Friday, August 19, 2011

Time to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and abolish the ISA

[ Read also More ex-detainees speak out : Political violence and the abuse of the ISA in Singapore ]

by Teo Soh Lung

Photo : Singapore's longest-held political prisoner Chia Thye Poh (centre), with detainees of 1987's "Marxist Conspiracy" arrests at a Chinese New Year gathering this year in Chia's home in Ang Mo Kio. Chia is currently working in the Netherlands.

From left : Activist Isrizal Mohd Isa, ex-detainees Vincent Cheng, Chia Thye Poh, Wong Souk Yee and Teo Soh Lung.

Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez were the first ISA detainees to speak about their detention in 2006. Both men were detained in 1963 and again in 1977. It took them more than 40 years to talk about their imprisonment.

In 2009, Jing Quee composed a poem “ISA Detainee”. There he recorded the prison conditions in the 1960s as well as that of 1977.

1977 saw the arrest of at least 28 people, mostly professionals. They were labelled “Euro Communists” by the PAP government. I was a young lawyer then and personally knew some of the people who were arrested. When they were released, none of them spoke about their experiences.

Earlier this month, Dr Ang Swee Chai who now lives in London, wrote about what she went through as a ISA prisoner in 1977. ISD officers had visited the hospital where she worked to arrest her. The hospital staff were so terrified of those plain clothes men that they interrupted her while she was performing an operation in order to inform her of their presence. I felt really sad for her as well as for my country when I read her note. Why do we have to respect the ISD so much that the hospital staff had to announce their presence even when she was performing an operation? I am glad Dr Ang was able to remain calm and successfully completed the operation.

It is clear from Dr Ang’s account that her experience had remained fresh in her mind for the past 34 years. She remembers graphic details of how she was arrested and treated in the cold room. She even remember her prison number.

From 1970 to 1979, 149 people were arrested under the ISA. Among them were prominent theatre practitioners Kuo Pao Kun and Goh Lay Kuan and writers like cultural medallion recipient, Yeng Pway Ngon. Yet none of them had until today, written about their experiences.

If ISA victims of the 1970s were silent until recently, those of the 1960s also suffer in silence. In 1963, Operation Cold Store saw the arrest of at least 145 people. Among them were prominent doctors, politicians, newspaper editors, journalists and trade unionists. How could the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his cabinet ministers imprisoned fellow Singaporeans without trial for decades? Between 1960 and 1969, a total of at least 284 were detained. Among them were :

Lim Chin Siong (Secretary of Barisan) 6 years

Dr Poh Soo Kai (Vice Secretary of Barisan)
17 years

Said Zahari (Editor of Utusan Melayu, Chairman Partai Rakyat)
17 years

Dr Lim Hock Siew (Central Committee of Barisan)
20 years

Ho Piao (Paid Secretary of SNSU) 18 years

Lee Tee Tong (Barisan Member of Parliament)
18 years

Loh Meow Gong (Barisan Member of Parliament)
7 years

Wee Toon Lip (Barisan candidate) 10 years

S T Bani (Barisan Member of Parliament)
3 years

Michael Fernandez (Paid Secretary, SCHFEU)
9 years

Chia Thye Poh (Barisan Member of Parliament)
26 years

Chia Thye Poh, a member of parliament was imprisoned for 26 years and subjected to restrictions for another 6 years. I met up with Chia sometime this year. I was told by his father who is now in his 90s that Chia his eldest born was a brilliant student. He was a bookworm and was always at the top of his class. He did not participate in student activities. It was only when he became a lecturer at the Nanyang University that he became interested in politics. He stood as a Barisan candidate in 1963 and won. When he was arrested in October 1966 his mother suffered a stroke and had not been in good health ever since. Today, she is bedridden. Both parents are being looked after by his younger sister. Chia who has a doctorate degree, works abroad and returns home irregularly. Life is tough.

The PAP have wrecked many lives and deprived many parents of their children. There must be thousands whose lives were damaged by the ISA. Said Zahari wrote an account of his prison days in Dark Clouds at Dawn published in 2001. Low Miao Gong wrote briefly about her experience in “The Two Faces of Men in White” (published in The May 13 Generation). No others who were detained in the 1960s have to date written about their experience.

When Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years on Robben Island, he went on to become the President of South Africa. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to investigate the atrocities committed by the past government. Can we in Singapore ever expect such a Commission to be set up to investigate all ISA cases? Will I be able to see the repeal of the ISA during my lifetime?

On Saturday, 20 August 2011 at 2 p.m. at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, friends of Tan Jing Quee will pay tribute to him for his contributions in re-writing the history of Singapore. Let us hope that their voices will bring change to our nation one day.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should apologise to Dr Ang Swee Chai

by Teo Soh Lung

Dr Ang Swee Chai, a prominent surgeon and author of From Beirut to Jerusalem has now written about her arrest and detention without trial under the ISA in 1977. She was one of at least 28 people, mostly professionals, who were arrested and labelled as Euro Communists by the PAP government.

Dr Ang was arrested on 15 March 1977, one month after Tan Jing Quee was arrested. At the time of her arrest, her husband of two weeks, Francis Khoo, a lawyer had escaped to London after many of their friends were arrested and imprisoned. Both she and her husband now live as exiles in London. The documents and photographs seized have not been returned to them.

"On the morning of my arrest, I was operating, when one of my colleagues came to tell me that a number of plain clothes policemen were looking for me. I told him that I got to finish operating on my patient before I could see them. They waited outside the operating theatre, maybe about 10 of them altogether, since we left in 2 cars. One of them wanted to hand-cuff me, but I told them I was not going to run away, and could not anyway. Furthermore they should not lead me with hand cuffs through the crowded hospital corridors for everyone to see, since some of the people sitting along the corridor were my patients.

They took me first to our own flat. We were married 2 weeks prior to this and had just moved into this flat. They started going through all our things, taking a whole lot of documents and books away, and helped themselves to our wedding photos. Then they went to Francis' mother's house and took away Francis's things. Next they went to my parents's house to search. It was in the late afternoon when I was finally taken to Whitley Detention Centre. I was made to change into canvas/linen prisoner's clothes, and all my own clothes - including my bra and watch were taken away. I was thumb-printed and had photographs taken with my prison number which was 116. From there I was taken straight to interrogation. It was hard to know how long I was interrogated, since there was no clock, and my own watch was taken away. But since there was about 9-12 change of shifts I must have been questioned initially for at least 72 hours. The interrogation was conducted by about 6 male officers with one female officer watching in each shift.

There was initial banging of tables and threat that they would throw the key away for ever, and no one can get me out. They accused me of being a communist and a terrorist! The room was cold and I was shivering. I was then given strong tea with sugar and no milk, which coupled with all the threats sent my heart rate thumping.

After what I thought must be the first 72 hours of continuous interrogation, I was taken to a small cell, no mattress, and the door shut. Lights were on. There was a small window in the door which was shut. As I sat on the cement floor, a Gurkha brought me rice wrapped in brown paper. There was one tiny fish, and I just could not eat anything. I was then taken to the toilet, but not allowed to close the door. By this time I was well and truly constipated. I just could not use the toilet with Gurkha soldiers standing guard at an open door. After that I was taken to an enclosed field and told to exercise for about 10 minutes.

Then I was taken back for interrogation by yet a new set of officers. I was given lots of blank paper and questioned about Francis. I must have spent a couple of days being questioned, and writing and re-writing pages on Francis - most of what I wrote I remember was trivial initially. But later it was clear that what they were after was for me to implicate Francis as a terrorist. This I refused to do, as I know Francis was not. Then they put it to me that Francis had been lying and hiding things from me. They told me they had evidence to support their allegations, but could not show me.

After about another 48 hours I was taken back to my cell. This time I was given fried Hor Fun by my case officer, who told me that my boss, Mr J E Choo, the Head of Outram Road General Hospital had rung the head of the ISD asking what they wanted with me. Apparently he had recently operated on the head of the ISD. The late Mr J E Choo was Senior State Surgeon and extremely well respected. This phone call I suspect had improved my deal.

I was also given a mattress on the floor of my cell this time and told I was to sleep for two hours. Once the door shut I burst into tears, but then stopped since I thought I could be watched, and it was stupid to cry. After this time when I was again taken out for interrogation, the officers seemed friendly and polite, and advised me that in order to save my marriage I should go to Europe and persuade Francis to come back. They emphasized that apart from the shock of being suddenly picked up, I was treated well, and since I was able to go through with this, I should challenge Francis to go through this as well. I think they call it "coming clean". Of the pages and pages I have written, I signed some of them. The officers explained that I was a reasonable middle class professional (division one officer) and they could talk to me without resorting to using force, and it was easy to work with me. But with labourers and workers they usually had to beat them up to get co-operation. They gave me the impression that I was sensible, co-operative, not a terrorist but misled by my husband, and they wanted to help Francis correct his "deviant" ways before he get into very deep waters! They also told me not to worry about the hospital since it was also part of the civil service as the ISD was, and they had applied for me to have a fortnight's leave, so nobody would query where I went, and as few people should know that I have been "picked up" by the ISD as possible. I somehow never challenged them about my doctor colleagues, who saw me being taken away in broad daylight from the hospital.

When I was released a week later, it was surreal to see the metal gates of the detention centre closed behind me and getting into a taxi to go home! I knew that Francis had escaped to either Holland or London, and I had promised the ISD that I would go to Europe to talk to him. Despite all their assurances, I had made up my mind that I would not want Francis to come back to be interrogated, as I suspected he would be badly treated. The ISD officers laughed when I became defensive at one point and told me that I should not worry since they would not beat me up - Francis would see the bruises and make an issue of them, they told me.

So this is my brief account of an encounter with ISD. Apart from getting some information about Francis, this arbitrary detention was not only unpleasant for me personally but a criminal waste of police resources and taxpayers' money. Through this incident, I realised that despite being a division one civil servant, I could be put behind bars without charge, with no access to the outside world and could have disappeared with no one knowing. I was fortunate to be arrested in the hospital during working hours, and my colleagues who saw the arrest had told Mr Choo, my boss and he chose to intervene. If I was arrested in the middle of the night from my home, and there were no witnesses, then I could have been locked up forever as the ISD threatened. Even now I frequently ask myself, what kind of society is this who treat her citizens in this way."

Ang Swee Chai
5 August 2011