Academic freed from Singaporean jail

Sarah Dingle
ABC Radio

Eleanor Hall:
He was jailed for wearing a t-shirt featuring a kangaroo and spent Christmas in prison, but Singaporean academic John Tan has now been released.

He says he still doesn’t know whether his Australian employer will re-hire him but he told Sarah Dingle that he hopes that 2009 will bring more freedom of speech to Singapore.

Sarah Dingle: It was during a trial involving Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that John Tan ran into trouble.

In May last year the Lees were suing the leader of the tiny Opposition Democratic Party for questioning the Government. John Tan’s the deputy leader of the Opposition and was there to support the head of his party.

But John Tan ran into trouble himself when the court noticed what he was wearing – a t-shirt featuring a kangaroo in a judge’s robes. For calling the trial a kangaroo court, John Tan also faced charges.

John Tan: I told them that I would not apologise because what I did was a fair criticism and in contempt of court.

Sarah Dingle: But the court found him guilty, ruling that Mr Tan should pay $5,000 and spend two weeks in jail.

His employer, the Australian James Cook University in Singapore, suspended him even before he was summonsed to court. The university said they were concerned that students’ education could be disrupted by John Tan having to prepare his case.

Fined and jobless, John Tan went to prison in mid December.

John Tan: They turn on the light at some unearthly hour. And then at seven they would ring the bell and everybody have to pack up our mattress – that’s all we have on a concrete floor, a very, very thin probably less than a millimetre thick mattress – after which we wait for our next meal.

If we’re lucky we would go out to the yard for 45 minutes, and after that we pretty much wait for the next meal until nine o’clock when they switch off the light in the evening.

The idea I was told was to give us time to reflect on our mistakes.

Sarah Dingle: John Tan spent Christmas in jail.

John Tan: They allowed a group of people from a nearby church to come in and carol there. The light was off already so I guess it must be after nine. The song just died off and faded into the darkness. I couldn’t help thinking about home.

Sarah Dingle: John Tan says his prison stint did make him consider his actions, although it failed to have the desired effect.

John Tan: It confirms, over and over again, that there’s no real freedoms, there’s no real democracies, there’s no real respect for human rights in Singapore and that what my colleagues and I are doing is urgently needed.

Eleanor Hall: Singaporean academic John Tan.

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