Friday, March 30, 2012

Censors clear Chia Thye Poh video, rates it NC16

The Board of Film Censors, under the Media Development Authority (MDA), has cleared the film Dr Chia Thye Poh, giving it a NC16 rating.

The film was first submitted to MDA in January under the category of a "political film", prompting an exchange of letters in February, whereby a
seven-member Political Films Consultative Committee had disputed the length of Dr Chia's detention (See letter below).

This is the first film featuring an extended speech from a long-term political prisoner that has been passed by the Government. Two previous films, Zahari's 17 Years and Dr Lim Hock Siew, have been gazetted as prohibited films by previous Ministers of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA).

The Films Act requires all films and videos be subjected to licensing from MDA, although with digital online video uploading like YouTube, the Government has said they will not strictly enforce this law.  Exceptions still apply to films that touch on domestic politics, as seen here in this rare raid by Government officers on a private premiere of One Nation Under Lee, which is probably the only film submitted to MDA that has been refused classification.  The Films Act was amended in 2009 to allow for "objective and factual" political films.

Letter from MDA on March 1st.
Thank you for your reply dated 9 Feb 2012.
The Political Films Consultative Committee notes that you have interpreted the length of Dr Chia Thye Poh's stay in Sentosa as including that of detention as well. While we note your assumption, we have been informed, on good advice, that the period of Dr Chia's detention is 22 years and 6 months. The period of his stay in Sentosa should not be counted as detention as he was able to move freely and receive visitors, as well as visit and work in mainland Singapore. 
Hence the Committee's view is that Dr Chia's period of detention is 22 years and 6 months, and not 26 years as stated in your video. Having clarified this, we will advise the BFC (Board of Film Censors) that the film can be considered an exempted party political film. 
Yours sincerely,
Political Films Consultative Committee

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Life in my prison cell under ISA detention

by Teo Soh Lung

Watching Channel News Asia last week, I was quite amused at Alcatraz Hotel in UK providing a prison cell for its guests. I wonder what the hotel owner had in mind.

I have written about the days of interrogation in the cold room. Let me now describe the small prison cell in Whitley Road Centre. This prison complex was gazetted as a prison with effect from 21 April 1989. I don’t know what it was before it was gazetted. I know that the complex was used by the ISD to house political prisoners as early as the 1970s. I happened to visit an ISA detainee at the visitor’s room at the complex in 1977. Maybe it was just a holding centre for I have heard former ISA detainees referring to it as the Whitley Holding Centre. Anyone who is interested to know the location of Whitley prison complex can go to Google Map and search for Whitley Road Centre. You will be able to see the layout of the prison complex.

A few days ago, I read in My Paper that Minister Teo Chee Hean was the guest of honour at the 10th anniversary celebration of the ISD Heritage Centre. I have always wondered where this Heritage Centre is located and only just realised that it is at Onraet Road. I am of course very familiar with Onraet Road. A Dutch friend told me that Onraet is a Dutch word meaning “Horrible or something disastrous.” The Whitley prison is located off Onraet Road, at the top of a slope. The Heritage Centre is therefore within walking distance from the famous Blue Gate (which is on the cover of my book) that opens to the prison complex. I do not know if visitors to the Heritage Centre will also be given a tour of the Whitley Road Prison. It would definitely be educational. Incidentally, behind the prison complex is the Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery. I don’t know if the complex will be demolished for the construction of the highway soon. Maybe it should be preserved for posterity since there is the Heritage Centre nearby.

When the “Marxist conspirators” were first arrested in 1987, some of us were given the luxury of big cells which ISD officers called the “Shangrila Suites”. Half the cell is exposed to the sky and it is really quite nice. Sleeping in the yard and watching the birds take their first flight across the iron bars at the break of dawn is an experience I will never forget. But not all were so lucky. Some were confined to cells measuring about 6ft (w) x 10ft (l) x 8ft (h) with slits for air. Some of these small cells have old noisy ventilators which provide some air.

The cells in Whitley Road Centre are, I am told by earlier generations of detainees, miles better than the horrendous cells unfit for human beings in Central Police Station, Robinson Road Police Station, Queenstown Prison and Outram Prison. I am told they were exceedingly filthy and inhabited by bugs, cockroaches and rats. All have been demolished.

In 1988, when eight of us were rearrested and the ninth arrested for the first time, all were thrown into these small cells. I guess the ISD was really angry and felt that we deserved the worst treatment possible! I survived 86 days in such a cell. Wong Souk Yee broke the record by being in the small cell for the longest period of time. The guys were shifted to Shangrila suites weeks before the two of us. I think the ISD blamed the women more than the men for the joint statement! Or maybe the officers were just plain male chauvinists! Or perhaps they were so used to discriminating against anyone they disliked that it did not occur to them that there was anything wrong with such a practice. After all, ISA detainees have only one right - the right to food. That was what I was told by a senior male officer.

During the 9 days when I was interrogated in the cold room, there was no time to ponder over discomfort or hygiene. Each morning at about 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., I would fall asleep on the dusty, dirty concrete block with a wooden top without any effort. Even a huge spider hanging down the ceiling didn’t worry me. Waking up at 6 or 7 in the morning was a problem. The realisation that I was back in prison, not knowing what would happen next and how long my friends and I would be there was terrifying. My heart literally sank to my feet when I realised where I was!

Forget about the prison cell in Alcatraz Hotel. The cells in Whitley are dirty, deliberately kept dirty. The prison authority don’t wash the cells before the arrival of new inmates! The walls of the cell is black or dark grey and covered with the spattered blood of mosquitoes. A 4ft long fluorescent tube is turned on whenever a prisoner is in the cell. The pillow and blanket are smelly. The prison door is heavy and is locked from the outside. The door has a small peep hole that can be shut from the outside. In some cells, a drawbridge window that can be opened from the outside allowed food to be shuffled in and shut again. The cell is hot, especially during the dry season from April to June where bush fires are common. And so within the four walls, the prisoner had to tame her mind. That was when I realised what Lord Buddha was talking about when he likened the mind to a wheel of fire! It was really a wheel of fire!

There was nothing to do in the cell during the early days – no books or newspapers to read. A prisoner simply stared at the four walls, ate 3 meals, went to the toilet and to the exercise yard for 10 minutes every day. I learnt to kill mosquitoes with great skill. The minute I heard the buzz of the creatures, I would wake and sit waiting for the bites. The way to kill mosquitoes is not to whack from a distance, for the gush of air would enable them to take off. It is to wait for them to sink their proboscis into the flesh and whack at very close distance! Sometimes they slip out of the gaps between the fingers. So the best way to prevent that was to hold on to toilet paper. Bukit Brown Chinese Cemetery is healthy breeding ground for mosquitoes and they never seem to learn about the danger of entering a prison cell! And so for most of us, we learn the art of killing mosquitoes.

Safeguards? No way of safeguarding us against ferocious mosquitoes!

But why is 30 days termed a safeguard under the ISA? Is it because it is an improvement over the 60 days in Malaysia? I do not know how this magical period can be a safeguard when imprisonment and investigation under the ISA can go on forever, depending on the whims and fancies of the ministers and the ISD. In recent months, I happened to talk to a former police personnel who had read my book. He was amazed that ISD officers had so much time to investigate my case. He told me that in criminal matters, investigations are usually completed within 48 hours. The alleged criminals are either charged in court or released. So why are ISD officers permitted to have all the time in the world to investigate a case? Is it because the ISA allows them to do so with immunity? Or is it because there is actually no crime to investigate. I would like to know the real reason from the Honourable Minister.

And about the Heritage Centre – I wonder if it showcases a replica of the cold room with those spotlights that blind the prisoners as well as the pre-1987 days when I am told, ISD officers used electrodes, buckets of ice water and all those deplorable torture instruments. When I was in New York, the city that recently received the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize 2012, the police museum showed all the torture instruments used by the police. To be world class, I hope this Heritage Centre will do the same.

Additional readings :
Political detention in Singapore : Prisoner case histories
The ISA as a political tool
Life in Singapore's political prisons
Surviving long-term detention without trial
Detention of journalists and lawyers under the ISA

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Open letter to Teo Chee Hean on ISA safeguards

by Teo Soh Lung

My last response to Minister Teo Chee Hean’s speech in parliament that was reported in The Straits Times of 20 October 2011 was made on 9 November 2011. The sub-title to that reply was Making use of the Church and it drew a number of pretty angry comments. In between then and now, I was somehow distracted by other issues. The news-cuttings of Minister Teo’s memorable speech however, has not been misplaced all these months. It has suffered some severe damage under the claws of my cat, Angel though. She was probably more angry at the speech than me!

As the 25 anniversary of the 1987 arrest of “Marxist conspirators” approaches, I want to demolish once and for all Minister Teo’s specious assurance that there are sufficient safeguards under the ISA. These safeguards are summarised in The Straits Times at page A33 and I shall deal with them in the order set out by its writer or editors.

Only 30 days

The first safeguard is that a person can only be held for 30 days after which the minister or rather the cabinet have to decide if he or she should be issued the Order of Detention for a maximum of two years, renewable at the end of the period or released unconditionally or be subjected to a Restriction Order i.e. subject to conditions, such as restriction of movement or association.

I want to emphasise that 30 days in a prison cell or in a freezing cold room is not 30 days spent in one’s own house. Try putting the minister in a freezing cold room with two spotlights shining into his eyes. He is a military man and he should be able to take the cold better than me. Let him wear the prison garb of cotton top and trousers without his underwear. Make him stand 50 hours out of 72 hours in that room and subject him to continuous interrogation. Let ISD officers shout at him and tell him that everything he said are lies and that he is just good at telling fairy tales. Deprive him of sleep for just three days and nights.

If the minister survives these 72 hours (ISD officers don’t even need to lay hands on him) without making and signing a false statement, then he has my greatest admiration and respect.

From my experience and the experience of my friends, no one can survive three days and nights of continuous interrogation in a cold room in the basement of Whitley Detention Centre. From his account in To catch a Tartar, Mr Francis Seow, the former Solicitor-General could not too. I can say with confidence that even the director of ISD will not be able to withstand 72 hours of continuous interrogation in that cold room. Anyone in Singapore who can survive such treatment without writing a false statement, must either be a hardcore criminal or an imbecile who cannot write a statement no matter how he is threatened.

The cold room treatment is not the only experience all ISA detainees go through. For nearly a week, none of us was allowed contact with the outside world. On the sixth day, two family members were allowed to visit us. Imagine the panic caused to our families when they discover their children, spouses, brothers and sisters missing for 6 long days in a first world country. In this regard, ISA prisoners are accorded treatment worse than ordinary criminals for the latter are at least allowed to be produced in court within 48 hours and family members are informed of their whereabouts by the police.

30 days for ISD officers to investigate a conspiracy or fabricate a conspiracy is a long time. I thought we have the brightest scholars working in the ISD? Why do they need 30 days to decide whether to detain a prisoner or release him? Surely by the end of three days, they would have completed their investigation and either slam the order of detention on them or release them. Why do they need to fully utilise the 30 days allowed by the law? Is it to unnecessarily punish the innocent prisoner or is it because they are so inefficient or so daft that they cannot complete their investigation?

But if they are not able to complete their investigation, how is it that they could produce a script for detainees to appear on state television three weeks after our arrest? Shouldn’t they be putting all their attention on investigating our “crimes” rather than turn us into television stars? Worse, we or at least I was told that if I didn’t appear on television, they would “throw away the key,” meaning I would languish in jail for a very long time.

I shall pause here and continue at a later date because I feel sick remembering what 30 days mean to an ISA detainee. The ISA in allowing a person to be detained for 30 days is not providing him with any safeguard. Rather, the law in allowing 30 days for investigation is granting ISD officers and the government more than adequate time to fabricate a story for public consumption, to instil fear in them and to unnecessarily punish and intimidate a detainee.


While the whereabouts of the “Marxist conspirators” were unknown to their families for six days when they were arrested by the ISD at the dawn of 21 May 1987, the whereabouts of eight of us together with lawyer Patrick Seong on 19 April 1988 after the issue of the joint statement denying the government’s accusations and confirming ill treatment were unknown for more than ten days. Then Minister for Trade and Industry and Second Minister for Defence BG Lee Hsien Loong was so angry that he described the joint statement as a “full frontal attack on the integrity, honesty and reputation of the government.” Acting Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said: “They threw a hand grenade in our face. They were not out to seek redress for the alleged torture. They were out to harm the Government and to harm our political stability.” So even though the restriction orders did not prohibit us from issuing the joint statement, we were all re-arrested the following morning. It is laughable that an intelligent minister like Goh had to use the phrase “threw a hand grenade in our face.” What hand grenade was he talking about? Violence exude not from us who were and are law abiding peaceful citizens who did not and do not possess any weapon, but from the minister. Was he “rebel rousing” (to use the words of the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) the public by such words?

A day after our re-arrest, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that the government would set up a Commission of Inquiry. Senior lawyers, Francis Seow and J B Jeyaretnam as well as Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party welcomed the setting up of the Commission albeit with certain conditions so as to ensure independence. Chiam cautioned that all of us should be freed before the hearing so that we would not be under any form of duress.

Four days later, Goh Chok Tong informed the public that the Attorney General had been instructed to draft the terms of reference for the Commission which were:

(1) Whether the Marxist conspiracy was a government fabrication.

(2) The circumstances under which eight detainees retracted their previous statements.

(3) Their charges that they were assaulted and tortured during detention last year.

While the ministers were busy issuing public statements to justify the arrests, ISD officers were hard at work in the cold rooms.

For days and nights, the 9 detainees were interrogated in the basement of Whitley Road Centre. “Who was the leader? Who instigated the drafting of the statement? Who drafted the statement? Who typed the statement? Where were the meetings held? What were the reasons for the statement? … ” On reflection today, those were strange national security questions. Why was it necessary to find the author of the joint statement? All of us who signed it must be held equally responsible for it. There were no two ways of attributing responsibility. And strangely, we weren’t asked if we had planted bombs at the Istana or behind Parliament House or attempted to throw any hand grenade at any minister.

We were told to write statements and then to sign statutory declarations. Those who refused were advised to "think of the others." Words like “I know you don’t mind being detained, but think of the others. If you don’t sign the statutory declaration, the others will not be freed”. Those were strong persuasive or threatening words to one in the cold room. Those words coming from senior ISD officers cannot be taken lightly. In the end, all 9 detainees signed statutory declarations before a commissioner for oaths. Some who were ill treated, retracted their statements and swore false statutory declarations, subjecting themselves to prosecution. They regretted doing that subsequently but what else could they do? Get out and be useful citizens again or rot in prison like Dr Chia Thye Poh for 32 years? Already we were “martyrs without a cause” as one of the detainees puts it. Why do we want to make such huge sacrifices? Others who refused to retract that they were beaten up, omitted the deeds of ISD officers by not making any mention on how they were treated.

ISD officers were also busy with former detainees who were released on restriction orders. At least 5 of them had to swear statutory declarations after hours of “interviews” at Phoenix Park. And sadly, despite the co-operation, one of them was subsequently also re-arrested.

Any fair-minded person would have ignored sworn statements made by the 9 detainees. But that was not the case. Goh Chok Tong and Professor S Jayakumar, the Minister for Home Affairs and Second Minister for Law (and a professor of Constitutional Law) proudly declared on the 10th day after our re-arrests that the statutory declarations had made it unnecessary for the setting up of the Commission of Inquiry. They told the public that we had retracted the charges made in our joint statement. As such, there was no longer a need for the Commission of Inquiry! That was it!

The government having concluded their business, the families of the detainees were finally allowed to visit them. It was already the 11th day after arrest/re-arrests. Patrick Seong who was arrested for the first time, was (I think) also not allowed to see his family until the 11th day. During the 11 days, I understand, he was taken to the hospital. Under ordinary criminal law, a person who is accused of committing a crime or re-offends must be produced in court within 48 hours and arrangements for family visits made soon after. ISA detainees can be held incommunicado for as long as the ISD deems fit. The ministers and the ISD decide everything.

And what about improvement in living conditions since we had all co-operated? There was none. We continued to be locked up in those 6ft x 10ft cells with smelly pillows and blankets.

Where were the members of the Board of Inspection during those 11 days? Were there any safeguards?

Monday, March 05, 2012

Judicial review of preventive detention

by Teo Soh Lung

An excerpt of Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong’s lecture delivered at the Rule of Law Symposium on 15 February 2012 was published in TODAY on 21 February 2012. At least three friends drew my attention to the article that morning because my case was cited in the speech. I was not particularly interested in the speech but read it when I was given a copy. Perhaps because it was just an excerpt, I didn’t find it particularly noteworthy, except for the fact that it was probably the first time my case was mentioned in the press after more than 20 years.

The Chief Justice in disagreeing with the interpretation of some academics who expressed the view that there is no judicial review in preventive detention said: “But Teo’s appeal … was dismissed on the ground that she had failed to discharge the burden of proving that her re-detention was not based on national security considerations.”

What then is the burden of proof on a ISA prisoner? Having attempted to get out of prison through four rounds of litigation, I can confirm that the burden is very, very heavy and I would not encourage anyone to take the same course unless he is prepared not to succeed. Even with simple facts and the best lawyers, as were the facts and lawyers who acted for me, I did not succeed. I have set out in detail the obstacles I faced in my book, Beyond the Blue Gate, Recollections of a Political Prisoner and I will not repeat what I said there.

It is interesting that there was a symposium to discuss the rule of law two decades after my case was decided. During those two decades, 79 people have been detained under the ISA but none of the detainee had challenged the legality of their imprisonment. The lesson learnt from my case had probably sunk so deep that no one had thought it wise to attempt what I did!

As of today, there are at least 19 people who are still in prison under the ISA. At least eight of them have been in prison for ten years or more. We know nothing about these prisoners. The Advisory Board which periodically review their plight do not tell us why these eight continue to be in prison. The Justices of Peace who visit them have also said nothing. So we remain ignorant of the plight of these unknown men who we are told by the Minister for Home Affairs, are all Muslims. Will they one day in the future, try to clear their names, like the 1987 “Marxist conspirators” are trying to do 25 years after the event? I don’t know.

Coming back to the subject of judicial review and the rule of law. What is the burden that a prisoner must discharge before he can succeed in persuading the courts to free him? Let me discuss this subject with reference to the facts in my case.

When I was first arrested on 21 May 1987, the government alleged that I was a ”Marxist conspirator”, whatever that term meant. A decade earlier, in 1977, those arrested were called “Euro-communists”. The PAP government are masters at crafting names that instil great fear in law abiding citizens.

I was accused of being a participant in a conspiracy to overthrow the government using “communist united front tactics”. Again, whatever that meant, only the PAP can clarify. I didn't know the meaning of "communist united front tactics" when I first read the grounds of detention and asked my case officer what it was all about. He was taken aback by my question. Until today, I still do not know what the term refers to. It may be clear to historians who are in the habit of writing PAP history but not those who question if there was indeed such a tactic.

I was released a few months after but in April 1988, together with eight others, I issued a joint statement denying the government’s allegations of a conspiracy and confirming that we were subjected to physical and mental abuse. The next day, we were rearrested.

I took out an application for habeas corpus soon after. Both Lord Lester QC and the Late Lord Alexander QC were optimistic that I would succeed because the reason for my rearrest was so clearly related to the issue of the joint statement, which was of course, an exercise of free speech. Between the date I was released and the date of my rearrest, Singapore enjoyed great peace as was the case even before my arrest. There was not even a peaceful protest on the street. I was back in legal practice trying to make a decent living during those months.

In December 1988, the court of appeal which comprised the Chief Justice and two other judges refused to adjudicate on the facts of my case. It ruled that the government did not comply with a technicality (which technicality was not even argued by my lawyers) and ordered my release together with my three friends. The appeal judges talked about the importance of judicial review and the rule of law but refused to make a ruling on the facts of my case. Needless to say, I was completely shattered shortly after because I was rearrested immediately after being tricked out of the prison gate.

The government then proceeded to amend the ISA and the Constitution. The intention of the amendments was clear to me – that the government would not tolerate judicial review and would have nothing to do with the rule of law, at least in ISA cases. It said so through the Public Prosecutor, Mr Tiwari : “The expression ‘rule of law’ has no defined or definable content and it would be wrong for judges to defeat the clear intent of Parliament by reference to such vague concepts…”

If the courts had wanted to protect their judicial power, it could have done so by agreeing with Lord Lester’s submission that parliament had no power to amend the Constitution in a manner which violates its basic structure by usurping judicial power which is vested solely in the judiciary. The courts for reasons that I will never know, failed to do so. By failing to do so, I can only assume that it did not want to retain such power, at least in ISA cases and would prefer the government to have a free hand. The government was of course happy to have judicial power. In October 2011, Deputy Prime Minister, Teo Chee Hean said:

“…giving the final say on what constitutes a serious threat to national security to a judge would in effect mean that the judge rather than the Government becomes responsible for, and answerable for decisions affecting the national security of Singapore.

In Singapore, this responsibility and accountability to act to protect national security is placed in the hands of the Government…” (ST 20 Oct 2011).

Would more symposiums and dialogues on the rule of law be of any use for the future. Simon Chesterman, the dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law seemed to think so. (ST 22 Feb 2012). Maybe. More discussions may clarify what judicial review and the rule of law is all about and give courage to whoever needs to make a bold decision. But will such an opportunity arise?


Judges do justice, not politics: CJ Chan : Straits Times