In Memory of Linda Chen (1928-2002)

Tan Jing Quee
with a poem by Usman Awang and extracts from Said Zahari‘s memoirs

Photograph of Linda Chen, December 1996, courtesy of Loh Miaw Ping

Linda Chen passed away peacefully on 29th December 2002, four days after she suffered a stroke at her home at Hua Guan Avenue on Christmas Day. She was cremated at Mount Vernon on New Year’s Day. A large crowd of friends and relatives attended the simple ceremony in which her husband Professor Dr Tan Seng Huat and their three children spoke with emotion on Linda the idealist, mother and friend.


Linda had a distinctive and unmistakable chuckle which was at once infectious and disarming. She was gracious and self-assured, and always wore a smile for any one she met. It was almost impossible to be angry with Linda, even if you disagreed strongly with what she said. She had a rare combination of courage and amiability, an unobtrusive intelligence coupled with an honest humility. In Seng Huat’s own words, she was simple and frugal in her personal lifestyle and needs, but she was always generous and helpful to friends.

She was born in China, but came to Singapore as a child when she was only one year old. She grew up and was educated in colonial Singapore, became proficient in three languages—Chinese, English and Malay, a rare feat in the 1950s and 60s, even more so now. Linda attended both Chinese and English schools, which was not an uncommon practice in those years. This explains her command and fluency in both languages in her later years. She entered the University of Malaya, then situated in Bukit Timah Campus in Singapore.

Linda was an active member of the University Socialist Club during her years in the university. She was one of the active student leaders involved in the formation of the Pan-Malayan Students’ Federation (PMSF), whose president then was Dr Philomen Oorjitam. Due to her fluency in the Chinese language, Linda was particularly useful in forging links with the student leaders of the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students’ Union, which was admitted as an associate member of the PMSF.

During the time she was studying the Malay language, she came to know many prominent Malay writers of the period, including Asraf and Usman Awang, who would later become the poet laureate of Malaysia. Usman wrote a poem dedicated to Linda and two of her friends—Lim Huan Boon and Goh Choo Keng, both of whom were then pursuing Malay Studies at Nanyang University. Lim and Goh, together with other Nanyang University students such as Liaw Yock Fang, Tan Ta Sen and Yang Quee Yee, eventually proceeded to further their Malay studies in Indonesia. Together with Linda, this group formed the initial core of non-Malay scholars in Malay language and literature in Singapore. She later compiled one of the early Malay-Chinese dictionaries, which was quite widely used as a teaching guide in the study of the Malay language in the 1950s and 60s. She also published translations of children’s stories from Chinese into Malay. Her academic exercise for her B.A. Honours degree on a prominent Muslim scholar and intellectual Syed Shaykh al-Hady, was published in a collection by the Malaysian Sociological Research Institute in Malaysia in 1999. Her pioneering monograph for her Masters of Arts degree, The early years of Chinese Newspapers in Singapore 1881-1912, was published by the University of Malaya Press in 1967 and remains the standard text on the origin of Chinese newspapers in the country.

Linda was a prominent and early advocate of women’s rights in Singapore. She was the founder and secretary of the Federation of Women in 1956. It was banned on 18 September 1956, the very day of her own detention without trial, under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, the precursor of the Internal Security Act. She was released on conditions in 1958 and married Dr Tan Seng Huat, whom she had met and fell in love with when both of them were members of the University Socialist Club in the early 1950s. When the PAP came to power in 1959, Linda was an active participant in the debate and discussions among women activists leading to the drafting of the Women’s Charter in 1960, which outlawed polygamy and instituted monogamy into marriage law in Singapore.

Linda was detained for the second time during Operation Coldstore in February 1963. Following her release from detention she accompanied Seng Huat to London where he was pursuing his postgraduate professional qualification. They returned to Singapore in 1967. Linda assumed management of her family business, Shanghai Book Company in Singapore, with another branch in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite her business commitments, Linda retained a continued concern on the status and position of women in society. In an obituary in the Straits Times, 1 January 2003, AWARE paid the following tribute to Linda, and succinctly summarized her continuing commitment in this direction:

AWARE extends its deepest condolences to the family of the late Linda Chen. We honour her as a role model and pioneer woman warrior who fought for nationalism in her youth, and never wavered despite the high personal cost of acting on her convictions. We acknowledge with deep appreciation her contributions to the work of AWARE as the stalwart volunteer and longer serving Counsellor on the help line. We remember Linda as a woman who lived by her values and whose commitment and constancy will continue to inspire us.

Seng Huat and Linda were inseparable throughout their married life; they entertained their wide circle of friends and colleagues generously at their home, and traveled regularly together. Linda recalled with fondness their second journey on the Silk Road with close friends and relatives in September 2002, three months before her passing.

Linda shall be sadly missed by relatives and the many friends whose lives she had touched. She shall be remembered by all those who shared her commitment for freedom and social justice.


Pemuda dan Gadis Tionghoa
(Kong Hee Fatt Choy buat Lim, Goh, dan Linda)

Hari depan yang manis dalam usia tanah air
mengisi wajah para pemuda dan gadis Tionghoa
sederap tumbuh bersama pohon-pohon bumi subur
pucuk getah dan ladang pertani disinari matari timur.

Pada tangis pertama kelahiranmu di bumi ini
sampai saat terakhir nafas dalam melangkah kaki
teguh-teguhlah menyanyikan lagu tanah air tercinta
bersama kita atas kesegaran kepedihan bumi merdeka.

Bukankah kecurigaan telah terbunuh ketika kita bersapa
hidup ini sudah terbenam pada persamaan nasib semata
kaum pekerja dan petani dalam satu sumber mengalir
sama-sama menyanyikan lagu terbagus untuk tanah air.

Permuda dan gadis Tionghoa, di sini bumi dan udara kita
yang menghidupkan dan bagi kematian, o tanah air
dengan kepastian tidak seorang pun akan mungkir
kerana kejujuran tertambat pada kesetiaan mengalir.

Lihatlah makam nenek moyang sebagai sejarah terpahat
darahnya dalam darahmu segar di kulit kuning langsat
esok, ketika Tahun Baru akan kukirimkan sebuah angpau
dalamnya sebuah cinta dari jantung tanah dan pulau!

Young Chinese men and women
(Kong Hee Fatt Choy to Lim, Goh and Linda)

The sweet tomorrow in our nation’s history
fills the faces of young Chinese men and women
having grown up together with trees of a fertile earth
rubber shoots and farm land under the eastern sun.

From your first cry when you were born here
till your last breath
sing our beloved national song with conviction
together we will feel the new pain of a freed country.

Hasn’t the mistrust been killed since we greeted each other?
This life is set in a shared destiny
workers and farmers in one flowing force
together singing the best songs for the country.

Young Chinese men and women, here lie our land and sky
that brought life and death, O Motherland
with the assurance no one will betray her
because sincerity should come together
with the loyalty that flows in us.

Consider your ancestor’s grave as history being carved
their blood in yours is fresh under your fair skin
tomorrow, during Chinese New Year, I will bring an angpow;
in it love from the heart of this land and island!

Usman Awang 1961
translated by Haslina Usman

from Usman Awang, Sahabatku: puisi-puisi 5 Bahasa (My Friend: Poetry translated into 5 languages), 2009 [Editors: thanks to Isrizal for making a copy of the book available].

Said Zahari on Linda Chen[1]

Compiled and translated by Sai Siew Min

Linda Chen is also remembered fondly by Said Zahari. In Part 2 of Said Zahari’s memoir, Dalam Ribuan Mimpi Gelisah (Dreaming a Thousand Restless Dreams), Said recollects and describes Linda Chen’s personality, scholarship and work in researching Malay language and literature as well as their close and intimate friendship. Said describes Linda Chen as “a person devoted to Malay language and literature” and “an intellectual and a left-wing female political activist who was very famous in Singapore in the mid-1950s.”:

For several months before Operation Cold Store, Linda Chen and I often met up at either the Dewan Pustaka or the canteen of Singapore University where I was attending a class on “International Law and Relations” conducted by Professor Green. Linda was the same age as me. We were born in 1928. Linda was born in China. When she was one, her family brought her to Singapore when they migrated. She was educated in Singapore under the British colonial education system until university level. She could speak fluent Chinese, English and Malay. She had followed research on the Malays, had published a Malay-Chinese dictionary and had translated many Chinese children’s stories into Malay……

The National Poet and literary doyen, Usman Awang, was inspired to compose several poems in the 1950s because he was inspired by Linda Chen’s humanitarian spirit and her involvement in furthering research in Malay language and literature. She interacted widely, without discriminating against class, language and culture. Thus, Linda established close relationships with leading figures in the fields of Malay language and literature such as Keris Mas, Tongkat Waran (Usman Awang), Awam-il-Sarkam, Masuri S.N. and Asraf Haji Wahab. Linda Chen stood together with Lim Huan Boon, Goh Chu Keng, Yang Kwee Ee and his wife Tan Mui Hua, among others, as a person devoted to Malay language and literature and who spoke very fluent Malay.

On a personal level, Zahari was very much impressed with Linda’s open, friendly and helpful nature:

Linda Chen was an intellectual who could be friendly to just about anyone…I admire her attitude towards people. She was willing to help without expecting any returns or praise. I learned so much from her in our many meetings. Linda was not someone stingy when it came to sharing her experiences.

To foster closer ties between our two families, privately and without letting Linda and her husband know, I used Linda’s name as part of the name I wanted to give my youngest child. She was born three months after I was arrested on 2 February 1963. Salamah, my wife, agreed totally with the name I had chosen — Noorlinda — a blessing from Linda Chen’s name.

It was only after I was freed from detention in 1979 and we re-established our friendship that I told Linda Chen and her husband Dr Tan Seng Huat about using her name without seeking her agreement.

“Said, I am really very honoured by Sal’s and your willingness to choose my name,” said Linda Chen with a broad smile when she and her husband visited our home to celebrate Hari Raya in the year I was released. From that day onwards, Linda and Seng Huat, together with other friends, were permanent guests to our home at Upper Changi Road whenever we threw our annual Hari Raya party……


[1] Detained by Operation Cold Store in 1963, Said Zahari was held by the Singapore government for 17 years, making his detention one of the longest in Singapore history. Said was a former editor of the nationalistic and respected Malay language newspaper Utusan Melayu. Supporting the decision of his staff to go on strike against UMNO’s attempt to curtail Utusan’s independence, Said was banned from entering the Federation of Malaya in 1961. The Utusan strike lasted for 4 months. Before his detention in 1963, Said was also President of the Partai Rakyat Singapura (PRS), a left-wing Malay political party. All translations and extracts from Said Zahari’s memoir written originally in Malay are done by Sai Siew Min. Said Zahari, Dreaming a Thousand Restless Dreams (Dalam Ribuan Mimpi Gelisah) (Kuala Lumpur: Utusan Publications and Distributors Sdn Bhd, 2006), pp. 38-40.

3 thoughts on “In Memory of Linda Chen (1928-2002)”

  1. I remember coming across some stuff which referred to Linda Chen.

    In 1959, when the PAP was getting more and more on with their efforts to promote Malay as part of their idea of a Malayan culture, the University Socialists Club organized a National Language Seminar in September 1959 to encourage and promote the learning and use of Malay. A couple of months before, in Fajar (Vol. II No.1 July), Linda Chen made an appeal to ‘ALL students in this University [University of Malaya in Singapore] to study Malay’, because ‘Malay is our National Language.’ Which demonstrates that she was a Malay language activist as well.

    In the Malayan Undergrad Vol. 11 No. 7 April 1960, Tommy Koh reported about the University of Malaya in Singapore Students Union appealing to the Federation government to remove the ban on her from entering the Federation of Malaya. She had been accepted to read for a Honours degree in the Department of the Malay Studies, which had unfortunately been moved to the University of Singapore in Malaya division, but she was barred from entering the Federation because of her detention from 1956-1958.

  2. In 1961 Linda was a member of the Study Group, appointed by the University Socialist Club, on Education and Labour, the so-called “Autonomy” in labour and education under Malaysia Merger Proposals. Linda made a significant contribution to the findings that without political freedom these “autonomy” is meaningless.

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