In Conversation–Catherine Lim and Marina Mahathir (2012)


This post is about two years overdue, although the experience of the event is still fresh in my mind :)

I was involved with a couple of events during the 2012 Singapore Writers Festival.

At the time, I circled a number of programmes in my SWF booklet, since I wanted to attend as many of the events as I could.

One that I thoroughly enjoyed was a panel with Catherine Lim and Marina Mahathir. This despite the fact that I had largely been a politically indifferent and apathetic youth when I was growing up in Singapore.

This was the text which described the programme:

“Marina Mahathir in Conversation with Catherine Lim”
Sun 4 Nov | 2.30pm – 3.30pm

Two of our region’s leading writers and social commentators, sometimes controversial, always engaging, talk about what it means to use the written word to engage in civic society. How do they deal with naysayers and critics, and what keeps them awake at night?

These were their bios in the SWF 2012 booklet.

Marina Mahathir (Malaysia) | 2012 SWF Programme

Marina Mahathir writes a fortnightly column on social issues in an English-language Malaysia daily, is an avid blogger, is active on Facebook and Twitter, and is also a television and film producer. She writes and speaks regularly on human rights, particularly where it relates to gender issues, Islam and HIV/AIDS. One to walk the talk, Marina was president of the Malaysian AIDS Council from 1993 to 2005, and currently sits on the board of Sisters in Islam, which advocates justice and equality for Muslim women. She is the daughter of the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Mahathir Mohammad.

Catherine Lim (Singapore) | 2012 SWF Programme

Well-known and outspoken Singaporean author Catherine Lim has more than 20 titles to her credit — from short stories to novels, reflective prose and poetry, and satirical pieces. Her works deal largely with the East-West divide, Asian culture, women’s issues, and Singapore’s culture, history and politics. She has won national and regional book prizes and was conferred n honorary doctorate in literature by Murdoch University, Australia, and was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture and Information.

Here’s a photograph I took with each of these dynamic ladies at the end of the discussion. I don’t know how I managed to grab a pic as it was all done in a rush, but I’m glad I did!


With Marina Mahathir at 2012 Singapore Writers’ Festival

catherine lim

With Catherine Lim at 2012 Singapore Writers’ Festival

I remember being very engaged by these two speakers when they first stepped into the room that day. My immediate impression (before each of them actually began to be “in conversation” with the other) was that they were both very smiley and energetic, with a good sense of style.

Both of these speakers were/are incredibly vibrant and passionate about politics, civic engagement, and the subject of human rights. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. There were several quips that seemed to stray across OB “out of bounds” Markers, as evidenced by the entire audience gasping — or laughing — spontaneously.

The room was so packed that people were standing by the sides and the back of the room.

Halfway through the discussion, a middle-aged woman in the audience started to ramble when she asked a question (a mic was given to her — maybe this was during the QnA portion of the talk). She got increasingly aggressive with her tone and one of the questions she directed to the speakers was:

“Where were you academics when Singapore needed its academics/intellectuals to [speak up]?”

If I remember correctly, what she was saying was in reference to Operation Spectrum or Coldstore, neither of which I was aware of at the time due to my aforementioned woeful teenage political unawareness.

Catherine Lim was responding sincerely even as the woman interrupted her. The festival director informed the audience member in a calm but stern way that they were to “maintain the peace” (not in those exact words, but to that effect) which was a responsible and respectful way of handling the situation so as to prevent any chaotic or ugly outcome.

That incident made me feel quite nervous (I was wondering how the guest speakers on the panel would answer, with a full-house audience looking on). Part of me also felt surprised at how passionate people could be, which was a world of difference from a climate of political slumber where people are too indifferent or fearful to be involved in any way. I remember thinking that the incident would probably never be reported in The Straits Times (please feel free to correct me if there was indeed a mention of it in the local mainstream media).

Throughout the conversation, what was most evident was these ladies’ razor-sharp intelligence, combined with their poise, diplomacy, and lack of arrogance. The combination of these qualities made an inspiring and refreshing impression on me — along with many other members in the audience, I’m sure.

Maybe I felt compelled to attend the event due to my (at the time) latent interest in socio-political issues. I am thankful I had the chance to.

It was nice to see how crowded the room was. The full-house attendance challenged the notion that local Singaporeans are a perennially politically disengaged, apathetic lot.

Dr. Chia Thye Poh


* Featured on The Real SG and TR Emeritus.

Dr. Chia Thye Poh – Singapore Profile


* One of the world’s longest-held political detainees (32 years without charge or trial; 1966-1998)

* Recipient of the LLG Spirit Award (2011)

* Quote: “The PAP government [is] intolerant towards sharp criticisms. . .they seem elitist and arrogant.” (Dr. Chia Thye Poh, 1989)

1. Background and History


Dr. Chia Thye Poh (born 1941) was detained under Singapore’s Internal Security Act for allegedly conducting anti-government, pro-communist activities.

He was imprisoned for 23 years without charge or trial, then placed under house arrest for another 9 years, with restrictions on his place of abode, employment, travel, and exercise of political rights.

Amnesty International recognizes him as “Singapore’s longest serving prisoner of conscience.”

2. Barisan Sosialis

Dr. Chia was a university physics lecturer when he entered politics.

He was a member of the Barisan Sosialis (Malay for “The Socialist Front”), and an elected member of the Legislative Assembly for Jurong Constituency in 1963. The Barisan Sosialis was formed in 1961 by left-wing members who had been expelled from the People’s Action Party (PAP).

3. The Power-Packed Minute in Parliament

This is an excerpt from Parliamentary Debates of the Dewan Ra’ayat (House of Representatives), dated 19 September 1964.

Dr. Chia was given one minute more to “complete his speech.”

Here are some of the things he managed to say:

“Sir, when the Prime Minister talks of defending our country, we find it hollow. . .This Government is oppressing the people; more than 200 political leaders and trade unionists are in the jails of Singapore. . .Political dwarfs like Mr. Lee Kuan Yew can strut around and talk big. . .All this nonsense [with] these riots is just to hide the truth that the main culprits belong to the ruling parties.”

4. 1966 Arrest Under the ISA

Dr. Chia was in his mid-twenties when he was arrested on 29 October 1966 under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention.

Dr. Chia was detained for his role in organizing and leading an illegal protest march of supporters to Parliament House on 8 October 1966. He had handed a letter to the Clerk of the House demanding for a general election, the release of all political detainees and the nullification of “undemocratic” laws.

The other detainees were released after they signed a document promising to renounce violence and sever ties with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).

However, Dr. Chia refused to sign the document!

In his own words:

“To renounce violence is to imply you advocated violence before. If I had signed that statement I would not have lived in peace.”

For more than 30 years, Dr. Chia would quietly but steadfastly refuse to cave in to the authorities’ demand that he publicly confess to being a violence-oriented communist.

“If the government had the evidence,” Dr. Chia stated in a 1998 feature in Asiaweek, “it should have tried me in open court.”

5. Arrest and Imprisonment

Dr. Chia’s detention for 32 years — without charge or trial — gives Singapore the dubious honor of holding one of the world’s longest-held political detainees.

The length of detainment is technically longer than that of Nelson Mandela (who was put on trial in 1964 and spent 27 years in jail).

The detention left Dr. Chia in poor health, with lung problems, a weak bladder, and psychological scars.

His eyesight deteriorated from many years spent in a darkened cell. During his interrogation, he was told that prisoners held in the darkened cell would go insane in a few days. The authoritarian PAP regime also kept him subjected to day-long interrogations in a freezing cold room.

Later, the regime started pressurizing Dr. Chia’s aged father to persuade him to give up. Security agents were also directed to drive Dr. Chia through the streets of Singapore, while taunting him to sign his confession paper. They told him he would “rot in jail” otherwise.

6. Domestic Exile

When those tactics still failed to break Dr. Chia’s spirit, he was sent into domestic exile on Sentosa island on 17 May 1989.

Dr. Chia was made to pay rent for the one-room guardhouse, as well as pay for his own food.

This was due to the Singapore government’s audacious assertion that he was under “observation status” and not a prisoner. Dr. Chia thus negotiated a deal which allowed him to work as a freelance translator for the Sentosa Development Corporation.

In 1992 Dr. Chia was allowed to move back into his parents’ home, and in 1997 he was allowed to accept a fellowship from the Hamburg Foundation in Germany for politically persecuted persons.

In November 1998, all remaining restrictions were lifted. Dr. Chia immediately called upon the Government to repeal the ISA, citing that the ISA is a law that “tramples on human dignity and strikes fear into the mind of the people.”

For three decades, mild-mannered Dr. Chia was branded by the Singapore government as a violent “communist revolutionary” and a threat to national security.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, a political science professor at the University of Malaya, said:

“It is a damning indictment on the Singapore Government to have held a chap for all those years and then when finally releasing him issue all those restrictions. It was such an inhuman thing to do.”

7. 2011 Recipient of the LLG Spirit Award

Established in 1988, the Lim Lian Geok Spirit Award is the highest honour in the Malaysian Chinese community. The award is bestowed on those who live up to the spirit of Lim Lian Geok, former Chairman of The United Chinese School Teachers’ Association Of Malaysia.

In 2011, Dr. Chia was honored with the prestigious LLG Spirit Award.


The 70-year-old was fondly remembered by the 400 people attending the award presentation at the Confucian Private Secondary School in Lorong Hang Jebat.

At the ceremony, Dr. Chia shared his words of wisdom:

“A university is not an ivory tower. . .what matters is its spirit, its capacity in bringing up graduates that empathize with the people and work for the progress of mankind and world peace. . .Just as Mr. Lim Lian Geok had said, his body might be destroyed, yet his spirit would survive and flourish. [That spirit] will always live in the heart of the people. It will always inspire us to overcome all difficulties and march on.”

Associate Prof. Andrew Aeria, a political scientist at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), aptly described the sharp-witted Dr. Chia as “a shining icon to the struggle for human rights and democracy.”

8. 5 Reasons Dr. Chia Deserves Our Respect

(i) Integrity and Conscience

Dr. Chia: “[Signing a false statement] would have been against my conscience. I wouldn’t have been able to live in peace with myself.”

(ii) Formidable Intellect / Insight / Courage to Speak His Mind

“Under the PAP rule, there is no genuine parliamentary democracy. . .there is always the danger of one-party rule slipping into one-man rule, and worse still, into dynastic rule. The PAP government does not like critical newspapers or publications, and is intolerant towards sharp criticisms. They seem elitist and arrogant, regarding themselves as the best and the most suitable to rule Singapore. And they rule it with iron-handed policies.”
(Dr. Chia Thye Poh, 1989)

(iii) Remarkable Resilience

Dr. Chia: “My ideal has not been dampened after [more than thirty] years under detention. In fact, prison life can only make a person more determined to fight against oppression and for a fair, just and democratic society.”

(iv) Peaceful Nature

Dr. Chia insists he bears “no personal grudge against anyone” (including his tormentors responsible for the deplorable 32-year detention).

(v) Benevolence

Dr. Chia: “The struggle for democracy is much more than personal battles. Democracy is not about violence.”

* * *


1989 Interview with Chia Thye Poh (Think Centre)
1999 report on release of Chia Thye Poh (LA Times)
Award for Asia’s Forgotten Man (SG Rebel)
Barisan Sosialis (Infopedia)
Chia Thye Poh (Wikipedia)
Chia Thye Poh: A Man Who Never Gave In (Asiaweek)
Chia Thye Poh long time prisoner of conscience is honored (Asian Human Rights Commission)
Chia Thye Poh, Photos (National Archives, SG)
Parliamentary Debates of the Dewan Ra’ayat (19 September, 1964)
Singapore’s Gentle Revolutionary (South China Post)
Speech by Chia Thye Poh at LLG-Spirit Award Ceremony (Think Centre)

More Information:

Rare photos of Dr. Chia Thye Poh (SG Rebel)
The Secret of Singapore (by Dr. Chee Soon Juan)
Dr. Chia’s “One Minute” (YouTube, 1969)
Dr. Chia’s Acceptance Speech (YouTube, 2011)