On his 14th attempt to escape Vietnam, former South Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Van Loc made it, picked up by a French merchant vessel in the South China Sea with 32 other refugees as their own boat was sinking beneath them.

Now he is in Singapore, preparing for migration to the United States. Five years in reeducation camps and another year of supervised house arrest from which he was freed in 1981 have left their mark on the 60-year-old ex-politician. Lying on his hospital bed, dozing to tinny music coming from a cheap portable cassette recorder, his only companion and a gift from a friend in Singapore, to an unannounced visitor to his ward he presents a picture of fallen fortunes.

For at one time he was clearly a wealthy man. Each of his first 10 attempts to escape cost him $1,500 for himself and the same again for his 40-year-old wife carrying their 11-month-old daughter in her arms. After the gold had run out, they relied on the aid of friends, and it was one of these friends who told him on May 9 that there would be a departure that night.

He had 30 minutes to join the 40-foot boat at the waterfront. His wife and child were to join other women and children in a sampan on the river and be taken to the boat separately.

He was never to see her again. When the sampan arrived with four people on board, she was not among them. He learned later that penniless refugees called canh me had prevented her passage.

Speaking in French, he said, "Canh me types stop departing boats and demand money. If you have money, they leave you alone. She had only a little money--we'd given it all away. At the beginning of the sampan's departure, they didn't want women with small children who might cry and attract attention, so those with children were obliged to go back."

The fishing boat had hardly been at sea for 24 hours when its engine, gearbox and pumps broke down. Loc, a high-ranking dignitary in the Cao Dai religious sect, was beginning to face the prospect of his own death, not for the first time, when the freighter Chevalier Valbelle rescued him and his companions.

Once a successful lawyer, Loc had become prime minister Nov. 1, 1967, and served until May 26, 1968. The position was a reward for having been President Nguyen Van Thieu's campaign manager. Loc's own brief candidacy as Nguyen Cao Ky's running mate in the 1967 election had died when Ky dropped out to become Thieu's vice-presidential candidate.

Loc says now that he was only a compromise choice for prime minister in the rivalry between Ky and Thieu. Nevertheless, his ties with Ky seem as close as ever. Now a resident of the United States, Ky already has telephoned the Hawkins Road Refugee Camp in Singapore with a message "that my old friends are awaiting my arrival," Loc says.

If Loc were an ordinary refugee, there is no doubt that he would already be en route to France. He speaks fluent French, still owns property there and has two sons married to French citizens. However, he seems to prefer a future in the United States for carrying out his anticommunist convictions. "I think that the Americans are the champions of public and individual liberty," Loc said. "It's exactly because of that that I want to go to the U.S."

Dan Sullivan, coordinator for the U.S. Vietnamese refugee program, explained Loc's rapid admittance: "Because of his age, the length of time he spent in reeducation camps, and in part because he was working closely with high-ranking officials in Vietnam, we have offered him resettlement and he has accepted."

Five years of detention and "reeducation" on a regimen of hard labor fueled only by two daily meals of soup or vegetables with rice have, if anything, toughened Loc's anticommunist stance. He was repeatedly interrogated about his activities as prime minister, his duties as rector of the Cao Dai University which he founded in 1971 and his connections with other anticommunists. One of his cellmates was former deputy prime minister Nguyen Xuan Oanh.

Inside his camp in Thu Duc, a suburb north of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), he says there were more than 300 detained members of the Phuc Quoc movement, loosely translated as "retake the country," many of them Catholic laymen or priests. During the first months of his detention in the city, he was aware that in a nearby cell "there was a Gen. Nguyen Viet Hung, who claimed to be the Phuc Quoc resistance leader for the Saigon region." That was not his real name, Loc said, but his "battle name."

Loc has followed the fortunes of the resistance formed by his own sect, the Cao Dai. "The first arrests took place immediately after the fall of the regime. They arrested two of our archbishops, Tran Quang Vinh and Nguyen Van Nha."

The reason Loc gives for not evacuating with his Thieu government colleagues in 1975 is that as a Cao Dai he felt obliged to stay on, and to sign the diplomas for the first graduating class of his university that year. According to his "certificate of reeducation" which allowed him release from the labor camp in 1980, his "crime" was political--that he had been a prime minister. He looks back on his association with the Thieu regime and U.S. involvement with few apologies.

"It's easy to criticize a regime once it has fallen. I know there were some errors. The main mistake was to negotiate with the communists, because one must never negotiate when one is not as well organized or as well armed. . . .

"I think there was another error and that was to give too much liberty to people on our side. I'm not a fascist or a dictator, but the communists were able to infiltrate our charitable organizations, giving rice to the poor . . . They used these positions to spread propaganda."

As for corruption in the Thieu regime, Loc comments, "Nobody's a saint, we're all human. It's not necessary to exaggerate the bad side. Now in Vietnam, salaries are so low, no one can live on them, so it's total corruption from top to bottom. The villages are without electricity, people eat only vegetables, no meat at all. Only the communist cadres have meat, which they get from their special stores. In practice, corruption has multiplied a thousand times."