An Icon of Singaporean Resistance Dies

Said Zahari, a onetime leading journalist who was one of an extraordinary group of anti-colonialists who became implacable foes of the late Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of modern Singapore, has died in Malaysia at age 88.

Arrested in February of 1963 under the colonial-era Preservation of Public Security Ordinance in the infamous Operation Coldstore engineered by Lee, Zaid spent 18 years in prison, outlasted in detention only by teacher and activist Chia Thye Poh, who was held for 23 years without charge or trial and was subsequently placed under house arrest for another nine years. The still-active Chia, now 75, finished his doctoral thesis in development economics in 2006.

Zaid was a friend and associate of Poh Soo Soon Kai, who himself spent a cumulative 17 years in Singapore’s prisons. Poh recently published his memoirs, Living in a Time of Deception, which described the tumultuous days at the founding of the modern nation-state and was harshly critical of Lee Kuan Yew, whom he once called a "political pimp.”

The world has long been told that Lee beguiled the Communists into backing the People’s Action Party and once in power turned on them, jailing them after riots in 1955 revealed their true colors, into the process making Singapore a crucial bulwark in Asia against the Communist tide. In fact, according to Poh and others, the 117 who were locked up were mostly never communists but were rather political foes of Lee with different ideas of what the modern Singapore should be.

Poh, in his book, described Said’s detention, saying that after his arrest he was held in a cell measuring 5-1/2 feet by 11 feet and questioned day and night. He was allowed out of the cell for 10 minutes to have a bath on the first day, with the time gradually increasing to 30 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon. The prisoners were regularly beaten. In a documentary made after his ultimate release, Said said he had been threatened with death if he did not confess his alleged crimes and cooperate with the authorities.

In 1961, as editor in chief of the Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu, the most influential paper in the country at the time. Said led a vain journalists’ strike when it was taken over by the United Malays National Organization, the leading political party in Malaysia, a move that, along with eventual ownership of all of the mainstream press in Malaysia by political parties, ultimately ended press freedom in the country. He was barred from entering the country by TunkuAbdul Rahman, an order that was rescinded by Mahathir Mohamad. He moved to Kuala Lumpur to join his children in the 1980s. He remained a strong advocate of press freedom.

Besides Poh and Chia, others detained with them included Singaporeans Lim Chin Siong, Lim Hock Siew – one of the founders of the People’s Action Party – and Lim Guan Teik, who would go on to become chairman in Malaysia of Muda Holdings Bhd. In the documentary made after his release, Said spoke fluent Mandarin, which was said to have been taught to him by Lim.

A charismatic leader and a poet, Said came close to not being released from Changi because his poems had been smuggled out for readers, according to the book by Poh.

As Poh and others described it, the Singaporean authorities promised freedom to those who would recant and confess to being communists. He, Chia and Said refused to do so, paying for their principles with decades in Changi Prison.

The Star, a Kuala Lumpur-based tabloid, said Said had faced financial difficulties in the past 30 years due to the lack of income. He remained an icon to Singaporeans and Malaysians alike, according to the Star, who often visited him in his rented home in Subang and later a tiny flat in Shah Alam. He was said to have been debilitated by a series of strokes in his later years.