Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Open letters to Teo Chee Hean from ex-ISA detainee

by Teo Soh Lung

26 Oct 2011

After more than 4 decades, we are informed by the Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Teo Chee Hean that more than 800 people were arrested in the 1970s. This number is not small and I dread to speculate the number arrested in the preceding decade.  We are aware that more than 120 people were arrested on 2 February 1963 in Operation Cold Store.  Almost the entire central committee of the Barisan Sosialis including Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai were detained.  Inche Said Zahari and trade unionists, the Late Mr Ho Piao and Mr Jamit Singh were also not spared.

In October that year Operation Pecah followed and elected opposition members of parliament,  Ms Loh Meow Gong and Messrs Lee Tee Tong and S T Bani were detained.  In 1963 alone, the number imprisoned must have exceeded 200.  It would  not be wrong to say that the arrests of the leaders of the opposition and trade unions in 1963 ensured monopoly of power for the PAP till today. Almost every year after 1963, there were arrests.  Arrests continues to this day.  No evidence of weapons or bombs was ever been produced by the government.  All we are told is that we have to trust the judgement of the government.

In arguing for the retention of the ISA, the minister reiterated the “nipped in the bud” theory expounded by his predecessors.  He said: “…The ISA thus allows the government to act quickly to prevent a threat from developing into something very serious such as a bombing; or to stem an organised pattern of subversion which promotes civil disturbances and disorder…”

Every citizen who is arrested is deprived of his constitutional right to life or personal liberty, freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly and association  which are guaranteed by Articles 9 and 14 of our Constitution.  Families are often deprived of  sole breadwinners.  But perhaps the PAP have  reasons for doing what they did. They know that periodic arrests instil fear amongst citizens. Fear ensures the survival of the  PAP.

It is time  we question the retention of the  ISA, a law that permits the ministers or prime minister to imprison citizens for as long as they wish. We are told that ministers rely on the Internal Security Department which have made thorough investigation before ordering the detention of citizens or renewing their detention orders.  Is this true?  Dr Lim Hock Siew’s public statement issued through his legal adviser, the Late Mr T T Rajah and released by his wife, Dr Beatrice Chen  on 18 March 1972  exposed this lie. I reproduce part of the statement [1] below:

“… A week after my transfer to the special branch headquarters, the same two high-ranking employees spelt out the conditions of my release. They demanded from me two things. They are as follows:

(1)    That I make an oral statement of my past political activities, that is to say, `A security statement’. This was meant for the special branch records only and not meant for publication.

(2)    That I must issue a public statement consisting of two points: (a) That I am prepared to give up politics and devote to medical practice thereafter. (b) That I must express support for the parliamentary democratic system.
I shall now recall and recapitulate the conversation that took place between me and the same two high-ranking special branch agents during my detention at the special branch headquarters.

Special Branch: You need not have to condemn the Barisan Sosialis or any person. We admit that it is unjust to detain you so long. Nine years is a long time in a person’s life; we are anxious to settle your case.

Dr Lim Hock Siew: My case will be settled immediately if I am released unconditionally. I was not asked at the time of my arrest whether I ought to be arrested. Release me unconditionally and my case is settled.

Special Branch: The key is in your hands. It is for you to open the door.

Dr Lim Hock Siew: To say that the key is in my hands is the inverted logic of gangsters in which white is black and black is white. The victim is painted as the culprit and the culprit is made to look innocent. Four Gurkha soldiers were brought to my house to arrest me. I did not ask or seek arrest or the prolonged detention for over nine years in prison without trial.

Special Branch: You must concede something so that Lee Kuan Yew would be in a position to explain to the public why you had been detained so long. Mr Lee Kuan Yew must also preserve his face. If you were to be released unconditionally, he will lose face.

Dr Lim Hock Siew: I am not interested in saving Lee Kuan Yew’s face. This is not a question of pride but one of principle. My detention is completely unjustifiable and I will not lift a single finger to help Lee Kuan Yew to justify the unjustifiable. In the light of what you say, is it not very clear that I have lost my freedom all these long and bitter years just to save Lee Kuan Yew’s face? Therefore the PAP regime’s allegation that I am a security risk is a sham cover and a fa├žade to detain me unjustifiably for over nine years. “

Dr Lim  was 31 years old when he was arrested on 2 February 1963.  His son was then 5 months’ old. He and Dr Poh Soo Kai had two years earlier, set up a medical clinic, Rakyat Clinic along Balestier Road which provided and still provides medical care for the poor.  Both were also founder members of Barisan Sosialis.

The PAP kept Dr Lim in jail for 20 years.  They freed him unconditionally at the age of  51.  He had missed the prime of his life and the growing up years of his son. The PAP had ensured for themselves that Dr Lim no longer posed a political threat to them.  Only a person of courage and determination can survive such a long period of imprisonment. And only people who have lost their conscience can imprison Dr Lim for 2 decades without trial.

Mr Chng Min Oh @ Chuang Men-Hu

While many of the people detained in the 1960s were imprisoned for decades, I did not expect the PAP government to continue that practice in the 1970s. I was therefore shocked to meet Mr Chng Min Oh @ Chuang Men-Hu recently.

Mr Chng was a humble construction worker and painter when he was arrested on 3 August 1970.  Leaving his wife who was then three months’ pregnant and two young children aged 4 and 6 that dawn must have been painful for him.  He was offered freedom by banishment i.e. if he agreed to being banished to China. He refused the offer.

Mr Chng remained in prison while his wife took on several jobs to raise the young family.  She became a construction worker and a hawker whenever she had time.  While she worked, her parents helped in looking after the children. Life was terribly hard for the family. They did not even have money for medical treatment.  But the ministers did not care and renewed his detention order 7 times.  He was finally released after 13 years, on 7 August 1983. He had served a life sentence though he was never judged guilty of any crime in a court of law.

The hardship of separation in indefinite detention is captured vividly in the poem Tears by Said Zahari.  Zahari  was  imprisoned for 17 years.


I saw tears down your cheeks
sparkling like diamonds,
beautiful like shining stars
in a clear night sky.
I saw sorrow
dancing in tune with your sobs.
My heart beats faster, my lips tremble.

Then I saw courage,
confidence and determination,
peering from behind the sorrow.
How cruel, how inhumane!
So high, so huge
This partition between us.
For so long!

But in spirit we are one,
as always,
bound by unbreakable bonds
of love and longing for justice.
Neither this prison wall
nor a hundred years of incarceration
shall diminish my love.

Hari Raya card to Sal
20th November 1969

How can we believe Minister Teo Chee Hean when he said “The Government has used the ISA as a last resort when there is a significant threat, and other laws are not adequate to deal with the situation...”  when so many citizens were imprisoned for decades without trial. How can the PAP ministers take away the fundamental liberties of its citizens in the name of national security so freely and so frequently when Singapore was and is not at war?  Have they all lost their conscience?

[1]  Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew Eds. The Fajar Generation  The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore  Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, Malaysia pp 150 – 151.

 [2] Tan Jing Quee  Teo Soh Lung  Koh Kay Yew  Eds Our Thoughts Are Free  Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile  Ethos Books  2009  Singapore  p 47


20 Oct 2011

The Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Teo Chee Hean said in parliament yesterday:

“…  So while ordinary Singaporeans remember the 1970s as a peaceful time and largely went about their lives, intense security operations were continually being undertaken to preserve that peace.   More than 800 people were arrested under the ISA in the 1970s of whom 235 were issued with Orders of Detention.  Most were detained because they were more than just sympathisers and had provided financial, logistical and manpower support to the CPM insurgents…”

Indeed, the 1970s was a peaceful period like any other periods of Singapore’s history.  I was a young working  adult  then and can confirm that that period was peaceful save for the reports of periodic arrests under the ISA.  The arrests did not alarm me until 1977 when several of my friends in the legal profession were detained.  I was devastated.  The Law Society was silent. It did not protest on behalf of the detainees even though one of those arrested was a member of its council. One would have thought that since lawyers are professionals, there would at least be some discussion or questions asked of the government. But that was not the case.  Lawyers went about their business as if nothing had happened.  To add insult to injury, I remember the then  Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew called lawyers nincompoops when he was a dinner guest of the Society.  The Society did not rebut. Whoever in the council at that time must have felt they deserved that name.

Three decades have passed and I ponder over those years of silence.  Mr Teo Chee Hean tells us that more than 800 people were arrested in the 1970s. I never expected the arrests to run into hundreds. We should all be disturbed by the number.  Imagine more than 800 lives were disrupted.  Imagine how those detained were mistreated by the ISD. Imagine the lives of more than 800 families turned upside down.  Imagine husbands and wives being separated and young children being deprived of their parents.  How did they live without breadwinners? Imagine parents being deprived of their children who may be supporting them? Who took care of all of them while they were in prison?

Those arrested in the 1970s included Cultural Medallion recipients, Yeng Pway Ngon, Kuo Pao Kun and his wife Goh Lay Kuan, lawyers T T Rajah, G Raman, R Joethy, Tan Jing Quee and Ong Bock Chuan,  Hussein Jahidin (Editor of Berita Harian), Shamsuddin Tung (Editor in Chief of Nanyang Siang Pau), Lee Eu Seng (Managing Director of Nanyang Siang Pau), Ngoh Teck Nam (Translator of Sin Chew Jit Poh),  Chua Chap Jee (Lecturer), Pan Nan Hung (Naval Engineer), Ho Kwon Ping, Wong Chee San (Polytechnic Student),  Drs Ang See Chai and Poh Soo Kai. I know many of them and I can confirm that they are all law abiding citizens.

Having been a victim of the ISA myself, I cannot and will not believe that any one of the names I mentioned above is a subversive intent on destroying Singapore by violent and unconstitutional means. Mr Teo Chee Hean can continue  to kill his conscience by repeating the lies of his predecessors.  But he should bear in mind that there is a possibility that those whose lives his government have destroyed may one day write their stories. They may be afraid to tell the truth now.

I end with a poem by Said Zahari (Editor of Utusan Melayu) who was imprisoned for 17 years without trial.  Imagine his wife giving birth to their daughter not knowing when he would be released. May Mr Teo and the PAP reflect on all the children deprived of their fathers or mothers from 1959 till today.

Born Unfree*

 not that i was not hungry
I refused the food;
nor that I was not sleepy
I kept awake.

my ears keep hearing
the cry of an infant.

for months in solitary,
it was a source of anxiety;
for hours to this moment,
it is endless excitement.

then came the news of
the arrival of my little one.

I am the father
robbed of my freedom
whose world has shrunk
into a dark little dungeon.

my child, just born
into a world yet unfree.

22 May 1963

* Tan Jing Quee,  Teo Soh Lung and  Koh Kay Yew (eds)  Our Thoughts Are Free -  Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile    Ethos Books   Singapore  p. 39

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The life and times of Ho Piao : The torture of a political prisoner

Ho Piao was 26 when he was detained during Operation Cold Store (2 Feb 1963). He held the dubious distinction of being the third longest held political detainee under the ISA. He was severely tortured by the ISD and released after 18 years, on 1 June 1981.

Educated in Serangoon English School and Raffles Institution, Ho Piao was a Queen's Scout and rowed round Singapore island alone. He entered University of Malaya in 1957 and was an active member of the University Socialist Club. He left the university partly due to his growing commitment to trade union work. After his release, Ho Piao married and left for London. He died in 2007. Below is the eulogy delivered by his good friend, Francis Khoo.

- Teo Soh Lung


HO PIAO - His life and times (1937-2007 )
By Francis Khoo

Shortly after the ANC won, I took Ho Piao to a victory reception at the South African High Commission at Trafalgar Square. There were ex-political prisoners who had fought against apartheid. When introduced to Dennis Goldberg, Ho proudly revealed he had been in prison for 18 1/2 years. When pressed, Goldberg replied he was himself in for "24 years". Sensing he had embarrassed and upstaged Ho, he then said: "I was at a gathering of ex-Spanish Civil War veterans and thought I was the longest in, until I met an old lady who had spent nearly 40 years under Franco. I then had to shut up." I think Ahmad Kathrada, 27 years, and contemporary of Nelson Mandela, was there as were other younger ex-inmates of Robben Island.

The instant bonding and comaradie was quite inspiring: separated by different struggles, different continents, these elderly gentlemen seemed to giggle a lot and were self-effacing. Still retaining youthfulness and child-like curiosity about the world around them, they were generous in spirit and showed no bitterness. For Ho, his world was no longer just Singapore and Malaya. He was now also a South African. And a Palestinian and an Iraqi.

On 17 January, 1961, Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first prime minister, was assassinated by the Belgian and CIA surrogates. The whole non-alignment movement erupted in anger. Ho proudly remembered his part in a mass protest rally. All 7,000 of them were chanting: Lumumba! Lumumba! in the Singapore Badminton Hall. Singaporeans then had a keen sense of history and geography. He was an internationalist who loved his country. He believed you cannot be a patriot unless you supported every people's struggle for justice and equality. At the same time, he had no time for the vague 'citizen of the world' grounded in no concrete place. You ended up 'neither here nor there' rather than being 'both here and there'. That would be the height of irresponsibility.

On 2 February 1963, Said Zahari, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Ho Piao and over a 100 patriots were rounded up. In a later wave, opposition MP Chia Thye Poh was arrested. Amnesty International adopted them Prisoners of Conscience. Like Mandela and his comrades, they remained steadfast; unlike Mandela, they were never tried in court.

The British and their approved successors in Singapore and neighbouring Malaysia needed a pretext to wipe out all progressive dissent - writers, journalists, liberals, socialists, trade unionists, members of parliament. When the legal Communist Party of Malaya was banned, an 'emergency' was declared and draconian laws were passed in 1948. Thousands were imprisoned or deported, many more perished as they retreated into the jungle. By tarnishing anyone with the label 'communist' and hence a security threat, the secret police could hold that person indefinitely without trial. If you wished to get out early, denounce your beliefs, endorse the government, confess over TV and grass on your friends. By 1987, reports spoke of 5,000 detention having been made.

Intense coffee-shop debates were once typical and widespread in Singapore and everyone was engaged. That is gone today, snuffed out by a dominant one-party state that controls every aspect of your life - from the bedroom, literally, to the boardroom. They want a nation which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Nothing is taboo and the market is all.

Modern Singapore is Asia's most dynamic economy after Japan and enjoys a standard of living often higher than Britain. With industrialisation export-oriented for the multinational corporations, the global city is the world's largest oil refinery centre and port, a hi-tech manufacturing, trading and financial services centre. There is the same inequality you find in Britain without the safety net of a welfare state. You fall ill or lose your livelihood at your peril. Civil liberties are distinctly Blairite. This is a world of stark extremes, where there is no such thing as a free lunch. Of course, MPs and ministers can well pay for their lunch - in a population a 20th of Britain, they can eat more than five times more lunches. In fact, the best paid lunches in the world. This is a tale of the two farmers with two chickens. The first has two chickens while the other has none. The politicians boast therefore, that statistically, each farmer has on average one chicken each.

Mussolini tried in vain to create the Corporate State as arbiter of labour for capital, where workers are organised in the service of state capital. Singapore is an unashamedly successful one. The trade union movement is today based upon Israel's Histadrut. It mirrors yet eschews Switzerland, with its multi-ethnic character and neutrality in regional conflicts. Opting for an Israeli combat-readiness and psyche, suspicious of regional intentions, militarised, with every able-bodied man in national service, it is a strategic ally of the US in its ‘war on terror’. Totalitarian, with generals in the government, it is yet no tin-pot jackboot dictatorship. Not moustachioed Generals Galtieri or Pinochet, rather but more apartheid South Africa and Israel.

The world Ho found upon release must have been a very alien one indeed. He went inside as a youthful 25 year old and emerged, un-cowed, a middle-aged man. Those 18 1/2 years were tumultuous times in the country, the region and the world: the best of times and the worst of times. Singapore and neighbouring Malaya tried but failed at merger. In 1965, the Indonesian army massacred half a million people while the US sent in 500,000 marines into Vietnam. The PLO won the battle of Karameh, student campuses all over the world rebelled, the civil rights movement in the US and Ireland reached their peak. Mao launched his cultural revolution. The entire 1970s decade was lost to him: Chile attacked by terrorists on its own 9/11 1973 when Pinochet overthrew Allende. Portugal lost its colonies in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor. In that same 1975, the fall of the US in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and four years later the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua.

When he went in, Harold Macmillan was British prime minister. Alec Douglas Home followed, then Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and finally Margaret Thatcher. Kennedy was then in the White House, giving way to Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and then Reagan. But Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister in 1963 -indeed, since 1959 - and was still prime minister in 1981. His son is the current PM but Lee remains the guru-like Minister Mentor.

News of the world outside were smuggled in despite censorship and tight access to TV, newspapers and books. The prison wall, as they say, has two sides and so the struggle continues inside. Like the Irish, South Africans and Palestinians, prison was a place to study, discuss, develop minds and mature. It was the best university: many achieving, despite the odds, law and other degrees.

And outside the prison gates, Ho's own late mother led the detainees' families in demonstrations to highlight the conditions inside. They disrupted the January 1971 Commonwealth Conference in Singapore, prompting the internal police to complain: "Your mother is the worst mother in the world!" Ho took that as a compliment and always beamed with pride when he recalled this. She was no mere mother; she was, like Gorky's Mother, a comrade.

Ho's soft gentle demeanour belied his toughness and resilience. He endured solitary confinement for months on end and waged several hunger strikes, one of which lasted over a hundred days. His demand for political status was akin to those of the Irish; he took to heart the 1981 hunger strike and death of Bobby Sands and the nine other republican prisoners.

In one of the rare published interviews he gave, he said: "The whole day I was tied to a wooden chair. They pulled my hair, pressed my nose and poured water in my nose and mouth." According to the account, one of the interrogators then grabbed Ho by the throat and drove his fist into his stomach. With his hands tied, his torturers continued punching his stomach. As he gasped for air, another officer laid one more punch - only this time he didn't pull back, but let his fist bear into Ho's aching gut, cutting off his breathing. When the prisoner came close to passing out, the officer pulled back, only to have others come in to smash their knuckles into his rib cage. Another delivered a karate chop to his chest while a third hurled himself at Ho and threw the prisoner to the floor. Ho curled up as his torso and his chest heaved in pain. While on the icy floor, his interrogators poured cold water on him causing his body to go into a painful contraction. Before he could recover from the shock, the thugs bore down on him yet again, kicking and punching his head.

"This is how we treat animals," one of them snarled. "This is an introductory gesture." Ho later said: "Their torture made my body feel like a corpse. I could not move. They pulled me up from the floor and tied me to the chair. Another group came to torture me. I would recognise them. They used the same method. They poured water over me 64 times. This torture went on for four days. My body was drench and shivering. They shouted in my ears and prized open my eyes. I did not eat or sleep or drink for four days."

As he lay on the ground, one officer lifted Ho's chin with his shoe. "This is a strange man, when we poured water over him, he did not shiver," he said. "But when we stopped, he started to shiver." The assaults only stopped when he finally lost consciousness.

In a statement he gave to his lawyer, he reiterated: "I firmly believe in my principles. I will never be a party to wage slavery and feudal bondage of my people. I will work to shatter these … even though I am meted out a long lingering agonising road to the grave."

In 1963-65 merger failed because the political elites of Malaysia and Singapore were unable to handle the contradictions of the national question, the many centrifugal forces pulling the society apart pitted against the centripetal forces bringing the communities together. The communities had different histories and experiences. In the second world war, some anti-colonial Malays and Indians viewed Japan as tactical allies in the fight against British and Dutch colonialism in India and Indonesia, respectively. But the Chinese saw Japan as the foe because of its invasion of China. The colonialists and chauvinists sought to exploit those differences.

British divide-and-rule policies has caused untold damage. Consider India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim, Black and White South Africa, Arab and Jew in Palestine, Catholic and Protestant Irish. In Singapore and Malaya, immigrants from China and India and indigenous Malays.

Today, Vietnam is united, Germany is one, Taiwan will return to China, Korea will be together again and so will Ireland. Inevitably, Singapore will again reunite with the Malayan mainland.

So what does it mean to be a Singaporean and Malayan? In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious largely immigrant post-colonial society, the patriots saw Malay as the lingua franca, the national language to unite the people. Mandarin, Tamil and English would also be recognised as official languages.

Ho himself was totally English-educated. Yet he loved Chinese culture, food, literature and history and was inspired by the Chinese revolution. But he was born in Singapore and never considered China his country. He was a Chinese Singaporean, never a Singapore Chinese. He was a Singaporean who happened to be of Chinese ethnicity. He was not a Chinese who happened to be born in Singapore. That was why, in addition to being fluent in English, Mandarin and his Hainanese dialect, he assiduously studied and mastered Malay in prison. All the top leadership and cadres of the independence movement spoke at least three of the four official languages.

He had what the Germans call "weltenshaaung" - a world view. He knew why the rich grew richer and the poor poorer, who benefits under colonialism and imperialism, why there is war and how peace is achieved.
His philosophy of life: Firstly, do not merely interpret the world but help change it. Artists paint, while some choose to be gallery critics. Musicians perform but some choose to be music critics. Chefs cook while others make a living criticising their food. Actors perform the drama of life before an audience, some of whom cheer them on while others choose to pillory on the side-lines. He was no bystander but an artist, a musician, a cook and an actor.

Secondly, he was no theorist with abstract ideas. Son of a militant seaman and working-class mother, he was leader of the seamen's union. He asserted correct ideas did not drop from the skies or were innate in the mind, but must come from social practice, and from it alone. His was Praxis - reflection based upon action which then invited further reflection.

Thirdly, Ho Piao knew which side he was on. In 1931, 11,000 US miners went on strike to protest a 10-percent pay cut. The state of Kentucky charged 11 of them for first degree murder.

Incensed by the injustice, Florence Reece, wife of one of the strike leaders, wrote: Which side are you on? Which side are you on?" Her song became the rallying cry of our own miners in the 1984-85 strike. Ho understood the root causes of poverty and injustice and dedicated his whole life to combating it.

Before his execution, Joe Hill urged: "Don't mourn. Organise."

Of course, we shall mourn the untimely death of Mr Ho but he also wants us to organise.

FRANCIS KHOO 2 March 2007

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

My life under ISA detention : Dr Poh Soo Kai

by Teo Soh Lung

ISA detainees in the 1960s and 1970s were not given proper medical care. Sick detainees were treated like sick animals and locked in cages.

Mr Chan Fook Wah was diagnosed to be suffering from advanced cancer by fellow detainee, Dr Poh Soo Kai and not the prison doctors. Not only did they fail to give him proper medical care after diagnosis, the doctors and prison authority were totally unsympathetic and negligent.

Mr Chan Fook Wah was an odd job worker. He was arrested on 17 February 1971 and released on 13 March 1978 when the ISD knew that he was near his death. For 7 years, the prison doctors failed to detect  Mr Chan's illness. Even after being diagnosed as having advanced cancer, they refused to  send him to hospital for treatment. It was only after being pressurised by detainees that they  sent him to hospital.

Why did the ISD release Mr Chan when he was so near his death? It was likely they did not want to have to deal with a death in prison and a coroner's inquiry where evidence of how he was treated in prison would have to be disclosed.   Mr Chan died 13 days after his release on 26 March 1978.

The attitude of the ISD  towards sick detainees was incredible. Dr Poh himself was not properly treated when he was ill.  He nearly lost his life when prison doctors failed to diagnose his illness. It was by a stroke of good luck that Dr Poh who comes from an illustrious family of doctors, that he is alive today.

The Ministry of Home Affairs' recent refusal to set up a Commission of Inquiry is understandable.  They knew that  many former detainees suffered immensely under the hands of the ISD and that a commission may expose them to legal proceedings for compensation.

Below is the second part of Dr Poh speech delivered on 13 September 2011  in Singapore.


Moon Crescent Centre (MCC)

I was kept in solitary confinement for almost a year in this 8-cell block, the largest in Moon Crescent Center (MCC). Then I was transferred to a smaller 5-cell block situated at the extreme west end of the MCC, separated from other blocks by the administrative block. This was unofficially known as the “tough” block. I found myself in pleasant company. Chan Fook Wah, Ho Piao and Chia Thye Poh, having got advance news of my arrival, were waiting behind the door to welcome me. It was nice to be with friends again after so many months in solitary confinement.

I made it a rule not to see detainees when they were sick as I could not treat them. I always insisted that they see the prison doctor. One day, Fook Wah complained of a stomach ache, and Dr. N. Singh came, examined him at the corridor just inside the compound. It was a cursory examination. He prescribed some antacids which were delivered that afternoon. By 10 p.m. when we were all locked in our individual cells, Fook Wah called for me. He said the stomach pain had not improved with the medication, it had worsened.

Fook Wah was a very stoic person. Terribly beaten in the lock-up, he had lifted his chair and decided to fight with the ISD brutes to the bitter end. What do you do with a man who is not afraid of death? The ISD boss was called in, and he wisely told the Neanderthals to stop the torture. Fook Wah was a leader in the Chinese High School students’ movement, and had to run when the police were going after its leaders. Though coming from a rich family, he endured the privations while on the run without any grumbles. When he called me from his cell, I knew the pain must have been severe, but what could I do. So I told him I would see him the first thing in the morning when the guard came to unlock us. In the dawn’s dim light, made worse in a prison cell, I could see no jaundice, but felt a huge lump in the abdomen. He must have noticed that I hesitated, for his next words were, “Soo Kai, do not be afraid to tell me the truth. I can take whatever it is.” I told him he had cancer and it was at a late stage. I wrote a letter to the Superintendent. I am not supposed to communicate with the prison doctor. Fook Wah was transferred to General Hospital, found to be inoperable, and sent back to our cell.

Upon returning to the block, the prison superintendent wanted to send him to the Changi prison hospital which was no more than a dormitory with cages for sick detainees. It was not a hospital. We could provide him with better care in the prison block. We all objected to Fook Wah going to the prison hospital and were prepared to fight against his being transferred there. The warder came with a wheel chair. Fook Wah refused to go. The warder was sent back to tell the superintendent. After a few days, the prison relented, and agreed to send Fook Wah back to the General Hospital’s prison block. He was there for a week or so, only to be released to go home when death was imminent.

Then one day I was sent to Whitley Road Detention Centre for a few months. This time I was alone in a large open cell with a small exercise yard. You can shout to your neighbours, but you can’t see them. Dr. Toh Siang Wah, the acting head of department when I was posted to Kandang Kerbau Maternity Hospital (KKMH) in 1961, came to see me. We had a chat and he decided to send me a bible, and said he will arrange for someone to read with me. That someone turned out to be a senior officer at Whitley. I had no objection. I only insisted on reading the bible from page one. And he did not know anything from Genesis. They must have found my interpretation more reasonable, for soon the session was over.

Sometime later, I was taken to the changing room and told to change into the clothes I was arrested in. More presentable now, I was wondering where they would be taking me to. Soon I was in the prison’s staff rest room. Tea and cakes were laid on the table. And to my surprise, I was warmly greeted by two doctors who had worked with me in hospital. They were Dr. Teo and Dr. Nagulendran. Both consultant psychiatrists at Woodbridge Hospital. They explained that they had been requested to conduct a psychiatric survey of detainees. The apparent objective was to have a psychiatric profile – like cardiac profile, or arthritic profile which I am sure you all are more used to. With this, it would save time and money to sieve through the hundreds of student applicants, etc. to higher institutions of learning. So detainees are on the way to becoming psychiatric patients, and maybe Whitley will be later known as a psychiatric hospital.

I was given forms to answer, questions ranged from IQ tests, to whether I was best loved at home. I was not going to fill the questionnaire. Then Dr. Nagulendran said the study would be absolutely secret and have nothing to do with the ISD. Further, I was free to participate or to reject participation.

I had my cakes, thanked them as I was happy to see some old friends. Told them I would decline participation. I was wondering what other detainees would do, most probably participate but give every untruthful answer they can. I was later to find my guess was right.

However, some 10 days later, I was called to the interrogation room. The sole interrogator, an inspector, put on an angry face and started by telling me that I will be punished for not participating in the survey. I smiled, and asked him how he came to know of my non-participation when I was assured by the doctors that the whole process was confidential and secret. He did not reply.

Then, suddenly I was transferred back to MCC, to my old block with Chia Thye Poh and Ho Piao.

Brush with death

Finally, in 1980 I was again transferred back to Whitley.  This time in Whitley, I was also kept alone in the large cell. I was taken to the interrogation room about once a week to have small talk, sometimes on health problems and read papers.

Early one morning in 1981, I had a very severe pain running from the top of my head to my neck. I must have fainted, for the next thing I knew was that the guard had spotted me lying in the yard at about 4.30 a.m. and had called the inspector on duty. They came into my cell and enquired about my condition. I said I needed hospitalization for I think intra-cranial pressure had somehow increased. They rang up their superior and told me their order was to send me back to Changi Prison. The doctor there would attend to me. So early in the morning I was driven, with a severe headache and vomiting, to Changi Prison.

The male nurse on duty was kind. He told me that Dr. N. Singh had been informed and would see me the first thing in the morning when he came on duty. It was around 6.30 a.m. I was admitted into the prison hospital. It was a dormitory with two cages at the entrance, one on each side. I was put into one. He gave me two panadol, and I felt better lying in the bed.

It so happened that morning was my family visit day. My family on arriving at Whitley was redirected to Changi Prison.  Vomiting and in bad shape, I was led along narrow corridors until I reached the visiting room. There was no intercom now. I told my family my condition and why they had sent me to Changi Prison hospital.  Has Dr. Singh seen me? No. My dad was very worried. On returning home he telephoned my brother, who contacted his friends in the Health Ministry. It was arranged that a consultant from Changi General Hospital would come to see me.

The consultant physician came at about 3.30 p.m. He recommended that I be transferred to Changi General Hospital. It was a pleasure to have nice bedsheet, and a comfortable bed after so many years in prison. But I was too exhausted to really enjoy the new environment. The neurologist thought I needed an X-ray of my skull and I was dispatched to TTSH.  They did multiple x-rays and came to no diagnosis. There was a huge mass pressing on the nasal cavity and the forehead.

The decision was to ask the neurosurgeon to come in. The operation was fixed on a Monday. I had been in the air-conditioned ward for close to a week. It must have been the air-conditioning, for a day or so before the scheduled operation, I coughed up a whole lump of mucus. The diagnosis was now obvious. I had a mucus cyst stretching from forehead to the cheek, and it had burst just in time before the operation! My skull need not be cut open. Instead the ENT surgeon was called in to operate on the very chronic sinusitis.

All went well. By the third day, when the pack left in the nasal cavity to stop the bleeding was being removed by the ENT surgeon, the wall of the cavity, weakened by continuous pressure from the expanding cyst, gave way. So, the pack was removed together with an artery that the wall was attached to. As a result, no blood went to the brain and I fainted. The only way then was to ligature the carotid, which a surgeon did. But then my heart stopped. My poor friend, the ENT surgeon frantically pumped at my chest. I was told that revived me, but I felt as if I had a fractured rib on recovery.  Lack of oxygen to the retina, and alteration in the geometry of the eye socket became my main defects. Thanks to my friends, I survived.

My Release

Some three months in hospital in 1981, I was served another 2 years detention order and sent back to Whitley to recuperate. In August 1982, I was told I would be released. But I was warned that I should not criticize anyone, that I would not be allowed to hold a press conference to discuss my case and the charges against me, and that the ISD would be issuing a statement on my behalf. They even called in my parents to warn them that if I were to call a press conference, I would be rearrested straight away. I would have to follow the usual restriction orders whether I signed acknowledging receipt or not.

My reply was that I was a civilized person, and if reporters knocked at my door, I would invite them in. They had better post their men outside my door and shoo the reporters away. I would definitely deny whatever statement attributed to me but not signed by me.

I was released on Aug 26 1982, having spent all 17 years in Lee’s prison without a trial. No reporters came to see me for a few days. Then a person by the name of Mr. D’Silva from Associated Press came to my house. I told him of my restrictions and threat of imprisonment should I discuss my case. From this he could draw his own conclusion.

I was to run into him some time later. He told me that after the interview, he had gone to Albert Street to have a bite that evening. There was a tap on his shoulder and he was asked to follow the ISD officers to Whitley. He told them that whatever I said in my interview was all recorded in his tape, and they could have a look at his dispatch. They showed no interest. He was brought to the staff meeting room and sat there for the whole night. Early in the morning, he was asked to sign a statement that he had been well treated and then allowed to go. I suppose this was to frighten other foreign reporters in case they showed more courage than their local counterparts.

Harassment tactics continued. For example, when I was employed by a clinic at the airport, I was not allowed a pass onto the tarmac. Civil servants unfortunately dared not think. I just told them to ring up my clinic owner, a British nurse, and tell her that I had been denied entry onto the tarmac. So should any emergency arise, I was in no way responsible. A few phone calls followed, and I was issued with the pass.

After that short stint at the airport clinic, I started a private practice in Upper Serangoon Road before migrating to Canada in 1989.

(Dr Poh Soo Kai now resides in Malaysia and Singapore)


Ex-detainees call for Commission of Inquiry

Govt rejects Commission of Inquiry

Dr Poh Soo Kai and MHA's fiction of his involvement with the injured bomber (Part 1)

MHA's malicious and false allegation against Dr Poh Soo Kai

by Teo Soh Lung

Attached is a page from Hansard concerning MHA's claim that Dr Poh Soo Kai rendered medical aid to an injured bomber in Masai.

G. Raman who was arrested in February 1977 under the ISA and subjected to physical torture and sleep deprivation, made a statement implicating Dr Poh. Raman said that he, Dr Poh and his wife went to Masai to render medical aid to an injured bomber. Raman subsequently retracted that claim before a senior public prosecutor at the Attorney-General's Chamber.

Earlier, then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew threatened that he was going to refer Dr Poh to the Medical Council for helping an injured bomber. Dr Poh was never brought before the Council. To date, ISD and MHA have not challenged Raman's retraction of his confession.

Would MHA retract its malicious and false allegation against Dr Poh and apologise to him?