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In his book, Tan Wah Piow refutes allegations of being a "Marxist". Andrew Loh.

Let the people judge

Andrew Loh / With special thanks to Martyn See

On 10 June 1987, Mr Tan Wah Piow released a book, which few Singaporeans would have known or know about.

It was called, “Let the people judge – Confessions of the most wanted person in Singapore.”

The publication was a response to the Singapore government’s arrest and detention of a group of 16 Singaporeans about three weeks earlier that same year on 21 May.

In the book, Mr Tan, who was accused of being the mastermind to the 16 in a “Marxist plot” to subvert the social and political system in Singapore and install a communist state, refutes the allegations and evidence presented by the government. He also provides background to some of his activities in the 70s, particularly the period when he was President of the student union at the Singapore University and his arrest and detention in 1975 for “rioting”, a charge he denies to this day.

In 1976, he left Singapore and has been exiled since then. His citizenship was also revoked in 1987 – on 21 May, the day the 16 detainees were arrested. The government had amended the Constitution in 1985 to stipulate that anyone who has been away from Singapore for a continuous period of 10 years is liable to have his citizenship revoked.

The book also contains the three press statements he released on 28 and 29 May 1987 in response to the arrests of the first batch of 16 detainees.

Referring to the government’s charges against him, Mr Tan said, “I have stated in no uncertain terms that I am not involved in any conspiracy to overthrow the government. I have publicly expressed my opposition to any attempt, by anyone, to set up a communist state in Singapore.”

Mr Tan reiterates, several times in the book, that he believes in working towards democratic changes in Singapore – "within the framework of capitalism, through the constitutional process".

“As to how we bring about the implementation of the political programmes in Singapore, I stated in no uncertain terms in my writings, letters to friends and public speeches in the United Kingdom, that I sought to bring about political change in Singapore solely through the ballot box.”

“My politics are open and above board,” he says and adds that he is willing to be publicly interrogated by [the government’s] officials in “a neutral place, in the presence of independent observers from the media, church, law society and academic institutions.”

Communist?

Turning specifically to the charge that he is a communist, Mr Tan says, “How could there ever be such a plot to establish a communist state when the so-called “mastermind”, that is, my humble self, confessed in no uncertain terms that I oppose the very idea of turning Singapore into a communist state? Why does the Singapore government insist on calling me a communist when I am not one?”

Mr Tan says that the activities he was involved in were not illegal. “The government, however, chooses to present them in a sinister light,” he says. “Why does the government describe my advice to those who wanted to effect change as subversive and Marxist, when, even on the basis of the evidence produced by the government, all that I suggested was that they should participate in the political process through legal institutions such as political parties?”

The activities they were involved in, Mr Tan explains, had to do with “issues of democracy and the rights and dignity of the common people in Singapore since the 1970s.” He explains that he had called for intellectuals to be more critical of the way things are “managed” and to work towards the “democratization of the country”. This is because intellectuals “are in the best position to explore new ideas”.

Dismissing the focus on the ideologies which has influenced him, Mr Tan says the more important issue is whether his views are contrary to the well-being of Singapore’s political development. “I don’t see how they can be inconsistent with the national interest if intellectuals and professionals are influenced in the direction of actively working for the betterment of society.”

“When they can’t beat you, they call you a criminal”

Mr Tan then turns to the other charges the government leveled at him. One of these is the accusation that he was involved in a “rioting” incident in 1975. Mr Tan denies this and alleges that there was a ‘frame-up”.

The incident took place at the Pioneer Industries Employees Union (PIEU) headquarters in the Jurong Industrial Estate. In his book, he recounts the events leading up to his arrest.

He, along with some workers from the American Marine company and students, were supposed to meet with the secretary general of the PIEU for the second time in a week. On the day of the meeting, however, Mr Tan says that the secretary general was nowhere to be found.

“Ten days prior to my arrest, I had severely criticized him at an open-air meeting where he and retrenched American Marine workers and university students were present,” Mr Tan explains.

He alleges that it was “union officers” themselves who smashed up their own premises at the PIEU and says that at the time of the incident, he was instead seen outside the PIEU office by a Straits Times reporter, among others.

Mr Tan was incarcerated for one year for the “rioting” incident.

Evading National Service?

“Circumstances surrounding the call-up were most extraordinary and improper,” Mr Tan says of the conscription order served on him in 1976. “The facts are simple. I was conscripted into the army to serve in the artillery unit on the very hour of my release from the one year sentence.” He says that the students at the university were genuinely worried that the government was using the military service as a continuation of the political persecution against him. “I too was worried for my physical well-being since ‘accidents’ can easily happen in the army,” he says.

It was then that he decided to leave Singapore for London. “When I came to the United Kingdom to seek political asylum, I enjoyed the support of the World Council of Churches, and the British Council of Churches,” says Mr Tan. “Many other organizations and prominent individuals from all over the world supported my case.”

21 May 1987

Mr Tan sees the government’s allegations of a “communist plot” by the activists to “overthrow the government” as a “convenient excuse to crackdown on all who are critical of the ruling party.”

Within days of the “government smear campaign”, as Mr Tan calls it, against him, he issued a press statement to the media, including the Straits Times. He also gave a “long interview” to the Straits Times’ London correspondent. But what appeared in the paper was “no more than five per cent” of his statement, he says.

“Why is the government so eager to brand me as a communist conspirator, and yet so reluctant to publicise my statements that I oppose categorically any attempt by anyone to establish a communist state?”

Questioning why his statements were not given the same prominence and publicity in the local media to allow him to defend himself, especially since he was accused of being the mastermind of the plot, Mr Tan says there can be only one answer. He called the accusations a “fabricated” plot by the government to “suppress the truth”.

Mr Tan still lives in the United Kingdom.

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Here is the television interview which Britain's More4 News programme did with Mr Tan Wah Piow in 2007.