(Photo by Shawn Byron Danker)
Like Rachel Zeng, I was very moved by the exhibits. I reached out and felt the clothing one of the detainees wore, read the notes they received, the cards they drew and the poems they wrote while in detention. Matt, who was strapped to me in the baby carrier, was curious in his usual baby way – I yearned to explain to him how important, how precious, how poignant each of those pieces were.
Later on, we bumped into Vincent Cheng, one of the detainees, and he said they had many more mementos. A part of me marveled at how they had kept all this “memorabilia” while another wondered how it felt for them to revisit the trauma so intimately and yet so publicly.
(Photo by Lawrence Chong)
The day after That We May Dream Again, Matt was baptized. As the priest went through the rituals, I thought about the Catholic church, what it means for Matt to be Catholic, and about my duty as a Catholic parent. I believe I am to raise a God-fearing, God-loving child. But what about a person who stands up for the rights of the oppressed? Shows solidarity with the marginalized? Pleads for mercy for those who have committed wrongs but have repented, and desire forgiveness?
There are petitions and angry emails circulating about the dangers of homosexuality and of Lady Gaga – but where are the impassioned voices from the Christian community speaking out against the imprisonment of social activists who sought to make lives better for those living on the margins?
My heart ached as I read about how the Archbishop was “cornered” by Lee Kuan Yew and pressured to withdraw his support of the detained church workers in 1987. I wondered how the Catholic detainees felt, to have been abandoned by their faith leaders. What happened to being emboldened by the spirit of the Lord to speak the truth? Of the conviction that when God is with you, no one can be against you?
But perhaps I am being too harsh and unforgiving myself, of what it was like in 1987. When push comes to shove, if the threat of being physically imprisoned indefinitely were to hang over my head, would I be as courageous as I now wish the Catholic Church and its leaders could have been back then? God only knows.
I don’t know if I would have had the tenacity to withstand a 20-year separation from my son, as Dr. Lim Hock Siew did.
Just two days after Matt’s baptism, I read that Dr. Lim, who was detained without trial for 20 years as part of Operation Coldstore, had passed away. During those 20 years, Dr. Lim missed watching his son grow up. Twenty years. During that time, his wife, Dr. Beatrice Chen, raised their son. Reading that literally took my breath away. And filled me with so much sadness and rage.
When Dr. Lim was released from prison, he continued to work and serve the poor through his clinic, dispensing free medicine and even covering the travel expenses of those who could not afford to come see him otherwise. Even while he was imprisoned, he continued to serve, providing medical care to fellow detainees who fell ill.
In today’s Straits Times, his son, now 50 years old, said: “When I was growing up, my memories of my father were more of me visiting him (in prison) and getting to know him. It was tough – kids can be quite cruel and I didn’t know how to explain his absence.” Dr. Lim’s son also revealed he only got to know who his father “in my adult years… when I asked him questions and read his oral history transcript”.
More sadness, more rage.
Hope, however, saves us from our madness. I felt it when I read, over and over again, the closing paragraph of Dr. Lim’s banned speech:
Now some of you may have heard that when you are young you are idealistic, when you’re old you are realistic. Now this is the kind of rubbish that is used by those who have either lost their ideals or have sold their ideals for self-interests. Each should not wither one’s ideals or convictions. If anything, it should only consolidate and make it more resolute. If age has anything to do with it, it is only by way of expression and application of these ideals and convictions having the benefit of a youthful experience. And a life without convictions, without idealism, is a mere meaningless existence, and I’m sure most of you will agree that as human beings, we are worthy of a life much more meaningful than just that.
Rest in peace, Dr. Lim Hock Siew.
May the courage and humility you displayed live on in each of us.
(Illustration by Zal, downloaded from Singapore Rebel)