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International Human Rights Day commemoration in Singapore

by Teo Soh Lung

Human Rights Day (10 Dec) was commemorated in small but meaningful ways by civil society.

It began with the screening of the documentary “1987: Untracing the Conspiracy” by Jason Soo at The Projector. About half of the 22 people who were arrested and imprisoned in the alleged security operation known as “Operation Spectrum” in 1987 were present for the Q & A session that followed.

Various thoughtful questions were posed by the young audience. They wanted to know if the 22 people who were detained knew each other, what they were doing in the 1980s, what was the impact of the detention on them and their families and were they really Marxists.

(Photo by Lynn Lee)

K C Chew, Vincent Cheng, Kenneth Tsang, Tan Tee Seng, Low Yit Leng, William Yap and I told them that some of us were friends while others were strangers and there was no conspiracy to overthrow the government using violent means and communist united front tactics. Three of those arrested were young Polytechnic students who as leaders of their students' union, merely issued a statement stating that they were not made use of by those who were arrested and called upon the government to try the 22 in open court.

The allegation that the detainees were made use of by Tan Wah Piow who lives in London was absurd. The detainees were not puppets. Futhermore, it is not easy to be a Marxist. With due respect to the ISD, Marxists have to be very learned people. The Internal Security Department (ISD) officers themselves were ignorant of what Marxism is all about and were not able to explain why the detainees were Marxists. The term was conveniently used because communism was no longer fashionable in the 1980s.

As to the impact of Operation Spectrum, it was disastrous for civil society. In the early 1980s, civil society was just re-emerging. After Operation Spectrum, civil society died for 20 years. It only started to emerge again about ten years ago and is now under severe attack. Jolovan Wham now faces seven charges. The government need not use the ISA today because there are sufficient laws to harass activists. These laws include the Public Order Act and the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act. Using the ISA had caused an international outcry in 1987. Its tact has therefor changed.

(Photo by Lynn Lee)

At Hong Lim Park meantime, a music and poetry event organised by the Young Catalysts, Fabulous Recalcitrants and Han Hui Hui was taking place. Songs and poems were read to an appreciative crowd. The rain disrupted the ending of the proceedings but did not dampen the spirit.

While everyone ran for shelter after the song "Blowing in the Wind", Braema Mathi bravely stood under an umbrella to observe Silence which was organised by MARUAH. Those in the shelter suddenly realised that activists cannot be frightened by the rain! And so a few braved the rain and stood with her!

(Photo by Lawrence Chong)

Silence? Why Silence? Life is hectic and silence has to be observed in order to maintain sanity. In the face of severe harassment of civil society today, activists need to think carefully before they act. The government has all the resources while the activists have none. Activists need to be cunning, to conserve their energy, to plan and keep ahead of the authorities which is an octopus with many legs that can stretch and catch everyone easily. Silence to strategise is necessary to survive.

Finally, Han Hui Hui gave a speech about the loss of our fundamental human rights through laws and unjust practices of the government.

Civil society is at the crossroads. It is now being tested by the octopus. United it will stand. Divided it will be eaten up! There is no time for petty squabbles.

Back in 1987, civil society did not realise the approach of danger. The ISD secretly trailed several of the detainees. The Law Society was criticised publicly but members thought it was part and parcel of meaningful debates. They did not realise that the government was going to use the sledgehammer on four of its members and another two, including its president, the late Mr Francis Seow the following year. The Law Society succumbed to pressure.

In 1987, the Catholic Church was also under attack. The Church kept the petty complaints of the government to itself. Fr Arotcarena who was the founder of the Geylang Catholic Centre was harassed by the Ministries but kept all his troubles to himself. No one anticipated that the government would take drastic measures against Church workers. Subsequently, even priests were criticised. The late Archbishop Gregory Yong was subjected to pressure and he too succumbed.

For those of us who have gone through 1987, we know that what is happening today to Jolovan Wham and his friends is a repeat of those dark days. The government may spare Jolovan and others from the ISA for now. But we do not know for how long. For civil society society to survive, unity and resistance is the only solution. Opposition parties which have been assisted by civil society in the past need to pay attention to what is happening to civil society today. It is time that they come to the aid of civil society. Raise injustice in parliament. Forget about the warning of Lee Kuan Yew that political parties cannot be seen with civil society. He is dead. His intent was to divide and rule. He succeeded in the 1980s with this tactic. But if the opposition remain in their cocoons and refuse to aid civil society today, it will spell the end for all. Singapore will return to the dark age.

Now is the time to act. United we stand, divided we fall. The situation is code Red.