Hundreds of aging leftists gather in a restaurant tucked away in an obscure corner of an old shopping complex. They talk, shout, argue, and rant about the government. One of them goes onstage and demands political change in the next elections; he is greeted with raucous applause and loud cheers.
The attendees are mostly in their seventies or eighties. Several lean on spouses, children, or canes as they hobble to and from their seats. The restaurant staff has to make way for a wheelchair or two as they weave between the tables filling glasses with tea or orange juice.
The third day of Chinese New Year marks the annual lunch gathering of the Old Left in Singapore. Members of the leftist movement of the 1950s and 1960s—former student activists, union workers, and politicians—meet to reminisce about the good old days. It’s been such a long-standing tradition that some have lost count of how many they’ve attended.
“Since the 1980s, I would say,” says 80-year-old Loh Miaw Gong, a tiny white-haired lady who switches between Mandarin and English with ease. “Unless I’ve had really urgent matters to attend to, I’ve attended every year.”
This assembly represents a slice of Singapore history omitted from school textbooks. Largely Chinese-educated, these senior citizens were once at the forefront of the anti-colonialist movement on which the still-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) rode to prominence and, ultimately, victory. Many of them paid a high price for their efforts, too, through arrests and detentions carried out by the colonial government, and later by the PAP itself under its indomitable leader, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee went on to be Singapore’s Prime Minister for over three decades.