In 1989, James Gomez ( then a 2nd year NUS undergraduate) was President of the NUS Philosophy Society and editor of the society's magazine – PHILOTIN. He & Susan Chua interviewed Chia Thye Poh about his views on politics and the Internal Security Act while Chia was confined in Sentosa. In conjuction with International Human Rights Day (10 December) we bring you this rare interview from our archives. Please take note that Think Centre and Open Singapore Centre will be commemorating this day with speeches, t-shirts, handouts and banners at Hong Lim Park – Speaker's Corner – this Sunday, 10th December 2000 from 12pm – 2pm. All are welcome. A marathon has also been planned and the organisers are currently awaiting approval from the Licensing Division for the run.
Chia Thye Poh, a political detainee for twenty-three years, was released – conditionally – on the 17th of May 1989. He now lives on the island of Sentosa. As a figure who evokes(d) much interest, political or otherwise, an interview with him seems only appropriate in line with this issue's emphasis on political philosophy. As such, here we have for you, a first hand, and exclusive insight into the life and ideals of – the man himself. Chia Thye Poh, as a primary school student, had a taste of studying both in a Chinese as well as an English school. His secondary education was obtained in Chinese High School. In 1958, he entered Nanyang University, majoring in physics. He was also vice-chairman of the university's Student Union. After graduation, he became a council member of the Guild of Graduates.
Mr Chia then became a teacher. He taught in Chung Cheng High School for a short period before he went back to Nanyang University as a graduate assistant in the Physics Department. During this period, he was preparing to further his studies abroad. However, Operation Cold Store (Feb. 1963) and the subsequent Sept. 1963 general elections drastically changed the course of his life. He stood for elections and won a seat under the banner of Barisan Socialis in the Jurong constituency. (At present, Barisan Socialis is integrated into the Worker's Party).
The following interview with Mr Chia was carried out at his residence in Sentosa. The aim of the interview is to bring across a more distinct picture of Mr Chia's ideals and aspirations.
Question: When did your political awakening begin and how did it begin?
Answer: My political awakening began when I was in Chinese High School. At that time, there was a strong anti-colonial movement in Asia and Africa. In Singapore, people were struggling for independence. And in Chinese schools, there was a feeling that Chinese education was discriminated against. There were incidents that Chinese school teachers were arrested and Chinese schools ordered to close down. These events raised the political consciousness of majority of students and I was one of them. We opposed the colonial education policy and later, became active in the struggle for independence.
Q: What was/is your ideology? Has your years in detention altered your ideology?
A: My ideology: to struggle for a fair, just and democratic society (freedom of speech, freedom of the press and more parliamentary representation for the people). When I was a parliamentarian, my close contact with the people, especially the lower income group, had strengthened my ideal. My ideal has not been dampened after nearly 23 years under detention. In fact, prison life can only make a person more determined to fight against oppression and for a fair, just and democratic society.
Q: What are your current views regarding the running of Singapore?
A: Under the PAP rule, there is no genuine parliamentary democracy. In essence, it has been practising a one-party rule. It seems to want to remain as the sole, dominant party, with other small parties acting as marginal opposition and "sparring partners" for new PAP MPs. The opposition parties will never be allowed to grow strong. Before past elections, potential opposition candidates had been arrested; so were some of the elected opposition MPs who were arrested after the elections. The GPC (Government Parliamentary Committee) feedback unit and introduction of "non-elected MPs" are merely improvements on the one-party rule. There is always the danger of one-party rule slipping into one-man rule, and worse still, into dynastic rule. The PAP government does not like critical newspapers or publications, and is intolerant towards sharp criticisms. They seem elitist and arrogant, regarding themselves as the best and the most suitable to rule Singapore. And they rule it with iron-handed policies.
Q: What do you think of the opposition parties in Singapore?
A: If the PAP itself laments the difficulties of getting good candidates for elections, one can imagine how much harder it is for the opposition parties to do the same. Opposition parties' candidates risk not only loss of jobs, but also personal freedom. However, despite all difficulties, including little access to the media, the opposition parties had scored 37% of the popular votes in the last general election. To withstand the continual onslaught of the powerful PAP machinery and to make further headway, the opposition parties will need more co-ordinated efforts. They need to build up their branch organisations, so that, through their own network, party programmes and policies can be brought across to the people.
Q: What kind of change would you like to see in Singapore?
A: The last election shows that the people want more opposition members in the Parliament (37% popular votes went to opposition parties). However, there is only one opposition MP in the 81 seat Parliament. The discrepancies are too obvious and cry for correction. (In the 1963 election, Barisan Socialis gained 33% of the popular votes, and there were 13 members in the 51 seat parliament). There should be proportionate representation of opposition voices in Parliament, so that there can be a real check and balance system. Basic human rights should be respected, the ISA (Internal Security Act) should be abolished. There should be freedom of speech and freedom of the press so that the people can have better access to information and can voice their feelings without fear.
Q: Do you feel that it is not essential to have the ISA?
A: In 1955, when there was still a jungle warfare in Johor and the other states of Malaya, the PAP congress had adopted a resolution, calling for the abolition of Emergency Regulations. Yet, since its coming to power, it has never hesitated in using the ISA to arrest, detain and crush its opponents. The PAP government has openly stated that the ISA, periodical arrests and secret police are the mainstays for the security of the state. But, for a long time past, the situation in Singapore has been peaceful. And with other stringent laws well in place, the government is in fact more than amply equipped to deal with any security problem. The ISA is a powerful weapon, but it is a remnant of the colonial rule. It tramples upon the basic human rights and hinders the progress of democracy.
Q: What are your reasons for not leaving Singapore? If you could go into exile elsewhere at present, would you? If not, why not?
A: In 1985, when the Home Affairs Minister said that the government allowed me to emigrate, my reply was that as I had been detained for nearly 20 years, the government should release me unconditionally, and not try to drive me out of my country. My stand on the issue has not changed and I have no intention of going into exile someplace else. My main concern is to achieve complete freedom. Whether a political prisoner should go into exile depends on whether he can contribute to the people's cause. It is the people's struggle inside the country that can determine the course of events. And it is important for me to be close to the people and share their weal and woe.
Q: How is your life in Sentosa? Is it relatively comfortable?
A: My life in Sentosa is like an indefinite internal exile after 23 years under detention without trial. I am now under the restrictions of four conditions and am put under close surveillance in the island. Sentosa is a tiny island of 3.5 sq. km and a tourist resort with no residence. Thus, there are no provisions like shops for residential living. Most of my daily necessities have to be brought in by my family members. When I want to go to the mainland for medical check-up or a haircut, I have to apply for written permit from the ISD (Internal Security Department) and travel under escort. Sentosa, to me, is just like another prison. The scenery is good, but freedom is scarce.
Q: Do you see yourself being released unconditionally to the mainland?
A: I have never lost hope during me years under detention. I am confident that no matter how much difficulties I face, and how long it will take, the government will have to release me unconditionally one day. My struggle for personal freedom is not an isolated one. It is the people's struggle for democracy. My partial release onto Sentosa is the result of collective effort. I hope that with continued support from the people, I can one day gain my complete freedom.
Taken from the newsletter of the Philosophy Society, The Philotin. Issue No.2, August 1989.