Creating people's geographies
Francis Khoo Kah Siang, 23 October 1947 to 20 November 2011
It must be so bizarre that the one person who loves you beyond words and whom you also love the most in this world goes on to make you a widow – and without polite notice! So it is the case with my beloved.
As I stepped off the plane, I received a text message sent a few hours ago that he “cannot come”. As I came into the house, I smelt delicious chicken macaroni soup freshly cooked in the kitchen. There was some left in a bowl which he must had eaten from to stem his hunger as the plane was delayed.
But there was no answer to my call, except from our agitated cats. Yes, my beloved had died in the room upstairs. Did he choose to die before I got to him to spare me the pain of resuscitating him? Was it Divine Mercy that he was taken home to God so painlessly, silently, and alone before medical science complicated his humanity? Was it to spare his wife anxious moments waiting at the hospital intensive care? Could I not just cradle him in my arms in these last precious moments on earth?
Only at our re-union with our Maker and with each other can these questions be answered. For now, I am grateful to be able to look after him on this last lap of his earthly journey as he returns to the One who created him.
As news of his death broke out, thousands of emails, letters, text messages, phone calls, flowers poured from all parts of the world and all walks of life. From heads of states, diplomats, politicians, and friends employed and unemployed. I am not only overwhelmed by the volume but by the affection and admiration they held for him. Friends and family are flying in from all over the world. I have managed only to reply to just over a thousand messages over the last 48 hours. The rest might have to wait for their reply until the funeral is over.
So who was this Francis Khoo?
He was the fourth generation of an established Singapore Peranakan family. It is a close knit family. As a boy he sang in the Singing Khoos with his brothers Lawrence and Victor, and the family is devoutly Catholic. As he grew up he began to acquire a strong sense of justice – beyond merely legal. Of course he was a lawyer, but even in University as Vice President of the Students’ Law Society, he served a greater justice. He opposed the introduction of the Suitability Certificate, the abolition of the jury system, and later on the heavy bombing of Hanoi on Christmas day.
His other interests include photography – he patented a pocket camera at the age of nineteen. He loved drawing, writing and ran the St Joseph Institution school paper and the university Undergrad. Despite all the above “distractions”, he qualified and was called to the bar.
Within months of arriving as a junior lawyer in his firm, he took on the legalities of forming a Citizens’ Co-op to save the Singapore Herald, the liberal English daily closed by the government.
In 1974, I met him at a Justice and Peace meeting. His deep commitment to social justice was to him a Christian obligation. The first commandment is to love God; the second is to love your neighbours as yourself.
Two weeks later I read in the Straits Times that my new acquaintance was to defend a controversial trial in which factory workers and a student leader were charged with rioting. I called him to ask him to re-consider since he might invite personal repercussions. Being a “kiasu” (law-abiding timid ) Singaporean, I sensed that the government wanted the workers and the student leader imprisoned, and to defend them would be seen as being anti-government and the consequences would be dire!
He patiently explained that everyone is entitled to legal defence – and no one should be deemed guilty until proven beyond reasonable doubt. These workers were poor and established lawyers would not take their case on and someone just got to do it, in the interest of justice. If he had to pay the price of doing so, he would accept it!
I am still not sure when my admiration for him turned to love. In 1976 when I sensed that he might be detained under the Internal Security Act I asked him to marry me, so that if he were to be arrested I can visit him in prison and at least be his link to the outside world.
We married on 29 January, 1977. The arrest came, and he managed to escape. I was detained shortly afterwards and questioned about him.
Upon my release I joined him in exile in the United Kingdom. Francis started his live in exile as a cleaner in a Central London Hotel. He then went on to work as an administrator in a British Charity, Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam.
Two years later he was journalist for an international third world magazine, South. From there he went on to direct War on Want, a prominent international NGO founded by the late British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.
Apart from chairing numerous charities he was co-founder and Vice Chairman of the British Charity, Medical Aid for Palestinians from 1984 to 2007. He had to step down as new British Charity Commissioner Legislation advised against office bearers serving more than 9 years. He had served 23 years!
From War on Want he returned to legal practice in London until his failing health forced him to stop work. Despite this, his work for many charities continued. He wrote many poems, songs and articles. He sang for many including the wives of the striking miners.
One of his songs Father Christmas in the Slag Heap brought the whole of Hemsworth, a town faced with pit closure, to tears during their poverty stricken Christmas in 1984. He also sang at canteens catering meals for the aged. His songs and writings are available to the Singapore public for those who are interested.
He suffered renal failure from 1998, went on dialysis, but had a successful renal transplant on the NHS in July 2011 – the generous gift of an anonymous British woman donor.
The day before his death he was at the Annual General Meeting of Living Stones, a charity to which he was trustee. His diary is full of future engagements including the Haldane Law Society, charities for the homeless, Medical Aid for Palestinians, the Scottish Parliament, and the House of Commons – plus supporting me in dozens of public lectures and talks. It is full of engagements until end of September 2012.
His untimely death left a huge void in all our lives. We are all in a state of shock. But by God’s grace, time will make it possible for his memory to overwhelm the pain of our loss.
My tribute to him will be to continue to serve the cause of peace and justice. I also hope to be the widow who will take his ashes back to his beloved Singapore after his 34 years of exile.
Dr Ang Swee Chai (Mrs Francis Khoo) 22 November 2011