A Tireless Advocate of Justice for Palestinians
http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/12/02/a-tireless-advocate-of-justice-for-palestinians/by FRANKLIN LAMB
Francis Khoo Kah Siang passed away on November 20, 2011. He will be missed because he leaves a void for many of us who were and remain inspired by his work for Palestinian rights. Francis Khoo is an icon of countless others, who like himself, are neither Arab nor Muslim, neither from the Middle East nor culturally or politically connected to Palestine by birth, but who support the Palestinian cause.
Many of us, but especially Westerners and Americans it seems, learn essentially nothing about the Nakba in school. Yet many, often quite by chance and for one reason or another, have come into contact with the Question of Palestine and, learning about the great injustice that has befallen the Palestinian people, could not remain indifferent or idle. Francis was one of these.
But by the time we finally met, which was just fourteen months before his sudden and untimely death last month, I knew what kind of a person he was and something about his lifelong quest for justice. Over the past half-decade I learned something about his remarkably work through my friend, his wife, the gifted orthopedic surgeon and well known humanitarian, Dr. Swee Chai Ang, who for three decades has embraced and supported Palestinian refugees both with lifesaving medical care under heavy and indiscriminate bombardment inside Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp and Gaza Hospital in Beirut, and with her indefatigable work for the refugees’ return to Palestine. The latter included lectures and appearances around the World, sometimes in the company of Francis.
It was in September of 2010 that I met Francis in person when he came to Beirut for the 28th annual commemoration of the September 1982 Sabra-Shatila Massacre. He attended a reception at the office of the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign and participated in a heavy schedule of activities during his visit.
All the while he was in Lebanon he was on peritoneal dialysis for kidney failure which he administered himself three to four times a day. On the bus south, to visit Palestinian camps, Francis entertained the passengers with songs, including Beladi (‘my land’) the beautiful Arabic anthem of the Palestinian revolution, followed by a soliloquy on the origin of the song and his interpretation.
Few of the passengers on the bus had much idea about Francis’ background. He was born into a closely knit, devoutly Catholic Singapore Peranakan family. As a lad he sang in the Singing Khoos with his brothers and at an early age developed a passion to work for the rights of the oppressed. Once admitted to the Singapore Bar, Frances began working on sensitive civil rights cases that many other lawyers preferred to avoid.
Francis had earlier developed a reputation as a defender of the downtrodden and while as an undergraduate at University, or later as Vice President of the Student Law Society, he opposed the introduction of the Suitability Certificate, fought the abolition of the jury system in Singapore and condemned the indiscriminate criminal 1972 Christmas Day bombing of Hanoi ordered by President Nixon.
Before long Francis found himself being accused of violating Singapore’s Internal Security Act which, particularly during the 1977-1987 period, was used to arrest hundreds of Singaporeans who were held without trial. Following their January 1977 marriage, his young wife Dr. Swee Chai Ang, was also sought by authorities who came for her and threatened to handcuff her while she was in the operating theatre performing surgery. Eventually, and following torture, Dr. Swee was released as part of a government scheme to try to lure back to Singapore Francis, who by then had escaped and left for England and he began his 34 years of exile from his country. Swee joined her loved one and they developed their careers in London.
Francis’ niece recently wrote that, “They could kick Francis out of Singapore, but they could not kick the Singaporean out of Francis,” as he followed events in his country, frequently wore his Peranakan skirt — the Sarong, and wrote about his homeland including the well-known song, “And Bungaraya Blooms All Day.” Francis had hoped that 2011 would be the Singaporean Spring.
Some friends saw a parallel between Francis’ wish to return to his homeland and his decades of advocacy of the Palestinians Right of Return.
Francis Khoo, was a gifted humanist. With many talents that included using his legal education to challenge injustices and using his energy and organizational abilities to defend the oppressed such as the UK’s striking miners in 1985, working as Director of War on Want, established by the late British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, co-founding with his wife and their friends Pamela and Derek Cooper, Medical Aid for Palestinians and serving as its Vice Chairman from 1984 to 2007, and donating his times and abilities to numerous other charities.
Francis’ passions included writing, especially articles, poetry and songs, photography, and drawing. He possessed a particularly unique skill as explained by his niece Melissa, currently doing her residency in surgery and using the medical term ‘eidetic memory’ in describing her uncle’s photographic memory, that gave Francis the ability to recall images, sounds or objects with remarkable precision.
Francis Khoo lived a full and valuable life and left this world a better place because of his lifelong labors for justice. Those of us who share his commitment to the liberation of Palestine and the full return of her six million refugees will pay him tribute by continuing his work for peace and justice.
FRANKLIN LAMB volunteers with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaing in Lebanon.
A tribute to Francis Khoo Kah Siang
by Tan Wah Piow
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.
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.
Tan Wah Piow
This eulogy was published by the Straits Times, 25 Nov 2011.
Francis Khoo Kah Siang, 23 October 1947 to 20 November 2011
by Ang Swee Chai
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 nterests 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.
Dr Ang Swee Chai
(Mrs Francis Khoo)
22 November 2011
No barrier to lawyer's widow returning here, MHA says
The Government has made it clear that there is no barrier to Dr Ang Swee Chai returning to Singapore. The widow of lawyer Francis Khoo placed an obituary in The Straits Times on Friday in which she wrote of her hope of taking her husband's ashes back to Singapore. Mr Khoo fled Singapore in 1977 to avoid being questioned by the Internal Security Department. He died of a suspected heart attack last Sunday, leaving behind his wife who had joined him in London in 1977. He was 62. Responding to queries from The Sunday Times, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said 'there is no barrier to her return'.
How the Straits Times reported it, Nov 22 2011.