“1987 – Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 years” documents accounts of ISA detainees of the public’s silence over their detention

Book review of “1987 – Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 years ” by Margaret John, Amnesty International, Canada

1987 – Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 years on is a riveting attempt to set out once and for all the historical truth and injustice of the arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA) of 22 caring young professionals involved in social justice activities. For their pains, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) charged them with being Marxist conspirators intent on the overthrow of the government. Once in custody, they were subjected to physical and psychological ill-treatment until they “confessed”. The graphic personal accounts of their treatment – which contrast the general public silence borne of fear or complacency – cut through to the heart.

Written largely by former prisoners of conscience, the book records both the activities they were actually involved in – largely through the Catholic Church and spurred by Vatican II’s emphasis on social responsibility – and the shock, outrage and fear felt by the detainees and their families at the cost of doing that work. Their accounts also show the astonishing lack of support within Singapore from many who could have given their side, including the Catholic Church and the media, which either stayed mostly silent or simply repeated the government’s charges. No vigils were held for the detainees, no large street demonstrations. Strong support, however, came immediately from international organizations such as the International Court of Justice, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, all calling for their immediate and unconditional release or a fair judicial process. The international media (including Canada’s Globe and Mail) gave widespread coverage.

The accounts make crystal clear what those involved saw as reasons for that almost total public silence: the culture of gratitude to the People’s Action Party for Singapore’s economic growth, the control of the media, and the general fear of stepping out of line and suffering the consequences (as had longtime prisoner of conscience Chia Thye Poh). Not surprisingly, Singapore has been at times termed “Orwellian” for the gap between its appearance as a progressive society and the actual control exerted over freedom of expression.

The arrests followed a slight weakening in support for the dominant People’s Action Party. Workers’ Party leader J. B. Jeyaretnam had been elected to an all-PAP parliament, and there had been a slight decrease in popular support for the ruling party. Clearly, a possible growing challenge had to be stopped. Some saw the arrests as a way to “bloody” the coming younger and less experienced PAP leaders.

Has the book been published in the belief that such persecution can now be relegated to history, with no likelihood of a repeat? Sadly no, as has been recorded in Amnesty reports. Those who attempt to exercise their right to freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly can still face prosecution.


  • Human rights defenders seen as critical of the courts may be targeted under the new Administration of Justice (Protection) Act.
  • Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung were subjected to hours of investigation for Facebook postings on a by-election “cooling off” day.
  • Teenage blogger Amos Yee was sentenced to six weeks for his blog in which he allegedly “wounded the religious feelings of others”.
  • Human rights lawyer M. Ravi has faced professional practice prohibitions which may have been politically motivated.
  • An investigation into a peaceful assembly is the latest effort to intimidate human rights defenders.
  • Singapore’s Catholic Church held a funeral for a man who had been executed, but to my knowledge without public comment, despite the Pope’s stated opposition to this most extreme punishment.

The publication of this book puts Singapore at a crossroads. The government’s reaction to the book will show whether the PAP is now ready to face the challenge of making Singapore a country that promotes and protects human rights. Human rights are now well and truly on the world’s agenda, but are they on Singapore’s? Or does Singapore remain tied to its shameful past?

I must point to a glaring omission to the full story of that past: the telling of Chia Thye Poh’s decades’ long imprisonment and persecution – akin to that of Nelson Mandela; and the remarkable eventual break, around the time of the 1987 arrests, of Devan Nair with his longtime close political ally Lee Kuan Yew and his exile in Canada.