The first in a series of intimate interviews with people who have made an impact in Singapore's socio-political scene, The Online Citizen meets up with Seelan Palay to talk about his time in jail, his family and Dr Chee Soon Juan.
by Joshua Chiang
You went to jail recently because of your participation in the Tak Boleh Tahan demonstration outside Parliament House. Can you tell us more about the events leading up to the imprisonment?
It (the demonstration) was about the rising cost of living, high salaries of the ministers, income inequality. I was arrested that day, and the trial went on for close to one-and-a-half years. On the day it ended, I had an option to go to prison or pay a fine. I didn’t want to pay the fine - it was around $1800 - and so I decided to go to prison for 12 days.
It’s my first time going to prison; although I’ve been arrested and put in lock up sometimes on the day itself, they released me. I’ve not been in prison before.
Tell us more about your imprisonment.
On the first day, what I have to do is to go surrender myself at the court and say that I want to serve the sentence. So the judge asked me if I was going to appeal at the higher court. I said, “I’m not going to. It’s no use. I already know the result.” Before that he was smiling, and after I said that he was kind of frowning.
After that I was handcuffed and taken to the basement of the subordinate courts where there’re a lot of holding cells. Then I was brought in a van to the prison. After I was brought there (to Changi Prison), they made me strip; they did a strip search. And after they did the searching they gave me this blue shorts and white t-shirt; I went for some ID marking and everything, then they brought me to my cell.
What’s the cell like?
It was quiet bare. They give you this straw mat, you know the kind that you bring to the beach, but it’s pretty worn out, so you might as well sleep on a piece of paper. I'd imagine that it would be pretty bad for your back, especially if you're going to be in there long-term. They also give you two blankets and you can choose to roll up one into a pillow and use the other to cover yourself. That’s what I did.
The cell is basically like a very long rectangle. There’s a big blue door, you can open a latch and look in. There are no bars. The cell can fit three people. And at the back of the cell there’s a short wall, and there’s a latrine; a toilet on the floor. And right in front of the toilet there’s a shower. So if you want to shower, you've got to spread your legs in front of the latrine and press a button for the shower. The water from the shower basically goes into the latrine. And that’s also where you brush your teeth, so you'd better not drop your toothpaste or your soap into the toilet bowl because you are expected to dig it out and re-use it.
So you shared the cell with two other people?
Yes, one was a Singaporean. The other one was a Nepali.
The case of the Nepali was really sad to hear, because he’s 30-something years old, he’s never been out of Nepal his whole life, and this is the first time he came out. He worked for this boss who’s also a PR (Permanent Resident) in Singapore, and he worked in a restaurant. According to him, the boss gave him a place to stay but didn’t pay him for five months, and he kept asking for his pay but the boss didn’t give him any. Finally he got angry; he pushed the boss, the boss pushed back and they started fighting. After that the case went to court. This guy, I believe he was sentenced to six or eight months in prison.
I asked him, “What are you going to do after your release?” He said, ”I’m just going to go back to Nepal, I don’t want to travel again.” And I asked him what happened to the boss? Did he get charged? He said that he doesn’t think so. So did he have a lawyer? He said, “No.”
Do you get to leave your cell?
There’s supposed to be yard time, when you go out for a while to this big basketball court. But when I'm brought to the yard, there seems to be no one there. Maybe they bring me to the yard after everybody had left.
Sounds like you’ve been given special status.
(laughs) I don’t know. That’s what happened.
How did you pass your time during those 12 days?
I think the first three days I kept asking for my books. Because previously some friends of mine went in for one-week sentences, and for the whole week, they didn't get the books, so I feared that (the same thing would happen to me.) I really love reading you see. I really didn’t have any appetite when I didn't have my books with me, I didn’t eat well.
After three days they handed me my books. I bought in three books – ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, another book called ‘The Mute's Soliloquy' by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, an Indonesian writer, and I also brought in Alan Shadrake’s ‘Once a Jolly Hangman’. They didn’t give me ‘Once a Jolly Hangman’. And I asked them – why? The warden smiled and said something like, “Questionable content.” That was pretty funny.
Did you get it back after you were released?
Yes, I got it back upon my release. The sad thing is, I read very fast. I needed three books. But I read too fast so I finished the two books I had quite quickly.
Were you allowed pen and paper?
I was allowed pen and paper because I had a trial in the following week. So for some of the days I would come out for trial. That was quite testing because they put you in these orange overalls and they handcuff you at the back, they cuff your ankles, and then they had a chain connecting your handcuffs and your ankle cuffs, so you had to bend like this (stoops with hands behind him).
The first time they did that to me, I looked at the guards and said, “What is this the slave trade or what?” And I looked at the other prisoners around me and said, "You don’t have to treat people like this, even if they’ve committed crimes." The first day I was brought (to court), and so many people were struggling to walk – an old man too was very obviously walking in great pain…
Apparently it’s a security concern because some of the prisoners had escaped when they arrived at the subordinate courts, but there’s surely better ways to do this. And it’s excruciatingly painful. I told the judge about it too. Because the metal cuffs scratch and ‘clang’ against your ankles so it hurts with every single step you take.
Did the 12 days feel long?
Some days. Especially when I didn’t have my books. I don’t regret going into prison. I did what I did, and the Government wanted to react in this manner. If they want to be unreasonable that’s for people to judge right? But what I did miss was sunshine. I like the feeling of sunshine on the skin. In my cell, there’s a window. But the window is so high up, you can see the sunlight coming in at the ceiling, but it doesn’t come down into the cell.
It’s not like in those movies…
Yah. Quite funny right? But it’s true.
One time I had nothing to, I actually went to the toilet area – the window is above the toilet area – and I tried to climb up the ledge and jump up so I could catch the sunshine but I couldn’t reach it. So those days when they bring me to court, there’s one moment at the loading bay where the sun would shine in, and when they bring me in (from the van) I would always turn (and face the sun) as I walked in. So for seven seconds I would just absorb the sunshine and then I would go back in to the blasting air-con.
How did you get in touch with your families and loved ones?
I couldn’t. They were supposed to visit, but on the day it happened, I had to get to court. So I didn’t get to see them until I was released.
My sister did come to court, on one of the days. She saw me, but we couldn’t speak. So at first when she saw me in the orange overalls and shackles, she was kind of shocked and kind of smiling, like amused. But once the break time came, and they to had to drag me and I was walking like that, dragging the chains. I turned around and she was totally… her face totally changed. It was all red and she was crying. And then everybody was comforting her, and she was like , “Why did they treat him like that? He’s not a murderer.” Chee Siok Chin (sister of SDP leader Dr Chee Soon Juan) was there and she tried to console her.
What are your parents’ views on your involvement in activism?
I think the first time I got into trouble was during the 2006 IMF World Bank summit in Singapore. I was planning to distribute some fact-sheets about the impact of IMF policies on Third World countries. And when I wanted to do that, the police intercepted me as I was traveling to work on some artwork; they escorted me into a police car and drove me to my block. They went into my room, searched my room and took my computer. My mother was there but she wasn't allowed to speak to me so she just stood there crying. And so after that I was brought to the station, my mother was still crying, but my father sort of told her, “Well he knows the consequences, and he goes into it, so it’s ok, we shouldn’t worry. He’s not scared. If he’s scared then I’ll start worrying.”
And from that day, slowly as time went on, my mom got more composed. So nowadays sometimes if there’s a demonstration, I just tell her, “You know there’s going to be a demonstration, I might get arrested and come back tomorrow.” And she'd say, “Okay, take care.”
But these 12 days in jail was the longest time you were away. What did they feel about it?
My mother says the house feels a bit empty ‘cos she can’t hear my voice. And, my dad is ok. I think my dad is confident of me… so he kind of supports what I do. And he thinks that, “Well, you are not committing a crime. You are only speaking up for people, speaking up for human rights, and justice. What’s wrong with that?”
Do you have a lot of such (political) discussions with your family?
Well my mum doesn’t have so many views on politics, but she does know about how families struggle to survive in Singapore. My father… he was initially quite surprised when I first got involved. Two years ago, when he met Dr Chee (Soon Juan), he told Dr Chee, “I’m so surprised my son got involved. Because my whole life I’ve been voting opposition and I never tell him. And I never talk to him about politics and suddenly he got into it by himself.” So my father thinks it’s kind of fated or something.
The anti-death penalty campaign was your virgin campaign?
Yes, But before that I did a little bit of campaigning with ACRES, a local animal rights group, and also the Vegetarian Society of Singapore. But those were kind of like, giving out flyers at roadshows and other indoor events…
Ya, you can say ‘permissible’ by their (the Government’s) standard.
At anytime during your campaignings, do you actually feel afraid?
In the beginning, in 2006 when I first got arrested, of course I was afraid. I thought they were going to throw me into ISA detention or something, because I really didn't know what to expect. I didn’t have anybody to turn to. I have a friend, Rizal, an activist. He was calling a lot of people in Singapore from different fields, NGOs, activists, artists… none of them knew what to do. The only people who came down to speak up for me were Chee Siok Chin and some other people from SDP. She actually came down to Cantonment and she wanted to know if I was arrested, and they (the police) said, “No he’s not officially under arrest, he’s under investigation.” And she said, “If that’s the case we want to see him and we ask that you release him now.” And soon after that the questions to me changed. They asked, “Do you know Chee Siok Chin, do you know Dr Chee Soon Juan?” And I said, “They’re my friends.” And then they said, “Ok ok, you can go first.” Then suddenly I was out of there. Ms Chee drove me back home, and she (Chee) spoke to my mum for a while to console her…
At that time I was afraid to be put away for a very long time. Not because of my personal freedom being taken away but more because I still have to take of my parents. That’s the main reason. But by this time, knowing Dr Chee and other people in SDP who have gone to prison – and I’ve gone to see them go in, and see them come out, and they’re still sturdy. And it helps me stay confident as well.
You still have outstanding charges?
I have outstanding investigations. I think I still have ten open investigations. And I can be charged in court for any one of them at any time.
So you’re hanging on to your blue shorts and white shirt for the time being.
(laughs) Well it depends on what the Government wants. I don’t know why they haven’t acted on some of the things, like the two-man protest I did for the Burmese outside MOM (Ministry of Manpower building at Havelock Road). They arrested us for criminal trespass, and they put us in lock up, and then they released us and nothing happened after that. So I don’t know. It’s very weird. The only cases I've ever went on trial for were two Tak Boleh Tahan events.
End of Part One - you can read Part Two here