“But you see, it IS religion”

Joseph Teo

On 12 July 2010, the Ministry of Information Communication and the Arts (MICA), through the Media Development Authority (MDA) banned a film of Dr Lim Hock Siew, once a member of the People’s Action Party (PAP), and subsequently a leader in the Barisan Sosialis.

Dr. Lim Hock Siew was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for 19 years and 8 months, and had to undergo long periods of solitary confinement.  In his speech, he shared his experiences during that difficult time.  Mr. Martyn See, the producer of the video was subsequently asked to remove it from Youtube.  It resurfaced on vimeo.com for a while, but it now appears that it has also been removed from this site.  A transcript of the video, however, remains available.

On Saturday, 14 August 2010, the Straits Times published an extended review by Clarissa Oon, “In search of the Other S’pore Story”.  In it, she described how, in reaction to the government’s National Education (NE) programmes, other voices are now seeking to be heard.  These “aging leftist politicians” do not want to give the Government the last word on the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s.  And scholars are now interested in studying the topic while the key players are still alive.

While generally positive on the need to study the history of Singapore objectively, the article attempts to place a key event – the banning of the video in a wider context.  This would not be wrong, except that it attempts to justify the ban, quoting a Dr Hong Lysa, “a historian not affiliated to any university”, as saying: “I don’t expect historians will be deterred, nor do I expect Dr Lim will not repeat what he said in public, or Martyn See to stop filming him and others.”

Unequal treatment

MICA, in justifying the ban, said: “The Singapore Government will not allow individuals who have posed a security threat to Singapore’s interests in the past to use media platforms such as films to make baseless accusations against the authorities, give a false portrayal of their previous activities in order to exculpate their guilt, and undermine public confidence in the Government in the process.”

But what were some of these “baseless accusations”?

1.  Not knowing what he was accused of.

[Transcript from Dr. Lim Hock Siew’s speech]

So, on these so-called charge sheets, there were a lot of blank spaces. I asked Judge Winslow what do these blank spaces mean? He said, “Oh, these are charges which are so sensitive that they can be shown only to the Advisory Board but not to you.”

I said, “How the hell can anybody defend himself against a charge that’s not even revealed to him?” I asked him for advice, he just said [shrugs shoulder]. I said, “Is this a mockery of justice or what?” He said, “This is the law.”

2. Extended solitary confinement beyond what is meted out to criminals.

[Transcript from Dr. Lim Hock Siew’s speech]

Now all of us had to go through detention in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement according to Lee Kuan Yew himself is a very bad form of torture. I will read to you what Lee Kuan Yew said of solitary confinement: “The biggest punishment a man can receive is total isolation in a dungeon, black and complete withdrawal of all stimuli. That is real torture.” Lee Kuan Yew, January 2008.

Although he knows it is real torture, he had no compunction in meting out this real torture to all detainees without exception. Some of us had to undergo this real torture, not for one day, two days, but for six months. Now under the law, there is a protection for even criminal prisoners from this kind of torture.

A criminal prisoner when found guilty of infringing prison rules will be sentenced to solitary confinement for not more than two weeks, because of the obvious mental health effects. But for political detainees, there is no protection.

3. An attempt to extort a confession.

[Transcript from Dr. Lim Hock Siew’s speech]

After 9 years of incarceration, they wanted me to issue a statement to firstly support the so-called democratic system of Singapore, and secondly to renounce politics. I told them that these two demands are self-contradictory, because if there is parliamentary democracy, then I don’t have to give up politics.

So they said, “You must say something to show repentance other wise Lee Kuan Yew will lose face.” For me this not a question of pride, it’s a question of principle. In the first place, if a person has to save his face by depriving somebody else of his fundamental rights, then that’s not a face that’s worth saving.

But these accusations, if they were indeed baseless, can be easily refuted by producing the facts.  For instance, the charge sheets shown to Dr Lim must certainly be a matter of record. Similarly, his periods of solitary confinement in prison must also be part of prison records.  If they were not true, a simple exposition of such records would clarify the matter.  The fact that the government does not produce these records but instead resorts to a ban enhances Dr Lim’s credibility and destroys the government’s.

I would also like to point out that Dr Lim has put to question the integrity of Singapore’s justice system, and has accused it of being a mockery.  Is this not “criminal defamation” or at the very least contempt of court?  Should he not be charged and brought to trial?  Mr Alan Shadrake was unceremoniously put in jail for criticising the death penalty.  Should not the same treatment be given to Dr Lim?  Or is what he says true?

But it IS religion

I was discussing this matter over dinner with a few friends, some of whom were unaware of the ban, some of whom did not know who Dr Lim Hock Siew was.  To be fair, until this broke out, I was also not aware of the role Dr Lim played in the formation of Singapore, since I am from the post-65 generation.  I was, however, moved by his story: his strength and commitment to principle; his refusal to be intimidated and to bend under overwhelming pressure; and his dedication to his fellows through difficult times.

So, in my usual Singaporean way, I ranted, “But why should they ban it? It isn’t about sexual behaviour or pornography.  It isn’t about religion.  It isn’t about race.  It’s about government policy!”

To which, I received a sharp retort, “But you see, in Singapore, it IS religion.”


Headline picture from Straits Times.