What was it like ‘inside’? – Former ISA detainee Tan Jing Quee (1939-2011)

Former ISA detainee  Tan Jing Quee passed away from cancer on 14 June 2011.

Mr Tan was arrested in 1963 under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for alleged pro-communist activities, and released in 1966. He was arrested again and detained for about three months in February 1977 under the ISA for allegedly joining a group to revive pro-communist activities here. Mr Tan always maintained he was not involved in Communist United Front activities.

He was most recently a contributor and editor of The May 13 Generation, a book of essays on the Chinese middle school student movement in the 1950s.

The following is a poem by Mr Tan about his time in detention.


What was it like ‘inside’?

A difficult question

Could you, would you really listen

Without sneer, to the end


How should  I begin?

Should  I  start from the traumas of the raid

How liberty was so capriciously enchained

Without a warrant, without warning

On the dark hours

When even dogs slept undisturbed.


You were hauled into a world ran amok:

The mug shots, ‘turn out your pockets’

the thumb and fingers impressions

(Whatever for, I commit no crime!).

No one bothered,

The guard shoved you on,

Along the corridor of despair;

That first heavy thud of the iron door

Sealing you  incommunicado from the world —

The wind, sun, moon, and the stars

And all that was human and dear


Should I recall the dark cell

At Central Police Station[1]

A purgatory of perpetual night

The stone slab for the bed

Sullied, soiled mattress, no sheets

The pillow of tears and stains, no cover

Blood smeared walls, cries of  past agonies

The rude, cruel hourly rip-rap of the shutters

“To check your health”,

So it was explained.


Should I narrate

The daily bath at the tap

The squat pan, dank and putrid

Meant to dehumanize, humiliate


Should we be thankful

For the daily ditch water

Which passed for tea

The stony crumbs for bread

The rice so callously tossed with dust

Should we be grateful

For the censored books and news,

To decontaminate our minds;

Should we be grateful too

For the unbearable heat

The lonely insomnia of the day and night,

Migraine and  diarrhoeic fever

And panadol as panacea?


How could I ever forget  those Neanderthals

Who roamed Whitley Holding Centre, [2]

Under cover of darkness,

Poured buckets of ice water

Over my stripped, shivering nakedness,

Slugged my struggling, painful agony

Circling , sneering, snarling

Over my freezing nudity,

More animals  than men:

What induced this

Vengeful venom, violent score

To settle,  not for a private grievance

But a public, democratic dissidence;

From whence sprang this barbarity?

What made men turn into beasts

In the dark, away from prying eyes,

Protected by a code of dishonour and lies

To ensure they survive and rise.


For sure, there were gentler souls

Who tried to be decent, no more:

The smiling  guard who lightened the hours

With a chance remark, a joke

The barber  who brought his scissors, cigarettes and news

The interrogator who handed a bible

Told him the elegant  prose

Contrasted strangely with my current state,

How distant those beautiful thoughts were

From the violence to our liberty.


What then is the truth ?

A generation trapped in lies

Who rushed to defend, to justify

Never to listen, see or speak out.

Only when we open our hearts

Confront this barbarism

Can we  truly exorcise our fears,

Finally emerge as a free people,

A liberated society.

[1] Formerly at South Bridge Road, now demolished, which had several cells frequently used  for interrogation of police prisoners, from a month to a  year, before they were dispatched to normal prison conditions at Changi Prison.

[2] A relatively new detention center built in the 1970s  located  off  Whitley Road, used to hold political prisoners for short and medium term, mainly for interrogation .

The poem is published in Our Thoughts Are Free:  Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile, edited by Tan Jing Quee  Teo Soh Lung  Koh Kay Yew  Ethos Books  Singapore



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