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Ho Piao - A Personal Recollection and Appreciation

Ho Piao - A Personal Recollection and Appreciation

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Published by Jacob George
Source: http://spores.wordpress.com/
Source: http://spores.wordpress.com/

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Jacob George on Oct 28, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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05/28/2010

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Ho Piao: A personal recollection and appreciation
Tan Jing QueeHo Piao’s life can be neatly segmented into three phases, all interconnected and evolving.He was born in 1937, the year the Pacific War began, with the Japanese incursion intoNorth-east China, which eventually led to the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December1941. Britain resumed its colonial control over Malaya following Japanese surrender in1945, and a brief period of peace prevailed, until this was interrupted by the onset of theMalayan Emergency from June 1948. Ho Piao’s infant years were therefore intimatelyconnected with the Japanese invasion of Malaya and the Malayan Emergency, initiatedby the British against the Malayan Communist Party in what the latter termed the‘National War of Liberation’.He entered Kong Yong Primary School, which was located at Upper Serangoon Road,immediately after the end of the Second World War. During this time, he obtained hissubsequent facility in the Chinese language, reinforced by constant usage and furtherstudies. It was in his primary school years that he first became conscious of what hedeemed to be the degrading effect of inequality and class status. Ho Piao came from apoor, though not impoverished family in the economic circumstances of the time. Hisfather was a sailor, and his mother a housewife who also sold eggs in the market tosupplement the family income. Ho Piao was always extremely close to his mother, andthis bond was to last throughout his life. His mother stood by him through thick and thinthrough all the years of his long detention and struggles.In his address at Ho Piao’s memorial recently, Lee Tee Tong, a former long-term politicaldetainee and trade union leader, narrated an incident in Ho Piao’s boyhood, when HoPiao and a few of his classmates took a bus home. Along the way, a couple of womenboarded the bus carrying baskets of eggs. One of them was Ho Piao’s mother; the otherwas a mother of one of Ho Piao’s classmates. Ho Piao immediately ran to her. Henoticed, however, that his friend tried to avoid looking at his own mother because he wasashamed to let his classmates know that his mother was a hawker. This incident wasetched in Ho Piao’s mind.After spending four years in Kong Yong Primary School, his family transferred him toSerangoon English School, where he remained until he completed the Cambridge SchoolCertificate Examinations, which was the equivalent of the ‘O’ Levels now. He did nottake to physical contact sports like football and hockey, but joined the Scouts movementand took to swimming and boating. Under the active motivation and guidance of hisscoutmaster and teacher, Lloyd Fernando,
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he attained the level of Queen’s Scout. Hisphysical and mental development was impressive and in his final year at Serangoon, hecircled around the waters of Singapore island in a rowing boat alone, an early indicationof the grit and tenacity which was to be a character trait.
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Lloyd Fernando later became a Professor of English in the University of Malaya, until his retirement,when he began to practice law.
 
 When Ho Piao finished his school certificate examination, his results were outstandingenough for him to obtain admission into the pre-medical higher school certificate class inRaffles Institution. At the end of 1956, he sat for the matriculation examination for entryinto the University of Malaya, and obtained admission into the Science Faculty in 1957.The mid-1950s were years of student and trade union agitation against colonial rule, andthis could not fail to fire the imagination of a student like Ho Piao. Widespreadrepressions and arrests occurred towards the end of 1956, including the arrest of hiscousin, Ho Boon, who was then a trade union leader in the Singapore Motor Workshopstrade union. The arrest of Ho Piao’s cousin would have made an impact on the youthfulHo Piao and propelled him into the reality of colonial rule in Singapore at the time. It wasat this period that he began his initial association with the trade union movement, wherehis command of the English language became an asset to hard-pressed trade unions whowere already short-handed after the arrests. Accordingly, in 1957, he cut classes for hisscience course in the university to attend to the pressing demands of trade union work, tosuch an extent that he eventually withdrew from his university education altogether. Hewent on to work full-time in the trade union movement. In subsequent years, Ho Piaonever regretted this decision, and always believed that it was a choice he had to makeunder the circumstances. In the context of the anti-colonial struggle, it was the onlychoice.The People’s Action Party (PAP) came into power in 1959, and in its early months, itarticulated, if not pursued, an active pro-labour policy, and tried to work with the tradeunion movement. During this initial phase of cordiality between the two bodies, thegovernment sent three young trade unionists for a trade union course conducted in theUnited Kingdom. Ho Piao was one of the three, the other two being S.T. Bani andSalauddin Ghouse, all members of what was then perceived to be the left-wing tradeunion movement. Three months into the course, Ho Piao abruptly terminated thescholarship and returned home, despite the earnest persuasions of his two friends whowent on to complete it. Years later, when he was asked as to why he did not complete thecourse to obtain the diploma which might have proved useful for his later trade unioncareer, Ho Piao would invariably reply that by the time he quit, he was convinced that thelectures and courses they were given were of ‘bureaucratic trade unionism’ and had noconnection whatsoever with the type of work he was trying to do in the Singapore tradeunions. Quite characteristically, Ho Piao never regretted this decision either.Not long after his return to Singapore, Ho Piao joined as a paid secretary of the SingaporeNational Seamen’s Union. He would later recall that his involvement with the seamen’sunion represented the happiest and most meaningful part of his life, of which he hadparticularly fond memories. He interacted well with the seamen on board the ships andthey in turn took to him with warmth and affection. Ho Piao had a particular way andmanner in dealing with ordinary folks, to whom he never felt any distance. In fact, if anything, his defences always went up when he was confronted or faced withbureaucracy or with people in authority, to whom he would be polite but always firm andobstinate from the viewpoint of his adversaries.
 
 This phase of his life terminated with his arrest on 2 Feburary 1963, together with morethan 135 political detainees from all walks of life. At the time of his arrest, he was just 26years old, full of idealism and vitality, and with a clear vision of what he intended to dowith his life. He has always said that he had found his true vocation in those years, of service to the poor and downtrodden, against the intimidation and bullying ways of thosein authority. Ho Piao was always a fighter in his own quiet and unassuming ways.The second phase of his life began from the day of his arrest, until his release some 18-and-a-half years later, in 1981, when he was well into middle age. He had therefore spentthe best part of his youth in the network of detention centres and cells throughout theisland, ranging from the central police station, Outram road prison, R.B. block in ChangiPrison, the medium security detention camp in Changi, and eventually in the newlyconstructed isolation blocks known euphemistically as Moon Crescent Centre, which wascompleted in the early 1970s to replace the various detention camps in different locationswithin Changi Prison. Ho Piao’s long detention under the infamous Internal Security Act(ISA) was cruel, inhuman and a powerful statement of the condition of unfreedom in thecountry.Like all the other political detainees, he was never charged and convicted for theviolation of any specific law. Ho Piao’s life and political activities was an open book,from the time he left school as a Queen’s Scout and abandoned a university course towork in the trade union movement. There was never any suggestion of his involvement inany illegal organization or any violent act to support such a long duration of politicaldetention.More likely, Ho Piao, like all the other detainees, was detained not because of hispotential for violence, but because of fear of the visions and ideas he represented. HoPiao probably suffered more than most political prisoners in the cruel treatment hereceived during his long years of detention. He was involved in a long hunger strike inthe early 1970s, when the prison authorities sought to impose new rules and conditions,which forced further restrictions on the terms of political detention.There has been a virtual censorship and news embargo regarding the hunger strikes,including the treatment meted out to the political prisoners during the strikes and theduration of the strikes, which have yet to surface. The physical assault of Ho Piao andother political detainees had been partly documented by a report of Amnesty Internationalin 1978.
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 Ho Piao was released in 1981. He remained in Singapore for a period of five years,during which time he married and started a family, before he took his new wife and twoinfant children to London to seek out a new direction in his life. The beginning of hisexile in London from 1986 heralded the third and final phase of his life, which ended
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 Report of an Amnesty International Mission to Singapore, 30 November to 5 December 1978
, an amnestyinternational publication

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