Detention without trial: Going beyond Coldstore?

Detention without trial: Going beyond Coldstore?

By Dr. Poh Soo Kai

Logically, this piece should be entitled, Singapore’s “Battle for Merger” revisited: Part III, but for the fact that Mr Gafoor, the Singapore High Commissioner to Australia, has deviated from the original grounds of the debate centred around merger and Operation Coldstore, and retreated to the half-century-old People’s Action Party (PAP) practice of making allegations to lock up opponents without having to prove them in any court of law!

Singapore’s ‘Battle for Merger’ revisited, 2014: The poverty of its history debunks Lee Kuan Yew’s radio talks that the mass arrest of February 2, 1963 were on grounds of security with the full weight of the declassified material now available in the British archives.

I have rebutted the High Commissioner’s first response of 18 December 2014. With reference to his second response of 22 January 2015, it would be flogging a dead horse no less for me to reply to his attempt at a ‘holistic’ reading of the archives. Quite clearly he is happy to display his understanding of how he uses historical documents and makes sense (or non-sense) of them.

The High Commissioner would do well to monitor debates in Singapore. Neutral third parties have emerged, with no stakes in the 1963 events except for the truth. Recent articles carried in “The Online Citizen” and “TR Emeritus” continuing series (now 7 parts) have effectively demolished each and every piece of his so-called documentary evidence by simply going through the sources he cited, and showing what they actually said.

Conspicuous silence of the HC

However, the High Commissioner is conspicuously silent on his boss’ very own admission of the political nature of Operation Coldstore. Or would he be so bold as to say that the letter in question by Lee Kuan Yew to Lord Selkirk was a pure British fabrication: in other words, to call the British, blatant liars?

Let me reproduce the relevant portion of my previous text as reminder.

‘Here I would say to Lee’s propagandists that they would do well to have a holistic reading of his works. Lee Kuan Yew had said, in no uncertain terms, that he agreed to Operation Coldstore to clinch merger – which is a political matter and NOT a security concern. In a letter dated 12 February 1963 to Lord Selkirk, Lee said:

It was because of your Government’s firm assurance given by your Deputy endorsing the view of your High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur that if the arrests were not agreed to, then merger and Malaysia would fail that made us agree….

It was because of this appraisal of the Federation position by your Government and the assurance that you would dissuade them from departing from the publicly agreed terms that we agreed to the decision of the I.S.C. [The I.S.C. decision referenced is the mass arrests of Operation Coldstore.]’

Shifting gear from 1963 to 1974-76

Given that the security pretext for the 1963 arrests of Operation Coldstore is now in complete shambles – in no small part, thanks to the assiduous efforts of the Singapore public in following the issues closely and pouring over the historical material, the High Commissioner shifts gears; he abandons 1963 and leaps into the period 1974-76 focusing on unproven allegations against me for my second arrest in 1976: in other words, resurrecting PAP’s well-worn tactic of the communist bogey.

I was arrested in 2 February 1963 under Operation Coldstore and released unconditionally in late 1973 after 11 years of imprisonment without trial. Immediately, I called a press conference to demand the release of all political prisoners in Singapore. At that press conference, I called Lee Kuan Yew a ‘political pimp’. All this is on record. Ilsa Sharp of the Far Eastern Economic Review who interviewed me then, wondered how long the PAP government would tolerate my challenge to its stifling hegemonic rule over all aspects of political life in Singapore. (FEER December 1973.)

Then I threw myself headlong into setting up a civil rights committee, an NGO, to fight for human rights and civil liberties in Singapore. The pro-tem committee consisted of G Raman, Michael Fernandez, Ong Bok Chuan and I. It was agreed at our first meeting to enlarge the committee by inviting Father Ho, Dr Gwee Ah Leng and Dr Un Hon Hing. However, before we could conduct any activities, I was rearrested. Shortly thereafter, G Raman, Michael Fernandez and Ong Bok Chuan were also arrested.

The formation of the civil rights committee coincided with the effort of the Socialist International (SI) to demand accountability from the PAP government for its horrendous record of keeping political prisoners without trial for over a decade. (Singapore now has the notorious reputation of keeping Chia Thye Poh longer than Nelson Mandela was kept by the apartheid government of South Africa!) I met the SI delegations from UK and Sweden, and provided them with information on political prisoners and detention without trial in Singapore. I sent a tape recorded speech with the same message to our students in UK. Would any responsible Singaporean who supports human rights and democracy, have done less? Devan Nair was sent by the PAP government to the SI conference to defend Singapore. In Brussels, he labelled me a ‘communist’ which was carried in the papers in Singapore. It was the writing on the wall for my second arrest that came in mid-1976, even before Devan returned from Brussels.

However, the PAP government could not cite the above reasons for my re-arrest in 1976 and so the pretext must be sought in sensations like the Katong bomber and the fabricated Masai midnight trip. Interestingly, these events occurred (with one allegedly) two years before my re-arrest in 1974.

I think it would be more honest for Mr Gafoor to produce the 1976 charge sheet and the Government’s statement of facts (still to be proven legally) against me, and any subsequent amendments to it, for full public scrutiny instead of referring to the allegations in convoluted drips and drabs. It is never too late for the Singapore government to try me in an open court instead of hiding behind the Internal Security Act (ISA). In fact, Singapore is morally obligated to as a member of the United Nations that subscribes to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. Article 9 (4) of said covenant states:

Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.

To repeat, with respect to the Katong bomber, I have challenged the High Commissioner to open up the files. All he had produced do far is bare assertion; he has yet to proffer evidence that I was a pro-communist with proof that the Katong bomber was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya. As I have pointed out in my previous text, I have reasons to believe that the outfit to which the bomber belonged is a fake radical group called the Singapore Revolutionary Party. Just as Lai Tek was a known British agent infiltrated into the highest level of the CPM, so could bogus revolutionary groups be set up by the Special Branch or similar intelligence organisations like the CIA and MI6 in this devious game of spy and counterspy with unwitting and innocent youth duped into executing extreme violence.

Mr Gafoor alleged that I had ‘provided medical aid to the injured bomber through an ex-detainee’ and ‘supplied medicine through an ex-detainee to the 6th Assault Unit … between 1974 and 1976’.

Mr Gafoor framed the issue not as ‘treating’ but providing medical aid and medical supply. It is evident that the High Commissioner does not appreciate that the crux of this issue lies in medical ethics, – unlike his boss, Lee Kuan Yew, who had, at that time, called the bluff in the docile press that he would have me judged by my peers in the Singapore Medical Council and struck off the rolls. If indeed, I had contravened medical ethics, it is strange that to date, I have not heard from the august body and had, in fact, continued my medical practice in 1982 upon my second release.

Rule of Law

Mr Gafoor said that my statement that I have not treated any bomber — communist or otherwise — is a bare assertion. Let me remind Mr Gafoor that under the rule of law, an accused is not obliged to bring proof of his/her innocence. The onus is upon the accuser to bring proof beyond reasonable doubt in any criminal matter. Mr Gafoor’s very comportment belies that Singapore subscribes to the rule of law.

Furthermore, Mr Gafoor has also nothing to be very proud of in producing evidence of my ‘crimes of subversion’ extracted under torture from two ex-detainees. Under the Rules of Evidence, these are inadmissible evidence. No self-respecting courts would rely on such unsafe evidence. It is ironical that these admonitions on what is the rule of law should come from me, a medical doctor, and not a lawyer!

As to the allegation of ‘providing medical aid’ to the bomber via an ex-detainee, XX was suddenly and dramatically thrown into my interrogation room after being severely beaten up by the Special Branch. DSP Szeto and some 8 toughies were in the process of interrogating me. It was a disgusting scene with an injured person on the floor. I calmly told XX not to be afraid and just tell the truth. DSP Szeto was surprised and somewhat disappointed with my reaction. Later, the Special Branch produced his case notes, confiscated from the clinic and showed them to me. His diagnosis and treatment was written in the case notes. As a medical doctor, I had treated him for his sore throat.

As to the allegation of supplying medicine to the assault unit from 1974-76, I had known Ms YY as a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner who had occasionally obtained free medical samples from me. It is not unethical nor a crime for a doctor to give out medicine. Her patients were known to her and not to me. Ms YY was forced to witness her husband being severely beaten in Whitley prison. There is no doubt in my mind as to why she signed that statement; I sympathised with her plight. The corroboration mentioned of the other ex-detainee was that of her husband, who was brutally assaulted.

A civilized nation should not resort to such barbaric practices. Unfortunately, Singapore is still in the dark period of the McCarthy era, where thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies, such that the term ‘McCarthyism’ is now associated with the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism. (Quoting freely from Wikipedia’s definition of McCarthyism.)

No human being should be subject to detention without trial. Much less any Singapore citizen in this post World War II era that witnessed the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, of which Singapore is a member state. We should always be mindful to afford any accused, the rule of law, lest we forget these great words of the eminent jurist, Robert H Jackson at the Nuremberg trial:

We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.

In my alternative vision of Singapore, Mr Gafoor sees Soviet Union!

Last but not least, in response to my vision of an alternative Singapore under the Barisan Sosialis if it could have come to power in 1963 via a fair and clean election instead of being crippled by the arrests of its entire moderate leadership under Operation Coldstore, Mr Gafoor resorted to scare mongering by associating the Barisan Sosialis with the Soviet Union! In all seriousness he asserted:

Hundreds of millions of people suffered misery and deprivation under the yoke of communist regimes, resulting in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in 1989. Yet Dr Poh asserts in all seriousness that Singapore would have enjoyed a glowing future if the communist-backed Barisan had gained power.

What is there that Mr Gafoor finds objectionable or akin to the Soviet Union, in my vision of an alternative Singapore under the Barisan Sosialis that I have laid out, where:

  • There would be freedom of speech and assembly; the ISA would be abolished; and I would add, defamation and bankruptcy suits against political opponents would be outlawed through legislation;
  • There would be social justice and economic dignity for the sick and disabled, the old and retired and other vulnerable groups, and I would add, guaranteed via their CPF and other governmental agencies;
  • There would not have been the wave after wave of arbitrary arrests and imprisonment without trial that we have witnessed under the PAP to instill fear in the population and keep itself in power. The ridiculous arrests of Church and other social activists as alleged Marxists would not have happened;
  • There would certainly be no astronomical salary for ministers; no polarisation of wealth in society; ministers would have to declare their assets on taking office and be prohibited to have personal holding companies, exposed to the lure of investing in tandem with the Government Investment Corporations (GICs);
  • Definitely, OCCUPY Raffles Square would not be deemed an illegal assembly!!
  • We would have promoted a robust 2-party system for checks and balances in the parliament and I would add, we would introduce a proportional representative system and outlaw gerrymandering.

Let me end by saying I have every confidence that the aspiration for decency and humanity in ordinary Singaporeans will prevail and we will build a society based on solidarity and respect for human rights and democracy. It has been too long overdue!

This article was first published at New Mandala

Dr Poh Soo Kai was Assistant Secretary-General of Barisan Sosialis. He was imprisoned twice under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) — which allows for detention without trial — for a total of 17 years by Singapore’s PAP government.

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