Saturday, October 08, 2011

The life and times of Ho Piao : The torture of a political prisoner

Ho Piao was 26 when he was detained during Operation Cold Store (2 Feb 1963). He held the dubious distinction of being the third longest held political detainee under the ISA. He was severely tortured by the ISD and released after 18 years, on 1 June 1981.

Educated in Serangoon English School and Raffles Institution, Ho Piao was a Queen's Scout and rowed round Singapore island alone. He entered University of Malaya in 1957 and was an active member of the University Socialist Club. He left the university partly due to his growing commitment to trade union work. After his release, Ho Piao married and left for London. He died in 2007. Below is the eulogy delivered by his good friend, Francis Khoo.

- Teo Soh Lung


HO PIAO - His life and times (1937-2007 )
By Francis Khoo

Shortly after the ANC won, I took Ho Piao to a victory reception at the South African High Commission at Trafalgar Square. There were ex-political prisoners who had fought against apartheid. When introduced to Dennis Goldberg, Ho proudly revealed he had been in prison for 18 1/2 years. When pressed, Goldberg replied he was himself in for "24 years". Sensing he had embarrassed and upstaged Ho, he then said: "I was at a gathering of ex-Spanish Civil War veterans and thought I was the longest in, until I met an old lady who had spent nearly 40 years under Franco. I then had to shut up." I think Ahmad Kathrada, 27 years, and contemporary of Nelson Mandela, was there as were other younger ex-inmates of Robben Island.

The instant bonding and comaradie was quite inspiring: separated by different struggles, different continents, these elderly gentlemen seemed to giggle a lot and were self-effacing. Still retaining youthfulness and child-like curiosity about the world around them, they were generous in spirit and showed no bitterness. For Ho, his world was no longer just Singapore and Malaya. He was now also a South African. And a Palestinian and an Iraqi.

On 17 January, 1961, Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first prime minister, was assassinated by the Belgian and CIA surrogates. The whole non-alignment movement erupted in anger. Ho proudly remembered his part in a mass protest rally. All 7,000 of them were chanting: Lumumba! Lumumba! in the Singapore Badminton Hall. Singaporeans then had a keen sense of history and geography. He was an internationalist who loved his country. He believed you cannot be a patriot unless you supported every people's struggle for justice and equality. At the same time, he had no time for the vague 'citizen of the world' grounded in no concrete place. You ended up 'neither here nor there' rather than being 'both here and there'. That would be the height of irresponsibility.

On 2 February 1963, Said Zahari, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Ho Piao and over a 100 patriots were rounded up. In a later wave, opposition MP Chia Thye Poh was arrested. Amnesty International adopted them Prisoners of Conscience. Like Mandela and his comrades, they remained steadfast; unlike Mandela, they were never tried in court.

The British and their approved successors in Singapore and neighbouring Malaysia needed a pretext to wipe out all progressive dissent - writers, journalists, liberals, socialists, trade unionists, members of parliament. When the legal Communist Party of Malaya was banned, an 'emergency' was declared and draconian laws were passed in 1948. Thousands were imprisoned or deported, many more perished as they retreated into the jungle. By tarnishing anyone with the label 'communist' and hence a security threat, the secret police could hold that person indefinitely without trial. If you wished to get out early, denounce your beliefs, endorse the government, confess over TV and grass on your friends. By 1987, reports spoke of 5,000 detention having been made.

Intense coffee-shop debates were once typical and widespread in Singapore and everyone was engaged. That is gone today, snuffed out by a dominant one-party state that controls every aspect of your life - from the bedroom, literally, to the boardroom. They want a nation which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Nothing is taboo and the market is all.

Modern Singapore is Asia's most dynamic economy after Japan and enjoys a standard of living often higher than Britain. With industrialisation export-oriented for the multinational corporations, the global city is the world's largest oil refinery centre and port, a hi-tech manufacturing, trading and financial services centre. There is the same inequality you find in Britain without the safety net of a welfare state. You fall ill or lose your livelihood at your peril. Civil liberties are distinctly Blairite. This is a world of stark extremes, where there is no such thing as a free lunch. Of course, MPs and ministers can well pay for their lunch - in a population a 20th of Britain, they can eat more than five times more lunches. In fact, the best paid lunches in the world. This is a tale of the two farmers with two chickens. The first has two chickens while the other has none. The politicians boast therefore, that statistically, each farmer has on average one chicken each.

Mussolini tried in vain to create the Corporate State as arbiter of labour for capital, where workers are organised in the service of state capital. Singapore is an unashamedly successful one. The trade union movement is today based upon Israel's Histadrut. It mirrors yet eschews Switzerland, with its multi-ethnic character and neutrality in regional conflicts. Opting for an Israeli combat-readiness and psyche, suspicious of regional intentions, militarised, with every able-bodied man in national service, it is a strategic ally of the US in its ‘war on terror’. Totalitarian, with generals in the government, it is yet no tin-pot jackboot dictatorship. Not moustachioed Generals Galtieri or Pinochet, rather but more apartheid South Africa and Israel.

The world Ho found upon release must have been a very alien one indeed. He went inside as a youthful 25 year old and emerged, un-cowed, a middle-aged man. Those 18 1/2 years were tumultuous times in the country, the region and the world: the best of times and the worst of times. Singapore and neighbouring Malaya tried but failed at merger. In 1965, the Indonesian army massacred half a million people while the US sent in 500,000 marines into Vietnam. The PLO won the battle of Karameh, student campuses all over the world rebelled, the civil rights movement in the US and Ireland reached their peak. Mao launched his cultural revolution. The entire 1970s decade was lost to him: Chile attacked by terrorists on its own 9/11 1973 when Pinochet overthrew Allende. Portugal lost its colonies in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor. In that same 1975, the fall of the US in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and four years later the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua.

When he went in, Harold Macmillan was British prime minister. Alec Douglas Home followed, then Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and finally Margaret Thatcher. Kennedy was then in the White House, giving way to Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and then Reagan. But Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister in 1963 -indeed, since 1959 - and was still prime minister in 1981. His son is the current PM but Lee remains the guru-like Minister Mentor.

News of the world outside were smuggled in despite censorship and tight access to TV, newspapers and books. The prison wall, as they say, has two sides and so the struggle continues inside. Like the Irish, South Africans and Palestinians, prison was a place to study, discuss, develop minds and mature. It was the best university: many achieving, despite the odds, law and other degrees.

And outside the prison gates, Ho's own late mother led the detainees' families in demonstrations to highlight the conditions inside. They disrupted the January 1971 Commonwealth Conference in Singapore, prompting the internal police to complain: "Your mother is the worst mother in the world!" Ho took that as a compliment and always beamed with pride when he recalled this. She was no mere mother; she was, like Gorky's Mother, a comrade.

Ho's soft gentle demeanour belied his toughness and resilience. He endured solitary confinement for months on end and waged several hunger strikes, one of which lasted over a hundred days. His demand for political status was akin to those of the Irish; he took to heart the 1981 hunger strike and death of Bobby Sands and the nine other republican prisoners.

In one of the rare published interviews he gave, he said: "The whole day I was tied to a wooden chair. They pulled my hair, pressed my nose and poured water in my nose and mouth." According to the account, one of the interrogators then grabbed Ho by the throat and drove his fist into his stomach. With his hands tied, his torturers continued punching his stomach. As he gasped for air, another officer laid one more punch - only this time he didn't pull back, but let his fist bear into Ho's aching gut, cutting off his breathing. When the prisoner came close to passing out, the officer pulled back, only to have others come in to smash their knuckles into his rib cage. Another delivered a karate chop to his chest while a third hurled himself at Ho and threw the prisoner to the floor. Ho curled up as his torso and his chest heaved in pain. While on the icy floor, his interrogators poured cold water on him causing his body to go into a painful contraction. Before he could recover from the shock, the thugs bore down on him yet again, kicking and punching his head.

"This is how we treat animals," one of them snarled. "This is an introductory gesture." Ho later said: "Their torture made my body feel like a corpse. I could not move. They pulled me up from the floor and tied me to the chair. Another group came to torture me. I would recognise them. They used the same method. They poured water over me 64 times. This torture went on for four days. My body was drench and shivering. They shouted in my ears and prized open my eyes. I did not eat or sleep or drink for four days."

As he lay on the ground, one officer lifted Ho's chin with his shoe. "This is a strange man, when we poured water over him, he did not shiver," he said. "But when we stopped, he started to shiver." The assaults only stopped when he finally lost consciousness.

In a statement he gave to his lawyer, he reiterated: "I firmly believe in my principles. I will never be a party to wage slavery and feudal bondage of my people. I will work to shatter these … even though I am meted out a long lingering agonising road to the grave."

In 1963-65 merger failed because the political elites of Malaysia and Singapore were unable to handle the contradictions of the national question, the many centrifugal forces pulling the society apart pitted against the centripetal forces bringing the communities together. The communities had different histories and experiences. In the second world war, some anti-colonial Malays and Indians viewed Japan as tactical allies in the fight against British and Dutch colonialism in India and Indonesia, respectively. But the Chinese saw Japan as the foe because of its invasion of China. The colonialists and chauvinists sought to exploit those differences.

British divide-and-rule policies has caused untold damage. Consider India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim, Black and White South Africa, Arab and Jew in Palestine, Catholic and Protestant Irish. In Singapore and Malaya, immigrants from China and India and indigenous Malays.

Today, Vietnam is united, Germany is one, Taiwan will return to China, Korea will be together again and so will Ireland. Inevitably, Singapore will again reunite with the Malayan mainland.

So what does it mean to be a Singaporean and Malayan? In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious largely immigrant post-colonial society, the patriots saw Malay as the lingua franca, the national language to unite the people. Mandarin, Tamil and English would also be recognised as official languages.

Ho himself was totally English-educated. Yet he loved Chinese culture, food, literature and history and was inspired by the Chinese revolution. But he was born in Singapore and never considered China his country. He was a Chinese Singaporean, never a Singapore Chinese. He was a Singaporean who happened to be of Chinese ethnicity. He was not a Chinese who happened to be born in Singapore. That was why, in addition to being fluent in English, Mandarin and his Hainanese dialect, he assiduously studied and mastered Malay in prison. All the top leadership and cadres of the independence movement spoke at least three of the four official languages.

He had what the Germans call "weltenshaaung" - a world view. He knew why the rich grew richer and the poor poorer, who benefits under colonialism and imperialism, why there is war and how peace is achieved.
His philosophy of life: Firstly, do not merely interpret the world but help change it. Artists paint, while some choose to be gallery critics. Musicians perform but some choose to be music critics. Chefs cook while others make a living criticising their food. Actors perform the drama of life before an audience, some of whom cheer them on while others choose to pillory on the side-lines. He was no bystander but an artist, a musician, a cook and an actor.

Secondly, he was no theorist with abstract ideas. Son of a militant seaman and working-class mother, he was leader of the seamen's union. He asserted correct ideas did not drop from the skies or were innate in the mind, but must come from social practice, and from it alone. His was Praxis - reflection based upon action which then invited further reflection.

Thirdly, Ho Piao knew which side he was on. In 1931, 11,000 US miners went on strike to protest a 10-percent pay cut. The state of Kentucky charged 11 of them for first degree murder.

Incensed by the injustice, Florence Reece, wife of one of the strike leaders, wrote: Which side are you on? Which side are you on?" Her song became the rallying cry of our own miners in the 1984-85 strike. Ho understood the root causes of poverty and injustice and dedicated his whole life to combating it.

Before his execution, Joe Hill urged: "Don't mourn. Organise."

Of course, we shall mourn the untimely death of Mr Ho but he also wants us to organise.

FRANCIS KHOO 2 March 2007

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