Remembering Tan Jing Quee on the 10th anniversary of his passing

by Hong Lysa

I received a mail from Teo Soh Lung on behalf of Function 8, noting that it is the 10th anniversary of Tan Jing Quee’s passing. A piece to remember him for the benefit of younger Singaporeans is in order.

Indeed it is. I couldn’t agree more.

Jing Quee’s legacy lives on in the friendships and solidarity that he brought together, and in a more critical understanding of our history that he initiated.

It continues to loom large in my academic endeavours as a historian.

It was only a month ago that I mentioned his name in an academic conference where I presented a paper on the short stories of He Jin as historical testimony. He Jin was the author of ‘巨浪 (Ju Lang)‘.

In 2009, Jing Quee and I embarked on a study of the political activism of the Chinese middle school students in the 1950s. He recalled hearing about a little-known novel in Chinese about the students’ resistance against the colonial authorities which resulted in the 13 May incident where they were beaten up by the police.

This event galvanised the mass anti-colonial movement in Singapore. Through his friends in Malaysia, Jing Quee got a copy of the book and after I had briefed him on it (Jing Quee had by then had almost completely lost his sight) he decided audaciously that we would translate the novel into English, roping Loh Miao Ping who participated in the sit-in at Chinese High to read out sentence by sentence of the book.

The Mighty Wave‘ along with ‘The May 13 Generation: The Singapore Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s‘ published in English and Chinese were launched in May 2011, a month before Jing Quee’s passing.

Ju Lang as well as He Jin’s short stories provided an unparalleled account of the life a key student leader in the 1950s who became a member of the Communist Party of Malaya.

The four years that I got to know and work with Jing Quee were the most productive of my life as a historian of Singapore, and I continue to draw on them.

I have written tributes on previous four occasions to commemorate Jing Quee. Two were written shortly after his death. This was followed by one marking the third year of his passing, and another on the ninth year.

To commemorate this, the tenth anniversary of his passing, I have reproduced the first section from each of those essays except for the 9th anniversary, excerpted from the second half of the essay. They are arranged in chronological order, and form an aggregate of his personality, intellect and his scholarship.

Tan Jing Quee, (1939-2011): Setting new directions in Singapore Studies’ in s/pores: New Directions in Singapore Studies, 4 July 2011

Tan Jing Quee who passed away on 14 June 2011 was a frequent contributor to s/pores. He wrote for our inaugural issue quite by chance, when two s/pore members had just got to know him then, and learnt that he had written obituaries for his friends Linda Chen Mong Hock (1928-2002), and Usman Awang (1929-2001).

He was hesitant about letting us publish them, concerned that the new e-journal would attract unwelcome attention from the authorities by associating with him, a former political detainee (1963-1966; 1977), and one who had not avoided a public profile.

In 2006, Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez had spoken as former political detainees who were among the more than a hundred people detained in Operation Cold Store and the subsequent Operation Pechah at the Singapore Arts Festival fringe event Detention-Writing-Healing. The event drew a good-sized audience and received press coverage.

The Ministry of Home Affairs then issued a rebuke of the two men in The Straits Times Forum, in the form of the oft-repeated but never substantiated litany that they took part in communist subversion and were detained for threatening the security, stability, and economic well-being of Singapore, and not for holding different political views or pursuing lawful, democratic political activities.

From ‘Tan Jing Quee and a sense of history’ in ‘Salute‘ to our ‘Socialist Warrior: Comrade Tan Jing Quee 18 January 1939-14 June 2011 (20 August 2011)‘:

At my first meeting with Tan Jing Quee five years ago, I did what I am sure fellow historians who got to know him all did—urge him to write his memoirs….

After ruminating for a week following our meeting, I wrote him a long email, explaining how valuable the insights about Singapore’s history that he let us have a glimpse of in our conversation were, that he should write for the sake of posterity, otherwise Singapore’s political history would remain impoverished for lack of contending voices….

Looking back, it was a naïve letter, written in the excitement of meeting such an informed, critically-minded and eloquent person, and knowing that his generation was getting no younger. Jing Quee replied in polite email, professing that he was only a minor personality in the events of the later fifties and early sixties, and that his recollections would not be particularly significant….

When I got to know him better, I realized a number of things from that reply.

Firstly, his emails were brief and carefully-worded, as he had to rely on someone to type it for him, and was careful to be discreet. Also, when Jing Quee said that his role in the political events of his time was a minor one, he meant it. It was not false modesty.

And finally, there is no need for academics or anyone else to impress on him the importance for his generation writing their history. That was in fact his lifelong goal.

He built up, maintained and treasured friendships with fellow former political detainees and activists among the English-educated, and particularly with the Chinese-educated, including those living in Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and a number of western countries.

Accompanied by Rose, he travelled often to meet up with them. This was for the purpose of keeping in touch and maintaining friendships, solidarity, and a sense of community, and also to learn about their experiences to strengthen his understanding of the complex larger historical picture.

In Memory of Tan Jing Quee, 3rd anniversary (Function 8, 14 June 2014)

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.

In Memory of Tan Jing Quee, 9th anniversary (Function 8, 14 June 2010)

I received a note from Function 8 asking if I would mind writing a short article about Tan Jing Quee on the ninth anniversary of his passing.

The note said:

This is just to remind people…

… though no student of the political history of postwar Singapore needs to be reminded of Jing Quee. He lives on every time his writings as well those that have grown out of them are being read.

….

To date, Jing Quee remains the only former political prisoner who had signed security statements (he was arrested a second time in 1977) and put that on record in his life-story. It was published posthumously and titled ‘I won them back one by one’. (‘The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore‘ edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang, and Hong Lysa, 2013).

I worked with Jing Quee on the piece, edited the final version and chose the title.

It was both a painful and a liberating exercise as he relived the humiliation and guilt he bore for decades. He recounted how he was worn down into accepting the script that he recited on television, even though it had been agreed at the start that he could present his own statement.

The final session of working on his chapter for the Coldstore book was quite a rambling one. Jing Quee did not have the energy to continue, but he insisted on trying to remember the occupants of every cell along his corridor during his first imprisonment. He was struggling. Rose phoned his former cellmate, Tan Yam Seng, who came over immediately, and they both pieced together the information.

Jing Quee’s final thoughts were of the most important people in his life: his comrades whom he felt he had let down, and in the end not only won back, one by one, but gave a rightful place in the history of Singapore.

This was first published on Function’s Facebook page, and reproduced with permission

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