Thursday, February 15, 2007

Political detention in Singapore : Prisoner case histories

Last week marked the closure of yet another untold chapter in Singapore's dark history of arbitrary detentions without trial. Ho Toon Chin, alias Ho Piao, a former detainee under the Internal Security Act (ISA), passed away last Tuesday in London from a stroke at the age of 70. Almost exactly 44 years ago to that day, Ho was arrested along with over a hundred activists, unionists and student leaders in a security swoop codenamed Operation Coldstore. Obstensibly touted as an anti-Communist sting, the mass arrests effectively decimated the entire leadership of the political opposition, particularly of the Barisan Sosialis, a breakaway faction of the ruling People's Ruling Party.

Ho was eventually released - 18 years later - making him the second longest-held political prisoner after Chia Thye Poh. Others who were detained for 17 years or more include Dr Lim Hock Siew, Lee Tse Tong, Said Zahari and Dr Poh Soo Kai.

Despite a recent assurance, no doubt a well-intentioned one, by a media academic that the ISA is unlikely to be used against political dissidents, the existence of the Act itself casts a long shadow of fear among Singaporeans. Today, very little information is publicly made available about past detentions. Even the website of the Internal Security Department omits any mention of Operation Coldstore, Operation Spectrum or any such politically-motivated arrests carried out over the years. Only two ex-detainees, Said Zahari and Francis Seow, have written autobiographies.

Upon further enquiries, however, I have manage to unearth a rare and rather comprehensive report, published in 1980, by an Amnesty International Mission to Singapore. As the report is 60 pages long and only available on hard copy, I will attempt to reproduce major excerpts of it here, in five parts.


Report of an Amnesty International Mission to Singapore30 November to 5 December 1978
ISBN : 0 86210 002 X
First published January 1980Published by Amnesty International Publications

Part l : Introduction and a Selection of Prisoner Case Histories

This report is based on the findings of an Amnesty International mission which visited the Republic of Singapore from 30 November to 5 December 1978. The delegation consisted of an American lawyer who is a member of the National Advisory Council of Amnesty International's United States Section, Thomas C Jones, and a member of Amnesty International's Asia Research Department, Michael C Williams. This was the first official Amnesty International delegation to the country, but the organization has been concerned for many years with serious human rights violations in Singapore.

The focus of Amnesty International's concern regarding human rights violations in the Republic of Singapore since its independence in 1963 has been the widespread use made by the Government of the powers of detention without trial invested in it by the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Banishment Act. Derived from the British colonial legislation, the two Acts have been used over the years to systematically curb dissent in Singapore.

Under the ISA and the Banishment Act, detained persons have no recourse to legal safeguards nor any opportunity to question the allegations and accusations levelled against them by the authorities. Furthermore, detainees can be imprisoned indefinitely under the ISA which allows for detention orders to be renewed at the discretion of the Minister of Home Affairs.

At least three men - Dr Lim Hock Siew (now exiled on the island of Pulau Tekong Besar), Ho Piao and Lee Tse Tong (both detained at Moon Crescent Detention Centre) - have been in detention without trial for 17 years, ie throughout the whole period of the existence of an independent Singapore and are now among the longest term political prisoners in the world. On 18 November 1978, Dr Lim Hock Siew and Said Zahari (former newspaper editor and poet) were conditionally released and sent into exile to the islands of Pulau Tekong Besar and Pulau Ubin respectively. In August 1979 Said Zahari was unconditionally released. Ho Piao remains imprisoned however. Amnesty International estimates that there are at least 50 persons are presently detained under the ISA at Moon Crescent Detention Centre while an unknown number of persons are detained at the Whitley Road Holding Centre, the main Special Branch interrogation centre in Singapore.

Although the number of persons held in preventive detention may seem small in comparison with many Asian countries, the Singapore authorities have used preventive detention ever since independence on a selective basis as a means of repressing and discouraging legitimate, non-violent opposition in Singapore. When the Government has felt that it faced growing criticism from influential circles, such as lawyers, journalists or students, it has often reacted by arresting and harassing individual prominent in those fields, and so reduced them to the role of acquiescent observers.

Amnesty International believes that the Singapore Government has employed a variety of techniques to induce mental and spiritual collapse, including the denial of medication to persons suffering from diabetes and epilepsy, with the aim of extracting self-incriminating statements which can be potrayed as 'confessions'. It is common practice in Singapore for the authorities to have broadcast on television interviews with or statements from political prisoners purporting to be 'confessions'. Such televised interrogations are, in the view of Amnesty International, never a substitute for fair, open trial. The practice of imputing guilt by such means, through media controlled by the Government instead of establishing the validity of evidence through normal legal procedures, violates elementary rules of law.

The attitude of the Government of the Republic of Singapore to direct approaches from Amnesty International has been generally unresponsive. In advance of the mission of November-December 1978, Amnesty International wrote to the Government of Singapore on 9 October 1978 requesting that its delegates meet the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Chua Sian Chin. Moreover, while they were in Singapore, the delegates made efforts to contact the Office of the Prime Minister and the office of the Minister of Home Affairs. The Singapore authorities refused all contact with the Amnesty International delegation. Requests to visit detention facilities and interview prisoners were also denied.

In February 1976, Amnesty International published a Briefing Paper on Singapore, a second edition of which was published in January 1978. In an interview shortly after the publication of the second edition, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew did not deny either that self-incriminating statements were required of detainees as a condition for their release or that extreme pressure was exerted in the process of obtaining such statements. Referring to five long-term detainees mentioned by name in the Briefing Paper, Mr Lee said they 'can walk out of detention at any time - and the others, too - by signing a simple undertaking that they will not in future, either directly or indirectly, help the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) or any of its auxiliary organizations to overthrow the constitutionally-elected Government of Singapore'. Later in the same interview, Mr Lee acknowledged: 'all interrogations must wear down resistance of (detainees) by sustained psychological pressure, including physical fatigue, to get them to give leads to the next links in a well-established underground movement'. (Far Eastern Economic Review, 24.2.78)

The Singapore Government has repeatedly justified its use of preventive detention under the ISA and the Banishment Act by referring to alleged security threats to the Republic, in particular from the illegal Malayan Communist Party (MCP).

The MCP staged an insurrection against the British colonial government in 1948, commonly referred to as 'The Emergency'. This insurrection persisted for many years but came to an end after 1960. Singapore itself, since its independence in 1963, has faced no serious internal social unrest, apart from racial disturbances in 1964 and, to the knowledge of Amnesty International, none of those presently detained under the ISA was arrested in connection with these disturbances.

The Government of Singapore has kept in preventive detention individuals whose connection or links with terrorism or the Malayan Communist Party has been asserted but has never been proven in an open court. The Singapore Government has resorted to wide powers of detention under the ISA without a State of Emergency being in force. Detainees have been subjected to physical and psychological ill-treatment, including torture.

A selection of prisoner case histories (1980)
Ho Piao (Ho Toon Chin)

Ho Piao was arrested on 2 February 1963 in 'Operation Coldstore'. At that time, he was Secretary of the now banned National Seamen's Union. He is the only 'Operation Coldstore' detainee to have been held continuously since 1963 and remains in prison today.

In 1967, the release of Ho Piao and four other detainees was ordered by the High Court after they made a successful application for a writ of habeas corpus. The five were immediately rearrested.

During his detention, Ho Piao has undergone long periods of solitary confinement and has been subjected to a rigorous interrogation including beatings. In 1970-1971 he took part in a 100-day hunger strike in protest against attempts by the authorities to compel political prisoners to undertake forced labour. In August 1978, he was one of 12 prisoners removed from the Moon Crescent Detention Centre to the Whitley Road Holding Centre. He was placed in solitary confinement, broken only by long periods of interrogation. On April 1979 he was taken to an underground cubicle where he was tortured for four days. When he subsequently refused to accept the conditions offered by the authorities for his release, he was again beaten. He was moved to Changi Prison Hospital for treatment of injuries sustained during this period.

Lee Tse Tong

Lee Tse Tong was arrested on 8 October 1963. He was held under the Internal Security Act until November 1967. In that month, he was released after bringing a successful application for a writ of habeas corpus but was immediately rearrested under the ISA. He was then deprived of his citizenship on the grounds that he had no proof that he was Singapore-born. In February 1968, he was served with a Banishment Order and transferred to Queenstown Remand Prison 'awaiting deportation'. Since 1975, when the Banishment Order was dropped, Lee has been held under the Internal Security Act. He has now been imprisoned without trial for more than 16 years.
A former secretary of the now banned Singapore Busworkers' Union, Lee Tse Tong was elected to the Singapore Assembly for the Barisan Sosialis in the elections of 1963. His case has been taken up by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). At its conference in Caracas in 1979 the IPU passed a resolution urging the Singapore Government 'to release Mr Lee Tse Tong immediately and unconditionally'.

Dr Lim Hock Siew

Dr Lim Hock Siew was arrested on 2 February 1963 in 'Operation Coldstore'. The former Secretary-General of the Barisan Sosialis, Dr Lim was exiled to the island of Pulau Tekong in November 1978. Amnesty International continues to regard him as a prisoner of conscience.
In the course of his detention, Dr Lim has been at various times offered both release and exile outside Singapore. In 1972, he was offered release on condition that he made a statement saying he would give up politics and support 'parliamentary democracy'. He refused on the grounds that such a statement was self-contradictory.
In 1967, Dr Lim and four others successfully applied for a writ of habeas corpus. The High Court granted the writ and ordered the release on the technical ground that the detainees' detention orders had not been signed by the President. The five were immediately rearrested under the Internal Security Act. Dr Lim was held in Moon Crescent Detention Centre until his 'release' to Pulau Tekong.

Chia Thye Poh

Chia Thye Poh was arrested under the Internal Security Act on 30 October 1966 shortly after resigning from the Singapore Parliament together with his fellow Barisan Sosialis MPs in protest against government-imposed restrictions on the opposition. In July 1966, Chia had been convicted for publishing a 'seditious article' in the Barisan's Chinese-language newspaper, Chern Sien Pau, of which he was editor. In the same month, he was arrested with 25 others and charged with unlawful assembly for his participation in a demonstration against the United State involvement in Vietnam.
Chia was closely associated with the Chinese Schools' movement in his student days. As an undergraduate he was vice-chairman of the Student Union at Nanyang University where he was subsequently appointed as assistant lecturer.
He is detained in the Moon Crescent Detention Centre.

Chng Min Oh

Chng Min Oh was arrested on 3 August 1970. He was Chairman of the Goldsmiths Employees Union. He was held in solitary confinement for the first six months of his detention. In August 1978, he was transferred to Whitley Road Holding Centre for interrogation. While undergoing interrogation at Whitley Road, he was assaulted and forced to pour his urine over himself. In protest at these conditions, he went on a hunger strike. By late September 1979, he had lost 40 pounds in weight and both he and Ho Koon Kiang, another prisoner who had been subjected to similar treatment, were transferred to Changi Prison Hospital. Chng Min Oh later complained of multiple injuries including damaged ears resulting in a loss of hearing. In November 1978, Chng was returned to the Moon Crescent Detention Centre.

Tan Kim Oh

Tan Kim Oh was arrested on 4 July 1966 and charged with unlawful assembly for engaging in a demonstration against United States involvement in Vietnam. He was subsequently held under the Internal Security Act.
A student at the Nanyang University, he was one of the leading opponents of the introduction of 'suitability certificates' issued by the Government and required by all students wishing to gain entry to university.

Chua Kee Seng

Chua Kee Seng was arrested on 27 October 1966 and initially detained under the Internal Security Act. Although he claimed to have been born in Singapore in 1933, he was unable to produce a birth certificate. In February 1968 he was deprived of his Singapore citizenship and in August of that year was served with a Banishment Order. From 1968 to 1976, he was held in Queenstown Remand Prison 'awaiting deportation'. In June 1976, the Banishment Order was dropped and Chua was once again served with a detention order under the Internal Security Act.
At the time of his arrest, Chua Kee Seng was Assistant Secretary of the now-proscribed Singapore Commercial House and Factory Employees Union. He had also held various posts at local branch level in the Barisan Sosialis. He is believed to have been arrested for participating in protests against the Trade Union (Amendment) Act.

Lim Hock Koon

Lim Hock Koon, the younger brother of Dr Lim Hock Siew, was arrested in January 1971. At the time of his arrest, the authorities said he had been on the 'wanted list' since 1954 when he had been a leader of student demonstrations against obligatory military service. In 1961, the Singapore Prime Minister referred to him as a 'very high and important' member of the Malayan Communist Party.
Lim Hock Koon was held in solitary confinement for the first two-and-a-half months of his detention. In February 1972, after being transferred to the Central Police Station lock-up, he began a hunger strike in protest against his conditions of detention. Already suffering from stomach ulcers, he experienced severe kidney pains as a result of the hunger strike. The state of his health continues to give rise for concern. In February 1979, he was reported to be suffering from chronically high blood pressure and to have suffered a stroke which had left him paralysed down one side.

Dr Poh Soo Kai

Dr Poh Soo Kai was one of 133 persons opposed to the terms of Singapore's joining the Federation of Malaysia who were arrested on 2 February 1963 in 'Operation Coldstore'. At the time, he was Assistant Secretary General of the opposition Barisan Sosialis. He was released in December 1973, but was rearrested in June 1976 and is currently held in the Moon Crescent Detention Centre.
After his release in 1973, Dr Poh returned to the practice of medicine but at the same time continued to be outspoken in his criticism of the Government. He attacked the Government for curtailing the application of the rule of law and detaining political prisoners without charge or trial. His rearrest came shortly after the withdrawal of the ruling People's Action Party from the Socialist International. At a meeting of the Socialist International in London in May 1976, the Dutch Labour Party had demanded the expulsion of the PAP for, among other things, violating human rights by detaining political prisoners without trial. A Ministry of Home Affairs statement issued after his rearrest contained the allegation that 'Dr Poh has actively helped pro-communist elements, had established links for collaboration with similarly-minded groups abroad, and was preparing the ground for the revival of Communist United Front activities in Singapore.'

The Government also alleged that he had advised 'student agitators' and had supplied medicine to a communist activist said to have been injured by his own bomb while trying to assassinate a local factory manager. This latter allegation was based on a statement made by a political detainee which was later retracted.

In February 1977, Dr Poh's wife, Grace Poh, was detained for 27 days during which she was held in solitary confinement and subjected to a series of round-the-clock interrogations for periods of up to three days.

Chong Ming Jee

Chong Ming Jee was arrested in July 1966 probably for participating in the opposition to the Trade Union (Amendment) Act. An active trade unionist who had held the position of Organizing Secretary in the left-wing trade union federation, SATU (Singapore Amalgamated Trade Union), he was a worker in the Jurong Shipyard at the time of his arrest.

Chong Ming Jee was detained under the Internal Security Act and, after three months of initial interrogation at the Whitley Road Holding Centre, he was held at Moon Crescent Detention Centre until 1970. In that year, Chong, who was born in Malaysia, was served with a Banishment Order and transferred to Queenstown Remand Prison. After five years in Queenstown, he was again served with a detention order under the Internal Security Act and reurned to Moon Crescent. Chong was one of several prisoners transferred to the Whitley Road Holding Centre in August 1978 after engaging in a hunger strike. While there, he was beaten by guards and Special Branch officers.

Wong Kui Inn

Wong Kui Inn was arrested in July 1976. In a 'confession', she said she had acted as a courier passing medicine from Dr Poh Soo Kai to a Malayan Communist Party cadre. During her interrogation, she was subjected to torture with electric shocks and the repeated pouring of cold water over her body. Her husband, Pang Hee Fatt, was also arrested in July 1976. During his interrogation, Wong Kui Inn was brought in to see him and he was beaten in front of her.


Political detention in Singapore : Prisoner case histories
The ISA as a political tool
Life in Singapore's political prisons
Surviving long-term detention without trial
Detention of journalists and lawyers under the ISA

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