Posted by Andrea Hamilton under Features on 20 June 2006

The Internal Security Act strikes fear into the mind of the people. The PAP government claimed Chia was arrested in 1966 to avert widespread unlawful demonstrations. This 1998 AsiaWeek article explains why the PAP government is still concern about "freedom of expression".

HE HAD SPENT MORE than 22 years in jail - much of it in solitary confinement - and nine and a half more under orders limiting where he could live and travel, what he could say and do, with whom he could associate. He was never charged with a crime, or brought to trial. On Nov. 27, without warning, the government lifted the remaining restrictions on former opposition MP Chia Thye Poh, 57, some 32 years after his arrest and detention under draconian internal security laws.

In a statement, the Home Affairs Ministry noted that Chia seemed unlikely to "engage in activities prejudicial to Singapore's security." Still, it warned: "Should Chia re-involve himself in such activities, he will be dealt with firmly under the law."

Chia was 25 when he was arrested, along with 22 others, on Oct. 29, 1966, under the colonial-era Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial for indefinitely renewable two-year periods. Chia had been elected to Parliament earlier that year with the Barisan Sosialis, or Socialist Front, a breakaway faction of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). Shortly before his arrest, Chia recalls, the Front had resigned their seats en masse. Although he has never been officially charged, Chia says the government accused him of engaging in communist front activities by way of justifying his detention. The other 22 people detained were eventually released. Chia was not because he refused to renounce violence and sever alleged ties with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) To have done so, he always maintained, would have been tantamount to admitting guilt.

In 1985 the then-minister for home affairs and law (now Minister of Law and Foreign Affairs), S. Jayakumar, publicly accused Chia of being a communist. Chia then - as now - flatly rejected the accusation. "I sent a protest note to the minister, [saying] that I'd never been a member of any communist party, that my past activities were constitutional and legal," Chia says forcefully.

He remained in prison until May 1989, when he was transferred to a government house on the resort island of Sentosa adjacent to Singapore's main island. He was allowed to receive (non-political) visitors and to make day trips into town, subject to a curfew. In 1992, Chia was permitted to return to the city. Last year, he was allowed to take up a fellowship in Germany. From the day of his arrest until his sudden release, however, Chia had been barred from making public statements, addressing public meetings, belonging to or assisting in the activities of any organization, taking part in political activities, or associating with other former detainees without written government approval.

Asked if he is bitter about his treatment, Chia smiles wanly and shrugs. "The best part of my life is gone," he says. Required until 1996 to get government approval to find a job, he scrapes by doing translation work. Chia now lives in his parents' sparsely furnished flat in one of Singapore's oldest public housing estates. His octogenarian mother is not well. "She's had three strokes," he confides. "She has no memory left."

Chia himself is frail; he had a prostate operation two months ago. But the mild impression belies the fortitude of a man who for more than 32 years refused to cave in to the authorities' demand that he publicly confess to being a communist. "If the government had the evidence," Chia insists, "it should have tried me in open court."

Immediately after being informed the restriction order was being lifted, Chia issued a statement condemning the ISA. "The Internal Security Act is a law that tramples on human dignity and strikes fear into the mind of the people," he said. Chia argues that as far back as 1955, the PAP, then in opposition, called for the end of Emergency Regulations because excessive powers of arrests and detention hinder democracy. (Those laws were later replaced by the ISA.) Now, Chia argues, the act is even less relevant. His comments apparently touched a nerve. On Nov. 30, the government reiterated its justification for his treatment. "Chia was arrested for his involvement in the CPM communist united front and to avert widespread unlawful demonstrations and violence." Chia snorts in response.

Singapore's longest-held political prisoner does not expect life to revert suddenly to normal. Over the course of a 90-minute visit the first day of his "freedom," his phone rang constantly with calls from journalists and supporters. He assumes the authorities will continue to keep an eye on him. "Wherever I go, they are there. I have to get used to it. I can't make them go away," he says, relating numerous examples over the years when he was shadowed by security agents to meetings with journalists or diplomats. Nonetheless, when asked to outline his plans as a free man, Chia grins: "I don't know yet. Now I can live the normal life of a citizen." A bachelor nearing his 58th birthday, it is about time.

Sources and Relevant Links:

AsiaWeek Chia Thye Poh: A MAN WHO NEVER GAVE IN. 11 December 1998

AI CHIA Thye Poh: Statement on lapse of Restriction Order

MalaysiaKini Chia Thye Poh: Return to Singapore

Malaysiakini Spirit of Asia's Mandela October 14-15, 2000

Chia Thye Poh is a man of principle with an unbreakable spirit of upholding truth, peace, justice and democracy

Ming Pao Why must HK people oppose the conferment of an honorary degree to Lee Kuan Yew? 18 November 2000

Reuters S'pore: Charged for speaking without permission

Chee, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, and Yap Keng Ho and Gandhi Ambalam have been told to appear in court on 20 June 2006.

Reuters S'pore: Jailed for criticising judiciary

A Singapore court jailed a prominent opposition leader for eight days for questioning the independence of the city-state's judiciary [17 March 2006].

Forum Asia A Shadow on Singapore's Judiciary

FORUM-ASIA is deeply concerned about Singapore's use of defamation laws to silence political critics.

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