I feel a great sadness when I think of all the brave individuals throughout our history who had so much to contribute to our society, but who were relentlessly persecuted. But can my sadness, can our sadness, also be our strength?
First of all, who exactly am I talking about? I am talking about the activists who were wrongly imprisoned, first, by the Lim Yew Hock government in 1956 and, later, by the Lee Kuan Yew government in 1963. In both cases, both governments were acting in concert with our then colonizers.
These political prisoners were fiercely anti-colonialist. They were proudly socialist. They fought for the rights and dignity of workers, regardless of race, religion, or national origin.
Unlike many of the conservative British-educated professionals, like Lee Kuan Yew (“the colonialists’ favourite son,” to borrow a line from Said Zahari), who would eventually come to dominate Singaporean politics, the left-wing activists of the 1950s and 1960s were uncompromising fighters against British colonization.
In his Singapore Story (1998), Lee attempts to slander these left-wingers as “Chinese chauvinists.” The reality was very different. How could a movement be chauvinist when its leaders were also Indian and Malay? Would people like S.T. Bani, Jamit Singh, James and Dominic Puthucheary, and Said Zahari have been part of a Chinese chauvinist movement?
It is not my intention to write a hagiography of our Singaporean socialist ascendants. I don’t seek to pretend that they were perfect human beings. Whatever flaws they may have had, they were not motivated by the unquenchable drive for power and wealth as Lee Kuan Yew and his henchmen.
Indeed, the late Dr. Lim Hock Siew’s stirring eulogy for Lim Chin Siong, who passed away on February 5, 1996, also captures the general attitude of self-sacrifice and solidarity shared by the vast majority of left-wing activists of those days:
His strength, his courage, arose only from his deep love and concern for the plight of his fellow human beings – a love that recognised no racial or cultural barriers. […] He was a political leader who sought no personal gain or reward, and certainly not for pay.Lim Hock Siew. “Tribute to Lim Chin Siong,” in Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History, edited by Tan Jing Quee, Jomo K.S., and Poh Soo Kai. INSAN, 2015 , p. 252-3.
For the moment, however, I want to focus on just one of these many brave and inspirational individuals: Loh Miaw Gong. Miaw Gong was born in Singapore in 1936. She was, like so many other left-wing activists, a relentless anti-colonialist and trade unionist.
In the 1950s, she was a chair in the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students Union. Against the backdrop of anticolonial struggle (and David Marshall’s prior tame request for self-rule), Lim Yew Hock, who succeeded Marshall as Chief Minister, sought to appease the British by cracking down on left-wing activists, trade unionists, teachers, and students in 1956. Several hundreds were arrested, including Miaw Gong. She was imprisoned for three years before being released when the PAP came to power, riding a wave of popular support on the backs of left-wing activists.
However, throughout 1963, Lee pulled the same trick that Lim Yew Hock did in 1956, invoking the Internal Security Act (ISA) to arrest over a hundred activists. First, in February, there was Operation Coldstore that decimated the left several months before the 1963 general election. Miaw Gong, running as a Barisan Sosialis candidate, was elected in September, but arrested under ISA in October. She would remained imprisoned without trial for nearly 7 years. Despite being elected by the people, she would never enter Parliament.
And yet, it can never be erased from history that she, Loh Miaw Gong, was the MP for Havelock from 1963 to 1968. It can never be erased from history that she was one of the first three elected women MPs in the 1963 legislative assembly, which in 1965 became SG’s first parliament. It can never be erased from the record that she was the first woman MP in Singapore history.
But there is an immense sadness in writing these lines because Loh Miaw Gong and other political prisoners will never regain those years locked up. Our society is forever deprived of those lost years. But we will remember…
We have to remember. Because, though the exact mechanisms of repression have changed (or evolved), this government has been and will always be repressive. Their utilitarian, “pragmatic” state capitalism has no concern for human dignity.
How can we trust this government to solve the key issues that face us today: the increasing gulf between rich and poor, systemic discrimination of minorities, the climate crisis, housing and healthcare, exploitation of labour, and so on?
Our past reminds us that there are alternatives to PAP dominance. They do not have a monopoly on the best ideas for this country. Despite decades of repression and indoctrination, and a rigged electoral system, we are pushing back collectively. The ten Workers’ Party MPs we elected a few days ago is a small indicator… But we need to do much, much more. And we will.
The odds are immense, but all is not lost. In our collective memory, there is strength. It is the strength of the countless political prisoners, of all the people, beyond distinctions of creed and racialized categories, beyond false distinctions of local and foreign, beyond all the division capitalism creates in us.
What do we, tiny red socialist dots on a little red dot, have today in face of the formidable forces of global capitalism? We have our memory, our voices, and, most importantly our commitment and infinite solidarity to each other. Speak, Singapore, speak back to power!
To remember this past, to refuse to be silenced, to refuse to be drowned out by the mythology of the Singapore Story, all of these are revolutionary acts. As long as we can remember the contingencies of the past, we can emerge from the present into an alternative future.