Replaying the dissident voice

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An interview with the author of Dissident Voices, Clement Mesenas

How and why did you write the book?

I was commissioned by the publishers, who told me that they had a grant for such a book. The idea was that that such a book would help inform our secondary school students about the diverse political history of Singapore.

The publishers assured me that I could write without fear of censorship. I suggested a list of 20 names, which was eventually cut down to 10, as it  was felt that researching and writing about so many people in six months would not do justice to them.

I did have some initial worry about writing about people who had incurred the wrath of the authorities but decided to plough ahead, hoping that my efforts would be rewarded by students picking up the book and saying after reading it: “Hey, I did not know that happened …”

Delving into the lives of my 10 subjects (some had completely  disappeared from the memories of many Singaporeans) was fascinating and added immeasurably to my knowledge. I also asked people from the older generation to share their interpretations of events that happened decades ago.

There were times when I was overtaken by bouts of depression at what I perceived were injustices inflicted on the characters in the book. I was inspired by their courage, their tenacity and conviction, but I could also feel their pain, especially when some had to endure long periods of incarceration because of their beliefs.

In the end, I was told that the grant had fallen through because I had missed the deadline. But the publishers would still go ahead and publish the book as they felt it was a good read. The book was launched with no fanfare, and I was only informed that it had been printed and distributed by a Facebook friend who told me that he had seen it on the shelves of Kinokuniya.

Dissident Voices was plonked right between One Man’s View of the World by Lee Kuan Yew and Massacre in Malaysia, a book by Christopher Hale, in which he reveals that British tactics in Malaya to fight the communist insurgency were more ruthless than many historians concede.

How were the names selected?

I threw 20 names into the hat with suggestions from the publishers. I eventually picked 10, people I felt a certain empathy for. Some of them I had the luck to meet personally (like Chia Thye Poh on Sentosa where I had gone on a picnic with my kids way back in the 1990s).

All of them, I felt, played a role in the shaping of Singapore politics. I tried to include people from the various races, professions, a woman, to touch the hearts of as many Singaporeans as possible. The publisher agreed with my choice.

I was touched when the editor assigned to me said she was moved to tears when she went through my piece on Dr Lim Hock Siew who spent close to 20 years in detention. That was ample reward for the hours I had put into researching and writing about “a people’s doctor who stayed true to his convictions”.

Whose story surprised you?

Those involved in the alleged Marxist Conspiracy. I was stunned when the story first broke back in 1987. I was working in the Middle East then. I did not believe the story which said that they were subversives out to overthrow the government (not because I am a Catholic). I thought, at best, they were living up to their Catholic beliefs in social justice and providing help and solace to the downtrodden, including foreign migrant workers.

My research into the events that led to the Operation Spectrum crackdown and the arrest of 16 people, among them church workers and professionals, did not turn up anything sinister. Why did the Church not stand up to these charges? Those I spoke to said Archbishop Gregory Yong did not want the arrests to polarise the Church and cause divisions and disunity.  Twenty-five years later, his successor Archbishop Nicholas Chia faced a similar dilemma when he first supported a rally (staged on the anniversary of the crackdown) calling for the abolition of the Internal Security Act (which allows for indefinite detention without trial) and then — following a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean — withdrew his support. Chia said he did so, in the interests of social harmony. I wish they had more gumption as leaders.

Catherine Lim seems to be an unusual choice. She was not arrested, and not in exile.

I wanted to feature a woman who had the guts to stand up and say what was on her mind. Catherine Lim was indeed that woman, fearless, sharp-witted and blessed with a wonderfully engaging personality. But she did confess that her family and friends were very worried that she would be jailed when she was reprimanded by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong following her essay, The PAP and the People: A Great Affective Divide” in 1994.

She laughed when she told me that Goh said in the aftermath of his public reproach: “We’ll let her off the hook this time”. I decided to include her – and the publishing staff, many of them women – were more than pleased that I wrote at length about her courage in using her ample literary talent to take the authorities to task for its stern, unrelenting top-down approach. She did it, I felt, with the effectiveness of a razor-sharp rapier.

Do you think these people will ever get closure?

Many have already died. They remained as fervent in their beliefs right up to the end, despite being frail and in poor health, when they were freed. Some like Dr Lim Hock Siew were as fiery and firm in their beliefs,  perhaps even more so, despite being detained for long periods. But I feel many of them were resigned to their fates.

As Chia Thye Poh said to me when I asked him at Sentosa if he would get married now that he was about to be freed: “What’s the point? I am too old now. My life has gone, it has been taken away…”. He was detained when he was 25 under Operation Coldstore and was only freed — his rights as a Singapore citizen fully restored — after he had been detained for 32 years, all the while strongly  protesting his innocence.

Said Zahari, who was held for 17 years, said he harboured no grudges against his captors, including Lee Kuan Yew. “Lee did what he had to do. ..he had to maintain his ties with the Tungku and the British”. Said was fortunate to spend 10 years with his wife following his release.

When she died, he said: “I was so alone for so many years while in detention, so being alone again is not a new experience. It’s back to square one for me.”

Sad sad words …