Four days ago, Kenneth and I were asked by journalists from Hong Kong [link] if we were going to pay our respect to Lee Kuan Yew. Kenneth replied that he would not. When pressed for an answer as to why, he muttered something like it was not necessary.
The young journalists were persistent in finding an answer and they turned to me. I too replied that I was not going. They pressed for an answer and I gave them the lame excuse that the queue was too long. I was dismayed at my own answer but didn’t know why.
For days during the week of “national mourning”, I have been asked by neighbours who were ardent fans of Lee Kuan Yew, if I was going to pay my respect. My answer was simply “no”. I did not elaborate and they never probed further. If I could interpret such an answer now, I think it was my way of respecting the dead, that I didn’t want to hurt the questioner that the dead had harmed me and my family and friends during his term of office as prime minister.
For days before the funeral, group chats had been flooded with reports of the long queue in the sun, the plans and funeral arrangements, the longer bus and train schedules, the unbelievable achievements of the dead and so on and so forth. On the sixth day, I could no longer tolerate such messages and left the groups. I did not give a reason, again perhaps out of respect for the dead.
Friends who knew my past had asked incessantly if I was going to write about Lee Kuan Yew. I did intend to write but for 20 days or more, my mind was a blank. I just could not put anything sensible on paper. It was as if an inner voice was telling me to remain silent and not disrupt the nation’s grief. Let them grieve in peace. I did however write a short piece about my mother’s thoughts on 24th March, a day after Lee died. I had no intention of doing so but the piece came naturally, as if my mother was instigating me to write for her. That morning, I had visited my mother’s niche, it being the third anniversary of her death. Suddenly, my sister started to talk about the past. She was having a conversation with my mother. I didn’t know much about what she went through and how she felt about my arrest, how she detested the dead and how she refused to watch the television whenever his image appeared. On the long journey home, I penned her thoughts. I didn’t care about Lee Kuan Yew. My mother’s grief was larger than that of the dead and the national mourning. I cried when I finished writing and posted it on my Facebook page. It was about the time of her death at home three years ago.
And so coming back to the journalists. I thought for many hours. Why was I not able to give an honest, direct answer? Why didn’t I say that I was not going because Lee Kuan Yew had imprisoned me up for two and a half years without trial and for no good reason? The more I pondered, the more ridiculous and stupid I felt. It was something in the sub conscience that prevented me from giving an honest answer. I was angry. It was truly absurd.
After thinking for a few hours, it suddenly dawned on me that the reason was Fear – fear that people will think badly of me especially at a time when they were in deep mourning and hysteria, fear that they would conclude that I was angry and bitter, unforgiving, a person who refused to “move on” as the archbishop said. It was like the reaction of rape victims. They decline to report the crime because they were afraid that the investigator would not believe them or even accuse them that they had asked for the rape to happen because of the way they behaved or dressed. They were afraid that their own reputation and safety would be damaged with the report. How would the public view them? What would their reaction be? It was all just too complex, risky and intimidating and it was best to remain silent, forget about the nasty incident and “move on”. Let the rapists escape punishment and commit more crimes. Let more women suffer.
Realising that fear was the reason which prevented me from giving an honest answer to the journalists, I suddenly felt liberated. It was as if a heavy load was lifted. I immediately resolved that the next person who asked me if I was going to Parliament House to pay my respect, I would let it be known that I do not respect a leader who imprisoned citizens without trial, who caused so much suffering to those imprisoned, their families and their friends.
That evening, someone who had just paid his respect to the dear leader after waiting for several hours before day break, asked if I was going. I replied: “No, after what he did to me, imprisoning me for two and a half years, how can I go and pay respect to him?” Taken aback, he asked why I was imprisoned. I told him about the ISA and asked him to google my name if he wanted to know more. He said he didn’t know the other side of the great leader. Indeed, he didn’t know and was probably shocked at my answer. He asked two friends that evening if they knew about my imprisonment. One said he did and the other pretended she didn’t know.
In 1987 and 1988, Lee Kuan Yew and his ministers arrested and imprisoned 24 people without trial under the ISA. They were:
1 Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan, Church worker
2 Teo Soh Lung, Lawyer
3 Kevin de Souza, Lawyer and Church worker
4 Wong Souk Yee, Researcher and journalist
5 Tang Lay Lee, Lawyer and Church worker
6 Ng Bee Leng, Church worker
7 Jenny Chin Lai Ching, Journalist
8 Kenneth Tsang Chi Seng, Advertising executive
9 Chung Lai Mei
10 Mah Lee Lin, Polytechnic graduate and Church worker
11 Low Yit Leng, Project manager
12 Tan Tee Seng, Sales executive
13 Teresa Lim Li Kok, Publisher
14 Chia Boon Tai, Engineer and businessman
15 Tay Hong Seng, Translator and subtitling editor
16 William Yap Hon Ngian, Translator and subtitling editor
17 Tang Fong Har, Lawyer
18 Chew Kheng Chuan, Harvard University graduate and Businessman
19 Chng Suan Tze, Polytechnic Lecturer
20 Ronnie Ng Soon Hiang, Polytechnic student
21 Fan Wan Peng, Polytechnic student and president of the students’ union
22 Nur Effendi Sahid, National serviceman
In 1988, eight of the above were rearrested after issuing a press release together with their lawyers, Francis Seow Tiang Siew, former Solicitor General and President of the Law Society of Singapore and Patrick Seong Kwok Kei, Lawyer and member of Council of the Law Society of Singapore.
In the two years, two friends who were then in Europe had their Singapore citizenship revoked. They were Tan Wah Piow, an Oxford University undergraduate and Paul Lim Huat Chye, a PhD student in Belgium. They became political exiles together with Tang Fong Har, a signatory to the press release but escaped rearrest as she was then in the United Kingdom. In subsequent years, Francis Seow too became a political exile after nearly winning the general election in 1988. It was political persecution.
While Lee Kuan Yew’s children and grandchildren were able to be by his side during the last days of his illness and funeral, the political exiles, including those who left Singapore in the 1960s and 70s were not able to see their loved ones or attend the funerals of their parents and spouse who died in Singapore.
It is common to hear people say that for the good of the nation, it is perfectly in order to sacrifice some of its citizens. I never understand such a statement. Would they have the same opinion if they and their loved ones were arrested and imprisoned without trial?
Lee Kuan Yew as an astute politician knew the nature and character of who he demanded arrest. He knew Lim Chin Siong was as capable if not more capable than he as the prime minister. He knew that Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai were intellectually his equal if not superior to him. He knew that Pak Said Zahari commanded the respect of the Malay community and was capable of challenging his way of managing Singapore. If they had been permitted to contest in the 1963 general election instead of being arrested in Operation Coldstore and imprisoned for decades, their presence in the legislative assembly may have helped our nation to achieve even greater heights. There would have been genuine debates on policies and laws in parliament for the good of our country instead of bad policies and laws being rammed down our throats by one man and his docile cabinet. The “Stop at two” and restrictive marriage policies of Singaporeans and foreigners may not have been implemented and Singapore would not need to fret about its dwindling population and labour shortage. Languages and dialects may have flourished, making Singapore a unique and exciting multicultural and multi racial society. Casinos may not be necessary to propel the economy resulting in Singapore becoming a nation of gamblers.
Even among the 1987 and 1988 detainees, many were working on the ground and knew the precarious nature of importing foreign labour to boost our economy while not looking after their well being and providing them with a minimum living wage. They knew that the way the government managed the foreign workers would ultimately have an adverse effect on our citizens.
What good can such arrests bring to our nation? If the government had listened to the detainees and worked with them to improve policies, Singapore may be a better country today. You may disagree but please don’t tell me that arresting a small number of people who were or have the potential of being future leaders is for the good of our country. Don’t tell me to move on when you don’t even know what happened in the past and what Lee Kuan Yew had done to his own citizens.
Fear is dead. Abolish ISA.
Teo Soh Lung
* Ms Teo Soh Lung graduated from the University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Laws (LLB Hons) in 1973 and served her pupillage under the late David Marshall. In 1981, she set up her own law firm in Aljunied. In 1985, she co-founded the Law Society Criminal Legal Aid Scheme which offers free legal assistance for criminal cases to the poor and needy members of the public.