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Looking Back
One Man And An Island

Goh Koon Peng.

Singapore's Sentosa island was home to theme parks, golf courses and colonial tourist attractions. Then came Chia Thye Poh. Arrested without charge in 1966 and jailed without trial for 22 years, six months, two weeks and four days, Chia, left, with his father, was released from Singapore jails in 1989 to become Sentosa's only fulltime resident. The former physics teacher was forbidden to leave the island without written permission or to engage in any political activity. "This is still a prison," he said.

As a Barisan Sosialis (Socialist Front) legislator in the 1960s, Chia had boycotted parliament over the ruling People's Action Party decision to split from Malaysia — a step neither discussed in parliament nor put to the people. Chia, then 25, had also protested against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He was arrested with 22 other suspected leftist agitators under the Internal Security Act (ISA), an outgrowth of laws used by British colonialists to repress independence movements. All except Chia were eventually released. But he refused to confess to being a communist (only in 1985 did Singapore claim Chia was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya) or to renounce that party's alleged use of force and terror. "If you say I am guilty of something, let me defend myself in court," he repeated, year after year.

Often described as the world's longest-serving political prisoner after Nelson Mandela, Chia was permitted to leave Sentosa in 1992. Just two years ago, aged 57 and in failing health, he was suddenly freed from all restrictions. He immediately called for a repeal of the ISA, a notion swiftly rejected by the government. Chia is currently pursuing a master's in developmental studies in The Netherlands. "The struggle for democracy is much more than personal battles," he says. "They can jail me, but how are they going to jail democracy?"

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