By Teo Soh Lung
IT MUST HAVE been in the early 1970s that I first heard of the name “Said Zahari”. A friend had brought several copies of a little poetry book called Poems from Prison to a gathering. I bought a copy and took another copy to sell to a Catholic priest. I was surprised at his reaction. He looked startled and didn’t buy the book. I didn’t know then that the little anthology was classified by the Singapore government as an “undesirable publication”. And I didn’t know that Said Zahari was a political prisoner who had then been detained without trial for many years.
At that time, I was ignorant of the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allowed indefinite detention without trial. On hindsight, I think the priest must have known who Said Zahari was. I am not sure, however, if he knew anything more than the fact that Said Zahari was in prison. I think the fact that he was in prison was sufficient to terrify a religious person.
I was moved by Said Zahari’s poems. “Born Unfree” in particular remained vivid in my mind. Said Zahari’s anxiety for the birth of his child shortly after he was imprisoned was beautifully expressed:
Not that I was not hungry
I refused the food;
Nor that I was not sleepy
I kept awake. …
It ended with:
My child, just born
Into a world yet unfree.
Until then, I had never read any prison poem. Said Zahari’s poems gave me much food for thought. In later years, I realised that the ISA and its predecessors, the Emergency Regulations and the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, have been in existence since 1948. Thousands of innocent people have either been imprisoned without trial or banished under the law. They have been unjustly labelled as “communists, pro communists, Euro communists or Marxists” by the PAP government. These labels stick and deeply affect the lives of those imprisoned as well as their families. What they went through were never discussed even among friends. The general public, on the other hand, know very little of the sufferings endured by these prisoners and their families.
Said Zahari was quickly forgotten when I became too busy with work. Life, however, is often filled with surprises and coincidences.
Hari Raya brought me into contact with Said Zahari again in the early 1980s. I cannot remember whether I was brought to his house at Changi Road for lunch or I had invited myself there. I was then a young lawyer running a rather unconventional law office in Geylang with two other women lawyers. It was from that Hari Raya celebration that my law firm came to know Said Zahari and his wife Salamah. Subsequently, Said Zahari told us that Salamah baked delicious cookies for sale. And so it became a practice for our firm to buy cookies from Salamah for festive occasions like Chinese New Year and take orders for cookies from our friends.
During all those years that I was in touch with Said Zahari, I never once asked him about his prison experience. Neither can I recall Said Zahari telling us about his 17 years’ ordeal in prison or even mentioning Operation Coldstore where he and over a hundred opposition leaders were arrested.
Somehow, there was an absence of curiosity on my part to ask and a reluctance on his part to tell what he went through. This reluctance to talk of prison experiences is common among former ISA prisoners. And so it was with complete ignorance of what life would be like in prison that I was suddenly arrested and imprisoned under the ISA in 1987. It was a shock and awe experience for me and I believe for all my friends too!
In 1994, To Catch a Tartar, A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison, the first book about imprisonment under the ISA in Singapore was published in the United States by Francis T Seow. He was my counsel and was arrested when he came to visit me in prison in 1988.
Seven years later, Said Zahari published Dark Clouds at Dawn, A Political Memoir. It was launched in Kuala Lumpur. Several of my friends and I drove to Kuala Lumpur to attend the launch. The book was not launched in Singapore because of the unwelcome political climate. But for many years, the book was sold by Said Zahari’s friends. This book is today widely available and publicly displayed in bookshops. In 2007, Said Zahari published The Long Nightmare, My 17 Years as a Political Prisoner. This book is also available in Singapore.
Dark Clouds at Dawn gives valuable insights into the life of a political prisoner. Said Zahari was arrested when his wife was only 27 and his children were aged three, five and six. Another daughter was born three months after he was incarcerated.
We cannot imagine the hardship experienced by Said Zahari in having to leave his young family to fend for themselves for 17 long years. He was the sole breadwinner before his arrest. The constant thought that he had neglected his wife and children for 17 long years because he wanted to uphold his principles must have been torturous. We also cannot imagine how his wife and children suffered when they went through those 17 years, selling food to earn a living. No matter how much help friends gave to the family, it would never be sufficient.
I will always remember Said Zahari’s cheerful disposition, his warm smile and gentle words. He has never uttered an unkind word about anyone. There is no hint of anger in his books. His harshest description for Lee Kuan Yew who was his friend before his arrest and who ordered his continuous detention was “he was a vindictive man”. Similarly, he did not blame his former boss, President Yusof bin Ishak for signing and renewing his detention order every two years though he must have known that Said Zahari was innocent of the allegations made against him.
In 2015 when I visited Said Zahari to celebrate his 87th birthday in Kuala Selangor, I was very happy to see that he was his usual cheerful self. Though illness had resulted in his inability to walk and live independently for many years, he accepted his condition without bitterness. He was always happy to have visitors. On that occasion, he was treated to music by a band of young musicians, The BangsArt, and surrounded by his children, grandchildren and many friends both young and old. I could see that he was really happy when I went to greet him. Smiling, he said to me, “I don’t know these young people, but they know me.” I assured him that it was perfectly fine that they knew him, and that was all that is important.
I’d like to remember Said Zahari as he celebrated his 87th birthday. He was so happy to be with his family and his many young and old friends and fans who laughed and sang for him. A man much loved by his children, grandchildren, and all his friends.
There is a memorial ceremony held on 4 June 2016 at the Holiday Inn, Singapore Atrium for Pak Said Zahari who passed away on 12 April 2016.