Chia Thye Poh (谢太宝, born 1941) was the longest-serving political prisoner in the history of Singapore, and the world's second longest serving prisoner of conscience.
Detained under the Internal Security Act of Singapore for allegedly conducting pro-communist activities against the government, he was imprisoned for 23 years without charge or trial and subsequently placed under conditions of house arrest for another nine years — in which he was first confined to the island of Sentosa and then subject to restrictions on his place of abode, employment, travel, and exercise of political rights.
Prior to his detention, he had been a teacher, a physics lecturer, a socialist political activist and a member of the Parliament of Singapore. Subsequent to it, he has been a doctoral student and an interpreter.
He traveled to Germany in 1997, and to the Netherlands at least as recently as 2000. The supervision of his PhD thesis in development economics was completed in 2006.
Spirit of Asia's Mandela
Ang Hiok Gai
Oct 14-15, 2000
"The world's second longest serving prisoner of conscience" is a title
that no one wants to be honoured with. Yet, it goes to show the
unrelenting spirit of Singaporean Chia Thye Poh.
Chia, a willowy and soft-spoken man of disarming politeness, is hardly
the sort one imagines as a fiery revolutionary. Yet, he possesses
qualities that left his jailers looking ridiculous, in despair and
even envious. He is a man of principle with an unbreakable spirit of
upholding truth, peace, justice and democracy.
Chia finally obtained his freedom on Nov 27, 1998, after 32 years of
unjust detention and cruel restrictions. He spent more than 22 years
in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. He was later exiled to
Singapore's Sentosa Island for about three years. He was the island's
only resident living in a one-room guardhouse.
The rest of the years, he was allowed to visit his parent's home on
Singapore's main island. Nevertheless, he continued to be subject to
restriction orders, curtailing his freedom of expression, association
I was attracted by the idea of visiting The Hague, the Netherlands,
when my long-standing friend mentioned I could meet Chia - a man I
came to know of while studying at the University of Manchester.
It was the student society that educated me about the ISA (Internal
Security Act) - an inhumane and cruel weapon that has been used for
decades by both the Singaporean and Malaysian ruling elite to silence,
stifle and wipe out their political opponents and dissidents. In no
time, I was drawn into campaigning for the release of all prisoners of
conscience, including Chia, under both Singapore's and Malaysia's ISA.
The campaign underlined the principle that no one should be detained
without trial, irrespective of their political, religious or
ideological beliefs. Everyone has the right to a fair trial. I share
My friend invited Chia to his house for lunch. We picked him up at
Central Station. It was my first time meeting Chia. He was very
approachable. We introduced ourselves and began chatting in the car.
Freedom snatched at 25
Chia has been longing for a just and democratic society since his
student days. He read Physics in Nanyang University. After graduation,
he worked for a short time as a secondary teacher. He then joined the
university as a graduate assistant. His ambition then was to travel
abroad to read for his Master's degree in physics.
In 1963, just before the general election was to be held, Lee Kuan Yew
ordered a mass arrest of political activists. It was designed to
prevent opposition leaders from taking part in the elections. At that
juncture, Chia came forward to replace one of the detained candidates.
He was subsequently elected a member of parliament on a Barisan
Sosialis (Socialist Front) ticket.
Chia was detained on Oct 28, 1966 for protesting against the PAP
(People's Action Party) government. He and a number of other MPs
staged a boycott of parliament over the issue of Singapore's secession
from Malaysia in 1965. This crucial issue was never discussed in the
Singaporean parliament. Nor were Singaporeans given the right to voice
their opinion or decide the issue through a referendum.
In addition, he was among the peace campaigners calling for an end to
the heavy American bombing of Indo-China. Because of his anti-PAP and
anti-war activities, his freedom was cruelly snatched away by Lee Kuan
Yew and the PAP government, both of whom have long held little respect
for democracy and human rights.
'My spirit steeled'
The Singapore government never gave any explanation for Chia's
detention for almost two decades. Only in 1985 did the government
allege that he was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).
The government offered to release him if he agreed to give a public
undertaking "disowning the CPM's use of force and terror".
Chia flatly rejected the offer. It would have been against his
conscience to admit to something utterly untrue. He insisted that if
the authorities had any evidence against him, then they should charge
him in court and accord him an open and fair trial.
The authoritarian PAP regime tried very hard to break Chia's spirit
and to extract a confession from him. Though he was not physically
assaulted, he was subjected to intense mental and psychological
They first put him in solitary confinement, transferring him from one
prison cell to another. They even incarcerated him in what was called
the "dark cell". It was totally dark and quiet, leaving him without
any knowledge of night or day. To intimidate him, he was told that
prisoners held in the dark cell would go insane in just a few days.
On one of his first nights in the cell, he could hear someone in the
next cell violently kicking the cell door as if s/he had gone insane.
He was also subjected to day-long interrogations in a freezing cold
room and was deprived of reading material for a long period of time.
To sustain himself through such brutal incarceration, Chia engaged in
dialogue with himself. He told himself that what he did was right and
for the good of the people. If he were to allow himself go insane,
then his life would be wasted. He taught himself to think positively.
He constantly reminded himself of the less fortunate and the disabled
who were living in worse conditions.
There was also a Chinese poem faintly scribbled on the prison wall by
a previous prisoner that gave further encouragement and commitment to
Chia. It read:
Ten years behind bars
Never too late
Thousands of ordeals
My spirit steeled
When they failed to break his spirit, they resorted to pressuring his
aged father into persuading him to give up. Instead of succumbing,
Chia scolded the security agents for taking advantage of an old man.
Then they tried to tempt him into submission by driving him through
Singapore, showing off the prosperity the city-state had achieved.
They taunted him to sign "his confession paper" so that he could be
part of the exciting new life that was Singapore. Otherwise, they told
him, he would rot in jail.
Still they were unable to break his spirit.
Released at 57
Exiled to Sentosa Island in 1989, he was made to pay rent for the
one-room guardhouse he stayed in, on the pretext that he was a "free"
man. He was also made to purchase and prepare his own food. Because he
had no money, he was offered a job as assistant curator of Sentosa
Fort. He turned down the offer.
As a Grade Two civil servant, he knew he would have been barred from
talking to the media without official approval. Instead, he
successfully negotiated a position as a freelance translator for the
Sentosa Development Corporation.
In 1997, Chia was allowed to accept a fellowship from the German
government for politically persecuted persons. He spent a year in
Germany studying democratic politics and German. However, he remained
barred from making political statements, addressing meetings, joining
any organisation, taking part in political activities or associating
with other former political detainees.
The PAP government was under constant international criticism and
pressure as long as Chia was unjustifiably incarcerated and
restricted. Failing to break his spirit, the PAP government
reluctantly eased the restrictions on him. Eventually they gave up and
succumbed to the international call for his unconditional release.
As soon as the restrictions were lifted, he issued a stern press
statement condemning the ISA and called for its repeal. Being a victim
of the notorious ISA, he is fully aware of how such a law can be used
to trample human dignity and strike fear into the hearts and minds of
Contrary to some people's belief in Asian values, Chia maintains that
the ISA is incompatible with these values. After all, the ISA is a
creation of Western colonialists who used it to suppress the struggle
He also told the officer who notified him of the lifting of his
restriction orders that he was still interested in politics. If in
detention Chia did not break, in freedom Chia refused to be cowed. He
refused to kowtow to the authoritarian PAP government.
Chia has paid dearly for his commitment to truth, and his belief in
justice and democratic principles. When he was detained, he was only
25 years old. By the time he was freed unconditionally, he was 57.
They had virtually taken away the best part of his life without even
laying any charges against him, let alone giving him a trial in court.
As a consequence of his 23-year imprisonment, he is in poor health.
His eyesight is impaired from many years spent in the dark cell. His
lung problems recur from the same time. He has also undergone a
prostate operation and has a weak bladder. And yet, though failing in
health and haunted by nightmarish memories, he is determined to
rebuild his life. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in
development studies at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.
'One day, we'll all get there'
At The Hague, Chia and I chatted over lunch. My friend's wife cooked
us some delicious Indian dishes. Chia and I both dug into the food
with relish and delighted in the hospitality of our hosts. I also
noticed that Chia was very fond of my friend's three children, in
particular the youngest one, Avinesh, who is barely three years old.
He has missed a lot in life.
And yet, he harbours no personal grudge against anybody, including Lee
Kuan Yew, despite their cruelty to him. He sees his struggle as not
against individuals but against unjust policies and an unjust system.
"This is not about a personal battle. The struggle for democracy is
much more than personal battles. I don't feel bitter towards anyone.
Democracy is not about violence. They can jail me, but how are they
going to jail democracy? One day, I'll get there - we'll all get
there," he told me.
Keeping constant faith with his innocence, he proclaimed that he would
not choose otherwise if he had to do it all over again. Deep down in
his heart, he knows he cannot betray his conscience. He would rather
sacrifice his life honourably for a just cause than to confess to a
In pursuit of prosperity, the PAP regime has managed to cow a large
section of Singaporeans into not valuing democracy and human rights.
Today, few people in Singapore seem to care about Chia and what has
happened to him. He is virtually unknown to young Singaporeans and
those who do know him are too indifferent or too timid to say
Nevertheless, outside Singapore, Chia is remembered and looked up to
by many as an excellent example of the struggle for justice and
democracy in Southeast Asia. He is a simple and humble man who
possesses a great spirit. And those who long for reformasi will
emulate his spirit. Political scientist Andrew Aeria has aptly
described Chia as "a shining icon to the struggle for human rights and
Award for Asia’s ‘forgotten’ man
The Malay Mail, December 19, 2011(source)
Chia Thye Poh may be forgiven for thinking that after 33 years in confinement, people from both ends of the Causeway have relegated him to the annals of history.
On the evidence of the reception he received at the Confucian Private Secondary School in Lorong Hang Jebat here yesterday, the 70-year-old is still fondly remembered, at least by the 400 people attending an award presentation.
Chia is Asia's longestserving political prisoner, detained under Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA) from 1966 to 1998, with the last nine years under house arrest on Sentosa Island.
He was detained after being suspected to be an ally of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and viewed as posing a terrorism threat to the republic.
Yesterday, the former Jurong MP, between 1963 and 1965, was awarded the Lim Lian Geok (LLG) Spirit Award at the school's function hall.
Chia largely spoke on the influence the former Nanyang University had on him and how its spirit would "live on".
"I remember when the then governor of Singapore, Sir William Goode, wanted to come to the university's launch in 1956, his motorcade was delayed by more than two hours because of the immense traffic of people who came for the launch," he said in his acceptance speech.
"Nantah (Nanyang) was the wish of over three million Chinese citizens in Southeast Asia. The spirit of this university will never die."
The university ceased to exist in 1980 when the Singapore government merged it with the University of Singapore.
This was Chia's first public appearance as he spent his years of renewed freedom pursuing a doctorate at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands.
He was a former Barisan Sosialis party member and part of a movement that protested alleged ‘undemocratic' acts by the then Singapore premier, Lee Kuan Yew.
Chia had opposed Singapore's separation from Malaysia, and campaigned for the sustainability of Nanyang University, which was then Singapore's only Chinese language postsecondary institution.
Asked if he would make his first public appearance in the island nation, he said he would wait for the "right occasion" to do so.
The LLG award, now in its 24th edition, annually honours individuals who have served the Chinese culture or people at large.
It was first given out in 1988 in memory of the late Chinese educationist Lim Lian Geok and is largely viewed as the highest honour in the Malaysian Chinese community.
*Chia's speech at the award ceremony: here