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PH Exclusive: Tan Wah Piow – Exile with a cause

By Biddy Low

Who is Tan Wah Piow?

His is a name riddled with such fearful labels by our state’s government and media – exile, rioter; “Marxist Mastermind.” Yet as I sat with him in our video interview, I perceived none of the shadowy demeanour one might expect from a man of his reputation. Instead, he displayed a candour befitting of a free and fearless spirit.

In 1976, Wah Piow, then a young man of 24, escaped to the UK and sought asylum from what he believed was a precarious situation. He had just been released from prison after an 8-month long term. The charges of rioting and illegal assembly were the result of a “frame-up”, he claimed, a plan adopted by the government to make an example of him and subvert a growing interest in social causes among the student body at the university.

“We were supposed to be grateful for the economic success, not do the unthinkable,” he explains in our video interview below. The “unthinkable” in this case was criticizing the ruling party for its past wrongs and stepping in to help with social issues, such as workers’ disputes, something which he felt the union was not actively doing. It was because of his involvement with one of the disputes, which somehow turned violent, that led to his incarceration.

Upon his release, Wah Piow received a letter from the SAF drafting him into the army. This was “highly irregular “, he told us, and he decided that the best course of action was to leave for the UK, where he is safe from a state that has not taken kindly to his defiance. He continues to stay there now with his family, practicing law.

It seems however that he was gone but not forgotten. He was named the “ringleader” of a “Marxist Conspiracy” in 1987, ten years after he had left the country. Operation Spectrum saw the arrest of 22 men and women, some of whom were involved in social activism at the time. The papers then claimed that these men and women were following Wah Piow’s orders in a plan to wrest power from the ruling party and turn Singapore into a Marxist state. It is a claim which he denies and mocks. He was never a Marxist, he laughs. He was an architecture student who was involved in activism for a mere 3 months before he was arrested and made an example of.

All 22 men and women were released after a gruelling process which saw their reputation dragged through the mud by the local press, without them being accorded the right to an open trial to defend themselves.

We met up with the man recently in Malaysia, where he is launching two books, Smokescreens and Mirrors, an updated version of his autobiography “Let the People Judge” and “Escape from the Lion’s Paw”, a compilation of accounts by exiles of Singapore in which he contributed to.