Conceptualising Singapore’s Detention ‘Painscape’: Trauma, Identity & Resilience

Dr Ariel Athwal-Yap, Maynooth University


This paper seeks to better our understanding of the nature and harms of political detention by examining the traumatic legacies of this institution in Singapore.

Specifically, it sets out to expand understanding and how colonial and ‘post’-colonial states extend the impacts of confinement through extensive penal architecture, which has embedded itself within the society’s social, cultural, and political landscape.

Singapore’s ‘detention painscape’ is conceptualised in relation to the multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition of its culture and society. Research findings are based on 135 oral history interviews with former political detainees, their families, colleagues, friends, and community members, many of whom spoke up about their experiences for the first time. These testimonies illuminate how pain was, and is, experienced and negotiated by former detainees and those around them at different points of Singapore’s detention chain.

I propose that pain experienced during political detention should be conceived as a multi-layered continuum of individual and collective experiences that were shaped by participants’ direct and indirect encounters with different stages of this process, e.g., surveillance, policing, detention, release, and rehabilitation. Significantly, I argue that the understanding and undoing of the detention painscape is critical to the ongoing recovery of traumatic legacies left behind by Singapore’s detention painscape, which continues to impact many former detainees, their families, and the wider Singaporean community.

Photo Credit: Aziz Ahmad, Flickr