by Lim Li Kok
A man called out my name. He said, “If you cooperate, we will not search other rooms.”
They entered my small room, which was less than 120 square feet. It
was filled with boxes. I had just moved back to live with my two elderly
aunts, a retired school principal and a teacher in a HDB unit after
leaving home 12 years ago. I was supposed to look after their well-being
and not give them trouble. I felt really bad that my arrest had to
happen in their presence. I wanted to call my mother who lived next
door. But I was not allowed to do so. I wished I was Sun Wu Kong who
could fly away or disappear. My aunts were really calm. They cooked a
traditional Teochew breakfast for me: plain porridge with a few dishes.
I sat glumly as they looked through my belongings piece by piece. My mind wandered back to the old days.
I became a student activist in my third year at the University
of Singapore’s Arts and Social Sciences faculty. That was in 1974. After
seeing posters put up by the Students’ Union (USSU) calling for help
for the Bangladeshi flood victims, I joined the union with the relief
effort, which required me to draw posters and go from door to door to
collect donations of clothes and shoes.
A few weeks later, the 28th President of the USSU, Juliet
Chin, participated in the demonstration of the Tasek Utara squatters in
Johor Bahru. A developer had demolished all the squatter huts to make
way for a golf course, which resulted in the victims marching to City
Hall in Johor to protest. Juliet and two other USSU members were later
arrested by the Malaysian authorities.
In the following year, the 29th President of USSU, Tan Wah Piow, was
charged for rioting at a workers’ union office. The month’s trial that
followed increased my political awareness.
I later became the Welfare Secretary of the 30th Students’
Union. In that year, I was passionate about the plight of the urban
poor living in areas such as Bukit Merah. I witnessed eviction of people
in areas such as Clementi and Marsiling. Residents were evicted from
their kampungs in the name of national development and settled into HDB
flats. I visited these residents and tried to help them obtain better
compensation from the land office.
Many arrests were made in the late 1970s by the ISD, including the legal advisor to USSU.
Eventually, I left the university without obtaining a degree and opened a bookshop.
While the ISD officers conducted their search, I had breakfast with my aunts.
During the two hours, they took out all my books from the boxes under
the bed. After they concluded their search, they were about to take me
away when my fifth aunt shouted, “Wait! You have to drink this bottle of
Essence of Chicken that I warmed up!” This chicken essence later gave
me the energy to tolerate hours of questioning.
My father, Lim Cher Kheng Francis, was involved in politics in
the 1950s. He was elected a legislative assemblyman and participated in
the negotiations for Singapore’s independence from Britain. After
retiring from politics in 1959, he became a successful businessman in
the 1970s. However, in the 1980s, his business declined and his property
was acquired by the authorities. As a result, my family had to move
into HDB flats.
He was in China for business when I was detained. When he heard the
news, he flew back immediately and stomped into the ISD office at
Phoenix Park. He demanded to be arrested in exchange for my release. Of
course, his offer was rejected.
A few months later, during one of the family visits, my father
brought a Chinese brush, an inkstone and some paper for me. He said,
“Since you have lots of time now, you should practise Chinese
I told him that I had too many things in my mind and was not in the
mood to write. “This is the best time to practise,” he insisted.
And he was right. Writing and reading helped me stay calm and maintain my sanity.
I was a rebellious child and made my family worry a lot. I am
grateful for all the support they had given me during my detention. My
father and my aunts have since passed away, but their love remains a
source of strength for me in facing difficulties in life.
For more profiles and reflections of former detainees,