Wednesday, 27 September 2023

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An open wound

– By Andrew Loh

“Operation Spectrum is an open wound… a little black hole in history,” playwright Alfian Sa’at said in his introductory speech at The Legends Hotel at Fort Canning on Saturday. He was addressing more than 150 people in the audience which had turned up for the launch of the keenly-awaited book by ex-ISA detainee, Ms Teo Soh Lung.

“Operation Spectrum or the Marxist Conspiracy is one big lie,” said Mr Sa’at, unequivocally. He questioned why, if the “conspiracy” was true, the Internal Security Department is not “wearing it as a badge of honour”. Referring to the arrests and detention of the 24 people in 1987 and 1988, and the questions which have thus far remained unanswered, Mr Sa’at called for a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the arrests. Otherwise, he said, “this government does not have moral legitimacy.”

“As a society I do not think we can move forward unless we come to terms with it,” he added.

The book, Beyond The Blue Gate (a reference to the colour of the gate at Whitley Detention Centre), is Ms Teo’s personal account of her ordeal under detention at the centre in 1987 and 1988. She, along with 23 others, was arrested by the Internal Security Department (ISD) and accused of “[acting] in a manner prejudicial to the security of Singapore… being involved in a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state.” She was also accused of “infiltrating” the Workers’ Party, then led by the late Mr JB Jeyaretnam, and for making use of the Law Society “as a political pressure group” to destabilize the government.

In Beyond The Blue Gate Ms Teo addresses these charges – which she and the other detainees were never given opportunities to address in open court – and gives readers insights into her life in the cell at the detention centre. The first part of the book is from her personal diary – notes which she made soon after her release on 26 September 1987.  The second section of the book, originally titled “Might is right”, was completed in 1991, a year after she was released from a second detention order.

“Immediately after my release on 1 June 1990,” she writes in the book, “I had applied to the Internal Security Department for permission to leave Singapore for a holiday in Australia.” Her request was rejected.

Unable to leave Singapore, she decided to devote her time to writing about her ordeal. “In a way, I was helped by the ISD,” she told the audience on Saturday. With a S$4,000 gift from her sister, she purchased a computer and learnt to use it. Her friends and family had meticulously kept records of her arrest – court documents, lawyers’ attendance notes, letters, notes kept by her siblings, news-cuttings, magazines, parliamentary debates, reports and articles.

“I spent several hours a day writing,” Ms Teo recounted to the audience how the beginnings of the book came about. “I wrote and wrote and wrote,” she said. “I kept the manuscript after completion and for many years, did not look at it. In 1999, I took it out but put it away because I could not bear to read it. It was only a year after my retirement in 2007 that I read the manuscript again.”

She then decided that she would have it published. “[I] owe it to my family, friends and lawyers who worked so hard for my release,” she says in Beyond The Blue Gate. “Furthermore, the young people are curious about Singapore’s past and they too would like to know about what happened in 1987 and 1988 which saw the arrest and imprisonment without trial of 24 people under the Internal Security Act and the exile of many others.”

At the book launch on Saturday, several former detainees were present as well. These included Mr Vincent Cheng, who was accused of being the ring-leader of the alleged conspiracy, Ms Wong Souk Yee, a playwright, and Mr William Yap, editor and translator. So too was Dr Lim Hock Siew [picture right, with Vincent Cheng], a founding member of the PAP and who was detained under the ISA by the government for almost 20 years, from 1963 to 1982, under the infamous Operation Coldstore (see here for more about Dr Lim).

Letters of support from those who were associated with the episode were also read out at the book launch. These included messages from Mr Francis Seow, who represented Ms Teo in 1987 and who was himself arrested and detained for 72 days under the ISA and who now is in exile in the States; Queens Counsel Anthony Lester, who was Ms Teo’s counsel after Mr Seow was detained; several of Ms Teo’s co-detainees at Whitley, including Ms Tang Fong Har, who is now in exile; and Ms Margaret John, from Amnesty International.

It has been 23 years since the “Marxist” arrests in 1987 and the “open wound” which Mr Sa’at referred to is felt most keenly and deeply by the former detainees. “Like rape victims, some still cannot speak of the episode,” Ms Teo told the audience on Saturday. “Today six of the 24 arrested have left Singapore.”

Ms Teo, who was 38 when she was arrested and detained, called for the ISA to be abolished, to applause from the audience.

“It is hard for me to link her to being a Marxist,” Mr Andrew Ong told The Online Citizen (TOC). Mr Ong was about nine years old when the arrests took place but he has known Ms Teo since 1996. That was when he sought her help when he ran into trouble as a teenager. “She is a simple person, down to earth,” he says. To him Beyond The Blue Gate is an important addition to the discourse in Singapore’s history.

Mr Loh Kah Seng, a historian , agrees. “Ms Teo’s book gives a perspective from the side of the detainees,” he says. It is thus a “useful addition”, which is also more accessible to the public. However, whether the book will resolve historical issues, as he put it, is “questionable”. We will still need access to state records, he says.

Perhaps resolving historical issues will happen one day, but for now it is necessary that former detainees be given a voice to tell their sides of events – events which have wider implications and consequences for our society. Indeed, the “Marxist Conspiracy” is one such instance where its effects were felt, for example, throughout civil society in Singapore for many years after that episode in 1987/88.

Beyond The Blue Gate is a riveting account of what takes place in the darker bellies, as it were, of Singapore’s penal system. It shows how unbridled power, when unleashed on ordinary citizens, have consequences which perhaps even its wielders may not fully realize. It also forces us to question our blind trust and faith in those in authority. Will they always do the right thing? And are we, ordinary citizens, complicit in the ordeal of those who are on the receiving end of such unbridled power – through our nonchalance and disinterest when such instances occur right in our midst?

“My case officer was really a kind and gentle Buddhist could not give me a satisfactory reply. All he could say was that the government had their way of doing things. Although I think they were wrong, they themselves thought it was right to detain me.

Sometimes we went on to discuss the question of conscience. He would say that the government was not an individual. They decide collectively and hence no minister would feel guilty about my incarceration. Only I, as an individual, had to suffer.

He reminded me that the Chinese character for ‘government’ has two mouths.”

– Teo Soh Lung, Beyond The Blue Gate –


Pictures courtesy of Function8

Beyond The Blue Gate is available as follows:

a) Contact Rizal via cellphone: 91460944 or email: [email protected]
b) Online purchase through Ethos Books Online
c) Bookstores: Kinokuniya (Takashimaya, Ngee Ann City), Select Books (Tanglin Shopping Centre)
d) At Pagesetters Services Pte Ltd, 65 Ubi Crescent, #06-04 Hola Centre, Singapore 408559


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