Editorial: Detention

This issue is about the detention forum of February 2006 and its aftermath. Two former political detainees Michael Fernandez and Tan Jing Quee and a poet/playwright Robert Yeo gathered on stage to talk about art and healing (theme of the 2006 edition of The M1Fringe Festival organised by The Necessary Stage). The event garnered some media attention and a response to The Straits Times Forum page from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

To those who have been following the press coverage in the last month of Men in White, it might appear that this issue must have been planned as a contribution to the extensive publicity given to Singapore history of the 1950s and 1960s, where the issue of detention without trial, and the reasons given for those detentions has been a critical key of contention, and some sort of final word apparently seems to have been arrived at. In fact, however, the idea emerged at least half a year ago, at a time when we had difficulties putting together the next issue of s/pores, and decided to look at the Detention-Writing-Healing forum, as one of us had access to the transcripts. For the first time, political detainees had given an account to the public of who they are, and what they had gone through in their years of incarceration. The two men who spoke not only talked of themselves, but also of the political contestations in which committed nationalists of their day pitted themselves against forces which they saw as compromising the country’s independence, for which they were detained on the allegation that they were communists.

Beyond the archival purpose of making the text of this pivotal event in our understanding of Singapore history available, we highlight its historicity by featuring texts that the event has generated. Teng Qianxi’s coverage of Forum and her commentary, the original version of which is presented here, appeared in Today in March 2006, contended that ‘Singapore history can no longer just be a one line summary.’ Nor for that matter can it be assumed any further that Singapore has always done without an active citizenry who engaged in politics, and that the ruling party had always been unchallenged. Teng reminds us that there was another event in the Detention-Writing- Healing forum: a former detainee, this time from the 1980s arrest spoke on “Art and Social Healing”, and held a reading from some of her plays.

Kevin Blackburn’s essay first appeared in an Australian journal on oral history in 2007, not easily accessible to those outside of academia. A historian who has been tracking the production and framing of oral history testimonies in Singapore, he highlights the dramatic impact and truth effects of the first person narrative and re-enactments at the forum. Blackburn lays out the context of globalization, which has compelled the government to liberalise the space for culture and the arts in order to make the city state into a cosmopolitan city, while delineating the clear limits allowed. The statement from the ministry of home affairs in response to the press commentaries which called for a plurality of views on Singapore history did not address the former detainees’ accounts of their life in detention, but reiterated the hard line that the people whom the PAP government arrested under the Internal Security Act were pro-communists, and they would not be allowed to get away with claiming to be legitimate political actors. The fault-lines in the Singapore Story remains.

And attempts to claim a voice on the part of the silenced has continued. In 2009 two publications by former political detainees appeared. One was a collection of essays by detainees who were social workers in the Catholic Church, the other, a compilation of poems written by Singaporean political dissidents and activists who had been imprisoned without trial. While these efforts kept up the momentum of reminding Singaporeans that political detention was a major instrument of the exclusionary politics of the ruling party, a leading civil society activist queried their relevance to today’s Singapore. At a book launch of the volume of poetry, Alex Au asked its editors if they that they did not think that the Internal Security Act was a necessary instrument in preserving national security. (‘Detainees’ poetry launched in KL’ 20 May 2009 Yawning Bread website) At a public meeting ‘Remember or forget? The 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy”’, academic cum activist Russell Heng had pointed out that individuals in advocacy groups for migrant workers in Singapore today are far more active than those detained in 1987 of whom they know almost nothing, though the church workers could be considered as their predecessors. Alex followed the remark with the provocative question: ‘If that is so, I asked, shouldn’t we let forgetfulness stand? Why recall the details of 1987 and 1988 and scare a new generation away? Why not let the young beat a new path blissfully unaware of the pain suffered by others?’ (2 July 2009 Yawning Bread).

Historian Sai Siew Min examines the troubling implications of “forgetting detention”. The doubts that critically-minded Singaporeans may have about the relevance of the detainees’ experiences in the face of their haunting presence, she explains, is symptomatic of Singapore’s “historical commonsense”, one that is related to amnesias produced by the hegemony of The Singapore Story. The call to relegate detention stories to the dustbins of history thus appears instinctively desirable but is nonetheless complicit in perpetuating a dominant understanding of the past that continues to structure how Singaporeans live. That the defense of the legitimacy of the ISA demands “forgetting detention” underscores the twisted logic of Singapore’s historical commonsense and is precisely why detention stories have to continue to matter. The workings of the ISA cannot be contained in a straightforward nationalist narrative about the protection of national interests and democratic freedoms against domestic and foreign enemies but is revealing of the heated contestation in the 1950s and 1960s about the very meaning of nation and national independence.

The review of The Observatory’s new album, Darke Folke may seem incongruous in this volume. Indeed, its inclusion is part of s/pores’s working out of how to handle submissions that do not necessarily fit completely into thematic issues. Yet it also assures readers that we are not only concerned with history and conventional politics. Check out the political overtones and that yearning for freedom in the collective voices of the band.

Our thanks to The Necessary Stage for use of the Forum recordings, and The Tangent for helping with transcribing them.


A Public Oral History of the Singapore Left in 2006
Michael Fernandez and Tan Jing Quee

Hide-and-Seek History
Teng Qian Xi

Ex-Political Detainee Forum at Singapore in 2006
Kevin Blackburn

Forgetting Detention
Sai Siew Min

Review: Dark Folke by The Observatory
Ang Song Ming