An open letter to Shafi’ie’s Mom

Huang Chih Mei

Dear Madam,

I’m Chee Soon Juan’s wife, Mei. We have never met, but I heard that you were present at every session of Shafi’ie’s trials and that you have been very sad with his imprisonment.

At times, I wonder whether Singaporean parents’ biggest nightmare is to learn that their children are engaging in political activism and, worse, involved in civil disobedience work with my husband.

Once, we had a 18-year-old girl come to our place to stay over because she had an altercation with her mother over her taking part in SDP’s activities. Her mum was so frightened that her daughter was involved in opposition politics that she threatened to complain to her MP about my husband. We managed to coax her to return home the following day.

On another occasion, a distraught young man called my home several times within one evening because his father was threatening to disown him if he continued to associate with the SDP. His father had also confiscated his passport when he wanted to attend a Nonviolent Action workshop in Malaysia.

When asked about whether his parents would attend his Tak Boleh Tahan trial that took place recently, another activist replied that it would be better if they didn’t because his dad “would be too distressed and angry at Dr Chee.”

As a parent myself, I have thought about how I would react if my children wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps when they grow up. Hopefully, Singapore would be a different place by then. If it is not, I would really prefer them to have an easier and more comfortable life, not a life of hardship and uncertainty. But if that is the path they have chosen for themselves, I would give them all the support and encouragement and accept it as their aspirations in life.

Years ago before we had kids, Soon Juan and I once talked about what beliefs and values we’d like to impart to our children. He mentioned something about being a respectful and respected person. To be honest, I was rather peeved by such an abstract and simplistic answer. “What about intelligence and competence?” I thought of other important qualities, “How about professional achievement and social status?”

Over the years, I have come to learn that there are many intelligent and competent people who have attained high professional and social status. But I also know that this does not necessarily mean that they have earned the respect of their country men and women. Respect, in its most noble meaning, is not as easy to earn as I had assumed.

It may sound strange that I bring up this subject when Shafi’ie was just convicted and is now serving a prison sentence. This is not what Singaporeans would normally associate with a person to be respected or one whom a mother feels proud of.

However, I beg to differ with such a notion especially in this unique situation in Singapore. As Shafi’ie commented on his own actions of civil disobedience, “we hurt no one and neither did we create any disorder. What we did was to express our concerns as citizens on issues that affect us deeply.”

Obviously, he feels strongly about the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and he took it upon himself to defy and challenge unjust laws which restrict such basic rights of citizens. That’s because he is extraordinarily patriotic and loyal to his own country. He is doing what he can do within his means to seek democracy, justice and equality for his fellow Singaporeans.

When given two chances by the judge to apologise before he was convicted and once more before his sentence was passed down, Shafi’ie cited “personal convictions” for his reason of standing by his actions and not apologising. As a young man, his courage and determination are admirable. I can also imagine that the temptation of giving it up must have been extremely great for him to resist.

But aren’t these among the values we had been taught in school as well as the kinds of attitudes we should educate and impart to our children? Shouldn’t we as parents feel proud of them when they try to turn their beliefs into actions, to change things for the betterment of society? We should be happy to see them as confident, well-informed and thinking young adults, instead of becoming disillusioned, depressed, cynical and detached souls.

Things may get a bit more complicated and confusing for my own children. They are at the age of learning right from wrong and why. I was amused to notice that during their play, they would have the police catch the baddies and put them in jail. But in real life, they don’t perceive their own father as a bad person, neither do they feel ashamed of him. They know he’s been in prison and that he will have to go there many more times, and we will go to those familiar prison visits again.

That’s because my children see their father more for what he does, the people he associates with, and how others relate to him. They don’t apply the social norms by which people are generally perceived and treated. When he is greeted or approached by strangers on the street, they would turn and ask him, “Did you know them?” or “Are you famous?”

My husband may not be understood or accepted by people who have unfavourable opinions of him, but being respectful and respected is still the guiding principle for what he does in his work, political or otherwise. Most important for me, it is the opinion of those who care about him and those he loves that matter. He has his work to do and we have our lives to live as a family, these two areas are not mutually exclusive and incompatible.

As for Shafi’ie, I first noticed him at the candlelight vigil outside the Myanmar Embassy last year. This lithe, quiet young man with wavy hair seemed to show up almost every evening which aroused my curiosity. I asked him, “Are you a Burmese?” He smiled shyly and replied, “No, no…I am a Singaporean.”

I have seen him around since with an easy and laid back presence, a young person of few words. But I heard that Shafi’ie told his lawyer that he wanted to speak for himself in his own closing submissions during his kangaroo t-shirt trial. I’m not sure if he had done so, but I am certain that whatever he wanted to say had to do with his sense of duty to Singapore and his belongingness to this country as a true blue Singaporean.

Madam, you have a brave and precious son who is also a good citizen. Please have no doubt about it. Let us give him all the support and encouragement he needs during his tribulations. It is one way to make his and his friends’ journey to freedom and democracy less lonely.

Best regards,
Chih Mei

Shafi’ie and Isrizal began serving their 7-day jail sentences on 12 Dec 08. The two activists, together with SDP’s Assistant Secretary-General, John Tan, were sentenced to 7 days and 15 days imprisonment for wearing a T-shirt with a kangaroo in a judge’s gown during the defamation hearing between Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore Democrats. John Tan will begin his prison sentence on 16 Dec 08.


Read also: Singapore, my home too (by Dr Huang Chih Mei)

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