Solitary confinement, beatings, electric shocks and threats to families - we're not talking about prisons in North Korea, or Abu Ghraib, but in Singapore's Whitley Road Detention Centre (same location as picture above) where such methods to extract confessions and recantations were allegedly used against political detainees during the 1970s, as documented by Amnesty International in a report published in 1980.
(lll) Methods of arrest, detention and interrogation
Through its Internal Security Act, the Government of the Republic of Singapore is endowed with extraordinary powers of arbitrary arrest and detention. These powers have been used extensively to detain students, workers, doctors, trade unionists, lawyers and journalists.
Arrest take place in nearly all cases late at night or early in the morning. The detained person is taken in a Black Maria to a Special Branch Holding Centre where he is kept in solitary confinement for 30 days' interrogation. The van might spend several hours circling the city before entering the interrogation centre through an underground entrance. The main Special Branch Interrogation Centre in Singapore is the Whitley Road Holding Centre. There are however other undisclosed Special Branch Centres. In most cases the interrogated person does not know where he is being held. Throughout the 30 days' interrogation the prisoner is not allowed access to a lawyer and in most cases is forbidden visits from his family contrary to the provisions of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Indeed, frequently the family is not even informed of the arrest. The only human contact the detainee enjoys is with his interrogators. It is a matter of routine that all prisoners undergoing interrogation are denied such elementary necessities as spectacles, watch, soap, comb and towel.
On arrival at the centre the arrested person is forced to change into criminal prisoner's clothing and then taken directly to his cell, or in some cases, to the interrogation room. The cells are walled rooms, often underground, approximately 5' by 7' by 10' high with no windows and completely inadequate ventilation. Many ex-detainees complain of their cells being infested with mosquitoes. There are no blankets, mattress or pillows in the cell and the bed consists of a concrete coffin-like block, sometimes covered with wooden planks. Those prisoners who have been provided with blankets and mattress at a later stage of their detention complain of them being insect-infested and urine stained.
The lighting too is designed to increase the prisoner's discomfort. In most cases there is only a single 5-watt bulb kept burning 24 hours a day, so dim, in the words of one ex-detainee that 'I could barely see the lines on my hands'. In other cases a neon light is kept burning 24 hours a day in the cell. No reading material is allowed and detainees are forbidden to write to their relatives during interrogation. Even singing and speaking is forbidden in the cells. The sense of isolation and deprivation felt by the prisoner is enhanced by the Singapore Government's policy of recruiting Gurkha mercenary troops from Nepal as guards at both the Whitley Road Holding Centre and at the Moon Crescent Detention Centre. The Gurkhas speak neither Chinese, the first language of most of the detainees, nor Malay, and speak little English.
During the 30 days a detained person is held under Section 74, his routine alternates between long spells spent in solitary confinement and rigorous interrogation that may continue for as long as 72 hours, and in a few cases even longer. The interrogation is carried out by teams of interrogators who subject the detainee to a constant and merciless cross-examination that in many cases has led to mental breakdown and/or the ritual 'confession' sought by the Government. Amnesty International has established that prisoners have been subjected to serious ill-treatment and torture during this period.
The interrogation room is usually air-conditioned to a temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit and even higher in the hot and humid underground cells. 'X' is an ex-detainee interviewed by Amnesty International who was subjected to 72 hours' continuous interrogation after her arrest in 1977:
'The cold was indescribable. The Special Branch officers wore woollen jumpers and thick jackets. I thought I would never stop shivering. Indeed at one point I thought my heart was going to burst. By the third day, my lips had become very cracked with the cold. My watch had been taken away and I had no idea what time of day or night it was. It was like being in a nightmare. The worst thing was not knowing what would happen next.'
'I had a feeling after a while of extreme exhaustion. You were deprived of everything. Prisoners are forbidden to sing or talk in their cells. I tried to remember poems that I had learned at school and scolded myself that I could remember so few. It is the complete lack of contact with anything or anybody in the outside world that is so unbearable. I remember distinctly one unforgettable incident that I am sure kept me going during my detention. I had called the guard to ask to go to the toilet, and for some reason was taken to a different one from the usual one, which involved walking through a courtyard. As we walked through it, I could see that it was late evening and suddenly a leaf from a rain-tree blew onto the path. I remember thinking it was some kind of God-send and feeling so grateful that here was something from outside prison. I picked it up and kept it with me for the remainder of my time there. I can never convey how much that one thing meant.'
The complete isolation and deprivation that solitary confinement necessarily entail, combined with the long periods of interrogation, have an extremely debilitating effect on many prisoners. 'X' remembers again:
'The hours in the cell are very long. After a while, even the interrogation is something to look forward to because it at least breaks the monotony. It is a real effort to try and occupy your mind all the time. One tries to think of family and friends, and of songs and poems and of episodes in one's life, but after a while even this becomes difficult and pointless. There are moments when you think you will never have a creative thought about anything again.'
Other prisoners, particularly those from working class backgrounds, have been subjected to physical torture during interrogation. Beatings are all too common and a much used method of obtaining information is to continually douse the prisoner in cold water while he is being questioned in the air-conditioned interrogation room. In recent years, electric shock treatment has also been employed to torture prisoners, including female detainees. Prisoners in the Moon Crescent Detention Centre have from time to time been removed to Whitley Road Holding Centre for interrogation, where they have been subjected to ill-treatment and torture.
One case that has come to the attention of Amnesty International is that of Chai Chong, at the time of his arrest in 1976 an engineering graduate from the Singapore Polytechnic. During his interrogation at Whitley Road Holding Centre, Chai Chong was tortured by electric shock treatment as well as beaten several times. On other occasions he had filthy rags forced into his mouth and red ants placed on his mattress.
Conditions at Whitley Road Holding Centre have always been grim. The width of the cells in which the detainees are kept is only the span of a man's arms. The bed is little more than a cement block with, at best, some planks on top of it. Prisoners are allowed out of their cells for half-an-hour a day to go to the toilet and to wash.
Another detainee known to Amnesty International is Tan Kim Chong who was arrested on 9 April 1977. At the time of his arrest he was a worker in a textile factory. In clear breach of Section 74 of the ISA he was detained at Whitley Road Holding Centre in solitary confinement until 22 June 1977, more than two-and-a-half months after his arrest, before finally being moved to Moon Crescent Detention Centre. During interrogation he was frequently beaten and as a result lost several teeth. Yet another detainee arrested in 1976, Chieu Tuan Sin, also lost several teeth from beatings received during interrogation.
Ho Khoon Khoong, a political prisoner arrested in August 1976 and a construction worker by occupation, was likewise severely beaten during interrogation. He was several times doused in cold water and also had his genital organs beaten.
Pang Hee Fat, a detainee arrested in 1967, had his jaw broken as a result of beatings. He was released in 1973 but was rearrested on 14 July 1976, and was badly assaulted and ill-treated during his subsequent interrogation. He was questioned for periods of up to 12 hours at one time by a group of seven to eight Special Branch officers who assaulted him on numerous occasions. As a result he suffered bruises and vomited badly. Because of his ill-treatment he tried to commit suicide by banging his head against the cell wall. During one interrogation session at Whitley Road, Pang Hee Fat's wife, Wong Kui Inn, also a detainee, was brought in to see her husband being beaten. Wong Kui Inn was herself badly treated during interrogation and was subjected to dousing in cold water and electric shocks.
Some prisoners, as we have already indicated, have spent extremely long periods in solitary confinement. The lawyer, T T Rajah, was arrested on 20 June 1974 and spent the next six months in solitary confinement. He was taken from his home at 4 am by police car to the Central Police Station and placed in a cell. For the first 24 hours he received no food and although he is diabetic, his medication was taken away from him. The following day he was taken to Whitley Road Holding Centre where he was held in solitary confinement until December 1974. His cell measured only 6' x 8' x 12'. Ventilation was poor and there were no toilet facilities. He was not allowed to shower for the first ten days of his imprisonment there nor was he allowed exercise for the first months of his imprisonment. Periods of six months in solitary confinement after arrest are not unusual. Another known case is that of Chang Min Oh arrested on 3 August 1970. At the time of his arrest an active trade unionist and Chairman of the Goldsmiths' Association, Chng Min Oh, like T T Rajah, was imprisoned in solitary confinement at Whitley Road.
Solitary confinement and physical and psychological torture are not the only rigours that political prisoners in Singapore are forced to undergo. Threats are also made regarding prisoners' families and in a number of cases the wives of political detainees have been taken into custody. One example is the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Dr Poh Soo Kai.
Dr Poh Soo Kai is a former leader of the Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) who was detained without trial for ten years under the ISA, from 1963 to 1973. On 4 June 1976 he was rearrested by the Singapore Special Branch. His recorded statement follows:
'I left my house on 4.6.76 morning and as I was about to enter my car, a Chinese man who had parked his car sounded his horn. Another Chinese man came, showed me his warrant card and told me I was under arrest. No reasons were given and I did not ask for reasons. I had assumed that they were arresting me because of the publicity given in the papers about me in connection with the expulsion of the PAP from the Socialist International.
Then my house was searched. There was a large number of men who searched the place. They seized some articles from the house including letters, journals etc.
Then I was taken to the clinic. There a search was made and they took away some magazines including 'Problems of Communism' which is an American State Department publication. I was taken by car from the clinic blindfolded. I was taken for an approximately 10-minute drive and then taken to a cell. I did not know where it was.
I was left alone for the rest of the day after I had been interrogated for about two hours.
Early next morning I was awakened about 6.00 am and after a wash I was subjected to day-long interrogation until midnight. My interrogators worked in three shifts. The room was air-conditioned and the cold was quite uncomfortable. This routine had been a daily affair.
They have taken away my watch, my spectacles and I am not given reading materials.'
On 3 July 1976, after four weeks' interrogation from 8 am to 12 midnight, Dr Poh Soo Kai was served with a detention order alleging he supported 'Communist Front activities' and was transferred to Moon Crescent Detention Centre, where he remains in detention. Throughout his four weeks' interrogation Dr Poh Soo Kai was denied access to a lawyer. Dr Poh Soo Kai has now spent 14 of the last 17 years in prison without trial.
On 19 February 1977 Dr Poh Soo Kai's wife, Grace Poh, was also arrested by the Special Branch and taken blindfolded to the Whitley Road Holding Centre. Mrs Poh was detained in solitary confinement for 27 days at Whitley Road before being released. During this period she was questioned and interrogated, for long periods of several days in one session, by teams of Special Branch officers in air-conditioned rooms. At the same time Dr Poh Soo Kai, who was being held at Moon Crescent Detention Centre, was informed of his wife's arrest and detention. This was done in such a manner as to cause Dr Poh great distress and concern for his wife's fate with the aim of obtaining a 'confession' from him and a recantation of his political views. Mrs Poh, for her part, had never been active in politics. Her arrest was not publicly reported by the Government.
Such practices are not unusual in Singapore. We have already cited the case of detainee Pang Hee Fat, who was beaten in the presence of his wife Wong Kui Inn. Similar cases have also come to the attention of Amnesty International. In March 1977 Francis Khoo, a Singapore lawyer who had defended one of the accused in the Tan Wah Piow trial, left Singapore after the Special Branch had arrested four lawyers, all of whom, like Francis Khoo, had been active in human rights work. After he left the Republic, his wife, Dr Ang Swee Chai, was arrested at her hospital by ten Special Branch officers and subjected to rigorous interrogation at Whitley Road Holding Centre. She was later released and allowed to join her husband in England.
The Singapore security police, the Special Branch, have combined a number of the above techniques - physical and psychological torture, solitary confinement and threats to families - to obtain 'confessions' and 'recantations' from prisoners in recent years. Amnesty International believes the responsibility for proving the guilt of any individual lies with the Government, in accordance with generally accepted legal procedures. The use of these 'confessions', obtained by methods described above, can in no way be accepted as justification for preventive detention.
The Singapore Government has in recent years established as a virtual precondition for release that a 'confession' be made by the detainee, often though the Government-controlled media. These 'confessions' purport to supplement and justify the accusations and allegations the Government has made against the detainee, including statements relating to supposed illegal and subversive activities. The 'confessions' often implicate detainees' friends and associates, are are used by the Singapore Government as a pretext to arrest these people. Moreover they are used by the Government to justify its widespread use of preventive detention under the Internal Security Act.
In May 1976 the Singapore Government announced that it had arrested some 50 'communist suspects' since January that year. This announcement coincided with a 'confession' of involvement in alleged underground communist activities made on Singapore television by Madam Goh Lay Kuan, a well-known ballet teacher. The 'confession' of Madam Goh was used by the Singapore Government to justify its contention of a 'communist threat' to the island republic.
This 'confession' was made only days before the Socialist International was due to meet in London to discuss accusations from other member parties that Singapore was violating human rights by detaining political prisoners without trial.
After Singapore's People's Action Party (PAP) withdrew from the Socialist International, more arrests and 'confessions' followed. Many of those arrested were journalists, others were lawyers, students and businessmen. They were detained under the ISA until they agreed to make public confessions. During the televised proceedings, they stated that they were members of Communist or Marxist groupings and had worked against the best interests of the Republic but were now willing to denounce their past beliefs and actions. They were then cross-examined by Government selected inquisitors.
Such 'confessions' must be seen in the context of the threat of lifetime in detention without trial, the pressures of solitary confinement, physical and psychological torture and in some cases threats to families. It is in this context that one must evaluate 'confessions' made by well-known journalists of prominent newspapers such as the Financial Times (London) and the Far Eastern Economic Review, which we will examine in part five.
- Amnesty International (1980)
THE AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL REPORT
Political detention in Singapore : Prisoner case histories
The ISA as a political tool
Life in Singapore's political prisons
Surviving long-term detention without trial
Detention of journalists and lawyers under the ISA