Teo Soh Lung explains that this book is an outgrowth of her diary when she was incarcerated from May through September of 1987 and again in April of 1988 to June of 1990. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first, because it is a bit shy of being a story of terror. Certainly her discomfort was real. Forced to stand in bare feet before a blasting air conditioner for twenty hours was torturous, but she wasn’t branded with a hot poker, didn’t have her fingernails pulled out, or wasn’t even water-boarded which Dick Cheney, former vice president of the United States, didn’t think was torture either.
She did contemplate going on a hunger strike which distressed her parents, but she chose not to do so. Maybe distressing is a better word for her experience. That’s what she called it when she missed her office Christmas party. The thought of all the gaiety that the staff and I would miss that year was distressing.
Beyond the Blue Gate is of broader significance than one woman’s suffering. Soh Lung came to represent for me an island nation’s intimidation by a government pursuing political power. It reminded me, a U.S. citizen, of McCarthyism in the 1950’s and of Richard Nixon’s use of the “the communist threat” to build his political base. Thus, Soh Lung’s book is a reminder to all people in all nations of being rendered mute through fear. For that reason it is important and should be read.
It is startling when Soh Lung is solicitous of her jailers and looks forward to visiting with some of them. She wonders if it is an example of ‘the Stockholm syndrome?’ Maybe so, but I suspect it has more to do with a culture which accommodates itself to authority. Even when she lashes out, striking a guard and spitting, it is a child-like expression of helplessness rather than a cold calculated show of disdain toward her oppressors. Singaporeans are a wonderful gentle people as a rule. I saw them as a nation of sheep, peaceable, dependent, and herded. I was reminded of the Psalmist, He makes me lie down in green pastures beside still waters. He restores my soul. Thy rod and thy staff comfort me. Soh Lung reveals this mindset when she asks the Queen’s Counsel, “Maybe I deserve to be detained?”
Lee Kuan Yew was seen as the benevolent dictator, and I suspect he saw himself the same way. He was quick to remind BBC’s Bernard Levin of his popularity with his people. He knew what was best for the flock, but woe to any sheep who decided to disregard his benevolence. Soh Lung and her friends forgot to flinch from his rod and staff.
There was a certain Don Quixote naiveté among Soh Lung and her friends for tilting at the PAP windmill. I know about that, because I did some of that myself in Singapore in ’70 and ’71. Saul David Alinsky, the pioneer of community organization work said to me, “One of three factors is essential for community organization: (1) the support of the government, (2) the support of the economic establishment, or (3) the support of the people, and having two out of the three is even better. You don’t have even one. You don’t even have the support of your church organization.” I found it quite significant that the Catholic Church called off its plan to sing outside the blue gate, because they didn’t want to get in trouble. They knew the score.
Finally, Soh Lung gained her release. She did not however win any appeal. No way could she have done that, for it mattered not that the law was on her side. The government had to make it clear that it could never be up to the courts to determine what was in the best interests of the nation. It was up to the ‘good shepherd government’ to do that, so she was found to have ‘changed.’ In Singapore parlance that meant that she had once again accepted her powerlessness. Changed meant that she is once again rendered unable to effect change in society.
There was a blue gate in Singapore. There was a barrier in its midst, but I suspect the view was quite the same from either side.
About David Danielson:
An author who lived in Singapore in the 1970s – a retired agnostic minister, considered ‘different’, relives history in fictional characters inspired by acquaintances. In retirement he’s written a musical, worked in stage lighting, a medical air service, and in Florida courtroom mediation. With Joan married fifty-nine years, they enjoy son, daughter, and grandchildren. Neither yearns for green pastures.