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Vistas of detention… voices of freedom

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our thoughts are free

Long years have passed, yet the fire that burns in the hearts of these ex-detainees remains aglow. Tan Pek Leng reviews an inspiring new book of poems and prose of women and men who were imprisoned without trial for their convictions in Singapore.


Their bodies were shackled but their thoughts roamed free … political prisoners detained without trial after successive waves of mass arrests sought sanity in their solitary cells by committing to paper poetry, prose and song that affirmed their unwavering beliefs and undaunted spirit. They drew inspiration from kindred souls who had given their lives and strength to the liberation of mankind; they resolved to stay the course until the cruelty and evil that are encapsulated in the likes of the Internal Security Act (ISA) are no more. Truly, for these uncommon beings, the human mind cannot be contained in narrow cells.

Seven courageous individuals

Decades after they were silenced by being locked away or forced to flee, seven of these brave men and women have found voice in a slim volume, Our Thoughts Are Free: poems and prose on imprisonment and exile. Among them, the late James Puthucheary, author of the seminal Ownership and Control of the Malayan Economy, which was written while in detention, had the distinction of being imprisoned without trial three times, under both the colonial and Lee Kuan Yew regimes – in 1951, 1956 and 1963 – spending a total of about five years in jail.

Said Zahari, an icon in the world of journalism and literature, was banned from Malaysia for leading the Utusan Melayu strike in 1961 which sought to prevent the takeover of the newspaper by Umno. A day after he took up the post of President of the Parti Rakyat in Singapore, he was rounded up together with more than a hundred other social and political activists in Lee Kuan Yew’s infamous Operation Cold Store on 2 February 1963. (Operation Cold Store was aimed at crippling the Barisan Sosialis, which represented a real threat to the People’s Action Party (PAP) government, by arresting its leaders and key associates like trade unionists, many of whom were erstwhile “comrades” of Lee Kuan Yew.) He was not to be released until 1980.

A third contributor, the late Ho Piao, was a young idealistic trade unionist “in search of a purpose and sense in life” when he too became a victim of Operation Cold Store and would spend 19 of the prime years of his life behind bars. The length of his detention was exceeded only by that of Chia Thye Poh’s, which lasted 21 years.

Yet another trade unionist, Tan Jing Quee, was detained in Operation Pechah in October 1963 aimed at breaking up the 48-hour general strike called by the Singapore Association of Trade Unions – of which he was a leader – to protest against the deregistration of trade unions by the government. This detention in Changi Prison lasted three years. In 1977, Tan Jing Quee was arrested again and incarcerated for three months on allegation of being involved in the campaign to expel the PAP (Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party) from the Socialist International.

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Our Thoughts Are Free also features the poems and songs of Francis Khoo Kah Siang, who was a target of arrest in the 1977 swoop. As the Special Branch (SB) officers banged on his door and waited outside his home, Francis Khoo remained silently within. The SB men finally left after an all-night wait, thinking he was not in. Thus was he able to escape arrest; then taking advantage of the Chinese New Year crowd at the causeway to make his way to Malaysia and then London – barely two weeks after his wedding. He has been in exile since. He lamented that when he looked at photos of his wedding dinner, he couldn’t help but note that many of the friends who graced the occasion were subsequently detained.

The last two contributors, Teo Soh Lung and Wong Souk Yee fell prey to Operation Spectrum which saw 22 Roman Catholic Church social activists and professionals being accused of involvement in a Marxist plot to subvert the Singapore government. Teo Soh Lung’s crime was deigning to dedicate herself to providing legal aid to the needy while Wong Souk Yee was detained twice for a total period of 14 months, first for giving vent to her creative energy through the stage, and subsequently for refuting her “TV confession”, which she surmised had been distorted by the Internal Security Department and the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.

Systematic programme

As another former detainee, Koh Kay Yew, explained at the Malaysian launch of the book on 16 May 2009 (it was launched in Singapore on 28 February, 2009), the ISA detentions were meant as pre-emptive strikes to nip all dissent in the bud. The aim was to “suitably neutralise” these “enemies of the state” within three months and have them appear on television to recant their “wrong doings”. Those who refused to do so had to pay the price in the form of years of their lives being snatched away. As we had noted earlier: Chia Thye Poh, 21 years; Ho Piao, 19 years; Said Zahari, 17 years; and others like Dr Lim Hock Siew, 19 years, and Dr Poh Soo Kai, 16 years.

During their incarceration, the state conducted a systematic programme, including physical torture, to dehumanise and break the detainees. Strong as they may be, virtually all the detainees suffered post-traumatic disorder, and some of them went through mental breakdowns, as Koh Kay Yew related.

On the personal level, the brief and sparse encounters with loved ones were bitter-sweet as James Puthucheary lamented:

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    They will not let you stay or let me go
    Come over with laughter and chatter
    The longing, the anguish of parting
    I can do nothing but watch you go
    (Longing, 22 November 1958. See full poem below)

And the prolonged separation was agonising, as Said Zahari wrote in a hari raya card to his wife:

    How cruel, how inhumane!
    So high, so huge
    this partition between us
    For so long!
    (Tears, 20 November 1969)

Perhaps even more distressing was the anguish that engulfed him while he awaited news of the birth of his child three months into his detention:

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

    then came news of
    the arrival of my little one.
    (Born Unfree, 22 May 1963. See full poem on next page)

These men and women whose only offence was to champion the cause of social justice were deprived of the opportunity to live a full and meaningful life. Their daily pursuits were reduced to looking forward to a “few minutes of fresh air and exercise” and the pink packets of “roast kachang and khana and cheap sweets” which they were allowed to purchase “from Saturday canteens”. Such were “life’s luxury within these gray walls”.

Standing their ground

And yet, they did not languish in despair. They were reining in their resolve to fight another day or cajoling others to join their crusade. Said Zahari stood his ground despite the relentless attempts at breaking his spirit:

    the day before you heard my protest
    yesterday you heard my appeal
    today you see my hatred
    and wait
    for tomorrow when I shall act

    my decision has been made
    a resolve has been chiseled
        this cruelty
        this evil
    can no longer be allowed
    I shall oppose it with all my strength
    (Resolution, 1963)

And James Puthucheary exhorted a loved one:

    … if you feel for me, then with me call
    Call to all those who live to be free
    And not contain human minds in narrow cells
    Who risk death that others may live
    And with them choose to die if nothing else.
    (The Steel Door Opens and the Warden Cries, 1952)

Always, they found strength and inspiration in the fortitude of their comrades who stayed true to their beliefs and convictions. Tan Jing Quee paid tribute to Chia Thye Poh and found:

    There is a certain immortality
    In your tenacity, your courage –
    Resolute, unyielding, pure,
    Turning the wheel of solitary decades
    Time, like flowing waters
    Moves relentlessly on, never retreating,
    Until an irresistible tide shall rise
    To propel the human will to overcome.
    (For Chia Thye Poh, July 2002)

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And James Puthucheary memorialises his dear friend and comrade, William Kuok, who gave his life to the anti-colonial struggle and lies buried in an unknown grave in the jungles of Pahang, thus:

    We will not weep, not even a drop
    Or hang our heads down or beat our breasts
    For you have lived your life in full, not
    Seared by the shame of a cowardly past.

Long years have passed, yet the fire that burns in their hearts remains aglow, the bonds that bind them remain as strong. The intimate crowd of former detainees, their friends and family who travelled from as far as London, Hong Kong and Singapore to attend the launching of Our Thoughts are Free had come to keep faith with each other and to affirm that as long as democracy continues to be “deformed” in Singapore, their quest for reform would not cease.



They will not let you stay or let me go
Come over with laughter and chatter
The longing, the anguish of parting
I can do nothing but watch you go.

Time knows nothing of love and sorrow
The clock is merciless, relentless
And hurries along without pity
I can do nothing but watch you go.

Could my heart make the clock go slow
Then impale it on the minutes hand
And let my heart tick with the clock
I can do nothing but watch you go.

Go, go, softly unto the breeze, go
Let me drink in deep your fragrance
And await in the evening wind
For I can do nothing but watch you go.

– James Puthucheary

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

– Said Zahari

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