Friday, January 15, 2010

Dr Poh Soo Kai's Speech at the "Fajar Genaration"Book Launch at Johore Bahru.



24th. JANUARY 2010
Friends and comrades,

Thank you all for attending this book launch.

Today I wish to talk about some events during my imprisonment which I have not mentioned in the book.

Some events during a short period in my long imprisonment

For some years I was imprisoned in Moon Crescent Center. It is a detention center situated behind Changi Prison. It consists of 2 storey prison blocks separated by high walls. There are three types of blocks, those with 3 cells, those with 5 cells, and those with 8 cells. The cells and bathing space and toilets are all arranged in a long row on the upper floor. The ping-pong room and the eating space and the warder's office are on the ground floor, occupying half the length of the block. The exercise yard, surrounded by 15' high walls is about 25 feet wide by 30 -50 ft long -- depending on the size of the block.

The daily routine is: cell doors (grills) are unlocked at six in the morning (for wash up), we go downstairs at 7.00a.m. for breakfast, are locked upstairs after breakfast. Down for an hour's lunch, then back to the cells, Down at 4.00 p.m. for tea and exercise, up at 5.00p.m. and down again at 6.00p.m. for dinner. Locked in the cells at 7.00p.m. till 6.00a.m. next morning.

During one period, I was in solitary confinement in a big 8 cell block for close to a year. Then one morning, after breakfast I was ordered to “angkat barang”, and thus allowed to go upstairs to pack. My barang consisted of 2 singlets, 2 pairs of shorts, and 5 books, and my 'good morning” face towel (also used as bathing towel.) I followed the warder out of the block into the long covered corridor. It was pointless asking where I was being led to. If not told, the warder won't answer. We walked past the side doors leading to other blocks, the door leading to the visit place, doors to the administrative block, to the officers' tea and reception room, to the Superintendent's office, to the women's block. Finally we came to the end of the corridor, the warder opened a side door. This was to a 5-cell block, situated at one extreme end of the prison compound. From here, if one were to shout, it was difficult for the voice to be carried to the other blocks. Rumour has it that this block was for tough, hardened, obstinate detainees. I assure you all, I am not obstinate, but very reasonable. So are my fellow comrades. Up to now, I do not know why I was put there, nor for its reputation within the center.

The warder unlocked the side door. There on the other side, infront of me stood three old comrades, wide smiles on their faces, all very happily waiting to greet me. Somehow they had got news that I was coming to join them. I was elated. Have not seen them for years. We shook hands and clasped each other.

The three were Ho Piow, Chia Thye Poh and Zhang Fook Hwa

Ho Piow

Ho Piow is English educated. But he is very good in English, Chinese and Malay. He puts me to shame.

He comes from a poor family. His father is a seaman. While schooling, he gave private tuition to earn some money to help his mother. While waiting for the University term to start, after he had graduated from Raffles Institution, he went to work in the Seamen's Union. When he joined the University, he made a bee line for the University Socialist Club. He enrolled, but he was too busy in the Seamen's Union to be active in the club. Infact he was so busy, he even had to cut lectures, and finally totally forgot to sit for the examination at the end of the academic year. He thus had to leave the University.

When the PAP became the government in 1959, Ho Piow and S.T.Bani were sent to Israel and U.K. for training in trade union work. They were thus hand picked by the PAP leadership and endorsed by the Special Branch. In other words, security cleared. When Ho Piow came back, he also worked in the Motor Workshop Workers Union. When the Barisan Sosialis was set up, perhaps of this “higher training” abroad, or because of the negative effect of such training, they both joined the Barisan Sosialis, and were immediately labelled as subversives. Thus Ho Piow was detained in Op. Cold Storage in 2 Feb 1963 and not to be released till some 16 years later.

Ho Piow is a very brave man. In our prison protests, his voice decrying fascist thugs, British running dogs, etc. would ring through the prison. He was punished. His punishment was to be locked up for 24 hours a day for days in what we in prison language call “ganji house”. His “ganji house” is situated next to the furnace of the kitchen in Changi Prison. It was unbearably hot, day and night. His spirit never flagged. He is a fair skinned person, and he broke out into rashes. I would tease him that such treatment really made him more and more red.

Living in such close proximity, we learned about and tolerated each other's idiosyncrasies. We had to scrub and wash with soap and water all the cells, the lavatory, the corridors, and the downstairs every week. Ho Piow would insist on washing off the soapy floor three times, with brush and squeezer. He can't be talked out of it. The three of us would after the first wash retire and let him do as he likes.

He needs a lot of auditory stimuli, and would softly sing to himself most of the time. He even obtained permission to bring in a few canaries which he kept in a big cage in the ping-pong room. Every day at tea time, he will feed the canaries, change the newspaper that caught the droppings, whistle to them and thoroughly enjoy their beautiful songs.

After release he went to set up a casette factory in London. He passed away some two years ago.

Chia Thye Poh

Thye Poh is from the Chinese stream. He is a brilliant science graduate from Nanyang University. He taught at the University upon graduation. After Operation Cold Storage, when the Barisan Sosialis was crippled, he stood as a Barisan Sosialis candidate and was elected its assemblyman in 1963. He is a good speaker and has a very close rapport with the masses. This is his biggest sin and reason why he was detained for 32 long years. He had to be neutralized as a political threat - i.e. kept in detention till he is well into old age and has no energy to be politically active.

He was banished from Malaysia after a speech he made in Ipoh in 1966. He had like his friends in Malaysia, organized demonstrations against the Vietnam War during US President L. Johnson's visit. But he had also demanded the PAP explain in Parliament and consult the people as to why the PAP was taking Singapore out of Malaysia, when the PAP had claimed that the Referendum showed the people were for merger. He demanded to know why the PAP leadership agreed to sign the separation agreement.

He is a friendly, quiet and studious man. In prison, he read mainly English and Malay books, thus greatly improved his English and Malay.

He is now working for a University in Holland.

Zhang Fook Hwa

Fook Hwa came from a well to do plantation owning family in Johore. His family was thus able to send him as a border student to study at Hwa Chong, in Singapore. There he was active in student affairs around 1954-55. The colonial government wanted to arrest him. He fled. He joined the Malayan Communist Party and worked underground. In 1961-2 he fled to the Rhio islands. He returned to Singapore a few times, once escaping arrest by the skin of his teeth, fleeing in the night by the back door.

When he was finally arrested, the Special Branch beat him up. The torture was not because they wanted information, -- the Special Branch boasts they know all about this set up - but basically to break his spirit of resistance, to implicate truthfully or better otherwise, his friends. Thus they seek to neutralize him politically.

He told me, one day the beating was so severe, he could not endure any longer. He got up from his stool, grasp one of its legs and was prepared to strike the first assailant. He was prepared to die, but his assailants were not. They backed off. Informed the Deputy Director, Mr. Wang. (We nick-named him as “Shanghai Wang” as he was from Shanghai and joined the UK intelligence service. He was later seconded to the Singapore Special Branch). He came, assessed the situation. Realized that painful measures aimed at breaking a man's spirit are useless against someone who is prepared to die. He called off the torture. Later, Fook Hua was sent to Moon Crescent Center. I was to meet him in that 5-cell block, with Thye Poh and Ho Piow.

Fook Hua made friends easily. He loved to yarn with the prison officers. During exercise time, he would sit aside quietly and smoke. First it was cigarettes, then financial constraint drove him to smoke tobacco. He seldom exercise with us.

Rain or sun, I would run round and round the open courtyard after tea. Hesitant at first, Ho Piow and Thye Poh would later join in. They argued that if the doctor can run in the rain and not fall sick, so can they. I encouraged them to exercise as it is helpful to overcome depression which we all suffered from. The trick I told them is to have a bath soon after running while the body is warm and not to sit around and let the wet body cool down in the wind. That increases the chances of catching a cold.

One day, Fook Hua asked to see the prison doctor. Dr.Singh came during his rounds, but met Fook Hua at the corridor's entrance. Fook Hua complained of stomach ache. He just touched Fook Hua's stomach, and prescribed the usual antacid mixture, which came with the afternoon shift. Fook Hua took a dose and once more before retiring to bed.

We were locked in our cells as usual. That night at about 11p.m. he called for me. My cell was separated from his by an empty cell. But I could hear him clearly as the voice came through the corridor. He said he still had severe pain. The medication gave no relief. There was nothing I could do. So

I just asked him to bear the pain till the morning, and promised I would see him as soon as the cell door was unlocked. I did not sleep that night. He did not sleep either. I could hear him groan in pain.

When the warder came to unlock the corridor gate and then our cell doors, I rushed to his cell. It was dim. There was no lighting in our cells. The light came from a poorly lit corridor. In the dim light, I palpated his abdomen. To my shock, he had a huge hard mass. It meant he has very late cancer. I stood up and was wandering how to break the news to him. He must have sensed something grossly unusual. Perhaps why I was so grave. He said, “ Soo Kai, I am not afraid to die. Tell me the truth.”

That morning with his permission I wrote his diagnosis and requested the prison authority to send him to General Hospital for further investigation.

I knew the prognosis was bad. It was terminal. But I did not tell him. Perhaps the regime would release him from the hospital. That was my hope. But it was not to be.

The next day he was sent to surgical unit “A” in General Hospital. A few days later he was sent back as his condition was not treatable. We did our best to make him comfortable. The order for removal came the next morning. The officer came with the order and the wheel chair. We demanded where Fook Hua would be transferred to. We were told to Changi Prison Hospital.

This is not the same as the civilian hospital in Changi. We all knew the conditions there. It is not a hospital at all. It is just a dormitory, an open ward, with two rows of beds on either side, the first bed on the left hand side, and that on the right hand side are enclosed in a cage made of steel bars. Thus a detainee is isolated from other prisoners, yet the male nurse can see you when he glances through the ward.

Ho Piow was the first to speak. He moved close to Fook Wah and softly asked him if he wishes to go there. Fook Wah hesitated. He did not want to go, but he knew if he said “no”, he would precipitate a struggle between detainees and the prison authority, something he tried to avoid. Thye Poh said, Fook Hua just cannot go there. Detainees cannot be treated that way.

Fook Hua looked at me for an opinion. I shook my head. We were of one opinion and totally united. He made up his mind. He told the officer to go back and tell the superintendent that he was not going.

Nothing happened. May be our undeserved reputation had its little positive effect. Then after a few days, a new order arrived. Fook Hua would be sent back to General Hospital. We carefully considered the new order. Would the authorities trick us ? Considering every aspect, we unanimously decided that the prison was honest and serious. We wished Fook Wah goodbye. Tears swelled in our eyes, but we kept a forced smile. We had to be as brave as he was. We knew that would be the last time we would see him alive.

Fook Wah was indeed transferred to General Hospital. We had the news confirmed in the family visit the following day. After some days, Fook Wah was released. He died about a week later at home, surrounded by his family and friends.

Fook Wah was a revolutionary. Death has no fear for him. He lived a conscious existence, knowing full well his responsibility to society, and to humanity.



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