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.
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.
TAN JING QUEE – 3 YEARS ON by Dr G Raman
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.
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.