I began the six weeks prison sentence on June 1. Because I couldn’t pay the fine, another two weeks were added. With remission for good behaviour this would mean five and a half weeks. I had been ordered to surrender to the sheriff at the Supreme Court at 9 a.m. and was quite looking forward to the experience as I defiantly told a Straits Times reporter who turned up mysteriously at a lively pre-jail party at The Old Brown Shoe, a British pub on Bukit Timah Road the night before. The words that headlined the report announced that I was going to have a ‘ball’ in Changi Prison. Despite having a slight hangover, I was awake early and arrived at the sheriff’s office dead on time.
My lawyer M. Ravi came with me and a few moments later I was being handcuffed and manacled, then locked in a tiny cell inside a police van which sped off to Changi Prison. I always wondered why such stringent security precautions were taken wherever I went each time I was in police hands. The answer was always ‘standard procedure’ and that everyone was treated the same way – murderers, drug traffickers, robbers, gangsters and terrorists. During the journey, being shackled and handcuffed with my hands behind my back and kept in such tight confinement, I asked the guards who would save me if we were involved in an accident, and the van turned over, bursting into flames? The response was a few chuckles from the other side of the cell.
At Changi Prison I was taken to an ‘admittance’ room, this time surrounded by about six prison officers. I was the only prisoner being admitted at that moment. I was told later that this was for ‘security’ reasons as the prison authorities were trying to keep my presence there a complete secret. I became known as the VIP – a Very Important Prisoner! My holdall which contained spare clothes and three books – the maximum permitted – with provocative titles like 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit 541 by Ray Bradbury – were returned to me later in my cell. Books of a political nature are normally banned but it seemed whoever approved them had no idea what they were about. While still in the ‘admittance’ room I was ordered to undress for a strip search, then given a pair of black shorts, a white t-shirt and a pair of painful, plastic sandals which soon caused sores between my toes!
My belongings were listed and photographed and put in plastic bags which I had to sign as all being present and correct. Next I was photographed and finger-printed. Moments later, four guards – two in front and two behind – plus a senior officer were escorting me along interminable corridors, past dozens of cells which were carefully curtained off until I reached Cell No. 504. Inside were two other prisoners, both Chinese, one in his late twenties, the other late thirties, and both doing time for ‘white collar’ crimes, they told me after we were introduced. One of them, ‘Adam’, whose sentence had begun a few days earlier, looked amazed as he saw me come in. ‘I can’t believe it’s you,’ he exclaimed. ‘I’ve been following your case and didn’t dream we would be sharing the same cell!’ He had recognized me from my photos in the Straits Times, Today and television footage taken outside the Supreme Court during my endless appearances in the dock. Adam was so excited he couldn’t stop talking about his ‘luck’ of being locked up with me! He said he would tell his wife on her next visit and ask her to tell the rest of his family. So much for keeping my presence in Changi a secret. Adam had been jailed for smuggling French and British liquor without paying the import duty; a big syndicate was involved too. My other cell-mate, Joseph, had become notorious as the first dealer to be caught stealing from one of Singapore’s recently opened casinos. In his case it was $44,000 in cash from his table.
One of the guards accompanying me gave me a large plastic box containing a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste, a small towel and two thin blankets – one to lie on, the other to roll up to make a ‘pillow’. The cell measured 9ft x 16ft with a shower and toilet half-hidden by a 4ft high privacy wall at the far end opposite the heavy, steel door which had a ten inch square window and a small door close to the floor through which our food was passed.
As part of the ‘introduction’ to prison life, we were locked up for five full days without the chance of exercise of any kind. As always , this was ‘standard procedure’! But worse, sleeping or resting on the hard concrete floor soon began to have a serious effect on my health. I’d had problems with a slipped disc ten years ago but having kept this condition so well under control with special back-strengthening exercises in the gym, advice from a physiotherapist and long distance walking, I had completely forgotten about it. But after only 24 hours on the hard floor, unable to sleep, the pains down my back, joints and legs returned with a vengeance. By the second day, I found myself having to crawl up the wall for support and then stand for several minutes to get my balance. The pain was almost unbearable. My feet were always numb as though I was standing on soft cushions. Adam and Joseph would stand close by ready to support me if I looked like I was about to fall. I learned later they had been told to watch out for me and to press an alarm bell if anything alarming happened to me.
I told the prison guards and the two prison doctors about these latest threats to my health. One of the doctors actually agreed that if the condition worsened, I could end up paralysed and incontinent! ‘You will be ok, lah,’ he would also add whenever I complained that I might end up in a wheelchair. When I demanded a mattress they would all simply reply: ‘This is prison. If you get a mattress, everyone will want one.’ I said ‘Well, don’t tell them!’ When one of the doctors said this a second time, I said: ‘Well in any civilised country, prisons are always provided with bunks and mattresses for long or short term prisoners – I thought Singapore boasts of being a civilised country bar none?’ After two weeks of virtually sleepless nights – and days – my energy seemed to be draining from me by the hour. When we were allowed out for an hour’s exercise – still within an enclosed space without fresh air – I was so sapped I could hardly do any meaningful exercise at all. I also put this down also to the poor food: four slices of white bread and a mug of brownish liquid, supposedly tea or coffee, for breakfast; over-cooked cabbage, a huge portion of white rice and a small piece of chicken or fish for lunch and dinner. We were also given an apple, orange or banana on alternate days, but overall the diet had no nutritional value as far as I was concerned. I told the doctors that the daily diet was a perfect recipe for diabetes! And when finally – after 21 days – they discovered through blood tests that the potassium level in my blood had reached alarmingly low levels, threatening a heart attack, their spin was that this was caused by the prescription drugs I had been taking for ten years. These were the same drugs I had been put on under the close supervision of one of Singapore’s top cardiologists, Dr. Peter Yan at Gleneagles Hospital, without any problems.
Finally, on Day 21 of my incarceration, they were forced to take my health problems seriously. I was suddenly summoned to the clinic where one of the doctors, looking extremely worried, said: ‘An ambulance is waiting outside…you are going to Changi General Hospital‘s emergency ward now.’ Half an hour later I was wheeled – handcuffed and shackled again – into the emergency ward, put on potassium and saline drips for several days, then confined in a ward specially designed for prison inmates. Security in Ward 34 on the fourth floor was even more severe despite my condition. This was on account that we would be taken care of by young female nurses. My right leg was chained to the bed night and day – no doubt to prevent me from chasing any of these pretty young things around the ward. Each time I had to go to the toilet or shower, I was handcuffed, unchained from the bed, and escorted by two guards there and back, then chained to the bed again. While using the WC or taking a shower, my left arm was also chained to a post between the two units. I was told that these severe precautions were not just because we were being nursed by young nymphs but because of the embarrassing escape of alleged Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist leader Mas Selamat Kastari a few years back. Mas Selamat apparently escaped through a toilet window when he went for a pee without an escort or any kind of restraints. So now I am carefully guarded by auxiliary police while in the ward and watched by three more from an observation room via CCTV cameras everywhere – even in the toilet and shower room!
After eight days with a special diet of highly nutritious food and being monitored round the clock, I was told by specialist doctors that I would be returned to Changi Prison. The thought of returning to the hard cell again was an alarming prospect. The pains in my back had not entirely subsided and if I was to suffer in that way again, I knew they would get much worse. So I made it clear that if this happened I would very likely not be able to walk upon my release scheduled for July 9 – my early release date. Should this result, I told them, I would very likely arrive at Heathrow Airport in a wheelchair, with the warning: That would not make pretty photos for the international media and my family who would be there to greet me! My warning of yet another public relations disaster for Singapore in my case seemed to have some effect, proving, perhaps, that there is some grey matter somewhere in this very strange country.
When I was delivered back at Changi Prison, instead of returning to familiar surroundings, I was immediately taken to the prison clinic – still handcuffed and shackled in a wheelchair until someone noticed this and ordered the restraints to be removed. As I was about to be freed I said loudly: ‘Be careful! I’m a very dangerous man!’ This drew some embarrassed laughter but not sufficient to show that these people have a sense of humour. After the routine strip search I was warded with four other prisoners recovering from various medical problems. One was blind, one was crippled with a serious spinal injury, the left arm of the third hung limply by his side and the fourth suffering from kidney failure. All were drug users or traffickers serving sentences ranging from 7.5 years to 26 years, the latter for serial drug trafficking who missed hanging by a whisker, I was told.
This time the food was slightly better than the hard cell diet but more importantly, as in Changi General Hospital, I had a comfortable bed to sleep on. Although the pains in my back, legs and feet persisted, they did not get worse and I was continuing to regain my strength. I was also the happiest prisoner there having merely 9 days more to serve. But why they put me under such duress in the first place will always remain a mystery to me. Perhaps it was my telling the Straits Times reporter who turned up at my pre-jail party that I would have ‘a ball’ in Changi Prison – a statement that might have prompted Lee Kuan Yew, had he read the report, to make sure that I did not!
My release on the morning of July 9 was organised like a top security operation. First breakfast, a visit from the doctor and a male nurse followed. I was given my daily dose of medicines to deal with my heart problems and other issues.
About 7.30 a.m. I was taken to the clinic to be weighed and examined for ‘bruises, cuts or injuries’ I was told. From the moment I left Ward 8, I was surrounded by guards and two medical staff. A few moments later I was given my own clothes and after another strip search allowed to put them on. My other belongings were handed to me systematically with each item checked and signed for.
The prison guards still standing by, four officials from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority arrived to take custody of me. The chief in this group had my precious passport which had been taken from me almost twelve months earlier when I was arrested in a dawn raid on my hotel just after the book launch. But the room was getting more and more crowded until the goodbyes and smiles began. They were glad to get rid of me – and I felt exactly the same. I was about to be free at last! But not so fast! There was a little more formality to attend to. The immigration officials wanted to take not just my fingerprints but my whole handprint. While doing this I was told that I was being deported and that if I ever returned using a false passport or any other way, I could face a jail sentence of up to three years. However, I could ask for permission to re-enter Singapore after twelve months. No chance of my doing that and I don’t think you would want me to, I told them amid laughter.
Soon I was officially handed over to Immigration, put in a van surrounded by four officers, and driven to Changi Airport just a few kilometres away. This time the van was escorted by two police cars one leading and one behind. At the airport instead of going through the normal checkpoint I was taken directly to the tarmac where an Airbus 380 was waiting. Again the area was surrounded by airport police, immigration officials, and men and women in auxiliary uniforms all talking on mobile phones and walkie-talkies. I counted at least 30 in all. It certainly made me feel like the celebrity that I was on my arrest a year earlier – or the VIP my cellmate, Adam, used to call me: A Very Important Prisoner!
The van I was in, still with the police escort, was then driven to the rear of the Airbus. I was then escorted out, my hand luggage being carried by others, and placed on a lift which took me to the rear entrance, led to my seat and introduced to the two Singapore Airlines hostesses who would take care of me on the journey. Fourteen hours or so later, we landed at Heathrow Airport – home at last! I often thought at times during the year since my arrest that I was somehow destined to die in Singapore. But once the A380 Airbus was in the air and flying quickly away from Changi Prison, I knew I had finally ‘escaped’ from Disneyland, its officious police and jailors, and its barbaric, unforgiving gallows.
Alan Shadrake is the author of Once a jolly hangman, dissecting Singapore’s use of capital punishment, throwing up questions about the independence of our judiciary. For his pains, he was charged with contempt of court, found guilty (of course) and sentenced to six week’s imprisonment and a fine of S$20,000. After failing at appeal (of course, again) he served his sentence 1 June to 9 July 2011.