A giant in our political struggle for independence

by Dr Poh Soo Kai

SAID ZAHARI was my comrade in Changi in our long years of imprisonment without trial when we were both arrested under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance on 2 February 1963. The reason for our arrest, code-named Operation Coldstore, was because the British wanted to preserve the efficiency of the military base in Singapore. The base was essential to British imperialist policy of interfering in the internal affairs of countries in this region, for example, Indonesia and China. Said was in prison until November 1978 when he was transferred to Pulau Ubin, and finally released on 22 August 1979.

Before he became well-known as one of Singapore’s longest-serving political prisoners, Said had already gained fame as the editor of Utusan Melayu who stood up against the attempt of the UMNO-led Tunku Abdul Rahman government to end the editorial independence of the respected paper.

It was in the same spirit of refusing to be intimidated by political authorities and refusing to tell untruths to the public even when it was his career or freedom that was at stake that sustained him through the most difficult stretch of his life.

Said steadfastly refused to sign any security statements, the only way that a political prisoner could gain release.

As a journalist Said was head and shoulders above his peers at Utusan Melayu. He had not only a superb memory that allowed him to recall matters clearly; he also had an acutely analytical mind and a grasp of the big picture. He could type out a news story in no time, working with sketchy notes.

However, what would have been his biggest scoop did not make it to the newspapers.

Said covered the Baling talks of December 1955 between the Chief Minister of the Federation Tunku Abdul Rahman; the head of the MCA Tan Cheng Lock; and Singapore’s Chief Minister David Marshall, and leaders of the Communist Party of Malaya for an end to the jungle war. The talks failed despite much hope and anticipation generated that the Emergency would be over.

Said had the sharpness of mind to ask the Tunku at Baling if he was disappointed with the outcome. The expansive Tunku replied as he was wont to: that he had intended the Talks to fail.
This would have been headline news, but Said was told by the UMNO leaders that he would not be allowed to report it.

The Baling Talks was a public relations exercise to let the people of Malaya think that the Tunku had tried his best to end the Emergency, while at the same time convince the British that they could trust that he was anti-communist.

I was introduced to Said by Utusan’s then assistant editor Samad Ismail. Said was posted to Kuala Lumpur in 1954, and on one occasion I called upon him at his home in Petaling Jaya with Chin Siong and Rajakumar.

This superficial acquaintance became a bond of close friendship and respect, when he came to Singapore to collect funds for the Utusan strike. He would drive down with Rajakumar before he was banned from entry to Malaya. Their discussions, it turned out, were taped by magnetic devices attached to his Peugeot car. He found out only during interrogation when he was in prison. However, there was nothing incriminating in the tapes.

Said told me of an episode where the PAP tried to win him over. It took place during the Utusan Melayu strike of 21 July to 21 October 1961 against the loss of editorial control by the paper of which Said was then the editor, and which was supported by the non-editorial staff of the paper as well.

The PAP had expelled its left wing following its loss of Anson in the by-election on 15 July.

Devan Nair, who led the PAP-backed unions telephoned Said to offer his support. But Said was staunch. He replied that he would welcome Devan’s show of support by his coming to the picket lines at the Singapore office of Utusan, where Said was. Needless to say, Devan was no supporter of the independence of the press, and did not turn up.

That Said was a well-respected figure whom the PAP treated seriously as a potential threat to its Malay ground was clear.

Said was arrested a few hours after he was elected as President of Partai Rakyat Singapura, and would doubtlessly have stood in the 1963 election, which in the event was called seven months after we were arrested in Operation Coldstore.

Our understanding and appreciation of each other grew when he was transferred to Moon Crescent Camp. We were determined not to be brow beaten nor compromised. We were living together for almost four years, before we were separated.

Towards the end of 1973, I found myself with Said again, this time in a room on the top floor of Special Branch headquarters at Robinson Road, which was a holding centre for political prisoners who were soon to be released. We were both informed that we would be released. We were there for three months. In fact, the Deputy Director of ISD “Shanghai Wang”, which was what we called Wang Hsu Chi, had told Said that on his release, he should not try to be politically active among the Malay groups, as the PAP already had all of them covered.

However, Said was not let out, whereas I was, on 13 December 1973. It was a very foul blow to him. Shanghai Wang told Said that this was because he had smuggled out his poems, which were published. Said’s poems were really no secret by then, and Special Branch would certainly have been aware that they were being published when they brought Said to Robinson Road.

To me, it is more likely that Lee Kuan Yew changed his mind about releasing Said when he realised how much of a following Said had. Said had told his wife that he was going to be released, and she had informed his friends. Usman Awang, Syed Husin Ali and another Malay person who later became a PAP member of parliament got together to prepare a welcome party to greet him.

Said definitely had a following, and was capable of expanding it. This political threat to the PAP is the reason for Said’s prolonged imprisonment. He was a staunch freedom fighter and stood steadfastly for human rights and removal of the PPSO.

As a condition for release in 1979, Said had to take a job offered by The Straits Times. He refused. In the end, he agreed to work as editor for the Asia Research Bulletin, a joint venture between Dow Jones and Times Organisation.

Former detainees tried their very best to lighten the economic burden borne by his family — it was a daunting job.

Said Zahari won the great respect and admiration of every one of his former comrades who had gone through imprisonment without trial. He stood out as a giant not only within the Malay community, but also in the political struggle for independence and justice in Singapore and Malaya.

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