Francis Khoo Kah Siang passed away on November 20, 2011.
In addition to the countless reasons Francis will be sorely missed by his friends and loved ones, he will be missed because he leaves a void for many of us who were and remain inspired by his work for Palestinian rights. Francis Khoo is an icon like countless others, who like himself, are neither Arab nor Muslim, neither from the Middle East nor culturally or politically connected to Palestine by birth, but who support the Palestinian cause.
Many of us, but especially Westerners and Americans it seems, learn essentially nothing about the Nakba in school. Yet many, often quite by chance and for one reason or another, have come into contact with the Question of Palestine and, learning about the great injustice that has befallen the Palestinian people, could not remain indifferent or idle. Francis was one of these.
To my personal regret, I did not know Francis Khoo well personally for a long period although we knew of each other. But by the time we finally met, which was just 14 months before his sudden and untimely death last month, I knew what kind of a person he was and something about his lifelong quest for justice.
Over the past half-decade I learned something about his remarkable work through my friend, his wife, the gifted orthopedic surgeon and well known humanitarian, Dr. Swee Chai Ang, who for three decades has embraced and supported Palestinian refugees both with lifesaving medical care under heavy and indiscriminate bombardment inside Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp and Gaza Hospital in Beirut, and with her indefatigable work for the refugees' return to Palestine. The latter included lectures and appearances around the World, sometimes in the company of Francis, her beloved husband, advocate, counselor and partner.
It was in September
of 2010 that I met Francis in person when he came to Beirut for the 28th
annual commemoration of the September 1982 Sabra-Shatila Massacre, and he
attended a reception at the office of the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign and
participated in a heavy schedule of activities during his visit. It was evident
that he was a fascinating life-loving person with whom it would be a great
pleasure to spend time and to work with, which I had hoped to do.
According to his niece Melissa, Francis would often use his walking stick as a hanging post for his dialysis fluids including at the Hezbollah museum at Melita in South Lebanon.
He recalled with fondness how the Hezbollah Melita museum guard who was obviously unfamiliar with this version of makeshift dialysis tried to help him. On the bus south, to visit Palestinian refugee camps, Francis entertained the passengers with songs, including Beladi ("my land') the beautiful Arabic anthem of the Palestinian revolution, followed by a soliloquy on the origin of the song and his interpretation.
Few of the passengers on the bus had much idea about Francis' background. Francis Khoo Kah Siang was born into a closely knit, devoutly Catholic Singapore Peranakan family. As a lad he sang in the Singing Khoos with his brothers and at an early age developed a passion to work for the rights of the oppressed. Once admitted to the Singapore Bar, Frances began working on sensitive civil rights cases that many other lawyers preferred to avoid.
Francis had earlier developed a reputation as a defender of the downtrodden, and while an undergraduate at University, or later as Vice President of the Student Law Society, he opposed the introduction of the Suitability Certificate, fought the abolition of the jury system in Singapore and condemned the indiscriminate criminal 1972 Christmas Day bombing of Hanoi ordered by President Nixon.
Before long Francis found himself being accused of violating Singapore's Internal Security Act, which particularly during the 1977-1987 period was used to arrest hundreds of Singaporeans who were held without trial. A fortnight following their January 1977 marriage, the international security police came for him. His young wife Dr. Swee Chai Ang, was also sought by authorities who came for her and threatened to handcuff her while she was in the operating theater performing surgery. Eventually, and following continuous interrogation, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, Dr. Swee was released as part of a government scheme to try to lure Francis back to Singapore, who by then had escaped and left for England and he began his 34 years of exile from his country. Swee joined her loved one and they developed their remarkable careers in London.
Francis' niece recently wrote that, "They could kick Francis out of Singapore, but they could not kick the Singaporean out of Francis," as he followed events in his country, frequently wore his Peranakanskirt -- the Sarong -- and wrote about his homeland including the well-known song, "And Bungaraya Blooms All Day." Francis had hoped that 2011 would be the Singaporean Spring.
Some friends saw a parallel between Francis' wish to return to his homeland and his decades of advocacy of the Palestinians Right of Return.
Francis Khoo, was a gifted humanist. He had many God-given and self-discipline acquired talents that included using his legal education and life experience to challenge injustices and using his energy and organizational abilities to defend the oppressed.