The balmy Fort Canning Park and genial mingling of friends and invited guests belie the anxieties prickling the organisers of the June 26 launch of Teo Soh Lung’s Beyond the Blue Gate, Recollections of a Political Prisoner. After all, an over-active mind could expect all manner of things of Kafkaesque proportion to accompany the launch of a book that tells from the heart a grimmer side of Singapore’s history of nation building.
Befitting the theme of Restart, Rejuvenate and Reclaim, the registration and welcome team is run by several bright-eye teenagers who may not have been born at the time of the 1987 Internal Security Act (ISA) arrest, a central topic of the book. Among the audience are many youngsters who have heard much from the media of the internal security saga and are here to see if Soh Lung is indeed the “Marxist conspirator” that she has been cracked up to be.
Opening the event is poet, playwright and cultural critic, Alfian Sa’at, who proclaims that all politicians lie. This echoes the Australian Democrats’ mantra of “Keeping the Bastards Honest”. While Alfian does not expect governments to be always truthful, he says they should at least be ethical. Noting that this is a bit like wishing for cooler weather amid the global warming, Alfian ends his speech by calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to warm applause from the 200-strong audience and wild dancing of psychedelic lights around the ballroom.
Soh Lung takes over the stage and “thanks” the Internal Security Department (ISD) for goading her to write the book – she was refused permission by the ISD to travel to Australia upon her release from detention in June 1990; with time on her hands and money sent by her sister for the planned holiday, she bought a computer and wrote the first draft of Beyond the Blue Gate. But the manuscript may not have seen the light of day had it not been for the encouragement of friends and the curiosity of younger people who have been hassling Soh Lung to tell them “what happened”.
Likening the 24 political detainees to rape victims, she says some have been so traumatised that they could not speak of their experiences to their children and friends up till now. “I call for the ISA to be abolished. The ISA and its predecessors have destroyed many lives from the time of the British to today,” Soh Lung makes the gentle but persuasive plea.
After the two speeches, fellow ex-detainee, Chng Suan Tze, reads out messages from Francis Seow, Koh Kay Yew, Margaret John, Francis Khoo, Kevin de Souza, Tang Fong Har, Tineke Jansen, Paul Lim, Stanley Yeo and Lord Anthony Lester. At Q&A, former detainees, Vincent Cheng, William Yap and Wong Souk Yee join Soh Lung to broaden the scope of the discussion of the 1987/1988 security swoop. Of note is the fact that Vincent Cheng was banned by the National Library from speaking at a public forum on the alternative history of Singapore just three weeks ago. Besides being a chilling reminder of the arbitrary power of the state, one cannot help but feels that the 1987 saga continues…
Despite that, or because of that, a couple of hundred copies of the book have been snapped up at the entrance booth and a long line of readers wait for Soh Lung’s autograph. If Beyond the Blue Gate could enable more people to become aware and articulate our state of affairs, and if that in turn contributes to the push for the liberalising of the polity, then the trees that have been chopped down to print this book would not have sacrificed in vain.