“The Mastermind of the Marxist Conspiracy”, was what Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) government called Tan Wah Piow. Wah Piow is one of Singapore’s most famous political exiles. He was elected President of the University of Singapore’s Students’ Union (USSU) in 1974. As President, Wah Piow worked for democracy and social justice. He was successful at mobilising his fellow students against injustice and exploitation of works. His outspoken and successful activism—and in particular his criticism of the PAP government’s use of detention without trial—led to his arrest in November 1974 on fraudulent charges of unlawful assembly and rioting. Despite testimony from eye-witnesses that he was nowhere near the alleged riot when it happened, Wah Piow was convicted and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. It was a frame-up. He was expelled from the University. Worse, the PAP government then sought to call him up for military service immediately upon his release. Fearing for his life if he were drafted into the military, Wah Piow went into hiding and subsequently fled to the UK in 1976, where he was granted political asylum. He later went to Balliol College, University of Oxford, to study law, and has had a very successful career as a human rights lawyer specialising in asylum and refugee cases. In 1987, following Operation Spectrum, where 22 activists were detained without trial, the PAP government sought to justify the arrests by alleging that Wah Piow was the mastermind behind a fictitious “Marxist Conspiracy” that supposedly sought to subvert the state of Singapore. No evidence has ever been produced to substantiated any of the PAP government’s allegations. Wah Piow remains in exile to this day.
On 13 November 2019, PJ Thum sat down with Wah Piow in an art gallery that is part of his London office, where Wah Piow has displayed his artwork, to talk about his childhood, his time in the University of Singapore, his activism, his fraudulent conviction and subsequent flight and exile from Singapore, all the people who helped him along the way, and his reflections on Singapore’s politics and political activism today.
PJ Thum: Hello. So we’re here with Tan Wah Piow in his office, um, or a sort of attic above his office in Shepherd’s Bush, London. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Wah Piow.
Tan Wah Piow: Thank you very much.
PJ Thum: So I thought we could begin by just talking a bit about what you’re doing here in London now. You know, in exile, I think people are very curious, um, not just about your past, but what does Tan Wah Piow do today? You know, this sort of, this, this man that the Singapore government declared to be this evil mastermind and Marxist and whatever, you know. Who is he really and what does he do?
Tan Wah Piow: Well, I was trained in architecture in Singapore, in university, and that was for four and a half years before I was thrown into prison, spit out, ended up exiled in London. And after a while went to Balliol to read law, became a barrister, and later switched to become a solicitor, which is what I am. I’ve been practicing as a solicitor – barrister and solicitor – for over, 25 years. Mainly dealing with personal law, personal law dealing with human rights, dealing with criminal law, and all sorts of problems, which people find beyond their ability to cope. That’s the services that I provide. So that’s my professional capacity. Now I’m doing less of that work, almost to the point of zero in the last two years, but I do still keep my practicing certificate and serve very specific clients which interest me.
Now, as you can see in this room, I have about two years ago decided to put some of my thinking in art form, realizing that most people don’t read. Books which are published usually end up in bookshelves. So at one time I was thinking of writing something about constitutional law and the abuse of the legal system in Singapore. But again, much of that has been written. And one of my observations is that many of those books, even those which are published by the former Solicitor General are hardly used. I mean, I’m referring to Francis Seow’s books which contains gems that can really make people think about what’s wrong in Singapore. So over one weekend I decided that , I can sum up the law Singapore, the problems with it, in my five volumes. And that is the sort things which I spent time on.
PJ Thum: Right. We’ll take photos and we’ll put them on the website so people can have a look at these, but maybe you can just tell us a little bit about this display that we’re looking at.
Tan Wah Piow: Now this display here. I have a book called Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. And what I did was to reduce the entire constitution into, I believe, 11.5 grams and that is the weight of the Singapore constitution when you shred it up and that’s what you see in the display, 11.5 grams, because it means nothing as far as the constitution is concerned in the reality of people’s rights. Then there is a volume called Law’s Companion. In a Law’s Companion. I invoke the famous saying of Lee Kuan Yew. “I will put on knuckle dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac. Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle dusters.” – Lee Kuan Yew. Now that sums up the law of today. And if we look at what happened to the Workers Party, I think they would very much sympathize with this approach [laughter].
Tan Wah Piow: So, and rights are all riddled with bullets through the book and that’s basically my thoughts about what’s going on in Singapore. And I still continue to take an interest, although returning to Singapore is a different ballgame, mainly because they have removed my citizenship. Should I ever step foot in Singapore, I was told in no uncertain terms that I would go straight to prison and upon serving whatever sentence–and technically I found out I’m still under Internet Security Act. That was 1987—They would put me in prison and upon whatever period they feel like releasing me, I will be deported back to UK. So I don’t see the point.
PJ Thum: So how old are you now, if I may ask?
Tan Wah Piow: At the last count, it was 48 but chronologically I’m 68 or 69.
PJ Thum: Well, you’re very well preserved for 68 or 69.
Tan Wah Piow: Thank you.
PJ Thum: So actually you haven’t gone very far from your roots really. ‘Cause after all these years, um, in Singapore as a student, you were fighting for rights. And then as a lawyer, you were fighting for rights, you know, human rights and migrants and asylum cases. And then you’ve got this display here talking about the law and rights. It feels like there’s a certain theme throughout your life where you’re fighting for people’s rights.
Tan Wah Piow: Yes, indeed. That is the theme and I always tell friends that well, when we come to the end of our active professional life, we might be able to live on for probably, even as long, if you’re lucky, as long as your actual working life. And instead of using the term retirement, I use the term re-invention. The irony is that in the last two years when I actively tried to reinvent myself, from being a professional lawyer, to something else or occupy my time. The more I try, the more I reinvent the more I returned to where I was, as a 24 year old because problems, not just in Singapore but in various parts of Southeast Asia have not changed. I mean, recently I was in the Philippines and I gave a talk there to students and I was talking to some of the old activists, and it looks like they are back to where they started. They tried with revolution. They tried with people’s revolution, they tried the parliamentary process and they are back to where they are. And that is the, problem, not just in Singapore, but in our part of the world.
PJ Thum: Well, you know, I guess that’s the thing about like democracy and rights. It’s a constant battle. We can never stop fighting. And the pendulum swings back and forth. For a few decades, the Philippines looked like they had restored democracy. And then now I think circumstances have, um, had the pendulum swing back towards a sort of elected dictatorship. We can never stop fighting. No matter when, where, how the price of Liberty is eternal vigilance.
Tan Wah Piow: But the question is not just the issue of rights. It’s true, lah, in Singapore where rights continue to be restricted by the government, by the regime. But there is also a question of income distribution and so on, which which are systemic economic problems. And although generally Singapore is much richer, very, very much richer than when I was [young], but there is still the inequality, which is a problem.
PJ Thum: Well, you know, you were talking earlier about how you have come back to where you are at 24, so could we maybe talk a bit about where you actually came from first. You were born in Singapore?
Tan Wah Piow: Yes, I was born in Singapore, I grew up in Singapore. I had my education started when the PAP [People’s Action Party] came to power. So theoretically I belong to that generation which should be the clones that Lee Kuan Yew wanted to see for the future of Singapore. And that was where things started to go wrong. When I was in the university, there was about what, 10 years after independence or about that time before we went university, we all had to apply for suitability certificates. So I passed that, could get into university, and fortunately I chose to do the longest course. The choice then was either medicine or architecture. I don’t think medicine suits my temperament. Then I chose architecture because it was seven years.
Tan Wah Piow: Wow. Seven years. Okay. But, okay, so, but even before that, like is there anything in your childhood, that kind of hinted that you would become this, you know, human rights activist, fighter, person, you know, standing up for the weak?
Tan Wah Piow: Well, I, my family lived in Joo Chiat. Now Joo Chiat is two areas as you go further up along Joo Chiat Place. Then there is Telok Kurau and so on where the civil servants and so on were staying. In fact, I think Lee Kuan Yew’s school was somewhere in Telok Kurau further up. Whereas my part of Joo Chiat Place is where the small hawkers, small shopkeepers, my father was a small shopkeeper. So these people who do not get any benefits from the state and uh, they have a healthy, shall I say, healthy disbelief in the establishment. And that is the kind of the attitude that people in Joo Chiat Place had at the time. The small hawkers and so on, they are always fighting against the health officers who come and raid. So, so you have that and it’s also an area of gangsters. And so on. Gangsters are basically people who are poor, young people who are poor and had nothing better to do. So growing up in that kind of environment makes you detach from the establishment. And at the same time you are skeptical. You have a healthy skepticism of whatever their establishment say. So even in my period, you hear things like the Bukit Ho Swee fire – whatever the truth, It doesn’t matter. They would all put the blame on the government as having set the fire. Now these were, these were the, the attitude that makes one feel the need to look at the truth, as one gets into universities and so on. And that is when I did my architecture. That was the formative year that allowed me to develop my thinking.
PJ Thum: Okay wait, before we get to university, I think a lot of younger Singaporeans are gonna have done a double take ask: suitability certificates? Now by the time I was growing up that had been done away with so what is the process for a suitability certificate? Now, I know the PAP introduced it to try and weed out people, they considered unsuitable for university right? And you need to have this, but what is the process actually of getting one? What was that like?
Tan Wah Piow: All I can remember is basically filling in a form and I think that basically you had to go through the screen check. It’s not an essay that you write in praise or whatever. Uh, certainly I can remember doing that, but it’s a simple process of submitting your name and then it’s whether or not you fall within the scope of coming from a questionable family background. That’s what [laughter] at the age of what 18 you given the politics of Singapore that time unless you are from a Chinese school. If you are from Nantah and so on, there would be a problem because you are likely to be involved. If you’re from Chung Cheng High School with students strikes and so on, or your brother and so on did. But in my case fortunately there was no problem. I say fortunately because in later years, if you look at the, the rubbish that they churn now in 1987, they start accusing some of my brothers of being a left-winger and so on and even named them. So probably at that time they were not in their radar.
PJ Thum: Now, how many brothers do you have?
Tan Wah Piow: I have five brothers, two sisters.
PJ Thum: Are they all in Singapore still?
Tan Wah Piow: One of them is abroad in New Zealand. But the rest are all in Singapore.
PJ Thum: So before you went to university, then there was no hint. You went to an English language school, then you didn’t go to a Chinese school.
Tan Wah Piow: Uh, no, no. English.
PJ Thum: So there’s no hint of you being “unsuitable”. So how do you go from there to in university to becoming this-
Tan Wah Piow: During, during my secondary school and the pre-university, that was the time of the Vietnam war. That was time of Vietnam war. And there was the time which made me think a great deal about what’s going round in our region. I mean, that was time of anti-war movement in the West during that period. I cannot be certain , but in later years there were the Paris student unrest and the revolution of the generation at the time was something which attracted my attention. Uh, because 1966, you have cultural revolution. So the young in the world, whether it’s the East or the West, were questioning. Questioning systems, questioning the relationship with authorities. Questioning uh, the world as dominated by the United States. So these are, these are some things which you don’t learn in school, you don’t discuss. And, and probably reading world news at that time did give me an impression that we better do something with our own lives as a young person.
PJ Thum: Singapore’s own involvement in the Vietnam War, not directly of course, but in terms of providing support to the US um, allowing them, I think to use Singapore’s port, our Naval base facilities and allowing American troops on leave to come to Singapore was very controversial at the time, if I remember correctly.
Tan Wah Piow: Oh, yes, yes indeed. There were demonstrations at the time, but that was more by the Chinese-educated. There were big demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur, I remember. And there were some demonstrations by Barisan Sosialis. And when you live in a place like Joo Chiat where the, in fact there was a PAP branch just across my house, in front of a temple. And behind that there was a Barisan Sosalis branch as well. And you see graffiti on the wall, some graffiti where the logo of Barisan and so on. And you occasionally hear of incidents of people being arrested and so on. Usually young people. When I was growing up with my brother, one of my brothers was from Chung Cheng high school. I was aware in my secondary school days that they were involved with some kind of boycott of classes and so on. And some people had to be on the run. So those were information which I had from my immediate surroundings and probably it’s all these which built up a certain perspective which I was able to take on when I went to university. So I was not, I was not living in a vacuum. Where we are, it was was a very fertile political atmosphere and in fact, behind my house was Tembeling Road and I believe there was a famous occasion where Lee Kuan Yew was there for some political rallies and he was knocked off or whatever. He was under, not physical attack, but there were struggles between the right and the left of the main political parties.
PJ Thum: Right. I see. Yeah. I think, you know, one thing that again is hard for younger Singaporeans to imagine is just how active politically we were back in the 60s and 70s, and how protesting and trying to make your voice heard the government and trying to fight for a more just society was part of the everyday sort of discourse and action.
Tan Wah Piow: Oh yes, scepticism was the norm. Yes. And that was important for me . So it was not a kind of that you indoctrinated in the school and you continue your life as someone that was pre-programmed. Joo Chiat allows one because of their environment and we are living in shop houses unlike if you are living in a 10 story flat where you, you are then disconnected from ground level and that is important.
PJ Thum: I think Tremewan talked about the dehumanizing effect of HDB, you know, barrack style housing. But anyway, that’s a different issue. And I think you mentioned graffiti, which is actually a very interesting thing. In Singapore because the inability of the left to protest the Vietnam war, because the PAP were refusing permits and arresting them. And so any open protests would get you in trouble. So they were doing things like graffiti, which then led the PAP to change the vandalism law in 1968 to criminalise not so much damaging property, but public communication of information, and then make the punishment totally disproportionate so that you’d have, was it six to eight strokes of the cane? Plus a fine. So if you read the law, it’s an incredibly overkill sort of law. Because you don’t actually need to damage public property – as Jolovan found out, he put up that sign and then there was no mark, no damage to the MRT train wall – but because it was public communication of information, he was found guilty of vandalism. And that all comes from this period you’re describing where the PAP are cracking down so much that it ends up that graffiti done in the middle of the night is one of the few ways that the left can protest.
Tan Wah Piow: And I knew about those crackdown[s] not because it’s published in the newspaper, but it came through the grapevine…. So and so’s son or daughter disappeared because they might have gone underground or whatever. Why would a young person of my age disappear? It must be that the police were after them. And that is the norm in that area. And so as you said, politics was very fertile at that time, at least in areas like Joo Chiat and similar areas.
PJ Thum: And I think also, well, last point and we can move on, but when we think about like Singapore’s great growth from, you know, the whole cliché third world to first, but really this expansion of opportunity and income and more fairness in society, and lowering of inequality, the high levels of social welfare – this all comes out of a period in Singapore history where we have all this political contestation, where we have protests, where we have democracy, where we have people fighting for social justice. And that is what really builds Singapore into, by the end of the 70s, into this high income society with a lot more social justice. The sort of Singapore that we idealise today, the politicians that we give credit for, the systems, the social welfare that created it, it all comes out pure political contestation. And yet somehow we separate them in our history and say, “Oh no, you know, all the good things we have, it’s because there was no political contestation”, which is completely ahistorical. If you look at the environment back then, it was people were fighting for social justice.
Tan Wah Piow: There were, and I remember very specifically, I think that must be 1968 or thereabout, there was about the time when they introduced the employment law and I managed to pick up some of the publications from the opposition. I think Barisan was publishing the Plebian, which is one of their mouthpieces. And there were articles about the Employment Act, or bill that they [the PAP government] were introducing and why they [Barisan Sosialis] were against it. So these were the sort of things, which interested me at the time, although there wasn’t enough opportunity to explore further.
PJ Thum: Yeah, I just looked it up while you were talking. Strikes were actually basically outlawed in 1967 and the NTUC co-opted by the PAP state. And then 1968 was the Employment Act and Industrial Relations Act, which basically removed worker protections, which had only been introduced by the PAP and the Labour Front government just a decade before.
Tan Wah Piow: Now that is where, when we go back, go back to the argument of that period. And I remember vividly where that the PAP were then arguing that we need to tighten our belts for the better future and now is the better future of yesterday. And that’s why I bring back the past to now. My argument now is why are we still talking about saving for rainy days when the benefit would be enough to entitle a working person, at least a retired person, a Swiss lifestyle. And honestly, I’ve been talking to some of the Singapore opposition. Why are they not arguing that a Swiss lifestyle is now achievable? And for me, I go, are you there? Because I go back to my experience to what I read in 1967 that those draconian laws to curb workers’ rights was for their better future. And those are the same workers who are now retired, ssome of whom unfortunately could still be working in hawker centres.
PJ Thum: Yes. Where is that? I mean, so for, until like from 59 to about 78, you know, the, the PAP is saying, “we need to tighten our belts, national development, better future.” And then they actually, in around 78, they said, you know, second industrial revolution, they said, “Oh, that future is here. We’re a high income country. We’re going to reform our economy.” And then they screwed it up so badly. We had massive recessions. The manufacturing, just the investment collapsed, foreign investment collapsed. And so by the mid-eighties, they quickly pulled back and they went back to the low wage model. And today, just a few years ago, the Prime Minister was saying, “Oh, we need to tighten our belts.” We need to, you know, “if we don’t tighten our belts and make ourselves affordable, then the foreign investment will go to other countries.” Right. And “we need to eat other people’s lunch, otherwise they will eat our lunch.” You know, so it’s become, again, it’s gone back to this very, low wage, low costs model of our economy where it somehow we’re supposed to suffer for some indeterminant future where things are better. Well, but the PAP has been in power 50 years, you know, shouldn’t things be [different]? They already declared things were better back in 1978 and then they screwed it up. And somehow they’ve successfully resold this idea that it’s not their fault, that it’s because of circumstances beyond their control. You know, in which case, why do they take credit for Singapore successes? All these contradictions.
Tan Wah Piow: I mean, even if we ignore those mistakes that they made and so on, the fact is that we have to link the reserves that we have back to 1967. These are the fruits basically of the people’s labor. They are the part is Singapore is the world capital for fencing. Fencing is a legal term for handling stolen goods.
PJ Thum: Really? I had no idea.
Tan Wah Piow: We are the centre for handling stolen goods! If you look at the economy of Indonesia, whenever they have a social upheaval and the market goes down, Singapore picks up, where would that money come from? And if the society provides such services, then why are the benefits of those not equally distributed? However sinful it might be. They are saying, we want to claw back. That is go back even to the distribution, the lack of distribution, not just of the fruits of labour. Ironically, the lack of distribution of fencing. [Laughter]
PJ Thum: In that sense, I suppose you might say we’re not that far off from the Swiss model.
Tan Wah Piow: No we’re not! In that sense, but not in the distribution. And I don’t understand why occasionally the opposition has to be on the defensive to say that, well, vote for me, to be a voice in parliament, when you can say that well, there is an alternative policy there. There is an alternative narrative as to how we want to deal with tomorrow and tomorrow is today. And that, that is still a distribution problem.
PJ Thum: This is a really interesting point, because we tend to think of, and the way the government has framed it, is that, you know, people work and their savings become CPF, and you get some interest on that, and that’s what you get at the end of your life. But you’re making a very good point that actually when we all work, we create surplus in the economy, right? Surplus capital that the government that takes away as reserves. But it was never the government making that, it was us workers creating that surplus capital. But instead of returning it to us as the fruits of our labour especially in our retirement years, they’re hoarding it as reserves, and using it for God knows what because there’s no transparency, and they’re only giving us our own savings plus a low interest rate on top of it. And nowadays you can’t even get all your CPF back.
Tan Wah Piow: Yes, and all the fruits that the we have, as reflected in the reserves, is due to that political stability, which would not be there unless the people had agreed to it. So for good behaviour [laughter]. That’s the entitlement, and that is the good behaviour that resulted in the reserves. Not because you have smart PhDs and so on who are in government. And that, that is my point – Why can’t we be more proactive towards achieving that Swiss lifestyle today, for all, if not at least for those who are in retirement.
PJ Thum: So this is since you brought it up, let’s take a slight detour. What would you do as the opposition? You’re saying this is the point that you should make to people, but do you feel like, that it’s maybe too subtle a point to communicate in an election? You look at elections around the world, they’re so direct, right? Politicians are all about promising, “this is what I can do for you today and tomorrow”. But the point you’re making, you know, could anyone in an electoral campaign really sort of make this subtle long term point about the fruits of our labour and surplus capital over the course of generations? How should opposition politicians and opposition parties-
Tan Wah Piow: It’s not a longterm point. It is that we have that much. Leong Sze Hian mentioned the figure of 1.3 trillion, I believe. He published it, I believe there was not a challenge. He mentioned the figure of 59 billion, which is just the interest on that 1.3 trillion. Now with that sort of money, one can have a slogan that actually everyone can enjoy free health service without having to make a hue and cry within the family whenever someone is unfortunate enough to contract some critical diseases. I mean, I live here and I always talk to many of my Singapore friends who probably are more well off and I, and they still worry about what happens if someone is sick, what happens if you contract [a disease]. I don’t understand why they should despair over that when say for example, whether I pay my taxes or not? I don’t have any worry should I be struck down with some critical illness. I have friends who had cancer and [inaudible]. Whether they’re well to do or not well to do, one of them ever worry about having to pay for the medication or having to pay for hospital treatment. And that is unnecessary. And I think that can be summed up in a few strong catchphrases, which are realisable, realisable within a parliament, realisable immediately. And I think that it is the fear. Singapore, PAP have built up this myth that these assets must not be touched. And why?
PJ Thum: Yeah. I mean they’re happy to touch it, you know, when they need to, like the Pioneer Generation package after the 2011 election, suddenly overnight, what was it, 8 billion? Or is it, how much was it? 8 billion withdrawn? I think it’s 8 billion we’ve drawn from our reserves to, you know, spread over four years for anyone above the age of 65. They just took this money and threw it at you know, the, the older voters. I mean, if they can do that right, well surely there’s a lot more that we can consider doing with that money, starting with some transparency at least of how much there is.
Tan Wah Piow: True. It’s that mindset that we cannot exceed the lines which are drawn by the PAP. And while they keep redrawing the lines, we just accept that, “Oh, they must know their facts”. This is a very unfortunate situation of Singapore when you have a population, which probably as what they say has a highest intelligence in the world of children and so on. And yet people are prepared just to accept policies based on myth rather than on facts.
PJ Thum: I gave a talk last night and one of the things I make, actually in every talk I make, is that because there’s no transparency, no freedom of information, that all information is classified unless specifically declassified, right? That the government only releases statistics that it wants us to see. And then international statistics come from the government as well. World Bank numbers for example, come from the Singapore government and then the Singaporean government cites will World Bank numbers as proof that it’s doing so well. Well, yeah, I mean it’s from the Singapore government, right? So we actually have no way of independently verifying so many things that the government claims. And we are so limited in what we know and how we understand it because there’s just no transparency. And this then empowers the PAP to simply set the terms of all the debates because they can just come in with a set of facts that already support their position and everyone else only can deal with those set of facts. We have no other way of knowing what is true and not true.
Tan Wah Piow: True. And for the opposition, it is the ability to identify, and I don’t think it’s difficult to identify, the squeezed middle class, the population which are squeezed and you are squeeze when you have to worry about your illness. You are squeeze if you come to the end of your professional life. And increasingly one could come to the end of one’s professional life by the time you are in the mid-forties, due to technological changes, and so on. And it’s to capture the aspirations of this group. And it is true, this group are so much subject to fear. They are subjected to the propaganda of the PAP that their insecurity makes them cling on to the PAP as though there are no other ways to relieve them of the pain, the pain of having to leave your pension years or your retirement years without a secure income to look after your health. That should never be there. Your fear that you had to look after your parents and your children, they should never be there.
PJ Thum: Yeah, you’re absolutely. Right. This has been a really interesting detour. Can we just come back-
Tan Wah Piow: Although it is a deviation, it is for me, it’s how I use my stay in the UK over the [last] few decades to be able to contribute to that process in Singapore. Because what we see in Singapore, what you guys see in Singapore as the restrictions imposed, by the government, from my personal experiences in the UK, I can say that none of these none of those constraints are necessary. And that is where the past and the future for me is intertwined. And also my period in exile.
PJ Thum: Right. Okay, so just, just one question that I’ve had actually is, you chose architecture because it was the longest course? And for no other reason?
Tan Wah Piow: That was very good reason because I mean, for some reason it never occurred to me that having a life, or to put it in another way, most people when they go to university will look in terms of career. What they look in terms of career, to find a means to support yourself and to earn good money. That is the most mercenary approach. Whereas for me, I always think that, well, that is never a consideration. That was never a consideration. I don’t come from a rich family, although university tuition fees were at that time 700 Singapore dollars, there were no student grants that we have in the UK. I was giving tuition to support myself. But I wanted to be able to remain in university for as long as possible because I need time to think about issues. To work out some solutions to problems that I see around me, although I’m not sure where to find that information, but there’s no rush for me to go to work.
PJ Thum: Right. And when you say problems around you, it’s the problems you were talking about earlier?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh, yes, yes. And don’t forget that we were only 10 years after independence, and I can sympathise, I can see issues of inequality and so on. As I mentioned, employment law, those are things that worries me. And architecture was good because, as it turned out, was good because in architecture we plan for the future. You don’t build a house for the next 10 years you build a house to be able to stand up for the next hundred years. Whatever you build, you transform the community around you. So question of high rises, and so on, as I went through my first year, then it became more interesting, more political, although I must say after my second year, given my train of thinking, I wrote to Tommy Koh to apply for a transfer to law. He accepted me but Toh Chin Chye then vetoed.
PJ Thum: What! So just to clarify, you went into university, what, ’68, ’69?
Tan Wah Piow: I think ’70 or ’71.
PJ Thum: So 5 years after separation from Malaysia. Independence from the UK was ’63, separation was ’65. So you went in around 70, right? Just after all these laws that we talked about and all these protests, Vietnam war and so on. But there was no problem with you going in, but by the end of your first year, I mean, Toh Chin Chye vetoes-
Tan Wah Piow: Second year.
PJ Thum: Second year. Does he veto because of what you’ve been up to?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh, no, no, no. The veto was on the basis that, well, we have invested in in your education, in architecture, right? It’s a kind of a mercenary approach. [Laughter]
PJ Thum: But you’ve, you’ve paid fees.
Tan Wah Piow: Oh yeah, you paid the fees, but they will argue that fees are subsidised. It’s a privilege to be there and you better stick to it.
PJ Thum: But you’re like, what, 20, 22 years old at this point. It’s not like you’re supposed to know what you want to do for the rest of your life, but yeah. Okay, I mean, I can see how he would think that way and the PAP government then would think that way. So by this time it was ’72, ’73, but are you then active in student politics already?
Tan Wah Piow: Only in architecture at the time. And we were fortunate to have a very good group of students in our year, good group of students in that somehow we have a strong concern about society. And that in a way was helped by one of our lecturers who passed away a few years ago, Thom Bing Wing. And his approach to teaching of architecture was to make everyone conscious of what you are planning for. And so a structural analysis of society was engaged. Social surveys were conducted in places like Jurong and so on. And that was how then I got involved with the workers. So the course itself provided me with the opportunity to further engage in society, and not just me personally, my class. So in the end, my class of 19 students, I think that was the biggest loss for the university. About six were deported when one way in other.
PJ Thum: Wow. But did your lecturer then get in any trouble for it then?
Tan Wah Piow: By then he left. He left earlier before we became fairly radical. Many of them then ended up in the student movement at the university main campus in Bukit Timah.
PJ Thum: Right, right. Okay. So from there you grow more active in the student politics?
Tan Wah Piow: Yes, because in my architecture school, someone probably one day will be writing a story about our years in architecture where we were involved even in the boycott of classes and so on because we were fed up with favouritism and so on practiced by some of the senior lecturers. So it was a fairly engaging time. And again, it was a fairly engaging time because intellectually architecture was going through, internationally a great deal of rethinking about people’s architecture, people’s movement, and so on. And in a very lucky way, we were able to catch on to those intellectual processes that was being experienced elsewhere.
PJ Thum: So what made you then want to run for the presidency of the student union?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh, there was an upheaval at the University of Singapore students union at the time, and all along the university student union was involved in petty, you know, end of the year ball and so on. There was an occasion where there was some, I can’t remember the details of those personal squabbles that came to the open. So some of us who were in architecture school, went to attend the emergency general meeting. Then we set up our line that the as student union, we are privileged as students. We have a duty to society. We are going to make the student union, as bastion for the struggle of democracy and sought to make it relevant to the people because we were in a privileged position. We are privileged position because we are subsidised by the tax payer. So we are giving back to society. So that was a radical call to arms. And interestingly, we got a lot of support because don’t forget at that time Singapore’s politically sterile. And before I got elected, I was then the vice president. I think Juliet Chin at the time was the acting president or the president. So, I gave a speech at the National Theatre that is somewhere in the centre of Singapore to welcome the freshies. And I represented the student union then as a vice president. That was when I first crossed swords with Toh Chin Chye. Instead of wearing a suit and tie, I wore a Batik shirt. Instead of addressing the students as ladies and gentlemen, I address them as boys and girls. Now, don’t forget, Toh Chin Chye was the Chairman of the PAP at the same time.
PJ Thum: And Chancellor of the University.
Tan Wah Piow: Chancellor of the University. He read my opening remarks as a declaration of war.
PJ Thum: [Laughter]
Tan Wah Piow: As a declaration of war because I was breaking the norm. That was very important. That was very important. After my speech, he came up to the microphone, he took off his jacket and said, that doesn’t make me your brother or your sister. And in my speech, for the first time I raised the question of political detainees.
PJ Thum: Oh, okay, woah… that’s a red line right there. [Laughter]
Tan Wah Piow: [Laughter] And that, that if you put in the context of Singapore at that time, I think that was ’73, that was 10 years after independence. 10 years.
PJ Thum: 10 years after Coldstore.
Tan Wah Piow: Yes. And nobody talks about it in the open, and it was at the National Theatre before the news came out.
PJ Thum: Wow. Oh man.
Tan Wah Piow: [Laughter] Now you understand how I continue to be demonised? By the system. And that was before I was elected as the president.
PJ Thum: Oh, I see. Wait, but then if that was before you were like the president, why were you giving the speech?
Tan Wah Piow: Because Juliet Chin was a Malaysian and she was also my classmate in architecture. And for whatever reason… But my colleagues all knew what I was going to talk about.
PJ Thum: So, you’re saying Juliet couldn’t give the speech because she was Malaysian?
Tan Wah Piow: No, no, no, no. I didn’t say that. I can’t remember the context. I am ready to stand corrected, but I think it was thought to be probably more prudent for that speech to be given by a Singaporean.
PJ Thum: Right. Yeah. Okay. So it was a speech that you co-authored with her or something?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh no, no. I wrote the speech, but my friends at architecture knew my line of thinking. So it would not be just “Hey, welcome” to them. [Laughter]
PJ Thum: Wow. And on the back of that speech and then the sort of events at the students union, you get elected president. I mean, I can assume Toh Chin Chye is not happy with that development, cause you are pledging to take the students union in a much more active radical direction.
Tan Wah Piow: We were, and my campaign slogan was something like “Think and Act”. So we were putting social content and democracy as the manifesto of our campaign. And for that reason, a whole, a good batch of people were then elected into the student council.
PJ Thum: Okay. And what did you plan to do, you know, as president? I know you didn’t last very long.
Tan Wah Piow: Oh, we didn’t last very long.
PJ Thum: What were your plans?
Tan Wah Piow: The general idea was that the student union was the only organization where we are able to advocate politically. Now, it is important to understand that we had never used the word “being political”. We could go into using the word “democracy” as our aim, and we avoid. And that is to a great extent, the semantics where we had to compromise with the constraints set by the regime. Remember Lee Kuan Yew, would always say, if you are against us, form a political party. If you want to talk about politics, join the Democratic Socialist Party. And the students union or any other organization, a civic organisation, must be constrained to very narrow limits. So for that reason, we are always living a lie. I can say after so many decades we were living a lie because yes, at least I am, I was political, political in the sense that I saw student union as the only organization where we have space, we have money because we are getting X percentage… one percent or half a percent of student fees. We even have an employee, we have an office building, we have a van. Which organization in Singapore in ’73 have that? Not the Worker’s Party, at that time. At that time a poor J.B. Jeyaratnam was a one man show. And the other politicians were all in prison. So we had that privilege. So when you ask me the question, what I wanted to do, it was basically to deepen the democratic process. How we deepened the democratic process? Very quickly I realised that although I raise the question of political detainees… We probably had organised some display. We invited one of the families of the political detainees to come to campus to give the talks. These are the intellectual part within the campus. Then we wanted to go out to the campus and one of the venture that we went out to the campus was to go to Jurong.
And Jurong was the area where I later got arrested. Because, and I was able to get to Jurong because in between, I took a gap year, where I spent a year in Jurong and I got involved with the organization called Jurong Industrial Mission, of which my wife was then the director. By the time I got to know them, the organization already came under attack because they were supported by ecumenical churches, and so on. So I spent eventually a year with them, all doing voluntary work and it would be almost equivalent to the Geylang Centre except that we were just volunteers. People like Vincent Cheng, Paul Lim, these are the names that you hear in 1987 Operation Spectrum. And they were then working with my wife, so I spent a year there before I went back to the university. And later became the president.
So with that background, I was able to use the student union as the space to help workers who then subject to a great deal of oppression by the trade union. Don’t forget, okay, economically, 1973 was also part of the world recession. When many people would were retrenched. So again, when you say, what did I want to do? Those were the things I was able to do-
PJ Thum: Organise the workers, help them fight for their rights…
Tan Wah Piow: And that is the link, that is linked to that political vacuum in Singapore, where no one else was able to do it.
PJ Thum: And yeah, I mean, as you mentioned, the trade unions were all but neutered by the end of the sixties. So who is advocating for workers?
Tan Wah Piow: And in fact what we were advocating, was to advocate workers to take over their own union. The union. And that is where Phey Yew Kok came in. So what we were advocating was to get workers to confront their own union. And we were offering our facilities at the Bukit Timah Campus campus. “You have no place to meet? Come, we’ll give you a room.”
PJ Thum: Oh, that’s ironic. I don’t know if you know about this, when the PAP started, it didn’t have any of these things [like offices] itself. So where did it meet? It met in the offices of the Singapore Factory and Shopworkers Union at Middle Road.
Tan Wah Piow: Oh yes, yes, yes. By the time I went to university, I knew already that they captured the trade union. At least my consciousness was such that I knew they had used People’s Association as part of the party institution. They have captured the state. And, and that is where I say that the trade union is the only bastion that we could use, in the same way like Philippines, universities are a sanctuary for those who are against the establishment.
PJ Thum: Okay. So then let’s come to 1974, I think it was November 1974 was it, that the events happened?
Tan Wah Piow: Yes, October.
PJ Thum: October. Could you in your own words, I guess, especially for audience who’ve never heard of any of this, tell us what happened.
Tan Wah Piow: Okay. The context was this, that at the time in ’74, there was the economic recession and so on. Factories, one of the factories, in Jurong, the American Marine factory, were retrenching the workers. The trade union, which was then PIEU, which was a controlled by the PAP, they were in cahoots with the management. One very specific issue was that the factory was paying workers with trade union vouchers issued by the trade union, PIEU.
Tan Wah Piow: That, I found out was illegal, because wages have to be paid in cash and not in kind. And this is where, how as students we are able to use our research to help the workers. So we tell the workers that, look that is the information, go to the union and confront them to say why that is so. The union fixed a meeting, we were there. So at that meeting Phey Yew Kok attended, that was I think on the 25th of October, nevermind the details. 23rd of October [N.B. the meeting was on 23 October 1974]. And we posed to Phey Yew Kok, can you explain why they are paid with treat union vouchers, which is illegal?
PJ Thum: Just to be clear, who is Phey Yew Kok?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh okay. Phey Yew Kok was the president of the Pioneers Industry Employees Union, or secretary general. He was also assistant to Devan Nair. And Phey Yew Kok was the man Lee Kuan Yew put into the trade union movement to control the Chinese speaking workers.
PJ Thum: And of course Devan Nair then was head of NTUC.
Tan Wah Piow: The head of NTUC, and Phey Yew Kok was also a PAP MP at the time. Uh, probably, yeah, he was. So we confronted Phey Yew Kok, Phey Yew Kok says come back a week later. Which was then 30th of October, at which [time] the workers all went back to the trade union. And that was when, I think there were at least about a hundred workers there. I was there, but we kept a distance away. In fact, I was advised by my colleagues and so on I should not attend. But anyway, we were a distance away. Phey Yew Kok did not turn up for that meeting. It was in day time. In the daytime he didn’t turn up. There was a big commotion in the trade union premises. Nobody knew what. A few days later I was arrested for rioting. What rioting? They then claimed that a riot took place inside trade union premises. I was charge, 2 other workers were charged. We went to court and during the trial, The Straits Times journalist told the judge that he saw me at a hawker centre at the time when he heard all the noise in the trade union. The judge said, “You lied, but I did not know why you lied”. He’s a Straits Times journalist. Two female workers were photographed coming out of the trade union immediately after the commotion. They came to court. They came to the court to say they happen to be inside the trade union for some other trade union business. Then they heard all this commotion and saw trade union leaders, including a person by the name of Lawrence Quek, overturning tables and so on. And they came out. The judge didn’t believe the two workers. We have photographs of them coming out.
PJ Thum: Right. And did they also talk about whether you were involved?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh, yes. They didn’t see me at all. They saw the riot being started, the smashing of tables.
PJ Thum: Yes. The “riot”. And they said you weren’t even there then.
Tan Wah Piow: Then we had two workers from American Marine who was supposed to be the witnesses for the prosecution. They came to court and told the judge that they were trained, they were primed to give evidence against me and the two workers. And these are people who came to court to tell the truth. So that was a biggest frame up ever. G Raman, very boldly in his book, and also in the forward to the book that we published, mentioned that it was a frame up from beginning to end. And he described it as the one of the black dots of Singapore legal, judicial history.
So why the frame up? And the frame map was that by then, we were in the student union for about three to four months. And someone higher up realised that a stop had to be put to what was happening. That’s why during the trial I had originally instructed a Queen’s Council, John Plates Mill, QC was the top British QC linked to D.N. Pritt, who was involved in the Fajar Trial. He agreed to represent me in court, but the [Senior District Judge Mr T.S.] Sinnathurayrefused, on the grounds that he must appear by Monday. And that is not how the legal system works. So fine. I represented myself. So that trial then dragged on for 47 days [11 Dec 1974 to 22 Feb 1975]. It became truly an eye opening event. I have no regret of representing myself, because without the constraints which would otherwise be imposed on lawyers, I could do more than what a lawyer could in exposing what happened throughout that process.
PJ Thum: It was a stitch up, you were going to lose anyway, no matter what you did, you might as well.
Tan Wah Piow: And that’s why when I was convicted, I congratulated Judge Sinnathuray on his future promotion. [laughter] Which actually happened. For that he threatened to put me, no, in fact, he sent me down immediately to the cell and he say he will consider me for contempt, which he did and said that, well, he wouldn’t, but he sent me to imprisonment for a year. And that was the Singapore then, and I think that is the Singapore now. Everything was a stitch up then, everything is still a stitch up now.
PJ Thum: And now of course, Phey Yew Kok quite famously was convicted in 2016 for theft was it? And then he recanted his testimony or something like that?
Tan Wah Piow: That was a few years ago. He was sentenced to, I think, three to five years. And immediately after the conviction I wrote to the Attorney-General, because when he pleaded guilty to 28 charges, the judge when sentencing him made the remark that he had over a period from 1973 to ’79, part of the allegation was that he put his finger into the trade unions pie. That he was stealing money, and yet have the audacity to get those under him to give false evidence. Now ’73 was important because that was when the material period when we were accusing him of being involved in illegal activities, of getting management to pay workers by trade union vouchers. We didn’t know that at that time he was stealing money from the trade union. And where would the trade union have money? But trade union supermarkets have money. How would those vouchers be paid back to the trade union? Money must have changed hands. And I think that that was where there was a nexus between the frame up against me and that Phey Yew Kok was the first prosecution witness against me. And unfortunately the Attorney-General in his reply basically said that Phey Yew Kok was not involved with my trial. But he was, he was a prosecution witness. He said he was not involved with the riot. That is true! On the day of the riot he was not there!
PJ Thum: Well, you might say it, the fact that he didn’t show up is probably why the riot broke out, because you know, you had some really angry workers.
Tan Wah Piow: Well, that is the the stitch up.
PJ Thum: Yeah. So you went straight to jail?
Tan Wah Piow: I went straight to jail. It was a relief because I was extremely tired by then.
PJ Thum: I can understand. I mean, I had six hours in front of Shanmugam, you had 47 days in court. I don’t know how you-, and you are representing yourself as well.
Tan Wah Piow: Oh no, no, no. But I enjoyed every minute of it. [Laughter] I was in control.
PJ Thum: So that was a year you were in jail?
Tan Wah Piow: I was in jail after remission for eight months. And while I was in prison, two things happened. One was the head of the school of architecture came to see me. And I was surprised he came with an envelope, and he says that you’re going to sit for an exam. I told him, please don’t bother to open it. I’m not going to take any exam because firstly there was actually no exam in architecture throughout seven years. Secondly, it’s that there was no pre-notice, and it was just another stitch up to ensure that could go formally expel me for the university for failing an exam. So that was one. And that followed very swiftly by a notice I was expelled from the university. Then the second was that the military came to inform me that I will enlisted for national service. I would be called up at the very hour at 8:00 AM of my release from prison. Now that clearly was unusual. And so that led to protests at the campus. They managed to secure an agreement with the military that I only need to report on the following Monday. I was supposed to be released on Friday. And on the very day of my release, I was rudely woken up from prison at 5:00 AM in the morning and told that I have to leave the prison now. [laughter] I said that I am not going to risk leaving the prison gate, and then only to be arrested for escape. Why would someone be released from prison at 5:00 AM. Why? So they insisted, and I said that in which case you have to drive me home, which they did. And after they drove me home, I got my girlfriend, who is now my wife, to come, to my home at Joo Chiat and drive me back to the prison. And why? Because the students were organising a welcome!
PJ Thum: Oh, okay. So maybe that’s what they wanted to do, they wanted to avoid that.
Tan Wah Piow: Precisely. And, one of the person who actually turned up at the prison on a motorbike was, guess who? Ho Kwon Ping. He was then still a radical. He was writing for the Far Eastern Economic Review. So that was how the way things are managed, news are managed in Singapore. They don’t want an image of me walking out of the prison. They don’t want the students, but the students, not realising, that I was out all lined up to welcome me. So at least I did not disappoint them! [Laughter] So that was that. And immediately after my release from prison, I had three days, and that was when upon advice of friends and so on, it was time for me to leave Singapore. So I went into hiding and despite how well controlled Singapore was, they were unable to track me down until eventually I surfaced in London.
PJ Thum: Okay. So you were released from prison on a Friday and you were supposed to report for NS on the Monday, but somehow in between that you got out of the country and went to the UK. Can you tell us how that happened? I can’t imagine that happening in Singapore today, but you somehow [did it].
Tan Wah Piow: Right. Okay. So I had a gap of three days to do my disappearing act. The moment I was released from prison, having returned back to the prison, then I make my way to Bukit Timah campus where a rally was organized, and I gave a talk at campus. Now that was Friday, Friday afternoon. Made arrangements to see my lawyer, G Raman, on a Sunday for some good reason. I did not turn up because I needed to go into hiding. And somehow the authorities were, however competent they claim to be, unable to track me down and I was able to [go into hiding]. At that time I was fortunate to have massive support, literally massive support in Singapore, not just among my immediate friends and so on. You have the church who were also supporting me without my knowing. Many people were arranging for me either to go to United States, to go to Australia, basically to go wherever, I wanted to seek refuge. Meanwhile, I had to go into hiding, which I did. And good friends of mine whom the government later, very much later on, arrested, at least one of them was instrumental in arranging for a hiding place in a very nice part of the neighbourhood…where was that place, it starts with ‘S’ in Singapore…. No, not Seletar. No, not Sentosa, on the mainland. Something like [inaudible] or [inaudible], somewhere in Singapore in a bungalow. No, not Siglap. [N.B. It was Sembawang].
Anyway, when I remember I’ll tell you. And so we, I was able to stay there for a good six months with my girlfriend Beng Lan at the time, staying with me. Another very good friend, the late Chng Meng Ke, who was going in and out of the house as though he, as though it was [just] a couple. So nobody in the neighbourhood knew that I was hiding there for six months. They only see daily, a gentleman, leaving the place and, Beng Lan occasionally going out to do the shopping. So the first problem was to get out of Singapore, and what’s the best way to out off Singapore except to go by boat or a small sampan. And someone arranged for that. This, very brave man, Tan Peng Lim who later had to confess and did mention that, so it’s no longer a secret. It is in the public domain. He helped with renting the property, someone arranged for sampan for me to go over to Malaysia, and from Malaysia in order to make my way, eventually to Thailand, and to leave Thailand, I need a passport. And that is where for the last donkey years, the Singapore government has been accusing me of forging a stamp on the passport. What is the stamp needs to be forged? It was that the passport need to be renewed because it had expired by then. Now I did not personally get that renewed because I was in hiding. But as I said, we had lots of friends who are either extremely creative or well-connected. So the passport was indeed extended, was indeed extended. Whether it was extended by an officer in the immigration department or it was as a result of a forged stamp, that I do not know. And there was no need for me to know because I went through the Thai airport without any problem. And having landed in Amsterdam with that passport without any problem. And even entered UK. But Singapore government did lodge a complaint to London, to the British high commissioner in Singapore that they should charge me for using a forged document. But the British said that we don’t find anything, and we have no legal problem with Mr Tan being in London. Now that is the whole point and the bankruptcy of the Singapore government. Not understanding that if someone is granted political asylum, the presumption is that that person must have left the country either surreptitiously or illegally. And having or using a forged passport itself does not constitute a crime, especially when you are fleeing the country to seek asylum. And that is the bankruptcy of the Singapore government that on various occasions had tried to extradite me and failed. Now to get one’s passport forged is not an impossible task or to forge a stamp for renewal of one’s passport is not such a great difficulty. Not too exciting or intriguing, I’m afraid.
PJ Thum: No, no, no. That is, that is really exciting because now I’m wondering who on the inside like, you know, helped you do this, right? Because we tend to think of the PAP as this monolithic, all-powerful government. But quite clearly it sounds like, at least from, from what we know and from what you know, someone on the inside who had access to the genuine stamps or chops or whatever got the passport extended.
Tan Wah Piow: That is one of their axe to grind against me, because by the fact that I was able to defy them, not just being elected president. And even when I went to the Middle Temple when I graduated from Balliol [Balliol College, Oxford], Lee Kuan Yew even wrote to the Middle Temple to object for me, for my membership of the Middle Temple. If the Middle Temple had agreed, I would not be able to join the profession is a barrister. And that is the extent of how they felt that I had defied them besides being elected president, besides going to Balliol, leaving the country, becoming a barrister. All these, as far as they are concerned, is against the norm. The norm is that if you are bad, you should be barred from all these places, and bad according to the definition.
PJ Thum: Okay. Just before we move on, just for the record, why did you choose to go into hiding and then flee the country?
Tan Wah Piow: I have to leave the country because I don’t see any possibility that I could eventually be free to live in Singapore. Even if I had served National Service, even if the fear of the students that something nasty would happen to me in the army [turned out to be misplaced], even if those were speculation, it’s clear that they will put me out of circulation. And going back to the my first narrative that at the time when I entered the university, there was a decade after the independence and having defied the expectation that people of my generation would support unreservedly the ruling party, I must be put out of circulation. And that, as you know today, was not far off the mark, those worries that I had. And I don’t see a point of remaining in Singapore if the end result is that I would be put out of circulation. By then at least I knew that there were people who were detained without trial for 10 years and I’m someone whom the government knew that I would not negotiate with them.
Tan Wah Piow: And that is manifested by the fact that throughout the period of my involvement in the persecution, they have not made any attempt to even try to persuade me or induce me with some softer option. And that is one thing that they got right about me – that they can’t get me to compromise. And to what extent they did so, a very good friend of mine – who one day probably will more openly admit – when he was at the university, he was approached to spy on me. Such was his commitment that he then decided to leave the course and fled Singapore. And what was it that they held over him? He was a Blue IC holder [i.e. a Permanent Resident, not a citizen], and they blackmailed him by using his family to blackmail him that if he did not act as a spy, then they would take action against the whole family. That’s the way Singapore works. And I didn’t get to meet him until 20 years later, but he’s now a very rich man in Malaysia without a degree!
PJ Thum: When you fled to the UK did you have any sort of plans ahead of you, like did people know you were coming? Or did you simply just, because you had been in hiding have no connections here or did your friends have already have help for you?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh, right. When I landed in London in UK, that was on the 30th of June, 1976. By then, two of my very good friends who were deported from Singapore – they were all my architecture classmates who were deported, they are Malaysians, they were deported on the day of my trial – they were in London continuing with the final year of their architecture. My case was well supported by the Malaysian students union here. So again, it was well-organised and later on I will show you a letter written by Malcolm Caldwell, when I still in prison, where he says that when I, do eventually turn up in UK, he will do his best to help. That is the degree of support that I enjoyed. And likewise, my option really was whether to end up in London, where there was a very strong student network, or in Australia where we also had a very strong solidarity network. The president of the student union in Australia, AUS, the Australian Union of students, the gentleman by the name of Neil McLean, in fact, had arranged for the student travel agency, which is a big travel agency for Australians with offices even in Kuala Lumpur, to issue me any ticket wherever I wanted to, whenever I turned out. That was the period. So I was offered a place at Monash University at the time, McGill University in Canada and Cornell, I believe, in the States. Some friends were arranging for that. And that was the degree of support that we had at the time.
PJ Thum: Why do you suppose this is? How did you get this level of support? Cause it seems quite startling to me just how much support you seem to [have had].
Tan Wah Piow: The church, who.. They [Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP government] claimed [it was] the communists who helped me and so on, I don’t deny that the communists were a political reality at the time, they exist as an organisation, and of course they would put their network to help if need be. But in fact, the most practical help was from the church who paid for my air ticket. I went to see the council of churches in Bangkok. The tickets were there for me. There was a priest by the name of Reverend, Um, [Dave Eichner], he has passed away already, he’s from Philadelphia who arranged for the air ticket for me to go to Amsterdam and London. And that was arranged by the council of churches, CAA. Bishop Yap in his later years admitted that he was involved in helping that. [Laughter] So that is the degree of support that we enjoy. Why are these people supporting me who is a non-Christian? It’s because of what we did at Singapore and the kind of help that we gave to the workers, as far as the church is concerned, fall within the remit of fighting for justice. And I mean, they see me as nothing less than just a victim of an oppressive system.
PJ Thum: Again, from someone who came of age post-1980s, I mean I was born in ’79, so I wasn’t really conscious of the events of the 80s, so by the time I became politically conscious, the church had been totally neutered in Singapore, all the churches. So to think of the churches acting this way and also based on what you’re saying, these are different denominations working together, it’s the council of churches all working together. That’s startling, amazing!
Tan Wah Piow: And one person who was helping me was Olof Palme of Sweden. He was then in a foreign ministry already, in Sweden. They had arranged a passport for me to collect at the Swedish embassy in Bangkok. But that would be to send me to Stockholm, but I had no intention to spend my exile in the cold. But I later on went over to thank them. All these people are linked one way or another with the church, including the world council of churches, and that is why at later days in 1987, part of the target was the church. Because of the networking. And this is where today they are talking about foreign intervention. Do you call this foreign intervention or expression of solidarity? [Laughter]
PJ Thum: I mean the whole foreign intervention thing is a lot of hypocrisy by the government, because if you side with the government, they are happy for foreigners to intervene, right? What is foreign investment but foreign intervention, especially when the Prime Minister says, “Oh, we must tighten our belts, or foreigners won’t want to come and invest in Singapore.” I mean, we’re supposed to have lower living standards so that foreigners can make more money? That doesn’t make any sense.
Tan Wah Piow: As far as they are concerned, in my case, it also demonstrates the danger of an independent church that will live up to their moral tenets that give solidarity to people. After my arrest and during the trial, some churches were talking that people should not make false witness to your neighbour. And in that congregation was one Edwin Netto who was a prosecution witness from the trade union. [Laughter] So that connection, in terms of why they were picking on the church and why they continue to do so is because the ruling party has the monopoly of control over space and over the propaganda machinery, and they must ensure that every little institution, having captured the state, all other independent institutions has to be under their immediate control if not under immediate threat of being closed.
PJ Thum: Okay. So you end up in the UK, and then what brought you to Oxford and Balliol?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh, I was helping out with the student movement here, Malaysians, Singaporeans. I had lots of support among Malaysians and why? Why were there lots of support for me among Malaysians? In fact Lee Kuan Yew in one of his speeches said that for every one supporter I have in Singapore, I have seven supporters in Malaysia. And that is not without reason because during the period of my trial, what happened in court was very well reported, not just in the Straits Times to be fair, but also in the Chinese papers in Malaysia. And at least I know of some who were politicised over the 47 day period through reading the the verbatim transcript of what happened as published in the newspaper. And one of them today is quite an important community leader who came to study in London subsequently. And that was how he became a student activist, after going through and reading my transcript in Malaysia when he was doing his ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. And that commonality of social experiences between Singaporeans and Malaysians, because we have the same legal system and so on, whatever oppression happens in one part of Malaysia or in Singapore is very much reflected also in their own system. So that identification was there. So for the early period of my exile, I was involved in some publishing business. I set up a type setting company, and that was quite a good time because it was an interface period between typeface printing, the old type, and the emergence of personal computers. So there was that period where anyone who can produce a typeset work on this modern machine that costs quite a bit of money, then you can earn a fairly good living. So I managed to go into that market for quite a few years before deciding after the birth of my son in 1983 where I thought, yeah, it’s time for me to go back to my studies. I always wanted to be a lawyer. So I was just picking up from what I wanted to be in 1973.
PJ Thum: Oh, okay. So you went up to Balliol in ’83? Oh, okay. I didn’t realize that you had worked in that gap between arriving in the UK and going to Balliol.
Tan Wah Piow: But I was working on my own, I set up a company.
PJ Thum: When did Beng Lan come and join you?
Tan Wah Piow: We left at the same time, but she was able to travel with her own passport [laughter], but yeah she managed to evade their radar.
PJ Thum: So after getting the law degree then that’s basically when you-
Tan Wah Piow: I joined the bar, went to the Middle Temple, and then because of one particular case where I managed to prevent a Chinese person from being returned to Switzerland where I argued that Switzerland was a not safe country for asylum seekers, I became very famous among lots of Chinese asylum seekers. And it came to a point where there are so many clients that I needed to leave the bar to become a Solicitor, because of the legal profession that you cannot have direct access to a Barrister.
PJ Thum: So since then, have you continued to be active in activism in trying to change Singapore?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh, only occasional talks, and I probably have met more opposition activists or leaders then an average Singaporean while I’m in exile because London is the centre of things. Before we end the interview, one of the interesting points that most people do not realize is that most people might have heard that they’ve been demonising me as a rioter, student union leader, the Marxist conspiracy, and so on. And at one point of time Rajaratnam mentioned and I couldn’t now put my finger on where it was published, either in the Straits Times or Far Eastern Economic Review, but he had a long rambling interview during which he accused me as being an agent for the Communist Party, the Japanese Red Army, KGB, MI6, CIA, a whole load of agencies. And there is nothing that would stop them from demonising someone that they are against, whether it’s true or not.
PJ Thum: Yes, yes. Well, you don’t need to tell me. [Laughter] Okay, what’s next for you? Like you’re retired now, mostly from your legal work. What do you plan to do?
Tan Wah Piow: I do still take a great interest in what happens in Singapore. And whenever possible do meet up with friends or younger activists because many of them have this ideological gap between an aspiration to write what is wrong in Singapore and the ability to analyse the situation. Because of the Facebook generation, many of them perceive activism is at the level of the keyboard. And they pick on issues which sound critical of the government, because it’s convenient at times to criticise, but at times when it is not really right to do so. I’ll give an example of a well-known activist who at one time was criticising government on the basis that they have taken on too many foreign workers. It’s only through her subsequent involvement with people abroad that she realised that vulgar criticism based on xenophobia was wrong. Now, where would a person of that generation acquire your basic analytical skill? And not necessarily would a student of political science have that analytical skill as well, things like a world view and so on. So these are gaps. These are ideological gaps that especially important for Singapore activists. And there are times when I do have the opportunity to speak to them, especially at length, it offers that opportunity to not so much provide them with a tool of analysis, but to direct them to what they ought to know. To know what you do not know is very important. And that is that I find it very lacking among Singaporeans or for that matter among many activities in our area. And I do of late take more interest in Southeast Asia and hence I was involved for a very short period in helping with the organisation to develop democratic solidarity in the region.
PJ Thum: One question I actually get a lot from Singapore is what advice I would have for them as people who want to create change, positive change in the country, but feel helpless and frustrated? And they don’t see how the system allows them to do anything cause the moment you stand up and try and say something, the government stomps down on you. So would you have any advice for younger Singaporeans, or any Singaporean really, who wants to create change but is fearful?
Tan Wah Piow: What I find useful is having a group of like-minded friends to discuss and to analyse. I started my political life in that manner. On my own I could have all sorts of ideas which may or may not be right, and on your own you’re not able to effect any real change unless there is an organisation. And the magic number is always seven. Why seven? Well first you need an odd number, and three is too small to accommodate differences in ideas, and you can have also personality problems that come to clash and the whole group will break up. Seven is just an easy number, a right number of people to sit down anywhere around a table to trash out ideas. And that is why you have the magnificent seven, the seven samurai. There must be a reason behind this! [Laughter] It’s true!
PJ Thum: I mean, from my own experience starting New Naratif, I can understand what you mean by needing a certain number of people, and seven being a good number, and yeah, I see your point there.
Tan Wah Piow: It’s easy to get a table in the restaurant! But the important thing is having a group. That is where they are always afraid – if you are organised, if you have numbers. I mean, I knew JB Jeyaratnam even in my university days, knew of him, but never met him and never had a really working relationship. But in later years when I analyse him, he was very effective opposition leader, but he lacks that seven. And that is where we will end up having that same problem, if everyone who has some critical ideas and acts just on his own as a hero. I was never some of my acts may appear heroic, but I was never alone in any phase of my life. Be it from the point of time when I went to Jurong, I have Beng Lan, I have Vincent Cheng, I have Paul Lim, and one or two other people. We were able to discuss. When I was at university, of course, and when I came to England, again, there’s always a group around me and I always ensured that actions are not an individual heroic act. It’s not an ego trip. And unfortunately with social media and so on, we have that problem of activists perceiving themselves as an institution. And I think we have too many of them! [Laughter]
PJ Thum: I think that’s why they also de facto ban New Naratif by denying our registration, because what they afraid of was not us acting individually but the fact that we were trying to build an organisation with a clear manifesto, platform for action that would organise people. We had some success with the Select Committee organising people through democracy classrooms to submit to the Select committee, just give their views. So I think you’re right.
Tan Wah Piow: And for that matter, that is the essence of Operation Spectrum. That is the essence of why they needed to crack down on the student union. That is the reason why you have February 2nd.
PJ Thum: Which for our audience is the anniversary of Coldstore, if you’re wondering.
You got a lot of attention from your appearance in Pin Pin’s movie. It seems really, that a lot of people felt it was really tragic that so many people who love Singapore simply cannot go home anymore. And you had that evocative image of Juan Thai staying on the beach in J.B. looking across to Singapore very sadly. Would you like to go home?
Tan Wah Piow: Oh yes! I mean, that’s my right, to go back. Yes. But not by way of any compromise. And if you look at that picture, that is a copy of UN travel document as a refugee with the words “valid for all countries except Singapore”. [Laughter].
PJ Thum: So all three of them are UN travel documents?
Tan Wah Piow: Yes. Different periods. And one of the control system in Singapore is that as a foreigner, all foreigners are entitled to enter one way or another for a period of two weeks or whatever. But there is a proviso – unless you are born in Singapore. So theoretically, if you are born in Singapore, and you’re holding a foreign passport, theoretically you can be denied entry, unlike a foreigner who has no link to Singapore.
PJ Thum: Huh. I didn’t know that. Man. That is insidious. You can’t control where you’re born, it’s not even something that you had any choice over, so that’s really unfair. You know, I didn’t choose to be born in Singapore as much as I love Singapore – Singapore is my home, my family’s there. I wanna fight for it. But I didn’t actually choose to be born there.
Tan Wah Piow: But if you look at Singapore laws, all laws are written in such a way, even commercial laws and so on, with small little provisos in case they intend to use it politically against anyone. That applies to, I’m sure, the fake news law all the other laws.
PJ Thum: Yeah. One of those provisos is simply exempting the government from its own laws, which I think is crazy because it undermines the rule of law. The privacy, you know, Personal Data Protection [Act] or whatever it’s called does not apply to the government. Fake news law, you know, all these laws don’t apply to the government. How can we have rule of law if the government itself is not bound by the laws. That makes no sense to me. But that’s how it is now. And I think Edwin Tong stood up in the government-
Tan Wah Piow: There you see my image, and the rule of law is in prison.
PJ Thum: So thank you very much, Wah Piow, from one man who has been accused by the Singapore government of being a foreign agent to another man who has been accused by the Singapore government being a foreign agent. Let me say thank you for being on our podcast today, and thank you for this interview and thank you for your time.
Tan Wah Piow: Thank you very much PJ, and all the best to [New] Naratif and to your future work.
If you’d like to learn more about Wah Piow’s story, you can read “Escape from the Lion’s Paw“, a book with stories of five Singaporean political exiles.
Thum Ping Tjin
Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and founding director of Project Southeast Asia, an interdisciplinary research centre on Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). He is creator of “The History of Singapore” podcast, available on iTunes. Reach him at email@example.com.