Former Minister S Dhanabalan resigned over detention of Marxist Conspirators?

Mr Lee with Mr Dhanabalan (second from left) who took his oath of allegiance before President Benjamin Sheares in the Istana State Room. Photo: ST
Mr Lee with Mr Dhanabalan (second from left) who took his oath of allegiance before President Benjamin Sheares in the Istana State Room. Photo: ST

“We had a difference and the whole Cabinet knew,” former Cabinet Minister S Dhanabalan revealed while sharing his thoughts on Mr Lee Kuan Yew a day after Mr Lee’s demise, making specific reference to the detention of the Marxist Conspirators in 1987, where 22 people were arrested and detained without trial under the Internal Security Act.

In his tribute to Mr Lee, Mr Dhanabalan put on record his reasons for resigning from Cabinet in 1992.

I resigned from Cabinet (in 1992) because I had a great difference of view over the use of the Internal Security Act in the 1987 arrests. (In 1987, 22 people – many linked to the Catholic Church – were arrested and detained without trial under the ISA for alleged involvement in a “Marxist conspiracy”.)

Lee Kuan Yew thought that mine was a Christian view, because he knew I was a Christian. But it was not a hard-headed political view. We had a difference and the whole Cabinet knew.

The way he saw it depended on his experience, and he had some very traumatic experiences with the communists and how they infiltrated legitimate organisations to get what they wanted. I was looking at it from my point of view, without the experiences he had.

I wouldn’t venture to say whether he was right or I was right. So it was not that he was ruthless, but that he saw dangers where I didn’t. Whether it was real danger or not remains to be seen.

During the Marxist Conspiracy in 1987, Mr Dhanabalan was Singapore’s Minister for National Development. The Marxist Conspiracy, also known as Operation Spectrum, has been the subject of much debate in recent times.

This revelation by Mr Dhanabalan suggests that even within the top echelons of the PAP government, there were disagreements over the actual danger posted by those who were arrested.

Mr Dhanabalan also noted that he disagreed with Mr Lee on the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system, which ensured that a minority candidate gets elected into each electoral ward.

“I was against it because I was probably more of an idealist and not realistic enough. I felt that if the Chinese in my constituency did not want to elect me, then so be it, because I saw being Singaporean more important than anything else.”

However, Mr Dhanabalan noted that such disagreements were par for the course.

“Though we had disagreements, it was not difficult working with Lee Kuan Yew. He knew that my views were sincere even if he didn’t agree with them. He respected people who had different views from him, he didn’t think it was because you were not as bright.”

Who is Mr Dhanabalan?

Mr S. Dhanabalan, 77, was a Member of Parliament from 1976 to 1996. During his time in Parliament, he was promoted to a Cabinet Minister and served in various portfolios, including Foreign Affairs, Culture, Community Development, National Development and Trade and Industry held various ministerial portfolios from 1980 to 1992. He also served as the chairman of Temasek Holdings from 1996 to Aug 1, 2013.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew also identified Mr Dhanabalan, among other Cabinet Ministers, to potentially be his successor. However, in his public account, Mr Lee later felt the 76% ethnic Chinese electorate was not yet ready for a Prime Minister of Indian ethnicity.

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