Friday, December 16, 2011

Dr Chia Thye Poh

by Teo Soh Lung

On Sunday, 18 December 2011, Dr Chia Thye Poh, 70, will receive a very special award, the Lim Lian Geok Spirit Award in recognition of his courage, integrity and belief in democracy.
[ The ceremony will take place in Kuala Lumpur this Sunday 18th December.
Venue: Confucian Private Secondary School, Lorong Hang Jebat, adjacent to Jalan Petaling, Chinatown, KL.
Time : 10 am
All are welcome. ]
[ Link ]

Chia was elected a member of the Singapore Legislative Assembly for the constituency of Jurong on 21 September 1963. He was only 22 years old and was one of 13 successful Barisan Sosialis candidates in that general election. Ong Eng Guan of the United People’s Party was the 14th opposition member in the Assembly. The PAP had 37 seats with Lee Kuan Yew as the prime minister. Chia was also a member of the Federal Parliament when Singapore was part of Malaysia.

Prior to Chia's election to the Assembly, frequent arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA) had almost wiped out the entire leadership of the opposition. In Operation Cold Store (2 February 1963), more than 120 people were arrested. This was followed by arrests every year and two major swoops in September 1963 and October 1963 (Operation Pecah). Even before the first session of the Assembly was convened, three Barisan members of the Assembly, namely Loh Miaw Gong, Lee Tee Tong and S T Bani were arrested and imprisoned under the ISA. Two other members, Chan Sun Wing and Wong Soon Fong escaped arrests. When they subsequently wrote to the Speaker of the House enquiring if they could have his assurance that they would not be arrested if they returned to Singapore, the Speaker would not guarantee their safety. They thus remained outside Singapore till today. The number of Barisan members in the house was dramatically reduced to eight.

During the campaign for the general election in September 1963, the issue of independence through merger with Malaya was simultaneously canvassed. A wash-out referendum conducted by the ruling P.A.P. resulted in Singapore joining Malaysia on grossly unfair and unjust terms. It also resulted in confrontation with Indonesia which feared a strongly armed neighbour.

When the house sat on 9 December 1963 to debate on the address of the Yang di-Pertuan Negara’s speech, young Chia was the first opposition speaker to take the floor, moving a motion to add a note of regret to the address :

“; but this Assembly regrets that the Government in helping to impose Malaysia on the people has caused great difficulties and hardships to them in Singapore and urges the Government to take immediate steps to persuade the Central Government to get rid of foreign interference, negotiate with the Indonesian Government, and resolve all existing differences to our mutual benefit, and so help to bring stability, peace and prosperity to South-East Asia.”

Chia gave his speech in Mandarin and was exceedingly eloquent. He spoke on a wide range of issues. He opposed violence and was appalled at the millions contributed by Singapore to Malaysia for the expansion of the armed forces. He said in the Assembly on 9 December 1963 :

“… let me first remind the House that the financial arrangements under the Malaysia Agreement have literally robbed Singapore of a huge chunk of its revenue. We pay the Federation Government $117 million outright. In addition, we pay for developments of Federal departments in Singapore ($9.5 million) as well as the annually recurrent expenditure of State-cum-Federal departments ($15 million approximately).

If we add the $30 million so called loan to the Borneo territories, then the sum given away by Singapore to the Federation comes to about $170 million! $170 million of our money given away! If this money were truly used for construction and development, at least we would be consoled by the fact that our money was put to good use. But it is clear that most of our money will not be spent on construction and development, but on the expansion of armed forces and for the suppression of the national liberation struggle in Borneo! This is not the way how our money should be spent. Expenditure on armed expansion will only benefit the big arms industries in the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. Our Party had repeatedly warned against this during the debate on the Malaysia Agreement! Now all can see that what the Barisan has all along said is 100 per cent correct. The P.A.P. must be condemned for having signed away all this money of the people of Singapore! …”

On how to deal with the Indonesian confrontation, he was firmly of the view that Singapore should take steps to make peace. He said:

“… The interests of the people demand that we prevent the present friction from developing further into open conflict and war with Indonesia. Only peace will being happiness and prosperity to the people. So let all of us in Singapore make our full contribution to the defence of peace in the region…”

In numerous speeches in the Assembly, Chia spoke about the unjust and unfair manner in which the PAP called the general election. He protested against the PAP’s use of the ISA against Barisan members, candidates and trade unionists and torture inflicted on detainees.

He held his ground against older and seasoned ministers like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Ong Pang Boon and Toh Chin Chye. When Rajaratnam stood up once to interrupt his speech, he was not intimidated. He refused to give way and remained standing. The Speaker had to tell Rajaratnam to back off as Chia was not giving way.

Chia’s clear mathematical mind, his agility and ability to work out figures and summarised them in simple percentages must have terrified lawyers like Lee Kuan Yew and E W Barker. He understood the intimidating methods used by the P.A.P. at that time. He was clear that the ruling party then was not achieving independence for Singapore when it decided to join Malaysia. He said:

“We in the Barisan have always fought against colonialism and imperialism, and the P.A.P. attempts to deceive the people about having achieved independence (by reading a proclamation on 31st August) will not be able to prevent them from continuing the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle.

We in the Barisan have consistently fought for the basic rights and interests of the people. We fight for the workers, farmers, intellectuals, national businessmen. We shall do our best to safeguard their interests, and we shall continue to struggle for justice, equality, democracy, peace and freedom for the people.

The P.A.P. always uses the Communist bogey to frighten and intimidate the people. And indeed because of its control of the State propaganda apparatus, it has to a certain extent succeeded. But however the P.A.P. may care to play on the theme of the Communist bogey, with the hope of isolating the Barisan and gaining support for itself, it cannot cover up the fact that “poverty in the midst of plenty and unemployment in the face of affluence” are urgent problems which have to be faced, tackled and resolved. Labelling the Barisan pro-Communist simply because we want to help solve these basic problems, cannot deceive the people for any length of time. P.A.P. lies might deceive some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time. But they cannot deceive all the people all the time. P.A.P. lies will all be exposed . Truth will out and truth will triumph.”

Chia and the Barisan Sosialis were subsequently proven right for opposing merger on the terms agreed to by the P.A.P. Singapore was asked to leave Malaysia in August 1965.

It may have been the brilliance of Chia that in order to avoid debates with him, the house rarely sat. In 1964, the house met solely for the debate on the annual budget. But it could also be the P.A.P. style of ruling – that decisions be taken without debates since they had an overwhelming majority in the house. The house was thus mainly used to debate the annual budget and to enact laws.

It was probably out of frustration about the lack of opportunity to debate on important issues in the house that led Chia or the Barisan to submit a letter to the Speaker on 8 October 1966. The material part as quoted in Hansard (col. 342 of 26 October 1966) read :

“… the Party” (i.e. the Barisan Sosialis) “has decided that all Barisan ‘MPs’ will resign their ‘Parliamentary’ seats as from today. …”

The letter was signed by Chia but not the rest of the other eight Barisan members. Whether that letter constituted a resignation of Chia is debateable. The Speaker rightly refused to accept the resignation of the eight until personal letters of resignation were received subsequently. He however accepted the resignation of Chia on 18 October 1966, the same day as a letter of resignation signed by Lee Tee Tong was received by the Speaker. (Col. 344 of 26 October 1966). Why 18 October 1966 and not 8 October 1966 (the date of receipt by the Speaker) is also a mystery.

Tragically, on 29 October 1966, Chia was arrested under the ISA and imprisoned without trial for 26 years. Ironically, towards the latter part of his imprisonment, the P.A.P. insisted that Chia renounce violence. He refused since he had never advocated violence. It was clear from his speeches in the Legislative Assembly that he is a man of peace and did not believe in arms and violence. For his principle, Chia lost 26 years of the prime of his life and was subjected to severe restrictions for another 6 years. He left Singapore to pursue a Master and then a doctorate degree from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague after restrictions on his freedom to travel were lifted.

A true hero of Singapore, I salute Dr Chia for his courage, integrity and sacrifice for Singaporeans. When he graduated from Nanyang University at the age of 20 and embarked on a teaching career, the world was so bright for him and his family. Effectively trilingual, he is proficient in English, Malay and Chinese. But for cruelty of the P.A.P., Chia would have made enormous contributions to our country and the region.

I heartily congratulate Dr Chia on his receiving the Lim Lian Geok Spiritual Award.

[1] The award ceremony will be held at the Confucian Private Secondary School, Lorong Hang Jebat, 50150, Kuala Lumpur on 18 October 2011 at 10 a.m.

No comments: