29 July 1987: Chiam’s finest hour (part one)

In support of the 16 ex-detainees call for Commission of Inquiry to investigate their detentions, TOC republishes this article which first appeared in TOC on May 20, 2009.


“You have got powers of detention without trial. You say you want security. But there are also other important considerations for our country. We have to ask the question: What sort of Singapore do you really want? You have to tell the people. Do we want a Singapore where only because of a slight dissent against the Government, people are arrested? Do you want a country that has a widespread fear, apathy?”

When Parliament sat on July 1987, Mr Chiam See Tong tabled a motion calling for the release of the alleged Marxist conspirators detained in May of that year. He was then the only opposition Member of Parliament (MP), JB Jeyaretnam having run into legal trouble the year before. It thus fell upon him to call for the detainees’ release in Parliament.

For a full day, Parliament debated the motion he tabled:

“That this House calls upon the Government to release immediately the 15 persons detained under the Internal Security Act for allegedly being involved in a Marxist plot to destabilise the Government.”

As People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs lined up to speak against the detainee’s release, he stood his ground. However, the conclusion was a foregone one.

To add injury to the insult of defeat, his motion was amended to congratulate the government:

“That this House supports the prompt action of the Government in arresting those involved in the Marxist conspiracy and supports the Government’s intention to release them as soon as they are rehabilitated and are unlikely to resume their subversive activities”.

The Online Citizen reproduces transcripts from the sittings. They have been edited for brevity.

Parliamentary sitting, 29 July 1987

Mr Chiam See Tong: …Well, when I say the truth, it hurts.

We look at the charges. They are supposed to have used Communist united front tactics to establish a Marxist state in Singapore. I cannot see how this Government is to prove this. It is just impossible. That is the reason why you do not bring them to court. It will be thrown out in the first minute of the proceedings. All this, of course, sounds very sinister to the public at large who do not really know the true facts. They only read what is told to them in the papers, over the TV, stage, question and answer sessions. If you are so confident, why do you not put all these 15, right from the beginning, before the international press; not now maybe, but right from the beginning and let them answer as they like?

As far as I know, these questions were never put to any of them in public. They were on TV. “Are you a Marxist? Are you a member of the Communist Party of Malaysia?” Were these questions put to them? Had they said, “Yes, I am a Marxist. I am member of the Communist Party of Malaysia.”, maybe we can say that they are dangerous people. But they are just intellectuals, idealists, young. I am sure most of the first generation leaders were like that when they were young. They were all socialists to some extent, to some colour. What is wrong with that? When you are young, you are full of ideals. But later on in life, most change. So just because they are idealistic, you punish them for it. All right, you have already pointed out their mistakes. They have admitted. They have now regained their senses. Why do you still put them in prison?

In order to establish a Marxist state in Singapore, do you really know what that means? It means that these people are like captains. They are all at battle-ready stations. When the signal is given, they will all marshall up and go to battle. If there is a signal given by Tan Wah Piow by telephone or telex or fax or whatever, “All right, tomorrow, 12 o’clock, ready.” Do you think all of them will be ready and go? They will say, “Hey, Tan Wah Piow, go slow. Tomorrow I have got to go to work. I’ve got a meeting at the Catholic Welfare Centre. There is a maid there I have to take care.” How are these people going to establish a Marxist state in Singapore? I cannot see it, you know. Unless they are committed Communists, “I am a member. I obey the command. I can execute it.”, they cannot establish a Marxist state. These people are just like you and me. Go for Saturday night dinners.

Mr Chandra Das: Speak for yourself!

Mr Chiam See Tong: We have our games on Wednesday or whatever night and other social functions. They are not ready with arms and all the whole paraphernalia of carrying out a revolution. If the question were put to them, “Are you a member of the Communist Party of Malaysia?”, I can lay a bet that each of them will say, “No”.

Mr Ng Kah Ting: Is it the Communist Party of Malaysia?

Mr Chiam See Tong: No, Communist Party of Malaya. I also had the benefit of reading only one equivalent of a charge sheet, only one out of the 15, not all. There is nothing in it. This particular person, under Allegations of Fact, is supposed to facilitate infiltration of the Workers’ Party by a certain Marxist group and also to help them to use the Workers’ Party as a vehicle for their Marxist objectives.

The other charge is that, together with another lawyer, they are supposed to have used the Law Society to make it into a pressure group. These two charges are so frivolous, shall I say, so rubbishy, that I think no court would give a conviction. The reasons this Government has given in the past as to why they were never hauled to court are that their activities were clandestine and it was difficult to get evidence for them to give in the normal open court, and also that witnesses coming to testify against these people are liable for assassination. This one is difficult to believe. I do not think Teo Soh Lung or anyone will get somebody to assassinate the witness who comes forward and testifies against her. If you are talking of people that we do not know, maybe we will give you the benefit of the doubt. But you are talking of people we know. It is just impossible for any of them to be getting people to kill any of the witnesses. This is the most far- fetched reason that the Government has given. Of course the third reason is not an issue, ie, religious extremism and people who indulge in Communism and communalism. If they are brought to open court, the publicity and the rhetoric would inflame the situation and create more racial hatred. But that is not an issue. If you have got a case – I am not repeating what the other people are saying, I am saying it myself – you should bring them to court. The fact is that you do not. You do not have a case.

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. You arrested them at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, hauled them roughly to their offices, searched them, treated them very roughly and brought them to the Internal Security Department, not allowing them to contact anyone. No lawyers and no relatives were allowed to talk to them, at least for the first initial stage. They were interrogated, continuous interrogation. The Government says there is no torture. But this is a form of torture. Continuous interrogation is a form of torture.

According to reports in the papers, one of them has been interrogated for 72 hours continuously. Perhaps maybe the Minister could clarify all these points. I should be grateful if you would allow me to talk to these people who are under detention.

There were allegations that some of them were held in a very small room underground, totally dark, no windows, and the room was lit by an electric bulb which was never turned off. These are all reports that I read. Of course, this is being done, interrogation in a cold room, air-conditioned room. One of them even had water poured over him. Can you imagine the cold? They were interrogated under these conditions. I did not watch all the television programmes in which they were interviewed. I watched the last one. I notice that a question was put to one of them, Tang Fong Har, a lawyer, “How do you feel now?” She hesitated. She had to search and think of an answer to make sure that she gave the correct answer. From the television programme that I saw, it was so obvious that a lot of editing was done. When they continued to say a lot of good things in their favour, it was cut off. When they were saying something which implicated them, all right, there was a close-up view, zoomed. We are all living in the 1980s. Everybody knows this thing. You cannot hide anything. Nobody will believe you. What evidence? There are a few letters of exchange between Tan Wah Piow and a few of them. I think there must be a lot of people having letters of exchange, what they can and cannot do against the Government. But does that exchange of letters justify their further imprisonment after you have put them through such humiliating situations? You have already broken them down. What more do you want? You have got more than your pound of flesh.

Perhaps the Minister could confirm that there was no continuous interrogation for 72 hours. I read somewhere that there was one girl who was interrogated for 12 hours, and she broke down. Really she broke down. Why? There were signs. She vomitted, got sick. She just could not take it any more. I think there must be hospital records to show that she was admitted to hospital. Poor thing. She could hardly, I suppose, walk, not to say, run. And she was handcuffed to the bed. Why the need to handcuff her? The poor girl was already sick and suffering, and you handcuffed her. Is she a common criminal? She is not a common criminal. In fact, all of them are not common criminals. They should not be arrested in the way they were arrested. I am sure a telephone call to any one of them, and they would gladly come to the Internal Security Department and cooperate with them in any way they wanted. Don’t treat them like criminals. They are not.

What is their real crime? To my mind, their real crime is that they are against the Party in power…

You have got powers of detention without trial. You say you want security. But there are also other important considerations for our country. We have to ask the question: What sort of Singapore do you really want? You have to tell the people. Do we want a Singapore where only because of a slight dissent against the Government, people are arrested? Do you want a country that has a widespread fear, apathy? Do you want to continue with your authoritarian rule? Is this the Singapore you want? I know there is apathy in Singapore. I walk around a lot of places in Singapore. There is a lot of apathy.

The PAP is purported to want to have freedom because they want to fight colonialism. They want to be independent. They want to be free. What is colonialism? Of course, the classic definition of colonialism is one power ruling another country by force. They are made the subject people of a country that is in power. But more importantly, what are the characteristics of colonialism? When we talk of colonialism these days, we do not mean one country ruling another country because there are very few left. The characteristics of colonialism are fear, apathy, lack of democracy. These are the more important aspects. If we want really to get rid of colonialism in our midst although we are supposed to be independent, we should get rid of all these characteristics. Then we can really progress. There must be a free exchange of ideas. Just because somebody stands up and says something different from you, you thumb him down. It is no different from the early days of Galileo. He said, “You know, I can look into the sky.” All the church members at that time were very angry with him, “How dare you! That is heaven.” If there are no people like Galileo, how can the world progress? Similarly, in Singapore, there must be people with differing opinions. If everybody thinks like you, then I do not know where we are going.

We have reached, of course, a certain stage of affluence. We have. But as the former President has said, we have got no soul. If a man has no soul, then it is really not worth living. If a man has lost his soul, of course, he has lost everything. Is there a soul in Singapore?


Read also:

Operation Spectrum – 22 years later

Remember May 21st

Passion for activism extinguished… but not for long

May 1987 – A conspiracy un-proved

TOC Exclusive: Teo Soh Lung – In her own words (Part One)

The Marxist Conspiracy – Not forgetting the evil things that have already been done (Ravi Philemon)



“Marxist Conspiracy” revisited


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