The 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.