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Singapore's gentle revolutionary


South China Morning Post. Nov 30, 1998.
BY Barry Porter

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CHIA Thye Poh, a willowy, softly spoken, 57-year-old bachelor, leads a quiet, simple life these days in a spartan third-storey flat on one of Singapore's sprawling suburban public housing estates, dutifully looking after his elderly parents, both in their 80s.

He rarely goes out or sees anyone. He is poor-sighted, suffers from prostate and lung problems, a weak bladder and earns a meagre living of just a few hundred Singapore dollars a week working as a freelance translator from home.

Yet, for the past three decades, this very same man has been branded by the government a violent communist revolutionary and a threat to national security. On Friday, after 32 years of stubbornly protesting his innocence, Mr Chia was finally restored his full rights as a Singapore citizen.

Mr Chia spent 22 years, six months, two weeks and four days in jail, mostly in solitary confinement, until 1989 - becoming the world's second longest serving prisoner-of-conscience after South Africa's Nelson Mandela. The 9 1/2 years after his release were spent under severe restrictions.

"The best years of my life were taken away just like that without a charge or trial," says Mr Chia, having had his right to talk to the press finally restored. Tears swell in his eyes as he contemplates his lost chance of marrying and raising a family. "I'm getting old."

Mr Chia was detained on October 29, 1966 under Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA), the same draconian law remnant from British colonial days in Malaya, used recently in Malaysia to controversially detain former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

For 19 years, the government gave no explanation for Mr Chia's detention. When one finally came in 1985, Mr Chia was accused of having led a call for the revival of armed struggle.

At the time of his detention, Mr Chia had been a raw and ready 25-year-old novice member of parliament for the Barisan Sosialia (Socialist Front) opposition party. He entered full-time politics almost by default.

Having graduated in physics, he worked for a short time as a secondary school teacher, before returning to Nanyang University as a graduate assistant. His ambition was to travel abroad to study a masters in physics.

February 2, 1963, was the day that changed his life. The Singapore government, headed by a then more youthful Lee Kwan Yew, carried out the arrest of about 100 political activists fearful of a communist insurgency.

Elections were due to be held in September that year, so Mr Chia became one of a number of socialist-minded graduates who came forward to replace those arrested as candidates. Mr Chia insists his views were not communist, but anti-colonialist. He wanted to fight for a "fair, just independence" from Britain.

However, he shot to fame when banned permanently from entering Malaysia after allegedly making a speech at a conference held by the pro-communist Perak division of the Labour Party of Malaysia on April 24, 1966.

Shortly before his arrest later that year, Mr Chia and other Barisan MPs quit the Singapore parliament to allegedly organise street demonstrations, strikes and protest meetings in the republic, seen as further evidence of his alleged communist tendencies.

Mr Chia recalls things differently. He claims he ran into trouble with the authorities after Singapore's then Prime Minister Mr Lee and his ruling People's Action Party (PAP) suddenly announced Singapore's split from the Malaya Federation in 1965. "The separation was never discussed in parliament. There was no referendum. We protested and asked for a convening of parliament," Mr Chia recalls.

To drive their point home, Mr Chia says he and a small number of other like-minded MP's staged a boycott. At the same time, the Vietnam War was raging and Mr Chia says he was among the peace campaigners calling for an end to the heavy American bombing of Indo-China. "We wanted peace. If the war escalated, it probably would have spilled over to the rest of the region." He insists to this day he was a peace campaigner, not an insurgent for the Vietnamese communists or Red China.

When Nelson Mandela was finally released from jail in 1989 after much international outcry, the world spotlight turned temporarily on Mr Chia, who until then had been comparatively a forgotten man. After several months of foreign pressure, the Singapore authorities part-relented.

But rather than granting his freedom like Mr Mandela, he was placed under internal exile on Sentosa Island where he spent the next 3.5 years leading a Kafka-esque lifestyle. He was forced to live in a one-room former guardhouse on the small island just south of the city and placed under severe restrictions. He was made to pay rent and buy and prepare his own food in the pretence that he was a free man. He had no money, so the government offered him a job as assistant curator of Sentosa Fort, a position he turned down because as a grade two civil servant he would not have been able to talk to the media without official approval. "It would have been another muzzle," Mr Chia says.

Instead, he negotiated a position as a freelance translator for the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), a position he still holds. "At that time, Sentosa was not inhabited," Mr Chia recalls. "There were only some youth hostels. There were no hotels."

While Mr Chia sat in his one-room guardhouse the SDC built a giant Disney-style theme park around him. He was allowed to move freely within the island and receive visitors, but millions of day-trippers came-and-went over the years unaware they were missing out on the star attraction.

In 1990 and 1992, his restrictions were gradually relaxed to allow him to visit the Singapore mainland daily and subsequently reside with his parents. He believes intervention by former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt may have helped.

In November last year, his restrictions were relaxed further to allow him to travel abroad, change his address or look for a new job without prior written permission from the director of the Internal Security Department.

He subsequently left for a year in Germany with Singapore government approval on the invitation of the Hamburg Foundation for Persons Persecuted for Political Reasons, where he studied democratic politics and German.

He returned to Singapore in August this year to undergo a prostate operation. But until last Friday, he still needed written approval to make public statements, address public meetings or take part in any political activity, at home or overseas. Of course, if he had applied, this would have been automatically refused.

He could not make contact with any political activists or former political detainees. He could not even belong to any organisation, not even a chess club.

Chandra Muzaffar, a political science professor at the University of Malaya, says: "It is a damning indictment on the Singapore Government to have held a chap for all those years and then when finally releasing him issue all those restrictions. It was such an inhuman thing to do to incarcerate him for so long."

Mr Chia resents comparisons to Nelson Mandela. He points out that Mr Mandela, who became South Africa's president, had belonged to a banned party, had mass following, was charged in court and given a life sentence. "He got out of prison and became a free man straight away," he says. "I should have been set free long, long ago. From the very beginning if they had found I had done anything wrong they should have charged me in court and offered me a chance to defend myself."

The Singapore government has justified its marathon stranglehold on Mr Chia with his refusal to renounce violence. Asked why he never took this option, Mr Chia says: "To renounce violence is to imply you advocated violence before. If I had signed that statement I would not have lived in peace."

At the same time, while in jail, Mr Chia bizarrely never sought to appear before the advisory board set up under the ISA to challenge the reasons for his detention.

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng explained to parliament in July that trials of Communist Party members used to be impossible because the party intimidated and liquidated witnesses who gave evidence in court.

While in detention, his captors are said to have taunted Mr Chia by driving him around the city-state showing him how fast Singapore was developing. Just sign this little piece of paper, they said, and you can be part of these exciting new developments. When he refused, Mr Chia claims he was told he could rot in jail.

"I told them, 'yeah it is clean and green,' but they should let me out so I can talk to people to ask them what they thought first and let them comment."

It is unclear what triggered the sudden lifting of Mr Chia's restraining orders last week. The sceptics suggest it could be because Singapore is due to host a human rights convention in a month's time when Mr Chia's plight was due to be raised.

Bruce Gale, Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (Perc) manager for Southeast Asia, has another theory.

"Malaysia and Indonesia are not on best of terms with Singapore. So Singapore has to rely more and more on the United States [for military protection]. The US is being very vocal in Malaysia [about human rights and the ISA]. What the Singaporeans are effectively saying is we are not like that. We do not detain people without trial anymore. This is a gesture of goodwill. Not that the Americans asked for it."

Mr Chia insists no deal was struck. In fact, he says he informed the Internal Security Department officer who notified him of the lifting of his restriction orders he was still interested in politics.

The government responded by issuing a statement on Friday warning that if Mr Chia should engage in activities prejudicial to Singapore's security he would be dealt with firmly under the law.

While keen to re-involve himself in politics, Mr Chia says he needs time to re-familiarise himself with life, people and issues.

"Things will have to go on slowly," he says. "After 32 years in prison and under detention, things have changed. I have to see what I can contribute after so many years."

He accepts he has to cope with premature old age and sees himself more as a follower than leader of any political party. "I am not an ambitious man. I live a very simple life. You get used to it after so many years."

His eyesight is impaired from many years in a darkened cell. His lung problem, now stabilised, stems from the same time. As we chat, he frequently gets muddled, referring to recent events as having taken place in 1966, the year he was detained.

Joshua Jeyaretnam, leader of Singapore's small parliamentary opposition movement, says: "He is hardly a violent revolutionary. He is a soft-spoken man and doesn't look like a fighter."

Mr Chia's Barisan party merged with Mr Jeyaretnam's Workers' Party in the early 90s. Perc's Mr Gale says: "I don't think the Singaporeans are risking very much. He could join an opposition political party. He has said he is still interested in politics. But opposition in Singapore has been rather muted since the last [general] elections."

Mr Chia is not sure whether he will join the Workers' Party. However, asked what his political beliefs are today, he is unrelenting. "I feel there should be a fair, just, democratic society. Down-trodden people, low-income people should be helped."

His first action after restrictions were lifted on Friday was to issue a stern public statement condemning the ISA and demanding its repeal.

Asked whether he holds any grudges against Singapore's Senior Minister and former veteran prime minister Mr Lee and his People's Action Party which has held an iron grip on power in Singapore since independence in 1957, Mr Chia said: "I have no personal grudge against anybody.

"My main concern is the policy [of detention without trial], because if the policy is not fair, many people will suffer."

Published in the South China Morning Post. Nov 30, 1998

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