Sunday, May 13, 2012

Remembering May 13: Breaking his silence on a day of tumult

Students marching in the streets in May 1955, with a banner reading 'Victory Parade' in Chinese. They had camped out for a week at Chung Cheng High School and The Chinese High School - both of which had been temporarily closed since May 13 that year - in defiance of the colonial government. -- PHOTOS: ST FILE, LIM CHIN JOO, SEAH KWANG PENG

Mr Lim Chin Joo (seated at table, third from left) as a student leader meeting then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock (with pipe in hand) over the students' camp-in in 1956. -- PHOTOS: ST FILE, LIM CHIN JOO, SEAH KWANG PENG

For years, retired lawyer Lim Chin Joo has been reluctant to go public on an important phase of his life - the time in the 1950s when he was involved in the Chinese middle school students' movement and was arrested for alleged pro-communist activities.
The younger brother of the late leftist trade unionist and politician Lim Chin Siong never accepted invitations to speak at forums or entertained the press for interviews.
Locked up between 1956 and 1966, he studied law while in detention, started practising in 1973 and retired in 1998.
Now 75, and president of the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a gentlemen's club for Chinese businessmen, he has deliberately stayed out of the limelight.
So many were surprised by a notice in the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao last week, saying he would be speaking today about the three years he spent at The Chinese High School between 1954 and 1956.
The Chinese High School is now part of Hwa Chong Institution. Mr Lim's talk is being jointly organised by the Confucianism Society (Singapore), South Seas Society and the Federation of Chinese Schools' Alumni.
It was Professor Tan Eng Chaw, president of the Confucianism Society and South Seas Society, an academic group, who persuaded him to talk about his turbulent student days to mark the anniversary of Singapore's May 13, 1954 incident.
That day, Chinese middle school students clashed with riot police for the first time. The group was making its way to Government House, now the Istana, to hand a petition to the governor seeking exemption from conscription.
More than 26 people were injured, including a policeman. Some 45 students were arrested after scuffles which led to a mass anti-colonial movement, a political force which helped hasten the process of Singapore obtaining self-government and independence.
'I agreed to speak on the Chinese middle school students' movement which happened more than half a century ago in response to the Government's recent call to build an inclusive society,' Mr Lim told The Sunday Times last week. 'I believe there should be no monopoly of ideas or views by any group or individual.'
In the past, he noted, there were fears that topics such as the leftist student movement were taboo. Most people, especially those involved in past events, had chosen to remain silent.
Mr Lim said he was encouraged to open up now after the recent publication of a number of books on the cause of the Chinese middle school students in the 1950s and 1960s.
They include Xiao Yao You, a collection of interviews in Chinese on the Chinese student activities between 1945 and 1965 put together by The Tangent, a bilingual civil society group, two months ago.
On reading the books, he found there were different versions of what had happened.
'I have developed the urge to offer my version too, being a participant and witness of that part of Singapore history,' he said.
In his talk today, he will speak on why he believes the May 13 incident represented 'a breakthrough in the oppressive atmosphere in Singapore following the declaration of the Emergency in 1948'.
A State of Emergency declared by the colonial government to crack down on the Malayan Communist Party and its sympathisers, which started in Malaya, was extended to Singapore in June 1948. It ended only in 1960.
The Chinese students' petition against conscription, Mr Lim pointed out, questioned openly the legitimacy of colonial rule.
In April 1954, the colonial government had announced that all males between the ages of 18 and 22 were required to register for national service. They included many over-age Chinese middle school students.
But most important of all, he said, the May 13 event brought unity between the students and workers who supported the newly formed political party, the People's Action Party (PAP), led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a young lawyer then, and leftist trade unionists such as Mr Lim's elder brother, Chin Siong, and Fong Swee Suan, who were both active in the bus workers' union.
'Without the support of the students, the trade unions and their workers, the PAP could not have swept into power so easily in the 1959 election,' he said.
Mr Lee has a similar view. In his 1998 memoir, The Singapore Story, the former prime minister said his introduction to the world of the Chinese-educated came after the May 13 incident.
It was through the students who sought his help as a lawyer to defend those charged with obstructing police during the incident that Mr Lee got to know Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan.
With their support, the PAP won over the majority Chinese-speaking working-class population and won the crucial 1959 election to form the government.
Mr Lim Chin Joo will also describe the three student camp-ins at The Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School between June 1954 and October 1956 to protest against a series of actions by the colonial government.
They included the temporary closure of both schools on the eve of the Hock Lee bus riots in May 1955, and the banning of the Singapore Chinese Middle Schools Students' Union (SCMSSU) in October 1956, barely a year after it was formed.
Mr Lim was expelled from The Chinese High after police forcibly dispersed the third camp-in on Oct 26, 1956, over the de-registration of SCMSSU. He was among 100 students expelled, ending their 16-day protest on the school grounds.
He joined the leftist General Employees' Union as a paid secretary shortly after, but was arrested by the Lim Yew Hock government for alleged Communist United Front activities in August 1957, a charge he denies to this day.
Reflecting on his eventful youth, Mr Lim said he had kept his views on that period to himself for far too long.
'Those who have witnessed the course of history have a duty to leave behind their memories,' he added.
Mr Lim Chin Joo's talk, in Mandarin, on his three years at the former The Chinese High School will be held at Hwa Chong Institution's High School Auditorium (Clock Tower Block) today at 2.30pm and 4.30pm. Admission is free