Beyond the Blue Gate

   Beyond the Blue Gate:  Recollections of a Political Prisoner
BY Teo Soh Lung
Publisher: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRD) 2010
ISBN:  9789675832017
No of Pages:      392 Pages S$36
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  Yawning Bread website
June 28, 2010

Beyond the Blue Gate:  Recollections of a Political Prisoner was twenty years in the making. This nearly 400-page personal  account by Teo of her experiences makes captivating reading, detailing as she does the night of her initial arrest, the interrogations she was subjected to, and the legal challenges she mounted.

Throughout, she describes with honesty her own  
thoughts and fears,  including her attempt at empathy with her interrogators.

Yet, it is also about more than her alone. At critical points, she puts her own arrest and detention into context with references to previous  rounds of ISA swoops, and a discussion of the “desperate and shameful” amendments made to the ISA in January 1989, removing judicial oversight from decisions of the executive.

The latter was almost surely prompted by the success of a Habeas Corpus application a number of detainees mounted in mid 1988. Under judicial order, Teo and others were released on December 8, 1988, only to be rearrested within the hour - her third time.

Here was a victim who fervently believed in the integrity of the law to provide justice, with a government riding roughshod  over it.
Meanwhile, the politics of disappointment continued outside the azure gate of the detention centre. A general election was called for  September 3 1988 in which one of the recently-released detainees, former Solicitor-general Francis Seow, stood with opposition stalwart Lee Siew Choh and Mohamed Khalit bin Md Baboo in Eunos Group Representation Constituency under the  
Workers' Party banner. They came
within a whisker of winning, with 49.1 percent of the vote. The Workers’ Party, then led by J B Jeyaretnam, called for the abolition of the ISA.

In a remarkable act of pettiness, the government refused to allow Teo to cast a vote.

She began writing of her experiences as soon as she was finally released, learning to use a computer in order to do so. The accounts were therefore written while fresh in her memory with a crispness and immediacy not dulled by the passage of time.

However, her first draft sat in storage for more than ten years, and understandably so. It is very hard for a person to revisit the trauma again and again which publication and the editing process it entails would require.
But - and it’s  a hopeful sign - the times are changing. There is a gradual re-opening of political discourse in Singapore and an increasing boldness of people who would say openly today that they never believed the government’s absurd claims
about the so-called Marxist conspiracy, when they might only have said so in hushed tones within ivory towers or in trusted company before.

It is possibly this assurance of a receptive public that at last offers a chance for the detainees to speak once again, however painful that process may be, and more importantly, to publish.

In doing so, they are successfully challenging the official narrative, and I daresay when a more objective history of  Singapore is written, theirs will be the prevailing account.

Satisfying though that may be, it is not complete. Will we ever get the full story? At the heart of it is the mystery of  why Lee Kuan Yew and the government did what they did. I don’t think we’ll ever know until the government archives are
opened, and in this connection I would note that in two years’ time, it will be the 25th anniversary of the initial  arrests.

In democracies that do not suffer authoritarian constipation, the anniversary would mean the opening of official records, especially when there is no reason to believe that the issue (or  “threat”, as the government would have us believe) is still alive.

I won’t hold my breath. They havent even opened the records for the 1963 Operation Cold Store detentions when the ”pro-communist subversion” that that larger group of detainees were accused of had long faded into the sunset.

Even the opening of the archives, unrealistic as that may be, will not be sufficient for a proper healing process. The  people who ordered, defended and perpetuated the arrests have to be called to account for their roles. And that’s what a
Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be about. Needless to say, this is even more unrealistic, but nobody should  fault Alfian bin SaŠt (moderator at book launch panel  discussion) for his idealism.

“Do we have to wait for a death?” he asked rhetorically, a reference that everybody in the room understood. I would hardly blame anyone for saying that death can hardly come a day too soon. So that others may live and speak again.