Security sweep codenamed Operation Spectrum saw the arrests and detention of 22 young professionals in Singapore under the Internal Security Act.
The “Marxist Conspiracy” arrests, as it is commonly known, also involved the detentions of lawyers Francis Seow and Patrick Seong in 1988 as they sought to represent some of the detainees who were re-arrested that year.
Upon release, Seow contested in the 1988 General Elections under the Workers’ Party ticket and lost narrowly to the PAP incumbents. The Government subsequently filed tax evasion charges against Seow, who was overseas at that time and has remained in US until today.
In 1994, he published ‘To Catch A Tartar’, which documented in considerable detail his 72 days’ ordeal under ISA detention in Whitley Detention Centre.
The following is the foreword to the book, written by former President and founding PAP member Devan Nair, who himself lived in self-exile after openly criticising the Government over the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ detentions. He passed away in Ontario, Canada in 2005.
By C.V Devan Nair
Foreword to To Catch A Tartar, Francis T. Seow
Published in 1994
Before reading Francis Seow’s manuscript, I had decided that I would decline his request for a foreword. My political days are definitely over – and more reasons than either friends or foes imagine. Apart from a series of reflective essays (in preparation) on the making of an ideal (in which I too had been privileged to share), on its unmaking (which I watched in helpless pain from the sidelines), and on the dubious – to say the least – political and social aftermath of phenomenal economic success, I had, and still have, no intention of becoming involved in promoting the political views or program of any individual or group, whether within or without Singapore.
After reading through the manuscript, however, I realized that I would never again be able to look at my face in the mirror without flinching, if I said no to Francis, at least in regard to this particular piece of writing by him. For this was no political harangue by one of Singapore’s leading opposition figures, excoriating the political or economic program of the powers-that-be, and pleading the virtues of his own political cause. On the contrary, central to this book is a grim account of how a citizen of Singapore was treated while under detention without trial under the republic’s internal security laws.
As an ex-detainee myself, who had undergone in two separate spells a total of five years of political imprisonment in the fifties under the British colonial regime as an anticolonial freedom fighter, I recalled that I was never treated in the shockingly dehumanizing manner in which Francis was by the professedly democratic government of independent Singapore. Indeed, my fellow detainees and I had as legal counsel a brilliant lawyer and vocal freedom-fighter by the name of Lee Kuan Yew, who has publicly borne witness to the comfortable circumstances in which we lived under detention, and how he was able to visit us, without supervision, to discuss, among other things, strategies for bringing the colonial rule of our jailers to an end.
Francis’s account of his seventy-two days of detention by Prime Minister Lee’s government confronted me yet once again with acutely poignant questions: What has the nation come to? And what malefic hidden persona has emerged in Lee Kuan Yew of today? Surely, this cannot be the same man, whom I and several other starry-eyed anticolonial revolutionaries in the fifties and sixties had jubilantly accepted as our captain in the grim, heroic struggles of those early days to create what we expected would be a new Jerusalem? Alas, it took us thirty years to realize that we had been treading on air.
Mr. Seow’s book is an eye-opener; that is, for those whose eyes still required to be opened. Mine too, for that matter. Nobody is blinder than the captain’s inveterate hero-worshipper. And none probably as wilfuly, self-righteously closed to unfolding reality as I was. Indeed, until fairly recently, I had believed that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government, by which I had once sworn, had all along been tolerably civilized and humane in its treatment of political prisoners. Yet another scale had to fall from my eyes, the latest in a series of scales which had already fallen earlier, and which I will deal with in my own book.
The economic transformation wrought by the PAP government is there for all the world to see. The towering skyline of the island city state, the great vistas of new high-rise apartments which had replaced the sordid sprawling slums and malarial swamps of only three decades ago, the magnificent international airport at Changi about which all visitors rave, the world latest and, perhaps, the best mass rapid transit system, the clean and green garden city – all and more – quite rightly evoke the envy and admiration of foreign visitors, especially those from developing countries with much less to boast of by way of efficient development-orientated governments.
I would be the last person to denigrate the material achievements of Singapore, for the good reason that I was also a member of the ruling team responsible for them. Like other members of the PAP old guard, I saw the creation of a solid socioeconomic base as a vitally necessary springboard for the realisation of human ends and values. At least for me, and for the others in the anticolonial movement like me, the human agenda was primary. In short, the urgent, organized, disciplined drive for economic growth and technological progress was powered by noneconomic aspirations and ideals.
We looked at the sad fate of other multiracial and multireligious developing countries and recognized that life’s highest rewards and fulfilments were beyond the reach of societies riven by sterile, senseless class and ethnic strife, and cursed by a corrupt polity, inefficient production, material poverty, and hungry bellies. Modern technology and management systems would be necessary means to advance the human agenda. Alas, we failed to forsee that human ends would come to be subverted for the greater glory of the material means, and our new Jerusalem would come to harbour a metallic soul with clanking heartbeats, behind a glittering technological facade.
History bears abundant witness that idealists generally come to grief. They awaken high human aspirations and hopes and ignite the liberating fires of revolution. The pains and humiliations of foreign subjection and exploitation are scorched, and, for a brief, blazing period, men transcend themselves in the inspiring vision of a great common future. The revolution triumphs – but idealists become expendable thereafter. One by one, sooner or later, they are eased out. And the revolution is inherited by cold, calculating power brokers at the head of a phalanx of philistines.
Lee Kuan Yew’s earlier speeches echo the great themes of freedom fighters everywhere. As the several irrefragable quotes Seow offers in his book testify, Lee too had once waxed eloquent about liberty, freedom, harmony, justice, and the dignity of man. But reading Lee Kuan Yew today, or listening to him, one realizes how brazenly he has abandoned the positions which had so convincingly persuaded an earlier, revolutionary generation of Singaporeans, both old-guard colleagues and the population at large, to confirm him in the captainship of party and nation. We had taken him at his powerfully eloquent word. If Lee had then given the mildest hint of the apostate he was to become, he would have received short shrift from the revolutionary following who had put their trust in him.
Those who order, systematise, and govern in the aftermath of revolutions often become votaries at covert and pernicious altars. Ineluctably, the Olympian gods are displaced and a Titan holds sway, with lamentable results. The march of the human spirit is first arrested, then retarded.
What we launched as the independent republic of Singapore succeeded, as the world knows, all too well, only to discover that in the eyes of Lee Kuan Yew, means had become ends in themselves. First principles were stood on their heads. Economic growth and social progress did not serve human beings. On the contrary, the primary function of citizens was to fuel economic growth – a weird reversal of values. The reign of Moloch had begun. Not an unfamiliar phenomenon to those who browse in the pages of history. My old-guard colleagues and I might have been wiser men and women if we had read our history with greater comprehension than we do now. Alas, one cannot alter the past.
The inevitable drift to totalitarianism begins with the typically symptomatic thesis of the progenitors: “Society as No. 1, and the individual, as part of society, as No. 2.” The words are Lee Kuan Yew’s, speaking to journalists in Canberra, ACT, on November 16, 1988. He was dutifully echoed by Goh Chok Tong, the First Deputy Prime Minister, (now Prime Minister), when he announced this as one of the pillars of the government’s new goal of “a national ideology” for Singapore. Portentous words, given the current morbidities of the republic, which include the account given by Francis Seow in the following pages of his seventy-two days of detention and interrogation by the guardians of “national security,” the Internal Security Department. Seow learned at first hand what happens to the individual as No. 2, when subjected to society as No. 1 in the shape of his jailers and interrogators in the Whitley Detention Centre.
“The individual, as part of society,” is a marginal improvement on Mr Lee’s egregious penchant for referring to fellow-citizens as “digits” of the development process. You are either a productive “digit” or an inefficient one. And “digits”, like robots, if they are to be functionally useful, have to be programmed. So one need not be surprised that Singapore’s political programmers should now be working on a “national ideology,” in addition to the social and genetic engineering already in the works. Shades of Huxley’s Brave New World!
History bears irrefutable witness to the self-evident truth that no harmony is possible between the individual and society where either seeks aggrandisement at the expense of the other. The mutual need for each other, for mutual completion and fulfilment, is frustrated if one seeks to devour the other. Invariably, the end result is material and spiritual impoverishment, stagnation and death, for both individual and society. The equation is infallible, whether the nation concerned is eastern or western, although Lee Kuan Yew pretends that Confucious would have sanctioned the outrages he has perpetrated in Singapore. Which, as those who decline to traduce history for political ends will appreciate, would be an unwarranted insult to the memory of the venerable figure, whose proverbial wisdom laid primary emphasis on character-building enhancement of the human spirit and of social mores – not their mutilation.
The tree is known by its fruits. The supremacy of the state over the individual which those inclined to totalitarianism always propound has invariably meant, in practice, the immolation of the individual at the altar of an impersonal, faceless, and conscienceless deity, sanctified by the grandiose term: “the organized community.” But the voices which issue from the iron throat are recognisably those of the political elite in power. They spell out the implacable social “imperatives” which override the rights of the individual. And in the name of these imperious mandates, the social juggernaut driven by political roughnecks grinds the hapless individual under its wheels. Francis Seow was one such victim. Another was Chia Thye Poh, whose lengthy incarceration has been compared to the experience of Nelson Mandela. It would be invidious to mention others by name, for either their spirits have been broken, or they remain subject to tongue-tying restrictions.
Seow survived the ordeal. Because he is a free man outside Singapore, he becomes the first ex-detainee to place on record the ordeal of arrest and detention without trial in Singapore. In doing so, he has rendered a signal service to all Singaporeans, as indeed to all sane and humane men and women everywhere. But they must know that he will have to pay a heavy price for his pains in the shape of repeated or fresh calumnies and of rearrest should he choose to return to Singapore. Indeed, this will be in addition to the price he has already paid for raising his voice against Moloch. It is a rare kind of courage which would take on so perverse and formidable an adversary.
I am personally able to confirm the brutal fact that exile, for whatever reason, uprooted from one’s entire milieu of life, culture, and career, from friends and relatives, is, to put it bluntly – unremitting spiritual agony. Nonetheless, an ordeal certainly preferable to the individual as No. 2 suffering systematic asphyxiation by society as No. 1. And writing this foreword, I am cruelly aware that I am, in effect, finally and irretrievably burning my boats with my country and a people whom I love and served over the greater part of a lifetime. But what would you? Exile, pensionless to boot, at least ensures the survival of the integrity of the person.
The story, as Francis Seow tells, is a grisly symptom of a high-seated (rather than deep-seated) political malaise afflicting Singapore. History will indict Singapore’s eminence grise, now Senior Minister and Secretary-General of the ruling party, Lee Kuan Yew, as the source and bearer of what, despite transient and misleading appearances to the contrary must, without radical political surgery, turn out to be a terminal condition.
I may be wrong in believing that the point of no return has already been passed, for currently it does appear that a population rendered politically comatose over the years will be unable to bestir itself sufficiently – apart from surreptitiously immobilizing subway trains by stuffing well-chewed chewing gum into their doors – to cancel the blank cheque it has given to the Singapore government.
However, I am also aware that we live in times when reality keeps exploding in the faces of experts. It has more than once exploded in mine, not to speak of Francis Seow’s. There is no guarantee that one day it will not explode in Lee’s own face, or in the face of those who will inherit his creed and style of power. Gorbachev, Ceausescu, and Honecker are only the more visible among the many who, undercurrents which suddenly surfaced, ensuing in utterly unforseen, convulsive change in the sprawling Soviet empire and eastern Europe, leaving all the world’s normally voluble geopolitical pundits and pontiffs flummoxed.
Some believe that the necessary inspiration for surgical intervention to rescue Singapore from terminal risk might arise from within the republic’s own undoubtedly intelligent establishment. A good number of professionals and civil servants do know, and will private acknowledge – looking over the shoulder, of course – what has gone grievously wrong with the once promising Singapore experiment. In the strictest privacy, they readily admit that, if there is any country in Southeast Asia which, by virtue of economic success and probably the best educated population in Asia after Japan, can afford a more relaxed style of government, tolerant of free __expression and dissent – that country is Singapore. They appreciate that the people of Singapore are certainly intelligent enough to discern where their best interest lie, and run the risk of falling prey to rabble-rousing politicians with easy panaceas and quick fixes.
Indeed, they vividly recall that an earlier, less educated generation of Singaporeans had, after listening to open public arguments and debates, repeatedly rebuffed at the polls slogan-shouting demagogues who clearly did not know the social and economic priorities of a small, island nation with absolutely no natural resources to boast of, dependent on neighbouring Malaysia even for its water, and entirely dependent on the stability of export markets for comfortable living. Finally, they know that the source of the overweening authoritarianism – so entirely contra-indicated by one of the most vibrant and successful economies of Asia – issues from the increasingly obsessive fixations and bizarre values of one man – Lee Kuan Yew.
But it remains to be seen whether knowledge goes with moral courage and the will to action. I confess that, with every passing year, I have come to fear that the point of no return has already reached and passed. For Singapore’s grey eminence lords it over the republic from the top of a tower of undeniable previous achievement. He had been the superb captain of a superb team which had led a highly responsive and intelligent population out of a savage and sterile political wilderness into outstanding success and internationally recognized nationhood.
Today every member of that superb team has been eased out of power and influence in the name of political self-renewal, while Lee himself has ensured that he presides, as Secretary-General of the ruling party, not as he once did, over equals who had elected him, but over a government cabinet and a judiciary made up entirely of his appointees or nominees. In relation to old guard leaders, Lee had been no more than primus inter pares. He had perforce to deal with equals, and they were fully capable of speaking their minds. Once, in the early days of the PAP, in sheer exasperation, I myself had responded to him with a four-letter word and thought no more about it.
Today, Lee no longer deals with his equals, but with his chosen appointees, who did not earn power the hard way, but had it conferred on them. They are highly qualified men, no doubt, but nobody expects them to possess the gumption to talk back to the increasingly self-righteous know-it-all that Lee has become. Further, the bread of those who conform is handsomely buttered. Keep your head down and you could enjoy one of the highest living standards in Asia. Raise it and you could lose a job, a home, and be harassed by the Internal Security Department, or by both, as happened to Francis Seow.
Nonetheless, one must hope, even against hope, that the daunting challenge is not evaded by intellectually honest and spiritually courageous members of the Singapore establishment. The inevitable alternative is clearly the abortion of what began as the Singapore miracle. An abortion and a treachery. For not many societies return whole from the graveyard of elementary human rights and decencies.
Admittedly, Lee is right in talking of the remarkable economic transformation we wrought in Singapore, an achievement at once collective and individual. The people of Singapore well deserve the material success for which they worked so hard. But, all the same, they have reaped a baleful harvest. Lee bakes a bitter bread. The relish of greater material well-being gives way to the acrid taste of ill-being along other equally vital, if less tangible dimensions, beyond the gauge of GNP, the only measuring rod Lee knows. As his career progressed, he revealed, in increasing measure, enormous blind spots.
“Transformation” is quite the wrong word word for qualitative aberrations which have occurred in the noneconomic areas of life in Singapore. On reading Seow’s manuscript, the word which leaps to mind is “transmogrification” or the grotesque metamorphosis that has overtaken the perception and treatment of the individual in the republic.
My thoughts go back to my own arrest by the British colonial authorities in Singapore in the fifties. I have already indicated that my experience as a political prisoner under a British colonial administration had nothing in common with what Seow went through. I can come to only one conclusion. The colonial Special Branch were saints compared to Lee Kuan Yew’s Internal Security outfit. The end result of our struggle for political freedom and independence turns out to be not a progression in terms of respect for human dignity, but a surreptitious regression into barbarity.
Few can appreciate how painful a contemplation from the sidelines Seow’s account is for those like me who had spent a good part of our active lives helping to launch modern Singapore. Contrary to Lee’s pretensions, Singapore is not only his baby. It’s our baby as well. But under Lee’s exclusive charge, the miracle child suffocates today beneath a pile of heavy swaddling. Small wonder therefore that a disturbing number of Singaporeans have chosen to emigrate from Lee’s utopia to less strait-jacketed places like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, According to government figures, the exodus reached 4,000 families in 1989, around 16,000 people. The London Economist observed:
His (Lee’s) statistically-inclined government may well reflect that, proportionally, the exodus from Singapore, which faces no threat from China, was not far below the flight from Hong Kong last year.
Lee himself appears to be the only person who does not seem to have got the message. In his National Day Rally speech in 1989, he affected incredulity – even turning lachrymose – that so many Singaporeans should opt out of his paradise. Nobody present could summon the gumption to tell him that to discover the reason why, all that he need do was look into the mirror.
For Lee’s entire approach to government pointedly ignores some crucial ingredients of nation-building. Full employment, well-fed digestive tracks, clean streets, and decent homes are not the be-all and end-all of good government. They are only a necessary beginning – an essential foundation from which to aspire to greater human ends. Like people elsewhere, Singaporeans also have keen nonmaterial appetites, the satisfaction of which will not brook permanent denial. For these are fundamental urges which return after every banishment.
A new and better educated generation, increasingly open to the great winds of change blowing all over the world, is bound to intensify the search for an invigorating image of desire and hope, a liberating political formula, a more satisfying life scheme and scene than are available under the present pervasive system of coercion and control. Also, in this day and age, ideas and hopes increasingly scorn border check-points and censorship laws.
A society burdened by a multitude of prohibitions must come to suffer that stifling of innovation and creativity which comes of excessive regulation. Singaporeans today have to memorise an exhaustive list of prohibitions. But they are without a comparable list of what they are free to do.
Certainly citizens of a civilized community need to cultivate that sense of order and discipline which has served Singapore’s economic success so admirably thus far. But where a sense of social responsibility goes unnourished by an equally vivid sense of individual rights, and of participation and involvement in the entire political and legislative process, there the human spirit is bound to shrivel under the deadening touch of authoritarianism. Indeed, what has become increasingly evident to Singaporeans is Big Brother’s total lack of trust and confidence in the good sense and judgment of his citizens. Hence the hectoring speeches by ministers, and worse, the ubiquitous voice of the oracle telling everybody else, including government ministers who perform under his watchful eyes, what is good for them.
The obvious danger is that if ever Singapore is faced with a serious economic downturn, as is entirely possible given the republic’s overwhelming dependence on increasingly volatile export markets, the current disturbing brain drain may be expected to gush into massive exodus. And that would be a sad end for what began as the most promising experiment in socioeconomic growth in Southeast Asia.
Lest it be considered that I have revised my views about the conditions of my own detention, after having parted company with Lee Kuan Yew, I will quote here from the statement I made on behalf of the People’s Action Party of Singapore at the meeting of the Bureau of the Socialist International held in London on 28-29 May 1976, with the approval of Prime Minister Lee. I said:
In 1950 I joined the Anti-British League, an underground auxiliary of the Malayan Communist Party. I spent, in two separate spells, a total of five years in British prisons. I am not in the least bitter. Indeed, I look back back nostalgically to my years of incarceration, for they were years of intensive reading and self-education. On the whole, my fellow detainees and I were well-treated. One of the few complaints we had was that the British allowed us radio sets which were doctored to receive only Radio Singapore. We wanted to listen in to Peking and Moscow as well.
We were in touch, through easily bribable camp warders, with the communist underground in Singapore. We were instructed to go on a hunger strike and to protest against against “ill-treatment and torture.” When some of us pointed out that there was no ill-treatment and torture, our chief fellow detainee told us that “it was a revolutionary duty to expose the imperialists, through whatever means were available.” Our anticolonial zeal being greater than our commitment to truth, we swallowed whatever qualms we had and embarked on a six-day hunger strike. It had the required effect, not upon the British – who were quite unmoved – but as far underground communist propaganda in Singapore was concerned, for our hunger strike was extolled as an example of our heroism and of the vileness of the imperialists…
I was reminded of the episode when I read the Dutch Labour party paper about the torture of detainees…
I also happen to know a good deal about both prisons and detention camps in Singapore. For, soon after Lee Kuan Yew formed the first PAP Government in May 1959, I persuaded him to set up a Prisons Inquiry Commission, for I had not liked what I had seen of the demeaning conditions of imprisonment imposed by the British authorities: not on political detainees, but on convicted prisoners. For example, on the approach of a British prison officer, every convict had to kneel down on the floor, with his head down. That aroused my ire, and it still does, when I think of it.
I was appointed Chairman of the Prisons Inquiry Commission, which included two British academics from the University of Malaya in Singapore – the late Dr Jean Robertson and Professor T.H. Elliott. The recommendations my commission made, to humanise prison conditions, still form the nominal basis for the administration of prisoners and detention centres in Singapore. The International Red Cross has had access to our prisoners, detainees, and places of detention. You will appreciate that the Red Cross is not allowed in several other countries, and I can confidently challenge any country in the world to boast a more efficient prison system than the one we have in Singapore.
This explains why I read with wry amusement the absurd allegations of ill-treatment, torture, and inhuman conditions in our prisons and detention centres, made by the communist united front group in Singapore, and faithfully repeated in the Dutch Labour Party paper.
Today I am obliged to eat a good number of the words I uttered in London in 1976. A humbling obligation, and therefore good for the soul. I have no difficulty, of course, reaffirming that my fellow detainees and I were well treated in British colonial centres of detention. That was a fact of direct personal experience. Not so, apparently, the conditions political detainees were subjected to in the seventies. I had then accepted, all too gullibly, that these were humane and civilised purely on the word of the powers-that-be. I was not the only credulous Singaporean to do so.
There is no better teacher than painful personal experience. I know today that in this matter, as in several others, my trust and confidence were grievously misplaced. I am certain now that if any of these detainees had brought themselves to write of their experience as Seow has done, their accounts would not have been greatly dissimilar. If anything, going by what Seow learned from other detainees whom he had represented as legal counsel, some of them went through much worse ordeals. I can also appreciate today that detainees do not speak up during guided tours of detention centres for Red Cross representatives.
Seow’s account of the horrendous process of interrogation he underwent, the freezing coldness of the soundproof interrogation room, an air-conditioner blower duct on the ceiling which directed a continuous and powerful cascade of cold air down at the spot where, barefooted, he was made to stand, the sudden paroxysms blasts of cold air sent him into, the total darkness save for the powerful spotlights trained on him, the obscenities, shouts, and threats he had to endure, all left me stupefied.
Sleep deprivation, for instance, is a fiendishly effective means employed by Singapore interrogators to thoroughly disorient the detainee, so that he may be suitably readied for abject “confessions” which would later be copiously presented by the government-controlled media as a “statutory declaration.” One cannot think of any other country in the civilized world where “statutory declarations” exacted under duress from political prisoners are published and unabashedly palmed off on the public as gospel truths.
I found acutely disturbing the following paragraphs in the book at page 121 et seq.:
As I walked through the doors of the interrogation room, a freezing coldness immediately wrapped itself around me …
I had lost all sense of time. I had been standing there under the pitiless glare of the spotlights. I felt the urge to go to the toilet. I told them. Two Gurkha guards appeared and escorted me to the toilet. Having stood motionless at one spot for so long I had great difficulty walking. I found myself rooted to the ground – a term more descriptive of the reality of the situation than a mere figure of speech. My limbs were stiff all over. I was unsteady. The two Gurkha guards on either side of me supported me under my arms. I staggered out of the interrogation room, half carried by them, along the dark corridors up two flights of stairs to the ground level of Block C, along a corridor, to a toilet located in an empty cell in Block D. I blinked at the unexpected harsh light of day. I was quite shocked. The urge to go the toilet forgotten for a moment. I asked one of the two Gurkhas for the time of day, …I was astounded. It was 11.30 in the morning. I then realized that I had been standing in the interrogation room for about sixteen hours warding off questions thrown unremittingly at me. It seem incredible to me that I could have stood at one spot, almost motionless, for that length of time. I recalled with shame that, when my detainee-clients had previously complained to me that they had been deprived of sleep and forced to stand for as long as 72 hours at a stretch, without sleep, I had great difficulty in believing them. I thought they were exaggerating; but now I was, incredibly, undergoing a somewhat similar experience!…
I noticed, too, dried sunburnt blisters peeling from the skin of both arms. I could not at first comprehend how I could have acquired them until I realized that I had been burnt by the powerful rays of those spotlights, which had also dried up the moisture in my eyes. Cold rashes had broken out all over my atrophied limbs under my clothes. Unlike many people who are sensitive to sunburn, I am susceptible to cold rashes. It was always troublesome for me whenever I had perforce to travel abroad during winter. In this instant case, as if signaled by a faithful built-in thermometer, the rashes broke out in chilling confirmation of the coldness of the room. My interrogators had swaddled themselves up in warm winter clothes and left it, time and again, whenever they could no longer withstand the wintry cold.
As a prisoner of the British, my fellow detainees and I had simply refused to be interrogated. We told our captors that we would only speak as free men. We were left alone after that. We experienced no soundproof room, no brutal interrogation and sleep deprivation for hours on end, no air-conditioner blower duct directing a powerful and continuous cascade of cold air at the spot where the barefoot detainee stood on “a floor like a slab of ice,” no spotlights, no threats and obscenities shouted in our ears, no absolutely solitary confinement throughout the period of detention, indeed none of the things which Mr Seow had to undergo at the hands of the rulers of free, independent, and professedly civilized Singapore.
After the statutory period of 21 days’ solitary confinement, my fellow detainees and I were allowed to live together in camp conditions, whether in Changi or, even better, on salubrious St. John’s Island. Our lawyer, Lee Kuan Yew, was freely allowed to visit and talk to us, without Special Branch supervision, and to plan with us the downfall of the British colonial power. So free were we as political detainees to pursue our own interests and studies that we light-heartedly referred to our places of detention as “St. John’s” University and “Changi” University.
Mr Lee knows all this. It surely cannot be termed progress in freedom and humanity to arrest and treat his own political prisoners so brutally, and with far less reason than the British had to detain me and my revolutionary comrades. After all, we had made no secret of the fact that we were committed to the violent overthrow of the British colonial power. But Seow and others like him certainly did not aim to overthrow the elected government of Singapore by unconstitutional means. Even if they did, Lee and his government would still stand convicted of the kind of inhumanity of which “the perfidious British colonialists” (as we referred to them in those days) were not guilty.
The government’s assertion that it does not ill-treat detainees strains credulity. Seow’s readers will find extraordinary (to put it mildly) Brigadier General Lee’s (Lee Kuan Yew’s son and Singapore Deputy Prime Minister) statement in an interview with the BBC World Service:
The Government does not ill-treat detainees. It does however apply psychological pressure to detainees to get to the truth of the matter … the truth would not be known unless psychological pressure was used during interrogation.
Systematic sleep deprivation, continuous interrogation over sixteen hours by strident, foul-mouthed intelligence officers, while standing barefoot in flimsy clothing on a cold cement floor in a freezing room under the skin-blistering and eye de-moisturing glare of spotlights, unlimited solitary confinement, are at once physical and psychological ordeals.
Mr Seow quotes to potent effect a comment by Jerome A. Cohen, a prominent legal representative of Asia Watch, while on a visit to Singapore at the time. Mr Cohen
… found deeply disturbing both the use of psychological torture and what he called a pervasive Singaporean, if not Asian view that “if you haven’t hit somebody, it isn’t torture.” Psychological disorientation is evil whether it happens in South Africa, the Soviet Union, China, Singapore or the United States. Yet here they seem almost proud of their psychological tactics – breaking down the defenses of people in captivity. They need to be more sensitive to the definition of what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
One can understand why the Singapore government hurriedly withdrew its initial offer (made inadvertently by junior ministers when Big Brother happened to be out of town) to appoint a judicial Commission of Inquiry to examine public allegations of ill-treatment by nine ex-detainees in April 1988. They were rearrested instead, and it came as no surprise that some of them duly signed, while in renewed custody, “statutory declarations” withdrawing their earlier allegations, and asserting that they had not been ill-treated. Much more convenient, certainly, for Lee and his government, than a judicial Commission of Inquiry, which would publicly examine and pronounce on charges made from the witness stand by free men and women, subject to no constraints but those of conscience and of cross-examination by defence and prosecution alike.
The circumstances of Seow’s arrest and the subsequent ordeal of interrogation and detention provide occasion not only for grave disquiet over the brutal mistreatment of detainees. (they certainly put paid to any continued pretense of Lee Kuan Yew’s part that he walks in the company of civilised statesman.) It raises another question – perhaps the most crucial one – in my own mind. I may explain, even if the effort proves, as it certainly will, an unflattering commentary on some of my own past judgments of persons and events.
I had once publicly supported the need for the Internal Security Act when the democratically elected PAP Government was engaged in the life and death struggle against a murderous communist united front movement, committed to the violent overthrow of constitutional government. In subsequent years, I had continued to believe that the Act was justified given the volatile geopolitical milieu in which Singapore had to survive. Never had it occurred to me that the PAP government was capable of the gross abuse of the draconian powers conferred by the Act. And never was I more wholly wrong, and my conscience so grievously misplaced.
What an unconsciously long time some people take to learn that power really does corrupt, especially its exercise when placed outside the purview of an impartial third party – like an independent judiciary. No statesman was ever more resoundingly correct than Thomas Jefferson when he warned:
In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.
Alas, because he was not stopped in time, Lee Kuan Yew has proceeded to alter the laws to bind down the judiciary and the media instead.
The crucial question is this. What internal or external dangers threaten Singapore so gravely today to justify the need of a law like the Internal Security Act. allowing, as it does, indefinite detention without trial? None that anyone acquainted with the current political and economic situation in Southeast Asia can think of. None at all that cannot be more effectively dealt with by sensible democratic political process, under the ordinary laws of the land.
There is no longer a communist insurrectionary movement in Malaysia committed to the violent overthrow of lawfully constituted governments in Singapore and Malaysia. There is no communist united front movement left in Singapore. By all accounts, communist potential in the area has been decisively scotched by economic, political, and geographical developments. the Communist Party of Malaysia, a sad and bedraggled relic of a once truly formidable movement, which it took all the military and political skills of the British and subsequent Malaysian governments to defeat, finally laid down their arms on December 2, 1989, after signing peace agreements with the Malaysian and Thai governments, and thus brought to a formal close 41 years of armed conflict.
When this was announced, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, the late Tungku Abdul Rahman, promptly and publicly recalled the pledge he had given in the free Malaysian parliament to the effect that the internal security laws providing for the arrest and detention without trial of suspected subversives were directed solely at the communist insurrectionary movement, and would be repealed once the insurrection was overcome. He therefore called for the outright abolition of the Internal Security Act since the communist threat to constitutional government had ceased to exist. Not so Lee Kuan Yew whom the London Sunday Telegraph reported as saying: “I don’t see myself repealing it.” Do Confucian conformity and stability require powers of detention without trial?
In Singapore, by the early seventies, we had decisively debunked and defused a once powerful communist united front movement, which is no longer in evidence. I should know, because I was right out in the front line of that battle, among the foot soldiers, in constant danger of life and limb, leading the free trade unions – now, under Lee’s surrogates, no longer free. The economic, social, and administrative successes we registered clearly do not provide fertile soil for violent insurgency of any kind. With the notable exception of Singapore, everywhere else economic success, even of much less magnitude than we can boast of, has invariably been accompanied by more relaxed political climates and styles. Not so under Lee.
Success has been followed by an even further tightening of the screws. Indeed, even the insurrectionary communists of the fifties and sixties, with their unconstitutional resort to armed violence, civil riots, and strikes, were dealt with under laws and custodial treatment more benign and civilised than were constitutional law-abiding dissenters like Seow, and other social workers and professionals arrested and detained in Singapore in recent times. Neither were they obliged to produce abject statutory declarations “confessing” their numerous “misdeeds.” Much can be said of the defects and shortcomings of previous British colonial regimes in Singapore. But these did not include the systematic and ruthless crushing of the human spirit at which Lee’s Internal Security boys excel. One can appreciate now why he proudly refers to them as “professionals.”
Only recently, yet another striking departure from decent civilized practice occurred. Detention without trial is no longer subject to judicial review in Singapore. The government on January 25, 1989, amended the Internal Security Act to place its powers of detention without trial beyond challenge in the courts, with retrospective effect into the bargain. And nobody will ever know what takes place behind the walls in the soundproof, freezing rooms of the Whitley Detention Centre, from which issue “statutory declarations” by political prisoners abjectly admitting to a variety of anti-government offences.
Thus, by means the venerable Confucious would never have condoned, Lee hopes to enforce in his ideal city state the Confucian conformity and respect for authority he so much admires. In these circumstances, it will be a rash Singaporean who, knowing the grave risks he is likely to incur, will dare even to murmur dissent. But alarm bells are already ringing in the night. As already observed, internationally mobile Singaporeans are leaving “the Singapore Miracle” in disturbing numbers to seek their fortunes in more congenial pastures, where they can breathe more freely.
The road to perdition gets rougher and spikier as one goes down it. Relentlessly downhill has forged the predatory road with a vengeance, especially in the last few years. Consider the spate of repressive legislation enacted in a brief three to four years.
Parliament is converted into “a political mine-field,” as a pained and shocked Dr Toh Chin Chye, the founder chairman of the People’s Action Party, observed in 1987. A mine-field which blew opposition leader J.B. Jeyeratnam out of the legislative chamber and made certain that he would have not be able to contest another election for at least five years. An even worse fate has befallen Francis Seow.
Parliamentary select committees, by hallowed Westminster convention serious and sedate forums to consider public or professional reservations about government bills tabled in Parliament, are transformed into criminal courtrooms where a fiercely prosecuting, browbeating prime minister puts startled witnesses in the witness box for gruelling cross-examination. This was what happened to Francis Seow, the then president of the Law Society, and to members of the Society’s governing council. Subsequent legislation ensured that Seow no longer remained president, and that the Law Society would never again be able to comment publicly on bills before the legislature, on the ground that they were beyond the limited professional competence of the Society. The curious theory was trotted out that politics is only for politicians, not for professional bodies, even though their members are citizens with legitimate concerns about matters of public interest.
Draconian laws were passed to bring to heel foreign journals and newspapers which were critical of what they considered bizarre going-ons in the republic. The Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far East Economic Review were accused of “meddling in domestic politics,” and their free circulation was drastically curtailed. They were told that they were not reporting Singapore to Singaporeans “fairly,” as if that were the role of the free international media.
Lee forgets that in the colonial past, his British predecessors were not knocked off by free reporting on Singapore by the foreign media, even though they had to deal with an obstreperous population and its equally restive politicians who included, for instance, rambunctious types like Lee Kuan Yew and Devan Nair. In particular, he forgets that his own international reputation as a staunch anticolonial freedom fighter owed a great deal to the free and open manner in which the foreign media covered him and his party’s activities.
One could go on ad infinitum about the road Lee Kuan Yew has chosen to travel. My immediate purpose, however, is to as paint vividly as possible, with a few basic strokes, the political context in which Francis Seow’s book should be read. I hope I have managed to do this with at least a minimum of adequacy. For there have been other detainees in Singapore whose predicament was, if anything, worse than Seow’s was.
There is, for example, Chia Thye Poh. First arrested on October 29, 1966 under the ISA, Chia was banished on May 16, 1989 to the off-shore pleasure island of Sentosa. One cannot improve on what Christopher Lockwood of the London Sunday Telegraph noted:
Exile on Sentosa is a diabolically-crafted alternative. Who can take a prisoner of conscience seriously on a holiday island? With Chia out of jail, he (Chia) fears, world disapproval of his detention will simply evaporate.
But Nelson Mandela was unconditionally freed by President F.W. de Klerk of South Africa – free to begin shaking the evil apartheid system down to its foundations. Chia Thye Poh is incapable of shaking anything. So why this extraordinary vindictiveness?
I recalled Lee Kuan Yew once quoting, in euphoric mood, Churchill’s resonant words:
“In war, resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity.”
Lee and his comrades-in-arms were resolute in all the political battles we fought in the early years against the colonialists, and the crooks. But Lee has never yet known defeat. So far he has met only victories, in all of which he has shown himself incredibly vicious. Unlike Churchill, who, incidentally, could not boast anything comparable to Lee’s two firsts and a star for distinction in Cambridge, Lee misses human greatness by several million light years.
As was inevitable for one who, in arrogant contempt for soulcraft as a vital ingredient of successful statecraft, recklessly opted for an errant orbit, traced in benighted times past by the trajectory of Moloch.
Lee’s major justification for his policies is the example of Singapore’s remarkable economic success. But what will haunt generations to come in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region generally are his even more monumental failures. Well did the Bard observe:
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interr’d with their bones.
Ultimately, his most unpardonable failure is the crass betrayal of the ideal which launched the People’s Action Party into political orbit – that of an equal, multiracial, democratic society which would banish from its midst, for ever and a day, invidious notions of ethnic or religious majorities or minorities. In Singapore there would be no majorities and minorities. There would only be Singaporeans. This was the flaming aspiration on which Lee rode to power on the crest of revolutionary fervour. Today he has defiled the social atmosphere of Singapore with the sordid evil of ethno-centrism, which he had vowed to eradicate, in my company and in that of countless other comrades in the common struggle against colonialism, communalism, and communism. But this is not the place to expatiate on this particular piece of treachery. I will deal with it in my own book.
Lee is gifted with a brilliant brain and an eloquent tongue. But the capricious gods omitted to equip him with the saving grace of that essential wisdom which makes for true greatness. And Singapore thereby missed the infinitely more potent miracle of the political and spiritual success it might so easily have provided, as a practical, living demonstration to the other unhappy, struggling, heterogenous nations in Southeast Asia, not merely of singular economic achievement, but also of the eminent viability of a free, open, sane, and equal multiracial democracy, worthy at once of economic, political, and moral emulation.
As things are, one can only wonder how much longer successful economic performance and a loutish political style can sleep together in the same bed. While one dreams of electronic paradises to come, the other enacts, in political nightmares, vengeful vendettas against foes real or imaginary, mostly the latter. Alas, both must perished in fatal embrace, on the same bed.
- C.V. Devan Nair (1923 – 2005)