Free--After 32 Lost Years

CHIA THYE POH IS STILL LEARNing to savor his newly restored freedom. A former member of the Singapore Parliament and leader of the Socialist Front, a small opposition party, he was arrested in 1966 under Singapore's Internal Security Act, which provides for detention without charges or trial. Chia had attempted to organize a protest rally against the Vietnam War, timed to coincide with a visit to Singapore by the then President Lyndon B. Johnson. He had also resigned his seat in Parliament two weeks earlier in protest over the way in which -- as Chia saw it -- the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had been keeping the legislative body in almost permanent recess. In 1989 Chia was finally released from prison, but was sentenced to internal exile on a small island in the Singapore Strait. In 1992 the authorities allowed him to return home to Singapore, but under restrictions prohibiting him from joining any organization, making any public statements or contacting any of his fellow former detainees. The government lifted the last of these restrictions only last November. Chia, 57, a former physics lecturer who now works as a part-time translator, recently spoke with NEWSWEEK'S Ron Moreau in Singapore. Excerpts:

MOREAU: How does it feel to be free after 32 years of jail and tight political restrictions?
CHIA: At long last, the government is allowing me to live the life of an ordinary citizen. But it's such a belated move; 32 years is a very long time. When I was arrested in 1966 I was 25 years old and now I'm getting old, nearing 58. The best part of my life was taken away just like that, without any charge or trial in a court. So now I need to adjust myself to new conditions: a lot has changed over three long decades.

What was the worst part of your long incarceration?
When I was put in solitary confinement in what was called the "dark cell." It's not an ordinary prison cell. It's totally dark, totally quiet. Usually you could not hear or see anything either inside or outside your cell. To intimidate me, the Internal Security Department officers told me that prisoners held in such cells go totally insane in just a few days. One of my first nights there, I could hear someone in the next cell violently kicking his cell door. Hearing that noise, I thought someone really had gone insane.

How did you keep your sanity in the dark?
I talked to myself. I told myself that if I allowed myself to go insane then I couldn't do anything positive; my life would be a waste. Also, I taught myself to think in a positive way. I thought about how some other, very ordinary people were living in worse conditions and were more unfortunate than I was: the blind and the handicapped, for example. That gave me the spirit and courage to carry on.

Why were you kept in jail for so long?
Officers told me that the only way out was for me to sign a statement prepared by the Internal Security Department. They wanted me to confess to being a member of the Communist Party and to having infiltrated myself into the Socialist Front to carry out illegal activities aimed at destabilizing the government. Of course the statement was completely false. I was never a member of any communist party. So I refused to sign.

Do you regret, now, that you didn't sign that untrue confession so as to get out of jail?
No. How could I have any regrets? The government wanted me to sign a statement that was not true. Some political detainees who did sign such statements weren't released straight away. They were kept in solitary confinement for months or even years more. But there was no question of my ever signing. That would have been against my conscience. I wouldn't have been able to live in peace with myself.

Do you have any political plans now?
At present I have no specific plans. The government said that if I were to take up activities detrimental to the security of the state I would be dealt with severely. None of my past activities were ever detrimental to the security of the state. I was in opposition, so it was only natural that my views would be different from those of the government. So now, after 32 years and so many changes, I have to talk to people, and to the opposition, to see what I can do, to see how I can contribute. But I see myself more as a follower of the opposition than as an activist for any political party.

How do Singaporeans react to you now? Are you a forgotten man after so many years?
I've received some calls from friends but not too many. The government has been alleging for so long that I'm a communist that it may have affected people's minds.

Do you have hard feelings toward Lee and the government?
Nobody wants to be in prison for so long. But I have no personal grudge against anybody because my main concern is [government] policy. If the policy is unjust or inhumane then other people will suffer, too. That is why I feel very strongly against this Internal Security Act, and that's why I've issued a statement calling for its immediate abolition.

Many Singaporeans say the government is politically more relaxed and open now.
As long as the act is still there, the fear will still be there, because this act tramples on human dignity. So I don't feel that things have changed much politically.