Spirit of Asia's Mandela
October 14-15, 2000
BY Ang Hiok Ga
Chia Thye Poh is a man of principle with an unbreakable spirit of upholding truth, peace, justice and democracy
"THE world's second longest serving prisoner of conscience" is a title that no one wants to be honoured with. Yet, it goes to show the unrelenting spirit of Singaporean Chia Thye Poh. Chia, a willowy and soft-spoken man of disarming politeness, is hardly the sort one imagines as a fiery revolutionary. Yet, he possesses qualities that left his jailers looking ridiculous, in despair and even envious. He is a man of principle with an unbreakable spirit of upholding truth, peace, justice and democracy.
Chia finally obtained his freedom on Nov 27, 1998, after 32 years of unjust detention and cruel restrictions. He spent more than 22 years in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. He was later exiled to Singapore's Sentosa Island for about three years. He was the island's only resident living in a one-room guardhouse.
The rest of the years, he was allowed to visit his parent's home on Singapore's main island. Nevertheless, he continued to be subject to restriction orders, curtailing his freedom of expression, association and movement.
I was attracted by the idea of visiting The Hague, the Netherlands, when my long-standing friend mentioned I could meet Chia - a man I came to know of while studying at the University of Manchester.
It was the student society that educated me about the ISA (Internal Security Act) - an inhumane and cruel weapon that has been used for decades by both the Singaporean and Malaysian ruling elite to silence, stifle and wipe out their political opponents and dissidents.
In no time, I was drawn into campaigning for the release of all prisoners of conscience, including Chia, under both Singapore's and Malaysia's ISA.
The campaign underlined the principle that no one should be detained without trial, irrespective of their political, religious or ideological beliefs. Everyone has the right to a fair trial. I share this view.
My friend invited Chia to his house for lunch. We picked him up at Central Station. It was my first time meeting Chia. He was very approachable. We introduced ourselves and began chatting in the car.
Freedom snatched at 25
Chia has been longing for a just and democratic society since his student days. He read Physics in Nanyang University. After graduation, he worked for a short time as a secondary teacher. He then joined the university as a graduate assistant. His ambition then was to travel abroad to read for his Master's degree in physics.
In 1963, just before the general election was to be held, Lee Kuan Yew ordered a mass arrest of political activists. It was designed to prevent opposition leaders from taking part in the elections. At that juncture, Chia came forward to replace one of the detained candidates.
He was subsequently elected a member of parliament on a Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) ticket.
Chia was detained on Oct 28, 1966 for protesting against the PAP (People's Action Party) government. He and a number of other MPs staged a boycott of parliament over the issue of Singapore's secession from Malaysia in 1965. This crucial issue was never discussed in the
Singaporean parliament. Nor were Singaporeans given the right to voice their opinion or decide the issue through a referendum.
In addition, he was among the peace campaigners calling for an end to the heavy American bombing of Indo-China. Because of his anti-PAP and anti-war activities, his freedom was cruelly snatched away by Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP government, both of whom have long held little respect for democracy and human rights.
'My spirit steeled'
The Singapore government never gave any explanation for Chia's detention for almost two decades. Only in 1985 did the government allege that he was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). The government offered to release him if he agreed to give a public undertaking "disowning the CPM's use of force and terror".
Chia flatly rejected the offer. It would have been against his conscience to admit to something utterly untrue. He insisted that if the authorities had any evidence against him, then they should charge him in court and accord him an open and fair trial.
The authoritarian PAP regime tried very hard to break Chia's spirit and to extract a confession from him. Though he was not physically assaulted, he was subjected to intense mental and psychological torture.
They first put him in solitary confinement, transferring him from one prison cell to another. They even incarcerated him in what was called the "dark cell". It was totally dark and quiet, leaving him without any knowledge of night or day. To intimidate him, he was told that prisoners held in the dark cell would go insane in just a few days.
On one of his first nights in the cell, he could hear someone in the next cell violently kicking the cell door as if s/he had gone insane. He was also subjected to day-long interrogations in a freezing cold room and was deprived of reading material for a long period of time.
To sustain himself through such brutal incarceration, Chia engaged in dialogue with himself. He told himself that what he did was right and for the good of the people. If he were to allow himself go insane, then his life would be wasted. He taught himself to think positively. He constantly reminded himself of the less fortunate and the disabled who were living in worse conditions.
There was also a Chinese poem faintly scribbled on the prison wall by a previous prisoner that gave further encouragement and commitment to Chia. It read: Ten years behind bars Never too late Thousands of ordeals My spirit steeled
When they failed to break his spirit, they resorted to pressuring his aged father into persuading him to give up. Instead of succumbing, Chia scolded the security agents for taking advantage of an old man.
Then they tried to tempt him into submission by driving him through Singapore, showing off the prosperity the city-state had achieved. They taunted him to sign "his confession paper" so that he could be part of the exciting new life that was Singapore. Otherwise, they told him, he would rot in jail.
Still they were unable to break his spirit.
Released at 57
Exiled to Sentosa Island in 1989, he was made to pay rent for the one-room guardhouse he stayed in, on the pretext that he was a "free" man. He was also made to purchase and prepare his own food. Because he had no money, he was offered a job as assistant curator of Sentosa Fort. He turned down the offer.
As a Grade Two civil servant, he knew he would have been barred from talking to the media without official approval. Instead, he successfully negotiated a position as a freelance translator for the Sentosa Development Corporation.
In 1997, Chia was allowed to accept a fellowship from the German government for politically persecuted persons. He spent a year in Germany studying democratic politics and German.
However, he remained barred from making political statements, addressing meetings, joining any organisation, taking part in political activities or associating with other former political detainees.
The PAP government was under constant international criticism and pressure as long as Chia was unjustifiably incarcerated and restricted. Failing to break his spirit, the PAP government reluctantly eased the restrictions on him. Eventually they gave up and succumbed to the international call for his unconditional release.
As soon as the restrictions were lifted, he issued a stern press statement condemning the ISA and called for its repeal. Being a victim of the notorious ISA, he is fully aware of how such a law can be used to trample human dignity and strike fear into the hearts and minds of people.
Contrary to some people's belief in Asian values, Chia maintains that the ISA is incompatible with these values. After all, the ISA is a creation of Western colonialists who used it to suppress the struggle for independence.
He also told the officer who notified him of the lifting of his restriction orders that he was still interested in politics. If in detention Chia did not break, in freedom Chia refused to be cowed. He refused to kowtow to the authoritarian PAP government.
Chia has paid dearly for his commitment to truth, and his belief in justice and democratic principles. When he was detained, he was only 25 years old. By the time he was freed unconditionally, he was 57. They had virtually taken away the best part of his life without even laying any charges against him, let alone giving him a trial in court.
As a consequence of his 23-year imprisonment, he is in poor health. His eyesight is impaired from many years spent in the dark cell. His lung problems recur from the same time. He has also undergone a prostate operation and has a weak bladder. And yet, though failing in health and haunted by nightmarish memories, he is determined to rebuild his life.
He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in development studies at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.
'One day, we'll all get there'
At The Hague, Chia and I chatted over lunch. I also noticed that Chia was very fond of my friend's three children, in particular the youngest one, who is barely three years old. He has missed a lot in life.
And yet, he harbours no personal grudge against anybody, including Lee Kuan Yew. He sees his struggle as not against individuals but against unjust policies and an unjust system.
"This is not about a personal battle. The struggle for democracy is much more than personal battles. I don't feel bitter towards anyone. Democracy is not about violence. They can jail me, but how are they going to jail democracy? One day, I'll get there - we'll all get there," he told me.
Keeping constant faith with his innocence, he proclaimed that he would not choose otherwise if he had to do it all over again. Deep down in his heart, he knows he cannot betray his conscience. He would rather sacrifice his life honourably for a just cause than to confess to a falsehood.
In pursuit of prosperity, the PAP regime has managed to cow a large section of Singaporeans into not valuing democracy and human rights. Today, few people in Singapore seem to care about Chia and what has happened to him. He is virtually unknown to young Singaporeans and those who do know him are too indifferent or too timid to say anything.
Nevertheless, outside Singapore, Chia is remembered and looked up to by many as an excellent example of the struggle for justice and democracy in Southeast Asia. He is a simple and humble man who possesses a great spirit. And those who long for reformasi will emulate his spirit. Political scientist Andrew Aeria has aptly described Chia as "a shining icon to the struggle for human rights and democracy".