“I call for the ISA (Internal Security Act) to be abolished. The ISA and its predecessors have destroyed many lives from the time of the British to today,” said Teo Soh Lung at the launch of her book Beyond the Blue Gate, on Saturday 26 June 2010.
“[We feel] like rape victims,” was how she described her own and her fellow detainees’ traumatising experiences. “Some still cannot speak about their experiences to families and friends.”
Teo and 15 others were brusquely arrested on the night of 21/22 May 1987 under the Internal Security Act. After succumbing to lengthy interrogations in cold rooms and agreeing to participate in a show confession on television, she was released in September. However, on 18 April 1988, she and some others issued a joint statement categorically denying the government’s accusations that they had been “Marxist conspirators”, and for their trouble were promptly rearrested the following day. She would be held without trial for more than two years to June 1990.
Today, none of the people I have met and who have taken an interest in those events believe the government’s claim that the detainees were part of a Marxist plot to subvert the constitutional order. Instead, we see those claims as trumped-up charges against people the government disliked. But how and why a paranoid virus got into the heads of then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his cabinet colleagues (which included current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong) leading them to mount another round of stalinist-style arrests and show confessions — this had been the pattern since Operation Cold Store in 1963 — remain unanswered questions.
It is this lack of closure that prolongs the injury to the 24 persons who suffered in 1987/8, and which led to playwright Alfian Sa’at calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the book launch.
* * * * *
Beyond the Blue Gate – Recollections of a Political Prisoner was twenty years in the making. This nearly 400-page personal account by Teo of her experiences makes captivating reading, detailing as she does the night of her initial arrest, the interrogations she was subjected to, and the legal challenges she mounted. Throughout, she describes with honesty her own thoughts and fears, including her attempt at empathy with her interrogators.
Yet, it is also about more than her alone. At critical points, she puts her own arrest and detention into context with references to previous rounds of ISA swoops, and a discussion of the “desperate and shameful” amendments made to the ISA in January 1989, removing judicial oversight from decisions of the executive. The latter was almost surely prompted by the success of a Habeas Corpus application a number of detainees mounted in mid 1988. Under judicial order, Teo and others were released on 8 December 1988, only to be rearrested within the hour — her third time.
Here was a victim who fervently believed in the integrity of the law to provide justice, with a government riding roughshod over it.
Meanwhile, the politics of disappointment continued outside the azure gate of the detention centre. A general election was called for 3 September 1988 in which one of the recently-released detainees, former Solicitor-general Francis Seow, stood with opposition stalwart Lee Siew Choh and Mohamed Khalit bin Md Baboo in Eunos Group Representation Constituency under the Workers’ Party banner. They came within a whisker of winning, with 49.1 percent of the vote. The Workers’ Party, then led by J B Jeyaretnam, called for the abolition of the ISA. In a remarkable act of pettiness, the government refused to allow Teo to cast a vote.
She began writing of her experiences as soon as she was finally released, learning to use a computer in order to do so. The accounts were therefore written while fresh in her memory with a crispness and immediacy not dulled by the passage of time. However, her first draft sat in storage for more than ten years, and understandably so. It is very hard for a person to revisit the trauma again and again which publication and the editing process it entails would require.
But — and it’s a hopeful sign — the times are changing. There is a gradual re-opening of political discourse in Singapore and an increasing boldness of people who would say openly today that they never believed the government’s absurd claims about the so-called Marxist conspiracy, when they might only have said so in hushed tones within ivory towers or in trusted company before. It is possibly this assurance of a receptive public that at last offers a chance for the detainees to speak once again, however painful that process may be, and more importantly, to publish.
In doing so, they are successfully challenging the official narrative, and I daresay when a more objective history of Singapore is written, theirs will be the prevailing account.
Satisfying though that may be, it is not complete. Will we ever get the full story? At the heart of it is the mystery of why Lee Kuan Yew and the government did what they did. I don’t think we’ll ever know until the government archives are opened, and in this connection I would note that in two years’ time, it will be the 25th anniversary of the initial arrests. In democracies that do not suffer authoritarian constipation, the anniversary would mean the opening of official records, especially when there is no reason to believe that the issue (or “threat”, as the government would have us believe) is still alive.
I won’t hold my breath. They haven’t even opened the records for the 1963 Operation Cold Store detentions when the “pro-communist subversion” that that larger group of detainees were accused of had long faded into the sunset.
Even the opening of the archives, unrealistic as that may be, will not be sufficient for a proper healing process. The people who ordered, defended and perpetuated the arrests have to be called to account for their roles. And that’s what a Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be about. Needless to say, this is even more unrealistic, but nobody should fault Alfian for his idealism.
“Do we have to wait for a death?” he asked rhetorically, a reference that everybody in the room understood. I would hardly blame anyone for saying that death can hardly come a day too soon. So that others may live and speak again.
* * * * *
Beyond the Blue Gate is published by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRDS), No. 11, Lorong 11/4E, 46200 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia. Email: sird at streamyx dot com. Website: www.gerakbudaya.com.
I don’t know yet which bookshops in Singapore will be stocking the book, but in the meantime, Ethos Books in Paya Lebar (www.ethosbooks.com.sg) may be able to help if you are interested in obtaining a copy.
[update: The book is available from Kinokuniya bookshop. Perhaps other places too, but I don’t know.]