– the 50th anniversary of Operation Cold Store, 2nd February 2013
by Chng Suan Tze
Cold store indeed. It took 50 years to break some of the silence. At last, some of the hundreds of people who were arbitrarily detained in the 1963 ISD arrests by the PAP government, code named Operation Cold Store, decided to speak up. And after 50 years of self-imposed silence, many came openly to support the event. Fifty years is a long time; time that is reflected in the lined faces and not too robust physique of these people, who, one may recall, were once young, energetic and full of ideals — in struggling for independence from colonial rule, in fighting against PAP repression and in seeking a better and more humane society.
So on an unusually sunny Saturday afternoon of 2nd February 2013, about 700 people, mostly in their 70s – 80s mingled in Hong Lim Park. Backs were patted, hands shook and faces, sometimes stern, broke into wrinkled laughter and all around there was a subdued camaraderie. Both former detainees and visitors to the event alike, scanned the big “bill board” on which was pasted, row after row, of names of people who were detained without trial since the 1950s. Copies of the book “We Remember” published to commemorate the occasion were quickly picked up.
A stage was set for speeches and testimonies from some of the former detainees. About 400 plastic chairs quickly filled up and those without chairs either sat on tarpaulins or stood around to hear what the ex-detainees have to say.
We heard, sometimes in Mandarin and sometimes in English, people like Chng Min Oh who was detained for 13 years for being involved in various struggles to improve the living conditions of workers.
We heard Lee Tee Tong, then Barisan MP elect for Bukit Timah and former trade unionist who was detained for almost 18 years, condemned the use of the ISA for bringing on the death of parliamentary democracy.
We heard Tan Kok Fang who then just graduated from the former Nanyang University, spoke of fellow university graduates Tai Yuan and Chia Thye Poh. Tai Yuan was imprisoned for eight years and then banished to Hong Kong. Chia Thye Poh was imprisoned for 32 years earning him the unsolicited and heartbreaking fame of being the world’s longest political detainee. They were fighting for ‘Merdeka’ (independence from colonial rule).
Michael Fernandez (detained twice and for a total of more than 9 years) spoke of many important and principled people incarcerated for many years without trial, under PAP rule: James Puthucheary, Said Zahari, Linda Chen, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Abdul Razak and Tan Jing Quee.
Dr Poh Soo kai, (one of the founding members of the University Socialist Club and later the Barisan Sosialis and detained twice and for a total of 17 years), paid homage to the hundreds of ‘brave young men and women who were cut down cruelly and undemocratically, in the prime of their lives by the mass arrests of 2nd February 1963 and in the relentless waves of detentions thereafter.” He told all to honour the families of all the detainees who went through years and decades of immense pain and suffering to provide unquestioning support for their incarcerated loved ones.
He called upon the ex-political detainees to heal their wounds, for as ‘survivors of 2.2’, their youthful idealism and their pursuit of a better humanity had not been in vain!
To the young among the audience he told them a little bit of history — that there was such a thing as a People’s Constitution meant to protect the peoples’ basic rights and which maintained that Singapore is an integral and inalienable part of Mainland Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia). He told them how in those days without the internet and when even the use of the telephone was a luxury, they were able to carry out a one day HARTAL – a one day peaceful and complete stoppage of economic activities –throughout the whole of Malaya and Singapore to protest against the British refusal to accept the People’s Constitution drafted by lawyer, John Eber and Willie Kuok of the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU). Imagine the bicycles peddling furiously from town to kampong to town, spreading the news. The HARTAL was convincing proof that all communities, especially the Malay community, supported the non-communal politics that was at the heart of the People’s Constitution.
Dr Poh spoke about the Fajar Sedition Trial and added that it was ironic that in those days they had legitimized Lee Kuan Yew. “But we cannot cry over the past,” he told the gathering. “Our aspirations to be decent human beings will never die; today we can repeat Hong Lim and Anson* again through the ballot box.”
The speeches closed with Teo Soh Lung (detained for more than two years under Operation Spectrum) thanking the survivors of Operation Cold Store for the part they played in liberating Singapore from the British colonial masters. She urged the government to 1) charge those currently imprisoned under the ISA in an open court; 2) to abolish the ISA; and 3) to let all exiles return home without conditions imposed on them. She hoped that one day all those who were detained under the ISA will receive a public apology from the government.
Today, in 2013, the quest for the abolition of the ISA persists and the fight for a better and more humane society continues.
(*He was referring to the Hong Lim and Anson by –elections of April and July 1961 in which the PAP was defeated – for failure to release political prisoners as it had promised prior to the 1959 election for self government.)
2 February 2013 @ Hong Lim Park
Abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) and let those who were banished or exiled come home. This is the cry of those who believe in justice, democracy and human rights, as well as the hope of those commemorating the 50th anniversary of Operation Cold Store, which was mounted on 2 February 1963 in Singapore.
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
We refer to the press release of MHA of 20 Sep 2012. MHA alleged that Function 8 is
disrespectful towards Archbishop Nicholas Chia of the Catholic Church. This is untrue. The
allegations have attempted to set F8 against the church. The Archbishop had withdrawn the letter sent to the organisers of the commemoration event of Operation Spectrum. To date, as far as we know, this letter has not surfaced in public. We have obviously respected the wishes of the head of the Catholic Church by not publicizing the contents of his letters.
In our response dated 1 June 2012 to the letter of withdrawal by His Grace, we sought his
clarifications over several questions: How did he come to the conclusion that there is an
ulterior motive to use his unsolicited letter outside of the event? Doesn’t justice require a
hearing from all sides? And should we copy our letter to the person who was copied in his
letter of withdrawal?
More than three months have passed and we have not heard from the Archbishop.
Out of respect for His Grace, we had voluntarily not publicized our letter of response to his
letter of withdrawal, and had hoped for the courtesy of a reply from him in due course. However, MHA’s unwarranted allegations have now forced us to show details of our letter to the Archbishop in order to clear the allegations against us. This letter is reluctantly attached with parts blacked out to protect the direct contents of the Archbishop’s original letter and the identity of the person who was copied in his letter of withdrawal.
MHA further claimed that Function 8 had publicised the matter through blogger Alex Au.
This is untrue. At no time did we engage Mr Au on this matter. To suggest that a seasoned
blogger like Mr Au was made use of, is an insult to him and to the freedom of internet
We believe in the government’s sincerity to generate a meaningful national conversation at this time. MHA said that “government ministers meet regularly with religious leaders in Singapore”. We hope that they would also engage civil society groups for “frank exchange of views especially on sensitive subjects”. We hope this ‘national’ conversation can be conducted with dignity and civility over tea and certainly not through the national papers. We continue to request a meaningful dialogue with MHA and other affected parties away from the noise of what has turned into an ugly public dispute.
We wish to state categorically that we continue to applaud the Catholic Church for her good work carried out in our society to uphold social justice, caring for the poor and the weak. At no time will we allow ourselves to be set against the Church by inappropriate and unjustified allegations by any party.
Function 8 Ltd