Ex-political prisoners break their silence

Gillian Wong
Associated Press
28 Feb 06

Two elderly men have spoken publicly for the first time about their experiences as political prisoners in the 1960s in Singapore, where they say they were incarcerated for years without charge or trial.

“I think the objective of the government in arresting its opponents was to isolate us from active life, and also to break us, mentally and physically,” 72-year-old Michael Fernandez told a public forum late Sunday.

“They tried this several times by depriving us of our freedom, by confining us for long periods in solitary prisons, and depriving us of reading material,” he said.

Fernandez said he was arrested in 1964 on suspicion of being a communist after he helped organize a strike involving almost 11,000 naval base workers seeking more benefits. He was released after nine years.

Also addressing the public forum, Tan Jing Quee, 66, said he was arrested in 1963, the night before he planned to stage a protest against a government move to de-register left-wing trade unions. He was held for nearly three years.

Both men said they were never formally charged or tried in court.

The Home Affairs Ministry did not immediately respond when contacted for comment Monday.

Fernandez said he and other detainees were repeatedly force-fed during a 135-day hunger strike in 1971.

“We decided that we would not drink, not take anything except warm water for the first week. After the eighth day, many of us collapsed. The government and prison authorities were worried about our lives, and so they tried to force-feed us,” he said.

Tan said prison authorities made “a clear attempt to demean, humiliate and dehumanize” political prisoners.

Singapore arrested numerous left-wing politicians, trade unionists and Chinese school students involved in strikes and rallies in the early 1960s, accusing them of being violent subversives who planned to establish a communist state in Singapore.

Fernandez said he felt able to finally speak about his experiences because Singaporeans are now more eager to understand different aspects of their country’s postwar, pre-independence history. He added that he wanted to share his experiences with younger Singaporeans.

Melanie Hui, 24, a Singaporean who works with a nonpolitical private group, described the talk as “illuminating.”

“I left the forum thinking that there is such a big gap in our understanding of that era, especially for people in my generation,” Hui said. “I think it’s a really historic event, and it’s about time.”

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