by Leila Abdul Rahman
“CREATURES BIG AND SMALL, Poems and Drawings From Behind The Blue Gate” is a book that is nowhere like James Herriot’s humorous and happy book of almost similar title.
Creatures Big and Small is all about the pain and sadness experienced by the writer, Teo Soh Lung whilst in political detention. As mentioned in the Foreword by Michael D Barr, Soh Lung “retained and fed her own imagination and is unique among the detainees in having put her imagination to paper”.
This book actually complements her first book entitled, Beyond the Blue Gate, Recollections of a Political Prisoner. In that book, Soh Lung gave a complete account of the history of her arrest and detention in 1987 under the Internal Security Act and her experience and suffering, physical and mental while she was in prison. Soh Lung also made several references to her only friend in solitude and solace, a lizard she named Liz.
Creatures Big and Small, although a smaller book, is more detailed. Through poems, Soh Lung expresses her inner feelings in relation to her surroundings and the frequent visits of her “friends”, the lizards, spiders, cricket, beetle, ants etc.
In one of the poems, she wrote,
“O spider, O spider,
I envy you for being free”
She draws simple and yet delightful sketches of these creatures that made a difference to her 3 years of detention in solitude. Her little “friends” gave her the strength to maintain her sanity and to take one day at a time.
One can only imagine how scared and vulnerable any person can be if that person is detained without knowing the length or term of his or her detention
In law school, we studied about the history and legal implications of the Internal Security Act. (The Malaysian Internal Security Act 1960 (No. 18/60) was extended to Singapore on 16.9.63 when Singapore became a component part of Malaysia). We were told that in the 1950s and 1960s Singapore was plagued by communists. That law empowers the government to detain without trial and for indefinitely, people who the minister for home affairs considers to be threats to national security. Little did Soh Lung know that some 15 years later, she would be detained under the Act without the opportunity to prove that she was not a Marxist or a communist and that she was innocent of the allegations made against her.
Soh Lung expressed her frustration in her poems. At page 91, she personified herself as an ant. She wrote,
“ I am a little ant
Who must tread silently through life
Powerless, defenceless and helpless
I can be destroyed by the signature of just one man.
Once in defence I spoke and promptly suffered arrest
By the signature of just one man
I am a little ant”
It must have been a painful revisit of memories for Soh Lung. This book probably gives Soh Lung some form of closure as it allows her to express her frustration and anger in writing about her detention from 1987 to 1990. The loss of 3 years of her life was such a tragic waste not forgetting the grief caused to her family, loved ones and friends.
One can only wish for the abolition of the Internal Security Act one day so that the Soh Lung or “do gooders who want to help the poor and the dispossessed” will not fall victim to this harsh and undemocratic law. Presently, with so much news reports on terrorism and insurgence in war torn countries, it is highly unlikely that this will happen. This legislation remains an indispensable tool for the government to curb activism in the name of national security.
Note: The reviewer was a law school classmate of Soh Lung
You can purchase book online at Ethos’ bookstore.