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Not forgetting 21 May 1987 and its relevance today

By Teo Soh Lung

Today at dawn, 27 years ago, plain clothes policemen climbed over my garden gate and started banging on the glass door. Rudely awakened by the loud noise of glass being hit, I looked out of the window and saw the garden filled with light. There were cars with full headlights turned on. People were milling around. The sight was both frightening and bewildering. I was all alone.

On 21 May 1987, 16 people were arrested under the ISA, in dawn raids conducted all over Singapore. It was a huge operation. The police called it “Operation Spectrum”. Imagine a minimum of about ten police officers arresting one unarmed person. Sixteen people would have involved 160 police personnel on the ground not counting those who were trailing the 16 for at least twelve hours before the raids and those who were in the police headquarters planning the operation, setting up the rooms for interrogation, discussing the method of interrogation and taking care of the dirty cells that would eventually receive the prisoners. Yes the operation was huge and totally unnecessary because all the 16 were unarmed law abiding citizens. They were not even political opponents.

A month after, on 20 June 1987, six more persons, three of them polytechnic students leaders were arrested.

The shock of being arrested was followed by days of interrogation in freezing cold rooms with glaring spotlights. Senseless shoutings and uncouth remarks were part and parcel of police game. Deprivation of sleep and for some, physical violence were part of police techniques to extract statements to confirm their stories. Finally, the deprivation of visitors and lawyers while “investigations" were in progress allowed the police to have a free reign over those they held in custody.

No one was permitted to visit the 16 until 27 May, a period of seven long and sleepless days and nights. This relatively “short period” of deprivation of visitors was due in no small ways, to the fearless and angry reaction of our families. They held meetings, met priests, called press conferences, complained to members of parliament and protested outside the Ministry of Home Affairs. They spoke to the foreign press and contacted friends all over the world who in turn took action by complaining to Singapore embassies abroad. They contacted Amnesty International and other human rights organisations. Newsletters kept the outside world informed of what was happening in Whitley Road Prison. Never before, except perhaps in the 1950s and 60s, was there loud protests against arrests under the ISA, an uncivilised law which authorises indefinite imprisonment without trial and which renders the judiciary impotent. All these probably forced the government to allow visits by family members and lawyers within a “relatively short time”. And so we were, in a way, the fortunate 16. I doubt if any ISA prisoner before us had been allowed visits by family and lawyers within such a “short time”.

I had in a previous posting, commented on the court of appeal’s decision in James Raj concerning the right of access to counsel under Article 9(3) of our constitution. In that case, the court decided that 29 days was “reasonable time” for a lawyer to gain access to his client. In my view, this is a bad judgement, a judgement which only took the interest of the police and prosecution into consideration. It is a judgement that assumes that everyone who has the misfortune of being arrested is guilty of the crime and deserves to be subjected to investigation for as long as the police deems fit. It is a judgement that assumes the accused person is always well treated in custody and knows his rights. The court has has not taken into consideration the harm that can result in 29 days of solitary incarceration without the advice of counsel.

What then can be done in the face of the judgement in James Raj? It is wishful thinking that the courts will overturn its decision without being compelled to confront the issue again and again. It is heartening that counsel for one of the alleged teen vandals had brought an application to court for access to his client recently. We cannot expect the law to change overnight. We need to know our basic rights even though we are confident that we will never be arrested! Can we expect the Law Society of Singapore to assist in any way? Will there ever be a support group for accused persons, something akin to the support group that existed in 1987?


 

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the Operation Spectrum which was carried out on 21st May 1987.

16 people were arrested and detained without trial under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) for their alleged involvement 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." On 20 June 1987, 6 more people were arrested, bringing the total number of detainees to 22.

Teo Soh Lung was one of the original 16 accused of being part of a “Marxist plot” to bring down the Singapore government. She, along with 15 others, were arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act on 21 May 1987.

Ms Teo spent two and a half years under detention without trial before being released.