Dr Lim Hock Siew: The passing of a patriot

Written by Ng E-Jay
06 June 2012

In their heartfelt tribute to Dr Lim Hock Siew, who died of renal failure at the age of 81, the Function 8 group said that he had been “one of the most vocal, consistent and unwavering former political detainees in Singapore“.

As a medical doctor, Dr Lim worked with his colleague Dr Mohd Abu Bakar at the Rakyat Clinic along Balestier Road.

Throughout his years as a medical practitioner, he was renowned for his generosity towards the poor and for his public-spiritedness.

According to Dr Wong Wee Nam, who had heard many good stories about Dr Lim in his youth, not only did Dr Lim’s clinic “dispense free medicine for poor, he also gave them transport money to go home“.

Dr Lim’s socio-political beliefs had their roots in his tough childhood in a poor neighbourhood near the Kadang Kerbau Maternity Hospital.

Growing up in that environment, Dr Lim learnt first-hand the hardships faced by the poor and destitute. He was politically active in the university, as one of the foundering members of the University Socialist Club.

Dr Lim was a member of the People’s Action Party (PAP) during its inception in 1955, and he rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Fong Swee Suan and Lim Chin Siong.

Later, in 1961, Dr Lim left the PAP and became one of the founding members of the Barisan Sosialis when key PAP members split up with the party over irreconcilable differences in their direction and philosophy towards merger with Malaysia.

Dr Lim Hock Siew was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in February 1963, during “Operation Coldstore”, which witnessed over a hundred activists, politicians, newspaper editors, trade unionists and university students held under detention without trial. This took place just months before the 1963 merger with Malaysia and the subsequent legislative assembly general elections.

When Dr Lim was arrested during Operation Coldstore, he was only 32 years old, with a son who was 5 months old.

He would spend the next 19 years behind bars, and without due process of the law, making him the second-longest serving ISA detainee in Singapore’s history, after Mr Chia Thye Poh who was detained a total of 32 years.

According to the Function 8 group, “Dr Lim distinguished himself as a leader in detention. He kept the morale of fellow detainees high, fought for the rights of political prisoners, and rejected every opportunity offered to him to sign statements which would have gained him release, but which were patently false. He refused to do anything which could be used to justify his detention.

In August 2011, Dr Lim Hock Siew challenged Presidential candidate Dr Tony Tan to “categorically state” that the people who were arrested in Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum were “terrorists”.

He made this challege at a memorial service held in honor of former ISA detainee Tan Jing Quee, who had passed away earlier in June 2011.

Dr Lim stressed that the PAP has been using the ISA for “suppressing legitimate political opposition”. He also called for commission of inquiry to look into the detentions.

“It is to reveal all the facts so that objective historians can rewrite history,” he said.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also honoured Dr Lim Hock Siew at their National Day commemoration dinner in August 2011.

During the dinner, Dr Lim was presented with a memento, a canvas depicting his image on an imaginary $5 bill. The original artist had envisaged that such a currency could possibly have been in circulation had the Barisan Sosialis been victorious over the PAP in the 1960’s.

Dr Wong Wee Nam also paid a tribute to Dr Lim during the SDP dinner. Here are excerpts of Dr Wong’s speech:

Friends and Comrades,

The SDP has bestowed me a very great honour tonight. They have asked me to introduce to you a very remarkable man. He is Dr Lim Hock Siew.

I first met him at the wake of the late Dr Lee Siew Choh in July 2002. That was 20 years after he was released from an almost 20-year detention. I saw a friend sitting at another table. She came from Australia and I went up to say “hello” to her. Dr Lim happened to be sitting at the same table and she introduced us.

That was the first time I saw how he looked like.

I have heard of him when I was a young boy. He was the son of a famous fishmonger in the market where I had lived. The father was famous because he had a clever son. Not a lot of poor people then had children who are doctors.

I also heard of him as a young boy because of his reputation as a doctor. Not only did his clinic dispense free medicine for poor, he also gave them transport money to go home. This is not surprising coming from a doctor who believes that the most common cause of anemia is not iron deficiency but poverty.

It was understandable that I did not recognize him. After all, his pictures had never been splashed in the newspapers or over the TV. Nothing much was heard about him when he was incarcerated and nothing was seen or heard after his release.

In spite of the news blackout and the low profile he has kept, he is still a political legend, being the second longest political detainee after Chia Thye Poh. Therefore, my reaction was one of excitement mixed with surprise and discomfort when he was introduced to me.

Remarkably, in my encounters with him not once had he expressed any hatred for anyone or any organization for having deprived him of 20 years of the prime of his life.

In 1963, he was arrested because he was deemed a security threat to the interests of Singapore. To be kept in prison for 20 years, he must have had a pre-detention life that is more colourful or at least equal to that of Mas Selamat.

At a launch of the book The Fajar Generation, he made a speech. Martyn See, the filmmaker, recorded the speech and put it on Youtube. The video is now banned. It cannot be for security reason that the video is banned.

The speech was not fiery, there was no angry condemnation of government, no incitement to violence, no call to arms, no cry to overthrow anyone and no rousing appeal to unite and rally the audience for a cause. Indeed the speech was milder than any of the election rally speeches made during the 2011 General Election.

For months after the speech was made and aired, no investors pulled out of Singapore for security concerns and in fact, the economy recovered. Yet for inexplicable reason, the video was banned.

Confucius said:


“To understand that hardship is a matter of fate and success is a matter of the times; and to able to face enormous difficulties without fear or terror is to have the courage of a sage.”

Dr Lim Hock Siew may or may not be a sage but he must be a remarkable man. He was stored away for 20 years and then led a quiet life for the next 28 years. Yet when he made his speech at a book launch, he created enough anxiety for the video to be banned.

That is truly remarkable!

Dr Lim Hock Siew leaves behind his wife Dr Beatrice Chen, a son Yue Wen, a daughter-in-law Jenn Lui, and a grandson Sean Lim.

  1. RIP Sir. Your contributions to S’pore will not be forgotten. My salutations to a son of S’pore and condolences to Dr Lim’s family.

  2. Dr Lim has demonstrated to LeeKuanYew’s children and grandchildren what it means to be a man of principle, a man with magnanimity despite being unjustifiably incarcerated for 20 years.

    R.I.P Dr Lim Hock Siew

  3. A true Singaporean. A man of substance. Has passed on to a better place.

    Peace be with you, Dr Lim.

    You are going to a blissful place where you will never meet the despotic old fart ever again. And where the despotic old fart will never qualify to enter….. for all eternalty.