Sunday, December 18, 2011

Chia Thye Poh, the world's second longest serving prisoner of conscience

Chia Thye Poh (l) and Lim Chin Siong (r) (source)

Chia Thye Poh (source)

Being honoured on 18 December 2011 in Kuala Lumpur:
Chia Thye Poh's first public appearance since his detention without trial in 1966 
(see end of this post for details)

Chia speaks on 18 December 2011

(source: Wikipedia)

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.



The following essay, published in Malaysiakini, was written by a UK returnee, Ang Hiok Gai.

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
and movement.

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
this view.

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
for independence.

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


Dr Chia Thye Poh

by Teo Soh Lung on Thursday, 15 December 2011 at 13:16 (source)

On Sunday, 18 December 2011, Dr Chia Thye Poh, 70, will receive a very special award, the Lim Lian Geok Spirit Award in recognition of his courage, integrity and belief in democracy. The ceremony will take place in Kuala Lumpur.[1]

Chia was elected a member of the Singapore Legislative Assembly for the constituency of Jurong on 21 September 1963. He was only 22 years old and was one of 13 successful Barisan Sosialis candidates in that general election. Ong Eng Guan of the United People’s Party was the 14th opposition member in the Assembly. The PAP had 37 seats with Lee Kuan Yew as the prime minister. Chia was also a member of the Federal Parliament when Singapore was part of Malaysia.

Prior to Chia's election to the Assembly, frequent arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA) had almost wiped out the entire leadership of the opposition. In Operation Cold Store (2 February 1963), more than 120 people were arrested. This was followed by arrests every year and two major swoops in September 1963 and October 1963 (Operation Pecah). Even before the first session of the Assembly was convened, three Barisan members of the Assembly, namely Loh Miaw Gong, Lee Tee Tong and S T Bani were arrested and imprisoned under the ISA. Two other members, Chan Sun Wing and Wong Soon Fong escaped arrests. When they subsequently wrote to the Speaker of the House enquiring if they could have his assurance that they would not be arrested if they returned to Singapore, the Speaker would not guarantee their safety. They thus remained outside Singapore till today. The number of Barisan members in the house was dramatically reduced to eight.

During the campaign for the general election in September 1963, the issue of independence through merger with Malaya was simultaneously canvassed. A wash-out referendum conducted by the ruling P.A.P. resulted in Singapore joining Malaysia on grossly unfair and unjust terms. It also resulted in confrontation with Indonesia which feared a strongly armed neighbour.

When the house sat on 9 December 1963 to debate on the address of the Yang di-Pertuan Negara’s speech, young Chia was the first opposition speaker to take the floor, moving a motion to add a note of regret to the address :

“; but this Assembly regrets that the Government in helping to impose Malaysia on the people has caused great difficulties and hardships to them in Singapore and urges the Government to take immediate steps to persuade the Central Government to get rid of foreign interference, negotiate with the Indonesian Government, and resolve all existing differences to our mutual benefit, and so help to bring stability, peace and prosperity to South-East Asia.”

Chia gave his speech in Mandarin and was exceedingly eloquent. He spoke on a wide range of issues. He opposed violence and was appalled at the millions contributed by Singapore to Malaysia for the expansion of the armed forces. He said in the Assembly on 9 December 1963 :

“… let me first remind the House that the financial arrangements under the Malaysia Agreement have literally robbed Singapore of a huge chunk of its revenue. We pay the Federation Government $117 million outright. In addition, we pay for developments of Federal departments in Singapore ($9.5 million) as well as the annually recurrent expenditure of State-cum-Federal departments ($15 million approximately).

If we add the $30 million so called loan to the Borneo territories, then the sum given away by Singapore to the Federation comes to about $170 million! $170 million of our money given away! If this money were truly used for construction and development, at least we would be consoled by the fact that our money was put to good use. But it is clear that most of our money will not be spent on construction and development, but on the expansion of armed forces and for the suppression of the national liberation struggle in Borneo! This is not the way how our money should be spent. Expenditure on armed expansion will only benefit the big arms industries in the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. Our Party had repeatedly warned against this during the debate on the Malaysia Agreement! Now all can see that what the Barisan has all along said is 100 per cent correct. The P.A.P. must be condemned for having signed away all this money of the people of Singapore! …”

On how to deal with the Indonesian confrontation, he was firmly of the view that Singapore should take steps to make peace. He said:

“… The interests of the people demand that we prevent the present friction from developing further into open conflict and war with Indonesia. Only peace will being happiness and prosperity to the people. So let all of us in Singapore make our full contribution to the defence of peace in the region…”

In numerous speeches in the Assembly, Chia spoke about the unjust and unfair manner in which the PAP called the general election. He protested against the PAP’s use of the ISA against Barisan members, candidates and trade unionists and torture inflicted on detainees.

He held his ground against older and seasoned ministers like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Ong Pang Boon and Toh Chin Chye. When Rajaratnam stood up once to interrupt his speech, he was not intimidated. He refused to give way and remained standing. The Speaker had to tell Rajaratnam to back off as Chia was not giving way.

Chia’s clear mathematical mind, his agility and ability to work out figures and summarised them in simple percentages must have terrified lawyers like Lee Kuan Yew and E W Barker. He understood the intimidating methods used by the P.A.P. at that time. He was clear that the ruling party then was not achieving independence for Singapore when it decided to join Malaysia. He said:

“We in the Barisan have always fought against colonialism and imperialism, and the P.A.P. attempts to deceive the people about having achieved independence (by reading a proclamation on 31st August) will not be able to prevent them from continuing the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle.

We in the Barisan have consistently fought for the basic rights and interests of the people. We fight for the workers, farmers, intellectuals, national businessmen. We shall do our best to safeguard their interests, and we shall continue to struggle for justice, equality, democracy, peace and freedom for the people.

The P.A.P. always uses the Communist bogey to frighten and intimidate the people. And indeed because of its control of the State propaganda apparatus, it has to a certain extent succeeded. But however the P.A.P. may care to play on the theme of the Communist bogey, with the hope of isolating the Barisan and gaining support for itself, it cannot cover up the fact that “poverty in the midst of plenty and unemployment in the face of affluence” are urgent problems which have to be faced, tackled and resolved. Labelling the Barisan pro-Communist simply because we want to help solve these basic problems, cannot deceive the people for any length of time. P.A.P. lies might deceive some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time. But they cannot deceive all the people all the time. P.A.P. lies will all be exposed . Truth will out and truth will triumph.”

Chia and the Barisan Sosialis were subsequently proven right for opposing merger on the terms agreed to by the P.A.P. Singapore was asked to leave Malaysia in August 1965.

It may have been the brilliance of Chia that in order to avoid debates with him, the house rarely sat. In 1964, the house met solely for the debate on the annual budget. But it could also be the P.A.P. style of ruling – that decisions be taken without debates since they had an overwhelming majority in the house. The house was thus mainly used to debate the annual budget and to enact laws.

It was probably out of frustration about the lack of opportunity to debate on important issues in the house that led Chia or the Barisan to submit a letter to the Speaker on 8 October 1966. The material part as quoted in Hansard (col. 342 of 26 October 1966) read :

“… the Party” (i.e. the Barisan Sosialis) “has decided that all Barisan ‘MPs’ will resign their ‘Parliamentary’ seats as from today. …”

The letter was signed by Chia but not the rest of the other eight Barisan members. Whether that letter constituted a resignation of Chia is debateable. The Speaker rightly refused to accept the resignation of the eight until personal letters of resignation were received subsequently. He however accepted the resignation of Chia on 18 October 1966, the same day as a letter of resignation signed by Lee Tee Tong was received by the Speaker. (Col. 344 of 26 October 1966). Why 18 October 1966 and not 8 October 1966 (the date of receipt by the Speaker) is also a mystery.

Tragically, on 29 October 1966, Chia was arrested under the ISA and imprisoned without trial for 26 years. Ironically, towards the latter part of his imprisonment, the P.A.P. insisted that Chia renounce violence. He refused since he had never advocated violence. It was clear from his speeches in the Legislative Assembly that he is a man of peace and did not believe in arms and violence. For his principle, Chia lost 26 years of the prime of his life and was subjected to severe restrictions for another 6 years. He left Singapore to pursue a Master and then a doctorate degree from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague after restrictions on his freedom to travel were lifted.

A true hero of Singapore, I salute Dr Chia for his courage, integrity and sacrifice for Singaporeans. When he graduated from Nanyang University at the age of 20 and embarked on a teaching career, the world was so bright for him and his family. Effectively trilingual, he is proficient in English, Malay and Chinese. But for cruelty of the P.A.P., Chia would have made enormous contributions to our country and the region.

I heartily congratulate Dr Chia on his receiving the Lim Lian Geok Spiritual Award.
[1] The award ceremony will be held at the Confucian Private Secondary School, Lorong Hang Jebat, 50150, Kuala Lumpur on 18 October 2011 at 10 a.m.


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

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