This article was first published in The Straits Times on May 30, 2009.
SINGAPORE - An hour into the interview, Mr Fong Swee Suan falls silent for a few minutes. He sits by the window in a Bukit Panjang flat, but his mind was far away.
The 77-year-old was remembering June 4, 1959, when he and seven leftist People’s Action Party leaders were released from jail.
The freedom came after 31 months of being locked up by the British government for their involvement in leading anti-colonial strikes. Mr Lee Kuan Yew had made their release a condition for self-government on June 3.
But it was not euphoria that Mr Fong felt as he – along with others such as Mr Lim Chin Siong and future Singapore President Devan Nair – stepped out into the sunshine from the darkness of Changi Prison that morning at 8.02am.
“We came out feeling very low, very sombre,” he says quietly. “There were 200 others locked up with us, but they were not released.”
“Tong ren, bu tong min,” he laments in Mandarin, meaning: “We were the same people, but we had different fates.”
Among those who were left behind was his “ai ren”, or beloved in Mandarin, he reveals, referring to childhood friend Chen Poh Cheng, a fellow trade unionist whom he started dating in 1953. She was released a few months after him and they married in 1960.
Also heavy on the released detainees’ minds were the numerous questions about Singapore’s future.
“We were happy that finally, we were free from the British, but there was still so much uncertainty ahead,” he recalls.
Most critically, what should be Singapore’s relationship with Malaya?
The pro-communists, Mr Fong and Mr Lim , were among those who objected to a merger with Malaya. The power struggle within the PAP climaxed in 1961 when they broke away and formed the Barisan Sosialis. Two years later, Mr Fong was detained, for a third time, under Operation Cold Store, till 1967.
But before that, the release of the eight men on June 4 and a subsequent statement in support of PAP’s objective to create an “independent, democratic, non-communist and socialist Malaya” were important in cementing the legitimacy of the fledgling PAP government, particularly in the eyes of the Chinese-educated.
As Mr Lee put it in his memoirs, The Singapore Story, “we had done some hard thinking...and concluded that Lim Chin Siong and company must be released from prison before we took office, or we would lose all credibility.”
Reflecting on the past, Mr Fong says: “Whether we, the leftists, were right or not, we were just concerned about the future generations of our country.
“What we wanted was a more equal society, to fight for a better life for the people. We were idealists. If there was no national consciousness, the country would not survive.”
He reckons that though they eventually lost in the battle of ideas, he did contribute to Singapore.
After the detainees’ release in 1959, the trade unionist was appointed political secretary to the Minister of Labour and Law. “I used my expertise to settle numerous industrial disputes through negotiation and mediation,” he says.
“Thus, I helped the PAP government maintain industrial peace and harmony, which were the essential conditions for industrial expansion.”
Today, Mr Fong and Madam Chen live with their eldest daughter, an architect, and her family. They have three children.
The political turmoil of the past seems a lifetime away, as Mr Fong, slightly bent but still lucid, digs into his memories.
Marked with a gentlemanly demeanour, he recalls of former political rivals like Mr Devan Nair: “We had ideological differences but they were not personal.”
For instance, when Mr Nair died in 2005, Mr Fong attended his memorial service in Singapore.
Today, he continues to meet some of the PAP old guard for dinner. But he asked that their names not be published.
“They may not like it,” he says with a smile.