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Seminar: Nine years in Changi and after
Speaker: Michael Fernandez
Date: 14 July 2006
A slice of Singapore’s ‘hidden history’ came alive today, 14 July 2006, in a seminar by Michael Fernandez, who was detained without trial for 9 years between 1964 and 1973. A labor activist, Fernandez led a month-long, 10,000-strong strike at the Singapore Naval Base in Oct-Nov 1963. Fernandez was then General-Secretary of the Naval Base Labour Union. Under the Internal Security Act, Fernandez was arrested for being a member of the ‘Communist United Front’, a claim he has denied.
In the seminar, Fernandez spoke of how his involvement in labor activism led to his arrest in 1964. Following the strike at the Naval Base, Fernandez became an adviser to the Singapore European Employees’ Union, which was attempting to improve conditions of work for housemaids (or ‘amahs’) employed by Europeans, after the British War Department proposed changes to their employ which would deny them substantial benefits. More than 40 fellow activists and leftists were arrested along with Fernandez.
Fernandez, along with another well-known political detainee, Chia Thye Poh, was imprisoned at Changi. Conditions were dire – ‘bed’ was a concrete slab; there were no pillows or blankets provided. Doctors were sent to examine him, in the hopes he could be declared ‘insane’ and institutionalized at Woodbridge Hospital for the mentally ill. Detainees were regularly dispersed as the government sought to disorientate them. Some, like Fernandez, were sent to a newly constructed detention barrack called Moon Crescent Centre. There, food rations as well as reading material were cut. Family visits were reduced and they were no longer able to speak face to face – they could only communicate via a phone. The detainees were also told to engage in manual labor like ordinary prisoners. These measures were attempts by the authorities to break the detainees’ spirits, to which the latter responded as they did in public life – by going on strike in protest.
The detainees committed to a hunger strike and refused to give in despite being tortured through force-feeding. In the seminar, Fernandez demonstrated how a large guard sat on his lap, pried his jaws open with a scissor-like object and shoved a foot-long hose down his throat and force-fed him milk. He was unable to digest the liquid and constantly purged. The hunger strike lasted for 135 days and the government began to realize the resilience of the detainees. Fernandez described a visit by Devan Nair (former President of Singapore), who asked Fernandez to ‘give up’. To which Fernandez replied: “Give up what?” The PAP government had not made formal charges against them and their trade union activities had been legal. Fernandez maintains: “I just was helping people who required my help.”
Finally released in 1973 – and briefly detained again in 1977 – the shadows of Fernandez’s detention have lingered and altered his life. Trained as a teacher, Fernandez was unable to get a teaching position after he was released despite his work experience. He was advised to sell insurance – which he did, and saved up enough to get married in Dec 1973. His citizenship was revoked – Fernandez was born in Kerala, India – and he was stateless between the years of 1968-1984. This restricted his movements as travel out of the country was not permitted without clearance from immigration. He was unable to visit his family in Malaysia – when his brother and then his brother-in-law passed away, he was not given permission to visit them.
Being labeled a ‘trouble-maker’ has also constrained his participation in social activities and civil society organizations. In 1990, Fernandez was concerned about the youth he saw hanging about his housing estate. He offered his services as a tuition teacher to the neighborhood community centre. This offer was refused. In 1996, he moved to another housing estate and made the same offer. Again, he was turned down.
This is the second time I have heard Fernandez speak. Earlier this year, on 26 February 2006, a local theater group in Singapore, The Necessary Stage, organized a forum titled Detention. Writing. Healing. At this forum, Fernandez and fellow labor activist and ex-detainee Tan Jing Quee spoke about their experience of being imprisoned without trial. This was a landmark event in Singapore. I attended this forum and up till the speakers finally began their testimonies, I was half-expecting it to be cancelled. Their testimonies were powerful for various reasons. Firstly, it was the first time we were publicly hearing their stories in Singapore. It was also done through their own voices. Their sharing humanized them – as opposed to how the government demonizes them as ‘communists’ with insidious political agendas – and as a young Singaporean, it made me nostalgic for this era when left-wing political activity was vibrant. It was also sad and sobering to contemplate how these events have shaped Singapore in terms of social activism and labor relations. Currently, we have no minimum wage in Singapore and workers – in particular migrant workers – continue to struggle for the right to collective bargaining.
At the forum as well as the seminar, both Fernandez and Tan spoke without bitterness – neither revenge nor reconciliation seems to be an objective. What was expressed was a desire for Singaporeans to collectively and honestly confront their history, to ‘get the story straight’. The creation of an alternative future for Singapore with a healthy civil society underpinned by ideals of equity and liberty demands such critical introspection (retrospection?).
To hear an audiofile of the seminar ‘Nine years in Changi and after’, please log on to: http://wwwarc.murdoch.edu.au/
Michael Fernandez’s full account of his detention without trial can be found in his interview in 1981 by the National Archives of Singapore (Accession no. 76).
Michael Fernandez is currently seeking assistance for several important projects. These include transcribing his prison transcripts (written on toilet paper which was smuggled out of prison) as well as a project on the contributions of the University of Singapore Socialist Club to Singapore’s struggle for independence.
To contact Fernandez, please email: [email protected]