by Christopher Tremewan
Two of the Singapore regime’s greatest achievements are the Pavlovian concept of citizenship and the disguise of its daily operation through the petitionary politics of a neutered citizenry. The art of government lies in preventing collective action unsanctioned by the state, controlling not only the economy through far-reaching state capitalism but also monopolizing social space, what people can do and say in the workplace, in their communities and in their homes. This has succeeded in preventing the emergence of a free citizenry, degrading Singaporeans to economic digits responsive to incentives and disincentives. What may have begun in 1959 with a ruling party committed to a fairer society has now morphed into an immoveable regime convinced of its superior wisdom and implacably determined to hold on to absolute power.
This inflexibility is a very deep weakness that is increasingly exhibited through an inability to respond to the changed circumstances of an economic strategy that is now failing. It is also seen in administrative incompetence, a vindictive political culture making full use of media control and the internal security police, an ideological aversion to addressing social inequality even though the means to do so are easily to hand, and a demeaning dependence on foreign money and foreign labour.
Signs of this weakness have most visibly surfaced periodically through repressive acts that are far beyond what any ruling party needs to do to maintain its monopoly on power.
Thirty years ago, in a carefully calibrated act of political cruelty, the regime incarcerated without trial a new generation of intellectuals, lawyers, church workers, social activists, dramatists and students. In other words, the ruling party attacked the cultural and moral development of the nation, slicing it off at the knees. It achieved its objective of wrecking the lives of those arrested, a majority of them were women, and truncating their contribution to their own society. Success could also be claimed for the main objective: insertion of the fear of unrestrained executive power deep into the populace, scorching for decades the growth of social imagination and community solidarity.
This book, "1987 – Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On" tells the poignant stories of 1987.
Some may discount it as the self-indulgent reflections of a defeated generation. They would be wrong.
This book is a portal to Singapore’s soul, to the human spirit that can be suppressed or manipulated but never defeated. It is also a signal to the current generation of the task to be completed: to exercise the inalienable rights of free citizens even while the Internal Security Act and the legal apparatus denies them.
The book also provides a kind of social media map of all those who played along with the defenestration of the innocents. Many of these collaborators with state repression are in positions of public influence and private wealth, some expressing private sympathy while maintaining public loyalty to the regime. Paradoxically, mired as they are in moral compromise, they are less free and possibly more fearful than those who were detained in 1987 and now speak with clear voices.
Singapore’s future will be the outcome of a contest between an administration which has big data reaching into every aspect of people’s lives and the upwelling pressure from social inequality. Will a free citizenry emerge to challenge rule by the algorithms of a wealthy elite?
Christopher Tremewan is a Research Fellow in Political Studies at the University of Auckland
Note: in 1987 the reviewer, while undertaking doctoral research at The University of Canterbury, New Zealand, was part of a human rights campaign to urge the release of those detained without trial under the Internal Security Act in Singapore (see pp. 150-4 of the book under review). While at St Antony’s College, Oxford University, he then wrote The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore published by the St Antony’s-Macmillan Series in 1994 and reprinted in 1996 with St Martin’s Press, New York (see p. 110 of the book under review).
"1987 – Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On", (Chng Suan Tze, Low Yit Leng, Teo Soh Lung (eds) (Singapore: Function 8 Ltd) 2017. ISBN 978-981-11-3136-3)
Survivors of Operation Spectrum—the alleged Marxist conspiracy—speak up in this volume. For many of them, this is the first time that they cast their minds back to 1987 and try to make sense of the incident. What they did in that period was meaningful and totally legitimate. Their families and friends share the same view.
The detainees were subjected to ill-treatment, humiliation, and manipulated television appearances. Under duress, and threatened with indefinite imprisonment without trial, they had to make statutory declarations against their will.
It is hoped that with this publication (which has more than 35 contributors), Singaporeans will know about what actually happened and decide for themselves if there was a national security threat that necessitated the mounting of Operation Spectrum.
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