Hope of a Better Age

Picture of Faith Ho

Faith Ho

Faith Ho is a Singaporean and university student in the US. Besides writing, she enjoys taking photos, making films, playing music, wandering aimlessly, and dreaming of hawker food.

In this moving story, Faith Ho imagines the tumultuous events of the 50s from the perspective of Wong Chui Wan. Much more than Lim Chin Siong’s wife, Wong was an activist and a trade unionist at a time when “they [were] writing themselves into being.”

“Mata lai liao! Mata lai liao!”

Shouts come from the back of the open space at Beauty World. Murmurs break out in the crowd, and she feels them pulsate urgently around her. This whole space is young, and yet it already feels familiar. On stage, Lim Chin Siong’s speech continues, urgently denouncing the current Chief Minister of Singapore. The crowd is halfway to a frenzy, loudly crying out against Lim Yew Hock. It’s funny to her, how both men share the same surname. She whispers that to her friend, who frowns.

“How can you say that, Chui Wan? You know how much Lim Yew Hock is just a British lackey! He’s no real leader of ours. He doesn’t care about Singapore, unlike Chin Siong.”

Chui Wan is less interested in the people than she is in change. The atmosphere is electric here, but the current started in her blood. She doesn’t know when she became politically aware, perhaps during the Japanese Occupation when the British hadn’t defended them, or afterwards, when they came back with their heads held high in unjustified superiority. Perhaps it’s the absurdity of being subject to a people far away who mine the country for economic gain, who trample on the rights of workers, who refuse the people their own say. And perhaps it’s the thrill of even having the possibility of change. The power to change the fate of their country.

Tonight, she feels poised on the precipice of transformation.

On stage, the harsh lighting makes the leaders of the movement look ghostly, ephemeral. Some faces she recognises: Lee Kuan Yew, Fong Swee Suan, Dominic Puthucheary, and of course, Lim Chin Siong. Serious features and neat hair; a smile that peeks out when it emphasises his point. At just twenty-three, he’s already a conductor of the opera. The crowd hangs onto his every word, yelling their approval in response to his proclamations. His voice crescendos, echoing against the zinc roof. He could have been speaking to just her, even as he speaks to everyone.

The shouts about the police that start at the back of the crowd ripple through to where he stands. He pauses for a moment as the steady murmur of the crowd grows. It’s as if he’s waiting, waiting for just the moment before it erupts. She twists to see the signature short pants of the police and their batons ready at their sides. Lee Kuan Yew discusses something with a man she doesn’t recognise, and Fong Swee Suan says something to Lim Chin Siong, who doesn’t respond. She can’t hear any of their whispers. From where she stands, they look like mimes acting in a play that no one’s directing.

Except then Lim Chin Siong speaks, his voice carrying effortlessly to even the people standing at the edges, “With regard to police… they are all wage-earners and they are all here to attend this meeting to oppose Lim Yew Hock.”

At the mention of the enemy, the crowd roars. Chui Wan thinks of the continued hold the British have on Singapore. She thinks of the false promises, one after another, to give the people power. What have they given? Beatings and arrests just last year in the Hock Lee bus strikes. The strikers got their demands, but at what cost? How much more will they have to pay?

“We gladly welcome them, and the more of them that attend will make us even stronger.”

She shuts her mind to the images of blood, of the student paraded around for hours during the riots, the fear as things went out of hand, protestors buoyed by Lim’s encouragement to not back down and the increasingly brutal police action supported by the other Lim’s refusal to budge. She thinks about the cause they’re serving, trampling down her uneasiness at the violence en route. But two can play the game, and without action, there is no change. She remembers when she got home, after running away from the police and getting onto a bus to return to Tampines, her parents were listening to the radio. They got up wordlessly and hugged her, but she could barely feel their touch, her every nerve tingling.

“A lot of people don’t want to shout Merdeka! They want to shout ‘pah mata’. This is wrong. We want to ask them to cooperate with us because they are also wage-earners and so that in the time of crisis they will take their guns and run away.”

The crowd roars, and she joins in. In that moment, she is absorbed into this singular, electric, bloodstream. A single heartbeat.

* * *

After work and on weekends she heads to Middle Road, where she’s a volunteer secretary with the trade union. They are writing themselves into being. Her days are spent talking to workers in different unions, writing up letters of demands and note taking in the rare meetings with business owners, some who flick their eyes over her with that disdainful mental disrobing that makes her skin crawl. Still she marches on, fuelled by the mission, fuelled by the team.

And yet she knows the movement is fractured. There is a political split between the Barisan Socialis and People’s Action Party. And increasingly there’s talk of merger with Malaya, but on terms unequal to Singapore…. As she prints the latest batch of posters about the upcoming combined trade union meeting, she tries to quell the uneasiness that rises like a wave through her throat. When she looks up, she’s startled to see Chin Siong standing at the door frame.

“Dinner tonight?” he says. She smiles. “Let me finish printing these out. Dominic says we’ve got to have them ready by tomorrow.”

She was hesitant at first about going out with him, having only known him as that charismatic speaker on stage. She was always distrustful of his magnetism, even as she acknowledged his contribution and centrality to the cause. But they were in the same trade union, and they began to work on projects together. Then they were friends. And then he asked her out for lunch, then dinner, and another, and another.

Over prawn mee, he talks about the political movements. Having covered the topics of their families and childhoods, they talk endlessly about their burning hopes for the future.

“I’ve been invited to speak to a revolutionary leader in Brunei,” he says. “I think I should talk to him. We must support each other, our movements.”

She nods slowly, thinking. “Be careful, Chee Siong. Anything you do now can be used against you, again.”

She remembers his arrest after the rally at Beauty World. The detention for three years, the way he came out even more on fire, but also quieter.

He sighs and looks down. “I don’t want to go back to jail,” he says, staring at the noodles that curve like snakes in his soup.

Her laughter seems to startle him. “Of course,” she says. “Who wants to?”

A smile slips out of him. “Would you, if it comes down to it?” he asks seriously.

Fading curls of steam rise from her noodles, obscuring part of his face from her. But his eyes, intense as always, cut into her. She shrugs, afraid to talk about her convictions, afraid that when—if—it comes down to it, she will falter.

Instead, she asks, “Isn’t the struggle worth it?”

“Of course.”

“But do individual actions matter? What can we do, behind bars? These forces are too powerful.”

Chin Siong’s face hardens, his eyebrows knitting together. “We have to believe it matters,” he says eventually. “Someone has to fight. If no one believes that, then nothing happens.”

“They know you,” she says. “But who will remember me?”

“I will,” he says. “The people will. What you do matters.” Then he reaches out across the table and places his hands in hers.

“Marry me,” he says, in a tone she can only take as urgent. “You’ll wait for me, won’t you, if anything….?” He doesn’t finish the thought.

She smiles. “Only if you will, too.” She’s already made up her mind.

Through the veil of steam from the noodles, his gaze seems to pierce into, then through, her.

* * *

Some weeks later, she is in bed when the knocks come. She bolts upright, always in an uneasy sleep nowadays. She searches for the light switch and finds it. The clock says three a.m.

She’s not even surprised when she opens the door to see the police standing there. Her first thought is not a thought, but fear. Have they gotten him too? She thinks about lunging back to her room, locking the door and calling her friends to warn them. But there is no time.

“What have I done?” she asks, but the police don’t respond. “I haven’t done anything.”

She wants to say more, but remembers that anything she says can be used against her, and swallows her words. She’ll wait for a lawyer—they have to give her that at least. Is this how he felt, when he was first arrested? No, not the first time, but the only time; and she knows she’s deluding herself. She thinks back to his speech those years ago, about the police as friends, Lim Yew Hock as enemy. It isn’t Lim this time, but who is it? Lee?

In her confusion she surrenders to the handcuffs, and is led out into the darkness.

In the cell, she can’t tell whether it’s day or night. She lives near Changi, but she has never thought that she would end up in this part of it. She sits on the narrow bed, thoughts shouting each other down until she can’t think at all.

The lightbulb flickers. She shivers, but whether from the cold or the oppression of these walls she’s not sure. Sitting very still, she can hear footsteps echoing down the hallway outside. Imagining the police with their batons and handcuffs, she shivers again.

It’s a month before they let a lawyer speak to her. She counts the days by digging a fingernail into the wall to mark the passage of time. They’re not allowed any contact with others, but from what she’s heard she knows that Fong Swee Suan is here, as is Dominic Puthucheary, and a number of other names. Linda Chen is there too, the only female name she’s heard. And of course, Chin Siong. She hears his name in the corridor, even when no one is speaking.

She hears all their names, constantly—people she used to talk to every day. Now she talks to no one. She wonders if she’s going crazy or whether the walls truly echo the names, pulsating resentfully against the fact of this imprisonment. There are no writing instruments allowed, no books; after the third day she asked for one and they brought her a bible. It sits at the edge of the bed, unopened. If there is a god, she wouldn’t be here. Or perhaps he’s trying to teach her something. What it is, she doesn’t know; or perhaps she doesn’t want to know.

She learns to hold her pee for as long as possible. Her chamber pot is put in the cell from six p.m. to midnight, and she has learnt to dull her senses.

She learns boredom, anxiety, boredom. Any distraction is better than the endless wait: not being sure what she’s waiting for, not being sure what’s to become of any of her friends, of Chin Siong, of herself. Or even of her family; will they be in trouble, now that they’re implicated through her? She utters a silent apology. She learns to stifle the voice inside that screams and breaks out into panic, learns to press her growing nails into the wall to mark another day that she’s still alive, still there. She’s not sure if it’s an achievement or a failure.

She learns to stop asking. Stop asking the guards when she will be let out, what she did wrong, whether she can get a lawyer, where the trial is. She learns some answers—there is no trial, and this is perfectly legal. More importantly, she stops asking herself questions to stop spinning in endless loops, a snake eating its own tail until it is nothing.

When she gets to see the lawyer, he tells her facts that are beyond what she imagines. On the same day, a hundred and thirteen people were detained without trial. That’s not possible, she wants to say. None of them are violent insurgents. They aren’t national threats. Even though she knows, has known for a long time, that’s what they’re seen as.

It isn’t true, she wants to say. And the people—at the rallies, at the strikes, the workers she talks to who tell her about their problems—they know it isn’t true. Don’t they? But the walls swallow her protests, don’t even register them, blank and unfeeling.

The lawyer tells her that she will have to serve a mandatory term in jail, but will eventually be let out if she signs a document renouncing her political beliefs and the organisations she’s involved in. I’m in the workers’ union, she wants to say. I work for the people. She asks about Chin Siong instead, trying to delay having to move her shaking hands. The lawyer tells her that they offered him exile. Then he tells her that Chin Siong refused, and wanted to serve out his term in jail instead.

She lets out a shaky breath she didn’t know she was holding, and then feels guilty, and conflicted. And upset. Which is better, for him to be free, or behind bars? Why was he the only one to get that choice?

She thinks of the question he asked her, over the prawn noodles. She is answering him now. She looks at the lawyer, and tells him that even when her term is up, she won’t renounce her beliefs. She’s unjustly jailed. He shakes his head, gives her a wan smile. A human breaking through the facade.

“It’s your decision,” he says. “You can change your mind.”

She doesn’t. Not for many years.

Life never becomes easy. The days get harder, and the longer she is in there the more an alien she feels to herself. Some days when she looks at the reflection in the water she washes her hands in she can’t recognise the face looking back at her. But it becomes familiar.

They transfer her to a women’s prison after a while, where she has cellmates. They talk about their lives and how they ended up there. Her cellmate, Li, shakes her head when she learns about Chui Wan’s story.

“You should just sign the renouncement, you know.” Li doesn’t understand; and to be honest, neither does she really, at this point. “You have family waiting for you. And what’s the point? It’s just politics. You have a life. Maybe you’ll understand when you have kids.”

She’s exchanged covert letters with Chin Siong at this point. She sends them out through visiting friends who keep their heads down. They refused at first, scared of the arrests, and then gradually acquiesced. The letters were passed to Chin Siong, who sent them the same way back. She’s sure that they check the mail, so she signs with another name.

Chin Siong’s words, divorced from the person, feel fragile, stifled. They become reduced to mere skeletal images. He tries to be positive, but she can feel how forced it is because her words are the same. It becomes increasingly hard for him to pretend, and in the spaces between the spindly words she can read a gradual admittance of defeat.

“They want me to abandon my integrity,” he writes. “They strip me of it until I can no longer hold my head up. I cannot face the others anymore.”

“I will follow you,” she says. “If you go, I will, too. If you stay, so will I.” She’s not sure what compels her to write that; she loves him, believes in him. Believing in him is how she can keep believing in herself.

“We must remember why.” She doesn’t know the answer anymore.

He writes about alternative futures. What ifs. She plays them in her head, spinning one after the other. He writes, “They told me I could choose to be exiled instead.” In faltering script, “I almost said yes.”

There is no shame in that, she wants to tell him. She almost said yes, too. What good is their long imprisonment, hidden from the eyes of the public? No one knows. Theirs is a silent protest, obscured, yet still viewed as a threat.

“I did it also because I couldn’t stand to leave Singapore. But this is not home, either.”

She writes back, “We can go to the UK.” It’s ironic, nationalists seeking refuge with the colonisers. She adds, “They won’t be able to say our names.”

He writes back, “They can call me George. I’ll become a student again, and I won’t get expelled this time.”

She laughs a little at that, plays the scenes out in her head. Chin Siong—no, George—is at his desk, colonised by law papers and knickknacks from their life together. He’s just come back from the grocers’ where he works part-time. They’re trying to save up. She slides silently into the seat next to him, and he leans his head against her shoulder, pressing his palms against her belly, swelling against the fabric of her dress. She holds a letter from home, tearing out the letter from her parents, tightly packed words in her sister’s slanted script.

The warmth of George’s palm suddenly feels cold; she’s sad, perhaps? Or homesick? Perhaps she’s thinking of Singapore. Perhaps she’s thinking of her new home.

She feels nothing.

* * *

The news breaks in mid-afternoon. He’s in the hospital, with dangerously high blood pressure. News comes in precious small drops. They don’t know she’s engaged to him. She asks to see him, again and again, but they refuse her request. She is a prisoner, after all.

Then the next day they tell her: he jumped.

She doesn’t comprehend it. Jump? Suddenly she is immobile. The words don’t make sense. She translates it into Chinese, back into English, turns it around and around in her head. People jump all the time. She jumps, just to feel something. It’s only when her feet make contact again with the ground that it occurs to her.

“Is he alive?” She’s sure it’s a joke.

But the guard shakes his head. “No,” he says, for cruel, cruel emphasis.

Li comes over, wraps her arm around her shoulders. She can’t feel the arm, can’t feel warmth, can’t feel anything.

Instead, she stands up. “Thank you for telling me,” she says stiffly.

The guard nods. He retreats, but she sees him looking through the window in the door back at her, as if afraid she’ll do something while his back is turned.

She is too exhausted to do anything. With the news, all her energy is sapped. As she thinks, she wonders what she’s lost. Chin Siong was already a ghost.

She thinks back to that day on the stage, him alive and conducting the crowds, in one man a multitude. Now he is not even a man, just a corpse. She’s filled with an overwhelming need to see him, to prove to herself not just that he is now dead, but that he was alive at all.

The man, the myth. For a brief moment, she wonders if the letters were real. She fishes them out from under the bed, pausing over the familiar script, increasingly skeletal to the point of disappearance. She doesn’t cry.

News trickles into the cell, despite efforts to isolate her from the world outside. She grabs onto anything she learns, trying to place the grains of sand together to form a picture. There are some demonstrations, she hears, unrest on the streets. People demand answers.

A girl is brought into their cell. She can’t be more than a teenager. She plies the girl for answers, and she’s more than happy to share. She tells them how after the news of Lim Chin Siong’s death broke, some people organised a demonstration to call for an inquiry into his detention. There was a large vigil, carefully guarded by the police, and peaceful demonstrations on the streets. David Marshall penned some words of condolence, but stopped short of criticising the circumstances of the jailing. Silence from the ruling party.

The girl had been part of a protest, and when the police came to quell it, scuffles broke out and beatings ensued. There was chaos for a while, and after some peace had been restored, she was arrested for being part of it. She had carried a banner and marched. Singapore is independent, but imperfect.

With a proud and determined face, the girl says, “I’m willing to stay here, I have to show that we’re not afraid, that we need to have a say in what our country does.”

Linda leans forward. “Aren’t people afraid?”

A flicker of unease crosses the girl’s face. “Ye-es,” she admits hesitantly, “But this is our chance, we need to prove that we won’t just stand for things we don’t agree with.”

Chui Wan merely smiles. Perhaps she was like this girl once, but she’s changed. Once, she would never have forgiven herself for changing, but now she merely accepts it. She doesn’t tell the girl of her relationship to Chin Siong. Instead, she says, “I’m not sure it’s worth it.”

Affronted, the girl counters, “Well, what are you here for? How long?”

“I’ve been here seven years, but I’m going,” she responds only to the second question. It’s too much to explain. She’s tired of playing a game with rules set by someone else.

The next day she calls for a lawyer. It is a different one; she still remembers the look of mingled pity and respect on the first one’s face.

“I want to go.” It’s true, and it’s the biggest lie she’s ever told.

This one nods, face inscrutable.

She writes the denunciation of her political action, agrees to exile, agrees to being stripped of her citizenship. She sees her parents and sister one last time, uses whatever savings she has and a bit from her parents, and gets onto the plane. Her legs are cramped into her seat, but she’s used to discomfort.

Through the window, she marvels at the unfinished city that stretches into the horizon, mourns that she cannot be there to build it. She thinks about Chin Siong, about the life they could have had. She closes her eyes. For a brief moment she imagines that he’s there, across the ocean, waiting for her.

Beneath her, Singapore drops away.

* * *

Note: “Hope of a Better Age” is the motto of Raffles Institution (originally in Latin, “Auspicium Melioris Aevi”), a school in Singapore and the alma mater of the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a colleague-turned-political rival of Lim Chin Siong.

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