From University To Prison

── William Chu ──

A dream will come true?

  Studying in university was a dream. One day in the afternoon, I was reading newspaper in a coffee shop. Two Form Six students were discussing about joining the entrance test of Nanyang University. I was a Form Five student with government Form Five examination certificate (equivalent to Form Six school certificate).

  “Why should you waste another year to continue the study since you have already passed the government examination? You should apply for the entrance test. When you pass; you are qualified as an university student.”

  Reached home, I filled the application form and mailed it to Nanyang University.

  Two weeks later, I was so happy to learn that I was accepted to sit for the entrance test.

  I could not get the reference book and I did not prepare for the test. I doubted I could pass the test.

   I went for the test, anyway.

  About ten Form Six schoolmates joined the test; they were surprised to see me in the examination hall.

  One month later, I was informed that I had passed the test. My name appeared in the Department of Modern Language and Literature. I was so glad I could be an university student soon. At the same time, my family members were worried about my tuition fee. At that time, we were poor. Actually I had no money to buy the textbooks, not only the tuition fee. But I dared to find a way. I must try.

  A few days later, I received the Rules and Conditions for registration as a Nanyang University student. It stated that an original Form Six school certificate must be presented for inspection; and it described that:

  ‘Should any forged documents being found, the student would be expelled from the university...’

  It was a strong wording. The word "expel" engraved into my mind.

  I begged my school headmaster to provide me a Form Six school certificate as I had passed the Form Five government examination. This was permitted in some schools, but my headmaster refused to do so.

  At this juncture, I did not know what to do. Whether I should take the risk to go for registration or continuing my Form Six study or to follow my father's advice to study English in night class. My mother knew that I could not make up my mind, so she went to temple and brought back some exhortations.

  “This one...for William to study in university, this...to study in night class...” My mother passed the papers to my father.

  “This exhortation to study in Nanyang University is absolutely no good! It described that gold...will change to iron; tiger and wild...animal at our door step! William, William, you...mustn't go, you mustn't!”

  I tried to ignore my father's words. I continued to devote myself for reading book.

  “The degree of Nanyang University is not recognized by the government. Even if you graduated, you could not get a job.” My father was silent for a while and then he continued, “Recently, several students were arrested by the government... Why should you be so stubborn, thinking to study in the University?”

  “Why...should we... believe the exhortation?” I argued.

  “You have to survive by yourself. I'm not going to support you any more!”

  I was down hearted, I walked back to my room and I took out my second brother's letter which he wrote me a week ago:

  “I joined the third celebration in Nanyang University. When I saw the graduates one by one walked through the hall with smiles to receive their scrolls; I imagined then, if one day, my younger brother could join the procession, it was a pride to our family. Now, I was so glad to hear that you are going to study in the University; a dream will come true, it is a pride to our family...”

  In fact, my dream was turned into ashes.

  I was lying on bed, the whole night I could not sleep. The word "university", like a star glittering in front of me. At last, one single thought filled my mind. I should be sincere and honest, to study in pre-university class and I had to find a way to raise fund for my study.

  The next day, my father was cooled down, he allowed me to decide what I want to do.

  When I was leaving, my eldest brother gave me some money. My mother gave me all her savings.

  I left my hometown. I joined the pre-U class in Nanyang University.

A labourer, a great eater

  During the holiday, I intended to seek job in Singapore, but I failed to secure any job. I went back to my hometown. It was more difficult to get job in the small town. I had no choice but to be a labourer, working in an oil palm estate. I could earn three dollars a day.

  “An university student worked as a labourer to earn a couple of dollars!” some villagers teased my father.

  My father was so annoyed. I left my hometown.

  End of 1963, I was employed as a bar-bender, working in a construction site of a high-rise building. In order to save money, at dawn, I walked a few miles from Hai Sun Street to work site. When I passed the hawker street, I sat down on the wooden stool at the roadside and I ordered ten-cents noodle or porridge for my breakfast.

  On the first day, the canteen woman (boss) noticed I was a thin and fair student. She doubted I could endure eight working hours under the hot sun. In order to earn my lecture fee, I gritted my teeth and I worked hard. After several days, I became a "black man". The canteen woman gave a salute to me. At the same time, she noticed I was a great eater. I took 3-4 bowls of rice. A dollar for a lunch, food was limited, but rice unlimited. I had no proper breakfast, by lunchtime I was hungry; I ate as much as possible. The woman regretted setting that rule.

  After working one and a half month, I saved sixty over dollars; but the money was stolen.

Part-time worker in library

  Beginning of 1964, when most of the students were happy to resume their classes; I was downhearted. I had no money to pay fee. My father told me to stop my study. But I told him, I would try to find a part-time job to continue my study. I tried very hard to seek a part-time job, but failed.

  The first day and the first lesson was Chinese study. Our professor wanted to test our writing ability. He instructed us to write an autobiography on the spot. I submitted my true story that described my ambition and my struggle in the university. He was impressed by my story; at the same time, he sympathized with me and helped me to find a part-time job in the university. Later, I was recommended to the Dean of Library and he gave me a part-time job in the library. When I had received the confirmation letter of the post, I was so glad and I immediately boarded a train to my hometown to inform my mother of the good news. She listened with a cheerful smile on her face.

  Every month, I could earn sixty dollars for my tuition fee; I passed a peaceful year. Later, a storm cloud gathering over the campus of our university, two hundreds over students and staffs were expelled from the university. I was an executive member of a society then; and I was told that each executive member of the student societies might receive an expelling letter. I rushed down the town to find out whether I was served with an expulsion order. Good luck, I did not receive the letter; but I was ordered to stop working in the library.


  I put an advertisement in the local newspaper for "Tutor available". The response was good; I was employed for four families as a tutor. Every week I had to give tuition five times in the city. Sometimes, I did not finish my lesson in the university; I had to rush to town to give tuition. In the mid-night, when almost every one is in bed, I dragged my weary body back to the wooden house. After bathing, I had to prepare the subjects I was going to teach and at the same time, I had to prepare the lessons of the university. Usually, I went to bed after 2.00am.

  From Nanyang University to the downtown, it was about 15 miles of a winding road. And I had to walk about in city from family to family for tuition. Sometimes, my head was spinning when I was in the bus. While I was walking in the dusty, crowded streets under the hot sun, I was so sick; but I had to grit my teeth and persevered. Very often, I was empty stomach to give tuition. Sometimes, I had no money in my pocket; I ate one slice of bread for my breakfast and lunch.

  After struggling for two years, I was so weak and thin. Due to over-work, tension, pressure and worries, I could not sleep at night. My hair was falling down seriously. When I look at my photo which was taken in secondary school, I was so healthy and good looking, but then, when I looked at myself, from the depth of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me and my hair like dying grasses, withering in the air....

  Among the four families, one couple with spectacles who made models for wholesale; they treated me very well. In the evening, after teaching their son, they prepared food and they invited me to eat with their son. Every month, they gave me tuition fee before end of the month. Sometimes, due to over-work, I was asleep in their study room when I was teaching their son; they noticed, but they never blamed me. Perhaps, from my wearing, my small-built body and my weary face, they knew I was a poor student. They tried to help me; hopefully I could complete my course. Unfortunately, I was forced to leave them, without a chance to say 'good-bye'.

Slept at balcony, studied overnight

  In school holiday, I intended to earn more money, I increased the tuition classes. I slept at the balcony of an apartment in down town. A narrow room was impossible to squash in another person. I begged the tenant of the apartment to let me sleep in the hall. She refused, because the tenant had three daughters, it was inconvenient for a man to sleep in the hall. Later, I begged the tenant to let me sleep at the balcony and I paid her extra five dollars per month; this proposal was accepted. I slept at the balcony for two months, I used bamboo curtain to prevent the rain getting in. It was quite lucky, during that particular two months, no downpour; I could sleep soundly in the drizzling night.

  In 1965 and 1966, I spent most of my time giving tuition to earn my university expenditure. Usual day, I had no time to study. Two weeks before my university examination, I took leave and I spent most of my time in preparation for the year-end test.

  In 1965, I stayed in a village house, outside the campus. The house had no electricity; kerosene lamp was too dim; I went to the hall of faculty of commerce to study till the next morning. I was empty stomach and I walked in the examination hall, when I was sitting in the hall, holding my pen, I felt dizzy, I nearly vomited and I was out of breath. I held the table firmly, I controlled my body not to fall; after I regained my breath, I continued my writing. At last, I managed to complete my test paper.

Expelled from university

  September of 1965, Wang Gengwu Report, which recommending the reorganisation of Nanyang University, was released. There was unrest in the campus. Our Chinese Language and Literature Society and other nine societies put up a comment of the report. As such, the authority of Nanyang University sent out warning letters to parents of all executive members of the societies, claiming that we were involved in illegal activities. Besides warning, each of us had to sign for the prepared recanted letter. At that particular period, I was busy in teaching, I never had time to step in the society and I never read the comment.

  When my father received the warning letter, he rushed to Singapore from my home town with the letter. I knew it was serious.

  Later, boycotting lecture started. The authority of Nanyang University took stern action against the students. They expelled 84 students.

  My family members were very worried, they thought I was one of them, but fortunately, I was not on the list.

  In order not to give pressure to my parents, I promised that I would resign as an executive member of the Chinese Language and Literature Society. Since then, I had never attended any pro-government or anti-government speech and gathering. Since I had stepped down from the society, I should not be suspicious for any illegal activities.

  After the dismissal of staffs, after expelling of students, Nanyang University was tranquil for sometime.

  The council members of the university were re-structured. After that, they had to re-organise the student's societies--electing new executive member to back their new policy.

  An election campaign started.

  “For the progressing of our society, I hope you'll stand for the election.” Mr. Sui came to my hostel room and he said, “Now, all the societies were supported by our professors!"

  “Then, our societies were not supported by our previous professors?” I thought of my recanted letter, I was so annoyed and I continued, “I intend to step down, I have to work to earn my tuition fee, why should you pull me in again? What is your intention?”

  “This was all pre-arranged, I only follow instruction. Financially if you need help, I'll try to do something...”

  “Thank you for your offer; I want to survive by myself. I decided to withdraw from the election; I hope you don't force me.”

  Election went on. Five of us were elected. Most of us intended to resign, especially Mr. Noon and I. Mr. Noon and I were so angry. We went to Mr. Sui's hostel room. I asked:

  “You acted like a king, your word is an order. I disagreed. Why do you put my name in?”

  “I followed instruction. It was beyond my control!”

  “Anyhow, I'll withdraw, no one can stop me!”

  Mr. Noon and I insisted that our names should be struck off the list.

  New council members controlling the management of the university and new executive members of the societies were backing. They organised an opening ceremony. A V.I.P was invited for the speech in Oct. 1966. During his addressing, a group of students stepped out and protested; one of them went on the stage and challenged the V.I.P. for debating, and his supporters were yelling down the stage. It was all in a sudden, the situation was beyond their control. The V.I.P. and the council members of the university were so embarrassed. (Mr. Noon and I were not there. I learned about this happening 33 years later.)

  In the evening of 16.11.1966, Mr. Noon and I were studying in our hostel. Suddenly, a group of student rushed back from the library; they were shouting.

  “What's the matter?” I looked down from my window and asked.

  “You and your roommate were expelled by the disciplinary committee!” a student said.”

  Mr. Noon and I dashed to the library. Our names appeared on the notice board. 50 students were expelled. The reasons of expel were: ‘Boycott lecture, writing slogan, illegal activities...’

In the jail

  About 5.00am at dawn of 17.11.1966, someone called my name. I got up and when I opened the curtain, I saw the riot police and soldiers. Our hostel was under siege. I dressed up and I waited for them to come; as I was not involved in any illegal activities, why should I scare of? The policemen came to our room; they searched for a while and one policeman said:

  “Take your daily use and follow us!”

  “Where... are... we going...sir?” I asked with broken voice.

  “Don't ask me; just follow my instruction. It's an order!”

  Mr. Noon and I holding a paper bag in hand and we followed the policemen walking to the trucks which waiting in the car park. Mr. Noon, I and six other students were ordered to sit down on the floor. Then, we were instructed to register our name and waiting for further instruction. I felt and it seemed that we were sitting there waiting for our holiday bus to come.

  “Where are we going madam?” I asked.

  “For... an interview.”

  What kind of interview? I guessed they might need some information from us or gave us a chance to appeal for the revision of our expulsion.

  After waiting for half an hour, dozens of riot police surrounded us, we were under siege and we were handcuffed.

  “Go into the police truck; one by one!” the policeman with truncheon yelling.

  “Where... are...we...going...sir?” I asked in despair.

  “You'll know later.”

  I sat in the truck, with my head down, my back bent. When I was handcuffed, I knew, it was serious; either a murder case or criminal case.

  After a heavy silence, the engines of the police trucks were on, the riot trucks guarding at the back, we were on our way...

  I raised my head, from the small window, I glimpsed at my University:

  There..., the lover's trees around the hills, the wriggling water of the Nantah pond.

  The library I love to go; the bench that I used to sit on.

  This was my last glance.


  My throat was choked. I could only murmur a few words. My tears liked two drops of wax, flowed from my eyes.

  We were delivered and reached a building known as ‘prison’. I knew my fate had been sealed. I was under I.S.A.─no trial, no justice.

  Was I detained for allegedly planning to topple the government? Was I a terrorist to endanger the security of the country?

  We walked through several M.S. gates, solid gates. A high security prison for two of us arrested in hostel without revolt?

  “Sit down; take record and measurement one by one!” The woman officer looked at us with piercing eyes. Why must she take our measurement? If I lost weight when I walked out the jail, was I entitled to claim damages?

  I walked to the woman officer. This woman, at time, gazed at me when she took my weight and height.

  “I am...not...feeling well.” I said in broken voice.

  “You're fresh, you aren't used to it. After sometime, and you'll feel better.”

  I looked at her merciful face. I did not consider it was a hell and I did not consider the situation so grim.

  “I need a...doctor, madam.” I begged for her without reason, like a child in need of the mother's care when the child was in darkness.

  “I'll report to doctor, ok?” She replied, “The doctor will take good care of you, don't worry.”

  Perhaps, she did not want to dishearten me and to rub salt in my wounds.

  After completion of registration, we were led one by one to 4th floor and we were locked up in solitary cell. Mr. Noon walked in front of me; he stared at me with terror-stricken eyes when he entered the cell.

  “What's... going...on?” He burst into tears.

  My lips were paralysed, my throat was choked, and I could not say any word to console him.

  When I was locked up in my solitary confinement, I was stunned. I wanted to talk but no one around me. I wanted to beg for someone to convey my message to my mother saying that I was well taken care of in jail but no one would listen to me.

  I could die at any moment in the cell, by heart attack, by suffocating, by fire or starvation. Now I knew, the moment I was locked up in the solitary cell, I really knew what the meaning of "freedom" was.

  Inside the cell of the prison, there is a single bed with a blanket; a sanitary container with a cover. From the hole of the solid wooden door, I could see the long corridor.

  Night had fallen; some piercing cries and sobbing voices split the silent night.

  I was so sick and so weak. I lay down on bed, but I could not sleep. I spent the night turning over thoughts and memories of my university days and my family life. It was so near and so far.... I was in the solitary cell, a man lost his freedom...

  At dawn, we were woken up--the security guard switched on the light and the door was opened and I was instructed to wash face or brush teeth. We rushed to the public bathroom. I did not see any one brushing their teeth. I just wet my face and walked to the open yard for a morning gathering.

  There were rumours around, saying that there were two most important men among the ten important men under this detention. I was looking around to guess whom the two most important persons were. But most of them were so calm and so kind.

  After breakfast, we were called to gather in the hall and a gentleman stood at a corner and said:

  “You are given pen and paper; write what you wish to write, send whom you like to send...”

  We were given so much freedom? We were given chance to appeal? I was dragging in the crowds exchange a few sentences with friend and acquaintances. Then, we lay down, put the paper on the cement floor and we were writing our "letter". We completed our letter in half an hour. No matter it was a "love" or "sour" letter, it was a secret letter. No one would receive it and no one would reply. Just like saying a prayer, I prayed what I liked. The god was far, far away. After handed up our letter at about 10 a.m., we were locked up in the cell.

  What should I do in the cell? No book, no newspaper. I was too young to retire. I had a lot of work to do. My students were waiting me for tuition. Why should they confine me in this solitary cell?

  At 10pm, the light was switched off by security guard. I was in the darkroom. It was too early for me to sleep. I walked to the door intending to switch on the light. But there was no switch inside the room, and the switch was controlled from outside. Why not designed it like a hotel room? Why should they mentally torture a man without trial?

  The following day, we were called for interrogation, one by one.

  It was my turn. I went in the A/C room. One tall gentleman stared at me and said:

  “You are welcome, please sit down!”

  I was treated so politely. I was welcome! Did he suppose I came here for my own pleasure?

  “Why you are arrested?";

  “I don't know.”

  “You were arrested in processing, demonstration or...” He looked at me from head to foot.

  “I was arrested in my hostel room.”

  “Did you join any illegal activities?"

  “I...” I paused for a while and I continued, “I joined the gathering of a boycott lecture and the procession of student's petition three years ago; it was a peaceful demonstration.”

  “You joined the activities three years ago, why you were expelled recently? Are you sure you didn't join any other illegal activities?” He asked and he looked at me with his eyes narrowed.

  “I'm very sure.” I replied firmly.

  “You shall tell me the true; otherwise, you'll be confined here for long time!” His tone of voice became increasingly brutal.

  “I...oppose the election in our society.”

  “Why should you oppose the election?”

  “I...” I looked at him without seeing him. After a short while, I bent down my head and I continued, “I was an executive member of a society, and I was instructed to sign a recanted letter for the society's activity which I was not involved in the past. After that I wished to step down.”

  “That's all?” He glimpsed at me and asked, “No more?”

  “Yes.” I answered.

  He stood up, closed his file and said:

  “Go back to your cell and think it over; I'll call you again.”

  I was locked up in the solitary cell. I lay down on my bed. I closed my eyes. I intended to sleep, to forget all the past; but my mind could not be calm down. The gentleman wanted me to recall the past, to give him more information. What could I tell him?

  The next day, I was called for interrogation again.

  “Have you recalled what you and your society had done illegally in the past?”

  “...” I was silence for a minute, then I tried to argue and I said, “I knew there was a Wang GengWu report for restructuring Nanyang University; and I was told a memorandum and a condemnation letter were submitted by the societies to the department concerned. It was not an illegal activity. Any way, I was not involved.”

  “Then, what were you doing in your society?” He raised his head and looked me full.

  “I was ordered to pin the news letter of our society once in a year."

  “That's all?”

  “That's all I know!”

  He shook his head and ordered me to leave.

  I returned to my cell. I strolled for a while in the solitary room. A lunch was delivered. I took half and reserved half for urgent need. After lunch, I lay down on bed and I fell asleep. Suddenly, my door was opened and I was ordered to go to the staff room to receive a letter.

  A middle age man opened the letter from the Ministry of Defence, signed by the minister. This man glanced at me, and he read and briefed me:

  “This is an expulsion order!” He paused a second, raising his head and looked at me and he continued, “You have been banished from entering Singapore forever. If you dare to come again, you will be arrested and put into jail. Do you understand?”

  When he was hammering out each phrase, I felt sweat running down from my forehead. My heart was beating rapidly.

  “Why...?” I was biting my lips. I dragged myself to a corner and I refused to sign the letter.

  “Why...I...am... not allowed to... come...back? My...girl friend...stays...in...S'pore.” I said.

  “Quick, sign and return it to me. Don't waste time.”

  He did not feel any pity of me. I signed the letter with my trembling hand.

  I walked out from the office, like a captured soldier, dragged along his injured body, heading to the gallows.

  I passed Mr. Noon's room. He stood at the door and asked:

  “What's the...matter?”

  “I...am banned... to enter... your country for...ever!”

  “For...ever...not allow to...come...back?!”


  I was locked up in the small solitary cell again. I was standing near the door. From the small hole of the door, I could see the long corridor. I lay down on my bed, stared at the surface of the concrete slab. An evening sunlight shone through the gap of the window. I longed to see my lover; but I was confined in a small solid room under I.S.A. No one was allowed to see me.

  Expelled me from the university; arrested and put me into jail. Now, they served an expulsion order to separate my lover from me. There would be a long road of suffering ahead of me. What had I done wrong? What was humanity? Humanity was no longer concerned with me. Anything could be happened to me within days.

  "Expulsion" was not a word without meaning to me. It floated on the air, mingling with the sunset of light from the hole of the wall.

  I did not deny S'pore government's efficiency, but was it absolute justice to me?

  I did not eat, drink and sleep the whole night. I wished I was going to be hanged or to be electrocuted and died immediately; rather than slow agony in this solitary cell--under ISA detention.

  Lying on the small bed, I dreamed of the past--I went to my girl friend's house. We sat on the swing in her house's garden; we walked hand in hand at the Elizabeth Walk... A tree, a flower in S'pore where I had lived for years, were so lovely and precious to me. But now, I had to leave, I had to leave her forever...

  On 24th of November, Mr. Noon informed me happily that his parents would come to visit him in the morning. He rushed out with cheerful face; twenty minutes later, he returned with tears-stained face and his body was shaken convulsively and he said in despair:

  “We are...the two...most important... men under arrested. Parents are...not allowed...to visit. My parents...crying... outside...the jail...every...day!”

  On the 26th of November, when Mr. Noon learnt that I was to be released, he was happy for a part of a second; then, his face turned to pale, his eyes were greyed. He stood at the door of his cell, waving his hand to me when I was passing by. I stood near his door for a short while; I stared at him and I said in feeble voice:


  “Good...bye...” he said.

  I put the small pack of biscuit at his door side. He stared at me and a tear rolled down his cheek...

  “Grit...your teeth, to be cheerful, reserve...your strength... to... overcome... the longest...night...”

  My words choked in my throat, I could not say any more.

Good-bye...my love

  Night fell. I was holding a train ticket which given to me by S'pore government; and I walked in the railway station with my girl friend.

  “This...is a...free...ticket!” I said in broken voice, “I... must...leave your...country within 24 hours.”

  “Deportation? Never...come...back...again?”

  “I...” I could not answer.

  It was a heavy silence. She walked with a set expression on her face. We reached the platform near the door of the coach. We faced each other without saying a word but deep in thought.

  The prolonged whistle split the air; the wheels began to grind. I shook her hand and jumped up the train. She walked faster, to follow the train...

  “Good-bye.” I said.

  “Good...bye.” She waved her hand with her hair streaming in the air...

  I continued to search for her shadow. It left nothing behind, but a thick, black smoke billowing up and the flickering stars with a lonely moon in the sky.

(Drafted in Nov.1966)

自强不息 力求上进

2005年10月29日首版 Created on October 29, 2005
2005年10月29日改版 Last updated on October 29, 2005