ISA FOCUS Although enacted in 1960 to curb the communist insurgency, the Internal Security Act was, even in its early years, used against teenagers as young as 15.
According to former detainee Chong Tong Sin, police had in 1968 gone to Chinese secondary schools in Kluang, Johor, to arrest “30-40” students suspected to be involved in underground pro-communist activities.
“The youngest was probably 15 or 16. They were in school, only Form Three. All of them were arrested under ISA,” said Chong, who was 20 when detained himself.
He recalled that the law allowed for detention for up to 28 days then, for initial interrogation. (The duration has since been extended to 60 days.)
Some of the students were released after being questioned for 28 days at the Kluang police lock-up, while the rest – the youngest was about 17 – were sent to the Muar detention camp.
This was one of three detention camps in use at the time, the others being in Batu Gajah and Taiping.
“My schoolmate was only 19 and was put in the (Muar) detention camp for 10 years. He was in longer than me,” Chong, now a book publisher, said in a recent interview.
He himself would spend eight years under detention, witnessing the day that DAP leader Lim Kit Siang – who was arrested under the ISA in 1969 - was “booed” by other detainees.
“(This was) because he had supported the ISA (before that). People would boo him and say: ‘Hey Lim Kit Siang, apa ni? You sudah masuk!’ (Hey Lim Kit Siang, what’s happened. Now, you’re inside!),” he said, laughing.
Another prominent politician who shared the facilities with him in Muar was the DAP’s Karpal Singh, now the party’s national chairperson.
Chong, who had at that point dropped out of school to work as a labourer in Johor Bahru and Kota Tinggi, was nabbed in August 1968, after the raid on the school.
“Before that I had attended a demonstration and was arrested for illegal assembly. So I returned to Kluang for the court case. That’s when they arrested me (under the ISA),” he said.
At the tender age of 13, Chong had started showing interest in ideology and politics, joining an “underground” study group to learn more about these matters.
“It was a different time (compared to today). It was also because there was an (active social) movement. Your family and society would influence you.
“When you go to secondary school, there were already activities, and people would approach you. They gave me a book. A literature book, political, so you know these things. It’s not strange.”
Through the student movement, Chong attended demonstrations on the rights of workers and women, and was arrested twice. He was also nabbed for putting up posters in the town centre.
“Anti-imperliasm posters, anti-Vietnam war. Asking for more democracy, justice. Things like that….some local, some international issues.
“The movement was undergound but it wasn’t a big deal. We had classes to study about politics, ideology, culture…activities in school. We had small study groups to increase our cultural knowledge.”
A chance to improve
Chong also actively participated in the Labour Party activities “singing songs, going to picnics, demonstrations and joining night classes”. He believes that he escaped any form of torture because he was such a small fry.
“But I know of others who were tortured so they would provide more information. They would later accidentally name a friend. Sometimes they’d feel so guilty, they give in and confess on television to being communists. Some attempt suicide,” he said.
By the end of his 28 days in the Kluang lock up, Chong said he was presented with a detention order signed by home affairs minister Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman (right), which stated that he was pro-communist.
“(My interrogators) said ‘Congratulations. Now you can study more!’,” he said.
He was charged with being anti-national, pro-communist, for participating in the May Day and March 8 women’s day demonstration and reading material from the Singapore Socialist Front and the local leftist groups.
“Yes, I read the bulletins from the Socialist Front from here and Singapore. Did I participate in the major celebrations? Yes. But what’s wrong with that? They said I was anti-national. What’s anti-national?
“They say pro-communist. That’s their normal accusation. Many people were accused of being pro-communist.”
Instead of feeling dejected at the idea of spending two years, which later turned into eight, at the detention camp, Chong saw it as an opportunity to improve himself.
“I was happy. There were so many friends, mostly young people! It would be different if I was married with children. But I didn’t even have a girlfriend and my siblings were working, so my parents were okay.
“Also life outside was hard. I was poor. It was hard even to have a square meal,” said Chong who still retains that optimistic outlook on life.
Sticking to a strict routine of studies and exercise, he is today adamant that he did not “waste” his youth while being detained, and feels that he may not be where he is today had he not been disciplined then.
“I (told myself) ‘Now that I’ve been detained, I will exercise to keep fit and study’. At that time I couldn’t speak Malay. In the Chinese school we didn’t learn it. Terrible. I couldn’t speak English or Malay…
“I (felt I) must learn Malay because one day when I go out, I will still be part of the social movement. Malaysia has Malays, Chinese and Indians and other ethnic (groups), so (speaking) Malay is very important. I couldn’t see how it would work if I didn’t know the language.”
Filtering out thoughts
He said the Muar detention camp did not have high walls and had large open spaces including a football field, so he did not feel so “depressed”.
“Not all the wardens were bad. After one, two, three years, they become friends and would play ping pong and football with you, but of course they were still on duty. Some still remember me when I see them now.
“We’d play football and kick the ball so that it would break the office window…There was a girl in the office who I wrote to. When I was released, I still wrote to her and she wrote back. I think if I stayed in detention longer, something would have happened,” he grinned.
When his mother came to visit, he would give her vegetables from his patch but this would only upset her.
“She’d say ‘Why are you giving me this? How long do you want to be here?’ She would say the neighbour’s son is already employed here and there, so later I would feel sad that I upset her.
“At night I’d also think of my parents, my siblings. But you need to filter out these thoughts or else you won’t survive.”
A friend, he said, spent all his time pondering when he would be released and would find lumps in his body, thinking it was cancer.
“He’d go to the doctor (but) would be told ‘It is nothing’, and then he’d get angry with the doctor,” he said, laughing.
Chong was among the first batch of “at least 200” inmates – comprising the whole Muar camp and with some from the Batu Gajah camp – who were moved to the new camp in Kamunting, Perak, in 1973.
“We were very happy to move to Kamunting. There were no cells, but dormitories instead. The air was fresh and cool, and there were no walls. Just barbed wire,” he said.
The conditions were so relaxed, he said, that the wardens started to lose control of the detainees who started climbing over the zinc walls to meet friends in other dorms – including the female dorm.
Their sense of ‘freedom’, however, was not to last.