Tan Jing Hwee
Introduction to Dark Clouds At Dawn
A Political Memoir.
Though Said Zahari, a famous ex political detainee for 17 years, and supposedly one of the panelist was absent from the forum due to his health condition, the event attracted more than 100 participants, amongst them journalists, students, young and old Singaporeans.
The facilitator of the forum, Tan Chong Kee, mapped out the structure of the talk by explaining its aims, which includes providing a brief history of the tumultuous 50s and 60s and revealing the personal struggles and reflections of the detainees and their immediate families.
The first speaker, Tan Jing Hwee related his story by describing vividly the night of the arrest. He had just arrived home from a rally with the other election candidates when they noticed the commotion from the police vehicles outside their home. They would be taken away in this second wave of arrest on October 1963. Prior to that, Operation Cold Store in February 1963, had already crippled the opposition significantly by removing a proportion of the left wing leadership.
He went on to describe the fundamental differences between a criminal offender and a political detainee. The latter has no recourse to a fair trial, date of release and underwent a period of solitary confinement followed by “normal” detention. He described the small cell in which he underwent his confinement - a mattress with a light bulb in the centre of the room and the horrid living conditions.
Michael Fernandez who was born in India and arrested in 1964 was an activist heavily involved with the Naval Base Labour Union. He believed the government's objective of the arrests were to “isolate active life and break us down mentally and physically, through long periods of solitary confinement, depriving us of reading materials, food and communications with the outside world, depriving us of our legal counsel.”
He also described the hunger strike in the Mooncrescent Centre in 1970s in which food supplies were not only reduced, but detainees were also forced into manual labour. Though about 200 detainees went on strike for about 135 days, they were force fed with either milk or thin porridge.
Playwright Robert Yeo read an excerpt of Changi, the last of a trilogy, that was loosely based on Fernandez' detention. He was inspired to write his political plays stemming from a desire to depict the lives of the political detainees. He talked about the censorship hurdles he faced while submitting his plays for production.
When asked by the audience if the detainees have undergone “healing”, Fernandez replied that political healing has yet to take place as the politicians who have inflicted these wounds have yet to be accounted for.
Jing Hwee opined that he had no personal grudges but that there is a need to “demarginalize” the generation that has been politically detained; and of whom could have contributed to the progress of democracy in the country. He believed that Singapore history has to accommodate the complex social and political factors of the 50s and 60s rather than the current version which is written solely from the views of the “victors”.
Read an interview of Salamah bte Abdul Wahab, wife of political detainee Said Zahari, on how she struggled to raise her family, in the absence of her husband and father of her four children, for 17 years.