Freed Dissident Tries to Understand the Past While Figuring Out Future


One evening in November, just before dinner, three security agents entered the third-floor apartment Chia Thye Poh shares with his elderly parents. They had come many times in the past but always with files and questions and a brusque manner. Chia knew right away that there was something different about this visit.

For one thing, they were smiling. For another, they carried no folder stuffed with official papers.

“Congratulations,” one of them said. “The restriction order is lifted. You are an ordinary citizen again. Watch the news at 7 and you will hear the announcement.”


Then they shook Chia’s hand and left.

With that simple declaration, and with no government explanation other than it no longer considered Chia a security threat, one of the world’s longest-serving political detainees was suddenly freed.

Now, after 32 years under various forms of incarceration and restriction left him broke, in failing health and haunted by nightmarish memories, Chia is setting out to rebuild his life.

“Of course, the best part of my life is gone. That goes without saying,” Chia, 57, said. “But if I had those years to live over, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I wouldn’t have signed the confession they drew up that I was a Communist because I never was, and I never advocated violence.”

Chia, a physics teacher and member of Parliament, was imprisoned Oct. 29, 1966, along with 22 other suspected leftist agitators, under Singapore’s Internal Security Act. He was never charged with a crime and never appeared in court. During his first 19 years behind bars--much of it in solitary confinement--the government never made public mention of him nor did it explain why he had been arrested.

The security act is an outgrowth of the Emergency Regulation, which British colonialists used to repress their subjects. It allows for detention without charges or trial for an indefinite period and is renewable every two years.

No Singaporeans have been held under the act since 1989, although Malaysia used a similar law last year to jail former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.


“I kept telling them, ‘If you say I am guilty of something, let me defend myself in court,’ ” Chia said. “Of course, I never could because of the notorious Internal Security Act. Until it is repealed, we can never have a truly civil or just society.”

Chia, a bachelor, is a frail and soft-spoken man of disarming politeness, hardly the sort one imagines as a fiery revolutionary.

His eyesight is failing after years in a dimly lit, windowless cell, and he had a prostate operation last October. He earns a meager stipend as a freelance translator, seldom leaves his apartment in a public housing block and fills his days caring for his parents, both in their 80s, reading and trying to figure out the future.

One thing he, and a lot of others, can’t figure out is why a supposedly democratic country as prosperous (per capita annual income of $27,000) and stable (the People’s Action Party has ruled since independence in 1965) as Singapore would keep on its books a draconian colonial law designed to circumvent the legal system.

“Our opinion is that it’s a sign the regime isn’t as stable as it claims,” said Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights. “The ruling party is frightened by the idea the opposition might get more seats in Parliament and change national policies, so the [security act] serves as a means of controlling people and maintaining the status quo.”

Singapore’s Ministry of Information was unable to find any government official willing to discuss the security act with a Western journalist, but clearly, political analysts said, the government does worry about civil unrest spilling over from Indonesia, about frayed relations with Malaysia, about avoiding ethnic tensions at home and about domestic debate that could jar Singapore’s pursuit of economic well-being.

Having the security act, they said, is a safety net if crisis threatens. It comforts the Old Guard leaders to know they have a weapon of last resort against those who might upset the stability and tranquillity that have made possible a generation of stunning national development.

“I think the Internal Security Act needs to be looked at and thought about in the future, but I don’t know if now is the time,” said Simon Tay, a liberal member of Parliament and human rights activist. “Yes, we need to free up Singapore and look at a whole slew of things. What we should discuss first are the things that help the most people and threaten the least.”

Chia says he was never physically tortured during his 22 years and six months in prison but sometimes feared that the isolation would drive him mad. He sustained himself not through spiritual beliefs but merely through the simple conviction that everything he had done--including leading an anti-Vietnam War protest--was constitutional and did not require any admission of guilt. He can still recite a poem he found scratched on a cell wall:

Ten years behind bars

Never too late

Thousands of ordeals

My spirit steeled.

Once, in the mid-1980s, security agents brought Chia’s father to their headquarters and showed him two typed statements: one an unsigned confession of guilt, the other an order to renew Chia’s detention for two more years. They told him that he should persuade his son to sign the confession. Then they spirited Chia out of prison and brought him into the room to sit and talk with his father.

“Don’t bother yourself with these things, father,” Chia said. “This is my battle.”

He pushed the confession aside and scolded a guard: “You should not have done this to my father. You are taking advantage of an old man.”

Other times agents would drive Chia through Singapore, trying to tempt him into signing the confession by showing off a city-state that held elections every four years and had been transformed into a gleaming metropolis.

“What do you think of the new Singapore?” they would ask. Chia said he would reply: “It’s clean and it’s green, but if life is so beautiful, why don’t you just let me out of the car to talk to people?”

Unable to break Chia’s spirit, the government started easing restrictions on him.

In 1989 he was released from prison and placed in a bizarre form of domestic exile on nearby Sentosa Island, which was being turned into an amusement park. Japan had used the island as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, and Chia, who lived in a one-room guardhouse, was Sentosa’s only resident.

He was allowed to talk to nonpolitical visitors and curious tourists and to travel to the city to shop. Because the government contended that he was only under “observation status” and not a prisoner, Chia had to pay rent for the guardhouse and buy and prepare his own food.

In 1992 he was permitted to move back into his parents’ apartment, and in 1997 he was allowed to accept a fellowship in Germany for politically persecuted persons. Yet he remained barred from making political statements, addressing meetings, belonging to any organization, taking part in political activities or associating with other former detainees.

Chia insists that he bears “no personal grudge against anyone” and rejects any comparison to Nelson Mandela, the nationalist who was freed in 1990 after 27 years in prison and went on to become president of a South Africa ruled by the black majority.

“I am not an ambitious man, nor am I a man of Mandela’s stature,” Chia said. “Besides, Mandela was at least charged and sentenced to life in a court of law. I never was. But I always knew if I signed that confession I could never live in peace with myself. I had no choice.”

Chia said he does not know what he’ll do next.

“When people ask, ‘What’s your plan?’ I can only answer, ‘Politics is still in my blood,’ but I really don’t know. I have my health to worry about, and although I was a young man when I went to prison, I am now old,” he said.

And what did he achieve by refusing for 32 years to cave in to the authorities?

“Well,” he said, “politically, Singapore is more or less the same. The Internal Security Act is still there. The opposition is still operating under difficult conditions. So in the end, perhaps not a great deal.”