Remembering Dr Lim Hock Siew, Singapore’s freedom fighter and prisoner of conscience

(Left) Dr Lim Hock Siew and (Right) Teo Soh Lung

“... a life without convictions, without idealism is a mere meaningless existence, and I'm sure most of you will agree that as human beings, we are worthy of a life much more meaningful than just that.”  - Dr Lim Hock Siew at the launch of The Fajar Generation in 2009.

For that conviction, that idealism, Dr Lim (21 Feb 1931 – 4 Jun 2012) sacrificed 20 years of his life, his family and his medical career. He was imprisoned without trial for 20 years. At the time of his arrest, his only son was just five months old.

Today is the 5th anniversary of the death of our Freedom Fighter, Dr Lim who died at the age of 81.

The son of fishmongers, Dr Lim excelled in Raffles Institution as a brilliant orator and debater. Quick on his feet, he never had to speak from scripts even when he was in his 80s. He was a school prefect and editor of the school newsletter.

After completing his education in Raffles Institution, Dr Lim and Poh Soo Kai entered the Medical Faculty of the University of Malaya in Singapore and graduated in 1957. A staunch anti-colonialist, he and Poh Soo Kai as undergraduates, helped Lee Kuan Yew found the People's Action Party (PAP).

In 1959, Lee Kuan Yew expelled Dr Lim from the party by not renewing his party membership. Two years later, Dr Lim and others founded the Barisan Sosialis. He became the editor of the party organ, “The Plebeian”. The party was confident that it would win the general election in 1963. However, Lee Kuan Yew with the help of the Malayan prime minister and the British prevented this outcome by using foul means. They mounted Operation Coldstore on 2 February 1963. Dr Lim together with more than 133 opposition leaders were arrested under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, the forerunner of the Internal Security Act.

In a speech delivered at Function 8's Changing Worlds Series in 2011, Dr Lim said:

“The whole crux of the matter in Operation Cold Store was to prevent the opposition from coming into power through peaceful, constitutional means and to ensure that the PAP carry on its power. All these talk of security and violence are just propaganda. The British archival documents have shown that there was no violence and no evidence of any communist conspiracy.”

The cruelty of Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP regime is evidenced by the incredibly long incarceration of Dr Lim and many others. Dr Lim was imprisoned from 2 February 1963 to 6 September 1982. During this period, Dr Lim was subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment in various prisons.

As an idealist and a fighter, Dr Lim together with five others, filed an application for release in 1967. They won and were brought out of the prison gate only to be rearrested and sent to the Central Police Station to be tortured. Imprisoned in dirty bug filled tiny dark cell, he spoke about how he was subjected to torture at the launch of “The Fajar Generation” in 2009.

In 1966, Dr Lim sued and obtained damages from The Straits Times, Sin Chew and other news media for defamation over reports that he was involved in a fight with Lim Chin Siong in Changi prison. It was a baseless report for it was not possible for the two to meet, let alone fight when they were imprisoned in different blocks.

Dr Lim was a respected leader among the prisoners. He was their doctor, mediator and counsellor. In 1972, he participated in the three month long hunger-strike to protest against the order that political prisoners perform manual work and be paid 8 cents a day. That strike saved all subsequent political prisoners from having to work like ordinary convicted criminals.

At 80, Dr Lim gave an inspiring speech, without script, at the invitation of Function 8 in 2011. Below are some of his answers to questions raised by the audience:

Q: Many people in the Barisan were aware of the arrests in 1963, and you and your colleagues were expecting it. What went on in your mind that night? Did anyone of you consider running away before the ISD officers come?

A: I think some of the Barisan cadres decided to run away and some did. But the top cadres were all arrested because we did not know who was going to be arrested. I expected myself to be arrested because I knew I was on the three lists – of the British, Tunku and Lee Kuan Yew.

The option I had was to run away from Singapore. We did discuss the idea of forming a government-in-exile but we dropped the idea because there was not much point at that time. We would just go in and fight it out in prison, hoping that after merger, we would be released. Then we would fight within the context of Malaysia with our comrades in Malaysia to have a socialist front throughout the length and breadth of Malaysia. We believed, at that time, with our united forces – the left-wing forces – we could bring about a radical change in the whole political context of Malaysia. The fact that we were all suppressed has led to this present state of Malaysia where the feudal and conservative elements started propagating their racist policies. These racist policies would not have been able to emerge if we had the influence in Malaysia because our fight would be on class lines, not on racial lines. We would unite the Malay peasants and the Chinese workers to form a united front to overthrow the feudal system and the British...

Q: When you and Lee Kuan Yew were comrades in the PAP, what was your relationship with him? Did you, at times, irritate him?

A: At that time, before we broke up, I could go to his house at anytime. Even at night time, I could knock on his door to see him. We discussed politics, we discussed the manifesto of the PAP. In one of his by-elections, I helped him with house to house campaigns. We were on very good terms. Very often, after he had given a speech in the Legislative Assembly, he would ask me what I thought about his speech. We were on very good terms. I had nothing personal against him but he had a lot of personal things against me.

It was only after we broke up, that I faced him at two public forums. There, I irritated him. At the public forum held at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, he lost face. He was telling lie after lie and all I had to do was to expose his lies. He just couldn't take it.

...In 1963, I was 31. We matured very fast during the war years. We went through a lot of experiences. I was 14 or 15, we were thinking of how to free our country from colonial rule. We were living in a climate where everybody was fighting for independence. India obtained independence in 1947, Sukarno declared independence for Indonesia in 1948; Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China in 1949. We were inspired by all those events. Ghana and Kenya were fighting for independence. In Kenya, the Mau Mau were brutally suppressed by the British. We knew of the British tendencies to suppress us. We fought the British with our eyes open. In a way, we are lucky to be alive because you could expect to be killed as they were safeguarding their properties. They had no problem getting people to do the work for them. Note how they massacred the university students in Calcutta - machine-gunned them in the streets. Where were the so-called merciful British gentlemen? You threaten their interests, they would defend that to the hilt. In Kenya, the Mau Mau were brutally suppressed. In Congo, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated on the orders of American President Eisenhower. This was revealed by the BBC. Eisenhower personally ordered the assassination of Lumumba after he was captured. It was a life and death struggle. You wanted to fight the British, you must be prepared to sacrifice your life. It was with that kind of spirit that we went in, and it was with that kind of spirit that we spent so many years in prison. It is all or none. You don't go in half-heartedly. We knew where we stood, We knew what we were up against.

Q: You said you were prepared for the arrest in 1963. Did you anticipate that you would be imprisoned for 20 years?

A: No. When I said goodbye to my wife, I said: “See you in 8 years’ time.” The longest serving detainee then was Ahmad Boestamam who was imprisoned by the British for 8 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 10 years, I decided to make another 10-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. Lim Chin Siong would have stayed firm if not for his mental breakdown. Poh Soo Kai, Said Zahari and many others were imprisoned for decades. It was no big deal.

Q: Why do you think some were detained for a long time, while others were not?

A: You have to ask Lee Kuan Yew. The excuse they gave was that I refused to renounce violence. In 1977, I was approached by the head of the Special Branch, Lim Chye Heng also former head of the Special Branch, Wong Su Chi. Both of them came to see me. They said all you have to do is to release a statement to renounce violence. I asked: “Is there any evidence that I have been advocating violence?” I have been strictly following peaceful, legal, constitutional struggle.

Q: You were a high-profile case.

A: I was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Lee Kuan Yew wanted me to leave the country. In fact when Gough Whitlam, prime minister of Australia came to Singapore, he told Whitlam: “These two doctors are good doctors and you can take them. So they approached me twice to leave the country. I said if I wanted to leave, it would have to be my own decision.

Q: How is it that your Rakyat Clinic is still around today when you were imprisoned for 20 years?

A: When Poh Soo Kai and I were arrested (Soo Kai and I were founders of the clinic), another doctor, Ahmad Bakar took over. When Soo Kai was released, he went back to the clinic. Then he was re-arrested. After his second release, he opened his own clinic. Then I came out and returned to my clinic.

Q: How did you keep your sanity during those long years in prison?

A: It’s a question of conviction. You know what you are doing is right. I am a socialist. I believe everything in socialism - in a society where man does not exploit man. It is something akin to a Christian who believes that all men are brothers. And we should all live like brothers and sisters. The turmoil in the capitalist world - all the financial trouble today, convince me even more that socialism is the answer to mankind's struggle. You are witnessing now, the end of capitalism. This is what Karl Marx said in the last century, that this is the self-destructive phase of capitalism. The contradiction cannot be settled. The accumulation of wealth is so concentrated in such a small section of the population that the majority cannot turn around, unless they turn the system around. That is why there is the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. I believe in another year or so, there will be an intense struggle in the western world. Hopefully not in violence. Hopefully they can do it without violence.

Q: Can you let us know which prison you went to?

A: I survived many prisons. I went to Outram. It has been demolished. Then Changi, also demolished. After that Queenstown. Also demolished. I was in Central Police Station. Again that was demolished. That was the most horrible prison. Then I went to Moon Crescent, Changi. Then to Whitley Road.

I was in Queenstown for four years. We were locked up most of the time. Inside the cell was a tin can for your toiletries which we washed the next morning. At night we have chamber pots and a small bowl of water to drink.

The food was practically the same as that supplied to common prisoners.

For over a year, they put me in a very luxurious place. The home of two top special branch men. One at Mount Rosie and another at Jervois Road. There I was allowed to live with the families as though I was a free man. They encouraged me to take walks outside, which I refused. If you did that, they would ask you to sign a statement. I knew they were trying to bribe me into doing that.

Q: Are you optimistic for democracy in Singapore?

A: I am afraid not. I do not see how this place can develop. Now it’s dependent upon casino industries with all these immoral practices. Trade is dependent upon American markets. Chinese don’t need Singaporean goods, they have all they want. In fact they would want to export here. The only way to survive is with Malaysia. But the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore is so bad that I cannot think of a reunion. The ultimate goal of socialists in this country is to have merger with Malaysia. Of course many people will be reluctant ... Merger? Malaysia – that kind of country? So much racism? But that is the consequence of the lack of left-wing influence. If we had been in parliament in the past 40 years, it would have been very different. They have arrested thousands, not hundreds. They had to close down the Labour Party and Partai Rakyat... all the top leaders were arrested. Dr M.K. Rajakumar, Syed Husin Ali ... so it is a free for all for those conservative groups. Now the Malays are awakened, that privilege must not only be for one. Unless these groups of people wake up, there will be no change.

We are optimistic in the sense that historically, we have to be optimistic. There will be change. How it comes about, whether peacefully or by violent process, we may never know. But change is inevitable. We cannot go on like this.

Q: You were a member of the PAP before the cadre system was implemented. Were you a member after the cadre system was started?

A: Anyone who was pro-left was not made a cadre. I was expelled in 1959. I was not even a cadre even though I was a founding member. At that time there were three people in charge of reviewing membership. Lee Kuan Yew, Ong Pang Boon and Lim Shee Ping. When my membership came up, Lee Kuan Yew took it up, threw it into the waste paper basket and looked at the other two. They kept quiet. Shee Ping was subsequently arrested.

Q: Najib recently announced that the ISA would be abolished. What are your views on why the Singapore government is so reluctant to abolish it, especially in view of the fact that the younger leaders will not have the stomach to use it?

A: My assessment is that they are going to use the ISA as a reserve weapon to safeguard the PAP's interests. I believe they would have the stomach to use it if they are faced with the grim reality of losing the elections. After all, Lee Hsien Loong is groomed by Lee Kuan Yew. Monitored and mentored. When faced with reality he will use it. He might provoke you. And then use it as an excuse to arrest. I hope it will not be used but I think it will be their reserve weapon.

Dr Lim Hock Siew continues to inspire us. We will always remember him.

This entry was posted in Civil Society.