The second and final part of an Aliran interview in 2002 in memory of this Independence era journalist and editor, a towering pioneer in the struggle for press freedom in this region.
How does one spend 17 years in detention without compromising one’s principles? Former Utusan Melayu editor and press freedom pioneer Said Zahari shares with us his spirituality and says his faith in a God of justice and truth was the light that sustained him during those long dark years.
Aliran: You spent 17 years in detention. It must have been a very lonely and bitter experience. What kept you going?
Said Zahari: Actually I was in prison proper for almost 16 years – you know, prison walls, prison cells, everyday being locked up day and night – and then almost a year in exile.
In all this period, I must say that I never thought in the first place that I had been detained for so long. During the first couple of years in prison, I knew that as long as I stood by my principles… you know, I refused to compromise with them; compromise here means to admit to what they accuse you of having committed.
Once you admit that – meaning you cooperate with them – you help them justify why you were in the first instance arrested and detained for so long. Having helped them to justify your own arrest, then they will release you.
And if you refuse to do that, then they will continue (to detain you) because under the ISA, they can continue the detention every two years. When I reached my fifth detention order, which is entering the 10th year, I knew political change had taken place in Singapore and Malaya. Singapore had come into Malaysia, been kicked out of Malaysia, became independent and so on.
So, it was again as a matter of principle: first, as a journalist on the freedom of the press; second, as a politician – though I had not even entered (the political fray) nor been allowed to be active in politics. Hours after my acceptance of the leadership of the party [Parti Rakyat Singapura], I was arrested.
In other words, (it was) the principle of fighting for justice, social justice, for freedom, and for the unity of our people. We wanted to have a democratic Malaya with a truly democratic government, practising social justice and anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. On that principle alone, somehow I sort of kept myself alive, so to speak, for that long in prison.
Many people were wondering whether it was worthwhile: if you had come out, maybe you could have done something outside.
I asked them, “Tell me, those who had given up, those who had confessed their ‘mistake’ – although they did not commit any ‘mistake’ in the first place, those who had sold their souls for their freedom – tell me, (was there) anyone (among them) who could have done something after their release?”
None. We had seen many – issued a statement, came out and then suddenly disappeared – lost in oblivion, politically speaking.
So I knew about it. (At times I wondered), if I give up today, maybe I can do something. But that something was non-existent.
Someone said, “You know, Said, a free mouse is better than a caged tiger.. . [Said laughs] Even a mouse, if it is free, at least it can run around a little bit; it can do something. But a caged tiger can’t do anything.”
I said, “You may be right, but a free tiger, whose gigi [teeth] had already been pulled out (laughs), there is nothing you can do.” (Laughs heartily)
I mean that was the kind of criticism or rather advice (I received). I don’t blame them; they meant well. They were sympathetic, you know – even a couple of friends who thought that I should give up and come out.
Including the Master of Cambridge University, when he wrote to me, as an older man perhaps. He said: “You know, you have spent so many years in prison. Nobody will ever quarrel with you if you accept the suggestion by the government to get yourself freed and released, take care of your children” and so on.
Now this was all sincere advice, concern, but without thinking of the struggle, what I was fighting for.
Nowadays, you hear a lot about Islam in current affairs and all that. Obviously you must have been quite a devout Muslim at that time as well. What part did your spirituality, God, and Islam have to play in your struggle?
I think basically it did. I am a Muslim by birth. And maybe my devotion to Islam… the way I look at it from the situation now, I must say that I learned more about Islam when I was in prison – which is the irony of it.
Before my arrest, when I was young, I picked up all this Islamic… mainly ritual, rather than understanding what Islam was really all about. I prayed; I fasted during the fasting month – betul-betul puasa, tak makan satu hari… lapar. I could stand it. So far as that is concerned, I don’t know whether I can call myself a good Muslim at that time, you know, as a child.
It was only after I went to prison that I came to look into religion, not just Islam. I started looking for books. I asked for the Qur’an, the translated version. I asked for al-Kitab, the Bible in Malay. I also had the New Testament. I read some books on Buddhism and Hinduism. It took me months to read all these books, before I got a better understanding of the role of religion in our life.
And I must say that I learned more about Islam, even as a Muslim, in prison than outside prison. I was arrested at the age of 34, and my Islam was more ritual than real understanding of what religion is all about. But in prison I started to read books on Islamic philosophy and so on, especially the translation of the Qur’an. I knew the Qur’an; I knew Islam well, through the English translation.
So in this sense, when I look back, what gave me the strength? I found one thing very certain: first, in Islam (what) is called the iman, the faith. And it was this faith, this iman, that sustained me. It is difficult for you to understand unless you go through this experience, the detention, especially during the solitary confinement.
You see, it was during the solitary confinement that you can either go mad or you can quickly raise the white flag. So if you go mad… if you want to fight on and yet, you can’t do anything; what can give you strength to continue to fight?
Or otherwise, okay-lah you raise the white flag and hope if you are out, at least you can do something. This is what happened to some of our friends who were taken in under ISA. After a few days or a couple of months, they decided to go back to work, to change their attitude, or to sort of recant their activities in the past.
In my case, it was only mental torture; they didn’t touch me physically, maybe because of my position, my status in society. But the mental torture was worse than physical (torture). It is ‘better’ to be slapped a few times, you know – like (how) they slapped Syed Husin and after that it was over – but the mental torture stays.
That was the period of time… I didn’t know, but something said, You are doing the right thing; go ahead, endure it.
I didn’t know what that meant until later, when more reading material was given. When I had studied the Qur’an, the Bible and a few other books on Hinduism, Buddhism, I found one thing: you must have faith in something that you are fighting for. You get the strength from that.
In my case, being a Muslim, I got this kind of keimanan (faith), which gives me strength, because when I read through, I found that whatever happens to you – ultimately, in the final analysis – is decided by God.
It was not because God wanted me to go through this. It was because when you stand by certain principles in life that you want to fight for, you have to go through this. But God never allows anybody to be in that kind of situation forever. Up to a point.
So, it was in that kind of situation… where up to a point… that sort of changed the situation. The sacrifices that you had made and the suffering that you had undergone suddenly changed into strength. You suddenly see: since I am fighting for truth, I get this kind of help. And it is even promised by God.
So that gave me strength. I was not a very devout Muslim who prays everyday. (Sometimes I didn’t pray in prison), susah [difficult], dirty place.
Some people become more devout when they are in that kind of situation. Suddenly they think of God all the time.
But in my case, it was not so. I knew I was doing the right thing – through my understanding of religion rather than through performance of ritual.
I read to study – rather than to just read. So, if you look at my Qur’an that I had in prison… oh, macam-macam underlined, with notes on the side. So it was more studying; it was more trying to gain knowledge from it rather than the hope that by reading, I would suddenly get all the rewards. I never bothered about rewards of the afterlife. That is up to Him – if He wants to give.
How did you connect your faith with your struggle for social justice, with socialism as well?
I think it is very closely connected. In Islam, if you look at the role that Prophet Muhammad had played, to the have-nots, to the people who suffered, to the orphans, and to the orang susah, orang bawah [downtrodden]… if you look at Jesus Christ, he did the same thing.
Even Gautama, he was a king, (but) he gave up the kingship. He wanted to understand people; he wanted to understand life by looking at what was happening.
In my case, I always believed that what I fought for was true, was for social justice for the people. People to me means anybody – I did not specifically mention must be Malay or must be Muslim – all the people, all religions.
So that is the kind of belief that I had. And I think it had a lot to do with my religious understanding – when I stood by the principle of justice, of truth. Truth – I always believe in that.
When they talk about Islam nowadays, they tend to look at a very narrow interpretation of Islam. They look into the doctrine of Islam but not emphasising the spiritualism of Islam. Some of them even calculate that if I pray so many times, I get more rewards.
Not for us. We just do what we think is right, what we need to do, and let God – since you believe in God – let Him decide.
You must make sure that you do the right thing. I am not saying that rituals are irrelevant. But what is important is the truth; you should fight for truth. Because truth is not given; it has to be fought for.
You (have to) fight for something which is true, which is correct, and in the end, God will help you.