At the 30th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum which was held at the Projector, Golden Mile Tower, 29 year-old Kokila Annamalai was asked to share her thoughts on how Operation Spectrum impacted her as a young person in Singapore, and the effects it’s had on civil society.
Below is her speech in full:
I was a nineteen year-old uni student when I first found out about Operation Spectrum and Operation Coldstore. I’d come across an interview on YouTube, an episode of SDP’s ‘Let’s Talk’ with an ex-detainee. And it was down the rabbit hole from there – I stayed up all night watching video after video, reading article after article – my world unravelling.
It was my political awakening, and it was life-changing. I wrote to activists I found on the internet and asked to have coffee. I started working at an advocacy group right out of uni. I stayed in Singapore, when my plan all along had been to get out as soon as I could.
The ground under me slipped that night – when I realised that everything I’d been told about my country was a lie – but I also found my footing. I was outraged, but I was also thrilled – that there was a place, and a fight, for me here. There was, finally, a narrative and characters I could relate to. Once the fierce spirit of people like Said Zahari, Francis Seow and Teo Soh Lung entered my consciousness, Singapore wasn’t so dull.
I’d wanted to leave to India, because I was inspired by people’s movements there, but now there were stories right at home that moved me. Having grown up in Singapore feeling thoroughly alienated, I was suddenly excited by this city and its stories. I had a fire in my belly because others had fought for me to have a fairer society to live in. I had the shoulders of giants to stand on.
I was born in 1988, the year after Operation Spectrum. I grew up in a society that was recoiling from the trauma of caring, fighting, thinking and dreaming. I grew up with vague cautionary tales of how we should toe lines, keep our heads down and not look for trouble.
My coming of age in the 1990s was devoid of politically engaged student unions, workers’ strikes or visible subcultures. Most unforgivable was the depoliticisation of education and the deceit in the monolithic stories we were told about who we are and where we come from.
One of the most effective projects of the PAP has been to fabricate a history that erases powerful legacies of struggle and dissent. The cost is that contemporary social movements in Singapore are amputated from their predecessors – their strategies, their truths, their pulse. How far can we go when we’ve been forced to forget where we started? How do we enliven political consciousness without excavating history? If there is no identity without memory, there can be no movement without legacy.
But it isn’t just anti death penalty campaigners or migrant workers rights groups that suffer this loss. It is social workers, students, journalists, lawyers, artists – our cultures and institutions, by and large, have been robbed of the courage to be critical of power or the wisdom to be suspicious of authority. Fearless ideas are rare, radical efforts are mocked, and those who demand change are desperately lonely.
My belief is that as a society, the price we’ve paid is even higher than we can fathom. Suppressing dissent kills diverse and creative solutions to social and economic challenges, and when we’re not allowed to explore different ways of being in the world, we bear an intangible spiritual cost.
Perhaps more cruel than suffering an injustice is for that injustice to go unseen and unheard. It was, and still is, heart breaking to me that while many victims and survivors of political oppression around the world are honoured and celebrated, here, they are largely invisible.
It is extremely valuable that we tell and re-tell these stories in quiet coffee shop conversations, shout them through loudhailers, write them down in books, perform them on stage, inhabit them in our lives.
We can, together, reclaim our social memory. Every time I’ve had a conversation with one of the ex detainees, I’m amazed at how much there is to learn from them and their work, how relevant their experiences are to community organising today. Often, people ask them about their time in detention and how they’ve rebuilt their lives since. Beyond that, I’m thirsty for the stories of what they were doing before they were detained. How did they organise themselves? What were the student unions doing then and what could students today learn from that? How did social workers, theatre makers and lawyers use their work to advance social justice? What were they reading? What did they care about? What made them cry?
I read somewhere that the burden of truth-telling has never fallen on the state, the police, or the media. It has always fallen on the people, especially marginalised people. To be in community with each other, to show up in solidarity, is, to me, a truly powerful act that affirms our truths – and this is the meaning that today holds for me.