Ng Shui Meng: “I’m sure the truth will come out.”
I first met Ng Shui Meng on the third day of the Lunar New Year, at the annual luncheon of Singapore’s old leftists. We sat at the same table, surrounded by elderly men and women who had been at the forefront of Singapore’s anti-colonial and democratic movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Accused of subversion and communist activity, many had been detained without trial in state actions that repressed and dampened activism on the island. The yearly lunch was an opportunity for old friends to come together and reminisce.
As the slideshows played between each course, I heard Shui Meng talking to others at our table about her husband, himself a victim of state reprisal in a case that has yielded no answers for over four long years.
Despite repeated requests for an independent investigation, statements from the Lao government have been far from satisfactory.
Sombath Somphone disappeared in December 2012. CCTV footage showed him speaking to someone by a municipal police station in Vientiane before being taken away in another car. No one’s heard from him since. Despite repeated requests for an independent investigation, statements from the Lao government have been far from satisfactory.
Shui Meng has been steadfast in her push for answers, writing letters and appeals to the Lao government asking for her husband’s safe return. When we met up again a couple of days after the lunch, the 71-year-old Singaporean spoke in a soft, considered manner, a clear advocate of her husband’s work.
Not many of those lucky enough to further their education outside Laos choose to return home, but it was important to Sombath to do just that. “He felt that it was a privilege for him to be supported, through scholarships and so on, to get to study abroad, and since he chose to study agriculture, he felt that his skills could be used to help farmers like his parents to improve their productivity, improve their agriculture, to feed their families and ensure some degree of food security,” Shui Meng said of his decision to return after completing his studies in the United States.
Laos — officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic — has been governed by the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since 1975. A small Indochinese nation under state control, news from the country rarely makes it into international or even regional news. There are no foreign media bureaus in the country; most correspondents cover Laos from other cities like Bangkok or Phnom Penh. The local civil society circle is fairly small, and often focused on less “controversial” causes like sanitation or health.
“I think maybe his disappearance was a warning to other civil society actors.”
Sombath worked closely with the community, including the local government, then branched into broader community development work, collaborating with the Ministry of Education to introduce more life skills into the extra-curricular activities in public schools. He started the Participatory Development Training Centre to engage the Lao people through projects, learning centres and networks.
But Shui Meng and Sombath’s supporters believe that it was ultimately his involvement in the Asia-Europe People’s Forum that rubbed the powerful up the wrong way.
“For Laos, it was the biggest civil society forum ever to be held in the country. I think maybe there were some elements within the political system who were not comfortable with the engagement of civil society,” she said. “And I think maybe his disappearance was a warning to other civil society actors that the government does not feel that ordinary people can interfere, or see themselves as being more important than the government.”
If Sombath’s abduction was indeed meant to be a warning, it was an effective one. The shockwaves reverberated throughout Laos’ fledgling civil society, and can still be felt in the country today.
“The fear stems from the fact that people don’t know when you are stepping out of line,” Shui Meng explained. “The line is never clear, and when they see that someone like Sombath, who is very well known, and seen as not only a leader but a veteran, and who has never been engaged in any political activities which could be vaguely described as subversive, could be disappeared… For some of the newer groups, they feel it is much better not to be too upfront, and not to say too much, especially talking about Sombath.”
This wariness means that there has been very little support within Laos for Sombath’s safe return. While regional networks such as the Mekong Youth have demanded accountability, the advocacy happens without the participation of Lao members.
As a citizen, Shui Meng sought the support of the Singapore government in her campaign for her husband’s release. The government has done what they can: successive Singaporean ambassadors to Laos have raised the issue. The matter was also raised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a meeting of ASEAN leaders, and by Charles Chong, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. But the reality is that there is little Singapore can do beyond repeated requests for resolution.
There has been little support among ordinary Singaporeans; it’s unlikely that many have even heard of Sombath Somphone or his disappearance. There isn’t a huge amount of awareness or knowledge of the political or human rights issues in neighbouring countries at the best of times, and particularly not from an under-reported country like Laos.
“Some people pay the price for their beliefs, for their values, and for what they fight for.”
Yet similarities between the two countries can still be found. Listening to Shui Meng talk about her husband’s disappearance, I ventured to point out parallels between his case and that of the former political detainees we had lunched with just days before: the seizure, the climate of fear and the consequent quelling of dissent.
She was silent for a moment, thinking, then said, “Unfortunately, it works. Some people pay the price for their beliefs, for their values, and for what they fight for.”
“When I look at the lunch, there’s a strong sense of nostalgia, but at the same time, for me, it’s also a bit sad. Maybe with the passing of this generation, this generation who went to the lunch, a historical memory of that period and that struggle will also go with them,” she added.
In many ways, the cultural memory of this period of political activism has already been lost; it doesn’t feature in the Singaporean school curriculum, leaving most young Singaporeans oblivious to a rich history of community organising and mobilising. It’s a loss that isn’t just about the obscuring of names and dates, but about the erasure of the vibrancy that was once Singapore’s political scene.
“I think it is so important to promote the books of Dr Poh Soo Kai, Dr Lee Siew Choh, and all that,” Shui Meng said. “You don’t need to agree with them, you don’t even need to agree with their stance, but let people have access to that information, that perspective of what they were struggling for, what they were hoping to develop, what were they hoping to build in Singapore.”
“If you don’t understand the past you will never understand the present. And we will not have a vision for the future.”
She smiled wryly, recalling the Powerpoint slideshows cobbled together for the lunch, paying tribute to prominent leaders like Lim Hock Siew and Said Zahari, and sharing photos from the attendees’ days of activism. Many of the photos were of Chinese school students who had been at the forefront of the anti-colonial movement.
“It’s very ironic: the Singapore Chinese High School [now Hwa Chong Institution] was the hotbed of political radicalism, but today, for me, the Singapore Chinese High School is the hotbed of conservative capitalism. This happened in just two generations,” she said.
She went on: “I understand that we cannot have anything which is static, the world changes, Singapore changes, the Singapore River also changes, the properties change, schools change, the value systems change, but I hope that the young people know and learn. It’s important that we do not forget our history and forget where we came from, and what makes Singapore today. Because if you don’t understand the past you will never understand the present. And we will not have a vision for the future.”
It’s an important message, not just for Singapore, but all countries where the powerful have attempted to restrict and constrain public discourse and participation. I wonder if Sombath’s case will ever be resolved, if both his family and the people of Laos will ever have an independent accounting of what’s happened to one of their most respected community workers.
“I retain the hope that I will one day find out,” Shui Meng said. “But whether I find out or not, eventually the truth will come out. And whether Sombath comes back or not, I feel that he has lived his life honestly to the best of his ability and contributed to a betterment of his people. I don’t think that can ever be wiped off. There are people who still, in their own way, share his values, and try to do what they can.”