A cub reporter has achieved in a month what his superiors in the Singapore Press Holdings could not do in six years (see link here and here) - secure an interview with former political detainee Dr Lim Hock Siew. In a two-page feature published yesterday, journalist Cai Haoxiang wrote what is likely to be the highlight of his journalistic career with the political bureau of the Straits Times - a rare and uncompromising re-examinaton of history, detention and the PAP from Singapore's 2nd longest-held political prisoner.
Feb 19, 2010
Still dreaming of a socialist Singapore
From student activist and PAP campaigner to Barisan Sosialis leader and second longest-held political detainee, Dr Lim Hock Siew's story mirrors Singapore's tumultuous history. Now 79, he bares his thoughts and feelings about his political past.
By Cai Haoxiang, Straits Times, 19 Feb 2010
IT IS a sweltering day as you walk by the row of repainted shophouses along
As you push open the glass doors and duck inside for a welcome draught of
air-conditioning, you meet a group of elderly patients waiting expectantly to
see their family doctor.
The name on the door plate of his office may not ring a bell for the young
but to older Singaporeans, it jumps right out of Singapore’s turbulent political
history: Dr Lim Hock Siew.
Enter his simply furnished room, and you see him at a desk stacked with
books, stationery and newspapers.
An eye chart is pasted on a glass cabinet
displaying photos of him as a dashing young man.
The 79-year-old doctor, in his white long-sleeved shirt, greets you with a
soft, occasionally wheezing, yet otherwise firm voice. He is not in the best of
health, having suffered kidney failure last year and taken a six-month break to
As he is undergoing dialysis three times a week, he would have preferred to
extend his break except that his clinic partner, Dr Mohd Abu Bakar, 76, was
overwhelmed by the patient load.
So he returned to half-day work last month, seeing around 30 patients every
morning, and plans to do so as long as his health permits. ‘It’s kind of an
ethical obligation to look after them, and I can keep myself mentally occupied,’
The name of his clinic harks back to his socialist days as a political
activist, first with the People’s Action Party (PAP) and then with its arch
rival, Barisan Sosialis. It is called Rakyat, which means ‘people’ in Malay. It
was set up by Dr Lim and fellow Barisan Sosialis leader Dr Poh Soo Kai in
Its consultation fees are no different from other clinics’ – $20 to $30. But
Dr Lim charges a reduced rate for poorer patients and gives free treatment to
the neediest. ‘I don’t deny help to those who need it,’ he says.
Dr Lim’s sense of compassion and empathy for the poor is well known. At a
time when the unprofessional and unethical practices of some doctors are hogging
the headlines, the mere mention of Dr Lim’s name evokes hushed respect among his
Even pro-PAP Singaporeans who would be horrified by the prospect of a Barisan
Sosialis government admit to having a grudging admiration for Dr Lim as a man
who has the courage of his convictions.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports,
once singled out Dr Lim as a politician he admired for his strength of character
and ability to sacrifice for his beliefs.
Like many of his former leftist colleagues, Dr Lim feels compelled to give
his side of the story before time runs out.
In recent years, a cottage industry has sprung up providing alternative
histories of Singapore. Books included memoirs by former communist underground
leader Fang Chuang Pi, former Barisan Sosialis leader Fong Swee Suan and former
Parti Rakyat Singapura leader Said Zahari. Just three months ago, the Fajar
Generation, a book on the University Socialist Club (USC) of the then-University
of Malaya, was launched.
In a nutshell, Dr Lim’s is a story of how an idealistic student activist
joined and campaigned for the PAP in the 1950s and then fought against the
ruling party in the 1960s and paid a very heavy price for his beliefs and
In 1963, he was arrested under Operation Cold Store and detained without
trial for nearly 20 years before he was released in 1982.
A Home Affairs Ministry statement on his release had said that he was
arrested under the Internal Security Act for his involvement in Communist United
Front (CUF) activities.
Dr Lim refused to agree to any conditions that would have granted him early
release and ended up in the record book as the second longest-held political
prisoner after his leftist colleague Chia Thye Poh, who served 23 years.
Today, 28 years after his release, he still dreams of a socialist Singapore
in which there is no exploitation of workers and the oppressed.
BORN in 1931 to a poor family, Dr Lim spent the 1942-45 war years helping his
father sell fish in the Kandang Kerbau market. Both his parents were illiterate,
but they encouraged their 10 children to study.
He was the only English-educated child in his family. As the top boy in
Rangoon Road Primary School, he gained entry to Raffles Institution (RI) in
It was in RI that he picked up a book by the first prime minister of India
Jawaharlal Nehru and became inspired by his socialist ideals.
Going on to study medicine at the then-University of Malaya here, Dr Lim
lapped up the works of philosopher Karl Marx and economist Adam Smith, and books
on the British Labour Party and Mao Zedong’s communist struggle in China. His
political awakening was heightened by the anti-colonial struggles raging around
As he recalls, most of the university students then were indifferent to
politics. They were afraid of being arrested and preferred to pursue degrees and
As one of the best and brightest of his generation, he says he felt a deep,
patriotic obligation to do something for Singapore and its people in the
struggle against the British colonialists ruling Singapore.
He plunged into campus activism, becoming a founding member of the
anti-colonial USC, which was formed in 1953.
In 1953, Dr Lim met the young Cambridge-educated lawyer Lee Kuan Yew, who was
helping to defend eight USC students charged by the British for sedition because
of an article in the USC’s journal, Fajar.
They won the case and Mr Lee was acclaimed as their champion. The USC rallied
behind him and his associates when they set up the PAP several months after the
Noting that the party’s original Constitution showed every mark of a
socialist, anti-colonial party, Dr Lim recalls that the USC members went around
persuading various groups to support the PAP. The 1955 elections saw the
24-year-old Dr Lim stumping for PAP at mass rallies.
PAP was then identified with the working class and Chinese-speaking masses.
But the facade of unity maintained by the motley crew of English-educated
intellectuals, Chinese-educated socialists, professionals and trade unionists
could not last.
The ideological differences began to surface. One episode in 1957 that stuck
in Dr Lim’s memory was the plot by a group of radical unionists within the party
to oust PAP strongman Ong Eng Guan and several others from the PAP leadership.
They opposed Mr Ong as they viewed him as anti-left and an opportunist.
He felt then that the move was ‘most unwise’ as it would create party
disunity and provoke a crackdown by the colonial government.
As he recollects, he and several USC members tracked down three of the prime
movers – Mr Chen Say Jame, Mr Goh Boon Toh and Mr Tan Chong Kin – and sought to
dissuade them. They failed. Dr Lim believes that what he did then probably
aroused Mr Lee’s suspicions that he was in cahoots with the leftists.
The central executive committee (CEC) elections resulted in a deadlock with
six seats going to the Lee group and the other six going to the leftists.
Shocked by the humiliating defeat of his associates, Mr Lee refused to take
office. Dr Lim says he tried to persuade him to do so – to no avail.
As it turned out, five leftist CEC members were arrested by the Lim Yew Hock
government in an anti-communist operation – and Mr Lee and company were able to
regain control of the party.
In 1958, they introduced a ‘cadre’ system in which only appointed members
could vote for the CEC. This marked the beginning of the leftists’
disillusionment with Mr Lee, says Dr Lim.
Break over merger
WHEN the 1959 elections came around, Dr Lim says he and Dr Poh offered
themselves ‘in good faith’ as PAP candidates. The answer was negative. ‘He did
not trust us,’ says Dr Lim, referring to Mr Lee.
After the historic elections which swept the PAP to power for the first time,
Dr Lim discovered that his party membership was not renewed.
From the sidelines, the government doctor witnessed the increasing acrimony
between Mr Lee’s group and the leftists which was to lead to what is called the
Big Split of 1961.
The two factions were locked in a monumental struggle over the issues of
merger with Malaya, Chinese education and the continuing detention of students
Racked by dissension, the PAP was on the brink of collapse after losing two
by-elections in Anson and Hong Lim in 1961.
Concerned over the leftist challenge within his party, Mr Lee moved a motion
of confidence in the 51-seat legislative assembly. The PAP survived when 27
voted aye but 13 dissident assemblymen abstained.
Expelled from the party, the dissidents formed Barisan Sosialis with other
defectors from the PAP in August 1961. The party was led by Mr Lim Chin
It was at this juncture that Dr Lim joined the new party. He had to give up a
scholarship for further study and quit the civil service.
The Barisan Sosialis then, he recalls, was a very formidable organisation
filled with thousands of dedicated people and ‘scores upon scores of university
graduates’, ready to form an alternative government.
As a CEC member, Dr Lim helped to run a ‘brain trust’ which consulted a group
of more than 50 graduates from the then-Nanyang University and University of
Malaya and prepared position papers.
‘We didn’t have a lack of talent. We had more talent than we wanted,’ he
In his recollection, the biggest issue that divided PAP and Barisan was
merger with Malaya to form Malaysia.
Fearing that Singapore would fall to the communists, Malayan Prime Minister
Tunku Abdul Rahman had proposed on May 27, 1961 that Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak
and Brunei merge with Malaya to form the federation of Malaysia.
Singapore would have 15 seats in the federal house of representatives, less
than what it was entitled to on the basis of population ratios, but a debatable
trade-off for Singapore’s exclusive autonomy over labour and education.
Although the leftists were committed to the ultimate goal of unification
between the peninsula and the island, they argued that these terms for merger
would make Singaporeans ‘second-class citizens’.
The main sticking point, as Dr Lim points out, was that there were ‘two sets
of citizenship: one for Malaysians and one for Singaporeans. Singaporean
citizens could not participate in Malaysian politics, much less be
proportionally represented in the federation’.
The battle between both parties reached its culmination during the referendum
on Sept 1, 1962, in which the PAP Government cleverly devised three alternatives
for merger on varying terms with no option to say no.
PAP won by a large margin, with 71 per cent of votes in favour of its
‘Alternative A’ against just over 25 per cent who cast blank votes, which the
Barisan called for to protest against the ‘sham referendum’.
THEN came the big crackdown. On Feb 2, 1963, more than 100 leftists and unionists were arrested in a massive security exercise known as Operation Cold Store, aimed at putting communists and suspected communists out of circulation.
On the mass arrests which changed the power balance in Singapore irrevocably, Dr Lim reflects: 'We lost not to Lee but to the British, who crushed the leftists for strategic, not security reasons.'
When he speaks about his nearly 20 years in detention, there is an edge to his otherwise calm voice.
Year after year, he recounts, attempts were made to break the spirit of prisoners through solitary confinement and interrogations, to make them confess their involvement in communist activities.
Dr Lim became a counsellor of sorts to the prisoners, encouraging them to talk about the physical and psychological abuse they faced during their interrogations. Some broke down in tears as they relived their experiences.
In March 1972, Dr Lim released a statement about his detention and his experience in being taken to the Internal Security Department (ISD) headquarters on Robinson Road two months earlier. He had insisted on being released, saying that 'history had vindicated my stand' that the 1963 merger would not work.
He says that ISD officers wanted him to issue a public statement that he was prepared to give up politics and devote his time to medical practice, and to express support for parliamentary democracy.
Dr Lim demanded to be released unconditionally, saying that he should not need to give up politics if there was parliamentary democracy.
He says that he was asked to 'concede something' so that his long detention could be justified. He replied that he was not interested in 'saving Mr Lee's face', and would not issue any statement to condemn his past political activities, which he said were 'legitimate and proper'.
When asked for the Government's response, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman says: 'Contrary to Lim Hock Siew's claims that he was an opposition politician carrying out 'legitimate and proper' activities through the democratic process, Dr Lim was in fact a prominent Communist United Front leader who, along with other CUF leaders, had planned and organised pro-communist activities in support of the Communist Party of Malaya, which employed terror and violence in their attempt to overthrow the elected governments of Singapore and Malaysia.'
In 1978, Dr Lim was released from detention and placed in Pulau Tekong under certain restrictions. A government statement had described him as a CUF member who refused to give a written undertaking that he would not be involved in communist activities and renounce the use of force to change government.
Dr Lim's view was that since he had never advocated violence, he should not have to renounce it. 'It's like making me sign a statement that I would not beat my wife,' he says.
He spent four years on Pulau Tekong before it became an army training area. There, he read medical books and became the only doctor for the few thousand villagers on the island. In appreciation, grateful villagers would ply him and his wife with durians, prawns and fish.
FINALLY, on Sept 6, 1982, the Government allowed him to live on Singapore island, on the understanding that he would concentrate on his medical practice and abide by various conditions.
Asked how he coped with the long incarceration, he puts it down to an unshakeable conviction that his political stance is right.
'We were the leaders of the main opposition party, supported by the workers in Singapore, and we cannot betray our supporters. So we stuck to the bitter end. It's a matter of intellectual integrity.'
Would he shake hands with Mr Lee? His reply: 'It is for the oppressed to be magnanimous, not the oppressor. I'll forgive him and shake hands with him if he admits to his error and apologises to me and my wife.'
Dr Lim's wife Beatrice Chen, who is a nephrologist or kidney specialist, helps to treat her husband. She declines to be interviewed as she shuns publicity.
They met in 1958 when they were working together at the Singapore General Hospital, and married in 1961.
Dr Lim was detained two years later. For the next 15 years, they saw each other for half an hour each week, separated by a glass panel, and spoke by telephone.
'The fact that we can see each other is a relief,' he says. 'Our common struggle was a unifying force. We understood each other. She kept on encouraging me, giving me moral support...it was very hard for her. She's a great woman.'
The couple have one son, who is now working in the National University of Singapore. 'He was five months old when I was arrested. When I came out, my wife was in menopause. I missed the joy of bringing up my own son.'
When Dr Lim is not seeing patients, he catches up on current affairs, surfs the Internet, and reads political philosophy - currently, Bertrand Russell's A History Of Western Philosophy. He also paints as a hobby.
Step into his condominium home off Mountbatten Road, and you will be greeted by a visual feast of paintings - of scenery, flowers and women - all strictly non-political.
But one has a Chinese couplet which reads: Befriend a thousand books, and have the spine to stand by your beliefs.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
How would Barisan have ruled S’pore?
WHAT if Barisan Sosialis had beaten the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the September 1963 General Election? How differently would it have ruled the country?
Barisan gave the ruling party its closest call in Singapore’s political history when it garnered 33 per cent of the votes in the polls. It toppled two ministers and nearly knocked out another four ministers.
Although PAP’s 47 per cent score was its lowest electoral mark in the record book, the first-past-the-post system awarded the party 37 seats versus Barisan’s 13 in the 51-seat legislative assembly.
There had been much speculation that had it not been for Operation Cold Store, which put more than 100 leftist politicians and unionists behind bars just seven months earlier, the opposition party would have swept into power.
Former Barisan leader Lim Hock Siew, who would have stood for the elections if he was not detained, admits that if his party had won, Singapore’s gross domestic product growth would have been slower, but believes that there would have been more welfare for the people.
There would be legal safeguards for workers like minimum wage, retrenchment benefits, social welfare and retirement benefits, he says.
Peppering his interview with criticisms of various government policies, the man regarded as one of the “brains” behind Barisan, says that his party would have done more for the poor and working class.
For example, he points out that his party would not have priced flats at a subsidised rate below market rate but would have provided cheap housing at cost. “CPF is meant for pensions, not to tie people down to a housing project,” he says.
Turning to more current issues, he argues that the introduction of two integrated resorts here threatens moral standards by making Singapore a playground for the “international filthy rich”.
Singapore might eventually be like Las Vegas, where everything has a price but no value. “I don’t think this is a society we all like to have. That the Government places such high hopes on the two casinos shows what a desperate situation the Singapore economy is in.”
Instead of attracting big foreign multinational companies, he says, Singapore should have encouraged small and medium enterprises, so that entrepreneurship would flourish as in Hong Kong.
Hitting out at ministerial pay, noting that a symbolic amount of $10,000 or $20,000 a month would be enough, Dr Lim says that Barisan leaders were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their political beliefs. “We considered politics a calling, a responsibility, and a privilege to serve our country, not a career.”
He believes enough talented young people will come forward to serve the country. “Leaders should not be discovered by inviting and enticing them with high pay and high office... you harness the people, let them decide. They’ll do wonders.”
He feels that the Government cannot inspire the young to participate because it is alienated from the people and is afraid of “letting go”.
Criticising the various restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and organisation, like the Internal Security Act and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, he notes: “When Lee Hsien Loong came to power, he promised to leave no stones unturned to remake Singapore.
“But what we see is just the little stones and pebbles being merrily kicked about, raising so much dust and din, but the big boulders of repression are still very much in place.”
He calls for a public inquiry into past and present human rights abuses in Singapore, under an internationally-renowned judge, with immunity provided for former detainees to give evidence.
The young will feel for Singapore, he says, when they feel they can speak out and decide their own future.
Given his strong anti-government views, it is no surprise that the 79-year-old doctor is much sought after by the opposition parties.
He reveals that two parties wanted to recruit him but he declined, citing old age.
Singapore's 2nd longest-held political prisoner speaks out
Ex-political prisoner speaks out in Singapore (Banned in Singapore) from sotong on Vimeo.