By Teo Soh Lung
“I am not interested in saving Lee Kuan Yew’s face. This is not a question of pride but one of principle. My detention is completely unjustifiable and I will not lift a single finger to help Lee Kuan Yew to justify the unjustifiable.”
Dr Lim Hock Siew (21 February 1931 – 4 June 2012) minced no words when he responded with the above to two high ranking special branch agents who had asked him to accept two conditions for his release in order to “preserve” the face of Lee Kuan Yew. His defiant and angry reply must have made the agents feel sheepish and small. He had already spent more than nine years in prison for no reason.
It was an outrageous suggestion that he should help preserve Lee Kuan Yew’s face. Dr Lim not only rejected the offer outright, he issued a public statement through his lawyer, Mr T T Rajah.
I admire the courage of Dr Lim for issuing that statement. I admire the courage and sacrifice of his wife, Dr Beatrice Chen for allowing the statement to be issued, knowing full well that it would diminish the prospect of a release for Dr Lim. Their only son who was five months old when Dr Lim was arrested had just turned nine. It was an enormous sacrifice.
Anyone who has been imprisoned under the Internal Security Act (ISA) would know that Dr Lim’s statement could only meant continued imprisonment for a very long time accompanied by harsher prison conditions and deprivations. Dr Lim would have to be psychologically prepared for those consequences because no one will be able to secure his release. No cabinet minister or president would risk losing their careers by contradicting instructions for the renewal of detention orders.
At a forum organised by Function 8 in 2011, a member of the audience asked if Dr Lim anticipated being incarcerated for 20 years. His response was “No.” He continued, “When I said goodbye to my wife, I said: “See you in eight years’ time.” The longest serving detainee then was Ahmad Boestamam who was imprisoned by the British for eight years. I did not expect my imprisonment to be so long. I thought Singapore would merge with Malaysia, and I would not be detained for so long. But at the end of ten years, I decided to make another ten-year plan. I wanted to be realistic. If you are not psychologically prepared, you would surely break down. As leaders of the movement, we could not betray our followers, we had to stay firm.”
Dr Lim Hock Siew was a man of steel. In the history of Singapore, thousands have been arrested and imprisoned without trial under the ISA. Many have been banished or went into involuntary exile. They remain political exiles even till today.
Loh Miao Gong in “The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore, Commemorating 50 Years” edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa listed 1190 prisoners. The number according to the Minister for Home Affairs, Teo Chee Hean, was 2460 as at 1990. Since Ms Loh’s list was published, more names have emerged. Many of those 1190 have been imprisoned for more than a decade and several close to two decades. Singapore boasts of Dr Chia Thye Poh, an elected legislative assemblyman and a Physics lecturer who lost 32 of his best years under prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. Dr Lim Hock Siew was the second longest serving prisoner of conscience in our history. It behoves us to remember the huge sacrifices they and so many others have made for us.
Why did Singaporeans allow people like Dr Lim Hock Siew to be imprisoned for such horrendous length of time? How did the People’s Action Party (PAP) government succeed in imprisoning him for 20 years without any murmur of protest from Singaporeans?
In the earlier published post on Dr Lim Hock Siew (see here), one Hoh Jin Wei asked: “Was he a commie?” In another post, Hoh Jin Wei asked: “Did he mention that Lim Chin Siong was communist sympathiser?” I don’t know Hoh Jin Wei. If he is a young person who grew up with the staple of PAP history books, it explains why Lee’s government has been so successful in its brutal and unconscionable ways. Using labels on innocent people to create fear among the population is its hallmark. It is a method learnt from our British colonial master. Labels such as Communists, Reds, Pro communists, Euro communists, Marxists, Terrorists are freely used on ISA prisoners. These labels allowed the PAP to manipulate our thoughts. One recent example is the Hock Lee bus riot made into a million dollar film “Days of Rage”.
The PAP propagandists, including Janadas Devan, the son of former president C V Devan Nair who wrote a very impressive and heart wrenching foreword for Francis T Seow’s “To Catch a Tartar, A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison”, harped on the falsehood that the communists were behind the riot. So anyone who is a communist or alleged to be a communist or communist sympathiser would be rioters by implication. The film failed to inform us that the riot was the work of agent provocateurs planted by the British and not the work of communists. It did not reveal that the bus workers’ strike came about because the trade union set up by the employer reneged on a settlement that was agreed upon in the presence of an arbitrator, an academic called Dr Charles Gamba.
Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP ministers proclaim their abhorrence for words that remotely hint of character flaws. Singaporeans and foreigners have been sued and bankrupted. Lee and his ministers have received millions as compensation. But have Lee and his colleagues ever think of the damage they have caused to the reputation of the thousands who they accused as communists, pro-communists, Euro-communists, Marxists and terrorists and being involved in “communist united front activities to violently overthrow the elected government?” They were incarcerated without trial for years under the ISA? Not a shred of evidence has ever been produced to prove such alleged subversive activities.
They have never been given the opportunity to rebut the government’s false allegations in a court of law. All of them have lost their best years in prison. They have been scarred for life. Their good names sullied a million times more that Lee Kuan Yew and his ministers. Their families suffered immensely, many deprived of sole bread winners. Only a minority manage to make good their ruined lives. Should they not be compensated for such character assassinations?
In 2011 at the memorial gathering of the Late Mr Tan Jinq Quee, Dr Lim Hock Siew called for the setting up of an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate into the allegations against all ISA prisoners. It took nearly 50 years for this call to be made.
The PAP government ignored the call. In the same year, Dr Lim Hock Siew and 15 former ISA prisoners again called upon the PAP government to abolish the ISA and set up an independent commission of inquiry. The PAP government not only refused to do so, it reiterated its baseless allegations.
On 2 June 2012, Function 8 and MARUAH commemorated the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum at Hong Lim Park. The event was supposed to have taken place on 19 May 2012 but it was postponed because of the Hougang by election. The public event was attended by several hundred people. A letter calling for the abolition of the ISA and the return of political exiles was signed by 13 survivors of Operation Spectrum together with 17 of their relatives and 90 friends and members of the public. It was submitted to the prime minister of Singapore. The prime minister did not even acknowledge receipt of the letter.
Dr Lim Hock Siew would have attended the commemoration on 2 June 2012 had he been well. Regrettably, he was too ill. But he managed to send a message to me at 4.42 am that day: “Please don’t be disappointed. I am still feeling very tired and giddy on getting up.” He passed away two days later, on 4 June 2012. He passed away peacefully knowing that the call for the abolition of the ISA and the return of political exiles as well as the setting up of an Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate ISA cases will continue.
On 2 February 2013, survivors of Operation Coldstore commemorated its 50th anniversary at Hong Lim Park. The crowd was even larger than that for Operation Spectrum. Again there was a call for the abolition of the ISA.
It is crucial and urgent that the ISA which legitimizes state terrorism be repealed. As Dr Lim Hock Siew reminded us repeatedly, this law is a “reserve weapon to safeguard the PAP’s interests”.
Will the Singapore government abolish the ISA? Will it welcome exiles home without conditions? It will take a very long time before this happens. Meanwhile, ISA survivors and the people of Singapore have to continue to work towards these goals. For the present, no parliamentarian (opposition and PAP backbenchers) has ever called for the repeal of this unjust law or asked about the status of the 11 Muslims who are still unjustly imprisoned under the ISA. Two of the 11 people have been imprisoned for more than twelve years. The parliamentarians appear to accept the government’s allegations as gospel truth. They have failed to discharge their duty as elected representatives of the people who should speak up against injustice, no matter how unpopular the cause may be. Their inaction may result in the 11 Muslims being imprisoned for many more decades as had happened to Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Chia Thye Poh and many others.
As a survivor of Operation Spectrum, I will continue to keep this issue alive. Hoh Jin Wei is wrong to tell us that “Lee Kuan Yew have moved on n built Singapore to what it is today all while [sic] these folks are still crying away. They got out if [sic] jail but never left it. I say move on”. The journey has only just begun. A nation that does not know her ugly past is bound to fail for it will permit the government to repeat and inflict the harm that it has done so successfully for decades.
May the memory and spirit of Dr Lim Hock Siew inspire and unite us to fight for what is right and just and to reclaim our human rights.