Exiled Singapore activist meets Dr Mahathir

Tan Wah Piow says Malaysia should play a bigger role to encourage democracy in the region.

PUTRAJAYA: An exiled lawyer who got into trouble with Singapore authorities more than 40 years ago today held a meeting with Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, where he expressed hope that the recent Pakatan Harapan electoral victory would encourage greater democratisation of the South East Asian region.

Tan Wah Piow, a former student leader who was jailed in the 1970s and had his Singapore citizenship revoked after he was accused of planning a Marxist coup, was accompanied by local activist Hishamuddin Rais, Singapore historian Thum Ping Tjin and two others.

They spent nearly 90 minutes with Mahathir, discussing the veteran leader’s vision of Malaysia-Singapore relations among other topics.

Tan, who is part of a group called the Forces for Renewal of South East Asia, also invited Mahathir to deliver the keynote address for a conference they were organising next year.

Speaking to reporters, Tan, who is now based in London, said Malaysia had “stolen” the limelight from Singapore in the region following the historic outcome of the May 9 polls.

“I hope the May 9 polls can influence Singaporeans. Malaysia has pointed the way to Singaporeans that change is possible and not frightening,” said Tan.

He said the development was a cause for concern for the People’s Action Party which has ruled Singapore since 1965, the year the republic was formed after breaking away from Malaysia.

Tan flanked by activist Hishamuddin Rais (left) and historian Thum Ping Tjin, outside the PM’s office in Putrajaya.

Tan said a frequent narrative that a change of government in Malaysia would spark racial clashes was also disproved.

“That emboldens the people and frees them from the myth that democracy leads to violence,” he said, adding that Mahathir’s victory brought hope to many others struggling for a freer society.

Tan said Mahathir’s preparedness to share his views will worry Singapore.

As a student in the 1970s, Tan was the president of the University of Singapore’s Students’ Union (USSU), and was behind several protests for workers’ rights and democracy.

He was eventually arrested and jailed, but left Singapore for London in 1976 to seek political asylum.

In 1987, Singapore accused him of plotting to overthrow the government and install a Marxist government, and his citizenship was revoked.

Meanwhile, historian Thum Ping Tjin said during their meeting, he urged Mahathir to take the lead in lobbying for greater democracy and freedom in Southeast Asia.

He said the May 9 elections came as a massive shock to Singaporeans.

“We also have a long-ruling party, so we followed the election with keen interest.

“We wonder if the same thing can happen in Singapore,” said Thum, who is part of Project Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford.