Going to Where the Silence Is
by Fong Hoe Fang
[Title is taken from a quote by Amy Goodman, broadcast journalist, columnist, investigative reporter, author.]
The Child is the Father of the Man
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
My Heart Leaps Up
In the 1960s, doctors would make regular visits to conduct routine medical checks at Singapore primary schools. In my first term in Primary 1 at Braddell Rise Primary School, the doctor visited. The boys had to take off their shirts and trot up to the teacher’s desk in front of the classroom where the doctor sat. There in full view of the class, he would ask the kid to breathe in and out while he placed a stethoscope on the chest. Then he would reach out, pull on the waistband of the boy’s pants, look at his genitals and asked the boy to cough.
As one of the shortest boys in class, I was the first in line and when he asked me to cough, I did so – right into his face. He had not asked me to turn my face away before I coughed, and at the tender age of 6, I was so awed by authority and eager to please that I did so immediately. He recoiled with a look of disgust but said nothing. Then he looked at my feet and asked in an angry voice, “where are your socks”. It had rained the day before on my way home, and my only pair of socks had gotten wet. They were not dry when I left for school that morning, and I had not put them on. So, I truthfully and innocently said, “wet”.
Without a moment’s notice, he slapped me on my face so hard that my head hit the blackboard which was next to the desk. “Don’t lie!” he thundered. My head spun and there was a dull throb in my head. I do not know why, but I did not cry. Something must have hardened in me that day. Even at that young age, I knew there was no point in complaining to my parents. They were great supporters of education and authority and would probably have asked me to move on so that I would minimise the chance of expulsion from school. Besides, they were caught up with the nation-wide struggle to make a living after the war, and unless blood ran, I guess they would put it down to hard lessons of life.
So started my education in Singapore schools in 1961. The trauma and humiliation of that incident must have stayed in my subconscious for years, because I remember being terribly angry each time I saw and thought that an unjust act had occurred. That incident taught me the injustice of unreasonable power. In a strange way, it also left me with a sense of reality that in our world, truth does not always lead to justice. Most times, justice is framed by power. And silence is our greatest enemy. I am still angry today every time I hear about any kind of injustice or unfairness, but that has been somewhat mellowed by age.
School was messy in those days. The disciplinary methods which some teachers employed then would have seen them in jail for child abuse today. But as kids, we were also much tougher and more obedient because the environment called for such. I remember regularly bringing my younger sister who was starting Primary one to school on a public bus when I myself was in Primary three. But this would easily be topped by a classmate who brought his younger sister to school every day on a bicycle built for adults.
All these experiences thrust us into the adult world sooner than we wished for, though I am not complaining about it when I think of those kids who are born in war-torn countries and their struggle for life. But not complaining does not mean that we should not aim for a utopia.
Seeds of Pioneers Club
Those sentiments persisted into my secondary school days at Upper Thomson Secondary School which would probably be considered a neighbourhood school today. We were in Secondary four when some of my school friends and I found that there would be a new subject called “General Paper”(GP) if we qualified to go into Pre-University to do our Higher School Certificate (what we now call the “A” levels). We did not expect help from any of the current teachers because that subject did not even exist in Secondary school. Tuition was also the realm of the well-to-do which none of us belonged to. Someone mentioned that GP required a good knowledge of current affairs as well as insightful analysis of issues. So, towards the end of Secondary four, we set up an informal discussion group called the Pioneers Club. We thought this would be a good way to prepare ourselves for GP.
We started with about 4 to 5 members who were schoolmates from Upper Thomson Secondary School, but this soon grew to about 10 to 12 of us as we moved into the Pre-University life. The newer members came from other schools. We had a member from Raffles Institution, a couple from Victoria, and some from Bartley Pre-University.
Thus, we were opened to a new world of possibilities and knowledge as we travelled beyond our school texts into the wisdom and narratives of new ways of thinking. Almost intuitively, we brainstormed on various programmes and allocated tasks, facilitators and presenters. We immersed ourselves in the open reading of plays, poems and stories. I signed on as a member of the United States Information Services (USIS) library so that we could borrow books on plays and stories/novels which we could not find in the National Library. We challenged ourselves on historical and current issues, ranging from discussions on the ethics of dropping atom bombs to the implications for society after the microchip. Discussions sometimes took the form of debates. We organised trips to the old kampongs and their disappearing way of life and visited welfare homes set up for the disadvantaged and marginalised.
The sense of freedom and insight from those robust discussions and meetings gave us a sense of confidence which in turn birthed a youthful conviction that there was nothing we should not examine and work towards if we were so inclined. It was the arrogance of discovery, and not one of privilege or entitlement.
A True Teacher and Tough Gentleman
There is also much to be said about the educators of those days. One such example is the late Mr Lim Kim Woon who was the founding principal of National Junior College (NJC). NJC was the only Junior College (JC) in Singapore then, and it was in its third year of operation. As principal of the first JC in Singapore, Mr Lim obviously wanted only the best students for his college. My preliminary examination grades for the Cambridge School Certificate (what we know now as the ‘O’ levels) had been at the lower end of a Grade One (I think it was 17 points where a good Grade One would be 7 points).
I believe the unspoken cut-off point for NJC then was between 7 to 10 points. But having experienced the joy of open discussions with the Pioneers Club, I wanted the environment of open tutorials and lectures instead of a classroom.
Mr Lim had initiated a system where every applicant to NJC then had to appear before a panel comprising himself and some of his teachers for an interview. At the interview, he asked if I was being cocky in wanting to apply for NJC when my grades were way below the average for admission. I was quite offended by his remark, and fresh from a recent discussion on education with fellow Pioneers Club members, I asked him what he saw to be the purpose of education. We launched into a polite, but robust exchange which included my quoting from Bertrand Russell. At the end of that interview, he looked at his fellow panellists and said something to the effect of “I like this boy”. I later found out that Bertrand Russell was one of his favourite writers.
Without the magnanimity and vision of education which Mr Lim had, I would not have had the benefit of JC education as practised in those days. Mr Lim was a true-blue educator. A couple of students, including myself, from the Arts stream wanted to do Biology as a subject (because of our natural interest in it) for the Higher School Certificate (currently called the “A” levels) – something unheard of in those days. He challenged us to find 5 students and he would allow it. And so, we had our Biology lessons.
Strict on discipline, he was also generous and liberal in allowing untrodden paths for those who proved they had passion for it. He allowed us to come together to fight for what we wanted.
The support and positive actions of this superb educator was a major pillar in my development as a questioning individual.
Our paths continued to cross after I left NJC. When I was running a magazine “Breakthrough” to promote greater social awareness in the early 80s, he kindly allowed me to distribute the magazine to participants and staff of the National Youth Leadership Training Institute (NYLTI) of which he was then principal. He had read the magazine and agreed with what we were trying to do. When the magazine ran into a controversy with the then-Ministry of Culture over some of the social issues which we had raised (the main offending story was a feature on the hidden dimension of poverty in Singapore), he continued to support its distribution at the NYLTI. He had found nothing wrong with the discourse in the story. I later found that he paid a high personal cost (in his career) for it.
I will always remember Mr Lim as a true teacher and a tough gentleman. It will be hard for Singapore to find another son like him.
After JC, the Pioneers Club gradually slowed down in its activities and discussions as the boys entered national service and the girls went to work or the university. We maintained loose social ties but carried on with our own lives. And what lives they now are! Those ‘alumni’ of the Pioneers Club whom I could trace had occupied all strata of society. Diplomat, engineer, sailor, lecturer, aircraft engineer, photographer, businessman, church leader, sociologist, lawyer, journalist … they are there.
After national service, I read social work and sociology at the Arts and Social Science faculty, University of Singapore. My mother had discouraged me from joining the Law Faculty even though law was the flavour of the day. She told me that as a lawyer, I would have to defend the ‘bad’ guys even if they were ‘guilty’ and of horrible character. I tried to tell her that I could choose not to take on a case. But she just frowned and said that when one sees enough money, that would change. I was reminded of this in later years when in a social conversation with the chairman of the company where I first worked, he matter-of-factly said “… every man has a price.” He was one of Singapore’s top civil servants then and is still distinctively acknowledged today.
Social work education brought me into a different world. While I thought I knew poverty having, like most others, come from a place of material want, what I saw in the course of my practical placements in social work went beyond that. It pushed emotional buttons I never thought I had. It brought the same feeling I once had when I stood helpless and voiceless after an unwarranted slap from a doctor who wielded unbridled power.
It was not so much material needs, but the poverty of voice which disturbed me. Why wasn’t anyone speaking up? Why wasn’t anyone listening? Why didn’t anyone seem to care? I learnt about systemic failures and broken social policies in real life. It was different from the discussions we had during the Pioneers Club days. This was real life being played out.
Breakthrough to Greater Social Awareness
After graduation, and inwardly shaken by the experience in social work education, I was sure that there were enough people willing to come together to bring voice to the disadvantaged. A childhood friend Richard, who was a co-founder of the Pioneers Club, also rallied behind this sentiment, and the natural place to start was for us to rally the old members of the Pioneers Club.
In time, some stalwarts of the Pioneers Club came together again, this time to start a magazine to bring about social awareness. “Breakthrough” was in part a response to a Singapore narrative unchallenged in its one-track march towards economic growth. We saw with alarm that the nation’s economic imperative had blinded us to a balance in community life and compassion for others. We thought that a magazine could bring more discussion to the table and be useful to balance the situation.
It was a tremendous undertaking. We were infants in magazine production. But we all swung into it with gusto and passion because we believed in it. All of us were holding down full-time jobs, but we spent hours interviewing, writing, editing, laying out and producing the magazine. In parallel with this, we had to source for advertisers, arrange for distribution, engage with direct sales, subscriptions and so on. A small core team of 6 to 10 volunteers from all walks of life were involved.
Looking back, it was a very amateurish attempt, but the stories were pointed and resonated with many. The first issue sold 10,000 copies. But it was tough work. We placed copies with the bookstores and pounded the streets during weekends to do direct sales. Once, while selling the magazine at the National Library, a General Manager of the company in which I worked, chanced upon me. He was utterly shocked at what I was doing. I laughed it off with a joke that the company was not paying me enough.
The magazine took on life of its own as more and more people came on board. There was even an occasion when we organised a workshop on social awareness for staff from the Housing and Development Board (HDB), and it was facilitated by the Department of Social Welfare. Mainstream organisations accepted what we had to say even if they disagreed with us. Pioneers Club 2.0 was running now.
After the first year of operation when Breakthrough had to renew its annual permit to print and publish, the then-Ministry of Culture asked us to “show cause” why our publication permit should be renewed. Greatly puzzled, Richard and I trooped into the office of the Ministry of Culture and were told that the magazine had been telling ‘half-truths’ and talking about the ‘seamy side of life’. One feature story – Poverty: the Hidden Dimension was referred to in particular. Astounded, I asked him to check the latest issue of the Singapore Yearbook of Statistics and said that I had obtained my numbers from their own publication. He went all silent, and I kept pushing the point. I think the poor officer who was probably more used to dealing with ‘yellow culture’ materials (Singapore was very strict on clamping down on ‘yellow culture’ then, and still does so now), did not know how to respond. Soon he said, “I am not here to argue with you. I am here to tell you to stop these stories”.
We could not believe our ears. There was nothing more to be said. Richard and I got up and walked out. We knew we had no choice but to use the court of public opinion to get our permit. Reporters and friends from The Straits Times and the New Nation (now defunct) were alerted to our situation. We reached out to regional magazines like Far Eastern Economic Review (now defunct) and Asiaweek (now defunct), telling our story.
The resultant media storm over the next few weeks raised questions about press freedom and heavy handedness. Weeks later, our publication permit was renewed with a ‘warning’ from the Ministry. We had won the battle, but damage was done. Advertisers began to shy away, and distribution channels dried up. Decades later, one of our early contributors told me that he had been quietly called up by the Ministry of Culture and interrogated about an innocuous poem which he wrote for the magazine.
We slogged on, but because of financial considerations, we had to cut down on production costs, including printing with 2 colours instead of 4. We also cut back the number of printed copies as we had lost most of our distribution channels, and it was difficult to maintain direct sales every weekend on a voluntary basis.
Enter the Crisis Centre
In early 1981, during the course of one of our regular discussions, including a sharing from Wai Han on her personal experience with a run-away kid, we conducted a survey on the ground to determine whether there was a need to establish a temporary safe space, or what we would eventually call a Crisis Centre, for run-away kids and abused wives/women.
We spent nights into the early morning, wandering around the streets looking for those without shelter and spoke to different organisations about such needs. Soon we determined that there were women who had been abused by a violent spouse or partner during a quarrel at home and they would need shelter for a time. The police could not do anything as they considered these to be civil cases. But they too knew that the abuse would start again once they left the scene.
We found major support from the Geylang Catholic Centre (GCC) where the priest-in-charge, the late Father Arotcarena, agreed to let us use a portion of the premises as a temporary shelter for such cases. The GCC itself, apart from being a drop-in centre for foreign workers (mainly Malaysians) was also a transit area for ex-prisoners who had just completed their sentences and were trying to get acclimatised to commercial working life again. This was way before the Yellow Ribbon initiative in Singapore today.
With the assurance of a proper permanent shelter, we focused on recruiting and training volunteers to run this Crisis Centre on a 24/7 basis. We engaged the help of the Samaritans of Singapore, professional psychologists, social workers and counsellors to run short workshops and training courses for our volunteers so that they would be better able to handle cases. And in June 1981, the Crisis Centre opened.
Soon, we became a fixture on the scene, so much so that even the Police began to send cases to us. Our volunteers did shifts. Some would come for the night shift at about 8pm and stay the night till the next morning when they would leave for work at 8am. It was a pretty loose arrangement, but we never once ran out of volunteers to stay the night.
Meanwhile, apart from working on the magazine and the Crisis Centre, other volunteers initiated actual projects which came out of discussions in the magazine. To gather stories, we would organise field trips to various ‘forbidden’ areas. I remember a large group of us once visited the Hawkins Road Refugee camp, hoping to do something for the refugees. Singapore was super sensitive in this area, and we made no real headway. Finally we ceded that space to accredited formal organisations like the Red Cross.
Not to be deterred, and after a particularly sombre discussion on world hunger, a group of volunteers decided to organise a public exhibition on World Hunger in December 1982 at the National Library at Stamford Road.
We secured partial sponsorship from Exxon Chemical, the Geylang Catholic Centre and Church of the Risen Christ. Other than that, it was literally a ground-up initiative. No one thought about budgets or fund raising. We put out the word that we were organising an exhibition, made a call for volunteers and donations through friends. That was it. There was no internet. No huge media outreach. But the donations and volunteers came pouring in. When we ran short, we just dug into our own pockets.
The exhibition was a runaway success. There were hordes of visitors including students to the exhibition and they were asked to do their part by publicly signing an undertaking not to waste food. Response was so encouraging that another church approached us to bring the exhibition to their premises for their parishioners.
Breakthrough ran from end-1979 to the first quarter of 1983, and all in, we published about 10 to 11 issues. The magazine had a good mix of columns. Every issue would carry a main feature story, followed by supporting stories, short roundups on current affairs and matters of the day, short stories, and reviews of mainstream as well as indie music and songs.
One may find it strange that indie music and songs would be featured in a magazine on social awareness. For this, I must thank the Cheah brothers, Michael and Philip who brought the social views and sentiments of singers like David Bowie, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and a host of Singapore indie singers into my consciousness (I was a total ignoramus in music before this). Around 1985, the Cheah brothers went on to publish an indie rock magazine BigO which became a major pop culture force in Singapore.
Interestingly, BigO faced its own problems, sometimes worst, with their publication permit and its renewal. And the fear amongst printers to produce the magazine was so high that it’s almost laughable. I remember a cover design which had a tiny image of a lady in a skimpy outfit that would probably be completely outdone by the dressing we normally see today. That image was only the size of a postage stamp, but the printer implied that he wanted a banker’s guarantee from the publisher before he would print that issue. He finally settled for a letter from the publisher which exonerated him if action was taken by the authorities.
Breakthrough Breaks down
In the first quarter of 1983, while we were planning for the second issue for that year, there was a fundamental editorial disagreement in the proposed running of a highly controversial story and despite the years of goodwill capital that had been built, we could not reconcile. The team split. It really broke my heart to lose friends just like that.
It was also around this time that I had decided to get married to the love of my life, Wai Han. With so much happening and part of the editorial team gone, we decided to close Breakthrough to have personal time to recuperate, reflect and recover. We just did not have the heart to rebuild with new volunteers who were in the wings. But the Crisis Centre continued because a different group of volunteers were running that show and they had not been affected by the storm.
Tango with Geylang Catholic Centre
After the closure of Breakthrough, we focused on the Crisis Centre, and in time this naturally expanded into a concern for the plight of domestic helpers which the GCC was then working with. My social work sentiments came rushing to the fore again as we analysed the existing problems and felt that policy and system changes were required for meaningful and effective responses to the issues raised.
Father Arotcarena who had worked extensively with the domestic helpers, their employers as well as the Ministry of Manpower felt that some of the problems were those of communication and appropriate training, while others were systemic in nature. One of the major bug-bears was the lack of a mandatory rest-day for domestic workers. Father Arotcarena and the GCC had stepped in when relationships between employers and domestic helpers deteriorated. He wanted to prepare the ground for a good relationship between prospective employers and their domestic helpers-to-be.
He built and headed an editorial team comprising a trained sociologist, an illustrator and myself. Together we discussed and laid out the issues at stake in a manuscript, and published a book called “The Maid Tangle” in June 1986. Five thousand copies of the book were printed and distributed.
I believe the book raised the ire of the government because there was now a public document of the ‘happenings’ on the ground between employers and their domestic helpers, some of which could be clearly attributed to policy weaknesses.
There was strong push-back by the government to the book, though many readers thought it was useful. But we continued doing what we thought would be good for the community. And in this we were sometimes encouraged by the response of officials at ground level who found our input and service useful in the course of their work.
The experience of working together with like-minded individuals across different service sectors and the feeling of being valued by mid-level government officials who expressed appreciation for our work despite some disagreements which were deeply rooted in social policy, taught us how to work civilly with one another and the importance of empowered civil servants.
We worked to develop a sense of listening, questioning, and tempered outrage that translated into action when we saw injustice.
It was a time when we felt we had honest engagement with the government authorities. It was a time when we felt united in one cause despite the robust disagreements we sometimes had even between ourselves.
The Beginning of the End
All these came to an end on the 21st of May 1987 when the Internal Security Department conducted an early morning island-wide swoop, arresting 22 volunteers and full-time church workers under the Internal Security Act, detaining them without the right to a trial. They came like thieves in the night and stole the feed for a growing community, starving Singapore of the contributions of meaningful and necessary civil participation for almost 2 decades.
The arrests came as a mighty surprise. Although we knew that the authorities had not been very happy with some of the work we had been doing, we had always been able to sit down, discuss and resolve differences across the table. Father Arotcarena had his own experiences (related in Priest in Geylang) which led him to suspect that something was afoot. But none expected that the Internal Security Act would be used.
The arrests put an instant damper on all our activities. The arbitrariness and randomness of the arrests led many of the volunteer leaders to scatter and some to hide. No one knew who would be next on the list. Wai Han who was pregnant with our second child then, had a pre-mature delivery because of her anxiety and anger with the sheer injustice of it all. She also suffered a severe bout of post-natal blues. I was worried that the Crisis Centre volunteers would become collateral damage, and for their safety, arbitrarily decided to disband the centre (related in 1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On)
While there was initial resistance to the government narrative from the organisations under attack, these soon faded under the hammer fist of no less a person than the prime minister himself. Even the press had to subdue their journalistic responsibilities and instincts and reported the government’s statements wholesale. The national newspaper became one whole long press release by the government.
Amidst the darkness, many resorted to quiet and small acts of resistance – all seeking proper answers and accountability as well as support for incarcerated friends. Within weeks more than 200 international organisations, including parliamentarians and US congressmen wrote officially to the Singapore government to express their concern and asked for accountability. More than 400 international organisations wrote to support the detainees. The then-Foreign Minister, S Rajaratnam admitted in Parliament that the government was shocked by the show of support from international organisations for those detained.
All for naught as the government stood firm, albeit with a bloody nose. And so ended an era of civil activism which held so much promise for Singapore’s democratic journey.
Today, we have published a series of books which documents the perspective of many survivors of those years:
- That We May Dream Again, Ethos Books, 2009, 2012
- Beyond the Blue Gate. Recollections of a Political Prisoner, Function 8 Ltd, 2010
- Smokescreens and Mirrors: Tracing the Marxist Conspiracy, Function 8 Ltd, 2012
- Priest in Geylang, Ethos Books, 2015
- 1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On, Function 8 Ltd, 2018
Today, I am still standing at the front of my primary school classroom, my cheek flushed with the sting of an unwarranted slap by a doctor who should know better. The head continues to spin and the heart cries for justice.
But this time, I am speaking.
FONG Hoe Fang and CHAN Wai Han both have printing ink on their hands since school days. Two years apart in age, they met in the Social Work Department of the University of Singapore on Bukit Timah campus in 1975 after Fong completed his national service. Neither went into direct social work practice after graduation, but they had never left their first love for looking at their society, warts and all. And still trying to make a difference through their publishing efforts.