In memory of Tan Jing Quee (18 Jan 1939 – 14 Jun 2011)
by Dr. Hong Lysa
Tan Jing Quee is best known for his dedication to pioneering the writing of the history of the left in Singapore. He has been acknowledged for conceiving and editing Comet in our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History (2001); Our Thoughts are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile (2009); The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya (2010); and The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s (2011).
At the time, each was a risky enterprise, though less so with every publication.
With the success of these publications, it may be forgotten that Jing Quee’s plans for these books were not necessarily greeted with enthusiasm at the time. There was fear that he might be stirring a hornet’s nest, provoking retaliation from the state after a relatively tranquil decade of the 1990s where the former political prisoners slipped into oblivion, as they went about their daily lives, ostensibly putting the past behind them, and correspondingly the assertion that they were communists or communist sympathisers became somewhat muted.
However, the school textbooks on Singapore history had from 1984 been teaching that the ‘communists and pro-communists’ within the PAP were against merger as the Federation government would crack down on the communists in Singapore. The confidence that the state-sanctioned narrative would not be challenged grew. In 1997, the PAP government launched the National Education exhibition, a full-blown narrative of the anti-colonial movement in Singapore as being riddled with communists from the strikes and riots of the 1950s to the merger issue of the early 60s.
It seemed as if the former political prisoners were determined to ignore all this, and suppress their past. A good number did not even tell their children about what they had been through.
Indeed, Jing Quee was not unaware of the concern that he might be courting trouble, and not just for himself when he embarked on his books.
He accordingly planned his moves carefully. Comet in Our Sky was launched in Kuala Lumpur, but not in Singapore. When he accepted the invitation to speak at the Detention-Writing-Healing fringe arts festival in 2006, becoming with Michael Fernandez the first former political prisoners to narrate their experiences at a public event, they both stuck strictly to the fact of their prison days, but still earned a rebuke from the Ministry of Home Affairs about how ‘the government had allowed the detainees to put their past behind, and enabled them and their families to enjoy the prosperity of Singapore, but it would not allow them to re-write history’ and ‘take advantage of young Singaporeans who had not lived through the period.’
This statement did cause anxiety that there would be repercussions on any further attempts to push the issue. Some were concerned that he was rocking the boat. Others held the view that should there be a backlash, younger Singaporeans involved in civil society work who had no links or knowledge of Operation Coldstore and the other detentions, would become fearful and discouraged. It was better not to burden them with the past.
Jing Quee did not share this view, but he was mindful of it.
There were certainly indications that his pursuits were not to be encouraged. A regional branch of the National Library had initially agreed to provide the venue for the book launch in February 2009, but was to change its mind. In the end, the launch was held at a private gallery.
For the launch of the Fajar Generation at the end of that year, Jing Quee and Rose kept the venue secret until a day or two before the event, and only those who had registered were informed of it. There was concern that pressure would be put on the venue hosts to back out. The launch for the translation of Ju Lang and the May 13 Generation two years later on May 14, 2011 turned out to be exactly one week after the landmark 2011 GE. But even before that, he had already discerned that this time, it was fine to advertise the book launch widely.
Jing Quee had been taking calculated risks.
The above account would be familiar to those who know Jing Quee’s work. His vision, perseverance and the quality of the publications have all been acknowledged.
But it is Jing Quee’s courage manifested in his posthumous publication that I would argue may have the most profound impact. In writing about his life for the book on Operation Coldstore (2013), Tan Jing Quee laid bare the fact that he had signed a confession and made a television ‘confession’ to obtain release 2 years and 7 months after being imprisoned in October 1963. He gave a detailed account of how he made up his mind to seek release, and how he tried to negotiate on the wordings of the signed statement, and the conduct of the television appearance. ISD started with sounding open-minded, allowing him to write the first draft of the statement, but slowly wore him down to accepting humiliating terms after raising his hopes of release and then dashing them. Jing Quee also described how he had to brace himself to face his friends when he was released. Indeed, TT Rajah expressed his disappointment, and asked why he gave in. Jing Quee’s reply was that it was a matter that he had to answer to himself.
Rightly do we reserve the greatest respect for the political prisoners who did not capitulate, who spurned all offers and threats to get them to sign for their release, which as Dr Lim Hock Siew pointed out, would be used by the state to legitimize their arrests and imprisonment (for two decades, and more in the case of Chia Thye Poh). Theirs is a moral and political victory achieved at the highest cost to their personal lives.
Jing Quee’s story in contrast is the more common and mundane one. It is one that has by and large been avoided in personal narratives. He knew that the chapter for the Coldstore book would be the last chapter that he would write, given his failing health, and decided to speak plainly of his decision to sign the ‘confession’ after a relatively short period in prison. It was not a story to be proud of, and it took courage to write it. It is also about the high price that the ISA exacted from those who chose this path. At the most extreme, such individuals would be scorned for their weakness, and even accused of falsely implicating friends just to get out (the latter did not apply in Jing Quee’s case).
What Jing Quee had done is to demonstrate that the defeat and setback that he and the others met need not be a permanent one. He faced up to his deed, and thus freed himself from the ignominy that it entailed. He patiently, humbly and sincerely rallied the former political prisoners, winning back their friendship, organising social occasions for get-togethers and rebuilding solidarity among comrades.
And he wrote his history of the left, which in the end they could embrace if they chose to, and proudly reclaim their historical role.
This was first published on That We May Dream Again’s fanpage.