By Dr Wong Wee Nam
“Parliamentary democracy does not mean merely casting of votes once in five years during election time. Far more than this is the freedom of thought, the freedom of expression, the freedom of association, the freedom of organization everyday during the five year period and continuously thereafter.” — Dr Lim Hock Siew
This declaration by Dr Lim Hock Siew encapsulates his political beliefs. This is what any true democrat would subscribe to.
Not everybody knows who Dr Lim is. This is because he was almost never mentioned in the media, nor was his photograph, except on a couple of occasions, ever published. But for those who knew him, they have nothing but respect for the man.
At his wake, this respect was written all over the faces of those who had come to pay their last respects to the late Dr Lim Hock Siew. Their admiration for the man was evident. The media did not give any daily news bulletin of his wake or written pages of his life as they are wont to do when some important figure dies. Perhaps, in their opinion, Dr Lim was of not much historical significance to merit such attention.
Nevertheless, to all his friends and to those who went to mourn his passing, he had been their hero and will always remain so.
This is not just because Dr Lim had been incarcerated under the Internal Security Act for 18 years, the second longest to be detained after Chia Thye Poh. More than that, it is difficult not to admire a man who was prepared to give up his freedom, a promising career and a young family for a belief that he thought was good for Singapore and its people. He was not enticed into politics by high salaries, nor was he deterred by the threat of prolonged detention.
To be imprisoned under the ISA is not anything like staying in a holiday camp. We have heard and read about the long hours of interrogation in a freezing room, the solitary confinement, the sleep deprivation, the psychological methods used to extract confessions, and the treatment given out aimed at reducing the dignity and morale of the prisoners.
The silver-haired people who turned up at the wake of Dr Lim know this. This is because many of these people had also been through it. They too had experienced what Dr Lim had endured. These old comrades of Dr Lim can therefore empathise with his sufferings.
However, the atmosphere at Dr Lim’s wake was not one of gloom. There might have been some regret at the passing of a good and honourable man, but there was no melancholy in the air. Some years ago, it would be hard to see ex-political detainees coming together and feeling uninhibited. At that time, not a lot of them wanted to talk about their past. In contrast, the people at Dr Lim’s wake were relaxed and the comradeship amongst them was palpable.
These old friends of Dr Lim were not there to mope or feel sorrowful at the demise of a fallen hero. On the contrary, they appeared to be there to pay the ultimate respect for someone who had refused to go down for the count. He was their inspiration. They remember his inspirational words: “They can imprison my body, but they cannot imprison my spirit.” Maybe deep down in their hearts they were celebrating some kind of a subliminal triumph.
Some years back, in November 2009, Dr Lim Hock Siew, who had all along kept a very low profile, gave what was probably his only public speech in his entire life at the launch of a book, The Fajar Generation. That speech was filmed and put on Youtube. For some reason, the authorities decided to ban the video. This is most remarkable. After all these years, if a person could induce anxiety in the authorities with a speech at a book launch, then he must, indeed, be a remarkable man.
Dr Lim was a humble and soft-spoken person. He was not known as a rabble-rouser nor as a forceful person. He could have earned an early release from detention by just making a public statement of repentance and leaving Singapore for further studies. Yet he refused because he believed that he should not renounce something he had not done. Beneath his soft nature was a will made of steel.
As he said, “Bitter sacrifice strengthens bold resolve.”
There is a Chinese idiom that describes such a man like Dr Lim Hock Siew: 威武不屈, meaning to steadfastly defy all brute force, to be firm and unyielding or having a spirit that is heroic and indomitable that neither threats nor force can bend.
This idiom is derived from a story from Mencius. During the Warring States Period, there were many states of various strengths. The stronger ones were seeking to achieve hegemony and the weaker ones were looking for ways to survive. As a result, many strategist-negotiators emerged to offer their services and political propositions to the various states.
Amongst the many strategist-negotiators, the two most outstanding were Gongsun Yan (公孙衍) and Zhang Yi (张仪). Since they represented the strong states, many smaller states were afraid of them.
One Jing Chun asked Mencius, “Gongsun Yan and Zhang Yi have struck fear in the hearts of many Princes. Should they be considered real men?”
Mencius answered, “How can they be considered real men? If you want to be a real man, then you must know about etiquette and rites. You must put humanity, justice and virtue as your utmost values. When you achieve ambition or success, you have to pull the masses up with you. When you are down, you do not resort to crass behaviour or fawning. You should not allow wealth to dazzle and confuse you, nor should you allow poverty to take away your aspirations. More important, you must not allow coercion and force to intimidate you and make you lose your integrity and moral courage. If you can achieve these, then you can be considered to be a real man!”
The ISA is an intimidating instrument. If you are outspoken, people will invariably ask if you are afraid of the ISA. It is the ISA that has perpetuated the climate of fear in Singapore and curbed the political growth of Singapore. As long as it is still around, people will still be afraid to speak up or participate in legitimate political activities. The terrifying thing about it is that it grants arbitrary powers to the executive and allows people to be detained without trial and for unspecified periods. Thus, it is easily subjected to misuse.
In Dr Lim Hock Siew’s case, he was kept in detention even when circumstances have changed and threats have passed.
Unfortunately, because of his detention and the ISA, Dr Lim was not given the opportunity to show what he could have done for Singapore. Nevertheless his indomitable spirit and his love for his country will always be remembered and should be an inspiration for those who want to make Singapore a better place, or who need to defend this country when the time comes.
In the official book, Dr Lim Hock Siew may not have a place in the history of Singapore. However, the ISA has become inseparable with Dr Lim Hock Siew and his fellow detainees. Ironically, therefore, as long as the ISA remains, the names of Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Said Zahari and Chia Thye Poh will always crop up when it is mentioned.
It is said that history is written by the victors, but sometimes the vanquished can leave some indelible marks that just would not go away.