Factual error in “The Battle for Merger” exhibition at Jurong Regional Library

The following letter was sent to the National Library for the exhibition put up by the Ministry of Home Affairs at the Jurong Regional Library.

1980s communist threat

By Ng Yi-Sheng

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am a regular patron of the National Library, and have often enjoyed the exhibitions held on your grounds. Your curators and researchers deserve congratulations for providing such accessible display that disseminate knowledge about our local and regional heritage.

Yesterday, however, while visiting Jurong Regional Library, I noticed a disturbing error in one of your exhibitions, “The Battle For Merger”.

One of the interactive electronic consoles was devoted to the topic of “The Communist Threat”. Under Chapter 1: The Communist Threat to Singapore (1948-1989), I found the following paragraph:

“The Communist Threat persisted into the 1980s. This included efforts to make inroads into English-educated groups and to systematically infiltrate and subvert lawfully-established organisations which included student and para-church groups. The aim was to destabilise the country and to establish a Marxist state.”

These claims are untrue. They refer to the the Singapore government’s allegations in 1987 that English-educated activists were engaged in a Marxist conspiracy to take over the country. This was used as the justification for the mass detentions of 22 citizens in what has come to be known as Operation Spectrum.

The victims of Operation Spectrum have denied that their voluntary work was motivated by Marxist ideals, and that they were part of a plot to overthrow the government. Their “confessions” were made under duress and conditions of deprivation and torture. This has been documented in ex-detainee Teo Soh Lung’s memoir “Beyond the Blue Gate”, which is available in your library.

Well-known historian Mary Turnbull has called the idea of this Marxist conspiracy a “myth” in “A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005”. Likewise, in her book “Scripting a National History: Singapore and its Pasts”, historian Hong Lysa quotes DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam as saying, “most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.”

You will therefore understand why I feel that it is inappropriate for this paragraph to appear in your exhibition. I ask you to remove it from the display at the earliest opportunity available.

Alternatively, you may choose to amend the display to accommodate multiple opinions on the issue. Perhaps a revised version of the original paragraph would do::

“The Singapore government claims that the Communist Threat persisted into the 1980s. For this reason, they detained English-educated social activists in lawfully-established organisations, such as student and para-church groups. They believed these men and women aimed to destabilise the country and establish a Marxist state. The ex-detainees deny this version of events. Multiple historians also dispute the government’s account.”

It is noteworthy that The Battle for Merger exhibition does not, to my knowledge, describe the course of Operation Spectrum beyond this paragraph. This means that my correction should be easy to accommodate.

Perhaps a day will come when the National Library is free to mount an exhibition on Operation Spectrum itself, detailing not only the government’s perspective, but also the ex-detainees’ traumatic experiences and accounts. That day may not be far away.

Many thanks,

Ng Yi-Sheng