Minister of State Sam Tan counters political exile Ho Juan Thai's account of why he fled Singapore in 1976

SINGAPORE - London-based exile Ho Juan Thai's account of why he fled Singapore in 1976 is at odds with what is in the public record, Minister of State (Prime Minister's Office) Sam Tan said on Monday, as he rebutted the former Workers' Party candidate for not giving the full picture behind his leaving the country.

In a rare comment by an officeholder to an online website, Mr Tan said in a letter to The Online Citizen (TOC) on Monday that Mr Ho made contradictory claims and also made no mention of why the police wanted to question him in 1976.

Mr Ho, who contested the 1976 general election in Bukit Panjang on the WP ticket, fled to Britain in 1977. During the campaign, he criticised the government's promotion of the use of English over Chinese, and was accused of making racially-inflammatory speeches.

Mr Tan said police wanted to question Mr Ho because he "made inflammatory speeches". Mr Ho said the Government was out to "exterminate" Chinese education here and "wipe out" the Chinese language, and that the achievement of the Government was the "killing of Chinese education".

Said Mr Tan in the letter to TOC: "These statements are on public record. In multi-racial Singapore, such allegations were reckless and irresponsible then as they would be now. Mr Ho's remarks could have caused divisions in society and sowed distrust between the English- and Chinese-educated. This could have torn apart our fragile social fabric then."

Mr Ho, now 63, admitted in an open letter in 1982 that he amended the December 1976 expiry date on his Singapore passport to enter Britain in July 1977.

In a commentary titled "The truth from a Singapore exile" in TOC on Nov 2, Mr Ho said, among other things, that he left as he believed his personal safety was at risk. He claimed that Internal Security Department officers came to arrest him some time after the 1976 election - one with his gun drawn.

But he added that despite having "great reservations", he respected the law and legal process in Singapore.

"Please charge me in an open court for the crime you alleged I have committed. I will obey the court order and return to Singapore with my head held high, but not with the potentially dangerous arrangements the government has offered - that one-time entry pass could, quite literally, be the one-way ticket to my indefinite incarceration," he said.

He maintained that concerns about his personal safety also lay behind why he left Singapore without applying for an exit permit: "The only reason I did not apply for an exit permit to leave Singapore and did not have my passport extended by the authorities was because I acted under duress as the police threatened to shoot me and the government accused me of crimes I did not commit. Would you not flee if a gun was pointed at you?"

But in Monday's letter, Mr Tan said that Mr Ho's reasons were unconvincing and that he "makes contradictory claims: on the one hand, that he was a victim of police intimidation, and on the other, he was willing to turn himself in for questioning."

"These are contradictory and unconvincing reasons for him absconding to Malaysia, from where with the help of Tan Chay Wa (a Communist Party of Malaya cadre later sentenced to death in Malaysia for possessing firearms), he ended up in London," Mr Tan said.

He added that it was revealing that after Mr Ho fled to London, his WP colleagues then did not make much fuss on his behalf or similarly flee Singapore: "Why did they not do so, or run away like him, if there was such a pervasive climate of intimidation?"

Mr Tan also said in his letter that Mr Ho's flight was similar to that of another exile, Mr Tan Wah Piow, who fled to London assisted by people, some of whom were involved with the Communist Party of Malaya.

Mr Tan Wah Piow entered the country using his expired Singapore passport with a forged extension endorsement.

Last month, the documentary "To Singapore, With Love", which features interviews with nine Singaporeans who live in exile in Britain and Thailand, was screened at a London arts festival. Mr Ho and Mr Tan Wah Piow attended one of the screenings.

The film is not allowed to be screened in public or distributed here because the Media Development Authority says it distorts the legitimate actions of security agencies as acts that victimise innocent individuals.