Francis Khoo Kah Siang passed away on November 20, 2011. 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 of 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.
But by the time we finally met, which was just fourteen 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 remarkably 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.
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. He attended a reception at the office of the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign and participated in a heavy schedule of activities during his visit.
All the while he was in Lebanon he was on peritoneal dialysis for kidney failure which he administered himself three to four times a day. On the bus south, to visit Palestinian 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. He 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 as 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. Following their January 1977 marriage, 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 theatre performing surgery. Eventually, and following torture, Dr. Swee was released as part of a government scheme to try to lure back to Singapore Francis, 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 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 Peranakan skirt — 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. With many talents that included using his legal education to challenge injustices and using his energy and organizational abilities to defend the oppressed such as the UK’s striking miners in 1985, working as Director of War on Want, established by the late British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, co-founding with his wife and their friends Pamela and Derek Cooper, Medical Aid for Palestinians and serving as its Vice Chairman from 1984 to 2007, and donating his times and abilities to numerous other charities.
Francis’ passions included writing, especially articles, poetry and songs, photography, and drawing. He possessed a particularly unique skill as explained by his niece Melissa, currently doing her residency in surgery and using the medical term ‘eidetic memory’ in describing her uncle’s photographic memory, that gave Francis the ability to recall images, sounds or objects with remarkable precision.
Francis Khoo lived a full and valuable life and left this world a better place because of his lifelong labors for justice. Those of us who share his commitment to the liberation of Palestine and the full return of her six million refugees will pay him tribute by continuing his work for peace and justice.
FRANKLIN LAMB volunteers with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaing in Lebanon. He is reachable firstname.lastname@example.org