Sunday, December 18, 2011

Chia Thye Poh, the world's second longest serving prisoner of conscience

Chia Thye Poh (l) and Lim Chin Siong (r) (source)

Chia Thye Poh (source)

Being honoured on 18 December 2011 in Kuala Lumpur:
Chia Thye Poh's first public appearance since his detention without trial in 1966 
(see end of this post for details)

Chia speaks on 18 December 2011

(source: Wikipedia)

Chia Thye Poh (谢太宝, born 1941) was the longest-serving political prisoner in the history of Singapore, and the world's second longest serving prisoner of conscience.

Detained under the Internal Security Act of Singapore for allegedly conducting pro-communist activities against the government, he was imprisoned for 23 years without charge or trial and subsequently placed under conditions of house arrest for another nine years — in which he was first confined to the island of Sentosa and then subject to restrictions on his place of abode, employment, travel, and exercise of political rights.

Prior to his detention, he had been a teacher, a physics lecturer, a socialist political activist and a member of the Parliament of Singapore. Subsequent to it, he has been a doctoral student and an interpreter.

He traveled to Germany in 1997, and to the Netherlands at least as recently as 2000. The supervision of his PhD thesis in development economics was completed in 2006.



The following essay, published in Malaysiakini, was written by a UK returnee, Ang Hiok Gai.

Spirit of Asia's Mandela

Ang Hiok Gai
Oct 14-15, 2000

"The world's second longest serving prisoner of conscience" is a title
that no one wants to be honoured with. Yet, it goes to show the
unrelenting spirit of Singaporean Chia Thye Poh.

Chia, a willowy and soft-spoken man of disarming politeness, is hardly
the sort one imagines as a fiery revolutionary. Yet, he possesses
qualities that left his jailers looking ridiculous, in despair and
even envious. He is a man of principle with an unbreakable spirit of
upholding truth, peace, justice and democracy.

Chia finally obtained his freedom on Nov 27, 1998, after 32 years of
unjust detention and cruel restrictions. He spent more than 22 years
in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. He was later exiled to
Singapore's Sentosa Island for about three years. He was the island's
only resident living in a one-room guardhouse.

The rest of the years, he was allowed to visit his parent's home on
Singapore's main island. Nevertheless, he continued to be subject to
restriction orders, curtailing his freedom of expression, association
and movement.

I was attracted by the idea of visiting The Hague, the Netherlands,
when my long-standing friend mentioned I could meet Chia - a man I
came to know of while studying at the University of Manchester.

It was the student society that educated me about the ISA (Internal
Security Act) - an inhumane and cruel weapon that has been used for
decades by both the Singaporean and Malaysian ruling elite to silence,
stifle and wipe out their political opponents and dissidents. In no
time, I was drawn into campaigning for the release of all prisoners of
conscience, including Chia, under both Singapore's and Malaysia's ISA.

The campaign underlined the principle that no one should be detained
without trial, irrespective of their political, religious or
ideological beliefs. Everyone has the right to a fair trial. I share
this view.

My friend invited Chia to his house for lunch. We picked him up at
Central Station. It was my first time meeting Chia. He was very
approachable. We introduced ourselves and began chatting in the car.

Freedom snatched at 25

Chia has been longing for a just and democratic society since his
student days. He read Physics in Nanyang University. After graduation,
he worked for a short time as a secondary teacher. He then joined the
university as a graduate assistant. His ambition then was to travel
abroad to read for his Master's degree in physics.

In 1963, just before the general election was to be held, Lee Kuan Yew
ordered a mass arrest of political activists. It was designed to
prevent opposition leaders from taking part in the elections. At that
juncture, Chia came forward to replace one of the detained candidates.
He was subsequently elected a member of parliament on a Barisan
Sosialis (Socialist Front) ticket.

Chia was detained on Oct 28, 1966 for protesting against the PAP
(People's Action Party) government. He and a number of other MPs
staged a boycott of parliament over the issue of Singapore's secession
from Malaysia in 1965. This crucial issue was never discussed in the
Singaporean parliament. Nor were Singaporeans given the right to voice
their opinion or decide the issue through a referendum.

In addition, he was among the peace campaigners calling for an end to
the heavy American bombing of Indo-China. Because of his anti-PAP and
anti-war activities, his freedom was cruelly snatched away by Lee Kuan
Yew and the PAP government, both of whom have long held little respect
for democracy and human rights.

'My spirit steeled'

The Singapore government never gave any explanation for Chia's
detention for almost two decades. Only in 1985 did the government
allege that he was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).
The government offered to release him if he agreed to give a public
undertaking "disowning the CPM's use of force and terror".

Chia flatly rejected the offer. It would have been against his
conscience to admit to something utterly untrue. He insisted that if
the authorities had any evidence against him, then they should charge
him in court and accord him an open and fair trial.

The authoritarian PAP regime tried very hard to break Chia's spirit
and to extract a confession from him. Though he was not physically
assaulted, he was subjected to intense mental and psychological

They first put him in solitary confinement, transferring him from one
prison cell to another. They even incarcerated him in what was called
the "dark cell". It was totally dark and quiet, leaving him without
any knowledge of night or day. To intimidate him, he was told that
prisoners held in the dark cell would go insane in just a few days.

On one of his first nights in the cell, he could hear someone in the
next cell violently kicking the cell door as if s/he had gone insane.
He was also subjected to day-long interrogations in a freezing cold
room and was deprived of reading material for a long period of time.

To sustain himself through such brutal incarceration, Chia engaged in
dialogue with himself. He told himself that what he did was right and
for the good of the people. If he were to allow himself go insane,
then his life would be wasted. He taught himself to think positively.
He constantly reminded himself of the less fortunate and the disabled
who were living in worse conditions.

There was also a Chinese poem faintly scribbled on the prison wall by
a previous prisoner that gave further encouragement and commitment to
Chia. It read:

Ten years behind bars
Never too late
Thousands of ordeals
My spirit steeled

When they failed to break his spirit, they resorted to pressuring his
aged father into persuading him to give up. Instead of succumbing,
Chia scolded the security agents for taking advantage of an old man.

Then they tried to tempt him into submission by driving him through
Singapore, showing off the prosperity the city-state had achieved.
They taunted him to sign "his confession paper" so that he could be
part of the exciting new life that was Singapore. Otherwise, they told
him, he would rot in jail.

Still they were unable to break his spirit.

Released at 57

Exiled to Sentosa Island in 1989, he was made to pay rent for the
one-room guardhouse he stayed in, on the pretext that he was a "free"
man. He was also made to purchase and prepare his own food. Because he
had no money, he was offered a job as assistant curator of Sentosa
Fort. He turned down the offer.

As a Grade Two civil servant, he knew he would have been barred from
talking to the media without official approval. Instead, he
successfully negotiated a position as a freelance translator for the
Sentosa Development Corporation.

In 1997, Chia was allowed to accept a fellowship from the German
government for politically persecuted persons. He spent a year in
Germany studying democratic politics and German. However, he remained
barred from making political statements, addressing meetings, joining
any organisation, taking part in political activities or associating
with other former political detainees.

The PAP government was under constant international criticism and
pressure as long as Chia was unjustifiably incarcerated and
restricted. Failing to break his spirit, the PAP government
reluctantly eased the restrictions on him. Eventually they gave up and
succumbed to the international call for his unconditional release.

As soon as the restrictions were lifted, he issued a stern press
statement condemning the ISA and called for its repeal. Being a victim
of the notorious ISA, he is fully aware of how such a law can be used
to trample human dignity and strike fear into the hearts and minds of

Contrary to some people's belief in Asian values, Chia maintains that
the ISA is incompatible with these values. After all, the ISA is a
creation of Western colonialists who used it to suppress the struggle
for independence.

He also told the officer who notified him of the lifting of his
restriction orders that he was still interested in politics. If in
detention Chia did not break, in freedom Chia refused to be cowed. He
refused to kowtow to the authoritarian PAP government.

Chia has paid dearly for his commitment to truth, and his belief in
justice and democratic principles. When he was detained, he was only
25 years old. By the time he was freed unconditionally, he was 57.
They had virtually taken away the best part of his life without even
laying any charges against him, let alone giving him a trial in court.

As a consequence of his 23-year imprisonment, he is in poor health.
His eyesight is impaired from many years spent in the dark cell. His
lung problems recur from the same time. He has also undergone a
prostate operation and has a weak bladder. And yet, though failing in
health and haunted by nightmarish memories, he is determined to
rebuild his life. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in
development studies at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

'One day, we'll all get there'

At The Hague, Chia and I chatted over lunch. My friend's wife cooked
us some delicious Indian dishes. Chia and I both dug into the food
with relish and delighted in the hospitality of our hosts. I also
noticed that Chia was very fond of my friend's three children, in
particular the youngest one, Avinesh, who is barely three years old.
He has missed a lot in life.

And yet, he harbours no personal grudge against anybody, including Lee
Kuan Yew, despite their cruelty to him. He sees his struggle as not
against individuals but against unjust policies and an unjust system.

"This is not about a personal battle. The struggle for democracy is
much more than personal battles. I don't feel bitter towards anyone.
Democracy is not about violence. They can jail me, but how are they
going to jail democracy? One day, I'll get there - we'll all get
there," he told me.

Keeping constant faith with his innocence, he proclaimed that he would
not choose otherwise if he had to do it all over again. Deep down in
his heart, he knows he cannot betray his conscience. He would rather
sacrifice his life honourably for a just cause than to confess to a

In pursuit of prosperity, the PAP regime has managed to cow a large
section of Singaporeans into not valuing democracy and human rights.
Today, few people in Singapore seem to care about Chia and what has
happened to him. He is virtually unknown to young Singaporeans and
those who do know him are too indifferent or too timid to say

Nevertheless, outside Singapore, Chia is remembered and looked up to
by many as an excellent example of the struggle for justice and
democracy in Southeast Asia. He is a simple and humble man who
possesses a great spirit. And those who long for reformasi will
emulate his spirit. Political scientist Andrew Aeria has aptly
described Chia as "a shining icon to the struggle for human rights and


Dr Chia Thye Poh

by Teo Soh Lung on Thursday, 15 December 2011 at 13:16 (source)

On Sunday, 18 December 2011, Dr Chia Thye Poh, 70, will receive a very special award, the Lim Lian Geok Spirit Award in recognition of his courage, integrity and belief in democracy. The ceremony will take place in Kuala Lumpur.[1]

Chia was elected a member of the Singapore Legislative Assembly for the constituency of Jurong on 21 September 1963. He was only 22 years old and was one of 13 successful Barisan Sosialis candidates in that general election. Ong Eng Guan of the United People’s Party was the 14th opposition member in the Assembly. The PAP had 37 seats with Lee Kuan Yew as the prime minister. Chia was also a member of the Federal Parliament when Singapore was part of Malaysia.

Prior to Chia's election to the Assembly, frequent arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA) had almost wiped out the entire leadership of the opposition. In Operation Cold Store (2 February 1963), more than 120 people were arrested. This was followed by arrests every year and two major swoops in September 1963 and October 1963 (Operation Pecah). Even before the first session of the Assembly was convened, three Barisan members of the Assembly, namely Loh Miaw Gong, Lee Tee Tong and S T Bani were arrested and imprisoned under the ISA. Two other members, Chan Sun Wing and Wong Soon Fong escaped arrests. When they subsequently wrote to the Speaker of the House enquiring if they could have his assurance that they would not be arrested if they returned to Singapore, the Speaker would not guarantee their safety. They thus remained outside Singapore till today. The number of Barisan members in the house was dramatically reduced to eight.

During the campaign for the general election in September 1963, the issue of independence through merger with Malaya was simultaneously canvassed. A wash-out referendum conducted by the ruling P.A.P. resulted in Singapore joining Malaysia on grossly unfair and unjust terms. It also resulted in confrontation with Indonesia which feared a strongly armed neighbour.

When the house sat on 9 December 1963 to debate on the address of the Yang di-Pertuan Negara’s speech, young Chia was the first opposition speaker to take the floor, moving a motion to add a note of regret to the address :

“; but this Assembly regrets that the Government in helping to impose Malaysia on the people has caused great difficulties and hardships to them in Singapore and urges the Government to take immediate steps to persuade the Central Government to get rid of foreign interference, negotiate with the Indonesian Government, and resolve all existing differences to our mutual benefit, and so help to bring stability, peace and prosperity to South-East Asia.”

Chia gave his speech in Mandarin and was exceedingly eloquent. He spoke on a wide range of issues. He opposed violence and was appalled at the millions contributed by Singapore to Malaysia for the expansion of the armed forces. He said in the Assembly on 9 December 1963 :

“… let me first remind the House that the financial arrangements under the Malaysia Agreement have literally robbed Singapore of a huge chunk of its revenue. We pay the Federation Government $117 million outright. In addition, we pay for developments of Federal departments in Singapore ($9.5 million) as well as the annually recurrent expenditure of State-cum-Federal departments ($15 million approximately).

If we add the $30 million so called loan to the Borneo territories, then the sum given away by Singapore to the Federation comes to about $170 million! $170 million of our money given away! If this money were truly used for construction and development, at least we would be consoled by the fact that our money was put to good use. But it is clear that most of our money will not be spent on construction and development, but on the expansion of armed forces and for the suppression of the national liberation struggle in Borneo! This is not the way how our money should be spent. Expenditure on armed expansion will only benefit the big arms industries in the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. Our Party had repeatedly warned against this during the debate on the Malaysia Agreement! Now all can see that what the Barisan has all along said is 100 per cent correct. The P.A.P. must be condemned for having signed away all this money of the people of Singapore! …”

On how to deal with the Indonesian confrontation, he was firmly of the view that Singapore should take steps to make peace. He said:

“… The interests of the people demand that we prevent the present friction from developing further into open conflict and war with Indonesia. Only peace will being happiness and prosperity to the people. So let all of us in Singapore make our full contribution to the defence of peace in the region…”

In numerous speeches in the Assembly, Chia spoke about the unjust and unfair manner in which the PAP called the general election. He protested against the PAP’s use of the ISA against Barisan members, candidates and trade unionists and torture inflicted on detainees.

He held his ground against older and seasoned ministers like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Ong Pang Boon and Toh Chin Chye. When Rajaratnam stood up once to interrupt his speech, he was not intimidated. He refused to give way and remained standing. The Speaker had to tell Rajaratnam to back off as Chia was not giving way.

Chia’s clear mathematical mind, his agility and ability to work out figures and summarised them in simple percentages must have terrified lawyers like Lee Kuan Yew and E W Barker. He understood the intimidating methods used by the P.A.P. at that time. He was clear that the ruling party then was not achieving independence for Singapore when it decided to join Malaysia. He said:

“We in the Barisan have always fought against colonialism and imperialism, and the P.A.P. attempts to deceive the people about having achieved independence (by reading a proclamation on 31st August) will not be able to prevent them from continuing the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle.

We in the Barisan have consistently fought for the basic rights and interests of the people. We fight for the workers, farmers, intellectuals, national businessmen. We shall do our best to safeguard their interests, and we shall continue to struggle for justice, equality, democracy, peace and freedom for the people.

The P.A.P. always uses the Communist bogey to frighten and intimidate the people. And indeed because of its control of the State propaganda apparatus, it has to a certain extent succeeded. But however the P.A.P. may care to play on the theme of the Communist bogey, with the hope of isolating the Barisan and gaining support for itself, it cannot cover up the fact that “poverty in the midst of plenty and unemployment in the face of affluence” are urgent problems which have to be faced, tackled and resolved. Labelling the Barisan pro-Communist simply because we want to help solve these basic problems, cannot deceive the people for any length of time. P.A.P. lies might deceive some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time. But they cannot deceive all the people all the time. P.A.P. lies will all be exposed . Truth will out and truth will triumph.”

Chia and the Barisan Sosialis were subsequently proven right for opposing merger on the terms agreed to by the P.A.P. Singapore was asked to leave Malaysia in August 1965.

It may have been the brilliance of Chia that in order to avoid debates with him, the house rarely sat. In 1964, the house met solely for the debate on the annual budget. But it could also be the P.A.P. style of ruling – that decisions be taken without debates since they had an overwhelming majority in the house. The house was thus mainly used to debate the annual budget and to enact laws.

It was probably out of frustration about the lack of opportunity to debate on important issues in the house that led Chia or the Barisan to submit a letter to the Speaker on 8 October 1966. The material part as quoted in Hansard (col. 342 of 26 October 1966) read :

“… the Party” (i.e. the Barisan Sosialis) “has decided that all Barisan ‘MPs’ will resign their ‘Parliamentary’ seats as from today. …”

The letter was signed by Chia but not the rest of the other eight Barisan members. Whether that letter constituted a resignation of Chia is debateable. The Speaker rightly refused to accept the resignation of the eight until personal letters of resignation were received subsequently. He however accepted the resignation of Chia on 18 October 1966, the same day as a letter of resignation signed by Lee Tee Tong was received by the Speaker. (Col. 344 of 26 October 1966). Why 18 October 1966 and not 8 October 1966 (the date of receipt by the Speaker) is also a mystery.

Tragically, on 29 October 1966, Chia was arrested under the ISA and imprisoned without trial for 26 years. Ironically, towards the latter part of his imprisonment, the P.A.P. insisted that Chia renounce violence. He refused since he had never advocated violence. It was clear from his speeches in the Legislative Assembly that he is a man of peace and did not believe in arms and violence. For his principle, Chia lost 26 years of the prime of his life and was subjected to severe restrictions for another 6 years. He left Singapore to pursue a Master and then a doctorate degree from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague after restrictions on his freedom to travel were lifted.

A true hero of Singapore, I salute Dr Chia for his courage, integrity and sacrifice for Singaporeans. When he graduated from Nanyang University at the age of 20 and embarked on a teaching career, the world was so bright for him and his family. Effectively trilingual, he is proficient in English, Malay and Chinese. But for cruelty of the P.A.P., Chia would have made enormous contributions to our country and the region.

I heartily congratulate Dr Chia on his receiving the Lim Lian Geok Spiritual Award.
[1] The award ceremony will be held at the Confucian Private Secondary School, Lorong Hang Jebat, 50150, Kuala Lumpur on 18 October 2011 at 10 a.m.


Award for Asia’s ‘forgotten’ man

The Malay Mail, December 19, 2011(source)

Chia Thye Poh may be forgiven for thinking that after 33 years in confinement, people from both ends of the Causeway have relegated him to the annals of history.

On the evidence of the reception he received at the Confucian Private Secondary School in Lorong Hang Jebat here yesterday, the 70-year-old is still fondly remembered, at least by the 400 people attending an award presentation.

Chia is Asia's longestserving political prisoner, detained under Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA) from 1966 to 1998, with the last nine years under house arrest on Sentosa Island.

He was detained after being suspected to be an ally of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and viewed as posing a terrorism threat to the republic.

Yesterday, the former Jurong MP, between 1963 and 1965, was awarded the Lim Lian Geok (LLG) Spirit Award at the school's function hall.

Chia largely spoke on the influence the former Nanyang University had on him and how its spirit would "live on".

"I remember when the then governor of Singapore, Sir William Goode, wanted to come to the university's launch in 1956, his motorcade was delayed by more than two hours because of the immense traffic of people who came for the launch," he said in his acceptance speech.

"Nantah (Nanyang) was the wish of over three million Chinese citizens in Southeast Asia. The spirit of this university will never die."

The university ceased to exist in 1980 when the Singapore government merged it with the University of Singapore.

This was Chia's first public appearance as he spent his years of renewed freedom pursuing a doctorate at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands.

He was a former Barisan Sosialis party member and part of a movement that protested alleged ‘undemocratic' acts by the then Singapore premier, Lee Kuan Yew.

Chia had opposed Singapore's separation from Malaysia, and campaigned for the sustainability of Nanyang University, which was then Singapore's only Chinese language postsecondary institution.
Asked if he would make his first public appearance in the island nation, he said he would wait for the "right occasion" to do so.

The LLG award, now in its 24th edition, annually honours individuals who have served the Chinese culture or people at large.

It was first given out in 1988 in memory of the late Chinese educationist Lim Lian Geok and is largely viewed as the highest honour in the Malaysian Chinese community.

*Chia's speech at the award ceremony: here

"A Nation Awakes: Frontline Reflections"


ABOUT THE BOOK (launched on 16 December 2011)

Few nations if any, have ever held two national elections in a span of four months. Fewer still are key players who took part in both. This book is the story of extraordinary men and women who fought Singapore's 2011 General Election in May and the Presidential Election in August. Together with their loyal and dedicated supporters, they displayed great courage and conviction, and in so doing changed the political landscape forever.

The writers of this book represent a broad spectrum of Singapore society - student, teacher, university researcher, social worker, doctor, economist, lawyer, advertising, media and IT personnel, blogger, housewife and retiree. They cut across all age groups from their twenties to their sixties. They have come together in this book to relate and share their personal journey with Singaporeans.

Unlike most post-election commentaries written by third-party observers, this book is unique as it allows readers to hear from the horse's mouth how in four short months, Singapore's single dominant party system has given way to the emergence of a politics of diversity with positive implications for the country's future system of government.


• Foreword by Sir Ivor Crewe
• Preface by Tan Jee Say
• Prologue by Prof Staffan I Lindberg
• From Essay to ‘Ho-say’ by Tan Jee Say
• Fear No More by Dr Ang Yong Guan
• Building A Singapore Our Future Generations Can Be Proud Of by Michelle Lee Juen
• I Could Not Say No by Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss
• Is There a Climate Change? by Dr Wong Wee Nam
• The Doctor’s Heart by Dr Leong Yan Hoi & Dr Tan Lip Hong
• A Personal Journey To The 2011 Elections by Dr Paul Ananth Tambyah
• Beyond Social Work But Not Apart by Dr Vincent Wijeysingha
• Let’s Run The Race Together by Fahmi Rais
• Singapore’s Social Media Revolution by Jarrod Luo
• Staying Relevant With Neither Sound Nor Fury by Alex Au
• All The World’s A Stage by Bentley Tan
• Young And Emancipated by Nicole Seah
• Bridging the (Democracy) Gap With Youthful Passion by Dexter Lee
• A New Lease Of Life For Old Fogies by Patrick Low
• Like A First Lady by Patricia Khoo Phaik Ean
• Epilogue: Get Organised For A Broad-Based, Non-PAP Government by Tan Jee Say
• Appendix: Summary Extract Of Essay by Tan Jee Say


“The courageous spirit and vision of Tan Jee Say and other bravehearts from Singapore’s opposition parties and civil society in the 2011 elections resembles a collective ‘Singa’s roar’ which continues to reverberate across this city-state in Southeast Asia. The ‘Singa’s roar’ resonates with other popular movements striving for democracy in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and around the world.”

-- Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney. She is an author of several books on Singapore and Southeast Asia.

“I met Jee Say in Singapore a few months after his historic candidacy for the presidency, nearly forty years after we had been students together at University College, Oxford. The ideals of fairness and justice of his youthful days had clearly survived a very distinguished career in the public service and in finance, along with passion and courage.”

-- Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, Member of Parliament and adviser on national reconciliation in Sri Lanka; he contested the presidency of Sri Lanka in 1999. He is currently the Chairman of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats.

“This book brings out the robust and diverse nature of Singapore, and these attributes are positive for the development of Singapore as a financial centre.”

-- Tim Tacchi, Senior Partner, TT International, a global fund manager with its head office in London.

"It gives me great pleasure to introduce and commend this fascinating and stirring book about Singapore’s recent presidential and general elections....By revealing the feelings, thoughts and motives of a diverse group of hard-working professional Singaporeans…, this book is testimony to the vital importance and benefits of active citizenship, vigorous democracy and public-spirited leadership. Many of the individual accounts of involvement in the elections are a moving reminder of the personal sacrifices that people are willing to make to further their vision of a better society. To support an opposition candidate in a country accustomed to continuous single-party rule is to risk job security, business prospects, family life, personal privacy and social acceptance. Although the contributors to this book would never make the claim themselves, they are all modest heroes.

....The founder of the modern Olympics said that “the most important thing is not winning but taking part”. This is the message that shines out from the contributors to this book. The presidential election was one of those elections in which the official winner was in many ways the loser and the official loser was in many ways the winner. By showing that it was possible to launch a major challenge against the dominant party, Jee Say Tan and his friends and supporters bestowed a great service to the people of Singapore, not only this year but for the future."

-- Extract from the Foreword by Sir Ivor Crewe, Master of University College, Oxford. He has published and broadcast extensively on British and American politics mainly in the subjects of elections, parties, public opinion and public policy.



The Online Citizen (TOC) interviews Tan Jee Say (TJS)

TOC: When did the idea for this book come about? What were the motivations?
TJS: The idea came after the Presidential Election ended. Like the GE before it, the PE was hotly contested. To have one heavily contested election is already quite unusual in Singapore, to have two in a span of 4 months is unprecedented and this led to much heightened political awareness among a normally docile and apathetic electorate. We feel this should be recorded and our contributory role explained so that Singaporeans can understand and appreciate how ordinary people like ourselves can make a difference.

TOC: Your media release says the writers of the book represent a broad spectrum of Singapore society. Do they include any PAP members and/or supporters?
TJS: The broad spectrum refers to the writers coming from all social-economic sectors rather than political. PAP members and supporters are not included because this book is about the role of non-PAP forces in transforming the political landscape whereas PAP wants status quo.

TOC: What do you hope this book will achieve?
TJS: We hope the book will help Singaporeans get rid of their fear about participating in the political affairs of their own country and see it as normal, healthy process in taking Singapore to the next level.

TOC: Are there any other things you would like to say about the book and the book launch?
TJS: This book is unique as it is written by players not bystanders or political observers.It is an insiders account which is seldom seen in Singapore.


The Online Citizen (TOC) interviews Paul Tambyah (PT)

TOC: When were you approached to write for this book? Describe the circumstances.
PT: Soon after the Presidential elections, Jee Say brought up the idea of writing a book to document the remarkable events surrounding the two elections. He asked me if I would contribute and I readily agreed.

TOC: Why did you decide to contribute?
PT: I thought that it was important for me to be a part of this book as I had been a part of the campaigns and I thought that it would be useful for Singaporeans to hear a little background that could not be conveyed in a Rally speech. I was also proud to be associated with the people in the campaign and pleased to be asked to contribute to this historical text.

TOC: What do you hope the stories contained the book will achieve?
PT: I sincerely hope that the stories in the book will show how ordinary Singaporeans who are part of the mainstream but are not satisfied with many of the policies and directions that are being promoted by the ruling party can come forward sincerely to offer alternative views. These views now have a number of platforms by which they may be heard and Sinagaporeans, being a mature people can decide for themselves which policies are best for themselves and their families. This book is one such platform and I hope that it will help more Singaporeans to come forward. This can only be good for Singapore


Extract from Associate Professor Tambyah’s chapter:

Paul Ananth Tambyah

One day in 2009, I received a call from a friend who was politically active in the ruling party asking if he could talk with me in person. I was a bit apprehensive, but when he said that the Singapore Medical Association (SMA) had decided to nominate me for consideration as a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), I decided to say yes. It turned out that the SMA, which represents a significant proportion of general practitioners (GPs) in Singapore, was upset about several issues that had come up recently. It perceived there to be a media campaign highlighting errant doctors, especially those in the private sector. More importantly, the SMA guideline on fees which had helped self-regulate the profession for years and was, in fact, established as a result of prompting from the Ministry of Health, was suddenly deemed anti-competitive and had to be withdrawn.

The SMA warned of dire consequences, all of which have come to pass at both ends of the spectrum. At the lower end, we have the spectacle of corporate GPs charging less for a consultation than a hawker charges for a plate of char kway teow! Naturally, these GPs are forced to shift the charges to medication prices, and reducing the impetus to prescribe judiciously. Patients are thus locked into high-cost drugs often prescribed for chronic illnesses, contributing significantly to the rising cost of healthcare in Singapore. Other GPs have had to become highly qualified beauticians in order to cover their costs by offering aesthetic services. After the elections, the moves to incorporate more GPs in the management of chronic diseases are a positive sign, but one only hopes that the paperwork will not be too great a hurdle. At the other end, we have the story of Dr Susan Lim charging what her patient was willing to pay and numerous others who have not garnered the attention of the media, but are well known within the medical community.

The SMA, for some reason, thought that I would be bold enough to speak up in parliament about its concerns, and that perhaps things would change for the profession and for patients. Subsequently, I received a message letting me know that the professional bodies had nominated me for NMP and that I had to go for an interview. I called my good friends Siew Kum Hong and Braema Mathi and asked them about the interviews and the wisdom of going ahead with the application. Both had done very good work as NMPs despite the constraints of the position and they encouraged me to go ahead.

The interview began with a question on what issues I would raise if selected. I was frank and began by talking about patients who were penalised for diseases that they had through no fault of their own. I asked, which parents would choose for their child to have leukemia and thus why should they be forced to deplete their Medisave accounts or their resources so that they became eligible for Medifund in order to pay for the treatment. I did not get a very encouraging response and, in fact, Mrs Lim Hwee Hwa turned the question around and asked whether I thought that the same principle applied to other sectors of the economy. She asked if I felt that GST should be lifted for essential goods, as I had argued that basic, essential and children’s healthcare should be free. I was cautious but I said I did feel that GST should not be imposed on basic necessities such as rice and milk, and cited other countries which exempt these from GST. At once, I saw from the faces across the table that I had mentioned the unmentionable. Apart from Mr Low Thia Kiang who had a silent grin, the rest of the committee had stern faces.

To lighten the mood, Mr Michael Palmer asked what other issues I would raise. I mentioned that I had been nominated by the SMA and thus was morally obliged to bring up issues of concern to the organisation in addition to patient issues. The issue I highlighted was the plight of the ‘HDB GPs’ who face rising costs and are unable to pass these costs onto their ‘heartlander’ patients who often cannot afford expensive medications or treatments. The result of this is well documented in the SMA GP surveys which I cited and which have shown declines in the income and standard of living of the average GP in Singapore over the last decade.

This was met with some incredulity as all the MPs, beginning with Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, began to point out that at every meet-the-people session after the university admissions process started, anguished parents were out in force to appeal for their children who did not get into medical school. My answer was a little weak as I mentioned that they probably did not realise the average GP’s plight, or even know that more than half of the graduating class were GPs doing the hard work of primary healthcare in Singapore’s housing estates.

I now know why Singaporean parents want their children to become doctors – this was wonderfully explained by Professor Lee Wei Ling in her Straits Times (ST) column on 23 December, 2009. Singaporeans parents anxious about their own health and that of their families resonate with the situation described by Professor Lee in our public hospitals. The rest of the interview was unremarkable, and to be honest, I was not too surprised when I discovered through both The Straits Times and The Online Citizen that nine other worthy individuals had been chosen as NMPs (five of whom had listed then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew as their favourite politician!). I did write in to ask why I was not selected, but the reply was merely a polite “we are unable to comment on the special select committee’s decision” on either mine or Kum Hong’s non-reappointment.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dr Ang Swee Chai recounts her ISD detention

Dr Ang Swee Chai the ‘Euro Communist’?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on August 14, 2011 (source)

by Teo Soh Lung

Dr Ang Swee Chai, a prominent surgeon and author of From Beirut to Jerusalem has now written about her arrest and detention without trial under the ISA in 1977. She was one of at least 28 people, mostly professionals, who were arrested and labelled as Euro Communists by the PAP government.

Dr Ang was arrested on 15 March 1977, one month after Tan Jing Quee was arrested. At the time of her arrest, her husband of two weeks, Francis Khoo, a lawyer had escaped to London after many of their friends were arrested and imprisoned. Both she and her husband now live as exiles in London. The documents and photographs seized have not been returned to them.

“On the morning of my arrest, I was operating, when one of my colleagues came to tell me that a number of plain clothes policemen were looking for me. I told him that I got to finish operating on my patient before I could see them. They waited outside the operating theatre, maybe about 10 of them altogether, since we left in 2 cars. One of them wanted to hand-cuff me, but I told them I was not going to run away, and could not anyway. Furthermore they should not lead me with hand cuffs through the crowded hospital corridors for everyone to see, since some of the people sitting along the corridor were my patients.

“They took me first to our own flat. We were married 2 weeks prior to this and had just moved into this flat. They started going through all our things, taking a whole lot of documents and books away, and helped themselves to our wedding photos. Then they went to Francis’ mother’s house and took away Francis’s things. Next they went to my parents’s house to search. It was in the late afternoon when I was finally taken to Whitley Detention Centre. I was made to change into canvas/linen prisoner’s clothes, and all my own clothes – including my bra and watch were taken away. I was thumb-printed and had photographs taken with my prison number which was 116. From there I was taken straight to interrogation. It was hard to know how long I was interrogated, since there was no clock, and my own watch was taken away. But since there was about 9-12 change of shifts I must have been questioned initially for at least 72 hours. The interrogation was conducted by about 6 male officers with one female officer watching in each shift.

“There was initial banging of tables and threat that they would throw the key away for ever, and no one can get me out. They accused me of being a communist and a terrorist! The room was cold and I was shivering. I was then given strong tea with sugar and no milk, which coupled with all the threats sent my heart rate thumping.

“After what I thought must be the first 72 hours of continuous interrogation, I was taken to a small cell, no mattress, and the door shut. Lights were on. There was a small window in the door which was shut. As I sat on the cement floor, a Gurkha brought me rice wrapped in brown paper. There was one tiny fish, and I just could not eat anything. I was then taken to the toilet, but not allowed to close the door. By this time I was well and truly constipated. I just could not use the toilet with Gurkha soldiers standing guard at an open door. After that I was taken to an enclosed field and told to exercise for about 10 minutes.

“Then I was taken back for interrogation by yet a new set of officers. I was given lots of blank paper and questioned about Francis. I must have spent a couple of days being questioned, and writing and re-writing pages on Francis – most of what I wrote I remember was trivial initially. But later it was clear that what they were after was for me to implicate Francis as a terrorist. This I refused to do, as I know Francis was not. Then they put it to me that Francis had been lying and hiding things from me. They told me they had evidence to support their allegations, but could not show me.

“After about another 48 hours I was taken back to my cell. This time I was given fried Hor Fun by my case officer, who told me that my boss, Mr J E Choo, the Head of Outram Road General Hospital had rung the head of the ISD asking what they wanted with me. Apparently he had recently operated on the head of the ISD. The late Mr J E Choo was Senior State Surgeon and extremely well respected. This phone call I suspect had improved my deal.

“I was also given a mattress on the floor of my cell this time and told I was to sleep for two hours. Once the door shut I burst into tears, but then stopped since I thought I could be watched, and it was stupid to cry. After this time when I was again taken out for interrogation, the officers seemed friendly and polite, and advised me that in order to save my marriage I should go to Europe and persuade Francis to come back. They emphasized that apart from the shock of being suddenly picked up, I was treated well, and since I was able to go through with this, I should challenge Francis to go through this as well. I think they call it ”coming clean”. Of the pages and pages I have written, I signed some of them. The officers explained that I was a reasonable middle class professional (division one officer) and they could talk to me without resorting to using force, and it was easy to work with me. But with labourers and workers they usually had to beat them up to get co-operation. They gave me the impression that I was sensible, co-operative, not a terrorist but misled by my husband, and they wanted to help Francis correct his “deviant” ways before he get into very deep waters! They also told me not to worry about the hospital since it was also part of the civil service as the ISD was, and they had applied for me to have a fortnight’s leave, so nobody would query where I went, and as few people should know that I have been “picked up” by the ISD as possible. I somehow never challenged them about my doctor colleagues, who saw me being taken away in broad daylight from the hospital.

“When I was released a week later, it was surreal to see the metal gates of the detention centre closed behind me and getting into a taxi to go home! I knew that Francis had escaped to either Holland or London, and I had promised the ISD that I would go to Europe to talk to him. Despite all their assurances, I had made up my mind that I would not want Francis to come back to be interrogated, as I suspected he would be badly treated. The ISD officers laughed when I became defensive at one point and told me that I should not worry since they would not beat me up - Francis would see the bruises and make an issue of them, they told me.

“So this is my brief account of an encounter with ISD. Apart from getting some information about Francis, this arbitrary detention was not only unpleasant for me personally but a criminal waste of police resources and taxpayers’ money. Through this incident, I realised that despite being a division one civil servant, I could be put behind bars without charge, with no access to the outside world and could have disappeared with no one knowing. I was fortunate to be arrested in the hospital during working hours, and my colleagues who saw the arrest had told Mr Choo, my boss and he chose to intervene. If I was arrested in the middle of the night from my home, and there were no witnesses, then I could have been locked up forever as the ISD threatened. Even now I frequently ask myself, what kind of society is this who treat her citizens in this way.”


Dr Ang Swee Chai  on the relation between her politics and her humanitarian work for the Palestinians (on BBC HARDtalk on 16 August 2011).

Part 1

Part 2

Dr Ang at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London on 18 April 2011:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


*From Beirut and Jerusalem, a talk by Dr Ang Swee Chai, in London on 10 December 2004 (audio, text): here

*Remembering Francis Khoo Kah Siang, alleged Euro-Communist security threat

Friday, November 25, 2011

Remembering Francis Khoo Kah Siang, alleged Euro-Communist security threat


In The Straits Times of November 25, 2011, Dr Ang Swee Chai (Mrs Francis Khoo) published the following eulogy.

(For Dr Ang Swee Chai's remarkable humanitarian career and her book From Beirut to Jerusalem, see the end of this post.)

Francis Khoo Kah Siang, 23 October 1947 to 20 November 2011

by Dr Ang Swee Chai
(Mrs Francis Khoo)
22 November 2011

It must be so bizarre that the one person who loves you beyond words and whom you also love the most in this world goes on to make you a widow – and without polite notice!

So it is the case with my beloved. As I stepped off the plane, I received a text message sent a few hours ago that he “cannot come”. As I came into the house, I smelt delicious chicken macaroni soup freshly cooked in the kitchen. There was some left in a bowl which he must had eaten from to stem his hunger as the plane was delayed. But there was no answer to my call, except from our agitated cats. Yes, my beloved had died in the room upstairs.

Did he choose to die before I got to him to spare me the pain of resuscitating him? Was it Divine Mercy that he was taken home to God so painlessly, silently, and alone before medical science complicated his humanity? Was it to spare his wife anxious moments waiting at the hospital intensive care? Could I not just cradle him in my arms in these last precious moments on earth? Only at our re-union with our Maker and with each other can these questions be answered. For now, I am grateful to be able to look after him on this last lap of his earthly journey as he returns to the One who created him.

As news of his death broke out, thousands of emails, letters, text messages, phone calls, flowers poured from all parts of the world and all walks of life. From heads of states, diplomats, politicians, and friends employed and unemployed. I am not only overwhelmed by the volume but by the affection and admiration they held for him. Friends and family are flying in from all over the world. I have managed only to reply to just over a thousand messages over the last 48 hours. The rest might have to wait for their reply until the funeral is over.

So who was this Francis Khoo?

He was the fourth generation of an established Singapore Peranakan family. It is a close knit family. As a boy he sang in the Singing Khoos with his brothers Lawrence and Victor, and the family is devoutly Catholic. As he grew up he began to acquire a strong sense of justice – beyond merely legal. Of course he was a lawyer, but even in University as Vice President of the Students’ Law Society, he served a greater justice. He opposed the introduction of the Suitability Certificate, the abolition of the jury system, and later on the heavy bombing of Hanoi on Christmas day. His other interests include photography – he patented a pocket camera at the age of nineteen. He loved drawing, writing and ran the St Joseph Institution school paper and the university Undergrad.

Despite all the above “distractions”, he qualified and was called to the bar. Within months of arriving as a junior lawyer in his firm, he took on the legalities of forming a Citizens’ Co-op to save the Singapore Herald, the liberal English daily closed by the government.

In 1974, I met him at a Justice and Peace meeting. His deep commitment to social justice was to him a Christian obligation. The first commandment is to love God; the second is to love your neighbours as yourself. Two weeks later I read in the Straits Times that my new acquaintance was to defend a controversial trial in which factory workers and a student leader were charged with rioting. I called him to ask him to re-consider since he might invite personal repercussions. Being a “kiasu” (law-abiding timid ) Singaporean, I sensed that the government wanted the workers and the student leader imprisoned, and to defend them would be seen as being anti-government and the consequences would be dire!

He patiently explained that everyone is entitled to legal defence – and no one should be deemed guilty until proven beyond reasonable doubt. These workers were poor and established lawyers would not take their case on and someone just got to do it, in the interest of justice. If he had to pay the price of doing so, he would accept it!

I am still not sure when my admiration for him turned to love. In 1976 when I sensed that he might be detained under the Internal Security Act I asked him to marry me, so that if he were to be arrested I can visit him in prison and at least be his link to the outside world. We married on 29 January, 1977.

The arrest came, and he managed to escape. I was detained shortly afterwards and questioned about him. Upon my release I joined him in exile in the United Kingdom.

Francis started his live in exile as a cleaner in a Central London Hotel. He then went on to work as an administrator in a British Charity, Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam. Two years later he was journalist for an international third world magazine, South. From there he went on to direct War on Want, a prominent international NGO founded by the late British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Apart from chairing numerous charities he was co-founder and Vice Chairman of the British Charity, Medical Aid for Palestinians from 1984 to 2007. He had to step down as new British Charity Commissioner Legislation advised against office bearers serving more than 9 years , He had served 23 years!

From War on Want he returned to legal practice in London until his failing health forced him to stop work. Despite this, his work for many charities continued.

He wrote many poems, songs and articles. He sang for many including the wives of the striking miners. One of his songs Father Christmas in the Slag Heap brought the whole of Hemsworth, a town faced with pit closure, to tears during their poverty stricken Christmas in 1984. He also sang at canteens catering meals for the aged. His songs and writings are available to the Singapore public for those who are interested.

He suffered renal failure from 1998, went on dialysis, but had a successful renal transplant on the NHS in July 2011 – the generous gift of an anonymous British woman donor. The day before his death he was at the Annual General Meeting of Living Stones, a charity to which he was trustee. His diary is full of future engagements including the Haldane Law Society, charities for the homeless, Medical Aid for Palestinians, the Scottish Parliament, and the House of Commons - plus supporting me in dozens of public lectures and talks. It is full of engagements until end of September 2012.

His untimely death left a huge void in all our lives. We are all in a state of shock. But by God’s grace, time will make it possible for his memory to overwhelm the pain of our loss. My tribute to him will be to continue to serve the cause of peace and justice. I also hope to be the widow who will take his ashes back to his beloved Singapore after his 34 years of exile.

Francis Khoo on BBC TV, 1978

Francis Khoo Kah Siang 23 Oct 1947 - 20 Nov 2011

by Teo Soh Lung on Tuesday, 22 November 2011 at 16:33 (source)


1) 'twas the 15th of February
at dead of the night
they kept knocking
and banging my door
i slipped quietly away
but the others could not
and i know that
i'd see them no more

2) they had taken so many
how many i know not
well, there's maha
and mike and samy
and there's jing quee
and others
the brave and the tall
and they're once more
behind changi wall

3) then i packed
my small green bag,
some clothes
and my toothbrush
never knowing
what lies ahead
though the darkness
surrounds me
i'll hold my head high
and i know
i'm no longer afraid

4) o my dear bride,
my dearest
just two weeks we're wed
please remember
the vow that we made
i have left my homeland
for a place far away
but i know
i'll be back home someday

5) o my people,
my homeland
the ones that i love
i will never
see you again
till the storm clouds gather
at break of the dawn
and bungaraya
shall bloom
in the rain

lyrics and melody
1977 [1]

Francis Khoo Kah Siang, lawyer, champion of human rights, photographer, cartoonist, singer and song writer, scribbled the above lyrics on an old envelope while flying to London in February 1977. He had with great reluctance and sorrow, left Dr Ang Swee Chai who he married just two weeks before because “confessions” of his friends who were arrested by the ISD had implicated him.

February 1977 saw the arrest and imprisonment of at least 28 people, many of whom were professionals under the ISA. They were the intellectuals of our society and had occasionally been critical of the policies of our government. The ISD weaved a tale of “Euro-Communism” and accused them of conducting activities damaging to the security of Singapore. In reality, “Euro-Communism” was a reference to an awareness of human rights abuses in Singapore. At that time, political detainees like Dr Lim Hock Siew, Said Zahari, Lee Tee Tong, Ho Piao and Chia Thye Poh had been imprisoned without trial for more than a decade and socialist governments in Britain and The Netherlands had not been happy with the conduct of the PAP who claimed also to be socialists and was a member of Socialist International.

In early June 1976, the Dutch Labour Party (DLP) had at a meeting of members of Socialist International in London called for the expulsion of the PAP from the organisation unless it agreed to release all political prisoners. They were backed by the British Labour Party. The PAP represented by Devan Nair defended its hardline position and instead of facing ultimate expulsion because it had no intention of releasing the political prisoners, tendered its resignation but not before a tediously long and arrogant speech was delivered by Nair. The Straits Times of 2 June 1976 reported :

“The DLP pretend to mock horror about provisions in our internal security laws for detention without trial. They seem to have forgotten that the Dutch socialists have themselves resorted, when the occasion demanded, to powers of detention without trial.

We cannot and will not permit the lunatic fringe of West European social democratic parties to make common cause with our communists and fellow-travellers, and to tell us how we ought to run our affairs.”

Two days after that speech was delivered, Dr Poh Soo Kai was rearrested and imprisoned under the ISA, probably for the reason that he had called for the release of his comrades who were still in prison.

It took another seven months before the PAP government engineered the big swoop of February 1977. First on the hit list was lawyer G Raman. He was arrested on 2 February 1977. Under intensive interrogation and physical abuse in the cold room, ISD officers forced a written confession from him. Names of his friends, even remotely in touch with him were spewed on many pages of The Straits Times. Many (at least 28 professionals) who were named in that confession were arrested and imprisoned. They and Raman were to be disillusioned with politics for decades thereafter and until today, no one has dared to speak about the real reason why so many intellectuals were arrested in February 1977.

Among the numerous names mentioned in pages of The Straits Times was that of Francis Khoo. Francis knew he was on the chopping board for he had championed causes of poor fishermen and factory workers and in his younger days, protested against the Vietnam War and participated in the campaign to save The Herald newspaper from extinction. Fearing the loss of his freedom, Francis left Singapore and landed up in London as a political exile. Shortly after, his wife, Swee Chai was arrested. She was to be imprisoned for at least two weeks and questioned about the whereabouts of Francis in the ISD cold room. Upon her release, she joined her husband in London and both of them became deeply involved in human rights causes. Francis was to campaign for the release of his friends and appeared in a BBC programme, Price of Freedom when he spoke of the injustice suffered by political prisoners in Singapore.

It is with deep sorrow that I learnt of Francis’ demise on 20 November 2011. I knew he had some four months earlier undergone a kidney transplant and had been in and out of hospital. He had not been well for many years but illness had never prevented him from being keenly involved in championing for the rights of the disadvantaged. He sang for coal miners when they went on strike for better wages and the closure of their unions. He helped in various international charities and Medical Aid for Palestinians. He supported freedom movements like the African National Congress and Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He was not a politician but had many friends in political parties both in England and elsewhere in the world.

Though poor in health, Francis never moaned about his illness. Instead, he was always cheerful and joked about his ailments. He wrote humourous letters to his friends about his debilitating condition. I was a guest of Swee Chai and Francis two years ago and marvelled at his independence. While Swee Chai was busy with her work as a surgeon both in London and war-torn Gaza, Francis kept the house and two lovely cats. They do not have any home help and cooked their own meals. In Singapore, a person in Francis’ condition would have hired at least one helper. But not Francis and Swee Chai. They are true socialists, always generous with their money and time, always giving.

Francis often talked of home meaning Singapore. He refused to return home when he was told that he would be required to give a statement to the ISD. It is sad that while communism in Eastern Europe fell after 40 years and exiles were allowed to return to their homeland and to read the files of the secret police, Singapore, a first world nation would not allow her own citizens to return after decades of being in exile, even though they had done nothing against the country. Indeed, it is the state that had done a grave injustice to Francis and Swee Chai nearly 35 years ago.

Francis is now gone to a better world. Swee Chai is still in London. I sincerely hope that young Singapore leaders today who were not involved in the arrest of citizens of past decades wouldl right the wrongs of their elders. It would be a nice gesture on their part to invite Dr Ang Swee Chai and all exiles to return home without any condition.

[1] Tan Jing Quee Teo Soh Lung Koh Kay Yew Eds Our Thoughts Are Free Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile Ethos Books Singapore


A tribute to Francis Khoo Kah Siang

by Tan Wah Piow, 26.11.2011 (source1, source2)

We take the opportunity of this gathering to pay our respects and register our tribute to Francis Khoo, husband of Ang Swee Chai and a patriotic son of Singapore. Born on the 23.10. 1947, Francis sadly died unexpectedly in London last Sunday 20 November 2011.

Some of us who had the privilege of knowing him, and had worked with him during the 1970s will feel the great loss of a passionate, courageous and creative advocate for change.

I first met Francis in 1973. He was then a 26 year old young lawyer and an active member of the Student Christian Movement in Singapore, He was then an important source of inspiration amongst his peers. He helped to organise the demonstration outside the American embassy protesting against the US bombing of North Vietnam, a rare anti-war event in Singapore.

In 1974 he represented one of the two workers from the American Marine factory who, together with me, were victims of a frame-up stitched up by the Singapore government controlled trade union. The trial brought Francis closer to the student leadership at the University of Singapore. 1974 was a time of economic recession in Singapore, hence a time of intense political persecution against dissent. He had already made his mark in 1971 when he, together with 4 others, tried to form a cooperative to revive the Herald newspaper, which was closed down by the authorities in a crackdown of the independent press.

Although for a period in the 1970s he suffered malicious, unjustified and unfounded slanders to his integrity as a political activist, Francis was able to rise above them, thanks to his deep political commitment and faith.

In February 1977, the Singapore government launched one of their periodic sweeps under the draconian powers of the ISA. Scores of people were detained without trial. Francis knew he would be arrested due to his active political dissent. He managed to escape to the UK. He and Swee Chai were newlyweds then. When the Singapore Government realised that Francis had escaped from their clutches, they arrested Swee Chai instead. They released Swee Chai on the understanding that she would coax him to return to Singapore. Francis and Swee Chai were reunited and they sought asylum in the UK.

Cut off from his Singapore base, Francis quickly adapted to life abroad, redefining his role as a humanitarian internationalist, immersing himself in many worthy causes including helping Amnesty International to launch the Lawyers’ Group and spoke at several of their International Human Rights Days. In the late 1980s, he became the Director of War on Want. He was also active in local social issues and was chairman of RADICLE, the London-wide charity providing services and accommodation for teenage mothers, drop-in centres and support for the elderly. His most enduring achievement was, together with Swee Chai, setting up Medical Aid for Palestinians, which is now a well-supported charity giving much needed help to the Palestinian people.

Francis Khoo was politically a socialist and spiritually a Christian humanist. His 34 years exile did not diminish his commitment and concern for Singapore and Malaysia. Despite the exile, he maintained close contacts with family and political friends. He will always be remembered by friends and comrades for his deep convictions, amiable attitude, love for life and food, and for his song, “the Bunga Raya” and for his poems.

Francis selflessly supported the work of his beloved wife who spared no effort or time in promoting the Palestinian cause. His life, and the way he chose to live it, will remain an inspiration to us all.


Dr Ang Swee Chai

Dr Ang Swee Chai FRCS graduated from the University of Singapore in 1973. She is  an orthopaedic surgeon who worked with civilians during the Lebanese Civil War, and a founding trustee of the British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians. She witnessed the  Sabra and Shatila massacre, and has written an account of it in From Beirut to Jerusalem (amazon).

An in-depth interview with Dr Ang Swee Chai (conducted by Dr Toh Han Chong and Associate Professor Paul Ananth Tambyah) in Oct 2006:  here

*From Beirut and Jerusalem, a talk by Dr Ang Swee Chai on 10 December 2004 (audio, text): here

Dr Ang mentioned (1:02) in British TV news bulletin on 15 April, 1987:


Tribute to Francis Khoo, by Franklin Lamb, a Palestinaian civil rights worker.

* Dr Ang Swee Chai recounts her ISD detention

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Teo Soh Lung: For Minister Teo Chee Hean (4)

November 11, 2011 (source)

Referring to the arrest of the alleged Marxists on 21 May 1987, Minister Teo Chee Hean said in parliament:

“When the Government did move against this group in the mid-1980s, it made clear that it was not acting against genuine social activists or members of the clergy, but only those who were covertly pursuing their subversive Marxist political agenda by hiding within the church organisations. Appreciating the sensitivities involved, the Government made every effort to explain to the Church leadership that this was not targeted at the Church. The Church leaders and the Vatican itself acknowledged this publicly… “ (para 18).

It was by chance that I read the notes recorded by the ISD of the meeting between the late Archbishop Gregory Yong, Fr Giovanni D’Aniello of the Holy See, several representatives of the Catholic Church and the then prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew with the director of ISD and other officials at the Istana two weeks after 16 alleged Marxists were arrested. The notes reminded me of the hours I stood before the former prime minister and his colleagues at the parliamentary select committee hearing on the Legal Profession Amendment Bill in 1986 and the interrogation I was subjected to by ISD officers at Whitley Road Centre.

As Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, one would have expected His Holiness to be treated with courtesy, respect and patience. If the notes are accurate, the Archbishop and his colleagues were treated like political prisoners. They were “imprisoned” for nearly three hours at the Istana. The hot and cold tactics used by ISD interrogators were used on those eminent Church leaders. The Church was praised and then threatened. When threats failed, words softened. Ideas that the Church was being used by communists were subtly suggested. The “culprits” who the government alleged necessitated the arrests in 1987 shifted from the 16 detainees to four Catholic priests. Just study this passage and you will understand what I mean:

“PM said that he was not interested in VINCENT CHENG and his group, but he had to deal with them in a way that would make it less likely for others to follow in their wake. He was however more concerned about the involvement of several priests and that the Archbishop had been told about them by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in JUL 86. PM said that he took the matter so seriously that when the Pope visited Singapore, he informed the Pope that the Church was a source of strength for Singapore but that there were now problems coming from the Church and that the Archbishop knew about it. PM said that the Archbishop was told about Fr EDGAR D’SOUZA, Fr PATRICK GOH, Fr JOSEPH HO and Fr AROTCARENA. PM then read out the Church’s press statement issued on 28 MAY 87 in which the Church stated that:
“The Catholic Church ….. must continue its mission of spreading its teachings on matters pertaining to justice as they apply to social, economic and political issues …. To the best of our knowledge, the full-time workers have been fully committed to the work of the Catholic organisation in which they served. The six voluntary workers have generously contributed their time and talents to specific work in the Catholic organisation with which they were associated. We hope and pray that justice will be done and be seen to be done.””

I was surprised that instead of arresting the four priests who were “creating problems” for the prime minister in 1986, 16 people were arrested in their stead! Was the government afraid of the Catholic Church? Did the prime minister think then that slaughtering 16 chickens would make the Church compliant? I don’t know. The notes were full of contradictions. It was familiar style. Even the issue of who initiated the meeting at the Istana had to be altered. The person in charge could say anything and no one, including His Grace, was brave enough to correct any error or contradiction.

And so statements were made and then contradicted. Like a theatre performance, actors appeared suddenly and key players bowed out only to return after a change of costume. The intervals were meant to temporarily relieve anxiety from the “prisoners”, giving them short respite. At the same time, (I suspect) ,it enabled the interrogators to plan their next move and change their tact. While political prisoners were interrogated in freezing cold rooms with spotlights shining into their eyes, the “interrogation” of Church leaders were done in the comfort of the Istana. The techniques used however, were the same. Documents were produced to His Holiness who must read them quickly.

“… PM pointed out that the Archbishop had read ISD’s documents in 3 meetings with MHA officials…”

Wow, three meetings to read, digest and be convinced about a conspiracy to overthrow the government!

From the notes, I gathered that agreements had to be reached quickly and statements issued for public consumption. Time was of the essence, at least on the part of the prime minister. It was either His Grace issued a statement there and then or the Church would be seen as being on a collision course with the government. The strange and bewildering Kafkaesque atmosphere was sufficient to frighten the Archbishop and the representative from the Holy See.

During the meeting, the Archbishop had read from a prepared statement defending the 16 arrested. I reproduce part of the notes:

“… The Archbishop said that the Church had given the Government the benefit of the doubt because they believed that it was a responsible Government. He ended that just as the Government could not condone corruption by one of its Ministers recently, the Church also could not condone any violation of human rights. He hoped the Government could show that the detainees were guilty of what they had been accused of and that when this had been done, the Church would have no reason to fight for them or fault the Government. He would then be most grateful to the Government for having prevented people from using the Church for subversive purposes. He added that the Church recognised the right of the Government to safeguard the security of the nation but at the same time the Government had an obligation to prove that those detained were a threat to security…”

That belief in the innocence of the 16 until proven guilty vanished in the three-hour meeting. His Grace issued a statement which read as follows:

“We are satisfied that the Government of Singapore has nothing against the Catholic Church when it detained 10 of our Church workers amongst the 16 who were arrested for possible involvement in the clandestine Communist network.”

The Church had abandoned her flock in three hours and saved herself from the wrath of the government. It was a wise decision – to save the majority, save the four priests and disown the ten detainees. The four priests were spared in that they were not detained though they were relieved of their duties a few days later by the Archbishop, because it was the 10 who had made use of the Church. I wonder who were the unlucky ten. To incur the wrath of the government is an inconsequential matter. To incur the wrath of God as represented by the Archbishop (if one believes in God) by making use of the Church is another matter.

Minister Teo Chee Hean may be right to say that the arrests in 1987 was not targeted at the Church because the Church said so. But can we believe a statement that was drafted by the Archbishop within three hours? Maybe not. After all, the Archbishop was a sort of “prisoner” in the Istana. But if the statement was issued in haste or involuntarily, the Archbishop should have taken the earliest opportunity to correct the statement. She had that opportunity in 1989 when the Far Eastern Economic Review was sued for defamation for reporting among other matters, that the Archbishop was “tricked” into issuing the statement (at the Istana meeting). I remember the Church was silent then, thus impliedly disagreeing with the magazine’s report. In recent years, the Church repeated the government’s claims against the detainees in a publication Going forth … The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004 [1]. With this publication, we should no longer doubt that the Archbishop voluntarily issued the Istana statement (even though the Archbishop never saw the publication as he passed away in 2000). Under the heading “Detention of some Catholics,” the authors dismissed the arrest of 22 people as an “unfortunate event” and the law suit against the Far Eastern Economic Review as an “unpleasant episode”.

The authors had their facts wrong from the beginning. The majority of the 22 arrested had absolutely nothing to do with the Catholic Church. They could have spared themselves from having to explain the “unfortunate event” if they had interviewed the living protagonists of the alleged conspiracy. I am sure the three priests and Vincent Cheng who are alive today would be happy to tell their side of the story. The authors could have analysed the 1987 event more carefully and inform the readers that the government’s allegations that those 22 arrested were not accurate because the majority had nothing to do with the Church. Disappointingly, the authors chose to regurgitate published materials without investigating the truth. They did not analyse or express their own views on those published materials thus misleading readers to believe that the detainees made use of the Church. They wrote:

“Articles appeared in The Catholic News on the issue of foreign workers and maids written by a priest. In 1986, Archbishop Gregory Yong was informed that this constituted involvement of the Church in politics. Nevertheless, the articles continued to appear. The authorities established that a communist net was growing and that a number of Catholic organisations, the Students’ Christian Movement, the Young Christian Workers’ Movement and the Catholic Students’ Societies of the National University and the Singapore Polytechnic had been drawn in. The Straits Times reported that a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the political and social system of Singapore had emerged which went beyond pure social concerns…”[2]

The authors even wrote briefly about similar arrests of Catholic priests and workers in Operation Lalang which took place in October 1987 without informing readers that the Catholic Church in Malaysia courageously stood up for their workers and those arrested in Singapore. I remember receiving many notes and cards from individuals and Catholic organisations in Malaysia throughout my detention. Again relying on secondary source, The China Post of 24 November 1988 was partially quoted by the authors:

“Meanwhile, a similar story was unfolding in Malaysia. In 1987, the Malaysian government arrested one hundred and six people connected to Marxists and Christian groups subscribing to liberation theology which threatened to “disrupt Malaysia’s delicate racial and religious balance. … (They) Had infiltrated several Christian societies, including the young Christian Movement and the Catholic Students’ Society to win wider acceptance of Marxist ideology… The government described liberation theology as an approach which stresses that Catholicism contains teachings that human freedom can be achieved through a class struggle, and force may be used when all other means have been exhausted.””[3]

The authors appeared intent on putting the Singapore government in good light by repeating the praises lavished by the former prime minister when they again cited published materials, this time The Straits Times of 3 June 1987. They wrote:

“Mr. Lee Kuan Yew met the press, accompanied by Archbishop Gregory Yong, after the meeting of 1 June 1987. “Twice during the Istana Press conference, Mr Lee showed that he held ordinary Catholics in high regard. He said that he had found the Catholics to be amongst the most stout-hearted defenders of the democratic society and against Marxism and totalitarianism as represented by the communists … good relations between Catholic Church and the state will be maintained … (lay Catholics) are very staunch supporters of the community in education, health, social work and so on”.[4]

If the Archbishop’s Istana statement made in 1987 was extracted under duress, surely an important publication on the illustrious history of the Catholic Church in Singapore published 20 years after should make clear the Church’s position. It was a golden opportunity for the Church to explain the work of the arrested Church workers and the intention of the Second Vatican Council which the authors proudly claimed “had emphasized a pastoral response to a fast changing world that had affected various groups of people. It found expression in what came to be known as Development Theology. It was directed at championing the cause of people in all situations of life and the creation of a more just society…” [5]

The Church chose not to dispute the voluntariness of the statement. Reading the authors’ brief exposition of the Second Vatican Council, I suddenly realised why the Catholic Church was so active in championing the rights of the workers’ in the 1980s. The four priests were putting the text of the Second Vatican Council into action. They sought help from Catholics and non Catholics to manage their organisations in Jurong (the Young Christian Workers’ Centre) and Geylang (the Geylang Catholic Centre). I was one of the volunteers. Those volunteers and underpaid Church staff worked very hard to defend the human rights of foreign workers. But what happened when the Church was confronted by the state about the work of those volunteers and workers? The Church buckled and left them to defend themselves. She sang the tune of the government. I cannot therefore agree with Archbishop Nicholas Chia that Going forth … The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004 is a “well-documented publication of the history of the Church in Singapore.” [6] Until the Church investigate the 1987 arrests earnestly and preferably while witnesses to that “unfortunate event” or “unpleasant episode” are alive, there will be no closure for those volunteers and workers accused of making use of the Church and imprisoned without trial by the state. Until the Church examine her past action or inaction, the stain on the Catholic Church in Singapore for failing to stand up for her volunteers and workers in their time of need will remain, at least as far as I am concerned.


[1] E. Wijeysingha in collaboration with Fr. Rene` Nicolas, mep Going forth…The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004 His Most Rev. Nicholas Chia, Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore 2006

[2] P. 197

[3] P. 199

[4] P. 199

[5] P. 196

[6] P. 3