Dialectical Postmortem Blues: “Marxist or Catholic?”

“You are a Marxist.”

“No, I am a Catholic”


Now, imagine that exchange repeating itself no less than 50 times. In addition to being repeatedly slapped across the face by an ISD Officer who was trained in martial arts, the detainee would also be doused with ice-cold water in a room where the air-condition is on full blast.

That was just a mere segment of the ordeals that Tang Lay Lee, a Lawyer and Church Worker who was detained during Operation Spectrum, was subjected too.

In her own words,

“Are you a Marxist?”

“No. I’m a Catholic.”


“Are you a Marxist?

“No. I’m a Catholic.


“Are you instigating workers?”

“No. I’m helping workers.


“Are you a Marxist?”

“No. I’m a Catholic.


“Are you instigating workers?”

“No. I’m helping workers.”


I felt cold, very cold and numb. Surely this can’t be real, this can’t be happening. But the blows to my face kept coming after every reply.

Men kept coming and going out of the room, talking among themselves, barking at me, shaking their heads. J.T*, another little man with a moustache, the case officer. T.*, a little woman, his assistant case officer. Long Jaw, who slapped me with powerful swings of his arm and the full force of his body behind every blow.

I wanted to forget it all but I couldn’t. It was humiliating. I was crying out that it was totally unwarranted. Were they stupid? Marxist? Me? I tried to tell them what I am – a Catholic.

But they were not interested in my answer, but continued hitting me and dousing me with cold water in an air-conditioned room.”

– Tang Lay Lee, 21 May 1987

Tang Lay Lee’s account of her detention was what led Mr Seelan Palay, an artist and activist, to his piece, ‘Dialectical Postmortem Blues.’ Mr Seelan, whose other notable works include the documentary ‘One Nation Under Lee,’ first penned and performed the piece in 2011 during an exhibition in LaSalle.

“I read about what Tang Lay Lee went through and I wondered how it must have felt. And so, I wrote “You are a Marxist” in red ink which would be then followed by “No, I am a Catholic,” in black ink. And after each exchange, I would slap myself as hard as I could before proceeding to repeat the process. By the time I finished the piece, I had a burning sensation in my cheeks.”

Seelan Palay’s Dialectical Postmortem Blues

Yesterday, in celebration of Human Rights Day, Seelan’s work was installed after 5 years of stalling (a pun courtesy of the new owner of the work), in the Eugene Thuraisingam LLP (ET LLP) office in Chinatown.

For the installation, a cocktail reception was held. In attendance were lawyers from ET LLP and members of Civil Society Organizations like MARUAH, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Coalition (SADPC), and former NMP Ms Braema Mathi. Madam Teo Soh Lung, one of the detainees from the 1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy, was also present. She was the Guest of Honour for the evening and presented the artwork to the audience. Her own experiences as a detainee are well documented in her seminal book, Beyond the Blue Gate. The artwork’s installation was met with a toast from all present.

Mr Seelan Palay, Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, Mdm Teo Soh Lung and Ms Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss (From L - R)
Mr Seelan Palay, Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, Mdm Teo Soh Lung and Ms Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss (From L – R)

The piece will now be part of Human Rights Advocate and Non-Practicing Lawyer Mr M. Ravi’s private collection and is on display in his office.

I was moved to tears when Seelan was expounding his thoughts on Dialectical Postmortem Blues, explaining how he slapped his face 50 times in the process of drawing the art. At that point I looked at Soh Lung’s face filled with emotions and I can’t even begin to imagine what she, and others like her, must have gone through. – M. Ravi

Mr Seelan Palay, Mdm Teo Soh Lung and Mr M Ravi
Mr Seelan Palay, Mdm Teo Soh Lung and Mr M Ravi

ET LLP, which organised this art installation, shared that this event would be the first of 5 events organized to celebrate ET LLP’s 5th Anniversary on 16th April 2017.

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