In mid-March, about a hundred Harvard alumni and friends gathered at the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC). Smack in the middle of our city-state, SICC abuts some of Singapore’s only remaining virgin forest, offering exclusive views of the MacRitchie and Lower Pierce reservoirs, a time-travelling vista onto the tropical island that once was. Aside from Singapore’s most expansive golf courses, its 7,800 members and their families also have access to an Olympic-sized pool, seven tennis and four squash courts, a 130-seat theatre, a 12-lane bowling alley, and numerous other facilities befitting a club whose membership now costs some S$400,000. Harvard x SICC is a confluence of privilege and old-money grandeur.

Yet taking centre stage that night was not the archetypical politician or tycoon blessed by the establishment, but a medical activist whom Singapore had effectively forced into exile in the 1970s. Dr Ang Swee Chai, who’d moved to the UK and then gone on to co-found Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), was back in Singapore for only the third time in 47 years, to receive the 2024 Harvard Club of Singapore (HCS) Fellow Award. Alumni, journalists, activists, and other invited guests, many in suits and gowns, sipped on wine and took selfies while doubt hung in the foyer’s air. Is this really happening? Are Israeli spooks around? Since when do you dress up?

After we were seated in the ballroom, Noeleen Heyzer, a former UN under-secretary and perhaps Singapore’s most accomplished international diplomat, introduced Ang as a “distinguished orthopaedic surgeon, a humanitarian, an advocate for peace, a dear friend, and a towering inspiration for us all.” But she was nowhere to be seen. When 4”11’ Ang rose from her chair to walk to the stage, we could then spot her red-and-white headscarf moving purposefully between heads on seated bodies. “She may be small in size, but she is a giant among us,” Noeleen had said.

Ang, 76, stepped onto the stage, and then onto a special platform that had been placed behind the podium for her. “I am a little bit speechless, and a bit overwhelmed,” she began, unused to such pomp and ceremony for her work. “This is very prestigious, and I can only thank you for letting me speak, thank you for putting me here, to represent them [Palestinians], and that’s why I’m here.”

We applauded. Ang paused, as assistants rushed on stage to fix a PowerPoint glitch. From a pocket in her black jacket she pulled out a chain, on which widgets dangled. “Always bring two USBs, in case one doesn’t work,” she said. We laughed. Many in the room, working mostly on the cloud, hadn’t held a thumb drive in years. Though unplanned, it was a fitting prelude to a talk that would also transport us through time and space, to a place where such contingencies still matter.

Over the course of the next 40 minutes, Ang shared her life’s work through a 183-slide presentation, “A woman Surgeon with the Palestinians”. She narrated methodically in sync with a visual compendium: photos of her younger self in Lebanon with colleagues, in the operating room, and in front of rubble; photos of bloodied, dead Palestinian bodies, including babies on hospital beds and young men lying, slain, on abandoned roads; meticulously sourced charts showing the carnage in numbers; countless web URLs with page titles like “What actually happened on 7 October 2023” and “Medical complicity with torture”; maps with lines to counter other maps with lines; photos of smiling Palestinian children, Gazan sunsets, and lush orange groves; photos of buildings exploding, limbs with gaping holes, and the charred remains of a person’s head, charcoal-coloured crumbs breaking off; more smiling children, their paintings, flowers in Gaza, and the intricately woven fabrics of Palestinian women.

It was an emotional rollercoaster that was confronting for us all. The room went silent, food went untouched. It’s not easy chomping on lobster risotto while looking at images of phosphorus burns. “They just burn, until they burn all the human flesh, and all the water has disappeared,” Ang said, of the munitions that Israel has allegedly used unlawfully on civilians as recently as last year.

HCS Fellow Award events tend to be laudatory spectacles where an individual’s empowering, inspirational life journey is revealed. Ang’s was a complex biography—her own story intertwined with that of the Palestinian people, told through analytical and ethnographic evidence that seemed crafted for a truth commission. She had come to bear witness.

Beirut, Lebanon. This and next two photographs courtesy of Dr Ang Swee Chai

Over the course of a week in Singapore, Ang repeated her plea to hundreds of Singaporeans, from mainstream media journalists and medical students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to opposition politicians and activists.

There’s been much gloom in Singapore since Hamas’s savage attacks on Israel on October 7th, and the subsequent onset of Israel’s war on Gaza. Part of the reason for this is that ordinary Singaporeans have felt disempowered and voiceless, with peace rallies and other public gatherings banned, even as Singaporean hawks publicly support the war and Israeli arms manufacturers sell their wares here.

And yet, despite all these seeming impediments to building a thriving democratic society, Ang told Jom that, after this recent trip back to Singapore, she has never been more hopeful for change.

Resistance is in Ang’s blood. When her mum was seven, she registered herself in school, disobeying her polygamous father—Ang’s grandfather—who believed that a woman’s place should be at home. After he took his fourth wife, Ang’s mum left home and never returned. 

During world war two, she, like many other ethnic Chinese, was captured and tortured by the Japanese. Ang recalled her mum’s words in From Beirut to Jerusalem: “It’s not as bad as it sounds. The first time, you’re scared you’ll give away your friends. But there comes a point when you pass out. Once that happens, you cannot feel pain anymore. Once you have learnt that, you can beat your torturers.”

Ang’s parents met in Outram Road prison. They later married, and travelled to Penang for Ang’s birth in 1948. When Ang was little, the family moved into a two-bedroom flat in Upper Serangoon in Singapore. She attended Kwong Avenue Primary School and Raffles Girls’ School before studying medicine at the University of Singapore (NUS’s predecessor). She then did a Master’s in public health and community health medicine before specialising in orthopaedic surgery. She wrote: “Surgery also combined my three passions: medicine, kitchen work (using knives and cutting up meat) and sewing.”

Ang converted to Christianity in medical school, and through the faith also found terrestrial love in lawyer Francis Khoo. His “deep commitment to social justice was to him a Christian obligation”, she wrote in her eulogy to him in 2011. Khoo would soon defend factory workers and student leader Tan Wah Piow in an industrial unrest incident that had infuriated Lee Kuan Yew. Tan was jailed for a year, and in 1976 fled Singapore for the UK, where he sought asylum. It was a season of arrests, as Lee’s government cracked down on many perceived enemies, including lawyers Gopalan Raman and Tan Jing Quee. (It arrested over 800 under the ISA in the 1970s, Teo Chee Hean, then deputy prime minister, confirmed in 2011.)

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