Sabah's political son Jeffrey Kitingan wasn't a hardened criminal but it was a living-death under the 'not too cruel' ISA.
Jeffrey Kitingan is an enigma, not least because he is partly elusive, partly unpredictable and partly Houdini.
You can never really find him and when you do, he very quickly disappears.
As his friend and compatriot in a civil rights mission, I know him and yet I don’t and, as a friend, you tend to wonder if he would ever fully trust you.
After the Internal Security Act (ISA) experience, his character became part of his natural defence mechanism.
Those were “The Cruel Years”, not “The Wonder Years”. The ISA had moulded him into the person that he is today and he remains fascinating.
When former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad applauded Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s proposal to abolish the ISA, he decided to lace his comment with the sort of sarcasm that would add salt to the injury faced by former ISA detainees like Jeffrey.
Mahathir described the ISA as “not too cruel”.
Jeffrey recalls a very different scenario in Mahathir’s office in January 1994 upon his release from ISA detention.
Mahathir apparently said then: “I am sorry about the detention, Jeffrey, I know it is cruel.”
“The cruelty of ISA is immeasurable,” Jeffrey says.
‘I was glad to be breathing’
Recalling the details of his arrest, Jeffrey said that he had to sign a letter the police had given him.
They gave it to him at the Tambunan Ka’amatan (Harvest Festival) on the May 10, 1991, in the presence of some 200 FRU personnel, who left the scene immediately after he signed the document.
On the May 13, 1991, he presented himself for an appointment at the Karamunsing police station.
He was arrested on the spot and sent to the Kepayan detention centre.
That same afternoon he was flown to Kuala Lumpur on a MAS flight with only himself and Special Branch police officers as passengers.
That evening, though, the plane was not permitted to land at the Kuala Lumpur airport and he ended up being flown to Penang to spend the entire night in a cell.
The next morning, he was flown back to KL. Upon landing, he was blindfolded and shoved into a Black Maria.
Jeffrey paused, and without a single expression on his face, looked at me and said: “At that moment, I lost sight of the world and my material life… not knowing where they were taking me and what they were going to do with me.
“I was glad to still be breathing.”
Hours later of what seemed to Jeffrey like an eternity, the vehicle arrived at a building in a place he would never know and his blindfold was taken off. He was ordered to strip naked and every item of clothing, including his watch, was removed.
“I felt ashamed… and felt ready to be wrapped up for my own funeral,” he said.
Given a blue uniform with the number “931” on the left side of his chest, Jeffrey’s photographs were taken at various angles before he was locked up in a maximum security cell.
“As the door shut behind me, I found myself confined to what can be described as a living hell to what seems forever.”
Jeffrey was thrown into his cell in the first 60 days after his arrest. He was accused of subversive political activities and is one of Malaysia’s most renowned political detainees under the ISA.
In that cold, bare room with nothing but an empty, solid wooden bed measuring about 2½ feet wide, there were no mattress, blanket, pillow, toilet, sink, water or window.
There was a small peephole on the door that you could only look through from the outside and two holes on the floor the size of a chicken egg for ventilation.
Sleeping with urine and faeces
The room, Jeffrey said, was so small that he would pace up and down and see only walls and felt no different to a caged animal.
“That’s how I realised how animals in a zoo behave when they’re deprived of their freedom.”
The lights in the cell were uncommonly bright and never, ever switched off. Occasionally, loud music would suddenly be played to shock him and he was deprived of his sleep.
“The toilet was at the other end of the building and if they don’t hear you knock, you end up sleeping in a cell with your urine and faeces everywhere.
“I had to clean up my own waste with nothing but the newspaper they gave to wrap up my faeces.”
Jeffrey could not recall a time when he could even take a shower as there were no facilities for bathing and there were no towels.
“We just had the toilet,” he said solemnly.
‘Am I alive, dead or dreaming?’
Jeffrey told me that this method of sensory deprivation was a living nightmare and the detainee would be denied any sense of time or conscious connection with the outside world.
“I felt lost, I felt alone and I felt abandoned even by my own God.
“I tried talking to myself just to hear my own voice. Where am I? Who am I? Am I dead or just dreaming? I even tried to sing.
“In the first week, I blamed God and scolded him. What did I do wrong? After one week, I thanked him for giving me the opportunity to experience this.”
Not knowing whether he was dead or alive or in some terrible dream, Jeffrey asked me to imagine the agony of having to endure 60 days of this repetitive nightmare.
The idea revolted me and my imagination did not allow me to feel the pain and suffering.
Yet, it was Jeffrey’s imagination that kept him sane.
“I had to hold on to reality by creating patterns in my mind with my meals. Wrapped in plastic and newspaper, the rice was always wet and sometimes I had one fish and maybe six strands of beansprouts.
“I saw patterns in my food. I would look at the walls and sometimes it felt like the patterns would fly out of the wall and come to life.”
Solitary world, mental torture
In a solitary world where Jeffrey could not experience a 24-hour cycle of being alive and being asleep, he managed to count his days and nights.
“To have some sense of time and give or take a margin of three to four days inaccuracy, I could determine how long I was in there by scratching the wall surface each time the rat comes through the hole in the ground or whenever my meal was delivered.”
He went through a terrifying interrogation ordeal that was tame in comparison to what he heard the other detainees had to go through.
“Some of them said they went through physical torture. I must have been one of the lucky ones.
“The first time they interrogated me I had to sit on a red stool in a dark red coloured room with eight nameless interrogators who humiliated and insulted me as if I was a condemned, worthless criminal ready to be sent to hell.
“They did this non-stop and deprived me of rest, sleep, food and water till I could no longer bear it and asked to see a doctor.”
Jeffrey felt himself growing weaker, rapidly losing weight and his beard began to grow.
He was eventually sent to the doctor in a blindfold with two men holding up his frail body. He was given vitamins and told to sit in the sunlight for 20 minutes.
It was only after his recovery that he was told the interrogation took four days and three nights.
Moving to Kamunting
After two months of solitary confinement, Jeffrey was hoping for his release and was told that if he was taken to the airport he would be a free man.
He was taken instead to Kamunting Detention Camp and spent the next 2½ years detained without a trial.
“You don’t go straight to Kamunting. You go into an empty building somewhere on transit with hardly anybody around.
“I was then transferred to Camp 5 in Kamunting. That would be the time you’re given a pillow and a blanket. Those are the only possessions. It’s worse than being a convict.
“The camp had maximum security and was a U-shaped building, I remember, with a barb-wired security fence as high as 12 to 15 feet, reinforced by zinc and cement so that you could not see the outside world.
“You could only see the sky. They locked us up at night and opened the cells in the morning like a chicken coop.”
Kamunting had open areas for inmates to play sports but their footballs would burst against the wired fence.
They bathed communally and they would poke and shove one another for soap and hassled to hurry.
Wrote books and poems
Every week, they would assemble to raise the Malaysian flag and sing the national anthem and recite the “Rukun Negara”. Their library was filled with propaganda materials and was uninspiring.
Jeffrey wrote books, poems and read voraciously. His family would post all the reading materials he requested from them.
He learnt meditation and practised yoga, teaching taekwondo to communist detainees. They, in turn, taught him Chi Kung.
“The inmates were high-tensioned people: communists, terrorists, political detainees, spies, immigration fraudsters.
“An accidental knock in the playground would end up in fights.
“In the TV room, they argued all the time. The Indians would want to watch the Hindi movies, the Malays their dramas. I saw all sorts of people, especially the vengeful, dangerous types who vent their anger on other inmates.
“I believe these types would always keep their anger inside, even after their release.
“Yet, there were ‘happy-go-lucky’ types who would kill time by talking forever or giving others a massage.”
He remembered the paranoia they developed through whispering campaigns where some detainees were believed to be spies from the Special Branch.
The inmates even became possessive over photos and pictures of women pasted on the table.
They engaged in manual labour by cleaning the compound, cutting the grass, doing domestic chores and cleaning the toilets.
They took turns to cook and followed the roster quite diligently although the only delicacy they enjoyed was the odd snake or bird caught in the compound.
When the authorities found out about the addition of caught wildlife in their diet, the roster was changed and they had to eat “institutionalised, prisoner’s food” that had no variety and was only adequate to prevent starvation.
The inmates would rather be sick in the detention camp than face the humiliation of being handcuffed to their beds in the hospitals.
A lot of them went mad and tried to commit suicide, banging their heads violently on the floors, especially if they knew that their term of imprisonment would be extended.
“They would rather die than spend another day inside”, Jeffrey said.
I asked Jeffrey how he coped and survived the experience, wondering if there was a deep psychological scarring for a man who was spiritually intellectual.
In his mind, Jeffrey believes that ISA gave him a greater insight into human nature.
“I survived by playing the role of a researcher… I studied and observed the behaviour of detainees in confinement.
“Somehow, by taking on the role of a healer and friend I managed to remove myself mentally from the situation,” he said.
Jeffrey’s diaries were confiscated and the letters he sent and received were screened.
“I wrote a letter in Dusun [local native dialect] once and the officer couldn’t understand it and sent it through.
“The letter caused a demonstration at home because it told of my experience. The officer was promptly replaced.”
Keeping people ignorant
Released with conditions in January 1994, Jeffrey was told not to be involved in politics and organisations and remembered Mahathir telling him not to teach the people what they don’t know.
“This must be the attitude: to keep the people ignorant,” he said.
He remains resolute in his political drive to abolish all legislation deemed to be an affront to human and civil rights and tows that fine line of risks which many fear to tread.
“Behind the negative is the positive,” he says calmly.
“In that situation, I couldn’t see the world with my eyes so I travelled with my mind and learnt to function through my spirit.
“The development of this mental vision is where I began to truly understand myself and I found solutions to many outstanding problems which were recorded in my writings and letters.
“Once you have gone through death, you become fearless.”
Nilakrisna James is a lawyer-cum-social activist. She is also a co-founder of the United Borneo Front, headed by Jeffrey Kitingan.