In 1987, a group of civil activists were arrested in relation to an alleged plot to overthrow the government through violent means and to bring about social revolution through Marxist inspired practices. Till today, the 16 of those who were detained without trial claim that they were innocent and have committed no crime against the state. Yet, the government is steadfast in their claim that these individuals were indeed conspirators and their intention was to "subvert Singapore's political and social order using communist united front tactics.”
TOC has previously published many articles on the ISA (including a full feature week in 2009) and shall continue to do so in the future. The ISA is seen as an archaic, outdated, outmoded, and a ‘sharp instrument.’ While some perceive that the ISA is even more relevant today than in the past (given the threat of terrorism related activities in the region) there are those who believe that ISA can be ‘misused’ for the political ends of any sitting government.
Some political observers say that the Marxists arrest of 1987 had a chilling effect on Singapore’s socio-political scene. People voluntarily withdrew from political activities and they traded political freedom to economic progress. Singapore did exceptionally well, economically, through the late 80’s and the 90’s. But, with an economy that is under pressure and because of the effects of globalisation, inflation, demographic changes and the growing wealth gap there is an increasing awareness that speaking up freely could at least be a beginning to solving these problems, to allow the best ideas a better chance of being aired.
With that in mind, I spoke to Tan Tee Seng, a former ISA (Internal Security Act) detainee. He spoke about the circumstances surrounding his detention, his political persuasions (then and now) and whether the ISA is still relevant in today’s political climate.
Tell us more about yourself in 1987 and what were you doing back then?
I was a 28 years old Marketing Executive with a publishing and design company as well as a specialist in publishing technology. I was in the midst of the preparation for my wedding. All invitations were already sent out and our big day was just a few days away.
The newspaper reports labelled you as a Marxist and said that you wanted to use violent means to overthrow the government of the day. What is your reaction to that?
Consider the following facts:
(1) I was supposed to be a “conspirator” of a conspiracy which I did not know existed. My activities were all open and I was involved in legitimate organisations that existed.
(2) I did not know many of the people that were detained.
(3) I was not personally acquainted with Tan Wah Piow, the alleged master mind. I finally got acquainted with Tan Wah Piow in 2002 some 15 years later.
(4) I was in solitary confinement for first six weeks of my detention and did not have any clue of the “network” published by the government. When I first got a glance of the newspaper clipping during my lawyer’s visit, I almost fell off my chair. By then I was already served with a detention order – indefinite detention without trial. During my detention, I was constantly reminded by ISD officers of Chia Thai Poh, who was still languishing in detention after more than two decades of imprisonment without trial. My release and freedom lied in the hands of a small group of people – it was not for what I did, it was for what they thought I did! I wanted to get out.
How were you arrested and where were you at the time of arrest?
I was arrested at our matrimonial home, a flat in Serangoon Central. I remember watching Miss Universe contest with my young fiancée till early in the morning and went to bed only at about 2 am. They came at 4ish in the morning. Before I unlocked the gate of my house, they showed me an Immigration Officer’s ID and told me that they were looking for illegal immigrants.
When I unlocked the gate, the officers then identified that they were from ISD and I was under arrest. They handcuffed me and pushed me into one of my room while they proceed to search the house. I was not allowed to see what they did; this was upsetting because I wouldn’t know if they had planted anything in my house. I was not given a list of what they had taken. The search took about 2 hours and I knew that because I noticed the first light of the day was already coming through. I was blind folded before I stepped out of the house; my fiancée was detained as well. We were then led by two agents on each side into a car, presumably unmarked.
What was going through your mind when you were in detention?
I was confused and tried to search for the reason for what was happening. I thought I was very careful and had put a ten-foot pole between my activism and what I considered subversive. The initial interrogation was over a continuous period of more than 65 hours. I practically collapsed and was dragged to the cell by two Gurkhas. I was concerned of the impact of my detention on my family and my friends.
Can you share with us what happened during the interrogation?
I was brought to the basement of Whitley Detention Centre, stripped of all clothing and forced to wear prison garb with no footwear. The interrogation took place in a dark cold room 10 feet by 8 feet (about the size of a standard HDB flat room). The air con was turned on full blast and I was interrogated continuously by 2 teams of 3 people (1 investigating officer and 2 ISD officers) on rotating shifts. I was confused and disoriented by their continual harassment to admit because I was not sure what I was admitting to and if they even had evidence to support the charges against me!
At one point during the interrogation the ISD Deputy Director entered the room and asked the team if I was cooperating. Suddenly, he threw a full blooded slap to my face before anyone could answer him. Despite the physical abuse, the worst aspect of the interrogation was the mental torture – “We can lock you up indefinitely and throw away the key”. I was afraid I would remained imprisoned till I die and never get to see my loved ones.
What followed next? What was the first thing you did after you were released?
After the exhausting 65 hours interrogation, I was put in solitary confinement for 6 weeks. The cell had barely enough ventilation and only one small fluorescent light that was turned on 24/7 so that I would have no sense of time. I had to bang the door and ask the guards permission to use the toilet. They did provide me 3 square meals daily and 20 minutes of ‘outdoor time’. For “outdoor time”, they just brought me to a bigger room than my cell with an air-well to see outside.
I was allowed my first family visit after 2 weeks in solitary confinement. After I was released, I went back to work almost immediately but was placed under restriction orders.
Now, you have been asking for a full investigation into your arrests and detention. How is your progress on that front?
ISA is a bad law and it has strangled the political development of this country. Look at countries in the region such as South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines and Indonesia. They have undergone political reformation and we are witnessing now is an active citizenry in place of dictatorship. The young people are striding ahead confidently. Here in Singapore we are still stuck in political divisiveness carried forward from the politics practiced some 50 years ago. ISA is a divisive law and it has no place in modern society.
It is more important that we abolish the law than conducting any inquiry at this stage. With the abolishment of the ISA, the country can then move on. Another important step is to embrace political diversity and allow all our political exiles (from abroad) to come back to rebuild their lives in Singapore. I am optimistic, I believe that I will live to see the change because all we need is the political will from the ruling elites and if that is not forthcoming, then civil societies of Singapore with increased political awareness of Singaporeans of the current political repression and with the a politically awaken citizenry, the government of the day shall be persuaded towards a more liberal democracy – ISA will have to go!
I agreed to this interview because I want Singapore to move forward, not settle political scores or personal vendettas. After the Operation Spectrum incident, civil society shut down in fear of not knowing what the OB markers were. It took a whole generation to find their voice and active citizenry was reborn. I don’t want history to repeat itself. The government cannot see all the problems from their perspective and they certainly cannot provide all the solutions. This is the gap only active citizenry can fill.
Thank you for this interview and I wish you all the best in your endeavours.
A session themed "That We May Dream Again – Remembering the 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy” will be held on 3pm to 7pm | Saturday 2 June 2012 | Speakers’ Corner, Hong Lim Park.
Kumaran Pillai is the Chief Editor of The Online Citizen. Cheong Yaoming is the Interim Executive Editor of The Online Citizen