Tan Jing Quee (1939-2011): setting new directions in Singapore studies

Tan Jing Quee, who passed away on 14 June 2011, was a frequent contributor to s/pores. He wrote for our inaugural issue quite by chance, when two s/pores members had just got to know him then, and learnt that he had written obituaries for his friends Linda Chen Mong Hock (1928-2002), and Usman Awang (1929-2001). He was hesitant about letting us publish them, concerned that the new e-journal would attract unwelcome attention from the authorities by associating with him, a former political detainee (1963-1966; 1977), and one who had not avoided a public profile. In 2006, Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez had spoken as former political detainees who were among the more than a hundred people detained in Operation Cold Store and the subsequent Operation Pechah at the Singapore Arts Festival fringe event Detention-Writing-Healing. The event drew a good-sized audience and received press coverage. The Ministry of Home Affairs then issued a rebuke of the two men in the Straits Times Forum, in the form of the oft-repeated but never substantiated litany that they took part in communist subversion and were detained for threatening the security, stability and economic well-being of Singapore, and not for holding different political views or pursuing lawful, democratic political activities.

As it happened, Ho Piao, a former long-serving political detainee died in February 2007 in England where he lived since 1986. Jing Quee had to concede to our argument that s/pores was the most efficacious place for Singaporeans and others to read about the life of this little-known trade unionist who was detained in Operation Cold Store for eighteen and a half years. Jing Quee wrote an informed, detailed, analytical and sensitive account of the man who was in RB block in Changi Prison with him. He described Ho Piao’s house in Middlesex, which he noted looked like any of the other modest houses on the street, but the furnishing and ambience of the interior was a replica of a Singapore home. He treasured his success in becoming a friend of the family, and being asked by Ho Piao’s children to tell them about their father, on one of his trips to visit them with his wife Rose, where they were house-guests of the family. In 2007, Jing Quee organized a memorial gathering for Ho Piao. Former detainees, Ho Piao’s friends and colleagues turned out in force to remember and honour one of the most resolute of their comrades, at the first such event to be held in Singapore. When Lim Chin Siong passed away in 1996, a huge memorial gathering was organized in Kuala Lumpur, which received wide coverage in the Malaysian Chinese press. At the time, it was not possible for such an event to be held in Singapore.

Throughout his life, Jing Quee consciously made the effort to maintain the friendship of former political detainees, and their children as well, including those who lived in Malaysia, Southern Thailand, Hong Kong and China and various western countries. Aside from developing friendships and fostering group solidarity and mutual help, this was also to draw them into deliberations on the political events which they had lived through. Together with his own experience, observations and research, this also helped him piece together an intricate and uncanny understanding of the political maneuverings and machinations in particular of the 1950s and 1960s.

The first major breakthrough which charted new directions in Singapore history that Jing Quee made was Comet In Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History (2001), which he edited with Jomo K.S. This book has had wide readership, with the chapter by British historian Tim Harper ‘Lim Chin Siong and the Singapore Story’ being most popularly cited for its revealing that Special Branch reports in 1962 stated that there was no evidence that Lim was receiving orders from the Communist Party of Malaya, Peking or Moscow, and that he had consistently kept to a constitutional path. Jing Quee’s essay, ‘Lim Chin Siong—A political life’ charts the milestones in the political development of Singapore in the postwar period, challenging the wisdom that the 1950s was a decade of ‘riot and revolution’. Instead, the thread running through those years was one of mass anti-colonial struggle which was met by repression and colonial duplicity. In this piece, the key elements which were to be elaborated in Jing Quee’s subsequent work were already in place. He noted that the conjunction of two major events in 1954 set the tone and tempo of the new politics that was to emerge: the May 13 incident and the subsequent sit-in by the Chinese middle school students, and the Fajar trial. The ascendency of Lim Chin Siong as a national figure when he was elected as a PAP member of the National Assembly in 1955 galvanized the labour and mass political movement, but also made him the key target of attacks as a communist, which continued through his life. Jing Quee highlighted the fact that Lim Chin Siong and others detained by the Lim Yew Hock government in 1956 and 1957 were prohibited from contesting in Singapore’s first general election in 1959; Operation Cold Store served this purpose in 1963.

Jing Quee’s most insightful observation about Lim Chin Siong was that after he was released from detention in 1959 at the age of 26, his public addresses were more serious and analytical, as befitting the new political situation where Singapore had been given self-government. He spoke less Hokkien and more Mandarin on these occasions. He had learnt English and Malay in prison, and could fraternize with non-Chinese colleagues in the trade union movement with greater ease and confidence. He also pointed out that despite the common impression that the Barisan Socialis of which Lim Chin Siong was the secretary-general was dominated by Chinese speakers, a look at the composition of the party’s Central Executive Committee would show that it comprised predominantly English-educated leftists, including Dr Poh Soo Kai, S Woodhull, James Puthucheary and Dr Lim Hock Siew.

The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the politics of postwar Malaya and Singapore (2010) and The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore politics in the 1950s (2011) of which Jing Quee was an editor and a chapter contributor, developed out of the framework he had built in Comet in the Sky. The Fajar Generation brought back into focus a key component of the left-wing anti-colonial movement: members of the Socialist Club in the University of Malaya (University of Singapore), which cut across ethnic boundaries. While they constituted only a small fraction of the student population in terms of numbers, their strength was in their ability to talk back directly to the colonial government on their own terms, which was particularly effective when they connected with the Chinese middle school students, led trade unions, connected with the Chinese middle school students, and came together in the Barisan Sosialis. Their ranks included individuals who withstood detention for the longest period of time. (One of the articles in our first issue was on the Fajar Trial of 1954, which Jing Quee generously gave comments on)

The counterpart of The Fajar Generation, The May 13 Generation sought to map out the colonial antipathy towards the Chinese middle schools and their students in the Cold War context, and to delineate the nature of the student movement—which was not only political in nature, but also cultural and social. Their understanding of anti-colonialism included the preservation of the Chinese schools and education system, which they saw as a progressive one, in contrast to the English stream secondary schools which to them produced only colonial subjects. It was also the Chinese middle school students who took the lead, along with the trade unionists who graduated from their ranks, in raising issues of the colonial capitalist exploitation, and who worked directly with the disadvantaged and dispossessed, whether they be flood and fire victims, exploited workers, the jobless, or children from impoverished families who had no chance of attending school. They moved towards defining a Malayan literature that addressed these conditions, derived from the tussles and debates with fellow students on the role of art and culture, the definition of the new woman, the concrete realities that they and the vast majority faced of economic survival. The May 13 Generation, as students or union and civil group leaders, were the bulk of those arrested in 1956, the biggest mass arrest of the time, and except for well-known political leaders like Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, remained in detention despite the coming into power in 1959 of the PAP, of which they were dedicated supporters.

Picture taken in Bangkok, March 2009. The trip was to meet up with He Jin, the author of Ju Lang to seek his permission to translate his roman a clef, into English. The protagonists of the novel are students leaders of the May 13 1954 event, where the Chinese middle school students petitioning the colonial government for exemption from national service were set on by the riot police. This event led to their unprecedented their unity and the middle school students became the vanguards of the anti-colonial movement in Singapore. The Mighty Wave, translated by Tan Jing Quee, Loh Miaw Gong and Hong Lysa was published in May 2011.
Back, from left: Rosemary Tan, Tan Jing Quee
Front, from left: Hong Lysa, Loh Miaw Gong, Su Shi Hua (He Jin’s wife) and He Jin.

Jing Quee’s writings arose out of his drive to write the history of the left in Singapore of which he was a part and to call the dominant narrative into account. His writings have not been directly challenged by historians, journalists and other writers who have conveniently ignored them. Yet, it is not inconceivable that the works that he had relentlessly spearheaded may explain the spate of tomes reiterating the authorized position. His writings constitute an inextricable and powerful blend of autobiography, collective biography and history. He made sure that there is a Chinese edition of the books as well, for theirs was a joint mission and a shared legacy. It remains to be seen whether his books will enter the reading lists of Singapore history courses taught in Singapore universities.

Jing Quee’s approach was always to look at the long term, never to rush into things. He once recalled that when he narrowly lost as a Barisan candidate in the 1963 election, his branch workers were upset and bitter, and at their post-mortem meeting repeatedly accused the PAP of resorting to unfair and underhand means. When he was finally asked to make a speech, he told them that the fate of Singapore did not depend on one election result, and that certainly the election had been stacked against them unfairly from the very start. But they should accept the result, and plan to take the next move which would not gain immediate results, but was targeted at the long term. This meant working to build relations with the progressive parties in Malaysia, among other things. This was not what they wanted to hear at the time, and they gave him the cold shoulder.

With his writings, he bid his time, in order to gather sufficient materials, think carefully through his analysis, and await the appropriate time to go public. This was an on-going process in his life. The stream of publications that Jing Quee produced belied the physical challenges that he faced. The deterioration, and eventually the loss of his eyesight meant that he could not read or use the keyboard at all. He would have materials read to him, and would ask for specific points and paragraphs to be keyed in. After mulling through the issues in his head, he would then dictate what he wanted to say in complete sentences (with the word ‘accordingly’ regularly featured at the beginning of a paragraph he was dictating, it was pointed out to him, to his amusement.) He had such intense focus that he could with seeming ease ask for a word to be changed, knowing exactly where it was in the piece after having it read back to him. This could well be a day or two later, or even longer. He also wrote poetry (Love’s Travelogue [2004]; coeditor and contributor, Our Thoughts are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile [2009]) and wrote short stories (The Chempaka Tree [2009]). His poems have been included in Singapore anthologies (man/born/free: Writings on the Human spirit from Singapore [2011]). It is fitting that as it turned out this issue of s/pores features Alvin Pang’s essay ‘Reclaiming Literature for Singapore’, commissioned by Tan Tarn How and written in 2010, which discusses Jing Quee’s poem, ‘Afternoon’ published in the Rafflesian in 1957.

Jing Quee was above all a warm and thoughtful person. He loved company, young and old. He enjoyed discussing issues related to politics, but was open to any substantive subject of conversation, be it travel, books or BBC radio reports, his regular window to the world. He was generous in sharing what he knew, and supportive of the endeavours of others, especially the younger generation. He had students who had just finished their A levels do bits of research, reading and typing for him, and when he felt that they had interest, would open his world to them, without imposing his views. He readily invited his visitors to share a meal, which his wife Rose would expertly whip up. He was good company, full of life and good cheer. Anyone who knew Rose and Jing Quee would have been impressed by the deep bond between them, which Jing Quee expressed in his poem, ‘Love’s Travelogue’.

Jing Quee once said half-jokingly that he hoped he would not be remembered, if at all, only as the person who lost by 200-odd votes to S Rajaratnam in the 1963 elections. A number of books that mention his name in passing have made reference to this fact.

His own writings reveal a sensitive and bold intellectual dedicated to producing sound, critical history which are devastating to the self-serving narratives that pass off as Singapore’s history.

s/pores remembers our friend, Jing Quee for this and so much more.