Man at His Best

The Harder Truth

Joanna Ong, the daughter of a political prisoner, reflects on the days when her father was taken away in the late-70s.

BY Joanna Ong | Mar 22, 2016 | Culture

Illustration by Yohei Yamaguchi

The Quiet Aftermath
This morning, as I made my way to work, there was an air of stillness about me. Everyone I met—at the bus stop, in the bus and along the streets—was quiet, simply trying to go about their usual day. A nation grieved yesterday at the final farewell of its founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Tears were shed as the cortege journeyed through the streets of Singapore, lined with thousands of people. Today, I feel an air of emptiness and lingering sadness. The nation moves on, but never forgetting a legacy left behind by an extraordinary leader.

Everyone had been discussing his passing throughout the week of national mourning. I have friends and colleagues who queued for hours in the sun, just to bid their final farewell in person at Parliament House where the body was lying in state. My entire Facebook timeline was plastered with newsfeeds about the man and the legacy he had left behind.

However, I stayed silent all this while. I approached the entire issue with ambivalence. I needed time to step back and recalibrate my thoughts about the man, having lived through an era when my own family was impacted by some of his more autocratic policies.

My Father's Past
I thought it was time to come clean and write about how I truly felt, without disrespect to my father, Ong Bock Chuan.

In 1978, I saw father handcuffed and led into our home by a team of officers from the Internal Security Department. I was eight years old. The entire episode unfolded before me like a bad B-grade movie that did not seem to have a proper beginning or ending. The sketchy storyline went something like this: father was involved in “political discussions” with a group of lawyers who took a pro-Communist stand; he had to be punished for having an opinion that was not aligned to our government’s; he then spent six months incarcerated behind that famous big blue gate at Thomson Road [1] which was where he and his bunch of friends were detained under the Internal Security Act.

[1] At the Whitley Road Detention Centre to be exact. Nonetheless, we weren’t allowed to see where he dwelled and communication with him was via this telephone thingy with a glass screen between us.

I remember the months that ensued were a flurry of activity, where mother tried to hysterically make sense of what had happened. I was the firecracker in the family and I went through a phase of childhood rebellion, attempting to re-enact Guy Fawkes Day with my marbles [2] at any government official I came across during those months. I was trying to “protect” mother.

[2] I mean this metaphorically. [But what I did was] to physically lunge at the officers when they handcuffed father and led him away from our house. When I passed by a police officer, or met his plainclothes counterparts at the detention centre, I spewed expletives and barged at them with my elbows as they walked past. Or when a “police uncle” wanted to carry me to sit on the bench at the centre as mother spoke to father, I punched his tummy in defiance and told him to “go away and don’t touch me.” No wonder I am a [trained recreational] boxer today.

I remembered mother attempting to keep the family together, so she marched up to father’s boss at that time, the late Khoo Teck Puat, and said, “Bock Chuan worked for you with such selfless commitment and treated you like his own father. The most compassionate thing you can do, as his boss, is to keep that job for him, and wait for his release from political detention. Meanwhile, please continue to transfer his salary into his bank account so that his family can get by.” Mr Khoo did just that [3], and I am eternally grateful to him.

[3] Khoo Teck Puat was the owner of the Goodwood Group of boutique hotels. At that age, I remember father was very close to him and passionate about supporting Mr Khoo’s business as a corporate secretary. Every Chinese New Year, father took me to visit Mr Khoo without fail. It was standard operational procedure: first Mr Khoo’s home, then grandma and grandpa’s. After a few years of working for Mr Khoo, he became a partner in a law firm.

Mother and I struggled by without father. Mother suffered from hallucinations and I was subjected to the cruel talk among schoolmates who pointed their fingers at me while whispering, “Her father is in jail, you know? So terrible.” The cruellest thing that happened to me then was having thoughtless journalists camp out at our gates to take statements from mother and I.

One day, there was a live telecast of Lee Kuan Yew on TV getting a public confession from the political detainees, including father. A journalist visited mother and I, and made us sit next to the TV. I don’t remember much of that, apart from waking up the next day to a picture of myself in my pyjamas, and a quote from an eight-year-old me saying, “Daddy was very naughty.” Looking back, that was probably the beginning of my training as a public relations and communications professional. I’ve never trusted the media ever since, and I hated the establishment even more for turning my family’s life into a circus. I grew up bearing that anger in my heart.

Growing Up 
However, living through the last four decades where I saw Singapore evolve into what it is today—there are roofs over our heads, we feel safe when we walk the streets, our children have a good head start in life with sound education, and the medical bills of our ageing population are heavily subsidised—I realised that Mr Lee had to do what he had to do at that time for the good of our nation.

Sure, some of his policies were unpopular and my family was a victim of them, but as a child of Singapore, having lived through the economic growth and the political stability of the ’70s, to today when I see my parents enjoying the benefits of the Pioneer Generation package, I cannot help but admit that the man truly did a great job.

Doing What He Had To Do
Even Lee Kuan Yew admitted, “I stand by my record. I did some sharp things to get things right—too harsh—but a lot was at stake. But at the end of the day, what have I got? Just a successful Singapore.” For a nation that went from survival instincts to protecting its economic and political security, this man would do anything for it. He once declared, “Because my posture, my response has been such that nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac... anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try.”

Sure, some of his decisions were tough, but father would have made the same decisions if he were in Mr Lee’s shoes. Ultimately, when he gave his entire life for nation building, he was in it for the nation and its people, not himself. He said, “I have never been over-concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind... you will go where the wind is blowing. And that’s not what I am in this for.”

All Is Forgiven
I asked mother if father had tuned in to watch the crowds lining up to pay their last respects at Parliament House. To my surprise, she answered, “Yes, he did, and he even cried. I think after all these years, all is forgiven and forgotten, and father has seen the good that the man did for Singapore.”

That was all I needed to hear. It gave me the go-ahead to write this [4].

[4] I read the news to father till today. I read my blog posts or I picked out an interesting article in a magazine and read it to him. That’s because father has Alzheimer’s, you see. This is just to keep his mind active and lucid. Sometimes, I even Google images of former detainees and test him to see if he recognises them, and he does!

When I saw Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong giving his eulogy to the “Papa” that he loved so dearly, I was reminded that our late founding Prime Minister was someone else’s father too. So yes, I spent much of my younger years hating the man, but as I grew up, my emotions grew up with me.

I am still my father’s daughter, and I love and respect him for boldly taking a stand no matter the risks involved, standing by what he had believed in then. However, I am also my nation’s daughter, and I respect Mr Lee for also boldly taking a stand, no matter how many had felt about him then. He too stood by what he had believed in.

Without any disrespect to father, and with every respect to the late Lee Kuan Yew, I am eternally grateful for his efforts in turning this country into a safe haven for my family and I.

From: Esquire Singapore's May 2015 issue.