Out of Changi
(To a friend)
You have recanted, and returned
From the red wilderness of your impatient anger.
Though you were only reddish
Not your shade, but the colour
Made you unsafe
To the new power
And their democracy.
Changi has altered you
Without twisting your arm or mind
(Your comrades would have done both)
Merely by isolating you, there,
Where you cannot have the sea
But hear it distinctly,
Can feel the gusts of change-
Changes, you know, for the better.
There’s no cause to see red now.
Everywhere there are multi-storied schools and flats;
Or blush today because
It’s the Governor’s birthday
And Union Jacks claim the Padarig…
In their diffidence
Had shut you up.
Now in their confidence
Have released you.
Having meantime secured the house,
Evicted legally S. Kee
His landlords and his tenants,
Efficiently removed other eyesores
That platformed your protests
And renovated and overhauled with new ideas…
No doubt they will further construct and expand
With you along.
Robert Yeo, 1971
Robert Yeo, in Out of Changi, made a reference to it as a tribute to a friend who had been detained there as a political prisoner. It seems Changi Prison is a symbol of the state’s absolute power and non-tolerance for political non-conformity (referring to Communism in the poem as seen from the repeated mention of the colour red) by being a house with poor conditions to political prisoners which is perceived to be enough to change them. This is portrayed through Yeo’s personification of Changi Prison as a kind of being that has the power to ‘alter’ a person, supposedly through both physical and mental torture (“twisting your arm or mind”, “by isolating you”).
Changi Prison, located in the eastern part of Singapore, is most known for being a Prisoners-of-War (POW) holding ground during World War II. Initially Selarang Barracks, it was widely referred to as Changi together with the civilian prison and had held 50,000 POWs during the war. It also housed the headquarters of the Japanese military police, the Kempeitai which carried out torture of suspected spies within the premises.
An overcrowded Changi Prison during World War II, typifying the poor living conditions under the Japanese regime.
(Image taken from http://sgfilmhunter.wordpress.com/tag/changi-prison/)
Changi Prison, at the end of World War II
(Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Allied_prisoners_of_war_after_the_liberation_of_Changi_Prison,_Singapore_-_c._1945.jpg)
Following the war, Changi Prison has then been noted for being a place of detention for political dissidents. The Moon Crescent Centre was built as a political wing within the Changi prison compound to house detainees under the Internal Security Act and conditions are said to be torturous with issues such as poor food and undernourishment, isolation within a cell for up to 16 hours a day, very limited contact with the outside world in the form of writing letters or visits from family members and lawyers, and alleged brutality. This is reflected by Yeo’s portrayal of Changi Prison: the ability to twist arms and minds, the mental impact of isolation, and a total cut-off from the external world which culminated in the persona needing to update his friend on changes which have taken place. One famous dissident to have been held captive at the compound include Chia Thye Poh who at one point of time gained prominence over the world for being a political prisoner for a period of time comparable to that of South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mendela.
Today the new Changi Prison houses the most serious offenders in the country, including prisoners who have been sentenced to death and awaiting execution.
The present day interior of Changi Prison
(Image taken from http://www.asiaone.com/Multimedia/Photo%2BGallery/Story/A1Gallery20111008-2497.html)
Present day Changi Prison
(Image taken from http://www.bca.gov.sg/Awards/BestBuildableDesign/bda05_06.html)