Zahari: Prison didn't shut him up
  Far Eastern Economic Review
July 5, 2001

INREVIEW: BOOKS: By S. Jayasankaran

Dark Clouds at Dawn: A Political Memoir, by Said Zahari. INSAN, Kuala Lumpur. M$40 (US$10.52)

AT 4:30 on the morning of February 2, 1963, Singapore police arrested newspaper editor Said Zahari. He was 34. His "long, long night" ended in August, 1979, when he was released at the age of 51.

It was never clear why Said was arrested, though the arrest revolved around charges of his being "a dedicated communist"--in the words of former Singapore President Devan Nair.

There were other Kafkaesque variants. He was, allegedly, "pro-communist," a "Malay chauvinist," and even "anti-Malaysia." The Malaysian government had "requested" his continued detention, according to Singapore's then Premier Lee Kuan Yew in 1967, though this was denied by Kuala Lumpur. He was, at times, "an agent of a foreign power" or "he had refused to renounce violence as a political instrument." (The last charge was made as recently as 1978, the year before Said was released). The only thing clear was that Said's detention was lawful under the Internal Security Act, which permits indefinite detention without trial.

Dark Clouds at Dawn is Said's account of his life. It is a fascinating, alternative account of the formative history of Malaysia and Singapore. It covers the period of British colonial rule, the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the period of British governance leading up to independence and Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia. And it offers portraits of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first premier, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and includes an utterly surreal conversation between Said and communist leader Chin Peng in Bangkok in the early 1990s.

This is an account of a seasoned journalist who ran foul of those in power. Above all, however, it's an account of a life well lived, remarkable for its lack of bitterness, written in often graceful prose.

Said, a staunch anti-colonialist, became a journalist on the Malay-language Utusan Malaysia. But after Malayan independence in 1957, he quickly found out that the pressure to toe a political line hadn't changed. The ruling United Malays National Organization, or Umno, which had courted the paper before independence, now pressured it.

Said recalls how one day the paper's editor, Yusoff Ishak, "cried like a baby" over his treatment by the new rulers in Umno. The aloof and aristocratic Yusoff told Said bitterly that "even the British never treated me like this." Yusoff sold his shares in the newspaper to Umno allies and moved back to Singapore.

Said became the paper's editor and ignored Umno's promptings. But pressure mounted and Said was presented with an ultimatum--essentially, support Umno, or else. The staff of the paper rallied around Said, resulting in Malaysia's first and last strike over principle--press freedom. During the 90-day strike, Said went back to his native Singapore to boost staff morale at the paper's Singapore branch. But he was banned from re-entering Malaya.

In Singapore, both Lee Kuan Yew's party and the left wooed him. He veered left, which must have worried Lee and the British: Said was an influential Malay who could easily garner support from the island's 15 percent Malay minority.

Said was arrested in a British-sanctioned mass sweep in 1963. Subsequently the leftist opposition, bereft of leadership, collapsed and Lee's People's Action Party swept the 1964 election.

Said steadfastly denied being a communist. He never confessed to anything. He spent 16 years in jail, including more than a year, on and off, in solitary confinement. Yet, less than a fifth of the book is devoted, without anger, self-pity or rancour, to his incarceration.

Books like Said's affirm the indomitable nature of the human spirit, its transcendence over adversity. Said says he wrote it to absolve a "terrible guilt" towards his family, which suffered during his absence. But to civil society adherents, Dark Clouds at Dawn offers a strong case for why laws like the Internal Security Act should be expunged from the face of the earth.