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The best years of Singapore’s economic development were also the darkest, politically.
From independence in 1965 to the double-digit growths of the 1980s, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of political detainees remained incarcerated in Singapore’s prisons, without trial. While very little is known about the lives of political detainees in Singapore, even more overlooked are the families of these detainees.
Below is a rare account by Salamah bte Abdul Wahab, the wife of political detainee Said Zahari, on how she struggled to raise her family, in the absence of her husband and father of her four children, for 17 years.
The interview was recorded by Michael Fernandez in Malaysia a few years ago. An ex-detainee himself, Mr Fernandez told me recently that among the hardships faced by families of political detainees, the family of Said Zahari had probably suffered the most.
Salamah passed away on December 29, 2004.
In July 1961, the Utusan Melayu staff went on strike in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore when UMNO wanted to control its editorial policy. Said Zahari ,its editor-in-chief, not only lost his job but also was banned from entering Malaya by the Tunku.
It was lifted by Dr.Mahathir Mohamed in 1989 when he was a Singapore citizen. For the next one and a half years during this politically ferment period he gave seminars and talks to various civic groups – students, media, and trade unions.
I knew Said Zahari’s family quite well; I was able to have a frank exchange of views and information a few weeks ago at their home (Subang Jaya USJ).The whole family was there: Said and his wife Salamah, their eldest son, Roesman older daughter, Rismawati, Norman, and the youngest, Noorlinda and also most of the grandchildren.
During the early hours of the morning of 2nd Feb 1963, a team of Internal Security Officers in Singapore led by ASP Hashim arrested Said Zahari. About 120 leftwing activists were also detained in the Operation Cold Store. Salamah bte Abdul Wahab, the wife of Said, whose kids Roesman (6 years), Rismawati (5), Norman (3) who was adopted by Salamah’s sister (he was not around), and the youngest, to be born a few months later, was perhaps kicking her mother’s womb in protest against the ISD officers. On seeing the silent tears of Salamah, ASP Hashim tried to comfort her : “Don’t worry, cik Salamah, we are taking Encik Said…only for a while.”
Thereafter, Salamah was always looking through the main door everyday for a taxi or a car to stop and let out Said. Three days went by, no sign of Said;. A week past, and still no sign of her husband. She tried to pacify her two older children saying, “Bapak would be back soon. He is away on work!”
It was not until three weeks later that she was allowed to see him for a brief 20 minutes in the Central Police Station lock-up in Singapore. She was upset with ASP Hashim for his “for a while” statement, a fellow Malay and a Muslim. She felt there was no need for him to lie to her. She found it difficult to forgive.
MF: I believe that while Said was working, you never went to work. You stayed at home to look after your husband and children. What did you do?
Salamah: For the first nearly six years, we lived with my parents in Singapore. My father Abdul Wahab, a well-known jockey/trainer, had a few houses in Singapore, KL, Ipoh and Penang. We hardly experienced any difficulties. The children went to school regularly. Little Linda was going to K.G. II Chinese Medium, and some of Said’s political friends came regularly to the house to help Linda in her studies, particularly Chinese.
MF: After your parents moved out to live in KL, what did you do to earn a living?
Salamah : I sold hawkers food. At that time, Roesman (15) and Rismawati (14) had only a vague idea that their father was a “political detainee”. They could not understand its true meaning. For that matter, I too have only a hazy idea of what “political detainee” meant. At times, both Roesman and Risma used to grumble. Because their father was cooped up in prison, they had to do a lot of chores which Bapak should or would have done.
They had to get up very early at 5.00 am, cut vegetables, wash the fish including the ikan bilis, boil and cut the eggs, wash and cut the banana leaves, boil the rice and other little chores. But the grumpiest part of their daily routine was rushing back to the hawker stall at Kallang Place immediately after school in order to help wash up and pack up the pots and pans. In those days it was not easy to get a trishaw to go home. On the way, I used to drop at the Geylang Serai market to buy the groceries for the following day. Both Roesman and Risma had to come back to the market to carry the things back home. Thus the children had very little time to study or play with other children of their age. It was tough for them and I must admit that quite often for small mistakes, I used to cane them. I vented all my frustrations on them. And if the beating was at night, the older ones used to run out of the house and the next victim was the smallest, Linda!
At this point, Linda, who was seated on the floor leaning against her mother’s lap, gestured to me the beatings she used to get! The whole family burst out laughing at her precise gestures.
It was on these occasions that I longed for my husband to be beside me to comfort me, to advise me what to do, to lighten my aching burden of responsibilities, to help me rest from these daily increasing problems which were taking a heavy toll on my nerves. And I often had splitting headaches .
Many a time I felt like giving up in despair, but every time I thought of doing that, the thought of facing Said after that was the shame I could not think about. But what kept me going was the promise I made to Said when he teasingly asked me once and I replied rather heroically,” I’ll carry on somehow, don’t worry.”
MF: You had an operation at the Singapore General Hospital. When was it ,Salamah, Is it ok to talk about it? I hope its not too painful to dwell on it.
Salamah: No. It is a bit painful still to recall. Yes, it was one of the darkest trials of my life. It was in June 1968. I was lying semi-conscious in the hospital after my operation to remove my cancerous breast. In my heart I really wished that the operation would free me from this cruel world. When I was admitted, our family friend, Dr Beatrice Chen, a kidney specialist, and wife of Dr Lim Hock Siew, a fellow detainee with my husband, did not tell me that I had cancer, that my breast was to be removed! I heard the truth from Said’s mouth when he was brought to the Hospital, escorted by two Internal Security Officers.
Conflict with authorities
During the Interview, Salamah related a few incidents she could remember vividly.
On one occasion, the Internal Security Officers at the weekly family visit in Changi Prison introduced a rule not to allow more than two people at a time. Salamah brought her two older children, Roesman and Rismawati. They would not allow Risma in. It was a human tug-of-war between Salamah on one side and an ISD officer on other side. The little Risma provided herself as the “rope”. Salamah shouted and cursed them for their inhuman behaviour, till they gave up in despair and cancelled the “rule of two only.”
Another rule they introduced was not to allow detainees to receive cooked food from home except on festive occasions like Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji. On a Hari Raya Puasa occasion, the ISD officers wanted to cut up the ketupat (steamed rice in a thatched-leafy container) into several pieces for “security” reasons. Salamah protested and scolded them. “These are for human beings to eat, not for animals!”, she lashed out at them. When she angrily picked up the bunch of ketupat to throw at them, they relented and gave in. They even wanted to cut up the chicken in the chicken-curry. Her outburst was so furious that they gave up but warned her that it was the last time she would get away with it.
She was also unhappy with the Singapore authorities for discriminating her. Though she was born in KL, she lived most of her life in Singapore. She studied in the Methodist Girl’s School in Singapore. In 1968, when she applied for a hawker’s licence to sell food, the Government turned it down, saying she was a Malaysian. She had to rent a stall to sell food. Quite often, the stall-owners got into trouble if they were not around whenever the health officer came to inspect the stalls.
Conflicts with relatives
Perhaps the most heart-rending trauma that Salamah, the wife of Said Zahari, experienced was from the relatives of both sides – hers and his. When the newspapers were howling mad at Said’s friendship with the Brunei rebel leader Azahari and his friendship with Lim Chin Siong, Mahadeva and others, Salamah came under increasing pressure from the relatives. They often hinted unkind words; sneered at her helplessness; poked fun at her children about their absent father; made snide remarks about her freedom from her husband.
Salamah related to me an incident that took place in her mother’s house in late 1968 when her parents were preparing to move to KL permanently. It was a few months after her cancer operation and just after she started selling food at a hawker’s stall. Salamah’s mother invited Said’s mother, some of his brothers and his sister for a kendoori (a Malay feast) in her mother’s house. Apart from her parents, her sisters and a couple of her brothers were also present.
It was a rare occasion that Salamah witnessed. When all were assembled in the hall, Said’s mother asked her about the food business. When she told her it was “susah”(difficult), she added, “memang-lah” (of course, it was difficult).
Said’s mother continued, “Did you tell Said it was tough?” When Salamah didn’t answer, Said’s mother shouted, “Tell me ,why didn’t you tell him? Why didn’t you ask him to come out? To look after you and his children? Why?”
“I have never seen Said’s mother so angry”, Salamah recounted to me.
“I answered rather meekly, ‘I didn’t want to upset Said unduly’.
She lashed out again, “What rubbish are you talking?”
Then a female voice, who shall remain unnamed ,said, in an even tone, “Listen, we all wish you and the children a good life. You can’t have that by selling hawker’s food. You must persuade, no, force him to come out. If he is stubborn, give him an ultimatum and then divorce him and get married again. You are still young!”
Then several voices murmured, “betul!” (true) .
I couldn’t take it any more. Then I shouted, “I can’t do that!”
Then her own mother also added, “It’s for your own good.”
Then another female voice shouted sarcastically, “She doesn’t want to ask Said to come out because she can be free to do what she wants.”
These cruel words pierced her like stab wounds. Covering her tearful eyes, Salamah ran out of the house, wanted to escape from everybody and everything. She went behind the house and just sobbed and cried her heart out.
Their words were certainly cruel, but were they malicious? Or were they uttered out of genuine concern for her and her chidren? Salamah cursed her husband within her heart for putting her through such malicious attacks, but she recovered soon enough to take comfort in her passionate love for her husband. Their heartless words only strengthened her love for her husband, and faith in Allah, and she prayed hard for greater patience and strength to bear these and more tribulations.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Said Zahari, his wife Salamah, his four children and most of his 16 grandchildren who were there, and whom Said described as his “only wealth”, at his small terrace house in USJ, Subang Jaya, KL.
Roesman, 44, was a tower of strength to his mother and his brother and two sisters. Though he could not understand at first why bapak(father) was sitting in prison while he and his sisters toiled with his mother to support the family. Gradually when he understood that bapak was struggling even in prison to fight for social justice, he adopted his father’s ideals as his own and tried to live up to it as the loyal son of Said Zahari. Roesman studied law at a private college in KL but had to abandon it halfway in order to go back to Singapore to help his mother sell food. He worked hard to support his mother, lived as an example to his brother and sisters, later to his wife and his two daughters of whose achievements he’s justly proud.
Rismawati, literary-minded like her father, was the letter-writer for the family. She used to give her father all the news of the family in her weekly letters. With her husband, she runs a kindergarten and childcare centre.
Norman Noordin alias Norman Said was adopted by his mother’s older sister, a nurse, Saliah, who married Dr. Raja Ahmad Noordin (now Tan Sri Raja Ahmad Noordin) . He was educated in the UK and US. He’s now a senior executive in a private firm. Norman lives near his natural parents and visits them regularly.
Noorlinda, the baby of the family, has six children of her own to look after. However she refuses to have a maid even though her engineer husband advised her to have one. She was in her mother’s womb when papa was arrested in 1963. She had no feeling for her father until very recently. Though she’s 38, she told a human Rights Convention in KL, when she was only 12, in 1975, the ISD officers in Singapore never allowed her father to touch her or cuddle her, and that she could only speak to her father over the phone whenever she visited him in prison. She grew up a stranger to her father.
Said’s two eldest grand-daughters (Roesman’s) are Shirin and Shauna, both in their late teens, told me that, “toh (grand-dad) has been and will always be our role model”. Shirin just completed her Diploma in Mass Communication and likely to follow her grandfather’s footsteps, and Shauna is entering International Islamic University to study law. Both are not only lovely-looking but are very bright, particularly very skilful in English language. They had their early education in Singapore.
Who sacrificed and suffered the most? For the family and for the country: Was it Said Zahari the husband, or Salamah, the wife?
It is obvious, as Said Zahari himself stated in his dedication to the book Dark Clouds At Dawn (A Political Memoir) that her “sacrifices and sufferings were a thousand times more than mine” . The real heroine in this tragic story is Salamah.
Why did she sacrifice the man she loved so passionately to Changi Prison, the husband on whom her children and she depended, the father of her young kids? Was it for some personal glory or for some financial reward? Or for some high position in society? She went through this trauma for 17 years, for what?
Some would call her a “fool”, some others would merely “pity” her, and very few would really support her unwavering stand. Was the sacrifices and suffering she went through only for the love of her husband? Was it anything to do with Said Zahari’s ideal of democracy, social justice and press freedom which is still a burning issue?
I asked Salamah (now 65): Have all the wounds you received, both physical and emotional from various sources, been healed ever since Said lost his editorship job in 1961?
She hesitated for a moment, frowned and knit her eyebrows and said slowly and deliberately,”Most of them have healed. But the big scars like the one on my breast will never heal…Would be permanent scars to remind both of us what we went through together.”
Michael Fernandez has been a long-time family friend of Said Zahari and was with him in the Changi Prison in Singapore.