ISA Detentions and Restrictions From “Communists” to “Terrorists”

Function 8 is pleased to invite you to the eighteenth of our series of talks and discussions on CHANGING WORLDS


Topic: ISA Detentions and Restrictions From “Communists” to “Terrorists”

Speakers: M Ravi, Dr James Gomez, Teo Soh Lung Moderator: Jolovan Wham

Date: Saturday 10 September 2016        Time: 2.30 – 5 p.m.

Location:  The AGORA, 28 Sin Ming Lane #03-142 Midview City. Singapore 573972

This forum will consider the effectiveness and legality of the Internal Security Act (ISA) in combating extremism. The discussion will centre on three critical issues – debate on the abolition of the ISA, the constitutionality of excluding ISA detentions from judicial review and an in-depth look at recent detentions under the ISA for terrorism related activities.

It will consider a number of questions including

● What are the reasons for and against the continued use of the ISA?
● Should it be abolished?
● Is excluding ISA cases from judicial review constitutional?
● What is the link between Freedom of Religion and Belief, and Freedom of Expression?
● How has the use of the ISA evolved over time?
● Is the ISA an effective tool for combating terrorism? What do the recent detentions tell us?

About the speakers
M Ravi has been involved in some of the most high profile and politically sensitive legal cases in Singapore over the last decade. He has taken a courageous stand against the mandatory death penalty; argued for the right to free assembly, freedom of expression, the right to by-election; and the equal rights for members of the LGBT community. Because of his advocacy for these issues, he has come to be seen as one of Singapore’s leading human rights lawyers, one of the few willing to battle away on these important issues.

Dr James Gomez, an academic and a political commentator, has been actively involved in advocating for civil and political liberties in Singapore. He pioneered the founding of political NGOs such as Think Centre and Singaporeans for Democracy as well as participated in Singapore’s electoral politics. He nominated Dr Chia Thye Poh, Singapore’s longest serving ISA detainee for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. Dr Gomez is presently Executive Director, Asia Centre, a regional think-tank based in Bangkok, Thailand.

Teo Soh Lung is one of the founding members of Function 8, a social enterprise which believes in the need to facilitate the sharing of social, political and economic experiences. She blogs occasionally.

Kirsten Han, a journalist and a social activist, will moderate the forum

Register at Eventbrite…

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Oppressive Law

By Teo Soh Lung

It is not uncommon for Singapore’s parliament to enact laws that target individuals. In 1986, the Legal Profession Act was amended to remove the popularly elected Mr Francis Seow as President of the Law Society of Singapore. He was compelled by law to step down as its president. A few months earlier, the Law Society had issued a press release on the Newspaper and Printing Presses Amendment Bill which allowed the government to gazette foreign publications without the right to be heard.

Administration of Justice Bill

In 1985, the amendment to the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore revoked the citizenship of Tan Wah Piow on the grounds that he had not returned to Singapore for 10 years. In 1989, the amendment to the Internal Security Act abolished judicial review in national security cases. It was aimed at ISA detainees who were then in prison. At about the same time, an amendment to the Constitution abolished appeals to the Privy Council.

So who is the target of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill which is likely to become law in three days’ time, on Monday, 15 August 2016? Is this law meant to protect those who administer justice?

I suspect the law is targeted at activists and organisations both local and international which occasionally speak up against unjust prosecutions, the death penalty, defamation, caning, the lack of protection of foreign workers and various other issues. Fines of $100,000 and/or three years’ jail allowed by the new law will certainly discourage free speech and expression. The immediate target of the law is probably Amos Yee who is set to defend himself against the full force of the state on 17 August 2016. He is only 17 years of age, a child by definition, if we comply with international standards.

Will this Bill become law before the commencement of Amos Yee’s trial? It can be done as only the signature of the president is required after the bill sails through the second and third reading in parliament on Monday. Will the unexpected happen – a long drawn debate and violent objections from the opposition as well as the PAP backbenchers? Or will the minister voluntarily refer it to a parliamentary select committee for further consideration? What are the chances of such events taking place?

IMG20160730145158Imagine how Amos Yee’s trial will be reported if the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill does not become law. How will the prosecutor with his team of legally trained assistants be viewed by the public and the world when their combined strength is pitched against a child who has no legal training. This trial is every lawyer’s nightmare because he knows that an unrepresented accused person does not go by the rules and is capable of upsetting the orderliness of the trial. True Amos Yee has tasted the ugly side of our justice and penal system from State Court to the High Court. He has donned the prison garb with the word “INMATE” and “PRISONER” boldly printed on its back. He has been shackled from hands to feet. He has walked into court with clanging metal chains. And he has tasted Changi Prison as well as Woodbridge Mental Institution.

I suspect the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act is intended to stop online discussions of trials such as that of Amos Yee. It is easy to be caught in the wide definition of what constitutes contempt by scandalising the court. Just try and figure out section 3(1) which reads: “Any person who –

(a) scandalises the court by intentionally publishing any matter or doing any act that –

(i) Imputes improper motives to or impugns the integrity, propriety or impartiality of any court: and

(ii) Poses a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined;

commits a contempt of court.”

What does it all mean? If I report on my facebook that the prosecutor asks too many irrelevant questions and the judge did not object, will I be in contempt of court? Will I shake public confidence in the administration of justice? I don’t know.

The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act forbids the publication of anything that prejudges an issue in a pending court proceeding or “otherwise prejudices, interferes with, or poses a real risk of prejudice to or interference with, the course of any court proceeding that is pending.” (Section 3(1)(b)(ii)). It is quite a mouthful and I don’t understand what all these words mean. There is however one important point that any commentator should take note of. In the past, we are free to comment as soon as the judgement or sentence is passed unless we are aware that an appeal has been lodged. The new law forbids such comments unless and until the period allowing such appeals has lapsed. So it may be 14 days or a month depending on which court the matter is tried. International human rights organisations may issue statements immediately after a sentence is passed and lobby for change. These statements may be in contempt of court by virtue of Section 11(2). If anyone in Singapore access or republishes such statements, he may be caught and prosecuted under the new law.

It is obvious that the purpose of the law is to ensure that Singaporeans live in blissful ignorance.

The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act is a bias piece of legislation. It favours the government. While government officials from ministers to clerks are permitted to comment while court proceedings are in progress, the public is not allowed to do so. I was once wisely advised by an ISD officer that the Chinese character for government depicts two mouths. This aptly describes the new law.

Contempt of court is an “ARRESTABLE OFFENCE”. By now, all activists are aware of the power of the police in such cases. Homes can be raided, photographed and videoed. Computers, hard disks and mobile phones can be seized. All these are done without the sanction of our courts, that is to say, without a warrant to seize. The police are free to do anything they want. Their advice to the person who objects to his properties being seized will be “We seize first and you can complain after we are gone”.

The police will know the contacts of activists and everything they do after forensically going through these devices. Such seizures will send shivers down the spines of activists and the public. The idea is to instil fear in everyone. We know that each time electronic devices are seized by the police, the owners lose thousands of dollars. New devices become outdated and useless by the time the police deem it fit to return to the owners. Meanwhile, the police and government officials gloat over successful raids and enjoy the inconvenience and sufferings they inflict on activists. They are accountable to no one because the law does not set a time limit for them to return the seized properties. The law protects them while we citizens are helpless.

I suspect most investigations on contempt of court offences will end with police raids and confiscation of computers, hard disks and mobile phones and not in our courts. That is the intent of the new law. Nip a weak civil society in the bud. Instil fear and curb free speech and expression.

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State Reprisal

By Teo Soh Lung

The first time I heard of the term “State Reprisal” was about three weeks ago. I was informed that a Swiss lawyer had used the term during a discussion on Singapore’s human rights record in Geneva. The seizure of my computers and mobile phone was brought up then as it was a current topic.

On 24 June 2016, Singapore rejected more than half of the recommendations made by its peers during the 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council. The government rejected the setting up of a national human rights institution, claiming rather embarrassingly, that its “Meet the People sessions” are sufficient to remedy citizens’ grievances against the state. I definitely have a grievance against our police force but I am no fool to visit the prime minister at his “Meet the People session” when it is his Elections Department that lodged the complaint against me.

I am angry that I have no recourse. If I lodge a complaint with the Commissioner of Police, will I get a fair and thorough investigation when the very people who I complain against are his subordinates? And will the result of his investigation be made public?

In 1988, a complaint was lodged against the Internal Security Department (ISD) for ill treatment I suffered in 1987. A gentle retired senior police officer investigated the complaint. He recorded two statements from me. He told me that he had found a few culprits who hit me. I never receive any official letter informing me of the outcome of his investigation. The senior police officer is dead now. Only a change of government may one day make public his report.

The seizure of my computers and mobile phone have enabled the police to mine my work and data collected over decades, including the drafts of my book, Beyond the Blue Gate, Recollections of a Political Prisoner. I am angry? The police said they will return my properties after investigation. It is now more than a month and they have not returned my properties.

Why State Reprisal?
There is no reason for the Elections Department to lodge a frivolous complaint against me and for the police to seize my properties after taking a full statement from me. The only reason for their actions is State Reprisal. The Swiss lawyer has put my case in a nutshell.

The police are acting together with the ISD. I am sure the ISD is involved. You can view this video where two officers on official duty have no name tags.

Let me elaborate on why I agree with the Swiss lawyer who said that I am bearing the full brunt of State Reprisal.

In 2011, Singapore underwent its first review of its human rights record at the UPR in Geneva. Function 8, the organisation of which I am a founding member, submitted a report on indefinite detention without trial. It was a brief report because we did not have much information on the issue and on the Internal Security Act (ISA) then. See…/WopiFrame.aspx…

In 2015, at the 2nd UPR session, Function 8 submitted a more detailed report on indefinite imprisonment without trial. We also attached an updated list of more than a thousand names of political prisoners, several of whom have been imprisoned for more than ten years. The report is at…/se…/function8_upr24_sgp_e_main.pdf and…/session_24_-_january_2016/functio…

In January 2016, I attended the UPR session when Singapore made a statement of its human rights record and listened to more than one hundred state representatives gave their recommendations as to how Singapore’s human rights record could be improved. I made contact with several international non-governmental organisations. I was interviewed by the International Service for Human Rights and they accorded me the status of Human Rights Defender. I also gave an interview to a Swiss radio station. I spoke about the purpose of my being in Geneva for the UPR session.

I am sure the Singapore government is aware of what I did in Geneva and they are not happy. I am sure it is also aware about what Function 8 has done since its incorporation in 2010. It has published several books, including the latest publication, “Living in a Time of Deception” by Poh Soo Kai who was imprisoned for a total of 17 years without trial. His book tells the history of Singapore unknown till now. Function 8 and I have “damaged” the good name of Singapore.

I have always been an outspoken Singaporean. It is true that I regularly write about politics in Singapore as well as anywhere in the world. I express my thoughts freely on my facebook. I criticise the PAP and the opposition parties. I am not a member of any political party and I am not restricted in my views in any way. I oppose the death penalty and strongly condemned the manner in which Kho Jabing, a Sarawakian Iban was executed. I am critical of the Attorney General’s Chambers and the judiciary. I am critical of our judicial system and our laws.

For all I did, the Singapore government deemed it fit to take revenge on me, just as the late prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew took revenge on me when he failed to humiliate me at the select committee hearing on the Amendment to the Legal Profession Act in 1986. See…/r…/pdf/1986/19861016_BIL_FULL.pdf. The following year, he ordered the ISD to imprison me under the ISA. I spent more than two and a half years in prison without trial.

It is clear to me that State Reprisal is the only reason why I am in “trouble” today. But if the government thinks that it can shut me up by sending 8 police officers to my house and robbing me of my computers and $800 mobile phone, let me tell them that it will not succeed.


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Remembering Said Zahari

The following is a tribute on Said Zahari by Muhammad Fadli Bin Mohammed Fawzi delivered on the memorial event, “Remembering Said Zahari, Patriot and Freedom Fighter” held on 4 June 2016. English text follows the Malay deliverance.

SaidPerjuangan Said Zahari bermula akibat ketidakadilan sistem penjajah. Sistem penjajahan ini merebut sumber semula jadi dari Tanah Melayu ke negeri Britain. Ini juga merupakan satu sistem yang berdiskriminasi atas dasar bangsa dan bahasa. Sebagai seorang yang amat prihatin terhadap nasib bangsanya, beliau melawan sistem penjajahan ini untuk mencapai kemerdekaan. Setelah kemerdekaan dicapai, beliau terus berjuang demi rakyat jelata, terutamanya untuk golongan yang terpinggir.

Perjuangan untuk keadilan ekonomi dan sosial inilah yang menjadi asas perjuangan politiknya. Walau bagaimanapun perjuangan ini terbukti menjadi terlalu menyusahkan bagi golongan elit baharu yang muncul setelah kemerdekaan dicapai di Malaysia dan Singapura. Apabila beliau enggan membenarkan Utusan diambil alih oleh UMNO, beliau telah dibuang dari Malaysia. Apabila beliau enggan menyertai PAP dan seterusnya mengetuai Parti Rakyat di Singapura, beliau ditahan selama 17 tahun akibat operasi Coldstore.

Rasa kagum kami terhadap Pak Said berpunca daripada kesungguhan beliau dalam perjuangannya walaupun beliau sedar akan pengorbanan besar yang terpaksa dibuat. Pengorbanan apabila beliau hilang kebebasan dan menempuhi dugaan cukup sukar. Namun ini tidak boleh menandingi kerisauan beliau terhadap kesusahan yang beliau tahu keluarganya akan alami. Pengetahuan ini akan menghantuinya selama sepanjang hidupnya. Kami mengingati pengorbanan keluarganya seperti kami mengingati pengorbanan Pak Said sendiri. Dalam ucapannya di majlis peringatan di KL, Dr Syed Husin Ali menyebut bahawa antara cara terbaik untuk menghargai pengorbanan Pak Said dan keluarganya adalah untuk mengingati dan meneruskan perjuangan mereka. Dengan tujuan ini, saya akan cuba memberi pengertian saya tentang bagaimana pelbagai aspek perjuangannya masih relevan hingga ke hari ini.

Aspek yang pertama ialah perjuangannya untuk masyarakat yang lebih adil dan demokratik. Inilah yang boleh disebutkan sebagai perjuangan yang masih belum selesai. Sebagai contoh, kebebasan akhbar yang pernah diterajui oleh Pak Said, negeri Singapura mempunyai kedudukan yang ke 154 dalam Indeks Kebebasan Akhbar Sedunia. Walaupun ada ruang baharu seperti di ruang internet di mana berita boleh disiarkan dengan cara yang lebih bebas, ruang tersebut juga dikawal dengan ketat seperti yang dibuktikan oleh peristiwa baru-baru ini yang mana kenyataan di lelaman Facebook boleh mengakibatkan siasatan yang intrusif oleh pihak polis.

Daripada segi hak untuk perbicaraan, Akta Keselamatan Dalam Negeri masih berkuat kuasa, dan kuasanya meningkat disebabkan oleh perubahan yang menghalang keputusan menteri daripada semakan mahkamah. Nilai material hak-hak ini sering dipersoalkan oleh mereka yang lebih pragmatik. Nescaya, tanpa kebebasan akhbar, keupayaan seorang individu untuk lebih memahami isu-isu dan dasar kerajaan, serta menyuarakan rasa tidak puas hati, tersekat. Tanpa sekatan undang-undang terhadap kuasa pemerintah, seseorang akan terkawal oleh pemerintah dengan sewenang-wenangnya. Oleh itu, walaupun hak-hak tersebut tidak mempunyai nilai ekonomi, ini penting bagi kebajikan dan kesejahteraan rakyat dalam jangka masa panjang.

Aspek kedua dalam perjuangan Pak Said yang masih relevan hingga masa kini ialah persahabatan dengan rakan-rakannya yang pelbagai kaum. Jika diimbas sepintas lalu, ikatan erat antara editor akhbar nasionalis Melayu dan ahli kesatuan sekerja yang berpendidikan Cina tidak dijangkakan. Namun fahaman lebih baik terhadap sifat nasionalisme mungkin dapat menjelaskan hubungan erat antara Pak Said dan temannya yang berbangsa lain.

Sifat nasionalisme adalah cinta dan kebanggaan terhadap budaya sendiri. Introspeksi terhadap budaya sendiri boleh menjana kefahaman yang mendalam dan hal sebeginilah yang memberi pengiktirafan kepada sifat kemanusiaan yang ada di budaya-budaya lain. Berdasarkanhal ini, maka tidak begitu menghairankanlah bagaimana dua tokoh nasionalis seperti Chin Siong dan Said boleh menjadi rakan karib. Kedua-duanya dapat memahami dan menghargai budaya masing-masing. Ini mungkin menggalakkan Said dan kawan-kawannya saling belajar bahasa masing-masing. Persahabatan mereka boleh dijadikan sebagai teladan bagi kami mencintai budaya sendiri dan pada masa yang sama bersikap terbuka untuk mengenali budaya lain.

Aspek ketiga perjuangan Said ialah pengorbanan. Satu persoalan yang jarang ditanya ialah: bagaimanakah kami tahu bahawa nilai-nilai yang kami hargai seperti kebebasan, keadilan atau kesaksamaan memang wujud? Kami tentu memahami nilai-nilai ini hanya sebagai konsep tetapi ini tidak menjadikan nilai-nilai ini lebih nyata daripada kata-kata kosong. Sebaliknya kami tahu bahawa nilai-nilai ini dianggap nyata kerana ia mendorong orang untuk bertindak seolah-olah ia benar, walaupun ia bukan bagi kepentingan mereka sendiri. Perjuangan Said untuk menegakkan nilai-nilai ini, pengorbanan keluarga dan rakan-rakannya menunjukkan kepada kami bahawa nilai-nilai ini bukan nilai-nilai Barat, Melayu, Cina atau India. Sebaliknya nilai-nilai ini terpendam mendalam di nadi kemanusiaan kami. Kami tidak akan lupa bagaimana anda berjuang untuk nilai-nilai yang kamu sanjung dan kami sanjung perjuangan kamu yang hebat dan murni.


IMG20160604143652Said’s struggle arose against the injustices of the colonial system. The colonial system was a system of economic injustice, which extracted the resources from Malaya to Britain. It was also a system of social injustice which discriminated on the basis of race and language. As a man whose heart was with the people, he fought against this unjust system for independence. When independence was achieved, he continued to fight for the people, especially those marginalised in society such as the urban poor and the farmers.

It was this fight for economic and social justice which formed the basis of his political struggle. However this struggle proved to be far too inconvenient for the new elites on both sides of the causeway. When he refused to let Utusan be taken over by UMNO, he was banished from Malaysia. When he declined to join the PAP by heading Parti Rakyat in Singapore, he was detained for 17 long years during operation Coldstore.

Our admiration for him stems from his resoluteness despite the sacrifice he knew he would have to make. The personal sacrifice in terms of loss of freedom and hardships endured was difficult enough, but the real difficulty was the hardship that he knew his family would have to endure, something which he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life. We remember their sacrifice as we remember his. In his speech at the KL memorial, Dr Syed Husin Ali mentioned that among the best way to appreciate their sacrifice is to remember and continue their struggle. In this spirit I will try to state my understanding of how various aspects of his struggle are still relevant today.

The first is his struggle for a more just and democratic society. It is a struggle yet unfinished. In terms of press freedom Singapore ranks 154th in the World Press Freedom Index. While there are new avenues such as the internet where news can be broadcasted and opinions exchanged, such spaces are also closely policed as evidenced by recent events where a Facebook post can warrant a full scale and intrusive investigation. The Internal Security Act under which Said was detained is still in force, its power increased due to amendments which preclude it from judicial review. These rights may not have economic value in this society but are important in other ways. Without freedom of the press, the ability of individual citizens to better understand issues and policies, and articulate grievances is restricted. Without legal limits, the individual is at the mercy of the arbitrary power of the government. Thus while these rights may not have economic value, they are important to the long term well-being of citizens.

The second aspect of his struggle which is relevant today is his friendship with his comrades of different races. At first glance, the close bonds between the editor of a nationalist Malay newspaper and Chinese educated trade unionists may seem counter intuitive. However this might not be so surprising with a better understanding of nationalism. Nationalism is love and pride in your culture and people. True nationalism involves deep understanding and appreciation of the inner wisdom of your own culture, that upon introspection, you may see reflections of it in another’s. In this light it is thus not so surprising that Chin Siong and Said would become close comrades as they would see what they loved best about their culture reflected in each other. This perhaps encouraged them to learn more about each other by learning the other’s language. Their example is still instructive today for us to love our culture but to be mindful and open to other cultures.

The third aspect of his struggle is that of sacrifice. One question that is not often asked is: how do we know that values we love such as freedom or justice or equality exist? We understand these values as concepts and ideas in our heads but that does not make them any more real than empty words. Rather we know that they are real because they compel people to act as if they were real, even at great cost to their own interest. Said’s struggle to uphold these values, the sacrifices of his family and his friends and comrades show to us that these values are not Western or Malay or Chinese or Indian in nature, but values which lie deep in the heart of our humanity. We will not forget how you fought for these values loved and how we loved your great good fight.

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Function 8 condemns legal opportunism

1 June 2016

Statement from Function 8

Function 8 deplores the intimidation of Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung and the unnecessary seizure of their mobile phones and computers on 31 May 2016. This follows their interviews with the Singapore police at the Police Cantonment Complex pertaining to an investigation into facebook postings on cooling off day on 6 May 2016. The police have clearly abused their power of investigation as both Roy and Soh Lung had never denied, and indeed confirmed at the interview, that they had commented on, and shared postings on Facebook which had been made by others.

Function 8 deeply regrets the actions of the police in this unnecessary seizure which is an invasion of privacy and an act of intimidation against Roy and Soh Lung. In our view, it is part of a chain of recent incidents that encroach upon the work of civil society which contribute to the legitimate exercise of good citizenship.

We, at Function 8, condemn the use of governmental powers against sincere individual citizens and civil society groups that are striving to make our nation a more inclusive, and a more caring one, accountable for the welfare of our fellow human beings. This is truly an act of legal opportunism.

Function 8 Ltd

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Living in a Time of Deception

Speech at SOAS on May 10, 2016, by Poh Soo Kai

Dr Poh at SOAS

Greetings – Mr Chairman / Madam Chairwoman, ladies and gentleman, friends and compatriots from both sides of the Johor causeway:

Firstly, a word of thanks to SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) and to MBC (Monsoons Book Club) for organizing this launch of my historical memoir, “Living In A Time Of Deception.” Thank you for your hard work.

This book began as a personal memoir but pretty soon, I found this framework rather inadequate. Thankfully, Wong Souk Yee and Lysa Hong came into the picture and helped to fashion this book into a historical memoir dealing with the politics of Singapore in the period 1954 to 1965 – where we witnessed, among others, the very important events in our bilateral history of merger in 1963 and the subsequent acrimonious separation from Malaysia in 1965. So “Living In A Time Of Deception” turned out to be a historical memoir focusing on my role in and my understanding of the politics of that epoch.

What we – Singaporeans and Malaysians on either side of the Johor causeway – are living with today is the fallout of the failed Malaysian Merger plan.

In 1961, after Lord Selkirk became UK High Commissioner for Singapore and Commissioner General for South-East Asia , he assiduously pushed for merger – the cardinal aim of which was to safeguard the efficiency of the British military base in Singapore.

At this juncture, I ask my audience to forgive me for paraphrasing sentences and literally lifting out terminologies and phrases from the correspondences between Lord Selkirk and the colonial office, as found in the British archives, to paint the picture then.

Lord Selkirk took the Malaysia Merger plan – first mooted in the aftermath of the Second World War – from the cupboard, dusted it and offered it to Lee Kuan Yew as a lifeline during the Hong Lim by-elections of 1961. It was obvious to the British then that Lee Kuan Yew was no longer the political force that he was in 1959 when he had swept into electoral victory on the back of left-wing support. As predicted by Selkirk, the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew lost the Hong Lim by-elections to what the British described as “a sea of hostile local population” necessitating the British to throw out a “lifeline” to Lee Kuan Yew and by extension, a “lifeline” to ensure the security of the British military base in Singapore.

Thus, Lord Selkirk’s main aim in giving an old Malaysian Merger plan, a serious and renewed interest was to safeguard the efficiency of the British naval base in “a sea of hostile local population” that had overwhelmingly rejected the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew in the 1961 Hong Lim by-election.

It was British policy at that time to intervene in the sovereign affairs of the countries in Asia. For such a policy to be executed, an efficient naval base was imperative. If we go back to 1946, after the Second World War, the British had sent their troops to Saigon to fight the Vietnamese nationalist movement, as well as to Surabaya to fight Sukarno’s nationalist forces.

Because of this policy, the British decided to separate Singapore from mainland Malaya with the MacMichael Treaty. The Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca could be incorporated into the Malayan Union but the British must retain firm control of the Straits Settlement of Singapore which contained the military base that would provide back up for its policy of intervention.

The people of Singapore and Malaya, headed by PUTERA-AMCJA – a unity of Malay and non-Malay organisations – promoted by the MDU (Malayan Democratic Union), opposed the separation of Singapore from Malaya.

The People’s Constitution written by MDU members John Eber and Willy Kuok had called for the unity of the Straits Settlement of Singapore just like Penang and Melaka with the mainland. The People’s Constitution envisaged dominion status for Malaya, following the Canadian model.

Most strikingly, the People’s Constitution proposed, with agreement from all factions, a citizenship called Melayu citizenship. It explained that it is a non-colonial term for Malayan citizenship. Tan Cheng Lock, one of the leaders, agreed with this definition for our citizenship; and we were to have Malay Melayu, Chinese Melayu, Indian Melayu and so forth.

However, the British governor refused to accept the petition embodying the People’s Constitution. And so Tan Cheng Lock had to call for a one-day Hartal which was a general strike of all people in the country – mainland Malaya and Singapore. He had learned this Hindustani word when he was in India during the Second World War.

The Hartal – the first nationwide joint Malay and non-Malay political action was successful – all economic activities in mainland Malaya and Singapore shut down on October 20, 1947. The British ignored this peaceful show of strength from the people and went ahead to separate Singapore from Malaya – for the sole reason of maintaining effective control of the military base in Singapore to further the British policy of intervention in the sovereign affairs of neighbouring countries in the region.


After the Second World War, the British Empire was economically broke. It ran down its military bases around the world but it was determined to hold onto Singapore because of the growth and strength of the nationalist movements in Asia. The British archive revealed that one of UK strategic aims in the Far East was to “maintain an independent contribution to the nuclear deterrent against China.” It was also necessary for the British to obtain some semblance of recognition from the United States that the weakened British still could play a supportive role in this region to advance the interests of the United States globally.

By 1960, tactical nuclear weapons were stored in the Singapore naval base and heavy bombers capable of carrying them, were stationed in Singapore and ready to fly out to China in case of disputes with the latter. This British nuclear deterrent was independent of the United States’ nuclear deterrent against China.

And disputes with mainland China could not be ruled out.

For example, in 1949, Sir Winston Churchill ignorant of geography, thought the Yangtze River was the Thames where the British Royal Navy could ply up and down with impunity. When the British Royal Navy was stopped from plying up and down, what it thought was the Thames, Sir Winston Churchill threatened to bomb the Chinese Liberation Army.

The base was also important to execute British policy of putting Sukarno’s feet to the fire. One could not put Sukarno’s feet to the fire without the muscles provided by the Singapore military base. Ever since then, the British had been interfering in the affairs of Indonesia, resulting in Confrontasi with Malaysia and the Gestapo or G30S in 1965. Sukarno did not last out his “year of living dangerously.”

Against this background, we – referred to as the “sea of hostile local population” – were arrested on February 2, 1963 under Operation Coldstore. The main reason for it was to preserve the effectiveness of the British military base in Singapore.

There is documentation in the archive that shows that the Tunku had wanted our arrest as a pre-condition for merger with Singapore. There is no doubt on that. Likewise, I have no doubt that Lee Kuan Yew desired our arrest at that juncture in history. Each had his own reason for our arrest. But it was the British who called the shot as it was imperative upon them to drain away that sea of local hostility against their base in Singapore.

Of the three conspirators in this scheme, it was Lee Kuan Yew who stood most to lose should he not find a role within Malaysia. He stated quite clearly to Philip Moore, UK deputy high commissioner to Singapore, that if he had no place in Malaysia, then the chance of Malaysia succeeding would be nil.

In this new scenario where his left-wing opponents had been decimated with the help of the British and the Tunku, Lee Kuan Yew now aspired to replace the MCA as UMNO’s partner in the Alliance. He was fully aware of and completely accept UMNO’s communal or racial policy.

But when the Tunku refused to accommodate him, he then turned around and contested the general elections of 1964 against the MCA with the aim of showing the Tunku, that the PAP not the MCA, had the support of the Chinese in mainland Malaya. Lee Kuan Yew reneged on his promise to the Tunku that he would not raise the communal tension in Malaya by contesting in the general elections of 1964.

In the 1964 general elections, the PAP put up 5 candidates but only one won. Lee Kuan Yew’s political horizon in Malaysia was dim indeed.

The archive quotes Lord Selkirk as predicting that Lee Kuan Yew would now switch to adopt a chauvinistic line. That was precisely what he did. He convened the Malaysian Solidarity Convention. He said that learning Malay as a national language was a way back to the jungle. As expected, Malay radicals retaliated; communal tension was raised which resulted in racial riots in Singapore.

Faced with that situation, the Tunku decided to talk to Lee on ways to solve the problem. But there was no talk of separation at that time.

However two intervening events took place to obliterate the need for a British military base in Singapore. The first concerned the Chinese, who, on October 16, 1964, had exploded their first atomic bomb and with it, a cardinal aim of the British military base in Singapore, which was to blackmail China, evaporated into smoke.

The second deals with Sukarno, who by June 1965, was in a very precarious position. Early that year, Sukarno had alluded to “the year of living dangerously” for he knew and expected that foreign powers were on the verge of toppling him. He did not last out 1965. By June – July, the British who were involved in the Gestapo operations, were aware of Sukarno’s impending downfall and therefore, allowed Singapore and Malaysia to negotiate for a separation. The Albatross files indicated that Lee Kuan Yew was in favour of separation.

These two intervening events made the aims of retaining a British military base in Singapore unnecessary. And so, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia was announced on August 9, 1965 with Lee shedding tears on television!

Today we are living in the fallout of this failed Malaysia merger scheme. The British had ordered our mass arrest in order to maintain their Singapore military base in 1963 and abdicated their responsibility to free us when the base was no longer useful.

Today they present themselves as advocates of democracy and human rights but are silent on their past role in Malaya and Singapore. They arrested us under Operation Coldstore, and failed to release us when they handed Singapore over to Malaysia via the Merger plan.

Hence the British must share in the odium of our continued detention without trial over many long years, in the inhuman treatment of solitary confinement for months and in the subsequent waves upon waves of arrests that followed.

Today, the relations between Malaysia and Singapore are not friendly. Singapore is known to have interfered in the political affairs of Malaysia to enhance its own economic position. An example of such interference occurred during Tengku Razaleigh’s fight against Mahathir for the leadership of UNMO.

Today, the communal tension within the country in both Malaysia and Singapore is heightened compared to the days when I was a student. Very unfortunately, in the process of the Malaysia merger and separation, Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP had played the communal card to the hilt, whipping up both Malay and Chinese chauvinism with the Malaysian Solidarity Conference and Malaysian Malaysia slogan.

The British, having achieved their aim in the region, and finding the base no longer necessary and costly to maintain, had long packed up and gone, leaving us with this fallout today as we stare at each other divided by the Johor causeway.


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A Humble Man

Said1The name Said Zahari sounded familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. Familiar because as of early 1960s, those who kept abreast with the political reality of Malaysia and Singapore had to, at some point in time, be introduced to personalities such as Lim Chin Siong, Said Zahari, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, T.T. Rajah, and Chia Thye Poh. It was also unfamiliar because the name remained a name without really knowing who Said Zahari was and what he stood for. To progressive students studying abroad like those in the Malaysian and Singapore Student Movement (MASS Movement) in London and the Federation of United Kingdom and Eire Malaysian and Singaporean Student Organizations (FUEMSSO) in the UK, his name was synonymous with Operation Cold Store, the Internal Security Act (ISA), and repression in Singapore. In the mid 1970s, student activists in the UK made a commendable attempt at translating three poems of Pak Said “Born Unfree”, “Joy” and “Dungeon of Horrors” into songs. They were rendered at student conferences and gatherings.

It was not after my return from an overseas stint that I began to have better insights into Pak Said’s political landscape. It was around 1982 that I first met Pak Said. The occasion was Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Ever since Pak Said was released from the PAP prison in 1979, he and his family had been holding ‘Hari Raya Open House’ for his friends and comrades at his residence in Upper Changi. A few of us (the so-called UK returnees) visited Pak Said to share with his family the joy of festive celebration. There was already a big crowd nudging every corner of his living room and spilling over to the outdoor spaces. Other than his signature hospitality, Pak Said was too busy to attend to us, the “younger generation”. He left it to his family to make sure we had enough of the Hari Raya delicacies. Who could blame him? A gathering with his contemporaries was after all a rare occasion in those days.

It was years later in 2003 that I got the opportunity to drop in on Pak Said and his family in Subang Jaya, KL. The late lawyer, Tan Jing Quee, his wife Rose and I were attending a conference on “Rethinking Ethnicity and National Building” held at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia which was organized by the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS) and convened by my London-days friend, Professor Rahman Embong and his colleagues. We paid Pak Said a courtesy call. To him I was a total stranger. Had it not been for Jing Quee who was one of his close friends, I would never have dreamt of making acquaintance with this legendary figure in Malayan politics, and then Singapore and Malaysian politics.

While Pak Said’s wife Salama, with Rose’s help, was in the kitchen preparing a meal, Jing Quee and Pak Said were like pals frequently chiding and poking fun at each other. They alternated their bantering between Malay and English, with Mandarin peppered in at appropriate junctures. One thing I notice about these so-called members of the Old Left (both English- and Chinese-speaking) is that many of them are effectively multilingual, and these two veterans could converse in Malay, Mandarin and English without much fuss. Had I been monolingual, I would have lost the fun and nuances of their jokes and altercations. It was a scintillating experience. The show of sodality between them was as natural as the flow of water.

That also happened to be the first occasion I heard Pak Said speak in Mandarin, albeit with a limited lexicon. Since then, visiting Pak Said with my F8 (Function 8) colleagues has almost become a must whenever we are in KL.

Much has been said and written about Journalist Said Zahari who used to rub shoulders with the likes of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaya, and Yusof Ishak, the former president of Singapore. Yet he was arrested during the 1963 Operation Cold Store which saw 111 people being rounded up and detained in one fell swoop. He was released only 17 years later.

Next to me are two volumes of Pak Said’s memoirs: “Dark Clouds at Dawn – A Political Memoir” (2001) and “The Long Nightmare – My 17 years as a Political Prisoner” (2007), in which he writes about his life as a student, a journalist, a political initiator and a political prisoner. 17 years in detention was doggedly sustained by 17 years of resolve. His family was thrown into a limbo and his thoughts were with them all the time. But between “recanting” and upholding principles he chose the latter. For that he had to pay the price of being detained for that length of period by his nemesis, “the vindictive Prime Minster” as he put it.

How can one not revere his indomitable spirit? What made a person take the path of suffering instead of giving in to fabrication, bullying and intimidation? After all, Pak Said’s youngest daughter was only a few months from birth when he was detained without trial by the notorious ISA.

In May 1987, I was, together with 23 other “Marxists”, detained (your guess is right) under the same ISA for being involved in a “Marxist Conspiracy” as labeled by the PAP government. I was detained twice for a period of 8 months, three of which was solitary confinement. Vincent Cheng was kept for the longest period of time, more than three years. This episode is resurrected here not to draw any comparison. There is nothing to compare between a few years and 17 years (or 32 years in the case of Chia Thye Poh). There is nothing to compare between the ill-treatment and torture meted out to the 1987 detainees and those confronted many times more brutally by our predecessors, particularly those in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

A slight incursion could perhaps be made from the subtle impact our predecessors had on us. Indeed, the images of Said Zahari, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Ho Piao and my detainee friends from the secondary school days kept flashing across my horizon where anxiety and uncertainty ruled the days. The question confronted was still the same one: What made a person take the path of suffering instead of giving in to fabrication, bullying and intimidation?

In 1961, the split in the PAP resulted in the formation of the Barisan Sosialis. Particularities aside, the general framework was one of battles between those who were determined to carry out the anti-colonial struggle to its fruition, i.e., independence for Malaya and Singapore, and those who were slated by the British to preserve the neo-colonial interests of the Western powers after they were no longer physically present. However, the anti-colonial forces in Singapore were too weak to take on Lee Kuan Yew and the like, partly due to the massive arrest of left-wing student, trade union and political leaders carefully and sinisterly planned in 1963. Singapore has since paraded a colonial servant, Stamford Raffles, as its national icon.

The books written by Park Said cited earlier draw a vivid picture of the issues and principles Pak Said had to face in leading the Utusan Melayu strikes and venturing into local politics. He refused to kowtow to the leaders of UMNO when they wanted the newspaper Pak Said and his colleagues were running to submit to their whim and fancy. He was banned from re-entering Kuala Lumpur as a result. The steely character I see in many ex-political detainees could have been forged through trials and tribulations such as those Pak Said experienced. In Martyn See’s documentary “Said’s 17 Years” produced in 2006, Pak Said’s ungrudging stance in narrating his ordeals during his imprisonment is out of ordinary. He was momentarily worried for his life only when his interrogators threatened to bump him off on the sly. He worried more about his family than for himself. Otherwise, his reply towards his accuser was tit-for-tat. If you accuse me of being a communist and instigating violence, put me on trial and I will defend myself. But the authority did not seem to have the gall to take on his challenge. Instead, Martyn’s documentary has since its onset been banned in Singapore.

My friends and I often think about this question: would people like Said Zahari, Lim Chin Siong, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, T.T. Rajah, Lee Tee Tong, Ho Piao, and James Puthucheary have done a better job if they had come into power in the 1960s? We are not sure when it comes to the material wealth that is opulently showcased in Singapore today. But as the saying goes: all that glitters is not gold. Material wealth alone is not the sole yardstick by which a society is judged.

One thing we are quite certain is that if political figures such as those mentioned above had turned the Singapore history the other way round, the relationship between the peoples of Malaysia and Singapore would not have been so strained. The income disparity in Singapore would not have been so wide. People would have been more prepared to stand up and speak up for their rights. The media landscape would not have been so flat and monopolized. Nor would the power of government have been so abused and monetized.

When ministers and high officials have to be paid heftily before they are prepared to serve the country and people, the essence of public office is that much denigrated. The call for volunteerism or dedication or patriotism to come forth is that much weakened. Loyalty is only a byword with little substance.

Professionals such as Pak Said and Dr Poh may be paid meagerly or nothing at all for what they have written and contributed. They do not have an entourage of researchers or journalists to assist in their undertakings. That is the case because they are said to have stood on the “wrong” side of history. But history in many countries has also shown that people who stand on the side of justice and persist in their struggle will triumph eventually. They continue to be prolific writers and share their knowledge and experience in spite of the odds. I have found that ex-political prisoners such as Said Zahari and Dr Poh are very jealous about safeguarding their integrity and dignity. This could perhaps be the answer to the question about their unflinching spirit raised earlier.

The last time my F8 friends and I saw Pak Said was in September 2014. He was on a wheelchair and looked frail. He kept saying he was not as robust as he used to be. But that did not stop him from having spirited exchanges with the younger members among us. He might have lapses in his memories but the resonant voice and laughter was unmistakably his. He was still his jovial self. He is no crapehanger.

Just as I was wondering if he could see through the third volume of his trilogy, I was naturally happy when I heard from Rahman Embong that it was indeed in the making. I have utmost respect for Pak Said who is known as “the champion of press freedom”. I was more than delighted to write a short piece when asked.

Yap Hon Ngian (Function 8)
4 May 2015

William Yap wrote this piece in honour of Said Zahari. It is included in the third volume of the latter’s memoirs ‘Suara Bicara – Fragmen Memoir Said Zahari’ published last year.

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