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

1 comment:

Rajiv Chaudhry said...

The decks are stacked. DPM Teo's speech was splashed across several pages (full pages) of the mainstream press with graphic images of rioting in the 60s, images calculated to shock and disturb.

Voices such as yours, by contrast, find expression in only a few courageous blogs, read by a small proportion of socially aware citizens.

Only with a change of political regime will Singaporeans have a chance to rectify all the wrongs of the past and put in place proper systems for the future.

Thank you for your efforts to tell the stories of those whose voices have been suppressed for so long. Let us all continue to speak up.