Beyond the Blue Gate
by Teo Soh Lung
I was a teenager when the news that a group of people, including members of the Catholic Church, had been arrested for being Marxist conspirators exploded all over the media. I remember being shocked. I remember attending a church service shortly after the news had broken, organized to show support for those that had been arrested and for the Church. The church was packed to the gills.
The tension in the air was palpable. People were worked up, anxious, worried, and fearful. I remember being puzzled at the arrests. I remember looking at photos of those arrested and reading about their lives and thinking, these don’t strike me as being conspirators. Something is wrong. I remembering pondering the news reports in The Straits Times, trying to understand, trying the read between the lines. I remember thinking—what I’m reading and hearing on the news is not the whole story. But I didn’t know any better. And the news in Singapore was not about to deliver us anything more. And I was too young to understand the depth of the political and legal complexities involved.
Finally a bigger part of the whole story is revealed with Teo Soh Lung’s book, Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner. Teo was one of several people arrested for being a Marxist conspirator in 1987 and 1988. For four months she was detained in Whitley Road prison before being released and then—in April 1988, upon issue of a joint statement made with eight fellow detainees, claiming their innocence and the falsity of the arrests—she was promptly rearrested and detained again, this time for a period of two years.
What is apparent in Beyond the Blue Gate is that what led to those crazy arrests of 1987 and 1988 was not a concerted rebellion against the Singapore government by a bunch of evil, twisted Marxists. It was the beliefs and innocence of a somewhat loose collection of individuals who each in their own way was working to bring about greater justice and freedom in a tightly government controlled Singapore, and who believed, somewhat naively, that Singapore was democratic enough to allow rightful civil society and legal and political struggles to take place and who were blindsided when the law was used to suppress them in a most crushing way. As Teo says in the book when asked (by Professor Koh) what she had done to deserve arrest and detention, ‘I think the prime minister does not like me. I have offended him.’
Why this book is so important in the canon of Singapore history is obvious. It tells a side of history that for so long was blacked out. It is an eye-opener. There are few titles that exist in this category of untold histories—J.B. Jeyaratnam’s TK and Francis Seow’s TK are others—and each one is a rare gem. Neither are readily available on the mass market in Singapore. Fortunately Teo’s book is sold at major bookstores here and that is encouraging.
At the end of the book, Teo expresses her disbelief at the legal and political firestorm the joint statement ignited. Regret even, and a heavy sadness. If she had known how much furor and suffering the joint statement would end up causing, she says at one point, she might not have gone ahead with it. But would she have compromised her beliefs, her values and integrity, even by an inch? Everything in this book—the masterful narrative, the conviction and humanity in her voice, the skillful rendering of words—suggests that no she wouldn’t have, not even by an inch.
this book. From the day the ISA first knocked on her door in the middle of the night at her home in Jalan Limau Purut, to the interrogations and harsh treatment in the cold room, to the long days spent in prison that were filled with a pendulum of emotions that swayed between despair, anger, determination and hope, to the tedious and fraught legal battle she and her brave lawyers fought to prove her innocence, to the imaginary friendships she formed with the lizards, crickets and other little creatures in her cell, to the jubilant day she was finally set free—each phase of her arrest and detention is described in precise and moving detail.
Because Teo is a lawyer and because she undertook a hefty legal case against the government, a significant part of the book is given over to a telling of her case and the legal implications and explanations underlying her arrest and detention. This expert and personal telling gives a legal perspective to the events of the time, and of Teo’s case in particular, and is very important because it unveils for the common reader why and how certain stringencies in Singapore law came to be. For instance, why Cabinet can preside over the Court of Appeal, which is meant to be the highest court in our land and why Parliament can amend the constitution, which in any democracy is supposed to be sacrosanct, and why appeals to the Privy Council, the highest court in the Commonwealth, were abolished.
But the beauty how of Teo presents her legal viewpoint and account lies in how she interweaves that beautifully with her personal feelings and experiences, her simple poetry, her interactions with her prison guards and ISA officers, which range for the cordial to the downright hostile, her constant thinking of the welfare of her friends, family and fellow accused and her great admiration for those who dared to stand up for her. What we see in this book is also a portrait of Teo, a highly intelligent, tough and compassionate woman with a deeply entrenched sense of justice and human rights, who should not be underestimated.