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“I’m sure you are feeling sad for being here”, my cellmate asked wearily in Changi Prison.
“No, not at all”, I answered as a matter-of-factly.
Thus began our initial conversation on the second day of our incarceration while we sat on the cement floor to have breakfast.
Ah Loy, a Singaporean in his late 40s was given a custodial jail sentence of six weeks, in addition to a fine of $5,000 for traffic offences which he promptly paid before being brought to Changi Prison. The third inmate sharing the cell at Cluster B of the Prison was a Bangladeshi in his mid-20s. He was sentenced to two years for a crime related to contraband cigarettes.
Surprised at my prompt reply, Ah Loy, was equally quick: “I’m unhappy to be here and so is our friend from Bangladesh. Are you not sad?”
“Well, you feel remorseful and sad only when you regret your misdeed.”
Hearing this from me, both Ah Loy and the Bangladeshi straightened their backs as they sipped coffee from the plastic mug on the floor.
I continued: “There’s nothing to feel sorry about and in fact I’m proud of what I did”.
Until then, they did not know who I was for we had been put in the same cell only the night before. I quickly cleared their curiosity when I said I was from an opposition political party called Singapore Democratic Party.
After a pause, I said the authoritarian PAP that is in power since 1959 is bent on crushing any opposition wanting to uphold the basic rights of freedoms of speech and assembly, not unlike how Indonesia’s former dictator Suharto and Philippine’s Ferdinand Marcos crushed their opponents and dissidents, I added.
Ah Loy was able to follow me but the Bangladeshi, though he claimed he had worked in Singapore for six years, didn’t even know who Lee Kuan Yew is.
My latest stint of one week in jail was my fifth this year. All my “offences” together with my SDP colleagues and supporters were for “illegal assembly and illegal procession”. And there was one for which I was found guilty involved the act of “distributing flyers”.
All the charges, under the Miscellaneous Offences Act and Rules, involved only a fine. But most of my colleagues and I chose to go to prison in lieu of paying the fine, in my case and that of Dr Chee Soon Juan the courts imposed the maximum fine of $1,000 for each “offence” or in default one week in jail.
There is one more verdict pending and it’s coming up for judgment on 19 October at the Subordinate Courts. The offence: Illegal assembly at Toa Payoh Central on, of all the days, 9 Aug 2008, Singapore’s National Day!
If I’m found guilty, together with my other seven colleagues, the fine could be up to the maximum of $1,000. My time spent in jail is not going to be a deterrent or rehabilitation as the prison authorities claim is the purpose of imprisonment. Maybe, it could work for Ah Loy and the unfortunate Bangladeshi who was here as an economic migrant.
My frequent incarceration at Changi has steeled my dedication to the cause and firmed my commitment to change the repressive regime. My struggle will continue even if it involves confining me inside a small prison cell. As the saying goes: “You can imprison a person bodily but not his spirit.”
Gandhi Ambalam is the chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party.