Andrew Loh /
On 21 May 1987, a group of social workers was arrested by the authorities under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for allegedly plotting to topple the government through a “Marxist conspiracy”. No charges were ever brought against them and they were never tried in open court.
There has been no comments from the government since these arrests in 1987, despite calls – both from activists and the detainees themselves – for it to re-open the case.
The detainees, while under detention, had made statements admitting their guilt. Some of the them were released after issuing the statements. Nine of those who were released later issued their own statement, recanting their earlier ones. The following was the statement to the media by the nine:
We, the undersigned, were detained by the Internal Security Department (ISD) on 21 May and 20 June 1987 and released in stages after the suspension directives and/or restriction orders in June, September and December 1987.
While we had privately always maintained our innocence and kept a rueful and cheerful silence about the unjust treatment we were subjected to, and would have been inclined to keep our silence, the government has repeatedly raised the issue of our arrest and detention and made false and damaging statements about us. On the one hand, we have been intimidated by implicit and explicit threats against our safety, should we speak up about our arrest and detention; on the other hand, the government and its spokesmen have continued to make bold and untruthful statements regarding the reasons for our arrest and detention and have denied that any of us were subjected to ill-treatment or torture.
We make this statement as principled men and women who will speak the truth and state our position for the record… we do not intend to challenge the government, we do not seek any official response, neither is there any desire to make political capital out of this. Our sole purpose is to clear our names.
We are accused of being involved in an alleged Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore using Communist united front tactics to establish a Marxist state. We categorically deny the government’s accusations: we have never been Marxist conspirators involved in any conspiracy.
We were never clandestine, Communist or a Marxist network and many of us did not even know of one another before the arrests. We were rather community and church workers, legal reformers, amateur dramatists, helpers of the Workers’ Party, professionals and ordinary citizens exercising our constitutional rights to freedom of expression and association in Singapore. We have never propagated in words or in actions a Communist state for Singapore. Rather we have through open and legitimate organizations and legitimate means advocated more democracy, less elitism, protection of individual freedoms, greater concern for the poor and the less privileged, and respect of freedom in the private lives of citizens.
We hold completely the beliefs expressed by fellow ex-detainee Chew Kheng Chuan in his representation to the ISD advisory board where he stated: “We are believers in an open and democratic policy and in the virtues of an open and accountable government. We strongly believe that for society to be meaningfully called democratic, interest and action in politics cannot be the sole prerogative of the professional politician. A citizen of a democracy, to be worthy of that society, has not just the right but indeed the duty to participate in the political life of his or her society. It is a grave danger to democracy to suggest that for one to comment on political and social issues or to hold differing political opinions, one should go and form a political party.”
We believe that, as in the case of an individual citizen, so too has an organization the same legitimate role to play in a democratic country. It seems to us that we were arrested and detained for the legitimate exercise of our rights as citizens, through registered and open organizations. We did not infiltrate these organizations but joined them as members, volunteers and full-time workers. Neither did we use these organizations as forums to propagate subversive activities. All acitivities carried out by these organizations are legitimate, open and approved by elected executive committees whose members clearly stand on their own right as capable, autonomous and intelligent individuals. Neither were we instructed by any person or organization, not Tan Wah Piow, Paul Lim, nor any political party.
Treatment during detention
Following our sudden arrest we were subjected to harsh and detailed interrogation. Some of us were for as long as 70 hours inside freezing-cold rooms. All of us were stripped of our personal clothing, including spectacles, footwear and underwear and make to change into prisoners’ uniforms. Most of us were made to stand continually during the interrogation, some of us for over 20 hours and under the full blast of air-conditioning turned to a very low temperature. Under these conditions one of us was repeatedly dowsed with cold water during interrogation. Most of us were hit hard in the face, some of us not less than 50 times, while others were assaulted on other parts of the body during the first three days of interrogation.
We were threatened with the arrest, assault and battering of our spouses, loved ones and friends.
We were threatened with indefinite detention without trial; Chia Thye Poh, who is still in detention after 22 years, was cited as an example. We were told that no one could help us unless we cooperated with the ISD. These threats were constantly in our minds during the time we wrote our respective statements in detention.
We were actively discouraged from engaging legal counsel and advised to discharge our lawyers and against taking legal action, including making legal representation to the ISA Advisory Board so as not to jeopardize our chances of release.
We were compelled to appear on television and warned that our releases depended on our performances on TV. We were coerced to make statements such as, “I am Marxist-inclined”, “My ideal society is a classless society”, “So-and-so is my mentor”, “I was made use of by so-and-so”, in order to incriminate ourelves and other detainees. What we said on television was grossly distorted and misrepresented by editing and commentaries which attributed highly sinister motives to our actions and associations.
We state once more, clearly and unequivocally, that we never acted in any way to subvert the security of our country.
Teo Soh Lung
Ng Bee Leng
Chng Suan Tze
Tang Lay Lee
Kevin De Souza
Wong Souk Yee
Tang Fong Har
The day after this statement was released, they were rearrested by the ISD.
In 2010, Mr Vincent Cheng, who was accused of being the ringleader of the group, spoke publicly for the first time about his experiences of being arrested and detained.
The Online Citizen devoted a full one week in May 2009 highlighting various aspects of the arrests. Here are the articles and reports from that focus week.
01 March 2009: Ex-ISA detainees speak out
“We cannot begin to understand the history of modern Singapore and its emergence as a nation state until we have come to face this whole question of political detention without trial — a law which is bequeathed to us by the departing colonial power…nothing can change here unless we confront this arduous legacy which we have inherited from the past. [This legacy] should rightly be assigned to the dustbin of history.”
17 May 2009: Operation Spectrum – 22 years later
“Do not feel guilty because I am here
For guilt has no place in your heart or mine
Do not feel sad because I am here
For sadness too has no place in your heart or mine”
18 May 2009: Remember May 21st
“Most of them were made to stand during interrogation for over 20 hours and under full blasts of air conditioning turned to the lowest temperature. Under those conditions, one of them was repeatedly doused with cold water.”
18 May 2009: May 1987 – a conspiracy un-proved
“An earlier promise by the government to hold a Commission of Inquiry to look into the allegations of abuse was shelved. The government said it saw no need for an inquiry as the detainees had signed another statement disavowing their recantation.”
18 May 2009: Passion for activism extinguished… but not for long
“At 4 o’clock on the morning of 21st May 1987, Mr Tan and his wife heard a banging on the door of their flat. At the door were two men claiming to be from the Immigration Department. They showed Mr Tan their official identity cards and Mr Tan allowed them into the flat. However, once inside, they immediately handcuffed Mr Tan and threw him into one of the rooms, and proceeded to ransack the flat looking for incriminating evidence, according to Mr Tan.”
“One would be hard-pressed to find any newspaper in the world which would allow its government to have its views published – ad verbatim, pages after pages – for four consecutive days in its paper. Conspicuously, except for the write-up on the front pages (which incidentally did not carry any names of the authors), there were no reports or write-ups by Straits Times’ reporters.”
19 May 2009: Teo Soh Lung in her own words (Part 1)
“I had always held the view that lawyers must play an active part in society. The law society prior to 1986 was, I think, a dead society. The chance to become active in the society came when Francis Seow was elected as its President. I approached him and told him that I was interested to help in the society’s work. I was asked to chair the Special Assignments Sub-Committee subsequently.”
“The International Commission of Jurists, who continually called the then Singapore government “to prove this alleged ‘conspiracy’ in open court, and give those detained a fair trial”, deduced in an investigative report that the real motive for the arrests and subsequent detention without trial of the ‘conspirators’ is to quash internal opposition and criticism of the Singapore government, not to protect the security and welfare of Singapore society against a Marxist conspiracy.”
20 May 2009: Chiam’s finest hour (Part 1)
“What is the case against them? What evidence do you have? Although the Government has been saying, “Yes, we have evidence, otherwise we would not have arrested them.” What evidence? You tell me. There is no evidence. The only evidence is their own confession. That is all. Any court of law would throw out this kind of a confession.”
21 May 2009: Chiam’s finest hour (Part 2) – the govt responds
“He asked me whom am I championing? Whose side I am on? When I come before the House, I do not have any ulterior motives. I am not championing for the 15. Somebody must speak up for them. In the whole of Singapore, 2.6 million people, who will speak up for these 15? Somebody has to do the job. It is a necessary job. And I have been placed in a position where I have the opportunity to do it and I am doing it.” – Chiam See Tong.
21 May 2009: Was it a Red or White conspiracy?
“Since the investigations and detention were out of public scrutiny, then it may be time for the government to appoint an inquiry, to ascertain the truth and clear the names of the victims once & for all and work out details of monetary compensation for the dishonour, anguish and sufferings they have gone through.”
22 May 2009: Teo Soh Lung in her own words (Part 2)
“During interrogation, I was verbally abused, slapped, made to stand for hours on end in the cold room with spotlights shining into my eyes and sit on a 3 legged chair, – i.e. one leg was shorter than the other 3 so that a prisoner cannot sit and sleep and thus deprived of sleep for days! Imprisonment was not too bad. For some months I was locked up in a small cell with slits for air and the rest of my stay was in a big spartan cell, which ISD called a “Shangrila Suite”. I was in solitary confinement throughout my stay.”
22 May 2009: Remembering the 22.
“On May 21, 1987, twenty-two young men and women were arrested on the allegation that they were trying to overthrow the PAP government through violence and replace it with a Marxist government. These were, and are, serious charges. No guns, no ammunition, no armaments of any kind whatsoever were ever seized or produced to substantiate this fetid allegation.”
22 May 2009: Let the people judge
“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?”
“It was more because after almost each chapter, I found it difficult to move on for the experiences suffered by the detainees were heart-wrenching. It was not easy to read about how some of my fellow Singaporeans were used, bullied and persecuted by our own Government.”
24 May 2009: 1989 – Lee Kuan Yew’s defamation suit against FEER.
“The Prime Minister was stern and forceful when he told the Church delegation on June 2, 1987, about his fears of an impending “collision” between Church and Government. Father Kang said he was stunned and “almost dumbfounded” when Mr Lee “turned the spotlight” on four priests whom he criticised for venturing into the political arena.”
26 May 2009: TOC Editorial: But butterflies are free
“The detainees have claimed that their confessions about being conspirators had been coerced after “psychological pressure” – an euphemism coined by then-Minister Lee Hsien Loong that included a litany of tactics that included sleep deprivation, blatant threats and physical intimidation – was applied on them.”
26 May 2009: “Operation Spectrum was political rape”
“I still feel angry at the injustice of the whole incident, and that the perpetrators have not been brought to account. ‘Operation Spectrum’ was political rape… Victims of injustice must not give up the fight to regain their dignity. I believe that forgiveness and letting go is genuine and meaningful only when justice has been, or is seen to have been, done.” – Vincent Cheng.
27 May 2010: “Marxist conspirator” Vincent Cheng to speak
“Vincent Cheng, a former political detainee and alleged leader of a Marxist conspiracy against the Singapore government, will speak in public for the first time at a seminar on Singapore history next Friday (4 June).”
02 June 2010: Exchange of letters between NLB and member of public
“Has the National Library been advised against allowing Mr Cheng to speak or to attend the event? If so, how does this square with the National Library’s principal responsibility to preserve and make accessible the nation’s literary and publishing heritage and intellectual memory?”
04 June 2010: “Late inclusion” an excuse, Vincent Cheng tells NLB
“In case you still do not know who I am, let me kindly remind you that I was an ISA detainee in 1987, arbitrarily arrested and detained, never charged, never brought to trial and never convicted, only hideously and ceremoniously insulted and condemned. It is now 23 years. I still bear the scars. I wish to know whether the National Library Board is part of this ugly scheme of history.”
28 June 2010: An open wound
“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.”
“As far as I am concerned, the Government’s case is still not proven. I would not say those fellows were Red, not from the stuff they presented…I think a lot of people have this scepticism. ”
Former Attorney General Walter Woon, Straits Times, 6 July 1991
“Although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but not out to subvert the system.”
Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Straits Times 2001
Further reads on Operation Spectrum :
Singapore is holding 12 in “Marxist conspiracy” – New York Times
“This [Goh Chok Tong’s] team took the flak over the 1987 arrests of the Marxist conspirators and the 1988 rearrests of several of them. Of course, at that time, many thought I was the man behind it. They were wrong. Goh Chok Tong and his team had decided on these detentions.”
Lee Kuan Yew, 1991. (At the 9th min of the video above.)
“When writing memoirs, you are talking to posterity. Among them will be historians who will check what you write against the accounts of others. So do not shade the past.”
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Straits Times, July 17 2007.