Essays by two late PAP MPs

Sha'ari Tadin: A man who loved learning

The late Sha’ari Tadin and Ho See Beng are among the 25 former People’s Action Party Members of Parliament who contributed essays to the book, We Also Served – Reflections Of Singapore Former PAP MPs, launched earlier this week. They died in 2009 and 2008 respectively without seeing the works published. Mr Sha’ari’s daughter Musturah penned the autographical essays for him as he was too ill to write. Mr Ho sent the first draft of his piece before he died. We reproduce here edited abstracts of the two essays.

“MY FATHER (Sha’ari) was firm when it came to his children’s studies. He also made an effort to create an environment for us to develop a love for reading as well as curiosity about the world around us.

My mother would drive all six children to the old National Library at Stamford Road every Saturday morning before dropping him off at his office at City Hall.

By the time she returned to pick us up in the afternoon, we had read many books, sat through many storytelling sessions and decided which books to borrow.

Sha’ari built up a home library, which he filled with encyclopaedias, books on Islam, books related to his work and novels and journals.

We grew up on Hemingway, Carnegie, Muslim scholars, Reader’s Digest, Encyclopaedia Britannica and Time magazine. My eldest sister Hamidah is grateful that he gave his children a head start in the English language.

She recounts: “My earliest memory of things English was when I was about three years old. My father read to me the nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet while I sat on his lap. I developed a deep love for English Literature and eventually went on to teach it in school.”

While his work took up much of his time, Sha’ari always made some time for us. In between his many overseas trips, he would take us to the zoo, the bird park and the playground at Katong Park. He would come home with gifts for us. My favourites were a stuffed toy koala bear from Australia, a Dutch doll with braids and wooden clogs, and some egg-shaped nesting dolls (matryoshka) from Russia.

Sha’ari sometimes took us with him to official events. When I was about six, I was frightened by the loud sounds of drums and cymbals during a Chinese lion dance performance, and was reassured by his gentle pats on my shoulders. Thus, he exposed us to different cultures and art forms from an early age. We sat through Chinese, Indian and Malay dances and attended the premieres of foreign films.

I remember all too clearly a garden party at the residence of former Minister for Education Lee Chiaw Meng. I was five or six then and happily absorbing the music and sounds of laughter and tinkling glasses, when Sha’ari suddenly announced that his two daughters would sing a song. My elder sister Halimah and I looked at each other; we had not been forewarned! Before we could run, we were lifted onto a bench set in the middle of the garden. We sang Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and other songs, at first shyly and eventually bravely in front of a smiling and indulgent audience.

Sha’ari hosted a Hari Raya open house every year at his Siglap home throughout his political career. PAP colleagues, former teaching colleagues, grassroots leaders, neighbours, relatives and friends and their children would mingle and enjoy a spread of delicious dishes cooked and prepared by my mother and her helpers.

He made the 10-hour drive to Kuala Pilah during school holidays so his Singapore family could reunite with his parents, siblings and nephews and nieces, and learn more about their Minangkabau, Javanese and Yunnan heritage.

City folk though we were, we assimilated immediately into the laidback and rural kampong life, with its huge compounds, duck ponds, farm animals and squatting outdoor toilets. They were such enjoyable experiences that some of us continue to balik kampong (return to the village) with our children.

In 1977, Sha’ari stepped down as senior parliamentary secretary to the Culture Ministry and went to Telok Kurau Secondary School as principal. He retired as MP for Bedok in 1980.

He retired from teaching in 1983. In 1987, at the age of 55, he received his master’s degree in Social Sciences. His thesis, entitled “A Sociological Study of Performance and Motivation of School Children in an Integrated Secondary School”, examined the social backgrounds of students as a determining factor in their academic achievements. It traced the history of educational policies and their impact on education in Singapore and highlighted the significance of motivation and aspiration in the process of achievement.

The year 1987 was also when he left the Education Ministry.

He took a position as a Visting Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). I was an undergraduate during this time at the National University of Singapore and whenever we ran into each other in Kent Ridge we would enjoy walking and talking together.

Sha’ari planned to pursue a PhD in education but suffered a stroke in 1989 and had to undergo bypass surgery. When he recovered, he continued at ISEAS until he completed his research projects in 1990.

He received the Anugerah Jasawan (Meritorious Award) from Majlis Pusat at its 15th anniversary dinner in 1984. He was awarded the Pingat Bakti Setia (Excellent Service Award) by the government for his 33 years of Public Service.

During the late 1990s, undeterred by ill health, Sha’ari decided to work on his memoirs. He showed his drafts to me and asked me to help.

His health deteriorated but he remained mentally alert and kept abreast of the latest news and events. Nor did he forget to say his five daily prayers. He enjoyed the regular visits of his six children and 11 grandchildren, relatives, friends, former peers and former students such as Zainul Abidin. I remembered my promise to help him work on his autobiography, hence this brief biography.”

Ho See Beng: Union leader who did not mince his words

“MY FIRST stab at politics was in the 1963 General Election and was a result of Devan’s (Devan Nair) work. He put up my name to the PAP (People’s Action Party) leadership as a candidate for election to the Legislative Assembly for the Bras Basah constituency.

By then, whatever Devan said went because he was already a senior member of the party’s leadership.

After the merger with Malaysia in 1963, I remember the PAP then was an overwhelming favourite. In the 1963 General Election, it swept into power winning 37 out of 51 contested seats.

I won my seat and became part of the Legislative Assembly from 21 September 1963 to the eve of National Day in 1965. When Singapore was part of Malaysia, I was also a member of the House of Representatives in the Malaysian Parliament.

As luck would have it, I continued to be the MP for Bras Basah and Khe Bong for nearly 20 years from 9 August 1965, after Singapore separated from Malaysia, to 3 December 1984. During that period, I was returned unopposed twice, in the 1968 and 1972 GEs.

During those trying periods of my life, I gave my all as an adviser to the Singapore Taxi Drivers’ Association (1963 to 1968) and to the Singapore Petty Traders’ Association (1964 to 1968). I was also very much involved in the Singapore Tong San Huay Kuan, Hwa Siah Musical Association, Singapore Chinese Registered Dentists’ Association and Singapore Fish Merchants’ Association.

In July 1968, a Bill that the Government introduced caught my attention. It was the second reading of the Employment Bill. It was not because I was opposed to it completely. It was obvious that the Government’s intentions for the proposed amendments were good.

But I thought something was amiss and had to speak up in Parliament.

The amendments to the Employment Act passed in Parliament were to give employers absolute power and a completely free hand in dealing with their employees, without any real safeguard for the interests and welfare of the workers. Even the most scrupulous employers would be stupid not to take advantage of them. So this would not work in favour of the workers.

I thought the amendments were unfair and one-sided. It threatened the security of employability for workers and placed them in a difficult situation. I am not implying, however, that with the passing of the amendments, all employers, including the Government, would be ready to exploit the provisions, especially with regard to retrenchment.

Yet there was also nothing in the Bill that mentioned preventing such employers from engaging their relatives and friends to fill the positions of the retrenched workers.

So I did what I had to do. I asked the Government to justify its case and add protective sub-clauses to this particular clause, so that no employer would be able to exploit it unjustly.

This was just one of the many issues that I fought for to safeguard employees. I did not mince my words; I said them as plainly as could be.

At least, I tried. As a result of the representations made by my NTUC colleagues and myself, the Government agreed to certain modifications to the Bill.

My work in unions, which had started before the 1950s, led to my being conferred the Public Service Star (BBM) in 1963. I relinquished my post as NTUC president in May 1966 and succeeded Steve Nagayan as NTUC secretary-general from May 1966 to May 1967; thereafter, I was appointed its secretary for international affairs for a further two years.

In 1979, I received the NTUC Veteran of Labour award during the May Day awards ceremony. This is usually conferred on retired unionists for significant contributions.”

This article was first published on July 12, 2014.
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