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Interview with Jason Soo, Director of 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy

by Yee Kai

We speak to Jason Soo, whose new film is about Operation Spectrum, more commonly known as the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’, where 22 people were detained for allegedly plotting to establish a Marxist state in 1987.

Jason’s past films include a short film on the May 13 Generation, where a peaceful demonstration from students of Chinese middle schools regarding a new conscription law was met with violence from anti-riot police.

The new film, 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy, is showing at the Projector next Wednesday, 13 April. Jason is also raising funds to develop the film into a full-length feature film.

Below is our interview with Jason, where he shares his thoughts on the making of this film, censorship in Singapore, and historical appraisal of contentious events:

TOC: Tell us about your new film.

JS: In 1987, 22 people were arrested under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) in a security exercise known as Operation Spectrum. Accused of being involved in a Marxist conspiracy to establish a communist state, many detainees were tortured and then coerced into implicating themselves and their friends on public television.

Featuring interviews with ex-detainees and political exiles, the film focuses on the first 30 days of their ordeal. The ex-detainees describe various physical and psychological techniques used by their interrogators. The dark history of the ISA is a damning indictment of how detention without trial is not just a special kind of law, but a suspension of the law.

TOC: Could you share with us the reasons behind the making of this film?

JS: I started with the intention of making a fictional film that would express the best and worst of Singapore. And for many years, I tried to find or write a story that would do this. It wasn’t until I read the book Beyond The Blue Gate by ex-detainee Teo Soh Lung that I realised I had found my film. In a period when the term “activism” was not even widely used, the detainees were engaged in various forms of social work, whether directly in organizations such as the Geylang Catholic Centre, or indirectly, through social criticism in plays and books.

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And the worst of Singapore was not just how the detainees were imprisoned without trial and tortured, but also how society allowed such abuses to take place. Each and every one of us has to take some responsibility for Operation Spectrum. Each and every one of us failed to do enough to change the system that made such abuses possible. Our indifference or our lack of solidarity allowed this system to persist.

Of course today, the spectre of communism has subsided and ISA arrests are now justified under the banner of so-called terrorism. But whether religious fundamentalist groups operate in Singapore or not is not the point. The point is that without a proper trial, we cannot be sure that an innocent person has not been detained.

In its present form, the ISA allows the government to detain any person for up to 2 years. But in practice, a detainee can be imprisoned indefinitely. Because all they have to do is to continue to extend the detention order after every 2 years. The case of political detainee Chia Thye Poh shows this clearly. We cannot rely on any government to be impartial or to check itself. There needs to be a separate system of checks that is independent of the government. This is especially essential for Singapore, where the government has exerted so much influence over all aspects of our lives. We need a system of checks and balances that is really independent, and I stress the word really, and not just superficially. And above all, we need an active citizenry, including those in the civil service, who can play this role of checks and balances.

TOC: It's written on the film's website that "documentary seeks to transform the unequal hierarchy between interrogators and interrogated". Could you explain that and what does the film’s narrative style seek to achieve? 

JS: The opening sequence of the film cross-cuts between short sentences spoken by several detainees. Here, it was important to establish that each of their individual ordeals also reflected a collective one. The rest of the film relies on longer accounts. In these segments, it was important to cut as little as possible, so as to preserve the integrity of what they’re saying.

In the full-length version we’re working on, we plan to end with the ex-detainees commenting on what they and the audience will have just seen or watched. In other words, the film ends with the ex-detainees evaluating the film. They are given a chance to criticize or to correct any part of the film. Such an outlet was precisely what was denied them in 1987, when they were coerced to appear in TV confessions, in which they had to regurgitate what was asked of them. What they were coerced into saying was also edited and twisted out of context.

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Today, many people still do not realize how the audio-visual medium is a highly manipulative process. And documentary filmmaking belongs to this medium. So in order to present the truth of what happened in 1987, it is not enough for us to refute the dominant narrative. We have to ensure that we build a different relationship with the subjects of the film.

In other words, we have to overturn the hierarchy established in the TV confessions, in which rigid roles were imposed on interviewer and interviewee, interrogator and interrogated, oppressor and victim. So one way to break these rigid roles is to ensure the participants can reflect, question, and criticize the final, edited film. And to the extent that this is successful, the unequal hierarchy that habitually exists between interviewer and interviewee, director and subject, audience and performer, can then be transformed.

TOC: Could you share with us the difficulties and perhaps the dangers faced in the making of this documentary? 

JS: First, the difficulties. For a documentary of this sort, there are the usual ones such as the difficulty of getting financial support, the slow process of earning the trust of the ex-detainees, and also the difficulty of getting access to documents.

In Singapore, there is no Freedom of Information Act and many documents are not freely available even though they are in public institutions. Why are they not freely available? For the same reasons that when I tracked down documents in the hands of private individuals and requested them, I was also denied access. A climate of fear is pervasive in Singapore, and many people are still afraid that they may do something that offends some government authority.

A government that truly wants to engage would ensure that access to information is a basic right for the individual, and a responsibility for all institutions. So until a Freedom of Information Act exists in Singapore, no number of national conversations will be enough to transform the population into active citizens. Why does Singapore not have a Freedom of Information Act? The answer lies in the question of who benefits when information is denied and citizens are kept ill-informed.

As for the dangers, well, there’s the obvious one which is being on the radar of the authorities. But I think the greatest danger would be that I don’t make a good enough film that does justice to the experience of the detainees.

TOC: There's quite a bit written on the website regarding the impact of Operation Spectrum not only on the detainees, but also their families and friends. Were there any particular episodes during the filming process that struck you when you interviewed the ex-detainees? 

JS: There are many episodes. I’ve heard stories about how the families of the detainees were subtly and not so subtly harassed, in both their professional and private lives. Some of these are recounted in the book That We May Dream Again. There’s also a funny episode in Beyond the Blue Gate, involving 2 paper cups and a plastic string.

On a more serious note, their family members had to endure enforced separation and see their loved ones demonized in the national press. Some have chosen to emigrate after their eventual release – one ex-detainee remains in exile and has not returned to Singapore in 29 years; the detainees who took up habeas corpus suits had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fees and legal costs.

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Vincent Cheng, the so-called ringleader who was released after three years of detention without trial, endured another five years of restriction orders. One of those restrictions was that he was not allowed to communicate with any person from any implicated Church organization. That meant that he could not see any of his friends, since for an ex-seminarian like himself, the Catholic Church was the milieu in which he had lived and worked. These are just a fraction of the documented impact.

TOC: You list a detailed breakdown of your production costs on your website, something that we don’t normally see for many films. Why did you do that?

JS: The website is a way to publicize the film and the story of Operation Spectrum. At the same time, it is also a crowdfunding website. So since I’m asking for funding, it’s only fair that I provide as much information as possible to potential funders.

TOC: What was your reaction to the MDA’s granting of a R21 rating to the film?

JS: Many of us were initially surprised that the film wasn’t banned and that a rating was given. But our reaction itself is an indictment on censorship in Singapore, because in the first place, there’s no reason why a R21 is necessary at all.

In their advisory, MDA says that "1987: Untracing the Conspiracy provides an account of a covert security operation undertaken by the Singapore government in 1987, where 22 people were arrested and detained. The film is rated R21 with the consumer advice of 'Mature Content' as maturity will be required to understand the historical and socio-political circumstances surrounding the incident, and to discern that the film presents a perspective by the detainees.”

This logic is hypocritical and non-constructive.

Firstly, when four government-produced TV programs featuring the “confessions” of the ex-detainees were publicly broadcast on prime-time in 1987, children of all ages were allowed to watch it. So if a rating was not needed in 1987, why is it needed now?

Secondly, what the rating and advisory says in effect is that, if you are below 21 years old, you will not be able to understand history and socio-politics. The rating is complicit in the continued amnesia of many Singaporeans towards not just our country's history, but our culture, society, and politics. If we want to mature as a society, we need to have the courage to look critically at our past, and this maturity is not just something that anyone magically possesses at age 21. Cutting off access to the film for those below 21 years old is an act that will hinder rather than encourage the development of this maturity.

TOC: Do you see the decision to classify the film under a restricted rating as an indication of the direction towards more media freedom in Singapore or otherwise? 

JS: Compared to the banning of Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love, a R21 rating for this film may seem more benevolent. Perhaps the censors have learnt their lesson from the greater publicity generated by the banning of Pin Pin’s film. You could therefore call their decision a strategic one. But so long as Mediacorp and SPH remain under de facto control of the ruling party, mainstream media will never be able to exercise a responsible role but will remain as the mouthpiece for official policy.

And media freedom and censorship is not just about film ratings but also about public funding. The MDA and the NAC channel public money to fund supported projects. But their selection is not determined by public interests, but by what they think is in line with the interests of their masters.

TOC: Let’s talk more on the subject of government funding and the arts. Do you see government funding as a restriction on artistic freedom?

JS: I’ll like to talk about the problem of artistic integrity, rather than artistic freedom. They may be quite similar, but artistic integrity shifts the focus more onto an internal relationship, rather than an external one.

What I mean is this. Our society has seen public institutions perverted. They no longer act in accordance with public interests, or with autonomy from whoever is in power. Hence, public funds are used to serve the narrow interests of the ruling party. Just take a look at the millions of dollars spent on SG50 and the kind of myths that are perpetuated, most notably as historians like PJ Thum have pointed out, the myth of third world to first world.

So let’s take the case of censorship. Censorship is relatively easy to resist because it is visible, and we know what we are up against. Self-censorship is harder to detect, because it is embedded in us, within us. The person being censored faces a power external to him, but the person censoring himself has internalized that power, and he now regulates himself. So the difference between censorship and self-censorship is the difference between an older, repressive method, and a newer, more subtle form of power that is less visible and hence more efficient.

So when you add in the factor of increased state funding, artists are only going to be more complicit in censoring themselves, because they want that money. They are also going to be less conscious about censoring themselves. In such a scenario, control is exercised that much more efficiently, and invisibly.

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TOC: What can people do to participate in a more accurate historical appraisal of the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy? 

JS: When mainstream media becomes a mouthpiece for official policy, it becomes essential for all of us to inform ourselves through alternative news sources. The literature on the so-called Marxist conspiracy is out there. It may not be as well-publicised as the authorised narrative, but it is out there. So it’s our responsibility to seek them out. Besides the books I’ve mentioned above, there’s also Tan Wah Piow’s Smokescreens and Mirrors, and of course now, we’ve made a film on Operation Spectrum.

Second. We should also call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For the ex-detainees, the effects of arrest, torture, and detention inflict deep traumatic wounds that can manifest anytime in their everyday relationships and daily life. So a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be an important step in their healing process. Such a commission would also help us all come to terms with this national trauma. Because even though it may not be that apparent, Operation Spectrum has had drastic consequences for all of us.

For example, the ex-detainees from Geylang Catholic Centre were already grappling with the same issues that organizations such as HOME and TWC2 are facing today. So when the arrests happened, not only was civil society crippled for the next 20 years, problems such as the lack of workers’ protection, incorporation of workers’ unions into government-led organizations, lack of minimum wage, low birth rates, all these were carried over from the 1980s into their aggravated forms today. Now, they have become even harder to solve, with the added problems of rising xenophobia, infrastructural deficiencies, lack of economic innovation, etc.

I’m not saying of course that had Operation Spectrum not happened, these problems would not exist today. But this is just an example of how something like the Internal Security Act cannot be taken in isolation. It’s not just a law that exists on its own. It has consequences for the rest of society. We should be concerned. Because we’re still suffering its consequences today.

TOC: What does the unwillingness of the ruling party to confront its past speak of itself and Singapore

JS: It speaks of many things. But I’ll just briefly mention two. First, we get the political system we deserve. So it’s our collective responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that our government behaves as it should

Second, Alex Au has said that “The PAP would rather destroy Singapore than lose power.” That reminded me of Telegram 71, when in the face of impending defeat, Hitler said, “If the war is lost, may the nation perish.”

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1987: Untracing the Conspiracy will be  showing on 13 April, Wednesday, at The Projector. There will be a post screening discussion with Jason Soo and ex-detainees. Tickets can be purchased here.

The film also needs your support in order to be developed into a full-length documentary. You can help  here. Information regarding the film’s methodology, funding and the crew can also be found on the website.