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Dr Lim Hock Siew – a lesson in resilience, strength and humility

Dr Lim Hock Siew, detained for almost 20 years in 1963, passed away on 4 June 2012. He was 81.

The first that I’d heard of Dr Lim Hock Siew was when Martyn See wrote about him on his blog and later when he made that video of a speech by Dr Lim in 2010. Swiftly, the Media Development Authority (MDA) banned that film in July that year.

The film remains banned till this day because, the authorities say, it is “against the public’s interest” for it to be allowed to be shown.

I then had the opportunity to meet Dr Lim on several occasions, most notably a private session conducted by Function8, where Dr Lim related his side of the story of the events leading up to his incarceration in 1963’s Operation Coldstore. He would remain detained in jail for almost 20 years under the Internal Security Act (ISA). More… As with all ISA detainees, he was never charged or given the chance to defend himself in a court of law.

The label – “ISA detainee” – conjures frightening imagery for some people. These detainees must be unpatriotic insurgents capable of heinous crimes and activities, such as rioting, using explosives, murder even, to get their way. These are, of course, what the Government – through the media it controls – would want the public to think.

Why else would the authorities ban a video of Dr Lim – even when it has been almost 50 years after Operation Coldstore, and 30 years after Dr Lim was released from incarceration in 1982?

The first thing which I experienced when I first met Dr Lim were his gentle ways and gentlemanly mannerisms. He’s a soft-spoken man but his memory of what happened 50 years ago were still vivid and he could relate them with surprising clarity, especially given his age and how sometimes the rest of us may not even recall events just a few years back.

The last time I met Dr Lim was at the wake of Soh Lung’s mother just a few months back. A group of us were seated at a table, and it was quite late in the evening. Dr Lim and his wife, Beatrice, arrived and sat with us. While we didn’t speak much that night, I noticed his frailty [Dr Lim had been sick for several weeks at that time] and admired his resilience and determination to tell his story whenever he could. It was – is – important for those of us who are far removed from what took place in 1963, to know the other side of the story – because the Singapore Story is not only the narrative of one side, the side which “won” and became the government.

The Singapore Story – indeed, Singapore’s history itself – was not only birthed from the wombs of uncertainty, of blood and tears, but also from injustices committed, and state violence inflicted on those who “lost” the fight. Dr Lim and his colleagues are not less part of our history – they too are the threads which we weave into the fabric, the landscape of our nation – than those who get to trumpet their victories.

Dr Lim never received any apologies from Mr Lee Kuan Yew, or from the Singapore government, for the 20 years Dr Lim lost while incarcerated.

While Dr Lim may have now left us, he would have taken some comfort in knowing that in the last years of his life, there were Singaporeans like Martyn who cared, and who helped tell his story. And they will continue to do so and perhaps one day, when our nation has rid itself of its self-inflicted fear, our history will be more accurately reflected and told to our children.

Rest in peace, Dr Lim.

I will always remember you for the lessons you taught me in resilience, strength and humility. And I thank you.