Dr Lim Hock Siew

By Dr Wong Wee Nam

I first met him at the wake of the late Dr Lee Siew Choh in July 2002. That was 20 years after he was released from an almost 20-year detention. I saw a friend sitting at another table and went up to say “hello” to her. He happened to be sitting at the same table and she introduced us.

That was the first time I saw how he looked like.

I had heard of him when I was a young boy. He was the son of a famous fishmonger in the market where I had lived. The father was famous because he had a clever son. Not a lot of poor people then had children who were doctors.

I also heard of him as a young boy because of his reputation as a doctor. Not only did his clinic dispense free medicine for the needy and the real indigent, he also gave them transport money to go home. This is not surprising from a doctor who believes that the most common cause of anaemia is not iron deficiency but poverty.

It was understandable I did not recognize him. After all, his pictures had never been splashed in the newspapers or over television. Nothing much was heard about him when he was incarcerated and nothing was heard about him after his release.

In spite of the news blackout and the low profile he has kept, he is still a political legend, being the second longest political detainee after Chia Thye Poh. Therefore, my reaction was one of excitement mixed with surprise and discomfort when I was introduced.

He put me totally at ease when he asked in a very soft and friendly voice if I was the same one who wrote letters to the press. I was humbled by his sincerity and modesty.

Subsequently, I met him occasionally at medical seminars and talks. We only exchanged some pleasant words and never discussed current affairs. He told me he reads my articles on the blogs but never did he once try to engage me on those topics. At this stage of his life, I suppose he has transcended all these.

Remarkably, in my encounters with him, not once did he express any hatred for anyone or any organization for having deprived him of living a normal life for 20 years.

In 1963, he was arrested because he was deemed a security threat to the interests of Singapore. To have been kept in prison for 20 years, he must have had a pre-detention life that is more colourful or at least equal to that of Mas Selamat. Yet when I looked up as many books (even books written by his ex-comrades) as I could on the era, I could find very little mention of him. Surely a security threat who warrants 20 years of detention would have enough open records of his activities for any movie director to make an equal number of political thrillers. Maybe one day the archives will let us know of his clandestine or subversive activities, if any.

Recently at a launch of the book The Fajar Generation, he made a speech. Martyn See, the filmmaker, recorded the speech and put it on Youtube. The video is now banned by the Singapore authorities. [Read about the ban here.] It cannot be for security reasons that the video is banned. The speech was not fiery, there was no angry condemnation of government, no incitement to violence, no call to arms, no cry to overthrow anyone and no rousing appeal to unite and rally the audience for a cause. Indeed the speech was milder than any election rally speech by a mile.

For months after the speech was made and aired, no investors pulled out of Singapore for security concerns and in fact, the economy recovered. Yet for inexplicable reason, the video was banned and remains so.

Perhaps there is a reason. The video is in danger of changing people’s perception of Dr Lim Hock Siew. He comes off as a very calm and dignified person. There is no anger or bitterness. His intellect is intact and his mind is very clear. Beneath the frail frame is a man with strength of character. He looks so kind and fatherly that one wouldn’t see him as capable of swapping a fly or killing a mosquito, let alone hurting a fellow human being. Behind a soft-spoken exterior one can discern a man full of indomitable courage.

Watching him talk reminds me of a story written by Zhuang Zi (庄子)in his chapter “Autumn Water” (秋水):

When Confucius was traveling in the State of Kuang, he was surrounded by the troops of Sung. Nevertheless he continued singing and playing his lute, totally unfazed. Zi Lu, his disciple, asked, “Master, why are you enjoying yourself?”

Confucius said, “For a long time, I’ve tried to stay out of hardship but failed. This is due to fate. I’ve tried to succeed but failed. This is due to times.

“During times of Yao or Shun, there is no hardship. This has nothing to do with a person’s wisdom. During the reign of King Jie and King Zhou,  people do not achieve success but this is not due to lack of wisdom. It is due to time and circumstance.

“To travel across the water and not shrink from the sea serpent or the dragon is to have the courage of a fisherman. To travel on land and not be afraid of the rhinoceros or tiger is to have the courage of a hunter. To meet clashing blades and face death unflinchingly is to have the courage of a martyr.

“To understand that hardship is a matter of fate and success is a matter of times; and to able to face enormous difficulties without fear or terror is to have the courage of a sage.”


Dr Lim Hock Siew may or may not be a sage but he must be a remarkable man. He was stored away for 20 years and then led a quiet life for the next 28 years. Yet when he made his speech at a book launch, he created enough anxiety for the video to be banned.

Truly remarkable!


The banned video of Dr Lim can be viewed here on Vimeo.


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