Friday, July 27, 2007

The Long Nightmare - Foreward excerpts

The Long Nightmare: My 17 Years as a Political Prisoner is the second memoir written by Pak Said Zahari after Dark Clouds at Dawn. Though the title sounds poetic, it is written as a memoir, which notes the writer's experiences, observations and thoughts - the worldview, without distortion, of a veteran journalist and former political detainee held in Singapore prisons in the 1960s and 1970s.

Said Zahari's anti-colonial, anti-imperialist political stand is unmistakable in this book, as in his first book published in 2001. Similarly, his stand towards the PAP regime, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, who was responsible for his arrest and imprisonment for 17 years, is very much unmistakable too.

In a brave and unflinching manner, Said Zahari reveals the cruelty of the PAP regime, especially towards its political opponents, whom they arrested and detained without trial, using laws inherited from the British colonial government. The tortures and persecution inflicted upon these political detainees are explained in detail by Said. It is hard to believe that such cruel acts happened, and we would not know, had they not been related by those who were tortured and persecuted.

Said Zahari was imprisoned without trial for 17 years. His guilt has never been proven despite his being imprisoned for so long. If this is not travesty, what is? However, after reading this book, we find a man who holds no rancour towards the person who slandered him and threw him in jail. What type of a person is this?

This second volume of Said Zahari's memoirs also tells the story of the
poignant sufferings of his wife and young children - whom he had to leave on 2 February 1963 when he was dragged to prison by the police of "Lee Kuan Yew's regime supported by the British colonialists".

Readers will find the story of the sufferings faced by Said Zahari's family during his imprisonment, awe-inspiring. We see how Said held on firmly to his principles and had no fear in defending justice and truth. But he is, in fact, a person with feelings and emotions. Like any other human being. He confesses, "I was shocked and overwhelmed. My soul was in turmoil when I heard, about the immeasurable sufferings of my wife for the first time, while in exile at Ubin Island before release."

He was deeply torn and burdened by his "sins" towards his wife and children. Said Zahari's introspection and admission of guilt is unequivocal. He asks for forgiveness from the Almighty for "breaking his oath when he betrothed" his wife, Salamah.

That was indeed a heavy "price" to pay his struggle against the slander and trumped up accusations made by Lee Kuan Yew, who conspired with the British colonialists. The challenge was to fight slander (in prison) on the one hand, and to fulfil one's responsibility towards the family (outside prison) on the other.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia


Born and educated in Singapore, Said Zahari went on to work and reside in Kuala Lumpur. In 1961, the Malayan authorities imposed a ban on his re-entry to the peninsula, thereby banishing him to the island republic. Less than two years later, the Singapore authorities arrested and detained him, a detention which was to extend for almost 17 years until his release on 22 August 1979. His detention spelt the end of his journalistic career. Said's prolonged detention became a cause celebre, and he was adopted as a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International. In 1994, he applied and obtained permission to re-enter Malaysia to live near his children and grandchildren in Subang Jaya.

This is the second volume of Said Zahari's projected trilogy. This volume, originally subtitled "My 17 years in Lee Kuan Yew's prisons", was intended to chronicle his detention in Singapore. As part of this volume, Said has included a selection of his prison poems and translations in English written during the course of his long detention, which eloquently re-create the setting and mood of those years.

This volume also contains an account of the hunger strike by the political prisoners in Moon Cresecent detention centre in the early 1970s when they were housed in the newly-completed complex in separate small blocks, with not much opportunity to communicate and interact. The hunger strike was little publicized by the mass media at the time, and therefore, the general public in Singapore has remained largely unaware of the causes and duration of the strike.

Over the last decade, Said has emerged as an icon in both Singapore and Malaysia. He has come to symbolize, together with long-term political detainees in Singapore like Chia Thye Poh and others, an enduring profile of courage and human spirit rising above adversity and tragedy. In his own way, Said Zahari is waging an often lonely, but no less determined struggle to focus public attention on some ugly and less known aspects of Singapore's history, particularly the harsh repression against democratic and anti-colonial activists.



This volume of Said's memoirs, which centre on his 17 year incarceration in Singapore's prisons, serve as a poignant reminder to Singaporeans and Malaysians of the political abuse of detention-without-trial laws such as the ISA.

The PAP government repeated abuse of the ISA is highlighted by the 1987 detention of Singaporean church and political activists accused of engaging in a Marxist conspiracy. Recalling his shock at the crude and fanciful web of fabrication spun the PAP leadership, Said wrote, "I guffawed at such foolish lies... How could LKY pull the wool over Singaporeans' eyes with such blatant lies... This so-called Marxist conspiracy was created by LKY when he realised the existence of a new breed of political antagonists". Said observes that the detention and public 'confessions' of the so-called 'Marxist conspirators' was expected to reinforce "the culture of fear among the people of Singapore", thereby 'nipping in the bud' this new breed of antagonists.

Corroborating Francis Seow's experience of torture in Singaporean jails, Said's second memoir is strongly focused on exposing the mental and physical torture of political dissidents deprived of their civil liberties under the ISA. During their initial period of incarceration, detainees are often subjected to severe mental and physical torture. Said recalled the torment of a young detainee who was severely beaten for 22 days when he refused to betray his friends. He also denied being involved in an underground movement, carrying firearms and planning to overthrow the government. To shatter the spirit of detainees, prolonged periods of solitary confinement were enforced when they refused to 'confess' to crimes alleged by the government. Worn down by mental and physical stress, some agreed to public 'confessions' to secure their release. Confessions were also 'negotiated' by promises of attractive jobs upon release. Said has suggested that psychotropic drugs may have been prescribed to Operation Cold Store detainees, rendering them emotionally erratic and suicidal. The strain of detention was compounded further by the emotional and financial toll incurred by the families of detainees. In the 17 years of Said's incarceration, his late wife Salamah Abdul Wahab and their children suffered immense hardships. She struggled to make ends meet by running a food stall while the children often went to school without a cent in their pockets. Said's memoirs includes heartfelt snippets of the camaraderie, courage and dedication of many other political detainees who have become lifelong friends.

What will the political future hold for a post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore? Will a post-PAP government unleash the ISA on former PAP government leaders known to have used the ISA against dissenting voices? Or will detention-without-trial laws be pronounced unconstitutional by a newly formed Constitution Court and Human Rights Commission? Will a post-authoritarian Singapore see the formation of a Truth Commission, set up to fully investigate the persecution of Singaporeans detained without trial, legally harassed and persecuted for their political convictions? Will a national apology be issued to political detainees incarcerated under the ISA? Will a post-authoritarian Singapore adopt foreign and security policies that are independent from the dictates of Washington, and acknowledge that the PAP government's support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a mistake? Will relations with neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand improve in a post-authoritarian Singapore not plagued by a kiasu mindset? The possibilities are endless.

I am deeply honoured to have been invited by Said to write a Foreword for the English edition of his second memoir. Said's moral courage, intellectual integrity, irrepressible spirit and multiracial ethos provide us with the inspiration to work towards a truly democratic Singaporean society. In this era of the so-called 'war on terror', which has enabled governments to resuscitate the existence of, and draw up even more, draconian laws, Said's plea that "these outdated, restricted laws such as the ISA are abolished" is particularly salient. Terima kasih Pak Said for showing us the way!

University of Sydney, Australia


The book is now available in Malaysia at RM25. Select Books in Singapore may be be arranging to stock it but there is no confirmation as yet.

Book review of 'Ousted!"
How To Make Enemies and Alienate People . . . In Malaysia

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