Hide-and-Seek History

Teng Qian Xi

An edited version of this article first appeared in Today, 9 March 2006.

What picture does the phrase “political detainee” conjure up for you? What picture does the phrase “political detainee” conjure up for you? Have you ever thought that the person behind you in line at the café, or opposite you in the MRT might have been put into a prison cell without trial and not knowing when s/he would be released?

On 24th and 25th February 2006, at forums organised as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival held by theatre group The Necessary Stage, three Singaporeans who were former political detainees addressed the public for the first time. Most notably, “Detention – Writing – Healing”, held at the Esplanade on 25th February, featured two ex-political detainees from the 1960s-70s, Michael Fernandez and Tan Jing Quee.

The other former detainee who appeared was Chng Suan Tze from 1980s theatre group Third Stage, who was one of the wave of arrests in 1987. She was a speaker at the 24th February forum at the Substation on “Art and Social Healing”, and a reading from some of her plays was held the following day.

The groundbreaking nature of these forums can be illustrated by Tan Jing Quee’s comparison of political detainees and convicted criminals during his speech: “A convicted criminal can be charged in court, […] and from day one will know the precise date if his release. A political detainee is arrested without a trial, often dragged out in the night.” He also emphasised that a political detainee’s term of imprisonment can be infinitely extended, pointing to the imprisonment of both Chia Thye Poh (27 years) and Said Zahari (17 years). Zahari had been scheduled to speak at the forum, but was hospitalised last week.

Now, we know that in ordinary places like Queenstown and Robinson Road, there were prisons which also held people who had committed no crimes. Fernandez still has not only scars on his body from what he euphemistically called “manhandling”, but also the experience of being handcuffed to a chair and having his mouth forced wide with a jaw-opener while being sat on by a guard when he and other prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest not being able to organise their own labour in prison. Knowing this, Singapore history can no longer just be a one-line summary.

However, it’s not just a question of knowing the harrowing details. The important thing is that for the first time, as forum chair Tan Chong Kee noted, “We can put faces to the figures behind history, and understand the tradition of political detention.”

It’s hardly expected that such people would have had a chance to tell their stories in public. Fortunately, when history teacher Lim Cheng Tju first proposed having a forum with ex-detainees to The Necessary Stage, the idea was taken up. After many ups and downs and to the surprise of many, they finally got their forum permit. Lim felt that such a forum would provide “an important entry point for those of the younger generations who have to accept their inability to truly understand the nature of those times”.

From one perspective, those today who want to learn and discuss Singapore’s multifaceted past are lucky. We are born late enough to have the Internet’s wealth of forums, mailing lists, etc at our disposal, not to mention recent books written about or by leading figures from that period, such as Barisan Socialis leader Lim Chin Siong, Said Zahari and Chin Peng. In addition, other events, such as the Paths Not Taken seminar on political pluralism held at the National University of Singapore in 2005, and forums held by civil-society group The Tangent, have examined alternative Singapore stories.

With these sources alone we have materials with which to complicate the reductive stories and labels such as “Communist” and “Marxist conspirator” attached by official histories, and gain, as Tan Chong Kee says, “an understanding of where we, as a nation, came from and where we are now heading [that] opens up choices and possibilities.” In contrast, to quote George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Singapore is late compared to countries such as the US, who have a long tradition of looking at their history through, for example, African-American perspectives. The fact that these forums occurred – and that Fernandez and Tan were willing to speak and faced a full house – could be a watershed. In addition, they received mainstream media coverage afterwards, despite a statement from Mrs Ong-Chew Peck Wan, director of the Ministry of Home Affairs, published in the Straits Times Forum page on 8 March 2006. It declared Tan and Fernandez “not political dissidents or opposition members engaged in the democratic process”, but instead members of a group, Communist United Front, working for the Communist Party of Malaya.

Nevertheless, there has to be more. Fernandez tells about how in the 1960s, “university students did not need permits to organise forums on the issues of the time or publish journals with their own researches.” Will this ever be a present right of Singapore citizens instead of a historical anecdote?

Currently Singapore has restrictions on so many different aspects of expression, from the need for printing licenses to the aforementioned permits for forums. These institutional conditions must be improved. This is especially important when it comes to those arrested in more recent times, such as Chng and her fellow detainees from 1987 (including lawyer Teo Soh Lung) who were vilified by the government as part of a so-called Marxist Conspiracy.

The fact that Fernandez, Tan and Chng were permitted to speak is a first step that deserves no small credit, especially since it has been 18 years since Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo first proposed to “prune the banyan tree judiciously” to allow civil society to thrive. These forums represent only a snip at the banyan roots’ split ends. Only when we can move and breathe freely among the roots under the tree, can we stop trying to erase and contain differences in Singapore, and resurrect the spirit of bridging and activism for our future.

Teng Qian Xi is a writer. Her interest in political detention in Singapore was prompted after reading Comet in our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History at eighteen. Her first collection of poetry, They hear salt crystallising, will be published at the end of 2009.

Editor’s note for further reading:

5 Plays from Third Stage: A Collection of 5 Singaporean Plays. Ed. Anne Lim and Chng Suan Tze (Self-published, 2006)

That We Dream Again. Ed. Fong Hoe Fang (Ethos, 2009)

Our Thoughts Are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile. Ed. Tan Jing Quee, Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew (Ethos, 2009)

Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore. Ed. Michael D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki (NUS Press, 2008)