He studied Business and Economics at Sheffield University in the 1970s and spent a year in Japan as part of his course. He was one of the key members of the Federation of United Kingdom and Eire Malaysian and Singapore Student movement (FUEMSSO). In 1976 when Tan Wah Piow sought exile in the UK, he with his other colleagues organised various meetings throughout the country to publicise the repression that was then going on in Singapore. He was fondly called “Lao Tay” by all those who knew him in UK because he was slightly older than them and also because of his mannerism. A tribute described him as follows:
“Tay Hong Seng and I first met when I was a student in Sheffield. He was slightly older than most of us. That was how he got his name and was fondly called “Lao Tay”. He introduced me and some other Sheffield friends to the world of student politics and activism. He was the key person to develop the Malaysian and Singaporean Society of Sheffield (MSSS) into a politically active society.
Hong Seng often did his work in a quiet but very effective manner. Besides his active political involvement he often found time to cook. He was a really good cook.
Another of his friends commented “Initially I found him to be slow, old fashioned and difficult to understand due to my own ignorance and impatience at the time. As I slowly began to talk to him and understand him more, I realise that he had in-depth knowledge of politics and an analytical mind. I had truly learnt and benefited from him during our student days in Sheffield. Due to his very slow style of speaking, impatient people like me always interrupted him when he spoke during meetings. He would not get angry but let others finish their interruptions. After some time he would raise his hand and say “Please may I continue, I have not finish yet”.
Yet another had this to say: “To be honest, initially I was very annoyed by his persistence. He would cling to you like a leech, talking to you for hours from breakfast to lunch or from the student union cafeteria to your hostel. But his perseverance paid off. Gradually, many of us became endeared to him and he was like a big brother to us.”
During his time in Sheffield, Lao Tay participated in a production called “Only a while the mountain sleeps”. It was an activity that is still fondly remembered by his contemporaries in Sheffield.
After graduation in Sheffield, Hong Seng moved to London and was involved in the production of a student magazine called “Fijar” a publication of FUEMSSO.
Tay returned to Singapore in 1981 and consistent with his enthusiasm for cultural and political activism, he started building bridges with like-minded friends, some of whom were those he met in UK during his student days and others were activists during the 1970 student movement period in Singapore. With ten other friends, they formed the Third Stage. Hong Seng wrote and directed “Things we paid for” which was performed at the Drama Centre in July 1983 and he also co authored “Esperanza” with Wong Souk Yee.
In 1987, the Internal Security Department arrested 22 people four of whom were key members of the Third Stage. Hong Seng was one of the four. He was imprisoned for nearly a year. It was an irony that Third Stage was accused of being a front to subvert the social and political system of Singapore when its production went through the censorship board with a few even receiving monetary grants from the then Ministry of Culture.
During the period of his detention, Hong Seng was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and was also forced to “confess”. Hong Seng once said that “he was prepared to spend his life in the cell if his payroll was not affected adversely.” The trauma experienced by those arrested is encapsulated in Teo Soh Lung’s “Beyond the blue gate”.
After his release, Hong Seng kept much to himself. In recent times however, he had on more than one occasion indicated his interest to be kept informed by those organising the campaign to abolish the ISA on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum. Hong Seng was not only scholarly in his persona but was a profound thinker. He was a talented activist and according to one of his friends, he writes well in Chinese and is an accomplished calligrapher. We only hope that he did confide with someone near and dear to him so that we can learn more about him.
30 November 2012