We remember

Clarence Zeng

Young Democrats Brendan Chong, Clarence Zeng, Jagwinder Singh with Dr Poh Soo Kai and Dr Vincent Wijiesingha. Credit: Lawrence Chong
The Young Democrats who helped with the event on 2 February 2013 to commemorate the
50th anniversary of Operation Coldstore attended a reunion lunch with the members of the now defunct
Barisan Sosialis.

It wasn’t a grand reunion lunch, but it was definitely a very big and lively one. I had counted about 20 tables of nine to ten people seated at each table. And people were actually roaming from table to table, to rekindle old friendships, to say hi again, and to talk about old times.

I had the honour to be seated with Mr Zhuang Ming Hu, one of the speakers at the commemoration. It took me a while to break the ice, but after talking about the recent SMRT bus drivers’ strike, I finally got to hear out his story before his detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Mr Zhuang was construction worker and part of a construction workers’ union. He had seen how his colleagues’ employment unfairly terminated when they requested for an increase in their wages. He then decided to join the construction worker’s union in 1957. It wasn’t long before he became the head of the union. 

Then, Operation Coldstore happened. Along with thousands of activists in the left-wing movement, Mr Zhuang was detained under the ISA.

Thirteen years after being released, Mr Zhuang returned to help his mother take care of her hawker stall, along with his wife. The life of a hawker is not easy; it was a matter of time before his wife’s health deteriorated. He decided to move on to practise traditional Chinese medicine.

I asked him why he wouldn’t rejoin the construction sector after his release. He shrugged, saying that the construction worker’s union then no longer had any teeth, and cheap foreign unskilled labour started to seep into the construction workforce, keeping wages depressed.

The reunion lunch ended with a song, which was led by two people. Sang to the tune of
Auld Lang Syne, the song was
友谊万岁. Everyone sang with passion. Even before they were activists, they were friends who had a common aim, to build a better Singapore.

Mr Zhuang’s struggles were very simple compared to the anti-colonial struggle in the 1960s; all he wanted was a fair treatment for his fellow colleagues working in the construction inductry. Yet, for this, he was detained without trial.

I can’t see him as a communist. I see him for his part in rebuilding Singapore after the Japanese Occupation. It would be more appropriate to see him as a leader who stood up for himself and his fellow workers when they were exploited for their work.

To Mr Zhuang and everyone else who were so unjustly impriosned under the ISA, we remember – and we’ll continue to push for the abolition of the ISA.

Clarence Zeng is a member of the Young Democrats and Deputy Head of the SDP’s Ground Operations Unit.

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