A detainee remembers – Part 3

All of us were promised early release if we cooperated with an appearance on the state television.  Despite our full cooperation, (some of us had 2 or 3 recordings at the television station), many of us were not released after the 30 days of interrogation.

Tang Fong Har was  released with conditions on the recommendation of the Advisory Board on 12 September 1987. No reason was given for such a recommendation. Experiences of a number of former detainees show that members of the Advisory Board were not  interested in finding out whether we deserved detention without trial. They were only interested in our plans after release.

- Teo Soh Lung 

PRISONER:
AFTER my return to the detention centre from the TV filming, I was more psychologically prepared for my detention. However,  I still hoped against hope that I would be released after 30 days.

Alas, it was not to be. On July 19, at 9 p.m., I was led out of my cell. My heart thumped wildly. My case officer, in a most officious manner, served the copy of the allegations and the detention order on me. I read the allegations and almost had to suppress my mirthless laughter. I told my case officer that I was not a security threat and that they had no reason to detain me for 30 days, let alone a year. I was informed of my right to make representations. I signed the form stating that I wanted to do so. The air was charged with tension. My case officer asked whether there was anything I wanted. I told him that I wanted to return to my cell.

And so I sought refuge in my empty and dead cell. I cried a little that night. After my statements were written, I saw no reason to engage in polite conversation with them. I spoke relatively little, and on those occasions we touched on inconsequential topics. Sometimes, my case officer was absent and the female guard would stay with me in the room for some four hours; and then I would be sent back to my cell. I also played Scrabble and Uno and had a compendium of games.

I am a gregarious and sociable creature. I had always been surrounded by family and friends and had known nothing but love, warmth and friendship. Needless to say, solitary confinement was a terrible affliction. I received fairly frequent visits from some officers, notably S. K. Tan. He tried to engage me in conversation and tried to probe my reasons for filing representations before the Advisory Board, scheduled for hearing on August 15.

I refused to be provoked into commenting on the case or into revealing what transpired between my lawyer, Soh Gim Chuan, and myself during our meetings. They also probed into the nature of his practice and whether he charged me any professional fee. S.K. Tan has now turned into a welfare officer and was most concerned that my stay should be as cosy as possible within ISD’s limits.

I was enticed with my favourite foods and was allowed to watch TV programmes, as selected by them. I responded negatively to their overtures. On one occasion, I asked S. K. Tan why he had slapped me during the interrogation. He told me that I was mistaken. I had moved back and lost my balance. I said nothing, but my eyes told him that what he had said was balderdash.

Days became weeks and I sang whatever came into my mind and I sang loudly. The warden on duty ticked me off several times. I read books and, being a fast reader, I would finish the five books, which Peter brought each week. I sometimes read them three times.

I tried to keep myself busy by scrubbing the cell walls and floor. I also became acutely aware of God’s little creatures (ants, mosquitoes, centipedes, lizards, cockroaches, spiders etc), the sun, moon and the tree in front of my cell.

They tried to rehabilitate me with pep talks laced with threats. They kept saying that I could start life anew with Peter and put everything behind me. I refused to be indoctrinated by them.

Until my representations were over, I was very tense and the stress and strain accumulated in my neck, which became very stiff. The day of the hearing of the representations arrived. The High Court judge, Justice Sinnathuray, together with two Chinese males in their late 40s or early 50s, presided over the hearing, which was held in the judge’s chambers. The other two did not introduce themselves and barely spoke or moved throughout the whole proceedings.

A case officer, Lim Poh Quee, a female police guard and the driver of the car accompanied me. The judge was cordial to me. He hardly interrupted my lawyer when he went through my representations. He seemed exasperated only at one point. When queried on my future plans, I told him that I would get a job and continue my flat hunting and, if I was free, interested and approached, help in the election campaign of  opposition candidates. He told me that that was what had got me into trouble in the first place and that politics should be left to the politicians. He again questioned me on my future plans and turned to look at my lawyer. My lawyer then submitted that further representations would be made on this point by Monday, August 17.

I could not gauge the outcome of the hearing but somehow it did not matter too much now. My stiff neck disappeared and I felt the tension rolled away.

Psychologically and emotionally, I coped better with detention in solitary confinement. Life took on a ‘more pleasant’ turn. I started my Chinese lessons. I would also sing for about an hour at least twice a day. My audience comprised God’s little creatures, the warden on duty and, definitely, my immediate neighbours, – Wong Souk Yee (president of the Third Stage, detained in May 1987) and Low Yit Leng (manager of a printing firm, also detained in May 1987). My reading continued.

At other times, I would be let out of my cell for ‘rehabilitation’ sessions during which the female police guard on duty would while away the time discussing such weighty matters as skin-care, make-up and the like. We also indulged in healthy gossip.

Some days I would be left in my cell – once, for four days. I would usually read till I felt drowsy and fall asleep while reading. It was unbearably hot in the afternoons – the cell was like a furnace and I practically oozed perspiration.

I could not wait for the afternoon to end each day. I tried to reduce the temperature by dousing the cell with water at noon. I had dreams but I could not remember them. I exercised regularly. Once in a while, I would execute a judo-like kick on the walls.

One fine day, I was told that Suan would be my cellmate. I had become accustomed to living on my own, but when she came, I began to enjoy my meals more. We became keener students in our study of Chinese. Since she was more proficient than me, I consulted her frequently. We sang more and our repertoire increased.

Life was certainly “bearable” with the exception of the three square meals dished out to us each day.

“FREEDOM”:
On September 11, at 9 p.m., I was called out of our cell alone. We were adamant that we should leave the cell together, but it was not to be. I was taken to the ‘rehabilitation’ room; my case officer was the purveyor of the ‘good news’.

He impressed upon me that I had been treated fairly, if not well. I stuck to my position that if I talked to the press, I would say ‘no comment’ to their queries.

Various people came in at different times. They repeated my case officer’s words, adding that I had to be very careful what I said to the press as this would affect the release of those still inside. They told me that they were sure that I would not want to jeopardise the release of the remaining detainees.

They also threatened that if I did not keep out of trouble, they would not hesitate to take me in again, and next time they would let me rot. I was not allowed to consult my lawyer and family in respect of the three conditions attached to the Suspension Direction.

These pep talks interspersed with threats went on for some time, and I was then allowed to return to the cell. I literally stank of smoke and Suan guessed that I had met top ISD officers.

Although I was not told when I would be released, it was the next day that I left. Suan and I were sad to leave each other. They refused to say anything about her release or that of the others, and my request to see them was also rejected. Suan sang a farewell song to me and I yelled goodbye to my neighbours.

After Suan and I hugged each other, I walked out of the detention centre with Peter and my parents. It was 4 p.m. on September 12. I had been detained for 85 days.

I felt happy to see my loved ones, but my steps out of the blue gate were not brisk. I had left a part of me inside. I have learnt to treasure justice and freedom even more.

I shall not rest until my friends are released. Our entrenched rights are not mere privileges, removable at the arbitrary whims and fancies of the powers-that-be.

By Tang Fong Har

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