Why S'pore doesn't dare: Retiring publisher Fong Hoe Fang reflects on 40 years of activism

'You see injustice, it's so clear-cut, how can you not stand up for them?'

Jeanette Tan | March 03, 2019, 06:09 PM

It arguably isn't common to find a businessman who prioritises compassion over profits in Singapore, but Fong Hoe Fang is one of these rare gems.

Back in 1989, Fong's first two hires to his brand-new desktop publishing start-up were a man with polio who uses a wheelchair and another who was fresh out of life imprisonment (20 years at the time, with a one-third discount for good behaviour) for armed robbery when he was 18.

He explains that the second man had been out of work for six months because he was "too honest" about why he had no work experience even though he was already 30 years old.

"A Catholic priest came to me and said 'you're looking for people right, you willing to train this guy?' ... I said to him (the ex-convict), if you're willing to learn, I pay you S$200 — in those days, I think the going rate was about S$400 — I said I pay you S$200 and you learn from me, then if you're good I'll pay you S$400, then S$600. And he was willing to do it.

I paid him S$200 for about eight months I think, and he was good. He proved to be really disciplined, you know. And then you know — so after that I paid him... And so this just went on..."

And his third? Someone who was deaf.

"Because I believe these guys just need the opportunity, and then you train them, you really have to train them. then it's up to them, if they cannot make it then too bad, you know what I mean? But you must give them the opportunity."

That humble desktop publishing firm would be called Pagesetters, which would over the three decades Fong spent at its helm run the gamut of newsletter publishing, advertising and now, what he's perhaps best known for: his local book publisher Ethos Books.

"There's a personal achievement I feel in people"

The Pagesetters and Ethos Books office. Photo by Jeanette Tan

The childhood bookworm in me leapt for joy when I stepped into the Pagesetters office in Midview City in Sin Ming — the hive of activity, the steel shelves piled high floor-to-ceiling with boxes and stacks of wrapped books, and a long-lost delicious scent of freshly-printed and cut pages intertwined and made me fervently wish this was where I worked.

Ethos, which Fong started in 1997, is a brand that's become known (in the literary community, at least) for publishing poetry and work by emerging local authors — it was only in recent years, he shares, that they started publishing memoirs and other non-fiction genres.

But one of its latest published non-fiction work is its best-ever-seller: This Is What Inequality Looks Like by sociologist Teo You Yenn.

They've already sold upwards of 24,000 copies, and are still going into more re-runs of the book. Public demand for it has not waned despite Teo's arguments having been rebutted robustly at least twice by the establishment: once by Senior Minister of State Maliki Osman and another by veteran social worker Sudha Nair.

Successes like this aside, though, as the 64-year-old (he turns 65 in August) looks back on his career, he still comes back to people (and how he formed them) as the personal achievement he takes the greatest pride in.

I probably should have taken this cue from Ethos's 21st birthday party in September last year, where Fong announced his retirement and the team had prepared a farewell tribute video from writers, ex-colleagues and even former interns — all of whom were invited to the event as privileged guests.

Very early on in our conversation, he sings the praises of every single person on his team, focusing especially on the young people he is handing the reins to.

His associate publisher Ng Kah Gay, for instance, came to him wanting less than an intern's pay ("Mr Fong, just pay me S$300 or S$400, no need to pay me also never mind, I just want to learn") after the Public Service scholar spent eight years teaching at Victoria Junior College.

His editorial manager Kum Suning started fresh out of university on an internship under his wife, Wai Han, too — Fong said she tailed her dutifully for a year until she got good enough to start earning a graduate's salary.

Most of the young people on the team now, as a matter of fact, converted to full-time hires from internships.

"I always believe in people. they are the assets that we must develop. Because once we develop them, motivate them, and so on, the rest of the things will automatically happen."

Fong with past, present employees & interns, authors & friends at Ethos's 21st birthday. Photo via Ethos Books Facebook page

When friends got arrested & detained

Fong's compassion for others in need is far from confined to his decades in publishing — although there is much to say about those years: being among the first Singapore firms to implement a five-day work week (it was previously five and a half), even before the government, for one. He also makes it a point to take the whole company on an annual overseas retreat, and they've been to Bangkok, Phuket, Penang and Perth.

Ethos was also the first and main publisher of books and writing that present anti-establishment narratives of the controversial 1987 Operation Spectrum arrests and detentions — stories told by the detainees, a few of whom happened to also have been his personal friends.

It started in the late 1970s, at the height of the vibrancy of Singapore's civil society, when Fong, fresh out of Singapore University armed with a social work degree, decided he didn't want to do social work for a career that involved "just treating the symptoms of a very broken society", and started a magazine called Breakthrough with a group of eight to 12 friends.

Fong volunteered for the night shift (1am-7am) at his job, slept till noon, and then spent his afternoon hunting for stories on social issues for the magazine — indeed a bonafide self-taught independent journalist.

He covered printing costs with his "pretty good" salary at SATS (the airline catering and ground handling company), and charged S$1 per copy. After awhile, though, he got advertisers on board, who covered printing costs and then some.

The stories Fong and his friends put together and published made Breakthrough's readers write letters to them to ask what could be done about cases they reported of spousal abuse and more.

"And so one of the things we could do, we felt, was to have a centre, because in those days those women were really abused you know... we reached a situation where a woman can be beaten up by her husband and she's crying, screaming, neighbour calls the police and they go up to their place, stops the fight and then looks around and says I can't do anything, I can't arrest the man because it's a civil matter... You take it up in civil court. And then you leave. And then... what's going to happen? The guy is going to beat again! Right? (He would say to his wife) 'You clever and call the police is it?'

So we said, we cannot have this. So we needed to have a safe space. So we offered this place and told the police if you come across these, take them out, put them at our place. That was the Geylang centre."

Vincent Cheng is second from the left, Teo Soh Lung is on the extreme right. (Photo via SDP Facebook page)

That was how Fong met and worked closely with Teo Soh Lung and Vincent Cheng, two Catholic social worker-volunteers who devoted their time to helping foreign workers, prisoners, drug addicts, and any others who sought assistance at the Geylang Catholic Centre. The centre quickly became a second home for Fong, his Breakthrough teammates and the Catholic Centre workers and volunteers.

But it also became a place of scrutiny for the authorities, and Teo and Cheng would end up becoming the two highest-profile "Marxist Conspiracy" detainees in Operation Spectrum.

"I saw them day in and day out. These guys, what?? Marxist?? What are you talking about? I mean okay, they have Marxist ideas perhaps but so? And then you look at them, carry gun ah? Come on lah."

Unfortunately, Breakthrough lost their government licence to publish at the end of 1980. They regained it after putting up a fight, but the initial loss of their publishing licence cost Fong his big-ticket advertisers, and eventual disagreements with friends over the direction for the magazine led the group to cease production and part ways.

After being inspired by the late former 1977 political detainee and lawyer Tan Jing Quee, who made the first Singaporean effort to document the stories of political detainees, Fong decided he should do the same for those detained under Operation Spectrum.

"Because these were friends. You see injustice, it's so clear-cut, how can you not stand up for them?"

So 2009 saw the first print run of That We May Dream Again, a compilation of stories from Spectrum detainees edited by Fong. This was followed by Our Thoughts Are Free, a poetry collection, Teo's Beyond The Blue GatePriest in GeylangEscape from the Lion's Paw and multiple other titles as the years passed.

Fong recalls the relief he felt after the first release of That We May Dream Again because "eh, that guy [Fong] is still outside [prison], he's not in [been arrested under the Internal Security Act] yet!" These books, he shares, weren't quite his best-sellers, but are the ones he is proudest of publishing.

"These are really the books that nobody else dared to publish and no one dared to or wanted to publish."

Where the line is drawn

Photo by Jeanette Tan

Now before you think Fong published every sensational, anti-establishment book that came his way, that actually isn't the case at all.

"I mean we have to be very careful with both parties because let's face it: The PAP government is not a zero; they have done great stuff and good stuff and we have to look at it and say 'hey guys, this is good, this is not good', you know. And I think when you approach things that way people tend to respect you more — people tend to go 'okay, you're not always tugging at a leash.'"

Fong has turned away authors before, who come to him with sensational premises for non-fiction books, but with assertions they cannot prove, or where the people they refer to or target are unable to respond to, confirm or deny their account of events.

"I mean, I would have loved to do them, they would have made me rich. Because it's so provocative and so on. But you look at it ah, I said no lah. Because the guy is claiming certain things and is based on you say I say. You say I say is a bit harder to, you know, so I don't want to get into a situation where it becomes that kind of thing. So it must be based on facts...

It's very hard. because then I open myself to he say I say, you know, and this kind of thing, especially if you want to go wallop somebody who is dead and gone, it's also not nice. You know what I mean. I mean if he really did the stuff and you can prove it then okay, you can put it out you know. But he's not there to defend himself. So why do you want to do it? Unless there is irrefutable evidence. So there are books that I pulled back also...

It's not that I'm afraid. But I just want to say things that I can back up, that I'm certain about."

So why don't we dare?

Now by this point, I am agape at the stories Fong is telling me about his life and times — some of which even I hesitate to write down — he is even a survivor of nasal pharyngeal cancer, now eight years in remission, although at one point he thought he may not make it, and contemplated shutting down Pagesetters and Ethos Books.

But one thing I spent our conversation wondering, and did ask him, is why Singaporeans don't seem to dare to step up, strike out and organise ourselves to do things and reach out to those in need, plugging the gaps the way people (ahem, Merdekas) like Fong did so readily in their time.

Fong suspects it started from the tumultuous 1960s, when the PAP made the decision to clamp down on the Barisan Sosialis, which was actually made up of very capable, charismatic and educated leaders like the late Lim Chin Siong, Lim Hock Siew, Tan Jing Quee and others. Certainly, the communist threat may have been very real to the late Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP's leadership at the time, but to Fong, at least, Singapore would have been able to build a stronger citizenry had our founding leaders allowed a two-party Parliament (i.e. the PAP and the Barisan Sosialis).

"Because now everybody depends on government. 'Government do lor' — I hate this you know. I say guys, you know, don't everything depend on the government. The government cannot do everything, you don't expect them to do everything. Because once you expect them to do everything then they will begin to exert that kind of power, more and more power over you, and then you become powerless and you think that everything you need somebody to do for you. We cannot have that.

Because in the old days, everything we could do you know. Within the law. And we did everything within the law. You get what I mean? But now cannot. Now one man can't even stand in front of Parliament."

Here, he refers to artist Seelan Palay, who was arrested after standing outside Parliament house for 30 minutes carrying a mirror he had drawn on:

Fong also believes we have become more concerned about financial security and stability — not an unreasonable thing to be concerned, about, of course, given the much higher cost of living today than in the past.

But, he argues, this makes us opt for the safer path, instead of perhaps what we inwardly feel may be truly the "right thing" to do:

"And that is what is really crippling us, you know, Singapore. This is really crippling us. We don't dare, because the money is too good, you don't want to lose your job you see.

So when you start from the wrong place of why you're doing the job that you're doing, along the way obstacles [come], you can scale the first one, the second one, the third one, but when it comes to the crunch, you must have the guts to do what is the right thing without fear, and be prepared to say bye. And go off."

Once again, it comes back to people

Can we find this brave spirit again?

Fong says he's encouraged by the everyday — the fact that Singaporeans wouldn't hesitate to help an elderly man who falls down on the street, for instance — but it's about feeling strongly enough about other people, about what's right and wrong, to pick a fallen sign off the road or replace a dislodged drain cover so others won't fall into a pothole.

It's funny, but I see numerous layers of meaning to the word "ethos" — as it is lived in Fong's life and his company, especially. Even in discussing Singapore society, Fong keeps returning to his young people, and emphasises that it's about building a community of people with the right heart (i.e. the right ethos [character]).

"It's not so much about the money, whether we're making money; we want to make meaning first then I believe the money will come later.

I'm a Christian, so I always believe that you do this work, it's the right kind of work, justice work, it's good work for people, for the community, money will follow. And it's always proven to be that way."

Top photo, miraculously, by Jeanette Tan