Saturday, March 24, 2012

Life in my prison cell under ISA detention

by Teo Soh Lung

Watching Channel News Asia last week, I was quite amused at Alcatraz Hotel in UK providing a prison cell for its guests. I wonder what the hotel owner had in mind.

I have written about the days of interrogation in the cold room. Let me now describe the small prison cell in Whitley Road Centre. This prison complex was gazetted as a prison with effect from 21 April 1989. I don’t know what it was before it was gazetted. I know that the complex was used by the ISD to house political prisoners as early as the 1970s. I happened to visit an ISA detainee at the visitor’s room at the complex in 1977. Maybe it was just a holding centre for I have heard former ISA detainees referring to it as the Whitley Holding Centre. Anyone who is interested to know the location of Whitley prison complex can go to Google Map and search for Whitley Road Centre. You will be able to see the layout of the prison complex.

A few days ago, I read in My Paper that Minister Teo Chee Hean was the guest of honour at the 10th anniversary celebration of the ISD Heritage Centre. I have always wondered where this Heritage Centre is located and only just realised that it is at Onraet Road. I am of course very familiar with Onraet Road. A Dutch friend told me that Onraet is a Dutch word meaning “Horrible or something disastrous.” The Whitley prison is located off Onraet Road, at the top of a slope. The Heritage Centre is therefore within walking distance from the famous Blue Gate (which is on the cover of my book) that opens to the prison complex. I do not know if visitors to the Heritage Centre will also be given a tour of the Whitley Road Prison. It would definitely be educational. Incidentally, behind the prison complex is the Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery. I don’t know if the complex will be demolished for the construction of the highway soon. Maybe it should be preserved for posterity since there is the Heritage Centre nearby.

When the “Marxist conspirators” were first arrested in 1987, some of us were given the luxury of big cells which ISD officers called the “Shangrila Suites”. Half the cell is exposed to the sky and it is really quite nice. Sleeping in the yard and watching the birds take their first flight across the iron bars at the break of dawn is an experience I will never forget. But not all were so lucky. Some were confined to cells measuring about 6ft (w) x 10ft (l) x 8ft (h) with slits for air. Some of these small cells have old noisy ventilators which provide some air.

The cells in Whitley Road Centre are, I am told by earlier generations of detainees, miles better than the horrendous cells unfit for human beings in Central Police Station, Robinson Road Police Station, Queenstown Prison and Outram Prison. I am told they were exceedingly filthy and inhabited by bugs, cockroaches and rats. All have been demolished.

In 1988, when eight of us were rearrested and the ninth arrested for the first time, all were thrown into these small cells. I guess the ISD was really angry and felt that we deserved the worst treatment possible! I survived 86 days in such a cell. Wong Souk Yee broke the record by being in the small cell for the longest period of time. The guys were shifted to Shangrila suites weeks before the two of us. I think the ISD blamed the women more than the men for the joint statement! Or maybe the officers were just plain male chauvinists! Or perhaps they were so used to discriminating against anyone they disliked that it did not occur to them that there was anything wrong with such a practice. After all, ISA detainees have only one right - the right to food. That was what I was told by a senior male officer.

During the 9 days when I was interrogated in the cold room, there was no time to ponder over discomfort or hygiene. Each morning at about 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., I would fall asleep on the dusty, dirty concrete block with a wooden top without any effort. Even a huge spider hanging down the ceiling didn’t worry me. Waking up at 6 or 7 in the morning was a problem. The realisation that I was back in prison, not knowing what would happen next and how long my friends and I would be there was terrifying. My heart literally sank to my feet when I realised where I was!

Forget about the prison cell in Alcatraz Hotel. The cells in Whitley are dirty, deliberately kept dirty. The prison authority don’t wash the cells before the arrival of new inmates! The walls of the cell is black or dark grey and covered with the spattered blood of mosquitoes. A 4ft long fluorescent tube is turned on whenever a prisoner is in the cell. The pillow and blanket are smelly. The prison door is heavy and is locked from the outside. The door has a small peep hole that can be shut from the outside. In some cells, a drawbridge window that can be opened from the outside allowed food to be shuffled in and shut again. The cell is hot, especially during the dry season from April to June where bush fires are common. And so within the four walls, the prisoner had to tame her mind. That was when I realised what Lord Buddha was talking about when he likened the mind to a wheel of fire! It was really a wheel of fire!

There was nothing to do in the cell during the early days – no books or newspapers to read. A prisoner simply stared at the four walls, ate 3 meals, went to the toilet and to the exercise yard for 10 minutes every day. I learnt to kill mosquitoes with great skill. The minute I heard the buzz of the creatures, I would wake and sit waiting for the bites. The way to kill mosquitoes is not to whack from a distance, for the gush of air would enable them to take off. It is to wait for them to sink their proboscis into the flesh and whack at very close distance! Sometimes they slip out of the gaps between the fingers. So the best way to prevent that was to hold on to toilet paper. Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery is healthy breeding ground for mosquitoes and they never seem to learn about the danger of entering a prison cell! And so for most of us, we learn the art of killing mosquitoes.

Safeguards? No way of safeguarding us against ferocious mosquitoes!

But why is 30 days termed a safeguard under the ISA? Is it because it is an improvement over the 60 days in Malaysia? I do not know how this magical period can be a safeguard when imprisonment and investigation under the ISA can go on forever, depending on the whims and fancies of the ministers and the ISD. In recent months, I happened to talk to a former police personnel who had read my book. He was amazed that ISD officers had so much time to investigate my case. He told me that in criminal matters, investigations are usually completed within 48 hours. The alleged criminals are either charged in court or released. So why are ISD officers permitted to have all the time in the world to investigate a case? Is it because the ISA allows them to do so with immunity? Or is it because there is actually no crime to investigate. I would like to know the real reason from the Honourable Minister.

And about the Heritage Centre – I wonder if it showcases a replica of the cold room with those spotlights that blind the prisoners as well as the pre-1987 days when I am told, ISD officers used electrodes, buckets of ice water and all those deplorable torture instruments. When I was in New York, the city that recently received the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize 2012, the police museum showed all the torture instruments used by the police. To be world class, I hope this Heritage Centre will do the same.

Additional readings :
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

1 comment:

Thinkruth said...

Well done! Well said! "To be world-class, I hope this Heritage Center does the same" - quite a spectacular feat, to make one choke with laughter on this topic.