‘Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner’ by Teo Soh Lung is fascinating account of how a courageous individual fought her incarceration under the ISA in Singapore.
The story background starts on May 21, 1987, when Singaporeans awake to shock headlines: 16 young professionals have been arrested under the ISA and charged with “being involved in a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system… using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state.”
Within a week, all 16 confess to their designated communist “roles”. They write guided statements implicating others and agree to the mandatory parade on national TV. Six more are arrested in the weeks to come, bringing the number up to the iconic “22”.
Later, all but one, the supposed local “ringleader”, Vincent Cheng, are freed under restriction orders, and remain at large in the city for a few months.
But now comes the interesting part.
They become unhappy. They can’t live with what has happened. They are now mere “fugitives in their own country”. And to add insult to injury, the Singapore government goes on “taunting” them in the media.
So. They meet fearfully here and there to consider their options. At one point they’re so afraid, they lock all the doors of the house.
Nine of them sign a joint statement the “sole purpose” of which is “to clear their names”. In this passionate, precisely worded document, they retract their confessions, refute the official claim that they have not been subjected to ill-treatment or torture, and “categorically deny” the government’s accusation.
They are then duly re-arrested.
Intelligent lie machine
This riveting story and the complex events that follow are recorded in the form of a personal diary of 400 pages. It’s the third and most complete story to come out of the 1987 Operation Spectrum in Singapore.
Written from notes set down after her first release, and then again after her final release in 1989, Teo’s (right) account is a day-to-day total recall of interlinked event, reaction, motive, development, setback, mood: the complete mental event.
It pins down the details of what went on behind the bars of Whitley Road Detention Centre, when the machinery of the ISD was brought to bear on a bunch of diverse individuals who, the day before, were happily pursuing their lives and accomplished careers of outstanding public spirit.
We witness through the eyes of the narrator the duress she endured: the arctic aircon, the sleep disorientation, the initial physical assaults, the filth.
We see how the ISD manipulated the honest details of actual events to squeeze and spin into place a fabricated web of “truth”. It was an intelligent lie machine.
The inner world of the detention centre is revealed: the hub of activity by which the machine achieved its purposes, finally crippling the detainees with renewed confessions out of their own mouths – or at least signed by them.
They would never again be normal citizens under a clear sky, but upon release would pick up their lives under a neutering cloud of ‘rehabilitation’, that put them on a level with ex-drug addicts and adjusted criminals.
The brief exhilaration of the joint statement was not to be repeated, and 23 years were to follow before Teo broke her silence with this book, on the heels of Vincent Cheng, Tang Lay Lee and Kevin de Souza in ‘That We May Dream Again’, a volume brought out by publisher Fong Hoe Fang last year.
Fong also published a companion volume ‘Our Thoughts Are Free’, of prose and poems by Singapore ISA detainees over the generations such as Tan Jing Quee, Francis Khoo and Said Zahari. (Francis Seow’s ‘To Catch a Tartar’ preceded them all in 1994.)
Teo’s account enables us to see what earlier accounts in this rapidly stabilising genre of the ex-detainee’s tale have already shown us: how people and lives are crapped by this “draconian law”.
But her book shows us more than that. It shows us how the system craps itself.
For this is a lawyer’s story, running on the wheels of legal process. A brilliant lawyer who had helped to set up a Criminal Legal Aid Scheme and contributed to the movement for law reform, the author observed her captors just as they observed her.
And it is while reading the law books, allowed her after a visit by Prof Tommy Koh, that she first conceives the idea of “testing the law”.
This lifts her mood, and she begins her fight after her re-arrest, considering with her lawyers at each step the writs and legal avenues open to her. Such as habeas corpus. Such as a civil claim against the government for battery and assault, breach of statutory duty and so forth.
Soon you get the feeling, when the ISD officer walks in and says, “Teo, anything?” or just “How?” that it’s not only a polite inquiry after her health but also, “What is the state of play this morning?”
Thus a macro story of the book is the story of the Law itself: “My case would be a test of the Judiciary too”.
Queen’s counsel banned
As an example, after a “landmark decision” by the Appeal Court upholding the principle of judicial review of government action under the ISA, described by the author as “powerful words”, the government in turn reviews the court’s words in a report later carried by local English daily The Straits Times.
And what actually follows is that the Court releases some of the detainees on a technicality, but before they are out of the compound with their barang-barang, the ISD re-arrests them at the other gate, the one at which the families and friends are not waiting. The 2nd re-arrest.
The author gives an acutely observant account of this nail-biting sequence, together with its aftermath among the detainees – the disbelief, the depression, the fury…
As the plight of the Op Spec detainees spreads across the globe, the world’s press, the Malaysian Bar, the Privy Council, and the governments of the UK and US all become involved. Not to mention several Queen’s Counsels (QC) from the former colonial power, who adopt the role, in one of history’s little reversals, of ‘ambassadors for freedom’ to the 20-year old republic.
Teo’s personality, strong and compassionate even in captivity, plays no small part in thus capturing the imagination of the world.
Her book reveals a scenario of possibly unprecedented panic in both the ISD and the government. Her first QC, Anthony Lester, is banned from the Republic after the first round. He is lucky. Her local counsels, Patrick Seong and ex-solicitor-general Francis Seow, are arrested under the ISA.
History slowly unpacked
But this book is not only about the fight. It’s an engaging human document too. Detainee and ISD officers share a meal; the ISD case officer interrogating her begins to fear he will call his wife ‘Soh Lung’; she worries whether he will get his promotion if he fails to obtain results, drawing comments from friends regarding the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.
The Law Society mutes down, but her lawyer mates give generous personal assistance: Roslina Baba is always at hand for advice; Lai Maylene garners worldwide support; Teo’s office staff works round the clock without salary.
Outside the detention centre, her 80-year-old mother protests in dialect that, after a whole year outside the ‘Blue Gate’, she will complain to the Gods.
Inside, in solitary confinement, there are the invisible companions with whom she shares nerve endings and shouted conversations, especially her corridor mates Wong Souk Yee and Chng Suan Tze, dramatists from local theatre company The Third Stage.
Nature has her episodes in the story: the lizard’s flamboyant farewell, the toad-in-a-hole, the ants. And when Teo is moved into the partly open “Shangri-la suite”, the rain bursts in. Rain, the prisoner’s comforter.
And there is humour too. Try the author’s “telepathic message” to the judge: “Good afternoon My Lord. This is detainee TSL again speaking from Whitley Detention Centre. I am sorry to bother you again knowing it is probably your lunch time now. But I hope you will understand. It is very boring here…”
In hindsight Op Spec was surely a turning point in Singapore’s history, albeit one that is only now being unpacked as finally change comes to a Singapore with a young population whose curiosity, expressed in blogs, can no longer be repressed…