Monday, 6 December 2010

Review: Inside Story, Peter Lloyd (2010)

The backstory for this memoir is pretty well-known and it's covered in detail in the book. ABC foreign correspondent Peter Lloyd was arrested in 2008 in Singapore on drug trafficking charges. "Trafficking" sounds pretty strong. It's Singaporese legal terminology and refers to an allegation that Lloyd sold a small quantity of methamphetamine to a person Lloyd says lied to protect the real source of the narcotics. In fact, the police didn't know anything apart from what they'd been told but Lloyd did, in fact, possess drugs in his apartment for his personal use and he took them there in all honesty. The sting worked and Lloyd was brought up on five separate charges including possession of drugs and implements for using drugs. He went to jail. This is the story of how he survived the ordeal.

It's also the story of how he overcame the post-traumatic stress disorder that had brought him to resort to illegal stimulants in the first place. This is another element of the backstory. There was a large number of overseas assignments that Lloyd covered as a TV journalist, including the Bali bombings in 2002 and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. These other-wordly events caused Lloyd to "dissasociate" - in effect to develop a kind of split personality - and to retreat into himself instead of talking out his problems with stress. In this state he found it easy to self-medicate and Lloyd says he could not remember many episodes, including ones which involved buying drugs. Withdrawal was easier than talking to his employer about problems caused by the continual rounds of reporting on violent deaths of thousands of people in Asia.

While Lloyd's self-reliance contributed to the condition that delivered him into a most distressing predicament it served him well when the time came to prepare for incarceration once he was granted bail. It was not always plain sailing, and those around him, especially his partner, a Malay man, Mazlee, had to cope with sometimes erratic behavioural shifts. Part of his coping strategy involved seeing psychiatrists (and their testimony would later help to ensure a fairly lenient sentence). He also took up Pilates, an exercise regime that could be used in confined physical spaces like those he would encounter in prison. And he bought a lot of books; over the period of 200 days he spent in jail he would read 80 books.

Lloyd takes us into the prison where, at first, he is confined solitary. His circumstances changes as he was able to demonstrate his compliance with the unpleasant regime inside Tanah Merah Prison. Eventually, Lloyd would be given "cookie" status - as an unpaid prison labourer he collected laundry and parcelled out food to other inmates. As a cookie, he also got to spend time outside his cell in the company of other men. They watched TV programs that were prepared by the prison authorities. Lloyd says it was pretty bland fare, designed to accommodate the regulatory mindset in Singapore. Prisoners must not be disturbed, he was told. It is good for them to be calm. So Lloyd watches light entertainment on the communal TV set like David Attenborough nature programs.

Lloyd is scathing about the Singaporean regime, led by "minister mentor" Lee Kwan Yew. As a first-time offender, Lloyd believes that his six-month jail term was unnecessarily harsh especially given the extenuating circumstances. In prison he meets a number of people, such as prisoners Pung and Goh and Ismail. He finds there are plenty of them who resent the paternalistic, "win-at-all-costs" methods employed by the ruling People's Action Party. A disturbing number of prisoners are inside for trifling reasons but the ruling regime in Singapore takes an uncompromising position vis-a-vis its rules and the judiciary, which is tightly controlled from higher courts that are, in turn, controlled by the PAP, is unable to deviate from the statutes in any meaningful way.

At one point, Lloyd is granted access to a notebook and he uses it. This notebook will become a point of contention because he is warned that he should "make other arrangements" if he wants to take information away from the prison. He does so by making notes in the books he reads. Presumably a lot of the material he wrote during his prison term was taken away at the end as the memoir contains many directly-quoted conversations Lloyd had, both with guards and other prisoners.

It's an entertaining book and I found it hard to put down.

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