Said Zahari (b. 1928, Singapore–12 April 2016, Malaysia) was a writer, journalist and former political detainee. After working as a journalist and editor at the Utusan Melayu newspaper in the 1950s, he entered politics in the 1960s. Said was arrested under Operation Cold Store in 1963, accused of involvement in a communist plot and spent the next 17 years in detention. He was released in August 1979 and later published two memoirs.
Said was the fourth child of Zahari and Asmah. His father Zahari, originally from Java, passed away soon after Said’s birth, and Said’s family joined his grandparents’ household in Kampung Kebun Bunga. He attended Tanglin Besar Malay School and was selected to attend the Teachers Training College in Tanjung Malim, Perak, when he was 13.
However, the Japanese invasion of Singapore and Malaya in 1942 ended Said’s hopes of becoming a teacher. He took Japanese language classes and attended the Japanese Teachers Training College, where his fellow students first exposed him to ideas of Malayan nationalism and anti-colonialism. After the Japanese Occupation, Said worked part-time as a sign-writer for the British military and studied as a private candidate for the Senior Cambridge examinations. As a teenager, Said also closely followed and was influenced by the growing independence movements in Malaya and Indonesia.
Career in journalism
In 1951, Said joined Utusan Melayu, a newspaper then based in Singapore and under the editorship of Yusof Ishak, who later became the first president of Singapore. He began as a translator earning $130 a month before joining the news desk as a reporter. There Said covered Singapore’s political scene, coming into contact with figures such as Singapore’s future prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (then Utusan’s legal adviser). In 1954, Said was transferred to Kuala Lumpur as Utusan’s Malayan correspondent.
In 1958, the newspaper shifted its operations to Kuala Lumpur and Said was appointed news editor. Utusan positioned itself as the independent voice of the Malay community and supported the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Alliance government, but also gave coverage to social problems and differing views. Conflict with UMNO led to Yusof Ishak’s resignation as editor-in-chief in 1959, and his post was filled by Said.
As editor, Said continued Utusan’s strong nationalist, anti-colonial stance, and there was further conflict with UMNO. In 1961, the party took control of the newspaper’s ownership and attempted to direct its editorial policy. In a bid to preserve Utusan’s independence, Said and the newspaper’s other editorial, administrative and production staff went on strike from 21 July 1961.
After visiting Utusan’s Singapore office in August 1961, Said, a Singapore citizen, was prevented from re-entering Malaya after Malaya Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman invoked the Immigration Ordinance to bar his entry into the country. The Malayan government attributed the ban to security considerations.
From Singapore, Said continued to support the strike by speaking at trade union and student union meetings, and organising the collection of donations for the striking workers. The Utusan Melayu strike was broken after 93 days and UMNO took control of the newspaper. The strike remains a significant milestone in Malaysia’s political history, being the first strike in defence of press freedom in the country.
After leaving Utusan Melayu, Said started a translation bureau with a former colleague, Hussein Jahidin. From the time of the strike, he also developed close relationships with leaders and activists from left-wing political parties, trade unions and other organisations, including Barisan Sosialis leaders Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, Dominic Puthucheary and Poh Soo Kai, and Partai Rakyat Singapura (PRS) leaders Abdul Wahab Shah and Pang Toon Tin.
He also edited Rakyat, the Malay language newspaper of the Barisan Sosialis and wrote a book titled Irian Barat: Duri Dalam Daging, supporting the Indonesian claim on Dutch-occupied West Irian. In his memoirs, Said wrote that the Special Branch, the domestic intelligence agency of the British colonial authorities, had placed him under surveillance from 1961. In 1962, Said facilitated various meetings between Parti Rakyat Brunei leader A. M. Azahari and Barisan Sosialis leaders including Lim. One of these meetings came four days before a revolt against the British colonial government in Brunei in December 1962.
Said had earlier been approached by his close friend Lim to join the Barisan Sosialis, but in 1963 decided to join the PRS, which had Malay nationalist roots but had been infiltrated by communist elements. On 1 February 1963, the PRS central committee elected him its president. Said planned to restructure the party and take it into an alliance with the Barisan Sosialis.
Operation Cold Store
On the morning of 2 February 1963, Said had been scheduled to leave for Jakarta to attend a conference of journalists. However, at 4:30 am that day, he was arrested and detained under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO, now the Internal Security Act), which allowed for detention without trial. His arrest was part of Operation Cold Store, a joint operation by the Singapore and Malayan governments and the British colonial authorities that resulted in the detention of more than 100 leftist leaders, unionists and activists.
Said was accused of being in the pay of Indonesian intelligence, involvement in the revolt in Brunei and plotting to subvert the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah. He was also accused of being a leading member of the communist united front, which was alleged to have planned to overthrow the Singapore government. In April 1963, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in the Legislative Assembly that Said was involved in a plot to “create trouble in the Borneo territories to stop merger in Singapore”.
Said was detained in Outram Prison before being transferred to the Central Police Station on Pickering Street and interrogated by the Special Branch before being placed in solitary confinement in the station’s detention area, known as Top Floor Central. After three months, Said was moved to E Hall in the Changi Detention Centre, before spells at Moon Crescent Centre and the Whitley Road Detention Centre.
Time in political detention
In the Changi Detention Centre, Said met friends and fellow detainees like Hussein Jahidin, Salahudin Ghaus, A. Mahadeva, Lim Hock Siew, Kam Siew Yee, Lim Chin Joo and See Kim Chong. The detainees formed committees for language classes, socio-cultural activities and political discussion groups. Said also taught Malay to other detainees whilst learning Mandarin and wrote a number of poems, which were published in Malaysia in 1973 as Puisi Dari Penjara (Poems From Prison).
Said was placed in solitary confinement for four separate periods. In his memoirs he described the psychological trauma of these periods, which ranged between two and four months. Said also took part in a number of hunger strikes staged by the detainees of Operation Cold Store. In 1967, The Straits Times reported that the government had offered to release Said if he agreed to sign a public statement of regret and a security statement, and appear on television and radio for an interview. The newspaper also reported that he had rejected these conditions. Together with other detainees, Said started legal action against the Singapore government, demanding an unconditional release or trial in court. The action failed to secure his release.
In November 1978, Said was released from detention and confined to residence on the island of Pulau Ubin. A government statement said that communist united front leaders could not be released unconditionally without a written undertaking to avoid involvement with the CPM and to disavow violence as a means of changing the government. On 22 August 1979, Said was freed from confinement on Pulau Ubin on four conditions, which restricted his political activities and association with former political detainees. Upon his release, Said was quoted as saying he was not a communist and that he had become apolitical. The government removed the restrictions on his activities in August 1981.
After his release, Said became editor of Asia Research Bulletin and ASEAN Business Quarterly. In 1989, the order barring him from Malaysia was revoked after he appealed to the Malaysian government. In 1994, he suffered a mild stroke and the following year joined his wife and children in Malaysia. In 1996, Said was a guest writer at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and produced two Malay language memoirs, which were translated into English and Mandarin. Said passed away in his sleep on 12 April 2016.
Wife: Salamah Abdul Wahab.
Daughters: Rismawati, Noorlinda.
Sons: Roesman, Norman.
1973 : Puisi Dari Penjara (Poems From Prison).
2001 : Meniti Lautan Gelora: Sebuah Memoir Politik (published in English as Dark Clouds At Dawn: A Political Memoir).
2006 : Dalam Ribuan Mimpi Gelisah: Memoir (published in English as The Long Nightmare: My 17 Years As A Political Prisoner).
Bloodworth, D. (1986). The tiger and the Trojan horse, pp. 250-51, 270-71, 276, 323-4. Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 320.95957 BLO)
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Bowring, P. (2001, June 14). Activist’s Memoir Recalls Southeast Asian Struggles. International Herald Tribune. Retrieved from Factiva.
Detainees seek leave for habeas corpus action. (1971, January 22). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Detainee Zahari ‘adopted’ by Amnesty International. (1966, August 4). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Detainee Zahari to sue for freedom: Wife. (1967, November 28). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Drysdale, J. (1984). Singapore: Struggle for success, p. 315. Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 DRY -[HIS])
Entry ban on former Editor of Utusan. (1961, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Fong, C. P. (2008). The memoirs of a Malayan communist revolutionary, pp. 163-164, 168-171, 173-174. Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5704092 FAN)
Fong, L. & Chandran, R. (1978, November 18). Hock Siew, Zahari out. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Govt removes curbs on Said Zahari. (1981, August 24). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Johan Jaafar. (2001, June 16). The story as told by Said. The New Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
Ho, W. F. (2016, April 12). Ex-top editor, ISA detainee Said Zahari dies. The Star. Retrieved 2016, April 13 from The Star Online website: http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2016/04/12/said-zahari-dies/
Kwee, M. (1979, August 23). Homecoming caps Hari Raya joy. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Kwee, M. (1979, August 23). Said Zahari allowed to go home. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Lee: A Red plot to wreck Malaysia. (1963, April 10). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Loh, K. S. & Liew, K. K. (Eds.). (2010). The makers and keepers of Singapore history, pp. 274, 276, 278-80, 283-84. Singapore: Ethos Books/Singapore Heritage Society.
(Call no.: RSING 959.570072 MAK)
Malay Communism. (2001, June 27). International Herald Tribune. Retrieved from Factiva.
Mazlan Nordin. (1999, August 13). Of memories that are not rose-tinted. The New Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
Mazlan Nordin. (2001, April 6). Said’s memoir show he has not budged from his stance. The New Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
Said Zahari. (2001). Dark clouds at dawn: a political memoir. Kuala Lumpur: Insan.
(Call no.: RSING 322.4095951 SAI)
Said Zahari recalls the days that preceded his ‘lost years’. (1997, June 15). The New Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
Said Zahari. (2007). The long nightmare: my 17 years as a political prisoner. Kuala Lumpur: Utusan Publications & Distributors.
(Call no.: RSING 365.45095957 SAI)
Sam, J., Ee, B. L., Mushahid Ali, Chandran, R., Pestana, R. & Lim, K. S. (1963, February 3). The swoop began at 3 a.m.. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Tan, J. (2001, January 13). Former detainee Zahari writes his memoirs. The Straits Times, Asia, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Tan, J. (2001, April 9). Ex-ISA detainee’s book stirs debate. The Straits Times, Asia, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
That ban on Zahari – by the Tengku. (1961, September 8). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The big red plot. (1963, February 4). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The full text of a Govt. statement issued in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. (1963, February 4). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrievedfrom NewspaperSG.
Wan Hamidi Hamid. (2006, February 12). Heady days of newspapers and politics. The New Sunday Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
Wong, G. (2006, April 9). Former political prisoner says he’s not bitter despite 17 years in Singaporean detention. Associated Press. Retrieved from Factiva.
Zahari ban: ‘Security reasons’. (1961, September 5). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Zahari the ‘link’. (1963, February 6). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.