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

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