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In the early hours of 2nd February 1963, security police in Singapore launched Operation Coldstore – the mass arrests and detention of more than a hundred leaders and activists of political parties, trade unions and student movements, for their alleged involvement in “leftist” or “communist” activities. One of those arrested was former newspaper editor Said Zahari, who had been appointed the leader of an opposition party just three hours earlier.
A staunch anti-colonialist, Zahari had assumed that the mass arrests, set against the backdrop of Singapore’s struggle for independence, was no more than yet another turn of event in a politically volatile era. Freedom for him and the others, it seemed, would be secured once Singapore gained full independence.
On 9th of August 1965, by way of its separation from Malaysia, Singapore finally gained full independence and sovereignty. And as the republic embarked on a determined quest for economic prosperity, it dawned on Zahari that his new-found Singaporean citizenship did not accord him freedom.
By the time he was released in 1979, he had spent a total of 17 years in detention without trial. He now holds the distinction of being the second longest-serving political detainee in Singapore after Chia Thye Poh.
Ex-detainees of the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, are often reluctant to publicise their experiences. Zahari’s 17 Years marks the first time that an ex-political detainee has broken his silence on film.
Said Zahari’s upcoming book, entitled “The Long Nightmare – 17 Years in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison”, is the second volume of his trilogy of memoirs which recount his experiences in detention and the anti-colonial struggles of his generation.