By Kamal Mamat
My father, who passed away last month at the start of Ramadan, was a member of the Singapore branch of UMNO back in the early 60s.
Later, when Singapore achieved independence, it dissolved and re-emerged as PKMS, an opposition party which is still around today.
Much disheartened by the socio-political events surrounding him after 1965, he slowly dissociated himself from the party.
My father was what we call a man of Zen.
When he was alive, he spoke very little and gesticulated even less. He seems quite at loss to find words to talk about, even to our closest relatives when they came to visit on occasions. He grinned when other people laughed and was a picture of calm in the face of family tragedies.
While Mum wielded the cane willingly, my father could not even muster up more than five decibels from his voice. When he was very angry, he simply switched from Malay to English. It was his code.
A man of culture
He was not like that before, apparently. In the 50s, he was a man of culture. He wrote and directed pantomimes, contributed articles to the press and recited poems to audiences. He had the same enthusiasm when he joined politics but gradually lost the passion as the years went by. He became, unexcitingly, a family man.
When I was growing up, I was frequently told by my father to not talk about politics in school and, in no uncertain terms, to not condemn any member of the government. I was reminded incessantly that walls could hear and not everyone could be trusted. The repercussions, he said cryptically, are not worth the trouble.
In Secondary Three, my form teacher, instead of writing about my grades, wrote a remark in my report book about me needing to ‘learn to be more humble’. My father was very upset. Needless to say, he spoke in English.
As a young adult, I talked to him more frequently. We had discussions on politics and socio-cultural affairs on even terms. Sometimes, when the discussions about politics and policies got overheated, (or rather, I got overheated), he was there to remind me not to transplant my ‘enthusiastic’ ramblings beyond our home.
In one of these sessions, I clearly remember, I retorted back something to the effect that the political environment that we were in then were not the same anymore as compared to those early years, and the culture of fear should be eradicated from each and every one of us.
Caution borne out of experience
That was when his wall of silence crumbled. He told me about his days in politics, the Malaysian leaders he had met and that ‘this Malaysian politician is the son of an earlier politician whom I knew personally’.
Later, in his piece de resistance, he calmly revealed that he was once shadowed by an ISD officer, whose name he could even remember. He could not recall a time during those days in which he was not followed by this shadow. And he did not want that to happen to me.
I did not verify this last bit of my father’s history. I do not wish to, in any case. It is his story, after all. What I know is that ever since the incident, he learned to economise his thoughts and his words. And I learned that for myself too.
As a student of politics now, I perfectly understand the need to have covert intelligence operations in any country, democratic or otherwise. Singapore is no exception, more so since she is such a young nation needing to maintain a sense of security, what with a history of communal violence preceding her independence.
Having said that, I perfectly understand too why our undergraduates, as evident in the NTU-organised forum, are not very willing to open up their mouths, much to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s bafflement.
Baggage of history
Unlike our foreign scholars who could easily uproot themselves, take the first flight out and return to their respective homelands in times of trouble, local undergraduates have their roots firmly entrenched here.
Encapsulated within these roots are their family structures, their friendships, the shared memories, the educational system and the socio-political culture which they grew up with. These are the very foundations they were presumably told earlier on in their lives not to disturb. Because they simply have no other home to return to. And the last thing they want to do is question the very person who has painstakingly laid these foundations for them.
My father, at least, made sure I remember that.
I do foresee though that the silence of the local undergraduates will diminish in the future, when the baggage of history unburdens itself. There are already many signs pointing me to that direction.
Nevertheless, if my father was still alive, I am not sure that I will dare to articulate my reflections and my thoughts to him. What more to publish them. He would, I suspect, be very upset.
And he will be speaking to me in English.
About the author: Kamal is the latest addition to the TOC’s writing team. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Politics at Queen’s University in Belfast. Kamal describes himself as “your typical brudder, typical Mat, typical Singaporean. Also a son, husband, father and a student of politics.”
Kamal has a blog here.