The following was a message from Tan Wah Piow, which was read to those attending the reading of Escape from the Lion’s Paw at the Freedom Film Festival 2014, held at the Art House Singapore on 15 November 2014.
It’s a privilege to be able to make this short contribution to this event. For me, every opportunity to be able to communicate with fellow Singaporeans is a bonus for an exile, and this is one such opportunity not to be missed especially when you are doing a reading of Escape From The Lion’s Paw.
Digital technology makes possible our communication today with minimal cost and effort. But that is only partially the case where the message has an inconvenient truth. Without the vision and courage of Function 8, I will not be addressing you today.
For me, this is a surrealistic experience. Despite being branded along with others as a security threat, I am able to share my thoughts with you without, as yet, the intervention of big brother.
Likewise, you are able partake in the reading of Escape from the Lion’s Paw, the book which incidentally inspired Tan Pin Pin to make the documentary To Singapore With Love. Yet, the film is regarded as such a security threat by the Prime Minister that it is unsafe for you to watch.
It takes a genius with a twisted mind, and the hide of a rhinoceros to justify such perverse decision.
As most of you may not have seen the film, please be assured that my mini autobiographical essay, “The Making of An Outlaw”, published in Escape provides far more details about the circumstances leading to my exile than what is in the film. Yet for the authority to take such drastic action against the film, and not the book, Tan Pin Pin the director must necessarily be a far better communicator of ideas than the five of us collectively.
That being the case, I hope I have not instigated you to abandon this reading session, and instead turn it into a rally for the unbanning of the film. Rationally speaking, you can have both.
If the chronicles of how each of us managed to slip through the claws of repression sound romantic, it is because the reflections were written some two or three decades after our successful escapes. The words in my essay could hardly reflect the real fear of what would follow if the escape was unsuccessful.
Having reached the safety in the land of our exile, a new challenge unfolds which few could comprehend. The landscape in exile is harsh for the reluctant emigrant, just like a fish out of the water. Besides, we have to fend off the concerted efforts of the powers that be to demonise and isolate us. Happily, cyberspace, cheaper air travel and globalisation have brought the exiles closer to home, and the people.
As you listen to the extracts from each episode in the book, try to imagine yourself as any one of us. Ask what you would have done in our shoes? But that may be an unreasonable request because you are not me, or Francis Khoo or Dr Ang Swee Chye, or Ho Juan Thai, or Tang Fong Har.
A fairer, but greater challenge would be for you to imagine yourself as yourself, living in those times. What would you have done if you were aware of our predicaments?
This exercise of scrutinising ourselves as individuals and social actors is as important as understanding our history. As one thinker famously said, the purpose of understanding history is to change it. And who are the agents for change if not each one of us, and collectively?
Changing attitudes to politics in Singapore is as difficult as effecting structural changes to the body politic. This is because after half a century of political abuse, the majority of the people are so insensitive to political injustice that many at times unwittingly adopt the governments’ undemocratic rhetoric as their own. As a nation we are suffering from the Stockholm syndrome. Many are afraid of the thought that we are born free, and unaware that the constitution is intended to bind the government, and not be used as an instrument of oppression.
When laws are unfairly applied to social activists, as it was then and now, those with knowledge merely sigh and get on with their daily lives.
After 50 years of political abuse, it’s time to say enough is enough. We should collectively recover the courage to assert our constitutional rights, making that the norm rather than an exception. When that day comes, there will not be any more exiles.
Tan Wah Piow
From Cappadocia, in Turkey