From The Straits Times Archives: Fong Swee Suan interview - A life with (almost) no regrets

Former leftist politician Fong Swee Suan was an influential figure in the early days of the People’s Action party (PAP) but he broke away to join the Barisan Sosialis party.
Former leftist politician Fong Swee Suan was an influential figure in the early days of the People’s Action party (PAP) but he broke away to join the Barisan Sosialis party.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Sept  9, 2009. 

SINGAPORE - When talking about Mr Fong Swee Suan, it is difficult to avoid wandering into the "what ifs". What if this founding member of the People's Action party (PAP) never broke away to join the Barisan Sosialis party? What if the Barisan had succeeded in wresting power from the PAP?

Pass the genial Mr Fong on the street, and most people would not bat an eyelid. In his typical neatly pressed short-sleeved shirt and pants, the 78-year-old looks like any senior going about his daily business.

Few would realise that this is a man who – but for a series of what ifs – could have been one of Singapore's top political leaders.

He was once in the upper echelons of the PAP leadership. In 1954, he was one of the 14 founding members of the PAP, among whom were Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and the late S. Rajaratnam. He had also served as a political secretary in the PAP government.

Yet none of the what ifs seems to bother Mr Fong. Speaking at his Bukit Panjang flat, he betrays no resentment or bitterness over what happened to him.

He tells of his arrests – once in connection with the Hock Lee bus riots in 1955 and another as a suspected communist sympathiser in 1963's Operation Cold Store – calmly and matter-of-factly, the way one might describe a bout of chicken pox.

Today, Mr Fong is back in the news for two reasons. First, he is featured prominently in a new book about the history of the PAP called Men In White: The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Political Party.

Second, he was part of a historic moment at the book launch on Tuesday, when he and a handful of leftists reunited with their long-time political foe, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

There certainly appeared to be no animosity between Mr Fong and MM Lee. The two smiled, exchanged warm handshakes, posed for photos and engaged in polite conversation.

Reflecting on their chat the day after, Mr Fong stresses that what was said did not matter. "The words are not important. The main thing is the gesture, to show that we are all sincere about meeting each other again. I felt it was a very happy occasion," he says.

Mr Fong's willingness to let go of the past was reflected in his readiness to meet and talk to the book’s authors. 

The 692-page book is written by three Straits Times journalists: Mr Sonny Yap, Mr Richard Lim and Mr Leong Weng Kam. 

Of the numerous former leftists they approached for an interview, many rebuffed them, thinking the book would be a piece of propaganda used to vilify them.

But there was no hint of any reluctance from Mr Fong. He agreed to meet them, and even gave the team the names of people who were deported and are now living in Hong Kong.

Having read a draft copy of the book, he says he is happy it did him justice.

"I think it is quite impartial. The writers have done their duty. At least this book gives people a different view."

However, getting to meet Mr Fong is one thing. Getting him to open up is a separate matter altogether.

Mr Leong recalls that it took the team almost a year to build up their relationship with him to a point where he could be comfortable with them.

The private Mr Fong

MR FONG'S reticence could be nailed down to sheer force of habit after numerous jail terms in the past, he says.

"He is very experienced at being interrogated. So maybe that’s why he is very guarded," adds Mr Leong.

Indeed for each question posed to him, he paused, thought it through and gave a short to-the-point answer.

But that is not to say Mr Fong made for a boring interviewee. Far from that. The chats were spiced up because they often turned out to be family affairs.

On the morning Insight visited Mr Fong at home, his wife, 73-year-old Chen Poh Cheng, joined in the chat.

Mr Fong sat at the dining table while Madam Chen sat a short distance away on the living room sofa, leafing through a newspaper but evidently listening to every word.

At different times during the interview, she would interject with her own opinion or to correct an answer she thought was wrong.

Madam Chen, a former trade unionist like her husband, is known to be a firebrand. So much so that in her earlier days, this tanned woman was known as the "Black Peony". The nickname – derived from a rare flower – denotes ferocity and boldness, not necessarily in a good way. 

The two were childhood friends. They started dating in 1953 and married in 1960.

It is clear she is a source of strength for Mr Fong and he credits her for keeping the family in order through their difficulties.

And there have been many.

Six months after their eldest child, a daughter, was born in 1962, he was arrested in Operation Cold Store.

Even after his release, she had to be the one to hold everything together. Their three children were all schooled in Singapore, but only Madam Chen could participate in their school life as Mr Fong was forced to live in Johor Baru. He was banned from entering Singapore until 1990.

Recalls Mr Otto Fong, 41, the couple’s youngest child: “It was a heavy burden for her. She helped him with his business and maintained our Singapore lives. Anything to do with school, she had to be the one to attend because he could not enter Singapore.”

And so together, the quiet old man in the dining room and the Black Peony in the living room laid out their side of the story.

The public Mr Fong

THERE are two events people tend to connect the name Fong Swee Suan with.

The first is the Hock Lee bus riots, and the second is Operation Cold Store.

Both were traumatic events in Mr Fong's life. They landed him in jail, with the latter effectively ending his political career.

The infamous bus riots remain one of the bloodiest protests in Singapore’s history.

Four people were killed, including a volunteer constable who was brutally hacked with a garden hoe and an American journalist who was beaten to death by the mob.

In a chapter titled The Night When Singapore Went Mad in Men In White, Mr S. Rajaratnam described it as the "first demonstration of the ruthlessness of the communists and their capacity to unleash violence in Singapore..."

At the time the bus workers took to the streets, Mr Fong was the secretary-general of the Singapore Bus Workers Union (SBWU). 

Though he does not deny responsibility for the strikes that ultimately led to the riots, he says the employers also have some of the blood on their hands.

The management of the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company, he said, in carrying out a mass sacking of SBWU workers, left them with little choice.

"The management was the one who initiated the strike. We never wanted it," he says.

Still, no one imagined the strikes would end in riots.

"I thought the government would step in," adds Mr Fong.

The whole episode began as a power struggle between Hock Lee bus company and the SBWU.

The management, in a bid to reduce the influence of SBWU, tried to get new employees to join a rival union instead of letting all workers join the SBWU. 

According to Mr Fong, when sufficient new employees were recruited, 229 SBWU members were sacked and replaced. The union launched its first protest, a 24-hour hunger strike.

Matters would escalate in the following days.

For his role in the riots, Mr Fong was arrested and detained for 45 days by the Labour Front government of David Marshall.

He was released, only to be rearrested a year later when he was involved in more riots, this time involving Chinese middle school students protesting against some of the government's aggressive anti-communist measures.

In 1959, as part of a deal brokered by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Fong was released.

He became political secretary to Labour and Law Minister K.M. Byrne, but was soon transferred to the same position in the deputy prime minister's office after he criticised government policies.

Cracks that would ultimately lead to Mr Fong leaving the party were beginning to show.

Throughout his time as a unionist and politician, Mr Fong was a close ally of Mr Lim Chin Siong, who died in 1996.

Mr Lim would go on to lead the breakaway group from the PAP and form the Barisan Sosialis.

The two met when they were classmates in Chinese High School in 1949. So close were they that they were often referred to as nan xiong nan di (Chinese for brothers who went through thick and thin together).

In the book, Mr Fong says they had much in common.

"We were both ardent anti-colonialists and we were both fascinated by the surge of national movements in Asia and Africa," he told the authors.

In 1961, the two of them quit the PAP and formed the Barisan Sosialis.

One commonly cited reason for the split was that leftists like Mr Fong were against the idea of a merger with Malaysia.

However, he tells Insight he was never against the idea. He simply did not think the conditions were right.

"I was never anti-Malaysia. We all wanted the same thing, we just had different approaches. I just said that before you merge, the criteria must be set, we must have citizenship, we must have Parliament representation, then we come together. If not, it won't last long," he says.

Not that he derived much joy when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia. He says he still feels the two countries should merge again some day.

"I don’t really see a lot of division between the two countries," he says.

Is he a communist?

THE other major ideological difference cited between the leftists and the PAP was that of communism.

However, asked if he considers himself a communist, Mr Fong smiles. 

"In Malaysia at that time, there were very few people who were not pro-left, but it's very difficult to be communist," he says.

For the leftists, being a communist means being approved for membership by the Malayan Communist Party.

Pro-left or communist though, Mr Fong was rounded up along with more than 100 others in Operation Cold Store.

The massive operation was aimed at putting communists and suspected communists behind bars.

It wiped out much of the Barisan and served to effectively end Mr Fong's involvement in politics. 

By the time he was released from detention in Malaysia some 4½ years later, he says, it was too late to start all over again. At any rate, he was barred from entering Singapore.

So he got down to rebuilding his life. He went to work in Kuala Lumpur for a company dealing with sugar cane.

He later moved to Johor Baru, where he started a business selling small industrial machines.

His family moved across the Causeway to be with him and his children made a daily commute in and out of the country to attend school in Singapore. It meant a three-hour trip, twice a day.

It is this inconvenience, curiously enough, that Mr Fong talks about when he says he paid a heavy price for his role in politics.

He laments the suffering of his children and wife, but not his own in detention and interrogation. 

The entry ban was lifted in 1990 and he returned to Singapore in 1998 after retiring.

Seemingly at peace

IT SEEMS almost mind-boggling that someone who went through what he did bears no grudges.

Over and over again during the interview, Mr Fong repeats that not only was everything forgiven, but also there really was nothing to be angry about in the first place.

He says: "This is politics. This is what happens. But once we can survive and look after our families, that's all that’s important."

"Angry also useless," adds Madam Chen from the living room sofa.

Their son Otto, a comic artist, says he has noticed this tone from his father in recent years.

"He never sounded bitter. Even when he told us about it, he always spoke calmly. The trauma was never transferred to the children," he says.

If there was any hint that he harboured some ill-feelings, it came in the form of exclamations when he was having a bad day.

"Sometimes out of frustration he would say, 'If only these things didn't happen to me'," recalls the younger Mr Fong.

But even those faded away.

Says Mr Otto Fong: "In the past 10 years, there's definitely been a more reconciliatory tone. He says that everybody was idealistic then and everybody has their own point of view. And he acknowledges that Singapore has got to a point where it is a good place."

Indeed, the elder Mr Fong seems to be genuinely at peace with all that has happened.

Asked if he has any regrets, he thinks for a while and replies that there is only one.

"The only regret is that I achieved very little. I did not contribute enough," he says.

Not surprisingly, he refuses to be drawn on any what if.

A chapter in Men In White ponders the question of what would have happened if the Barisan had won the 1963 elections.

But when this poser is put to Mr Fong, his response is simple: "I don't want to guess, because even if we were in power, we don't know what would happen. There is no point thinking about it."