I wonder whether my children will ever come to know of a detainee named Chia Thye Poh. Or read about the life of Lim Chin Siong. Or be inspired by these words spoken by Lim Hock Siew, “Some of you may have heard that when you are young, you are idealistic, when you’re old, you are realistic. Now this is the kind of rubbish that is used by those who have either lost their ideals, or have sold their ideals for self-interests.”
I am sure these names are alien to my children. I have no doubt that they will be familiar with the exploits of our founding father, LKY, and his luminary son, LHL, and the 2nd prime minister of Singapore, GCT. I don’t need to spell their names out. I don’t even need to mention them by their initials. My children can recite their names by heart because their portraits and accomplishments are all emblazoned like wall banners in their school together with the other prominent cabinet ministers in Singapore.
But who is Thye Poh or Chin Siong or the indefatigable Marshall? What have they done for Singapore? What were their accomplishments? How have they contributed to the development of our garden city-state? Why is remembering what they did for Singapore, if any, important to my children? Are they part of Singapore’s history? Or are they forgettable characters, even unmentionables? Or better still, are they to be left alone like the many neglected small islands in the Indonesian Archipelago? What can I tell my children about them?
Well, taking it all in, I can tell my children that the history of Singapore is a history of triumphs and defeats, success and failure, tears of joy and sorrow, and of winners and losers. I can tell them that they can learn from the winners of history as well as the losers. Maybe, I should tell them that there are no losers in history; just people who are living in the shadow of the winners and are therefore conveniently forgotten.
My children need to know that politics is a complicated arena which is sometimes no different from the Darwinian struggle for survival and self-replication. Only those who wield sheer willpower and determination would be naturally selected to surf on the crest of the overriding wave while those who are less initiated and determined, at times, unknowingly hapless, would be dragged down by the political undertow. Maybe, I have said too much and my children would be squirming by now.
But my point is this, if history is written by winners, then those who have conceded defeat (for whatever reason) should at least be assigned a historical footnote that is of course subordinated to the winners’ main narrative. In other words, their voices should still be heard – albeit softly and discreetly. And here are a few footnotes of Singapore history that I would like my children to read about. I hope they will not just learn about how they had lost the struggle but also about how they had stood strong with resolve in spite of the defeat.
Of course they are not perfect, nobody is. They are in fact ordinary people but with quite an extraordinary story to tell. Their lives in brief are well narrated in the book Dissident Voices written by veteran journalist Clement Mesenas. This book is the source of all my quotes and information here.
When my children think about the longest prisoner detained by the government of a sovereign state, their thoughts immediately go to the late Nelson Mandela. The latter served 27 years in prison. But in Singapore, we do have our own political detainee who served 22 years in prison and another 9 years in house arrest, in Sentosa to be exact. Altogether, Chia Thye Poh was denied his freedom (in varied forms) for 31 years.
Now that’s a long time to be locked up for something he allegedly did or believed in when he was only 25 years old in 1966. Ideological differences aside, when Chia was allowed to talk to the press, he said, “The best years of my life were taken away just like that without a charge or trial.”
Chia was already 56 years old when he finally got his freedom back in full. After his release, Chia did his best to salvage the lost years by working as a freelance translator from home, earning a few hundred dollars a week, and taking care of his aged parents. He even got his masters in development studies and later attained his doctorate from the Institute of Social Studies at the Hague in the Netherlands in 2006.
This is a man who had led a hardscrabble life and was once granted a chance by the authority to recant but he refused. In the book, he told the author why, “To renounce violence is to imply you advocated violence before. If I had signed that statement, I would not have lived in peace.”
Wow, what price to pay for a peace of mind! Chia rather give up his external freedom just so that he could protect and preserve the freedom of his own conscience. And for the whole 31 years, he did just that. I guess when he was released, he not only got his freedom back - for what it’s worth - he also got something much more valuable than that, a well-fought after and enduring peace of mind.
Now, it is said that we should let bygones be bygones. This is easier said than done especially when you had been locked up for the most part of your productive life because you were once perceived as a threat to the state for holding on to your beliefs. This was the same question he was asked, that is, did he bear any grudge against those who authorized his detention? To that question, Chia replied, “I have no personal grudge against anybody. My main concern is the policy (of detention without trial), because if the policy is not fair, many people will suffer.”
What can my children learn here? What can they learn about the life of this man, our very own longest serving political detainee? I guess the one virtue that stands out for me is forgiveness. On that score, Chia lived out the legacy of Nelson Mandela most admirably.
Next comes the champion of the underdog, David Marshall. This is one man my children will look up to. Not so much for being Singapore’s first Chief Minister in 1955. Or for being widely regarded as Singapore’s greatest criminal lawyer for whom it was said that LKY, when he argued in Parliament for the abolition of the jury system, remarked in passing, “David Marshall is responsible for two hundred murderers walking freely the streets of Singapore.” Or for his appointment as Singapore’s ambassador to France, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland and for receiving the Meritorious Service Medal in 1990.
Any one of those accolades, except maybe that setting-murderers-free thingy, would have been worthy of my children’s admiration. But what I personally feel is worth their deepest esteem is found in what David Marshall once said here in an interview: “I don’t think I had leadership qualities…for me a leader is a great administrator, organizer…I’ve been a vivid personality. But that doesn’t mean I have leadership quality. I had the fire of anger, the excitement of great ideas, emotional approach almost uninhibited, but not the intellectual organizational approach of great leaders.”
David Marshall was a man who knew of and admitted to his own limitations and shortcomings. During his short stint of one year as the Chief Minister, he initiated a slew of policy ideas concerning CPF, labor reforms and usage of multi-lingualism in the Legislative Council. However, he readily admitted that did not have the administrative tenacity or brilliance to follow them through. He owned up to what he can and cannot do. His capacity for self-awareness was of humbling depth. That is a quality that I find wanting in our media-centered, internet-driven, attention-craving younger generation.
Of course such quality will take many years to cultivate. And I trust that when my children are looking for a role model to inspire them, they will find one in David Marshall.
In addition, he was also a vocal critic of some of the government policies, in particular, the tightly censored and controlled media and the high ministerial salary. On the latter, he defiantly commented, “I don’t see the necessity of owning a Mercedes-Benz and a swimming pool – and a couple of mistresses. You know $96,000 a month for a prime minister and S$60,000 a month for a minister – what the hell do you do with all that money? You can’t eat it. Your children don’t need all that money.”
I guess this is one man who doesn’t mince his words. He once exclaimed that he wanted to fight till he’s dead. That would naturally be an honorable end for him. But jingoism and gung-ho-ism notwithstanding, I would be contented if my children could grow up taking after the side of this man which fights for what he believes in and never gives in or up.
The next personality in the footnote of history is Lim Chin Siong. I would tell my children that this man was once regarded as LKY's "general". In fact, he so impressed LKY that David Marshall recounted how LKY introduced him in the early years, "Meet the future Prime Minister of Singapore...Don't laugh! He's the finest Chinese orator in Singapore and he will be our next Prime Minister of Singapore."
Wow, that was quite a recommendation from the future and longest serving PM of Singapore. Alas, the honeymoon period between them did not last long. Although Lim was one of the founding partners of the PAP when it was first formed in November 1954, he exited the party in 1961 as he was opposed to the merger with Malaya. He then formed Barisan Sosialis and rivaled PAP in the election.
Of course, I don't think my children need to know the details of why he was arrested, which was believed to be due to his association with the leader of the Brunei revolt, but he was nevertheless imprisoned for six years from 1963 to 1969. After his release, he married in Britain and had two sons. He then tried to return to politics in 1979 but was unsuccessful. He later died of a heart attack in February 1996.
So what can my children learn from this man, who was once earmarked by LKY for great things? Well, maybe this tribute in his obituary by LKY himself says it all. "I liked and respected him for his simple lifestyle and his selflessness. He did not seek financial gain or political glory. He was totally committed to the advancement of his cause. He and many of his comrades, graduates from the Chinese middle school, taught my colleagues and me the meaning of dedication to a cause."
Out of all that, I guess my children will do well to always lead a simple and selfless life and be committed to what they put their mind to. Words to live by, in my humblest view.
Finally, the last person on my list is Dr Lim Hock Siew. He was the one whose quote I borrowed from when I started this letter. It is a quote about keeping one’s idealism close to the heart throughout one’s life. Here is the quote in full: "Some of you may have heard that when you are young, you are idealistic, when you’re old, you are realistic. Now this is the kind of rubbish that is used by those who have either lost their ideals, or have sold their ideals for self-interests. Each should not wither one's ideals or convictions. If anything, it should only consolidate and make it more resolute. If age has anything to do with it, it is only by way of expression and application of these ideals and convictions having the benefit of youthful experiences. And a life without convictions, without idealism is mere meaningless existence."
My children should know that next to Chia Thye Poh, Dr Lim was the second longest detainee in Singapore. He served 20 years under lockup. He was arrested during Operation Coldstore in February 1963 when he was suspected of being a communist. He could have been released after the first 10 years, but he refused certain demands made by the authorities, which would have compromised his character. He then stood his ground and made a statement insisting on his innocence. For that defiance, his imprisonment was extended for a further 10 years. He was only 32 years old then and his son was just 5 months old.
Dr Lim died in June 2012. At this funeral, his son recalled, “When I was growing up, my memories of my father were more of me visiting him in prison and getting to know him. It was tough – kids can be quite cruel and I didn’t know how to explain his absence.”
My children should know that Dr Lim lived his life valiantly and selflessly, standing firm on his principles and keeping the morale of fellow detainees high. He also fought for the rights of the political prisoners. After his release, he continued his medical practice at his Rakyat Clinic on Balestier Road and “tended to the sick and even gave transport money to those in dire need.”
Dr Lim lived a quiet life and died almost anonymously. Although he did not live to see the day the authorities reform the law on detention without trial, he will still be remembered for having the courage to stand up for what he believed in.
Let me end with these words by a Methodist minister, Daniel Koh Kah Soon, who wrote a letter to The Straits Times on 7 June 2012 after Dr Lim’s death, “…One day, I hope, his side of the story will be given a fairer hearing, and that a respected academic will write a properly researched book of the contribution of political leaders like him. It speaks volumes of his character that in spite of his incarceration, he kept his conviction and stood his grounds – qualities which people who aspire to political office should have. I am certain that he will be respected by those who know him as a politician who loved his country and cared deeply for the poor.”
And on that note, Dr Lim together with the rest of the people mentioned here will always be respected for keeping their faith in humanity, accepting their lot in life and making the best of it. Herein ends the lessons for my children. Indeed, without the essential footnotes, the main narrative of history somehow just feels a little wonky. Cheerz.