched a de-colonisation programme and the metropolitan powers were against the wall trying frantically to retain a foothold in their former colonies through proxies.

The clamour for independence and democracy had created political groups in Singapore. One of the organisations among the English speaking activists was the Malayan Democratic Union a gathering of liberals – lawyers, doctors, journalists and teachers. The Chinese educated had their own organisations Like the Old Boys’ Association which joined other like minded groups struggling for independence with Singapore as an integral part. Singapore was a crown colony ruled autonomously by the British after the Straits Settlements comprising Malacca, Penang and Singapore was dismantled in 1948. “Merdeka” was in the air.

1954 was also the year PAP was formed. It had among its members, lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists, workers and businessmen. It published two slim brochures containing its manifesto and policies. The policies were enunciated by authors covering different areas like education, the trade unions, multi-racial unity and multilingualism. It stood for an independent, democratic, socialist Malaya including Singapore. Singapore was treated as an integral part of Malaya by everyone.

1954 was also the year that the British government proposed a Constitution for Singapore to grant self-government and for holding of island-wide election. The Randell Constitution as it was called, paved the way for the election of 25 members to the Legislative Assembly.

This was the political milieu during Jing Quee’s RI days. I remember him attending the Legislative Assembly meetings and PAP rallies. Most students were politically conscious at that time and they formed Literary and Debating Societies in their schools. They discussed the political issues of the day. Jing Quee became the President of the RI Literary and Debating Society.

Not only did Jing Quee have brain power, he also had brawn power. He played football and was the striker for the RI 1st XI. He was known for his speed in the field which matched his oratorical speed.
Days in the Varsity

Jing Quee joined the University of Malaya in 1960 and read for an Arts degree. Political talks, forums and debates were the order of the day. There was no restriction as we have now on political matters. There was no requirement that a political club should be registered before students can embark on political activities. There was no rush to complete the courses in time to make up for lost time on national service. Jing Quee became the President of the University Socialist Club and the editor of its thought-provoking publication, Fajar (Dawn).

The University in 1960 was truly an intellectual hub. The PAP had captured 43 of the 51 seats in parliament at the 1959 election. Many of the undergraduates joined the campaign in support of the PAP as it was then the vanguard of the progressive forces in Singapore. Its Secretary General was the champion of freedom at that time but he was soon to jettison all the ideals that he and his party stood for.

Jing Quee’s articles and editorials in Fajar were known for their depth and literary flair. After graduation he did not look for a highly paid job in the private sector or in the civil service. With his mastery of the English language he could have got a teaching job in the Ministry of Education with security of tenure and the perks that go with a government appointment. He shunned these and joined the trade union for a small pay of $500 per month. To him, living up to his ideals were more paramount than amassing material wealth.

Entering Politics

The PAP has been a monolith for a long time but not in the early years after its formation. One of the senior members of the PAP, Ong Eng Guan even challenged Lee Kuan Yew for the post of prime minister. The cadres had to vote on who they wanted as the PM. The voting took a surprising turn. The result was a tie. The chairman of the party, Toh Chin Chye cam to Lee’s rescue by giving him th casting vote. Jing Quee watched all these with disdain. He knew the meaning of the words “treachery” and “aggrandizement.”

The inevitable split within the PAP between the progressive forces and the reactionary (anti-people) forces took place in 1961. The breakaway group of intellectuals and political activists formed the Barisan Sosialis with Lim Chin Siong as its secretary general. Though not organisationally linked with the Barisan at that time, Jing Quee stood as its candidate for Kampong Glam. Jing Quee lost by only around 100 votes. The votes for candidates opposing Rajaratnam weresplit with the unprincipled Harban Singh of the United PeoplesParty polling around 1000 votes which should have gone to Jing Quee if Harns had not entered the fray.

Detention in 1963

Jing Quee’s detention was part of Lee Kuan Yew’s p[lot to eliminate all those who dissented against his policies. The label that was fixed on them was that they were subversive and being members of the communist united front out to destroy Singapore! Was there any evidence to support this allegation? This was the same label that was pasted against more than 200 activists during Operation Coldstore of February 1963 when Lim Chin Siong and a host of others were detained. In February 1963 Singapore was still a crown colony whose members were Singapore, Malaya and Britain. Lee tried to distance himself from the Internal Security Council’s decision on the detentions but records show that he was actively involved in it.

The British have opened their archives after the passage of 30 years. None of the minutes, exchange of correspondence and documents show any proof of the existence of a communist united front or that Lim was a communist (see the very informative books, “Comet in our Sky” and “The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore – Commemorating 50 Years. The detentions were to satisfy Lee’s lust for power.

Trip to London

Jing Quee came out of prison in 1966. He headed for London to read law and to escape the stifling atmosphere in Singapore. London in the mid-60s was a hothouse of political activities. One could read any book, attend any forum and meet any social activist from whichever part of the world he came.

Jing Quee was a voracious reader. His regular haunts were the bookshops and libraries. There were no computers or internet. He attended talks, seminars and workshops shoring up his intellectual arsenal.

Return to Singapore and Law Pratice

Jing Quee returned to Singapore overland. He travelled through Europe and Asia with his wife to be, Rose. The trip was to satisfy this curiosity and discover new horizons. Jing Quee’s quest for knowledge knew no bounds. One can talk to him on any topic and he will haveto say something on it. He was a polymath.

Jing Quee joined J B Jeyaretnam’s practice for a while before setting up a partnership with Lim Chin Joo. Jing Quee and Chin Joo as the firm was styled, flourished. The firm expanded and made a mark for itself. Jing Quee handled the litigation work and enjoyed practice. He once told me how he succeeded in a case involving complex questions on company law against a lawyer who was a top notch in corporate law. But Jing Quee remained humble despite such successes and the accompanying monetary rewards. He was looking forward to retirement soon after he touched 60 so that he could spend more time with his first love – books and writing.
Jing Quee wrote extensively – essays, short stories, poems and books. These contain a wealth of information and edifying prose and poetry.

The 1977 Detention

In February 1977 Jing Quee was detained together with about 16others accused once again of being subversive and promoting the cause of the communist unite front. I was the first in this group to be detained and anther label was fixed, that of being “Euro-communists”, a creature hitherto unknown. There was international outcry against these repressive actions but the PAP government paid no heed to them. After a few months, most of us were released after making the usual template “confessions” or “admissions”. Alas, truth was a major casualty in all the detentions including the arrests of 22 social workers, lawyers and professionals in the 1987 Operation Spectrum.

Jing Quee the Man of Letters

He was a man of letters in both senses of the word. He not only read widely. He also wrote extensively and edited books on history and politics. He gave expression to his ideals in poetry some of which were light-hearted but stimulating. His poem on his detention stirs the soul.

Jing Quee the Man

Jing Quee was an icon. He is an exemplar of what an intellectual should be – erudite, humble and a champion of the rights of every person. He evokes all those ideals that we yearn for and want to see realized. I shall forever cherish his contributions towards the cause of freedom.

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