Setia Dan Bakti, or, Loyalty and Service

Picture of Salil Tripathi

Salil Tripathi

Salil Tripathi is a New York-based, Bombay-born award-winning journalist and the author of three works of non-fiction. His next book is about Gujaratis, out in late 2024. From 1991-1999 he was a correspondent in Singapore for, among others, Far Eastern Economic Review. He is working on a novel set in Singapore.

The representative of law and order comes to life in Salil Tripathi’s story. “Was Chin Siong trying to create solidarity between the people and the police to rise up against the government?” Senior Inspector Tan Kim Wah has to decide what to write in his report to his superiors.

“Has he said anything yet?” the senior officer asked, pacing across his office, blowing another cloud of clove-filled smoke from the haul of kretek he had confiscated from the Javanese smuggler two weeks ago. The room was clean and sparse, and the officer’s clear desk showed he was a meticulous man who set an example for his subordinates. He liked to punish havildars if their shoelaces were loose or their beard not trimmed; he’d show some leniency only to the two Sikhs whom he could rely on to get confessions from even the most hardened criminals because they knew how to take off fingernails. And if the prisoners were stubborn and hadn’t screamed yet, they were willing to remove the toenails too. They concentrated on their task as if they were surgeons performing their duty.

Senior Inspector Tan Kim Wah was acutely conscious how difficult this case was going to be. He was among the first Chinese to be promoted as an officer by the colonial administrators, who were struggling to re-establish authority over the Malay peninsula, after defeating the Japanese in 1945.

The British had returned to Singapore, true. But it was not like it had been in the pre-war times. Kim Wah often thought about it as he watched his superiors, who seemed less assertive and more willing to listen, as if their humiliating defeat had chastened them. He could see it in their walk, less strident, slightly lethargic; their tone softer. Kim Wah remembered the day their battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by the Nakajima fighter planes of the Dainippon Teikoku Rikugun Kokubutai. It was as though two star batsmen were clean bowled in the first over of a test match. Their impregnable fortress, Singapore, had been broken into by men wearing half-pants on bicycles. Syonan-to, they called this place. Kim Wah grimaced. And there were the Kempeitai. He shivered inadvertently recalling that name, merely thinking of that name. Still, the British were back in charge now, with their law and language.

Kim Wah spoke excellent English and consciously tried to avoid the lors and lahs when he was among ang mohs. He was respectful of authorities, seemed to be the man for the job. His superintendent, Colin Armitage-Jones, took to him and was fond of him, and promoted him to lead his own investigative unit. Kim Wah had already earned praise for laying a trap to arrest the members of two secret societies which had spread menacing fear in Tiong Bahru. Usurious Indian money-lenders shivered and gasped when they heard Kim Wah was headed for their shops and quickly changed the rates on their chalkboards. They offered him sugary teh tarek in the hope that he was in a good mood and would not inspect their books and find out about the betting syndicates they ran for the weekend horse-races. The Malay gangs had surrendered their parangs. Even the Chinese opium dens had begun to shut down.

But this young man in white was a different matter. Lim Chin Siong, he said his name was, the son of Lim Teng Geok. The Japanese occupation had interrupted his education, but god knows where he had picked up his rebellious ideas! When he was still in his teens he had organized an exam boycott at the Chinese High. He sang songs such as The East is Red. Kim Wah was convinced Chin Siong was a Communist.

It was one thing to get rid of the pink from the map, but why replace it with red? Red was the colour of blood, and the Chinese had seen far too much blood in the past few decades–in China itself, and then in Singapore and Penang, where the Japanese erected masts topped with the severed heads of traitors as warnings to the Chinese to obey and comply. We need heroines like Elizabeth Choy, not muddle-headed, opinionated fellow travellers like these Communists who want to turn Malaya red, like this Chin Siong chap.

But there was one problem: Chin Siong was now the legislative assembly member from Bukit Timah. That barrister, Harry Lee, thought well of him. Harry was a man to be trusted, Armitage-Jones had told Kim Wah reassuringly. Harry had even said Chin Siong could be Singapore’s prime minister one day.

And here was Chin Siong, in his custody, accused of inciting violence against the police where a dozen people had died.

Kim Wah turned again to Gurbaksh Singh, his usually savage interrogator. But was the calm nail-puller turning into a conscientious objector? He said he wouldn’t use force against an elected representative. Too much trouble.

“What has he said?” Kim Wah asked.

“Nothing, lah, he not talking,” Gurbaksh said.

“What do you mean, he not talking? Make him talk.”

“He just sit like Buddha, no smile, no feeling on face. I asked him what he talk at Beauty World, but he say nothing, lah.”

“But the rickshaw-driver says he heard him. He says that Chin Siong asked the people to rise and beat up the police.”

“When I ask him that, he say he only say merdeka.”

Kim Wah shook his head. He looked at Chin Siong’s photograph from the police file–thin man, intense face, staring back at you with a ferocity that revealed far more maturity than his age suggested. Chin Siong had not stolen any money, nor beaten up anyone. He had not destroyed any property. The penal provisions at Kim Wah’s disposal were useless; he would have to use the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance to keep him in detention. But how can? He is an elected politician.

Kim Wah was grateful that the Lim Yew Hock administration had given him the freedom to use the powers the police needed, unlike the namby-pamby David Marshall, who wanted to look good and be liked, and so he had refused to allow the police to do their job. Thank god, Marshall was no longer in charge. Useless fellow. Was he even a Malayan? What kind of a name was David Marshall?

Who was putting things into Chin Siong’s head? Who was giving him instructions? Was it the Malayan Communist Party? Kim Wah had to get to the bottom of this. But Chin Siong was not saying anything.

“Have you given him the treatment?” he asked Gurbaksh Singh.

“No, lah, cannot. He looks too weak. He is famous, lah. Cannot hurt him. If he hurt big big trouble coming,” he said.

Gurbaksh was right; the colonial administration was strenuously trying to earn the goodwill of the people on the island, having lost face during the Japanese occupation. The British rulers wanted to grant limited autonomy to people like Kim Wah, who could be trusted to do the right thing. Communists called him and Gurbaksh ‘banana’ and ‘coconut,’ but Kim Wah knew his job was simple: to maintain law and order. Politics was not his business. They were there to maintain peace and carry out orders. People should appreciate the good the British had done for Singapore–re-established the rule of law, revived the fine port, linked Singapore again with the world by resuming flights from Paya Lebar, begun playing cricket on the padang again.

But these Communists: they wanted to ‘empower’ the peasants. What did it even mean? Kim Wah was proud of his job but could not believe, even in his dreams, that the Peranakan baba-nyonyas, the rice farmers in kampungs, those shopkeepers slurping down their steaming noodles, these kelings eating rice and sambar with their fingers, could ever be trusted to govern themselves. How could they rule themselves if they worshipped so many gods who looked so grotesque? The British would need to remain for a long time. Unless hotheads like Chin Siong, who spoke of equality and liberty, were somehow straightened out, there could only be trouble ahead. The Fajar students at the university were up to no good. The campuses had to be controlled, and Chin Siong was developing a following among the young students.

Kim Wah wished there was a better recording of the speech Chin Siong had given at Beauty World. He had spoken in Hokkien, and the agent they had sent to take notes on the speech was Teochew. The Indian coolie whom Gurbaksh interviewed had given a different account of what Chin Siong had said. Neither the Teochew nor the Tamil spoke Hokkien. And Kim Wah had to make sense of the rubbish gibberish Chin Siong had spoken.

But what was it that he said? Harry Lee was there that evening, Toh Chin Chye was also there, and that Indian fellow, Devan Nair too. They were all wearing white, like men auditioning to play cricket but whose ultimate game was longer than even a five-day test match.

He sighed. There was a sudden loud sound; Kim Wah cursed. The power supply had been cut again. Was it also a Communist plot, or the creeping inefficiency spreading through the island ever since the British engineers had left and the Indians had taken over the job of maintaining power supply? He glared angrily at the fan which had stopped circulating the air, his face now sweaty.

This much was known: Chin Siong had spoken on 25 October; it had been four days since and Kim Wah wasn’t even sure what he had spoken. Too many contradictions. He had heard that the audience was fierce and angry, and a few men his detectives had spoken to had told them that Chin Siong spoke calmly. But what had he said? The Tamil coolie insisted that Chin Siong told the crowd to calm down and said that the people’s enemy was not the police but Yew Hock and the ang mohs.

Inevitably, there were riots that night. People clashed with the police at the Chinese High and those parangs came out of attics, and a few even had pistols, and at least a dozen people had died. Kim Wah’s constables had made mass arrests, rounding up Chin Siong and 300 others.

And what had Chin Siong said? His informants insisted Chin Siong had said pah mata. That was Hokkien for ‘beat up the police.’ If he did say that, that was highly provocative, and Chin Siong could be kept inside for months. But others disagreed. And the recording was scratchy with a lot of background noise.

Two days later, in the legislative assembly, Chew Swee Kee, who was a minister, said that it was significant to note that the member for Bukit Timah had not said merdeka–he had said pah mata. “Do you still doubt who started the riots?” he asked angrily. Assemblymen and reporters confirmed that when Chew made the sensational charge, Harry Lee sat still, not showing any emotion.

But then what was Kim Wah to make of this note, which was in the file, purportedly the transcript of Chin Siong’s words? He read the words closely: “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.” It came from what a Hokkien peanut-seller had told one of his constables who spoke Hokkien. What if that was true? Were they trying to frame Chin Siong? Was it his job to investigate that?

He read the words carefully again: Was Chin Siong trying to create solidarity between the people and the police to rise up against the government? That was sedition. Could Chin Siong be charged with sedition? Did the people go amok after that and began fighting with the police? A crowd angry with the police can go berserk. Kim Wah had heard about an incident in India, 30 years ago, when a crowd burned down a police station and 20-over constables died. It forced Mahatma Gandhi to suspend the civil disobedience movement. But Gandhi was a non-violent man. Chin Siong was a Communist. Could he be trusted? Nah, cannot, lah, Kim Wah thought.

Never trust a red Chinaman, Kim Wah concluded. He stamped “CLASSIFIED” on that note. He deliberated–should he tear up that note? Let it remain? Then he remembered his job was to go by the evidence, not tamper with it; that’s what Armitage-Jones had taught him. Let the note remain–some day, someone may read it, but he will be gone by then. There were many witnesses against one. Surely, they could not all be lying?

Sedition it would be. He would write a report to his superiors, recommending that Chin Siong be kept in jail under the PPSO, straightened out, and released some day in future when Yew Hock thought it was safe to do so. Maybe he would read good books; maybe the jail would calm him down and he would learn to behave. Maybe he would study in jail and use his talents more productively and be a fine law-abiding citizen, get married, and get a good job and stop poking his nose in politics.

Satisfied, he signed his report and marked it for Armitage-Jones. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his face. In the tropics sunlight disappeared promptly and punctually, and it was no longer that hot. The breeze from the coast brought the temperature down, and it had already started raining, the soft pitter-patter lightening his mood, as Kim Wah stepped out of his office, locked the door, and went looking for the stall at the pasar malam where he would have char kway teow and meet Achmad, the durian seller, who was one of his many informers, and pick up gossip that he would store in his mind; information he would use when needed, reasserting control for the authorities, one rumour at a time.

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