The first in a series of intimate interviews with people who have made an impact in Singapore’s socio-political scene, The Online Citizen meets up with Seelan Palay to talk about his time in jail, his family and Dr Chee Soon Juan.
By Joshua Chiang
You went to jail recently because of your participation in the Tak Boleh Tahan demonstration outside Parliament House. Can you tell us more about the events leading up to the imprisonment?
It (the demonstration) was about the rising cost of living, high salaries of the ministers, income inequality. I was arrested that day, and the trial went on for close to one-and-a-half years. On the day it ended, I had an option to go to prison or pay a fine. I didn’t want to pay the fine – it was around $1800 – and so I decided to go to prison for 12 days.
It’s my first time going to prison; although I’ve been arrested and put in lock up sometimes on the day itself, they released me. I’ve not been in prison before.
Tell us more about your imprisonment.
On the first day, what I have to do is to go surrender myself at the court and say that I want to serve the sentence. So the judge asked me if I was going to appeal at the higher court. I said, “I’m not going to. It’s no use. I already know the result.” Before that he was smiling, and after I said that he was kind of frowning.
After that I was handcuffed and taken to the basement of the subordinate courts where there’re a lot of holding cells. Then I was brought in a van to the prison. After I was brought there (to Changi Prison), they made me strip; they did a strip search. And after they did the searching they gave me this blue shorts and white t-shirt; I went for some ID marking and everything, then they brought me to my cell.
What’s the cell like?
It was quiet bare. They give you this straw mat, you know the kind that you bring to the beach, but it’s pretty worn out, so you might as well sleep on a piece of paper. I’d imagine that it would be pretty bad for your back, especially if you’re going to be in there long-term. They also give you two blankets and you can choose to roll up one into a pillow and use the other to cover yourself. That’s what I did.
The cell is basically like a very long rectangle. There’s a big blue door, you can open a latch and look in. There are no bars. The cell can fit three people. And at the back of the cell there’s a short wall, and there’s a latrine; a toilet on the floor. And right in front of the toilet there’s a shower. So if you want to shower, you’ve got to spread your legs in front of the latrine and press a button for the shower. The water from the shower basically goes into the latrine. And that’s also where you brush your teeth, so you’d better not drop your toothpaste or your soap into the toilet bowl because you are expected to dig it out and re-use it.
So you shared the cell with two other people?
Yes, one was a Singaporean. The other one was a Nepali.
The case of the Nepali was really sad to hear, because he’s 30-something years old, he’s never been out of Nepal his whole life, and this is the first time he came out. He worked for this boss who’s also a PR (Permanent Resident) in Singapore, and he worked in a restaurant. According to him, the boss gave him a place to stay but didn’t pay him for five months, and he kept asking for his pay but the boss didn’t give him any. Finally he got angry; he pushed the boss, the boss pushed back and they started fighting. After that the case went to court. This guy, I believe he was sentenced to six or eight months in prison.
I asked him, “What are you going to do after your release?” He said, ”I’m just going to go back to Nepal, I don’t want to travel again.” And I asked him what happened to the boss? Did he get charged? He said that he doesn’t think so. So did he have a lawyer? He said, “No.”
Do you get to leave your cell?
There’s supposed to be yard time, when you go out for a while to this big basketball court. But when I’m brought to the yard, there seems to be no one there. Maybe they bring me to the yard after everybody had left.
Sounds like you’ve been given special status.
(laughs) I don’t know. That’s what happened.
How did you pass your time during those 12 days?
I think the first three days I kept asking for my books. Because previously some friends of mine went in for one-week sentences, and for the whole week, they didn’t get the books, so I feared that (the same thing would happen to me.) I really love reading you see. I really didn’t have any appetite when I didn’t have my books with me, I didn’t eat well.
After three days they handed me my books. I bought in three books – ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, another book called ‘The Mute’s Soliloquy’ by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, an Indonesian writer, and I also brought in Alan Shadrake’s ‘Once a Jolly Hangman’. They didn’t give me ‘Once a Jolly Hangman’. And I asked them – why? The warden smiled and said something like, “Questionable content.” That was pretty funny.
Did you get it back after you were released?
Yes, I got it back upon my release. The sad thing is, I read very fast. I needed three books. But I read too fast so I finished the two books I had quite quickly.
Were you allowed pen and paper?
I was allowed pen and paper because I had a trial in the following week. So for some of the days I would come out for trial. That was quite testing because they put you in these orange overalls and they handcuff you at the back, they cuff your ankles, and then they had a chain connecting your handcuffs and your ankle cuffs, so you had to bend like this (stoops with hands behind him).
The first time they did that to me, I looked at the guards and said, “What is this the slave trade or what?” And I looked at the other prisoners around me and said, “You don’t have to treat people like this, even if they’ve committed crimes.” The first day I was brought (to court), and so many people were struggling to walk – an old man too was very obviously walking in great pain…
Apparently it’s a security concern because some of the prisoners had escaped when they arrived at the subordinate courts, but there’s surely better ways to do this. And it’s excruciatingly painful. I told the judge about it too. Because the metal cuffs scratch and ‘clang’ against your ankles so it hurts with every single step you take.
Did the 12 days feel long?
Some days. Especially when I didn’t have my books. I don’t regret going into prison. I did what I did, and the Government wanted to react in this manner. If they want to be unreasonable that’s for people to judge right? But what I did miss was sunshine. I like the feeling of sunshine on the skin. In my cell, there’s a window. But the window is so high up, you can see the sunlight coming in at the ceiling, but it doesn’t come down into the cell.
It’s not like in those movies…
Yah. Quite funny right? But it’s true.
One time I had nothing to, I actually went to the toilet area – the window is above the toilet area – and I tried to climb up the ledge and jump up so I could catch the sunshine but I couldn’t reach it. So those days when they bring me to court, there’s one moment at the loading bay where the sun would shine in, and when they bring me in (from the van) I would always turn (and face the sun) as I walked in. So for seven seconds I would just absorb the sunshine and then I would go back in to the blasting air-con.
How did you get in touch with your families and loved ones?
I couldn’t. They were supposed to visit, but on the day it happened, I had to get to court. So I didn’t get to see them until I was released.
My sister did come to court, on one of the days. She saw me, but we couldn’t speak. So at first when she saw me in the orange overalls and shackles, she was kind of shocked and kind of smiling, like amused. But once the break time came, and they to had to drag me and I was walking like that, dragging the chains. I turned around and she was totally… her face totally changed. It was all red and she was crying. And then everybody was comforting her, and she was like , “Why did they treat him like that? He’s not a murderer.” Chee Siok Chin (sister of SDP leader Dr Chee Soon Juan) was there and she tried to console her.
What are your parents’ views on your involvement in activism?
I think the first time I got into trouble was during the 2006 IMF World Bank summit in Singapore. I was planning to distribute some fact-sheets about the impact of IMF policies on Third World countries. And when I wanted to do that, the police intercepted me as I was traveling to work on some artwork; they escorted me into a police car and drove me to my block. They went into my room, searched my room and took my computer. My mother was there but she wasn’t allowed to speak to me so she just stood there crying. And so after that I was brought to the station, my mother was still crying, but my father sort of told her, “Well he knows the consequences, and he goes into it, so it’s ok, we shouldn’t worry. He’s not scared. If he’s scared then I’ll start worrying.”
And from that day, slowly as time went on, my mom got more composed. So nowadays sometimes if there’s a demonstration, I just tell her, “You know there’s going to be a demonstration, I might get arrested and come back tomorrow.” And she’d say, “Okay, take care.”
But these 12 days in jail was the longest time you were away. What did they feel about it?
My mother says the house feels a bit empty ‘cos she can’t hear my voice. And, my dad is ok. I think my dad is confident of me… so he kind of supports what I do. And he thinks that, “Well, you are not committing a crime. You are only speaking up for people, speaking up for human rights, and justice. What’s wrong with that?”
Do you have a lot of such (political) discussions with your family?
Well my mum doesn’t have so many views on politics, but she does know about how families struggle to survive in Singapore. My father… he was initially quite surprised when I first got involved. Two years ago, when he met Dr Chee (Soon Juan), he told Dr Chee, “I’m so surprised my son got involved. Because my whole life I’ve been voting opposition and I never tell him. And I never talk to him about politics and suddenly he got into it by himself.” So my father thinks it’s kind of fated or something.
The anti-death penalty campaign was your virgin campaign?
Yes, But before that I did a little bit of campaigning with ACRES, a local animal rights group, and also the Vegetarian Society of Singapore. But those were kind of like, giving out flyers at roadshows and other indoor events…
Ya, you can say ‘permissible’ by their (the Government’s) standard.
At anytime during your campaignings, do you actually feel afraid?
In the beginning, in 2006 when I first got arrested, of course I was afraid. I thought they were going to throw me into ISA detention or something, because I really didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have anybody to turn to. I have a friend, Rizal, an activist. He was calling a lot of people in Singapore from different fields, NGOs, activists, artists… none of them knew what to do. The only people who came down to speak up for me were Chee Siok Chin and some other people from SDP. She actually came down to Cantonment and she wanted to know if I was arrested, and they (the police) said, “No he’s not officially under arrest, he’s under investigation.” And she said, “If that’s the case we want to see him and we ask that you release him now.” And soon after that the questions to me changed. They asked, “Do you know Chee Siok Chin, do you know Dr Chee Soon Juan?” And I said, “They’re my friends.” And then they said, “Ok ok, you can go first.” Then suddenly I was out of there. Ms Chee drove me back home, and she (Chee) spoke to my mum for a while to console her…
At that time I was afraid to be put away for a very long time. Not because of my personal freedom being taken away but more because I still have to take of my parents. That’s the main reason. But by this time, knowing Dr Chee and other people in SDP who have gone to prison – and I’ve gone to see them go in, and see them come out, and they’re still sturdy. And it helps me stay confident as well.
You still have outstanding charges?
I have outstanding investigations. I think I still have ten open investigations. And I can be charged in court for any one of them at any time.
So you’re hanging on to your blue shorts and white shirt for the time being.
(laughs) Well it depends on what the Government wants. I don’t know why they haven’t acted on some of the things, like the two-man protest I did for the Burmese outside MOM (Ministry of Manpower building at Havelock Road). They arrested us for criminal trespass, and they put us in lock up, and then they released us and nothing happened after that. So I don’t know. It’s very weird. The only cases I’ve ever went on trial for were two Tak Boleh Tahan events.
People often associate you with the Singapore Democratic Party. Are you a full-fledged member of the SDP?
No I never was. Various political parties have asked me to join them, but I didn’t all these years simply because I don’t feel a need to yet, I think it’s great that other people join political parties, but I think where I am, I’m in the arts community and the activist community and I’m just doing my work there, and I try to help out people, I don’t feel a need to enter politics in that manner.
But there’s the sense that you identify more with them than other parties.
Of course I do. Because I found out about local politics through the Internet back then, when I was 18. I went to meet JB Jeyaretnam; I got his book and I asked him to sign it. I stood there and I asked him how I could help him. He kind of thought I was too young maybe. And it’s okay that he thinks that way.
After that, I went to meet SDP, and Dr Chee, and I read his books and everything. I like the ideas expressed in them. That’s why I identify more with them as compared to other political parties. Also because beyond politics they are also now my friends, and also my family friends.
You have heard of Dr Chee before you read his books. At that time there were already a lot of bad publicity about him. So what got you interested to check out his books?
I always believed in a free market of ideas. It’s the main thing that I advocate. The time I got to know about Dr Chee, I already knew that there’s not much of a free market of ideas in Singapore. It’s mostly government controlled or largely government induced/influenced. I kind of viewed Dr Chee and JBJ in the same light. I didn’t let any of the bad press affect my judgment of him. I told myself, if I’m going to judge him, I’m going to have to meet him and talk to him myself. I’m going to read his books first. I’m not going to read the Straits Times’ version of Dr Chee or the Newpaper’s version of Dr Chee.
So when you read his books, did it change any of your perspective?
It’s not about changing perspective. I was never influenced by the mainstream media’s impression of him. It was more like, when I read his books, I know the substance behind the man. And the kind of socio-political, and also economic ideas that he has. I find my own views to be very in line with his. And so I think his books were the things that made me understand him more.
They (the mainstream media) like to promote the idea that he’s just doing demonstrations, like to cause trouble. The thing is, from a young age, I didn’t find anything wrong with demonstrations. They’re fine. So when the media try to tell me that Dr Chee is bad because he does demonstrations, I didn’t see the connection. ‘Cos I would do that if it were me.
What do you think is the public perception of activists like you and Dr Chee?
Sometimes I ask long time friends of mine from school. They know what I do, and almost all of them support what I do. And I think that’s cause they know me as a person. They saw me growing up, they know my values from the start. So none of these mainstream media influenced their perception of me. And after that, as I got more into it, I asked them what their friends and families think of what I do. They all give me different kinds of answers.
There’s actually one quite racialist answer. I have an equal number of Chinese, Malay and Indian friends. But some of these Indian friends I have – the older uncles and some of these friends of my friends. They ask ‘why Seelan wants to get involved in all this? Dr Chee is a Chinese. Lee Kuan Yew is a Chinese. Let them whack each other and die lah. This fella, he’s an Indian , he’s a minority. Just ask him to cover his own backside, make his living and just get on with life.” This may seem quite controversial but this the hard truth. This is what some people say within the Indian community.
Some of the feedback I’ve received… the perception is that you guys are standing up for a cause. It’s a good thing. However at the same time, it puts them off somewhat – what they perceive as this negativity, this anger…
When my Burmese activists friends, all they do is speak up for Aung San Suu Kyi, against the brutal regime in Burma and they are kicked out of the country (Singapore) and they are thrown into countries like Cambodia because they can’t go back to Burma. And they’re left with zero, nothing in their lives. What do you want me to do? Not get angry? If everybody is going to keep quiet and not get angry or upset about these kinds of things… I did that demonstration outside MOM because I was totally disgusted with the way the Singapore Government is doing this to people that I know.
And there are also many people I’ve spoken to who said that they support the idea of demonstrations and they would participate in the ones we’ve organized if they didn’t fear or have to face so much persecution.
One trivial question. Malcolm X or Gandhi.
Gandhi. But I generally don’t look up to figures in that manner, in the sense that I just like reading what they write. There are so many other inspirational figures. So many in South East Asia that are even more inspirational than Gandhi in a sense ‘cos they’re so close to our history. And I feel that we should also look that these people.
But wasn’t Gandhi’s methods less confrontational, more ‘gentle’?
I think we have had gentle protests as well. I don’t know what degree of gentle is. Gandhi during his time was considered a radical as well. They thought his ideas were mad, that he was an angry man with nothing else to do but complain about everything. That’s what his contemporaries thought.
I just don’t look at Gandhi. I look at protests happening around the region. I’ve participated in protests around the region, and I don’t find anything wrong in holding a placard and saying “someone is really not respecting human rights.” I see an event, and I feel, as a human being, I’m going to make a placard, I will write what I want on it. Of course I’m not going to make it defamatory or racially or religiously insensitive. I’m just going to hold it, and I’m going to show that person. They can do whatever they want. They can arrest me they can ignore me. It’s okay. But to me as a human being I’m just expressing myself in that manner. And these people who don’t like it, disagree or feel uncomfortable, there’s nothing I can do. I’m not at your house showing it to you. You’re not the person I’m addressing. So if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but I’m still going to do it.
And at the same time I also organize forums, exhibitions, film screenings. I post articles on my Facebook, I write articles for TOC (The Online Citizen), for my blog, I also write articles for socio-political publications, and all of these are the other activities that make up what I do. How many demonstrations have I done compared to the advocacy work that I do everyday? Compared to the video editing I do everyday. Compared to the art process I do… I took three years to do this piece of artwork (a piece of collage work that was recently exhibited at Post Museum). People don’t see this side of me and I don’t blame them for not seeing that. They only see the demonstrations because those are the things that get the media attention. And it’s just what happened with Dr Chee Soon Juan. Like people don’t see how he interacts with his family. People don’t see what he has to do everyday. And they only know him based on what the media has showed them.
Do you think it’s the media’s influence, or it’s human nature to fear and reject what they do not understand?
I think both. You can’t say it’s only the media. It’s also because it doesn’t happen enough often so it’s this fear of the unknown, so they don’t know what to expect.
After doing activist work for eight years, are there any encouraging signs? What do you see happening right now.
I think the Internet has provided the kind of space to express themselves or let off steam. That’s the most positive thing. Many years ago, you might guess that there are so many people reading the forum, but thanks to Facebook you can sort of gauge how many people there actually are. The numbers of blogs have increased. The number of online activities that translate into offline action has also increased. Like for example the campaigns that TOC has taken up. The campaigns that other organizations have taken up. So it’s very dynamic… ever-growing. There are positive things that have happened. All is not lost.
So what about the people sitting behind their desks and typing, do you think this is the first step towards something, or is it more like – this is it?
I can’t say if this is it, but that depends on people’s conscience, the socio-political climate, Lee Kuan Yew’s existence. (laughs) I mean it’s a very real concern people have. And I would think that it’s more… It’s just positive. It’s good that people are writing online whether it’s anonymous or not, it’s good. I’d rather have that than eight years ago, I Google-searched for Singapore human rights, all I get is the Think Centre, now I’ve got so much other stuff to read. So many people’s opinions. It’s good, you know.
What about the quality of the content? On one hand you have your intellectual posts and on the other hand, ranting.
I appreciate both. The former, it makes you think. The second, makes you laugh. I just like it that people express themselves, because I always feel that a lot of times… when I go other countries, even amongst Asians, I always feel that Singaporeans express themselves less. It’s partly due to the climate and social conditioning. And I feel that if more people express themselves, then we have a free market of ideas, and more people stand up for what they believe in. That can only be good in my view. Especially if you are going into a knowledge-based economy, and that’s where we want to go, then having such an environment would be good.
But on top of the fear of repercussions, there’s also this aversion to messiness, which many feel may threaten the stability.
I hear that from some people. But I’m not the government, I’m not going to decide on how much freedom of speech you’re going to have. If you want freedom of speech in Singapore, you gonna have to decide how much you want and take it for yourself. And you’ve got to know the consequences when you go about it.
As for how the system will change… by the time you get a democratic society where we have freedom of expression, the entire economic system in Singapore might collapse, because of the CPF (Central Provident Fund) bubble exposing itself to be a sham, and everybody loses their CPF money, and HDB devalues, and the whole system might implode with the PAP in power and without freedom of expression. To me that’s even worse. That’ll be like back when Suharto (President of Indonesia) was in power. But if we have a free market of ideas and open debate, when there are real problems like that there can be different voices heard and proposals considered, and there can be a solution found, together, rather than dictated by one person who might be wrong all over again. What he calls himself… the ‘Forecaster’.
With regards to activism, what is the achievement you’re most proud of?
Personally I would think, the demonstration that me and my friend Kai Xiong did for the Burmese who were expelled, mainly because after that demonstration, it seemed that none of our other Burmese friends were expelled. I feel like that might be my greatest achievement because through that act of civil disobedience it seemed we could really stop such injustice.l
This was after the Burmese demonstration at Orchard Road in 2007. (more about the demonstration here)
Yes. But you can’t say it was inspired by them. Cause their demonstration was completely different it was for democracy, asking ASEAN to stand up for Burma. Which was another thing, because they investigated a lot of them, they started expelling them, which is why we got so… we felt this great sense of injustice being committed. C’mon so many Burmese all over the world are speaking up for their country, and these people are stuck here – what do you want them to do? Sit down at home and just watch Channel Newsasia?
So your demonstration was in response to how they were unjustly treated.
And the high-handed manner which it was carried out.
Last question – What about your future?
My future. Of course, as an artist, what I consider to be my profession first and foremost – I just had another exhibition; I’ll do more. That’s really what I see in my life. I really want to develop my art process more, develop my output, and have more exhibitions. That’s what I really want to do. Other than that there’s freelance video-editing to help pay some bills… a lot of people they think that activism is the main thing is my life.
But Art is the main thing in my life. Ever since I was ten years old I already knew I was an artist. I told my mother when I was ten years old, I said one day I was going to grow up to be an artist. Up till now I still believe that. And so on my blog I always put ‘artist’ then ‘activist’. Art is still the most important thing in my life.
Why not just stick to being an artist?
When sometimes at a demonstration, anywhere in the world, there might be a taxi driver who participates… you could also ask him why not just stick to (being a) taxi driver. For me I would answer the same way. I’m an artist, I’ve a conscience, I feel some kind of social responsibility. If I feel something is wrong, I’ll speak up. That’s it.
Source: Part 1 and Part 2 at The Online Citizen.