By Vincent Cheng
National Day is a time to think about your country, what it means to you and what you can contribute in your personal capacity. A nation is made up of people, human beings, not animals. We try to understand the nation by making use of symbols. While I have been accustomed to hear of the symbol of the shepherd and his sheep, I am also led to understand about the symbol of the sheep and the sheepdog. The latter symbol emphasizes fear, power, domination. The former focuses on compassion, example, service. My experience of Singapore in 1987 was certainly the relationship between sheep and sheepdogs. I was a sheep that tried to stand on two feet and I got snarled at by the sheepdogs, gnawed and subdued. Unexpectedly, I resurrected and lived to tell the tale.
In Singapore, the greatest virtue is fear. After years of fertile breeding, we become kiasu (fear of losing), kiasi (fear of dying), kiagui (fear of ghosts), kiachenghu (fear of the government), kiagongweh (fear of speaking up), etc etc. Whether the fear is real or imaginary, it contorts the mind and paralyses action. The ISA (Internal Security Act) is a weapon of fear, and its use in the 1987 Operation Spectrum was indeed nerve-wrecking. Suddenly 22 sheep were rounded up, branded, some like myself whipped into submission, then caged indefinitely. Were we fearful? I was, mostly in the early period. My ISD confessions were done under fear and duress. I was told that good behaviour (meaning: don’t make legal representation, don’t fight back, obey prison discipline and rehabilitation), would see me a free man within a year. Like a true sheep, I believed even though my intuition told me to do the contrary.
Damn the Marxist Conspiracy. Write your affidavit. Make your legal representations. These instructions were bombarding my mind. But I was afraid because by doing so, I would be prolonging my detention more indefinitely. If I didn’t, I would be released early but then my conscience would definitely be troubled. I couldn’t decide. Both ways I would be in hell. Pychologically wrecked, I couldn’t eat or sleep peacefully.
It was Lent 1988, a time of the year when the Church would prepare its members for the forthcoming memorial of the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Somebody (to this day I still do not know who) sent me a book entitled “The Trial of Jesus” by Gordon Thomas. This book was to bring heavenly light to my tortured self. I could see the similarity of our trials and suffering. ‘One man has to die for the nation’ – the book kept prodding. I then realized that as a Christian I had to follow the Jesus’ way. As a government-appointed ring leader of the “Marxist Conspiracy”, I decided to choose the painful path. I would recant my written and TV confessions in my affidavit which was to be made upon oath. I would have to demolish the Marxist Conspiracy to bits. This act would also benefit all 21 detainees after me especially those who didn’t for one reason or another make any legal representation. I made my first application on 9 June 1988, appearing before the ISA Advisory Board in a suit with a large cross on my chest. The Board recommended my continued detention. For once, I was happy to be detained! And I was at peace.
I decided to commence habeas corpus proceedings in 1989. For this my family engaged another lawyer, Mr Patrick Seong. Never in my wildest dream did I ever think of having Patrick as my lawyer. He, after all, had recently been detained and released from the same prison. With Patrick, the affidavit was revamped,
made more succinct and comprehensive. Together with the addenda, it became about 8 inches thick. I am eternally grateful to Patrick and his team for this exhaustive and exhausting work. Although I lost my legal case eventually, this affidavit is a powerful public court document.
I hate the injustice of arbitrary detention under the ISA. But I have never regretted the three years of detention, 75 per cent of which was in solitary confinement. This experience exposes my strengths and weaknesses, tests my persistence and perseverance, moulds my character and future. Politically, that period of my life is my contribution to the nation. I await the day when my fellow ex-detainees and I will be publicly exonerated and accorded our role in Singapore’s history.