Ho Piao: A Personal Recollection and Appreciation

Tan Jing Quee

Ho Piao’s life can be neatly segmented into three phases, all interconnected and evolving. He was born in 1937, the year the Pacific War began, with the Japanese incursion into North-east China, which eventually led to the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941. Britain resumed its colonial control over Malaya following Japanese surrender in 1945, and a brief period of peace prevailed, until this was interrupted by the onset of the Malayan Emergency from June 1948. Ho Piao’s infant years were therefore intimately connected with the Japanese invasion of Malaya and the Malayan Emergency, initiated by the British against the Malayan Communist Party in what the latter termed the ‘National War of Liberation’.

HoPiaoHe entered Kong Yong Primary School, which was located at Upper Serangoon Road, immediately after the end of the Second World War. During this time, he obtained his subsequent facility in the Chinese language, reinforced by constant usage and further studies. It was in his primary school years that he first became conscious of what he deemed to be the degrading effect of inequality and class status. Ho Piao came from a poor, though not impoverished family in the economic circumstances of the time. His father was a sailor, and his mother a housewife who also sold eggs in the market to supplement the family income. Ho Piao was always extremely close to his mother, and this bond was to last throughout his life. His mother stood by him through thick and thin through all the years of his long detention and struggles.

In his address at Ho Piao’s memorial recently, Lee Tee Tong, a former long-term political detainee and trade union leader, narrated an incident in Ho Piao’s boyhood, when Ho Piao and a few of his classmates took a bus home. Along the way, a couple of women boarded the bus carrying baskets of eggs. One of them was Ho Piao’s mother; the other was a mother of one of Ho Piao’s classmates. Ho Piao immediately ran to her. He noticed, however, that his friend tried to avoid looking at his own mother because he was ashamed to let his classmates know that his mother was a hawker. This incident was etched in Ho Piao’s mind.

After spending four years in Kong Yong Primary School, his family transferred him to Serangoon English School, where he remained until he completed the Cambridge School Certificate Examinations, which was the equivalent of the ‘O’ Levels now. He did not take to physical contact sports like football and hockey, but joined the Scouts movement and took to swimming and boating. Under the active motivation and guidance of his scoutmaster and teacher, Lloyd Fernando,[1] he attained the level of Queen’s Scout. His physical and mental development was impressive and in his final year at Serangoon, he circled around the waters of Singapore island in a rowing boat alone, an early indication of the grit and tenacity which was to be a character trait.

When Ho Piao finished his school certificate examination, his results were outstanding enough for him to obtain admission into the pre-medical higher school certificate class in Raffles Institution. At the end of 1956, he sat for the matriculation examination for entry into the University of Malaya, and obtained admission into the Science Faculty in 1957.

The mid-1950s were years of student and trade union agitation against colonial rule, and this could not fail to fire the imagination of a student like Ho Piao. Widespread repressions and arrests occurred towards the end of 1956, including the arrest of his cousin, Ho Boon, who was then a trade union leader in the Singapore Motor Workshops trade union. The arrest of Ho Piao’s cousin would have made an impact on the youthful Ho Piao and propelled him into the reality of colonial rule in Singapore at the time. It was at this period that he began his initial association with the trade union movement, where his command of the English language became an asset to hard-pressed trade unions who were already short-handed after the arrests. Accordingly, in 1957, he cut classes for his science course in the university to attend to the pressing demands of trade union work, to such an extent that he eventually withdrew from his university education altogether. He went on to work full-time in the trade union movement. In subsequent years, Ho Piao never regretted this decision, and always believed that it was a choice he had to make under the circumstances. In the context of the anti-colonial struggle, it was the only choice.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) came into power in 1959, and in its early months, it articulated, if not pursued, an active pro-labour policy, and tried to work with the trade union movement. During this initial phase of cordiality between the two bodies, the government sent three young trade unionists for a trade union course conducted in the United Kingdom. Ho Piao was one of the three, the other two being S.T. Bani and Salauddin Ghouse, all members of what was then perceived to be the left-wing trade union movement. Three months into the course, Ho Piao abruptly terminated the scholarship and returned home, despite the earnest persuasions of his two friends who went on to complete it. Years later, when he was asked as to why he did not complete the course to obtain the diploma which might have proved useful for his later trade union career, Ho Piao would invariably reply that by the time he quit, he was convinced that the lectures and courses they were given were of ‘bureaucratic trade unionism’ and had no connection whatsoever with the type of work he was trying to do in the Singapore trade unions. Quite characteristically, Ho Piao never regretted this decision either.

Not long after his return to Singapore, Ho Piao joined as a paid secretary of the Singapore National Seamen’s Union. He would later recall that his involvement with the seamen’s union represented the happiest and most meaningful part of his life, of which he had particularly fond memories. He interacted well with the seamen on board the ships and they in turn took to him with warmth and affection. Ho Piao had a particular way and manner in dealing with ordinary folks, to whom he never felt any distance. In fact, if anything, his defences always went up when he was confronted or faced with bureaucracy or with people in authority, to whom he would be polite but always firm and obstinate from the viewpoint of his adversaries.

This phase of his life terminated with his arrest on 2 Feburary 1963, together with more than 135 political detainees from all walks of life. At the time of his arrest, he was just 26 years old, full of idealism and vitality, and with a clear vision of what he intended to do with his life. He has always said that he had found his true vocation in those years, of service to the poor and downtrodden, against the intimidation and bullying ways of those in authority. Ho Piao was always a fighter in his own quiet and unassuming ways.

The second phase of his life began from the day of his arrest, until his release some 18-and-a-half years later, in 1981, when he was well into middle age. He had therefore spent the best part of his youth in the network of detention centres and cells throughout the island, ranging from the central police station, Outram road prison, R.B. block in Changi Prison, the medium security detention camp in Changi, and eventually in the newly constructed isolation blocks known euphemistically as Moon Crescent Centre, which was completed in the early 1970s to replace the various detention camps in different locations within Changi Prison. Ho Piao’s long detention under the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) was cruel, inhuman and a powerful statement of the condition of unfreedom in the country.

Like all the other political detainees, he was never charged and convicted for the violation of any specific law. Ho Piao’s life and political activities was an open book, from the time he left school as a Queen’s Scout and abandoned a university course to work in the trade union movement. There was never any suggestion of his involvement in any illegal organization or any violent act to support such a long duration of political detention.

More likely, Ho Piao, like all the other detainees, was detained not because of his potential for violence, but because of fear of the visions and ideas he represented. Ho Piao probably suffered more than most political prisoners in the cruel treatment he received during his long years of detention. He was involved in a long hunger strike in the early 1970s, when the prison authorities sought to impose new rules and conditions, which forced further restrictions on the terms of political detention.

There has been a virtual censorship and news embargo regarding the hunger strikes, including the treatment meted out to the political prisoners during the strikes and the duration of the strikes, which have yet to surface. The physical assault of Ho Piao and other political detainees had been partly documented by a report of Amnesty International in 1978.[2]

Ho Piao was released in 1981. He remained in Singapore for a period of five years, during which time he married and started a family, before he took his new wife and two infant children to London to seek out a new direction in his life. The beginning of his exile in London from 1986 heralded the third and final phase of his life, which ended quite suddenly with his demise on 6th February 2007 in London. This period of exile in London lasted 21 years.

During this period, he came back to Singapore on four or five occasions, according to family members, the most recent one being on the occasion of the death of his beloved mother on 11th January 2001. Many of his friends from his university and trade union days did not see much of him during these two decades or so, when he was in exile in London. Only those friends who made occasional visits to London met up with him at all, and they invariably reported not only his continued concern with the political developments at home but also his continuing commitment to the struggle for social justice and equality internationally.

He was deeply concerned and knowledgeable about the areas of conflict in the Middle East and Asia, and he continued expressing optimism on the durability of his socialist vision despite the current international confusion and division. He was extremely critical of current political developments in the People’s Republic of China, as representing a sharp departure from the egalitarian vision of the early years of the Chinese Revolution. He remained a Chinese Singaporean and not a Singaporean Chinese, as he laboured to explain to his children.

During much of his years in the United Kingdom, he had spent much of his years at Sudbury Avenue, in Middlesex, north of London, a few minutes away from the underground of the same name. He lived in a modest house, almost identical to the houses in the neighborhood, from the exterior. However, on entering the house, one would have a sense of entering a home in Singapore. There was a large sitting room with a set of Chinese rosewood furniture and the walls were draped with Chinese paintings. The living room opened to the lawn at the back of the house, which he used for entertainment. The dining room consisted of a rosewood round table and chairs. A marble-topped table lay in the kitchen for breakfast and informal dining.

His office was located a short drive away. He spent long hours at the office and was known to return late at night or in the early hours of the next morning. He had built up strong links with his close friends and relatives and some friends from Singapore, in particular Francis Khoo and his wife, Dr. Ang Swee Chai, and several others. Besides this, he had built up some business contacts and links with some colleagues, and many friends from the Middle East, where he also had some commercial ventures. His wife and their daughter, He Xin, were surprised by the large number of Middle Eastern friends who came to the ICU when they heard news of the massive stroke he suffered while dining with some friends. He Xin mentions that her father spent a lot of time at home writing and that he had written numerous English and Chinese poems which have not been sorted out and assembled. She learnt that several of these poems had in fact been published in some Middle Eastern countries.

Ho Piao was survived by his wife and three children – his daughter He Xin, and two sons, He Hao and He Jie.

Part II

I first met Ho Piao when I was detained in October 1963, and was sent to R.B. block. Ho Piao, S.T. Bani and myself were the only English-speaking political detainees in the block which then consisted of about two dozen political prisoners.

I have several enduring images of Ho Piao during that time. He was of medium height and build, spoke softly, precisely and with a sense of gentle humor. He wore a gentle smile most of the time and liked to greet his friends with a formal prefix, like ‘Mr Tan’, or just their surnames, but never by their personal names. This was an eccentricity his friends had come to accept and ignore, as no amount of protest would change his mode of address. The political prisoners at R.B. block were confined in ten separate cells within a block, which had a further set of locks which opened to a yard used for exercise and recreation. There would be a ‘muster’ every morning, in which the superintendent of the prison or other senior officers would walk through the block to verify the numbers of political prisoners. Following the morning muster, the padlock to the block would be opened for access to the field. A similar ‘muster’ walkthrough would take place in the evenings, after which the access to the field would be locked, and the political prisoners confined to their cells.

Ho Piao had obtained permission from the prison authorities to rear a couple of rabbits, which he kept in carton boxes. Ho Piao would usually be among the first to proceed to the yard to tend to his rabbits, clad in his cream-coloured pyjama trousers with a white round-neck t-shirt and wearing his Japanese slippers. A binding image I had was Ho Piao holding a rabbit in his arms, sweat streaming down his brow and with a smile on his face. As the rabbits multiplied, a problem arose. I remember an occasion when one of his friends playfully suggested to him that perhaps he should surrender one of the excess rabbits to be roasted and eaten. Ho Piao glared at him and turned away with his rabbits. No one dared to raise the suggestion again. Ho Piao eventually found a way out of this problem by arranging to send some of his rabbits to political prisoners in the other detention centres in Chang Prison, through the prison warders, and also to friends and family outside the prison. Ho Piao and his rabbits have become part of the legend of the political detentions in the 1960s and 1970s. It is also a fitting symbol of contrasting images to the stark reality of the long detention experienced by those like Ho Piao.

Ho Piao was fluent in the three languages of English, Chinese and Malay. His reading, however, was quite selective rather than wide-ranging. He was acquainted with four Chinese classical novels, although his clear favorite was Sui Hu Zhuan. He read Gorky, but was less impressed by Dostovsky. Of the Malay poets, his favorite was Usman Awang, although he had also read most of the Malay classics in the course of his learning of the language and literature. I remember vividly Ho Piao reciting Malay pantuns and speaking in Malay formal sentences to the bemused warder who by chance came to the block on some duty.

‘Courage’ is one of those words that comes readily to the mind when one thinks of Ho Piao. It is not however the courage of the aggressor who seeks to bully and to exercise power over a weaker victim, but the quiet, unobtrusive courage of a man prepared to stand his ground in the view that he is in the right. Ho Piao was unyielding and principled to those with him, but obstinate and stubborn to those who opposed him.

Dr Poh Soo Kai, in his account at Ho Piao’s memorial in Singapore on 10th March 2007, recounted an incident involving Chan Fook Hwa, another political prisoner, who had been diagnosed with cancer of the liver during detention. One morning, the prison warder came to the cell block with an order to remove Chan Fook Hwa to Changi prison hospital, from the cell block which he was occupying together with Ho Piao and Dr Poh. The political detainees knew that the conditions in the prison hospital were worse than that in the cell block because the detainee would be held in total isolation within a cage to which only the doctor and authorized medical personnel would be granted access at their convenience. It is akin to being held in solitary confinement. Ho Piao asked Chan Fook Hwa politely whether he preferred to stay with his other colleagues in the detention block or to allow himself to be removed to the prison hospital. Chan Fook Hwa replied that he would prefer to remain where he was. Ho Piao then proceeded to inform the warder that they would not allow Fook Hwa to be removed from the cell, and the prison warder had no alternative but to leave after failing to carry out his instructions. Ho Piao was prepared to stand firm on his ground, clearly knowing that disobedience of an order from the prison authorities might land them in a confrontation with the prison authorities. Three days later, however, the prison warder returned with a new order to remove Chan Fook Hwa to the general hospital. After some discussion, Fook Hwa said he would be prepared to be so removed as he would possibly be in a better position to have medical treatment in a hospital. Accordingly, Chan was removed and when his condition deteriorated, he was released and died within a week following this. This incident indicated clearly the extent to which Ho Piao was prepared to go to defend the rights of his friends when he felt that such a defence was the correct and proper thing to do.

Ho Piao belongs to that select group of political prisoners in Singapore who spent long spells of imprisonment without trial. They include Chia Thye Poh, Dr. Lim Hock Siew, Dr. Poh Soo Kai, Said Zahari and Lee Tee Tong. Their long incarceration and travails is a sad and tragic commentary on the state of political unfreedom in a nascent state emerging from colonial rule. In most countries, these men of conscience would be a national asset and powerful spokesmen for the community rather than continuously demonized, vilified and marginalized. A nation and a state which is intolerant and oppresses dissident views of honest men and women can hardly aspire to evolve and develop into a humane society and civilization. Vibrant political, intellectual and artistic life cannot ever hope to grow and flourish under conditions of political repressions.


[1] Lloyd Fernando later became a Professor of English in the University of Malaya, until his retirement, when he began to practice law.

[2] Report of an Amnesty International Mission to Singapore, 30 November to 5 December 1978