Readers of this blog who are unfamiliar with the goings on in Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, may think reading the comments that there are many who think Singapore is a democracy based on the rule of law. The reader is warned that they may be Singapore government employees whose job is to discredit those who criticize Lee Kuan Yew's authoritarian rule. Please use your discretion as to how much weight you will give these comments.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On the 17th of September, 2008, after a trial of 8 days, Judge Kan Ting Chiu of the High Court Singapore found me guilty of insulting Judge Belinda Ang. I did no such thing, but in Singapore they can make anything happen. The corrupt judges are there to do anything Lee Kuan Yew wants. And in this case, it will please Lee to have me arrested and jailed for criticizing a Singapore judge. It is as you know, Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore. What I did was to write a blog post on the Internet criticizing Judge Ang for being biased in favor of Lee Kuan Yew and his son in their defamation case against Dr. Chee and the SDP. It was nothing more than an exercise of freedom of speech guaranteed to me by United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The trial before Judge Kan was nothing but a show trial. The judge of course went through the motions of legalese and procedures. But in the end, as expected I was found guilty. He was not acting as a judge in a case. He was sending a signal on behalf of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew that it is dangerous to criticize Lee's government or his judges. I have a blog post just on my case here. Please read it.
My sentence was 3 months jail. I had asked for time to arrange my matters before I surrendered my person to jail.
A day before surrendering myself to jail, I went to see Dr. Chee Soon Juan at his office at Jalan Gallegos off Jalan Leban along Upper Thomson Road in the afternoon. We both came down to talk at a coffee shop below. He gave me good advice. He told me not to lose my spirit in jail. "Always keep your chin up" he says. "Lee Kuan Yew wants to break your spirit. Don’t let him", he says. “The thing that Lee hates most is when his victim refuses to give in”. “Never let him win”, he says. “If you stand tall despite the punishment, you win and he loses”. “Keep your spirits about you”, he says. And he finished with reminding me that “it is an honor to go to jail for your beliefs”. Not many in Singapore can claim to do that.
My request for time was granted. I reported to the High Court registry 3 days later on the 20th of September 2008 at 12 noon. I had brought along some books to read, as I knew that prison meant nothing to do at all every day. At the High Court registry I was ordered to hand over my books to the police there who promised to hand them to the prison and later I could receive them.
I was handcuffed and taken down from the 5th floor of the High court to street level in an elevator. 2 policemen were escorting me. At street level, I rode the prison van from the High Court to Queenstown Prison. I still had my watch with me. The time was about 2 pm. After a ride of about 30 minutes, I arrived at Queenstown Remand Prison.
I was taken to a room and asked to take off all my clothes and change into prison clothes which were a blue pair of shorts and a white T shirt. A prison warden was watching me do it. I was asked to put my own clothes and shoes into a container which was taken away.
I was then told to sit at a counter facing an officer in the next room. Here there was a row of about 4 counters where prison officers will carry out the procedures for prisoners recording their personal items for safekeeping. The officer was seen taking out all the items I had and recording them one by one; one watch, one wallet, one comb, etc. After recording, he takes a picture with mounted cameras of the items taken and they were recorded.
I was given a plastic bracelet which I was asked to wear. This bracelet had my prisoner number 101232008. Thereafter I was prisoner 101232008.
Once that was over, I was given a box with an open cover and a thin floor mat. In the box were one towel, a piece of soap in a container, a small toothpaste which had no fluoride and no brand which was made in China, a plastic cup and a soft plastic toothbrush which could be bent any way and a plastic container for holding water.
The warden ordered me to carry the floor mat and the box 4 flights of stairs to the 4th floor. My cell was to be cell 422 on the 4th floor A block. I entered the cell. There were 2 other men in that cell, Mr. Pham, a Vietnamese national who was given 50 days in jail for being a cashier for a roadside gambling operation in Lorong 14, Geylang and Mr. Chu, also Vietnamese, who was given 20 days for selling duty unpaid cigarettes at Lorong 23 Geylang. Pham was 26 years old and Chu was 36. Pham could speak a little English but Chu nothing at all.
The cell is about 10 feet wide and about 25 feet long. The ceiling was very high. There are no windows. From an opening covered by a mesh of about 1 foot in breath at the ceiling on the opposite end of the door, you could tell whether it was day or night because of the light from outside. There was also a similar opening above the door.
On the 4th floor just as in the other floors, there are a long row of cells like mine on both sides of a walkway.
The door of my cell occupies half the front of the cell. On the other half of it is an open squat down toilet. This means there is no privacy when you relieve yourself. You sleep on the hard cement floor on your thin mat. There is no bed or cushions. The sleeping was in cramped conditions as the floor space was small for 3 people.
The first day was hard for me. There was 8 weeks to go, and this was my first day.
Thereafter there was the daily routine. As you have no watch, you cannot tell the time. But it was roughly like this. You get up before sun up when it is still dark. No one wakes you up but you get into that routine. At about 7.30 am, you hear a bell ringing five times. This means you have to stand up with your cell mates with your hands behind you. An officer passes your cell and slides open the peep hole. You then say "Good Morning Sir" all together.
After that you go back to sleep if you want. About an hour later your cell is opened by a warden. Outside there is another prisoner who brings a large vessel with either tea or coffee with bread spread thinly with either butter or jam. This alternates daily each day. One day, coffee with bread and jam and the next day, tea with bread and butter. Breakfast is the same routine day after day. You also take fresh water in your container that you have. Then your cell is locked. You eat your breakfast in your cell.
After your breakfast, you and your cell mates arrange each of our boxes in a row, one against the other, waiting for the cell to be opened again for you to go to the yard. Each day, we are allowed 45 minutes in a yard outside the cell. I was kept away from the other prisoners at all times. The other prisoners in the building were taken to a large yard where they could play games and interact with others. In my case, they made sure that I had no contact with the prison population. I together with my cell mates were taken to a special rooftop yard where there was no one else other than the three of us. They did not want me to speak to the other prisoners. They did not want the other prisoners to know why I was in prison.
Before we could go to the yard, we were subjected to an unpleasant procedure. We were required to strip naked, hold the T shirt in one hand and the shorts in the other, squat down and open your mouth while a warden watched. There was also a camera watching you. The reason given for this procedure was to ensure that we did not have any hidden contraband in any orifice or in the mouth. But this was demeaning. There is no way we could have any contraband since we were locked up 23 hours of the day and the rest of 45 minutes we were under guard. It is quite clear that the reason for this demeaning procedure was to belittle the prisoner. To humiliate him and humble him.
The small rooftop yard was one flight of stairs above my cell floor. After the 45 minutes in the yard, we were brought back to our cell. We then took our soap and towels and accompanied the warden to a shower. Again, they made sure that even my shower was separate from the other prisoners. We were led to a small shower room where only myself and my 2 other cell mates had our shower.
The shower was about 15 minutes. At the shower the warden will ask you if you need a shave. If so, another prisoner will bring your shaver, specially marked with your number. You are required to use the same razor throughout your prison term. Being Indian I had more facial hair than my cell mates, they being Vietnamese. But I never got a new razor throughout my 8 weeks in prison. Maybe if I asked for a new razor, I would have been given one, but it was not necessary.
While you shower and shave a warden will be watching you. You get used to nakedness and being constantly watched.
After your shower you are taken back to your cell and locked up. After about an hour or so, your cell door opens again and outside you find another prisoner with 3 trays of food and a water bucket. You take fresh water in your small water container and each of us bends to the ground to pick up our food tray. The demeaning thing about it is that a warden stands next to your food tray and you have to bend down to pick it up from his feet. As if you are bowing to him. I have no doubt they do it intentionally. Sometimes to avoid the humiliation of this, I used to pick up the food tray from the floor with my back facing the warden. I was not challenged for doing it that way.
Lunch was again routine. Sometimes you had a piece of fried fish with rice and vegetables which I liked the most. Other days the food was a fish cake or sausage or sometimes just noodles and vegetables. On occasion we had Nasi Lemak which was small pilchards fried and peanuts and curry paste. The food was all right but it wasn't good. For lunch you also had a fruit which was invariably an apple, an orange or a small banana. Almost everyday, the best thing I enjoyed was that single fruit.
About an hour later you hear the bells again. And you stand in a row with your hands behind you back to say "Good Afternoon Sir" when the peep hole opens on your door and the warden passes.
After about 2 hours later the door opens again, this time for dinner. The same routine with changing your water bucket for fresh water and taking your food tray. About an hour later, you hear the bells again and you stand up in a row and say "Good Morning Sir" when the officer opens your peep hole on your door.
And then it gets dark and you go to sleep for another day of the same routine tomorrow.
You get a pen and paper every 14 days to write a letter to someone. After you have written the letter your paper and pen is taken away. The same happens 2 weeks later. Once I had some cancellations made in my letter and it was rejected and I was told to write again without erasures. Since I had all the time in the world with nothing to do, I read. But the books are not given to you immediately. You only get the books about 2 days after you had requested them. The reason for the 2 day delay is because the books have to be cleared by a censor, whatever that means. I read about 6 books while in jail. Had I anymore more books, I would have read more, but that was all I had. You see, in prison, there is absolutely nothing to do, being locked up 23 hours a day. In fact, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong if you would call it, a full room service hotel with no stars.
During my time there, US Consul Learned Dees visited me and provided consular assistance. Just before my release, Jamie Revitz took over from Learned Dees and met me twice.
On one occasion, I had told Rehabilitation Officer Mohammed Fahmi that I was unhappy to be forced to suffer the indignity every day of having to strip naked before a prison warden before going to the yard and opening my mouth. I told him that I was contemplating disobeying that rule since it was totally unnecessary and demeaning of a human being. A little while later this officer came to see me and asked me to sign a disciplinary warning that I had threatened to disobey a prison regulation and that I was being warned for a violation. I refused. I said that the way the report was written did not reflect what actually happened.
A little while later the Officer Commanding of Block A, my cell block, Assistant Superintendent of Prisons G Savier came to see me. He is an Indian Tamil. He appeared to relish the fact that I was in prison because I criticized a judge. I told him that I refused to sign something that was inaccurate. After some discussion, another warden came to see me. He asked me to take my box from my room and follow him. He took me to another cell, where I was to be all alone. This cell had a camera inside. This was solitary confinement. He locked me inside. As I knew that I cannot win in an argument in prison, regardless of how right I was, I asked G. Savier if I could now sign whatever he wanted. I then signed the document that he prepared even though it was not what had actually happened. I was prepared to sign anything he wanted. I knew that in prison, they are always right. I signed it, and I was returned to my own cell with my cell mates. I escaped solitary.
What they are trying to do in prison is to humiliate you. To humble you. To make you submit. For instance each time an officer speaks to you, you are ordered to squat down on the floor. You are not allowed to speak to him standing up. I tried to avoid squatting on the floor as much as I can by saying that my foot hurt.
While in prison, I was not allowed a single visitor other than the US Consul, even though I gave the wardens several names of people that I would like a visit from. I wrote to them in prison stationary asking them to visit. But I was told that no one applied to visit me. After I was released, I found out from Singapore Democratic Party activists that as many as 15 people applied to visit me. The prison did not allow a single one. I also did not receive a single letter. I do not know whether it was because no one wrote to me, or because the prison did not give me any of the letters.
Throughout my time in prison of 8 weeks, I kept my spirits up. To give myself comfort, I thought of Nelson Mandela who had to spend 26 years in prison. Of Gandhi who spent many years in it. Of Dr. Chee Soon Juan. Of Marwan Bargouti, the Palestinian who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli Jail. Of Ahmed Kathrada in Robbin Island, South Africa. Of Steven Biko who was murdered in custody. And not forgetting Chia Thye Poh and Lim Chin Siong who languished for a long time in Lee Kuan Yew’s jails. Compared to them what was 8 weeks. Cheer up, Gopalan Nair, you are stronger than that, I would say.
Finally the day came for my release. On Nov 20, 2008 I was taken in handcuffs in a prison van to Immigration and Checkpoints Authority next to Lavender MRT. I was processed again, fingerprints taken, my pictures taken and given a warning by Mr. Hughes Tan who works there that I was deported from Singapore. I was allowed 5 days to remain in Singapore to arrange my affairs and to leave Singapore permanently on November 26, 2008 from Changi Airport. I arranged my ticket in the meantime, and then it was Goodbye Singapore forever. I boarded flight SQ2 enroute to Hong Kong and San Francisco.
I had lost a lot of weight. That was one good thing that came out of it. Of course, it was a great adventure. Also a great honor to have been in Lee Kuan Yew’s prison for a cause that I am proud of.
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