If anyone was entitled to be bitter, it was Dr Lim Hock Siew.
Detained as communist under Operation Cold Store in 1963 when Singapore was still a self-governing state under British rule, Dr Lim was only released 19 years later into a vastly transformed, independent Singapore.
Dr Lim was originally detained in 1963 on the advice of the Internal Security Council, which comprised representatives from the British Colonial, Malaysian Federal and Singapore governments.
But his continued detention in independent Singapore was continued largely at the behest of the Prime Minister of an independent Singapore.
In the early days
Dr Lim grew up in a poor neighbourhood near the Kadang Kerbau Maternity Hospital. His life-long commitment to socialism emanated from his awareness of the problems and difficulties faced by the poor, supplemented by the theoretical knowledge he gained from books.
At university, he was a committed founder-member of the University Socialist Club. He was also a member of the then left-wing People’s Action Party (PAP) from its inception, and campaigned in the 1955 and 1959 elections.
His reputation as a medical doctor preceded him – not only did his clinic dispense free medicine for the needy and the real indigent, he also gave them transport money to go home, as Dr Wong Wee Nam recollected in an article for TOC. Dr Lim believed that, from a societal perspective, the most common cause of anemia was not iron deficiency but poverty.
When the PAP expelled 13 dissident MPs who refused to support its Malaysia scheme in July 1961, Dr Lim resigned as a government doctor and joined the newly-formed Barisan Sosialis, which he regarded as the only meaningful party that could carry its anti-colonial struggle one step forward. He had a major role in formulating the party’s position and debated against the PAP’s terms for merger with Malaya.
As he put it in his oral history recorded by the National Archives: ‘It was my deep conviction in the Barisan’s position on the issue that in great measure helped me withstand the torments and efforts to destroy my morale in the long years of imprisonment from February 1963. My stand and that of the Barisan has been vindicated by historical events.’
In prison, Dr Lim rejected every opportunity offered to him to sign statements which would have gained him release, but which he felt was false and politically motivated. He refused to do anything which could be used to justify his detention.
About 9 years into his detention, he was asked to sign a statement committing to support the democratic system in Singapore, and to not participate in politics.
He refused, pointing out that the two demands were contradictory: if the first was true, then there would be no reason for him to be deprived of his right to the second.
He said, at a book launch on 14 November 2009:
“So, the main democratic right (to participate in politics) is a fundamental constitutional right of the people of Singapore. And no one should be deprived of their right and held to ransom to extort statements of contrition of repentance and contrition”
With no bitterness
Remarkably, Dr Lim held little bitterness towards life in general, or hatred for those who incarcerated him.
But that’s not to say he ever stopped fighting for what he believed in.
Dr Lim had, throughout his life and even towards its twilight, called for the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA).
Together with 15 former ISA detainees, he issued two joint statements in September 2011 calling for the abolition of the Act and the setting up of an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the allegations made against ISA detainees. The statements urged the government “to have the moral and political courage to set up such a commission in the interest of truth and transparency.” By this time, Dr Lim would have been 80 years old.
The world celebrates men like Nelson Mandela, political prisoners who bore their crosses with equanimity and grace.
But less will celebrate the passing of Dr Lim Hock Siew, an understated medical doctor from Kadang Kerbau who held firm to the principles of social justice and equality until the very end.
This is due in no small part to the State’s attempt to muzzle his voice until as late as 2009, when it banned a factual video of him speaking in public, without ever alleging that the speech itself was unlawful.
But Dr Lim’s life holds lessons that, in the end, have the potential to transcend the political shackles with which his oppressors had sought to restrain him: a life of beliefs held close and lived fiercely, a life lived with sacrifice and compassion, and an end without bitterness or regret.
Would his oppressors be able to say the same when their day comes?