BY Tang Fong Har, one of the 22 people held in 1987 for "communist conspiracy to overthrow the Singapore government." In April that year the author, a lawyer aged then 31, with eight other former detainees issued a declaration of innocence. All were at once rearrested, except Tang Fong Har, who was out of the country.
Related: Tang Fong Har: Backgrounder
IT was Saturday, June 20, I had finished two office files in preparation for Monday. It was almost 12.30 am and Peter, my husband, was already asleep.
We were saying in a semi-detached single-storey house that belonged to a friend. We were both very tired and tense. We had been since May 20 when the first 16 people were arrested.
I had met lawyer and opposition leader Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam for tea at the Subordinate Courts canteen on Wednesday, June 17. I had met two Amnesty Internal officials on Thursday evening, June 18, and I just had dinner with two friends on the night of 19 June.
I went to bed at about 1 am. At slightly before 2 am, very loud banging on the glass door woke me. Still half asleep, I thought the noise might go away, but I heard it again, and some noises outside the house. I woke Peter and he went to the door.
I saw flashing lights and some people outside. One of them said that they were searching for illegal immigrants and showed his badge. He also said that he was from Joo Chiat Police Station. I felt fear and knew that they were Internal Security Department (ISD) officers.
Peter opened the door and let in the four officers, three Chinese males and one female. He carried a sack. Once inside, a Chinese in his early 40s asked whether I was Tang Fong Har. I nodded yes, and he told me that I was under arrest under the Internal Security Act.
Though it was not totally unexpected, I was nevertheless stunned and speechless. He warned us not to move, and the others then systematically searched the house - the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the kitchen and the living room. I did not see them searching the garden.
The man who had spoken to us stood near us all the while. Peter asked him, "Doesn't she have any rights?" He looked at Peter in a funny way and the rest laughed cynically. The search took some 40 minutes. They seized my address-book, file of cuttings and articles on the May 20 arrests, some copies of minutes of the Law Society Criminal Legal Aid Scheme and AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) meetings.
When the time came for me to be taken away, I told Peter not to worry about me and to contact my family and lawyer. His face was expressionless. He did not raise his voice at all, and neither did I. I was led to a car, my glasses were removed and I was blindfolded. We drove off.
When the car stopped, my blindfold was removed and my glasses were handed to me, and I realised that I was in the carpark of the block of flats my parents lived in. They escorted me to my parents' flat and conducted another search. I pleaded with them not to disturb my family, in particular my parents. My pleas fell on deaf ears.
The search was futile, and I could see that my family was in a panic and feeling angry, bewildered and helpless. Then I was again led to the car, my glasses were removed and I was blindfolded. The reaction of my family members had affected me.
When I reached the Whitley Road Detention Centre (I found out where I was only during my lawyer's visit), my blindfold was removed, but my glasses were not returned to me. I kept telling myself - do not panic, do not worry, but what's happening, where am I, what is this place, where are the others and how are they, how are my husband, my parents, my siblings and friends?
I was then ordered by the female Chinese officer to remove my clothes, underwear and shoes and put on a set of prison clothes. After that, I was led into another room where a male Chinese took fours sets of my fingerprints.
My glasses were returned to me and I was ordered to sit on a chair while two photographers took about six shots of me. It was like something out of the film Midnight Express. I felt I was a condemned criminal.
The female Chinese and a Gurkha guard then escorted me to what looked like a poorly equipped medical room, where I was ordered to lie on the bed; and a male Sikh (after my release I found out he was Dr Naranjin Singh, the head of the Prison Medical Unit). He examined me, took my pulse, looked at my tongue and eyes, and asked whether I had any medical problems, had been to the hospital or was pregnant. I replied in the negative very vigorously as I was worried that he might inject some drugs or prescribe some medicine, which would affect my mental and/r physical faculties adversely.
I FELT really frightened, cold, angry and sleepy. It was the longest night in my life. After my 'medical' examination, I was led out of the room and down a passage. After some turns, I reached a door, which opened onto a flight of stairs leading to the basement.
As I walked, without my glasses, I heard noises everywhere. I was approached several times by different men, each of whom said in a haughty manner, "So you are Tang Fong Har'" and then walked off. The basement was pitch-black except for the glaring lights. I was led into a room.
It was very dark except for the two spotlights, and it was filled with cigarette smoke - there seemed to be about seven or eight people there. The air-conditioning was very strong, and the floor was bare concrete. I felt cold and fearful.
After what seemed an eternity of eerie of silence, a voice boomed - "So, Tang Fong Har, at last you are here.' Then there began a series of questions and outrageous allegations. I could not hear properly as I was disoriented and I was not allowed to wear my glasses.
The hurling of questions, allegations, and loud noises went on for some time. I was so stupefied that I kept quiet. When I felt that I could not keep quiet anymore, I told them I needed my glasses as they affected my hearing.
My glasses were then returned. I saw four people seated at the table, which I was standing fairly near. Two or three other people were standing nearby in sports jackets, shoes and socks. Barefoot and in prison garb, I felt humiliated and very cold. I was shivering and I tried very hard to stop my teeth from chattering but I could not, and the interrogators just watched me as I was in near-spasms trying to control the cold.
At one point during the interrogation I was threatened with indefinite detention and asked whether I intended to emulate Chia Thye Poh. They warned me that if I chose to remain quiet, they could wait for 20 years or more, just as they had waited for Chia Thye Poh.
I refused to believe it but somehow my heart went cold. I felt I could not stay in this place for another minute, let alone 20 years. I also felt immense admiration for Chia Thye Poh. The male interrogator throughout made snide remarks about lawyers and the legal profession and belittled my work in the Law Society.
In the midst of the accusations being hurled at me, I retorted "Now, look here..." or words to that effect. I never completed my sentence: one of the interrogators slapped me across my left cheek, not with a flick of his wrist but with the full force of his body.
I fell to the ground and my glasses landed on my chest. I was completely shocked by the assault and wished that I could faint as I felt that I could not take any more. I had never felt more humiliated in my life.
The female Chinese then made a show of helping me to stand and said something like "It's ok. Take it easy. Why don't you co-operate?" I can't remember whether the interrogator who slapped me remained in the room after this. However, I remembered his face and subsequently I came to know his name: S. K. Tan.
I was then questioned on my 'escape' from Singapore on May 21 and my whereabouts from then until my return on June 8. I also had to account for my movements since my return. They assured me that I had not been arrested because of my work in the Law Society or for helping Mr Corera, the Workers Party candidate for the Alexandria constituency in the 1984 general election.
However, I was not informed about the allegations and charges against me until the detention order was served on me. The circle of questions/statements/allegations went on for some hours. Every time I went to the lavatory, I vomited and I felt even colder when I returned. I had looked at myself in the toilet mirror and I was a ghastly sight.
This was the first time in public that I was bra-less and I stooped whenever I walked so as to hide my breasts. My posture was a semi-permanent curve soon after. I could not stop the trembling. I vomited countless times, and by the morning of the third day I had my period and I stained the prison pants.
I continued vomiting until the fourth day, by which time I felt quite famished. I had never felt more terrible in my life. Some 10 hours later, I was led out of the basement and into one of the rooms off the passage, and was given a chair.
My case officer, David Ng, sat opposite me and we started talking. While we discussed my statements, other officers like S. K. Tan, a Benny (allegedly number 3 in the ISD), Lim Poh Kui and Sim Poh Heng would walk in individually at different times to 'clarify' certain points.
Before my arrest, I had settled in my mind that statements extracted from me or any other detainee in this farcical operation were invalid and of no probative value. They could never stand up to scrutiny in a court of law. I had done nothing subversive and I was not disloyal to Singapore. It is as much my country as it was the rulers'.
Should I keep quiet and let them deal with me as they wished? I decided to write; but I feel, with hindsight, that I was sometimes careless in describing events and people and what I wrote was twisted - and I 'incriminated' people, those already detained and those not yet arrested, in my efforts to protect them.
I was never given the chance to write the statements my own way. When I first started, I had barely finished two pages when my case officer looked through them and said, "That won't do, Fong Har, you are describing one activity after another. The flavour doesn't come out, Fong Har, you understand?"
I understood perfectly and I learnt to take the cue from him. I started writing only when he was satisfied. The writing drained me. I felt very exhausted and I just wanted to finish with it, the sooner the better. I was then told about the TV appearance. Initially,
I refused to appear; but I was told that Chew Kheng Chuan (KC), a printer and one of the six detained on 20 June 1987 and Chng Suan Tze, a lecturer at the Singapore Polytechnic, also one of the six detained on June 20, 1987, would appear, and so I agreed.
Some three days before it, my case officer typed out a summary of what I had to say and made me memorise it. On the day, when we reached the ISD bungalow near Tanglin Park, my case officer took away my summary. The filming took about 90 minutes.
Khamaruddin, the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation interviewer, only asked me one question and I rattled on. When I had finished, he looked at me and asked how I felt now. This question was unexpected and I was at a complete loss for words.
There was a pregnant pause; and I ended up by saying that if unwittingly I had done a disservice to Singapore, I felt bad about it. I heaved a sigh of relief when the microphone was removed. My dress was drenched with perspiration.
I then remembered that I had not talked about the Third Stage (a theatre group accused of subversion). My case officer presumably had studied the summary and realised the omission, too, and I then had to talk about the Third Stage.
Suan joined me. I felt so happy to see a friend that I hugged her. Then KC joined us. I was delighted to see him too. We were made to sit together with Khamaruddin and 'donkey shots' were taken of us to give the impression to the public that Khamaruddin had conducted the interview with the three of us together.
We were allowed to talk to each other, and ISD officers (Benny and KC's officer) joined us. Before they joined us, Suan told us that she would be detained for two years at least, as she had told Khamaruddin that she did not believe in the alleged Marxist conspiracy before her arrest, and after her arrest she had found it even more difficult to believe.
After they joined us, KC told Benny about it and asked if Suan could re-do that part. Benny assured her that it was all right if that what she believed. He also said that it would not affect her chances of release in any way. We were brought back to the detention centre in different cars.
They used a variety of methods to intimidate me and to make me feel guilty. I was made to feel ashamed of my past and consequently, ashamed of my present lifestyle.
AFTER my return to the detention centre from the TV filming, I was more psychologically prepared for my detention, yet I hoped against hope that I would be released after 30 days.
Alas, it was not to be. On July 19, at 9 pm, I was led out of my cell. My heart thumped wildly. My case officer, in a most officious manner, served the copy of the allegations and the detention order on me.
I read the allegations and almost had to suppress my mirthless laughter. I told my case officer that I was not a security threat and that they had no reason to detain me for 30 days, let alone a year. I was informed of my right to make representations.
I signed the form stating that I wanted to do so. The air was charged with tension. My case officer asked whether there was anything I wanted. I told him that I wanted to return to my cell.
And so I sought refuge in my empty and dead cell. I cried a little that night. After my statements were written, I saw no reason to engage in polite conversation with them. I spoke relatively little, and on those occasions we touched on inconsequential topics.
Sometimes, my case officer was absent and the female guard would stay with me in the room for some four hours; and then I would be sent back to my cell. I also played Scrabble and Uno and had a compendium of games.
I am a gregarious and sociable creature. I had always been surrounded by family and friends and had known nothing but love, warmth and friendship. Needless to say, solitary confinement was a terrible affliction.
I received fairly frequent visits from some officers, notably S. K. Tan. He tried to engage me in conversation and tried to probe my reasons for filing representations before the Advisory Board, scheduled for hearing on August 15.
I refused to be provoked into commenting on the case or into revealing what transpired between my lawyer, Soh Gim Chuan, and myself during our meetings.
They also probed into the nature of his practice and whether he charged me any professional fees. S.K. Tan has now turned into a welfare officer and was most concerned that my stay should be as cosy as possible within ISD's limits.
I was enticed with my favourite foods and was allowed to watch TV programmes, as selected by them. I responded negatively to their overtures.
On one occasion, I asked S. K. Tan why he had slapped during the interrogation. He told me that I was mistaken. I had moved back and lost my balance. I said nothing, but my eyes told him that what he had said was balderdash.
Days became weeks and I sang whatever came into my mind and I sang loudly. The warden on duty ticked me off several times. I read books and, being a fast reader, I would finish the five books, which Peter brought each week. I sometimes read them three times.
I tried to keep myself busy by scrubbing the cell walls and floor. I also became acutely aware of God's little creatures (ants, mosquitoes, centipedes, lizards, cockroaches, spiders etc), the sun, moon and the tree in front of my cell.
They tried to rehabilitate me with pep talks laced with threats. They kept saying that I could start life anew with Peter and put everything behind me. I refused to be indoctrinated by them.
Until my representations were over, I was very tense and the stress and strain accumulated in my neck, which became very stiff. The day of the hearing of the representations arrived.
The High Court judge, Justice Sinnathuray, together with two Chinese males in their late 40s or early 50s, presided over the hearing, which was held in the judges' chambers. The other two did not introduce themselves and barely spoke or moved throughout the whole proceedings.
A case officer, Lim Poh Kui, a female police guard and the driver of the car accompanied me. The judge was cordial to me. He hardly interrupted my lawyer when he went through my representations. He seemed exasperated only at one point.
When queried on my future plans, I told him that I would get a job and continue my flat hunting and, if I was free, interested and approached, help in the election campaign of opposition candidates. He told me that that was what had got me into trouble in the first place and that politics should be left to the politicians.
He again questioned me on my future plans and turned to look at my lawyer. My lawyer then submitted that further representations would be made on this point by Monday, August 17.
I could not gauge the outcome of the hearing but somehow it did not matter too much now. My stiff neck disappeared and I felt the tension roll away from me.
Psychologically and emotionally, I then coped better with detention in solitary confinement. Life took on a 'more pleasant' turn. I started my Chinese lessons. I would also sing for about an hour at least twice a day.
My audience comprised God's little creatures, the warden on duty and, definitely, my immediate neighbours, - Wong Souk Yee (president of the Third Stage, detained in May 1987) and Low Yit Leng (manager of a printing firm, also detained in May 1987). My reading continued.
At other times, I would be let out of my cell for 'rehabilitation' sessions during which the female police guard on duty would while away the time discussing such weighty matters as skin-care, make-up and the like. We also indulged in healthy gossip.
Some days I would be left in my cell - once, for four days. I would usually read till I felt drowsy and fall asleep while reading. It was unbearably hot in the afternoons - the cell was like a furnace and I practically oozed perspiration.
I could not wait for the afternoon to end each day. I tried to reduce the temperature by dousing the cell with water at noon. I had dreams but I could not remember them. I exercised regularly. Once in a while, I would execute a judo-like kick on the walls.
One fine day, I was told that Suan would be my cellmate. I had become accustomed to living on my own, but when she came, I began to enjoy my meals more. We became keener students in our study of Chinese. Since she was more proficient than me, I consulted her frequently. We sang more and our repertoire increased.
Life was certainly "bearable" with the exception of the three square meals dished out to us each day.
ON September 11, at 9 pm, I was called out of our cell alone. We were adamant that we should leave the cell together, but it was not to be. I was taken to the 'rehabilitation' room; my case officer was the purveyor of the 'good news'.
He impressed upon me that I had been treated fairly, if not well. I stuck to my position that if I talked to the press, I would say 'no comment' to their queries.
Various people came in at different times. They repeated my case officer's words, adding that I had to be very careful what I said to the press as this would affect the release of those still inside. They told me that they were sure that I would not want to jeopardise the release of the remaining detainees.
They also threatened that if I did not keep out of trouble, they would not hesitate to take me in again, and next time they would let me rot. I was not allowed to consult my lawyer and family in respect of the three conditions attached to the Suspension Direction.
These pep talks interspersed with threats went on for some time, and I was then allowed to return to the cell. I literally stank of smoke and Suan guessed that I had met top ISD officers.
Although I was not told when I would be released, it was the next day that I left. Suan and I were sad to leave each other. They refused to say anything about her release or that of the others, and my request to see them was also rejected. Suan sang a farewell song to me and I yelled goodbye to my neighbours.
After Suan and I hugged each other, I walked out of the detention centre with Peter and my parents. It was 4 pm on September 12. I had been detained for 85 days.
I felt happy to see my loved ones, but my steps out of the blue gate were not brisk. I had left a part of me inside. I have learnt to treasure justice and freedom even more.
I shall not rest until they are our entrenched rights and not mere privileges, removable at the arbitrary whims and fancies of the powers-that-be.