A memorial gathering in honour of Tan Jing Quee

by: Teo Soh Lung/

Tan Jing Quee, historian, writer, poet and lawyer who passed away on 14 June 2011, was the person who has given us, Singaporeans back our history of a powerful local progressive movement, which has been erased from our memory.

The textbooks and mainstream memoirs only tell us about the Cambridge-educated leaders and their friends in the Malayan Forum based in London who decided that the British must go. In fact, the main forces which persisted at bringing colonial rule in Singapore to an end were the Chinese middle school students, the English-educated University Socialist Club members, and the trade union movement led by Lim Chin Siong.

A leader of the University Socialist Club from 1960 to his graduation in 1963, a trade unionist at the Singapore Business Houses Employees’ Union, a Barisan Sosialis candidate in the 1963 general election and detained under the Internal Security Act in 1963, Tan Jing Quee wrote about all three groups, and the ties that bound them. One common feature that the groups shared aside from their anti-colonial position was that they supported Lee Kuan Yew as the key English-speaking champion of the left, and regarded the PAP of the time as their party.

However, the PAP left was expelled by the faction led by Lee Kuan Yew in 1961 over the terms of the merger with Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah, which they argued was not workable as it was based on accommodating to the racial politics of the traditionalist leaders in Malaya.

They were proven to be correct with the race riots in 1964 in Singapore, and the island’s separation from Malaysia in 1965, but this did not bring to an end the detention without trial of the left-wing leaders from the trade unions, Barisan Sosialis and the Nanyang University who were arrested in Operation Cold Store (February 1963) and subsequent detentions. Tan Jing Quee had planned to write a volume on the Malay left as well.

Like people of his generation, he believed in the Malayan dream, which saw Singapore as part of a socialist Malaya. To them, the politics of race in Malaysia today, as well as the persistent vulnerability of Singapore, and its problematic attempts at nation-building are a result of the betrayal of this dream. The decimation of the left was not achieved through the strength of popular mandate against them, but through using state power to effect detention without trial and other forms of persecution such as banishment orders. The repressive measures were undertaken in the name of battling communism.

Singapore has had the same rulers since 1959. They have institutionalized their disdain for the people’s will in the name of knowing best what is good for them. Tan Jing Quee has reminded us of how these rulers came to power, consolidated their regime, and also how our society had been, and can be more politically inclusive, socially egalitarian and culturally vibrant.

There will be a memorial gathering in honour of Tan Jing Quee on Saturday, 20 August 2011 at 2.00 p.m. at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. All are welcome to attend.

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