My interview with an ex-ISA detainee

Passion for activism extinguished…but not for long

This article is the first part of a week-long focus on The Online Citizen of the 22nd anniversary of the 21 May 1987 government clampdown on a group of so-called “communists” and “marxists”, who were detained under the ISA – and never charged or brought to trial.

On 21st May 1987, 22 social activists in Singapore were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for allegedly plotting a so called “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the Singapore government. Although they were never tried in an open court, the full weight of the government’s machinery, including the state-controlled media, was used to make the government’s case against these activists.

The detainees’ side of the story has seldom been heard by the general public. In the 20 years after the detentions, the mainstream media has shied away from telling the ex-detainees’ stories.

Mr Tan Tee Seng was 28 years old when he was detained, along with 21 others. In an exclusive two-and-a-half hour interview with The Online Citizen, Mr Tan speaks about his background and activities in the 1970s and 80s, his arrest in 1987, his experience under interrogation and detention, and his life after his release.

The social activist

Mr Tan’s involvement in social activism started when he was a student in Singapore Polytechnic. In 1976, he joined the Singapore Polytechnic Students’ Union (SPSU), becoming the vice-president of the SPSU the next year.

After graduating, Mr Tan worked as a technician in various multinational electronics firms. He continued his activism after work each day by volunteering at the Geylang Catholic Centre, a welfare and advocacy organisation, which provided social assistance to ex-offenders, battered women, retrenched workers, migrant workers and abused foreign maids. The Catholic Centre was founded by a French catholic priest, who was also a prison chaplain.

The volunteers at the centre included former SPSU members, Catholic worker Vincent Cheng and lawyer Teo Soh Lung. Mr Cheng became the manager and the first full-time staff of the centre in the late 1970s. He and Ms Teo were also detained together with Mr Tan.

Mr Tan also helped out with the Justice and Peace Commission (JPC), together with Mr Cheng. His role in the JPC was to help compile and summarise the news of the day for Catholic priests.

The early eighties were a time of great political awakening for many Singaporeans, after Mr J B Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party (WP) won the Anson by-election in 1981, breaking the total dominance of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Parliament. In 1984, when Mr Jeyaretnam was running for re-election, Mr Tan witnessed on television how the full force of the government machinery was being used to demolish the WP leader. It was then that he and about 20 friends, some from the Catholic Centre, decided to step forward to offer their assistance to Mr Jeyaretnam’s campaign.

Mr Jeyaretnam felt he already had enough help, and redirected the volunteers to help two other WP candidates in their election campaigns. In the end, the WP candidates received unexpectedly high shares of the votes in the constituencies of Leng Kee and Alexandra.

Despite the oppressive political climate during that time, Mr Tan had no qualms about continuing his political activities with the WP and his activism at the Catholic Centre. At that time, he said, the boundaries for political activity — what we now call Out-of-Bounds (OB) markers — seemed much clearer: as long as he kept well away from the Communists — which he did with a “ten foot pole” — he felt it was a legitimate right of a citizen to be involved in such activities and that this would be safe. He was soon to be proven wrong.

After the 1984 elections, Mr Tan and his friends stayed on to help the WP with its party newspaper, The Hammer. He joined the de facto editorial committee, writing many of its articles and changing the design of its masthead. After about a year, circulation of the Hammer rose from about 10,000 copies to over 25,000 copies. This, Mr Tan assessed, was probably one of the developments that concerned the PAP government, led by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Detention and interrogation

By 1987, however, Mr Tan’s level of involvement in the Catholic Centre and the WP had slightly decreased due to work and family commitments.

The first and only forewarning of the impending arrests was sounded by Vincent Cheng, who claimed weeks earlier that he was being followed by government agents. Mr Tan dismissed it, thinking it was simply an intimidation tactic. He reasoned that all their activities were entirely legitimate and they had no need to fear the authorities.

At 4 o’clock on the morning of 21st May 1987, Mr Tan and his wife heard a banging on the door of their flat. At the door were two men claiming to be from the Immigration Department. They showed Mr Tan their official identity cards and Mr Tan allowed them into the flat.

However, once inside, they immediately handcuffed Mr Tan and threw him into one of the rooms, and proceeded to ransack the flat looking for incriminating evidence, according to Mr Tan.

After a two hour search they blindfolded both Mr Tan and his wife and whisked them separately away to Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC). On arrival, he was forced to strip and change into the prison garb — which was made of the same rough material used to make gunny sacks. He was allowed no underwear, no footwear and had his spectacles confiscated. Gurkhas then led him into an interrogation room.

The interrogation room had the air conditioner on at full blast, making it very cold. The walls were painted a foreboding dark blue, with a powerful spotlight shining on his face.

He was interrogated continuously for more than 72 hours with no sleep. The interrogators from the Internal Security Department (ISD), who were grouped into two teams of three to four officers, would take turns to interrogate him. The teams worked 12-hour shifts, with at least two officers interviewing Mr Tan at any one time.

Mr Tan had to remain standing most of the time, with one interrogator in front and another standing directly behind him, literally breathing down his neck. He was periodically forced to take off his shirt during the interrogations.

To intimidate him into “confessing”, his interrogators constantly threatened to lock him up and throw away the key, often reminding him of Chia Thye Poh, arguably the most well-known ISA detainee in Singapore at that time, who had been detained under the ISA for more than 20 years.

At times his interrogators would jump up from their chairs and slap him across his face, or press their knuckles into his chest. Nevertheless, the pressure was mostly psychological, not physical. His biggest worries were for his wife, who was also being held under detention, and that he might inadvertently say something that would incriminate his friends.

The agents asked about all his activities, which he willingly revealed, as he was sure he had done nothing wrong. In fact, he had all the while thought that his detention was a case of mistaken identity and he expected to be released after the initial questioning.

After about 40 to 50 hours of interrogation, he finally said something that the interrogators appeared to be waiting to hear: That he had been “Marxist inclined”.

Mr Tan saw nothing unusual about agreeing with some Marxist ideas, which many people in the 1970s had been sympathetic towards.

After the first 72 hours of continuous interrogation, he was allowed to return to his cell, where he was kept in solitary confinement. His cell was small — about 4 by 3 metres — with no windows and a light that was kept on 24 hours a day. On the concrete floor was placed a wooden board that served as his bed. During the daytime, it would sometimes get swelteringly hot. For about 20 minutes each day, he would be allowed out of his cell into a small courtyard adjacent to his cell.

For the next 30 to 40 days, he would be hauled back to the interrogation room to be grilled for about 10 hours each day.

He was served his detention order under the ISA after 28 days in detention. The detention order accused him of being “involved in communist united front activities to overthrow the state by violent means”, a charge which he said was completely false.

After six weeks in solitary confinement, he was moved to another cell, nicknamed the “Shangri-la suite” because of its slightly larger size, Mr Tan tells us. There he was able to interact with the other detainees.

About 4 months after he was detained, Mr Tan was released on Restriction Orders (RO) which prohibited him from leaving the country without permission or joining any political parties. Since the detention order lapsed after two years, Mr Tan said that his RO restrictions likewise did not apply any longer.

Life after detention

After his release, Mr Tan went back to working in the publishing services firm where he had previously worked. His employer did not have any issues with his arrest. This is unsurprising, since his employer had also been detained for similar reasons one month after Mr Tan was hauled in.

None of his clients shunned him. Most were more concerned about whether Mr Tan was ill-treated while under detention and they did not believe the government’s accusations.

The Geylang Catholic Centre was closed and the founding priest left Singapore.

Mr Tan is now 51 years old and a father of three children — the eldest of whom is 20 years old. He runs an education service company serving the China market.

Asked what effect the detentions had on Singapore, Mr Tan felt that the episode had cost Singapore badly. The government had lost a lot of political capital because “nobody believed their allegations”.

The blatant use of force against political dissidents was condemned by more than 400 organisations worldwide.

Mr Tan feels that many “passionate fires” in community service were smothered after that. Social activists and civil societies were “shell shocked into paralysis”. Indeed, the OB markers suddenly became very unclear, rendering almost all independent community activities as potentially crossing the proverbial OB markers.

Despite what he went through at the hands of the ISD, Mr Tan harbours no anger or bitterness against the authorities. He saw it as a political reality in Singapore — the cost of participating in political and social activism. Singapore, he said, has First World infrastructure, with Third World politics.

Nevertheless, he felt that the situation in Singapore has improved in recent years, but he describes the progress as “five steps forward, two steps back”. Still, he was confident that the government would not repeat its actions of 1987.

To underline this point, he pointed out that what The Online Citizen has been publishing on its blog went far beyond what he ever did as an activist, yet The Online Citizen was surviving without government interference. He attributes this to the changed political realities of the day, with a more educated population and a connected world.

In May 2007, the Straits Times did a feature on the 20th anniversary of the arrests and attempted to contact the detainees for interviews. Mr Tan, like most of the other detainees, refused to be interviewed. They were of the view that the government-controlled Straits Times would not write an objective account of what really happened. (Click here to read how the Straits Times covered the events of 1987 in an upcoming report.)

Asked if he planned to enter into opposition politics to challenge the government, he said he currently has “no plans yet”.

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Other related reads:

1 ‘Marxist plot’ revisited, Singapore Window.

2 That We May Dream Again, Fong Hoe Fang (ed.)

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