I own a collection of the Fajar which was the organ of the USC (University Socialist Club). The ideas and thoughts of the young men and women who were members of the USC, cuts through the decades to speak to another generation of Singaporeans who are now struggling to find answers to problems we face today. Their idealistic pursuit for social justice, equality and freedom did not die under a repressive govt - the high social inequality, rising poverty and moral bankruptcy make their ideas more relevant today than they have ever been.
Jing Quee was one of the nicest, most generous persons I have ever known. His self- deprecatory sense of humour – he was always laughing at his own foibles – was devoid of vanity and was just typical of that generation who committed their lives to building a just and equal society. I found this trait not confined to our people in Malaysia and Singapore. South African and Palestinian friends engaged in the struggle for liberation had the same child-like approach to life and, like Jing Quee, never betrayed bitterness.
Jing Quee was my senior at University by several years, but despite my very active involvement in student politics in the late sixties, I had not heard of him. I was not in Jing Quee’s Socialist Club and was a naive liberal believing in the rule of law but lacking any in-depth understanding of why there was inequality and injustice in society. It was only in 1972, when I had just begun law practise, that I first met Jing Quee and A Mahadeva. We were on the editorial board of the graduate monthly magazine, “Commentary”. Something about the two of them drew me to them instantly. In the course of the months ahead, I viewed them as my mentors in understanding how the world worked. It was only much later that I learnt they had been involved in our movement for independence. I am forever grateful I met them then. Maha died a few years ago; with Jing Quee now gone, our loss is inconsolable.
There is a dwindling band of friends who still perform the vital role he played. Jing Quee was the ‘bridge’ in three vital ways. Because the history of our people has only been written by the ‘other side’, the lapse of time and the separation of geography and community meant that our peoples’ story would soon be erased from our collective memory. He sought to redress that.
He was firstly, the ‘bridge’ between the generations. I was a beneficiary of that. It was mainly through him that I had the privilege of meeting many of the patriots in the independence struggle. He also sought out the younger generation to learn from them and to share his experiences with them. His efforts meant that our idealistic youth could now have an alternative view of our history.
He was, secondly, the ‘bridge’ between the territories. I was also a beneficiary of that. Jing Quee consciously kept alive the links between the people on both sides of the Causeway. He believed in the unity of the Malayan people and that Singapore was an integral part of that people.
He was, thirdly, the ‘bridge’ between the communities. I was also a beneficiary of that.
He was committed to a non-racial society with Malay as the national language. He was fluent in English, Mandarin and Malay and kept close links with the three societies throughout his life.
A fitting tribute to his life’s work would be the ‘People’s History’ project in KL. Jing Quee was one of its architects and would serve as a repository of the collective works and memory of our people’s struggle for justice and liberation.
Throughout our thirty-four years in exile, Swee Chai, my wife, and I kept in close touch with Jing Quee and his wife, Rose, and his friends.
There was one episode that particularly touched me. I visited Malaysia some years back and he knew my health was failing me. With Rose, he met me in Johore Bahru and brought me on a week-long odessey swing around the peninsular, starting eastwards through Kuantan in Pahang. We spent time in the east coast states of Trengganu and Kelantan, crossed the east-west highway, spent a night in the national park, met some orang asli and saw my first Rafflesia flower in the rain forest. We entered Perak and then finally to Kuala Lumpur. It was an experience I will never forget and it had been years since I had the chance to travel in that fashion.
I last saw him at the 2009 KL launch of ‘Our thoughts are Free’, a collection of poems of our political prisoners over five decades. Jing Quee edited the poems, along with Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew, both former political prisoners as well. I had several of my poems and songs in it.
In one of them, I raised the question:
what is a rebel, what is a revolutionary?
“ a rebel hates, a revolutionary loves
a rebel hates injustice, a revolutionary loves justice
a rebel attacks the singer and is deaf to the song
a revolutionary retrains the singer and rewrites the song
a rebel sees red, all vision blinkered by the burning grass
a revolutionary see the wondrous colours that is the rainbow
a rebel asks ‘why’, a revolutionary, ‘why not’?
a rebel sees the impossibility of today, a revolutionary the possibility of tomorrow
tomorrow shall come when the rebel matures into a revolutionary”
Tan Jing Quee was a socialist student leader, ran under the socialist party ticket in the 1963 general election and nearly defeated a government stalwart, was arrested for three years that year and then again in 1977 under the draconian detention without trial law.
Was he then, a rebel? In my thinking, he was much more than that – he was a true revolutionary, a great human being, friend, husband and father.
Francis Khoo *
*Francis Khoo, Lawyer, now lives in London. He was wanted by the ISD in 1977 and escaped to London when his friends, G Raman, Tan Jing Quee, R Joethy, A Mahadeva, Ong Bock Chuan and many others were arrested and imprisoned by the ISD. His wife, Dr Ang Swee Chai who did not expect arrest and who did not leave with him was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in 1977. After her release, she joined him in London.
Dr Ang is a prominent surgeon. She volunteered her expertise in Gaza and witnessed the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla. She wrote about the massacre in her book From Beirut to Jerusalem. Francis and Swee Chai are exiles from Singapore. We have lost two loyal and talented Singaporeans because of the misuse of the Internal Security Act by the PAP government.