Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

1 SU-LIN

I

t’s not that my sixty-one years have been uneventful; they have had their share. There has been a marriage, a divorce, too many regrettable affairs, countless instances of unlawful assembly, affray, slavery and servitude, terrorism, and the odd matter involving the deprivation of liberty in breach of Article 5. Such are the events of a career in human rights law. Or perhaps I should say life in said law, as that has been the essence of it. However, one year continually returns to my thoughts – 1951, the year I turned eight. The year of the one-eyed girl, as I have often referred to it, although I don’t fully understand why. That particular incident, while a truly shocking murder, was not one I witnessed myself, and the one that I did witness weighed far more heavily on my fate and my fortunes. It seems to me sometimes that not a day goes by when I don’t find that year, and its farrago of experiences both distressing and exhilarating, bubbling up into my presence of mind. For one thing, it was the year I determined that the essence of my life would indeed be the law. Now, as a consequence of crossing paths with Paris Thumboo after so long, I don’t expect such thoughts to be retreating any time soon, as it was also the year I first laid eyes on him, and the last until now. I came across his name recently in an email from Gresham College advising of their upcoming public lectures. Associate

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Professor Paris Thumboo of the University of Malaya’s department of history would be delivering a talk entitled ‘1421: the year history sailed over the edge of the world’. It promised to be controversial, but it was the name of the presenter himself that caused my interest to be piqued. Paris Thumboo is not a name easily forgotten, even when there has not been a face to put to it for fifty-three years. His talk was on a Thursday evening that happened to be unseasonably warm. Something about a kink in the jet stream, according to the newspapers. Although it was not particularly far from my chambers at King’s Bench Walk to the hall in Holborn, it was just five minutes in the cool and comfortable seat of a taxi. The cabbie had the weary air of the day about him, and I could see why when I scanned the Evening Standard. The damning conclusions of the Butler Review into Saddam Hussein’s mythical weapons of mass destruction were all over the front page. I sighed and distracted myself with other news, and found that President Bush was attempting to assist me – he had taken the opportunity to declare that the US would soon be back on the moon, even Mars, not that he had any apparent program to announce. Now, with 2004 proving to be even more disappointing than 2003, I was really looking forward to spending an hour or so in 1421. How uncomplicated is the past, I thought. Of course, I was being ridiculous. I was quite aware what personal ‘past’ this encounter might provoke, and I should have been prepared. The hall at Barnard’s Inn was well attended, and I took a seat at the back. I felt more comfortable this way, separating work from play, active from passive. At work my position was always at the front, necessarily active. ‘Upfront’, as one of my learned friends once described me. Although ‘Fearless and Committed’ is what I prefer, hence its appearance at the head of my page on the chambers website. Unlike one of Her Majesty’s courts there was a buzz in this room that echoed off the oak panelling and the stained glass and drifted around the cathedral ceiling.

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

BOY D A NDER SON

5

A projector screen was in position above the fireplace, which was always a good sign that we were indeed to be ‘talked’ to rather than ‘lectured’. You never quite knew with the college’s eclectic agenda. I didn’t see Professor Thumboo enter, nor when he was being introduced, as there was a spotlight directed at the lectern and leaving all else in dark obscurity. When he stepped out of the shadows I craned my neck to see what had become of the shy seven-year-old I had last seen in the public gallery of a courtroom on the other side of the world so long ago. To be precise, in the court of the formidable Edward Owen Pretheroe, esq., MC, Senior Puisne Judge, Malaya, at the Ipoh Assizes in October 1951. How could I ever forget that degree of precise detail? I had already formed a picture of the man I expected to see. From a withdrawn young boy to a professor of history in a country that seemed to care little these days for its past, and the son of a back-country schoolmaster to boot, I anticipated a diffident middle-aged man, perhaps one of those eccentric types who are never aware of what is going on at the back of the class; quite possibly mismatched socks. I remember his mother vividly. Everyone of my age and from my part of the world remembers the tragedy that was his mother. I also knew that both his parents had died when he was young and I had no idea of the circumstances of his life after the early trials. An orphanage? An insecure place among cousins in an alien home? What emerged was something quite different to any of my prejudiced expectations. Standing next to his introducer I could see he was quite tall, a legacy no doubt from his Dutch grandfather, with swarthy Indian complexion and a flop of unruly hair from under which brooding eyes fi xed us assertively. Sixty years old? He could have been much younger. Dark skin and dark hair can conceal many years in a man, and grey temples

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appeared to be his one concession to them. When he began his talk a rich baritone fi lled every recess of the hall – just my kind of voice. I imagined him in class at the University of Malaya, expounding a theory on the lessons of history and sending the young female undergraduates (if there were any females in a history class these days) into a quiet tizz. He appeared to fit the romance of Paris better than the peculiarity of Thumboo. I, however, was far too mature in years for a tizz, quiet or otherwise, although I noticed a couple of women in front lean forward in their seats. I wondered if he still found solace in the pages of an atlas, as he had as a seven-year-old, and soon received my answer when the fi rst slide he displayed was a map of the world. He proceeded to detail in resonant tones the known voyages of Admiral Zheng He, comparing them with what he called the ‘fanciful imaginings’ of a recently published book in which it was claimed the Chinese imperial fleet had discovered virtually all of the unknown world, including America, in 1421 – before Columbus, before Magellan, before Cook. I was aware of the controversy the book had stirred, and took quiet delight in the degree of provocation he managed to invoke as ripples of mutterings were matched in the audience by chuckles of assent. However, while it was interesting to hear yet another half-baked thesis debunked so methodically for an hour, it was not the reason I had given up my Thursday evening. At the end of the hour I waited until Professor Thumboo was free before approaching him. I am certainly no shrinking violet, as I am too often reminded, but I had no intention of imposing myself on a small throng of donnish college handlers and eager enthusiasts. I could see he had not the fi rst idea who I was, of course, and I introduced myself merely by saying that I knew his mother. His expression changed immediately, the courteous smile dissolving into a frown, and it seemed he was unable to stop himself retreating half a step.

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

BOY D A NDER SON

7

‘Ah,’ he said with the downward inflection of discouragement. ‘Many people tell me that. But they are usually a good deal older than you.’ ‘I was just a child,’ I said. ‘I see. Yes, there have been fewer in recent years. The generation that remembers her is dwindling, a natural attrition for which I find myself sometimes grateful.’ It was quite apparent that he was still trying to determine if I was friend or foe, so I thought it only civil to reassure him. ‘I am Su-Lin Tan,’ I said. Now I could see his eyes clearly, what I had taken for a brooding aspect at a distance was a more haunted look up close. They were green, as I remember were his mother’s, and strikingly pale against his dark skin. There was no sign of recognition in them. ‘My father was K. C. Tan. We met when …’ Suddenly the eyes widened and he reached again for my hand. ‘K. C. Tan,’ he said with wondrous exclamation. ‘Judge Tan.’ Now he shook my hand vigorously. ‘Of course, you are Tan Su Lin. How wonderful.’ As he released my hand his shoulders, which had been vaguely slumped, now opened out as his back straightened and head lifted. It wasn’t just that a metaphorical weight seemed to have been lifted, he really appeared to shrug off a burden. He managed to excuse himself from his handlers and we sat down at the end of the front row in the emptying hall. He sat stiff-backed, his head tilted slightly at an inquiring angle, his hands resting on his knees. I had the impression he was sitting ‘at attention’. I asked him if he had travelled all the way from Malaysia to deliver the talk, which I knew could not have been the case, but was as good a way as any to break the ice. He said that the main purpose of his visit was to conduct some research, but he never missed an opportunity to expose the ‘junk history’ of the Chinese imperial fleet. I laughed at the pun, but he offered no reaction. He asked about me. Where does one start with the unravelling of half

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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a century? I simply told him I followed my father’s footsteps, although I had stayed in London. He nodded but remained at attention. ‘My mother died nearly fifty years ago,’ he said. ‘You would think the controversy would abate, but some grudges never do, it would appear.’ ‘Perhaps because she had risen so high and her supposed fall was so far,’ I said. ‘The establishment does not like to see its heroes fall from grace.’ ‘Yes. Although whether she actually fell is the moot point.’ He sighed wearily without relaxing his spine. Fifty years he must have spent in this discussion. ‘She never had the opportunity to explain herself. After all the headlines, no one was interested in her side of the story.’ ‘My father would have helped her,’ I said, although I could not possibly know if that was true. I cannot remember my father ever mentioning Dr Thumboo again after the initial uproar following the trial had subsided. But I was eight years old at the time, so what could I really know? Finally he smiled at me. ‘Do you think so?’ ‘Oh, I’m certain of it.’ And I was, despite the apparent facts of the matter, because I knew my father. The smile became indulgent. ‘She died only five years after all that business, you know. It’s what killed her, of course. Oh yes, I’m no doctor, but it’s quite obvious there was more to it than the merely physiological. Yes, only five years. Your father was not yet in a position of influence then. If he had taken up her cause he may never have reached a position of any sort. Unfortunately, the outside world was not as easy for him to … shall we say, influence, as the court.’ ‘It’s a shame,’ I said. ‘I’ve often wondered …’ He touched my hand to stop me. ‘No point now. All water so long passed under the bridge. A very old bridge, too, don’t you think?’ His head tilted a little further, one eyebrow arched slightly,

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

BOY D A NDER SON

9

and his sad eyes locked on to mine. It appeared that what sounded like a polite rhetorical question might actually be searching for an answer. I shrugged. ‘Sometimes water just gets recycled, doesn’t it.’ He smiled and nodded and held his gaze for a moment longer than necessary, just sufficient to have me feeling a touch self-conscious. As I had a preconceived picture of the man I expected to see, was he now considering me in the same fashion? Was he pondering what had happened to the spirited eight-year-old he had last met, the little girl with dark complexion and bright-eyed wonder? The eyes may have seen too many disappointments, but at least the skin was fairer for the years under leaden English skies. What was he making of this middle-aged woman with greying hair and laugh lines advancing beyond a joke? His own hair was far too long and it appeared he had not changed its style since some time in the seventies, but even so I found myself concerned about my own. It had taken me years of trial and error to find a West End stylist who could give me a simple but elegant cut that sits well under a barrister’s wig and is not left crushed when the wig is removed. Years of perfectionist pursuit on my part, decades of neglect on his. So why was I the one now feeling ill at ease? The handlers were soon back at his shoulder, anxiously examining their watches and curtailing any further contemplation about such gender inequalities. The professor got to his feet. ‘I have to go now, unfortunately,’ he said. ‘But can we stay in touch? I will be here for a few weeks.’ ‘Of course,’ I said, and found one of my cards for him. He examined it for a moment, nodding. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Recycling is good.’ The following day an envelope was hand delivered to my chambers by courier. I opened it to find a sheaf of papers with a note attached. ‘Recycled water,’ it said, and was signed simply ‘Thumboo’.

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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The papers were photocopies of a hand-written manuscript, nearly a hundred pages. At the top of the first page was a title: WHO I AM Anna De Brujn Thumboo

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

2 PARIS

I

would have preferred to spend the evening with her than my college hosts. They were enthusiastic about the venue, a basement below a wine bar (‘Colourful,’ they assured me, although it was hard to find any in the dark clubby atmosphere of the place), and I was obligated after they so generously allowed me a platform for my broadside against junk history. Fried seafood, red wine and cigar smoke made it a most unpleasant evening, and I found myself wondering where Su-Lin might have been heading off to when I was so brusquely whisked away. Surely there were more pleasant places than this in Fleet Street, places where one might find at least one woman to offer a civilising influence. Especially a woman such as her. I have observed that Chinese women are blessed when it comes to ageing gracefully. I seem to recall reading that they have extra subcutaneous fat, which would account for the relatively few facial lines, although not the slim waist, nor the way the hair greys so slowly and selectively, single strand by single strand. There was an unmistakable air of dignity around her, and disdaining to dye the hair did but top it off. Her father passed on some time in the seventies, I remember, after he had retired from the Bench. I was on an overseas sabbatical at the time and missed the funeral. I did not even hear of it until receiving a letter from Uncle Beng Woo more

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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than a month after the event. Uncle Beng Woo was still working in the Judge’s former offices at Rajaratnam and Tan. He also said in the letter that he would now finally retire. ‘Gave up,’ is how Aunty put it, and she was proved right, as he also died just a few months later. I did not recognise her, but that only stands to reason when we were so young. I barely remember her at all, to tell the truth. If it had not been for the regular visits of her father I would probably have never heard much about her. My mother always asked after her. She was concerned that the events outside the courthouse after the trial would traumatise such a young girl, but according to Judge Tan, she coped with it. I remember him saying that. ‘She’s coping,’ he said whenever my mother asked, and left it at that. I remember it because I thought what she saw, and as close as she was to it (quite literally within arm’s length), would certainly be more than I could have coped with. It was only my second night in London and I had weeks of work ahead of me in the archives. I had intended my nights in Mrs Carter’s lodgings in Kew to be like most others during such infrequent visits, taking advantage of the archives’ online services on my laptop to follow threads hopefully unearthed in their reading rooms. There are few acquaintances I have in London, and they are professional associates more than friends, and I had planned my four weeks to a rather rigid timetable. My monograph was on the subject of the failure of the Malayan Union (1946–1948), the short-lived federation of the Malay States and Straits Settlements that the British imposed on what had been British Malaya after the war. It was a dry subject, my speciality, and I anticipated a dry month. Should the weather so oblige mattered little as I expected to be purely indoors. Now, however, a small ray of sun had emerged. If I was asked why I should have brought with me my mother’s own monograph, her rechtvaardiging, as she called it herself, I probably could not provide a satisfactory answer. There were aspects to it I had always intended to investigate,

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

BOY D A NDER SON

13

details of events rather than the disclosures and admissions that are the heart of it, and I think it was merely that I thought I may find a little time to explore them at Kew. Even that does not bear scrutiny, as I have always known that such exploration could really only be conducted in Tokyo, and was therefore doomed to be futile. Be all that as it may, however, I had packed the document into my suitcase. When I was fetched back to my Kew lodgings I fished it out. It was a copy, naturally, not the original, which was under lock and key in my Kuala Lumpur bank. I had showed it to only one other person before then. It was 1956, just weeks after my mother died. Judge Tan, or Mr Tan as he was then, brought it to the house in a thick sealed envelope with my name on it. I recognised my mother’s handwriting immediately. He said he did not know what was in it, but that she had charged him specifically with the responsibility of delivering it into my hands. He did not wait to find out himself. I opened it in private and did not know what to make of it. As she herself said on the first page, I was only twelve and too young to understand what she wrote. It began with references to ‘ledgers’ and ‘debits’, and I assumed at first it was something to do with accounting for an inheritance. It quickly moved on to questions of ‘faith’, and I could hear her voice in those words. Faith was a subject often on her lips as she weakened during the final months when the disease tightened its relentless terminal grip. Faith and despair, two words that seemed to be inseparable for her. The person I showed it to was Uncle Beng Woo. My mother had left it up to me to decide whether others should see it, and I thought he may be able to help with my interpretations. How wrong I was. He read the fi rst page, quickly scanned the second, and then sealed it up again in its envelope and told me he could not help me. He said I should lock it away until I was old enough to work it out for myself. He never said another word about it, not even to ask if I had indeed locked

Copyright © Boyd Anderson 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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it away. ‘Don’t talk about bad things,’ I imagine is what he thought, although he did not actually express it to me. When I left his house to take up my scholarship to Newcastle I secured it in a safe deposit box, and there it has stayed for nearly forty years, moving only from one box to another, one city to another, as I did. During those years I read it perhaps a hundred times in the security of a bank’s private viewing room. Every time I had reason to access the box I read it. The bank officers must have wondered what I was doing in there for so long. Much of it had become committed to memory, especially the most graphic sections that dealt with her treatment at the hands of the Japanese. The sections after that were where I found the most difficulty, even when I was well beyond any age of reason my mother may have imagined for me. These were the pages in which she tried to explain her feelings for the guerrilla leader who, it was obvious to me, was at the heart of all the trouble. The heart. That was what she was trying to explain, to justify, to account for. There is no accounting for the heart. I did not know that at twelve, but I certainly know that now, and I am sure that is where the questions of faith and despair arose for my mother at the end. Again, if I was asked why I should now decide that Su-Lin, a woman I had not seen for half a century, should be the first person in all that time to whom I chose to show the paper, I could not adequately answer. Perhaps it was what she said about her father. So easily she said it: ‘My father would have helped her.’ Her father did more for my mother than could ever be reasonably expected, although it was done privately, clandestinely. It was the only way then, and even I was aware of that. Perhaps Su-Lin knew nothing of it. It was that coalescence of perspectives, I suppose – someone so close to the events then, but so removed ever since. That was the practical reason for sending it. The more abstract reason was that there was simply something in her manner, in her thoughtfulness, and most surely in her eyes.

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