by Teo Soh Lung
When I was released from prison in 1990, I was subjected to restrictions, one of which was that I could not travel abroad without the blessings of the ISD director. However my conduct in prison was so exemplary that I was assured by the ISD that he would not impede my departure. And so immediately upon my release, I applied to take a holiday in Australia.
I was asked to show proof of my intent. So I purchased an air ticket and obtained a visa. Despite doing all that, my application to leave Singapore was rejected.
The government may have regretted their decision to reject my application today. I say regret because I decided then to write my prison memoir. I didn’t work for about a year, much to the anxiety of the ISD. It must have wondered why I made no attempt to secure a job. As a consequence, I was invited for lunches and offered various jobs, ranging from civil service to semi-government companies and even a law firm. I rejected all offers as I couldn’t see myself being controlled in any way. Looking for a job was the least of my concern because I had decided, even when I was in prison, that I would return to private legal practice. The government had destroyed my law firm but I would prove to them that I can survive on my own without their assistance.
It took about a year to complete my prison memoir. I kept it away for I knew that to publish it then would be committing suicide. Twenty years after, I took it out, retyped it and published Beyond the Blue Gate, Recollections of a political prisoner.
The restrictions imposed on me did not lapse at its expiry of two years. Just before its expiry, my case officer telephoned me at my office. He told me to go to Phoenix Park, the ISD headquarters to receive an extension of the restriction order. I replied that he could fax it to me and I would acknowledge receipt. In the end, he came to my office and served the fresh order on me. I think I invited him to coffee at MacDonald and gave him a piece of my mind.
After the expiry of the extended restriction order, I was free. That year, I decided to get out of Singapore on national day. I could not bear to see the parades of military might and cultural shows. As a school kid, I had participated in those shows, taking months to prepare a gymnastic performance. As a young working adult with an interest in photography, I had spent my time at the stadium and padang in the hot sun, watching fighter aircrafts and parades. Why then did I decide to cross the causeway to Johor’s Pelangi shopping mall on the first national day that I was free to travel and many more national days?
My reason is this. I cannot accept the artificial display of patriotism. Who is a loyal Singaporean is not one who stands at the grandstand watching the extravagant display of military aircrafts, performances and fireworks. Patriotism runs deeper than the million dollar display of military might. Patriotism is also not the display of the national flag all over the island, with some using it as a piece of decorative cloth or worse, disrespecting it by hanging underwears or floor rugs over it.
Patriotism is love for one’s country. It does not mean agreeing to every government policy no matter how unjustified it may be. Patriotism is loyalty to one’s country, not the leaders of the country. If the leaders carry out unlawful acts or bad policies, one has a duty to speak up for the good of the country.
For many decades, the fanatical displays on national day put me off. I could not accept the fact that people like me who simply spoke up against some unjust laws and policies would end up in jail. Thousands before me have also been imprisoned not because they were anti-Singapore but because of their genuine love for their country. They were the most patriotic of citizens. They could have contributed hugely to the country than most of our million dollar ministers today.
Here is a poem by late Said Zahari, composed soon after he was arrested in 1963 and imprisoned without trial for 17 years.
“Anti-National”, they said
Lo, here is the proof.
Is this truly so?
To destroy the colonialists
To oppose to the end the imperialists
To eliminate oppression
To liquidate injustice
this be “Anti-National”
Yes, I am Anti-National
To entomb the system of discrimination
All injustice, all servitude
And bury feudalism
this be “Anti-National”
Yes, once again my declaration is “yes” and it’s true
I am Anti-National!
(From Our Thoughts Are Free, Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile edited by Tan Jing Quee, Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew)