Life in prison: Open letter from Dr Chee

  Within a week of his release from prison, Dr Chee Soon Juan thankedhis supporters and wrote on prison life
  November 14, 2002
SINGAPORE


I SHARED a tiny cell (6ft by 15 ft) with two other inmates and a toilet bowl, the squatting kind. I ate and slept – at nose level – the entire five weeks beside a latrine. I was fortunate as other cells had four inmates crammed into an even smaller cell. The cell is completely bare except for a small window near the ceiling, which allows natural light into room; an awning covers the window so that one cannot see the sky. The wardens peer into the cell through a tiny slit on the solid metallic door, which entombs the cell.

We’re given a straw mat to sleep on the concrete floor (there are no bunk beds like you see on TV) and a plastic box containing two small blankets, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, toilet paper, a small pail, a drinking mug, and a face towel. Water is provided during meal times. Because of the heat and humidity, inmates flush the toilets and use their pails to collect extra water for washing, cooling down and even drinking.

There is “yard time” an hour a day for exercise and showers. We’re locked in for the rest of the 23 hours. Breakfast is brought in at about eight, lunch at noon and dinner between 3 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The meals are adequate except that by nightfall inmates get hungry because dinner is eaten so early.

I spent a couple of nights in the sick bay when I was ill. The “beds” have no mattresses, just a metal plate with holes throughout on which you tried your best to make yourself comfortable. Our ankles are chained to the bed-post. Some prisoners even had both ankles and a wrist cuffed to the bed-frame.

At night if one needs to answer the call of nature, one is given a small pail to urinate into. With one ankle chained to the bed, it takes some skill (and not a little bit of contortion) to manoeuvre into a position where you could bring the bucket onto the bed and kneel over it to ease yourself.

In prison, minutes seem like hours and hours like days. You long to be free and be with family and friends again. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. I accept willingly the punishment because in doing so, I want to demonstrate the nature of the ruling party in Singapore and seek to help it mend its undemocratic ways.

While I don’t have complaints, I do, however, have major concerns:

Hundreds of prisoners comprising men from China, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, South Asia, etc. who are caught for overstaying in Singapore after their work visas have expired. I witnessed what seemed like an endless row of new inmates all squatting, head shorn and clutching their straw mats and plastic boxes, waiting to be introduced to their cells.

They all looked bewildered and terrified. Why wouldn’t they? A minimum of three strokes of the rotan awaited them (the number depended on how long they overstayed in the country). Caning in Singapore is a barbaric act where trained personnel (some say the caners are trained exponents of the martial arts) slash a six-foot long, one-inch thick cane, across the hapless victims’ buttocks. The individual’s ankles are strapped onto a heavy, metal frame and they bend forward where their wrists are similarly locked, with only their naked backsides exposed.

I was told by some of the inmates that the screams of the victims after each stroke of the whip makes one lose all appetite for food. The cane breaks skin and draws blood. Doctors are on hand to administer treatment and to assess if the individual can take more punishment. A maximum of 24 strokes is the legal limit and only males below 50 years of age can be whipped.

I shared my first night (inmates are rotated in different cells on a regular basis) with a 45-year-old guy from China. His face turned ashen when he told me of his impending ordeal under the rotan. My heart sank further when he told me that many men in his plight leave their countries out of desperation in search of a livelihood. Many are not aware of mandatory caning rule in Singapore.

Our short conversation ended when he lay back on his mat and stared blankly at the ceiling. I then thought of Michael Fay, the American teenager who was caned by the Singapore government for vandalising (spray-painting) cars. The situation then caused a furore in the United States. It was over one individual. But now, only silence greet the thousands who have been whipped, and continue to be whipped, for their “criminal” acts. The pain is just as excruciating for Fay as it is for these overstayers. The only difference is the colour of their skin.

I also saw a couple of inmates who were imprisoned under the Criminal Law Temporary Provisions Act, a law that empowers the government to detain a suspect when it is unable to secure a conviction in open court. The detention order is signed by the minister and is valid for a period of two years. It is also renewable so that a suspect can be detained indefinitely, much like the Internal Security Act used for the ruling party’s opponents.

“Dr Chee, I want to commit suicide,” one of the detainees whispered to me when I paused outside his cell. “I can’t take it. I don’t know when I am going to be released and I can’t get a trial.” He, like the rest of his fellow criminal law detainees, is kept singly in isolation cells.

If my imprisonment can bring the international spotlight to bear on the economic, social, and political injustice that prevails in Singapore, then every minute that I spent in jail was worth it. If pressure can be brought to bear on the Singapore government by our friends in democratic countries and international organisations, and so doing help us in our struggle for freedom, human rights and democracy, then I would without a moment’s hesitation step into that cell again.

But change must ultimately come from us Singaporeans. And if we, by daring greatly, attempt to restore justice and democracy to our country, our current sacrifices would more than compensate for our future successes. For success will come, it is only a question of when and how.


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