Over the Easter weekend, friends and I visited former political prisoner, Pak Said Zahari and his family in Kuala Selangor. He has not been well, having suffered another stroke in recent months. Taking good care of him is his elder daughter, Rismawati.
Said Zahari, now 85, was imprisoned for 17 long years without trial when the governments of Singapore, Malaya and Great Britain mounted Operation Cold Store on 2 Feb 1963. It was not a security operation as the governments claim. Released archival documents from Kew Gardens have confirmed that the government of Singapore was hoping to obtain from Said Zahari information which he did not possess.
Said Zahari was the sole breadwinner of his family before his arrest. His incarceration left his wife Salamah to raise four young children for the next 17 years. His eldest child, Roesman was only seven and Rismawati, his elder daughter was six. Norman, his third child was four and was adopted by Salamah’s elder sister. His wife was six months’ pregnant with their fourth child, Noorlinda.
More than 120 people were arrested at the dawn of 2 Feb 1963. Till today, no one can confirm how many were actually arrested. A few hours before his arrest, Said Zahari was elected president of Partai Rakyat. Prior to that election, he was the editor of Utusan Melayu, an independent Malay newspaper. He had led a 93 day strike for editorial independence in Malaya in 1961 when the Malayan government wanted to control the paper.
Said Zahari was not and is not a communist. Why he was imprisoned for such a long time, Said Zahari said was a question that only Lee Kuan Yew can answer. When asked if he anticipated being imprisoned for 17 years, he said he never expected that. He thought it was going to be for one or two years or two or three years.
During those long years of imprisonment, Said Zahari was shifted from prison to prison. He was subjected to solitary confinement in tiny, hot, dark, dirty and bug infested cells in Central Police Station (now demolished). He was confined for months in those cells when prison rules forbade such practice. During those years, he lived through emotional hardships. His wife, Salamah gave birth to their youngest child, Noorlinda without him by her side. Five years into his imprisonment, his wife underwent a breast cancer operation. Again he was not by her side. The family had no financial resources. Salamah worked at a food stall with the help of her young children. Friends helped them. Said Zahari’s memoir, Dark Clouds at Dawn records his ordeals.
As editor of Utusan Melayu before his arrest, Said Zahari led a reasonably comfortable life. He drove a Peugeot 403. Though his life and that of his young family was completely ruined by his long imprisonment, he held on to his beliefs and ideals. The government wanted him to give an undertaking that he would give up arms. He refused because he was never armed.
We had the opportunity to speak to Said Zahari’s elder daughter, Rismawati. She was only six when he was cruelly taken away by armed gurkhas and security officers. Two police cars and a military jeep were involved. Such was the drama played out by those in power to terrify the population.
In narrating life without her father, Rismawati who is now 55, broke down several times. “Life was really tough for us when my father was taken away. My mother had to work at a foodstall. We would help her over the weekends when we were not at school.”
Every week, Salamah and her children would visit Pak Said. A glass panel separated the detainee from his family. Rismawati was too young to understand what had happened to her father. All she knew was that her father was jailed because he was “doing something good”. When she was older, she understood that he was jailed because of politics. She was proud of her father.
What was the impact of her father’s 17 years imprisonment on her? Rismawati said she was as strong as her mother. She took care of her four children and her father when both her mother and husband passed away in December and July ten years ago.
Seventeen years in prison without trial is a long time. Many of the men responsible for Said Zahari’s ordeals are dead. Will there ever be a “Confessions of Saint Augustine?”
By Teo Soh Lung