Singapore exile Tan Wah Piow (on the left) and Malaysian activist Hishammuddin Rais pose for a picture with Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad

Lawyer in exile and president of the University of Singapore’s Students’ Union (USSU) in the 70s, Mr Tan Wah Piow, among other political activists, met Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the Perdana Leadership Foundation in the administrative capital of Putrajaya yesterday (Aug 30).

The purpose of the meeting was to extend an invitation to the Prime Minister to deliver a keynote address at a conference on democracy next year, which the Prime Minister had accepted “in principle”, as confirmed by a representative from Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Office after the meeting.

“As far as I’m concerned, the most important things that Tun Mahathir brought about through his victory is this positiveness and aspiration for a freer society,” said Mr Tan.

“Personally, I am very grateful for this open, democratic space that Tun Mahathir’s government has opened and it’s a beacon for many who are struggling for democracy, not just in Singapore but in other parts of Southeast Asia.”

Mr Tan also said in response to being asked about how he thinks the Singapore government would react to the meeting that “they will be very concerned, not because I met with Dr Mahathir, but the fact that the prime minister is prepared to share his views about democracy and to enhance the development of democracy in the region.

He added that the Singapore government’s concern might stem from what he believes to be the case of Malaysia inadvertently “stealing the limelight from Singapore”, and that it would provide a contrast to the political picture in Singapore, which he characterised as “becoming (an) outdated, archaic society with its dominant party controls”.

When queried as to whether there will be a spillover effect into Singapore’s political landscape as a result of its neighbouring country’s 14th General Election in May, Tan, who is based in London, said: “I hope so, because Malaysians have pointed the way to Singaporeans that change is possible, [and that] change is not frightening.”

Mr Tan fled to London in 1976 after being arrested, and sentenced to imprisonment after being found guilty of allegedly inciting a riot with workers which he strongly states as being framed.

The Singapore government subsequently pinpointed him as the backbone behind the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy, which led to the launch of Operation Spectrum that resulted in the detention of 22 persons who had allegedly plotted to topple the government. Shortly after, Mr Tan’s citizenship was revoked under section 135(1) of the Singapore constitution for being a resident outside Singapore for a continuous period of 10 years. Mr Tan currently resides in UK.

Other activists present at the meeting were Singaporean academic Dr Thum Ping Tjin, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, civil rights activist Jolovan Wham and award-winning graphic novelist Sonny Liew and veteran Malaysian political activist Hishamuddin Rais, who is also a member of Mr Tan’s organisation Forces for the Renewal of Southeast Asia. Mr Hishamuddin Rais was involved in organising the meeting.

Wham was held up at the immigration on Thursday for an hour after his name was flagged out by the system and said to be on Interpol’s list but was let off by the Malaysian authorities to enter the country. Wham is currently under charges from the Singapore Attorney-General’s Chambers for few counts of illegal assembly, not signing police statement and one count of vandalism.

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