Former ISA detainee: 6 hour grilling of Dr Thum proves nothing about communist conspiracy

Writing on Function 8 Facebook page yesterday (2 Apr), former ISA detainee Chng Suan Tze observed that the 6 hour long grilling of historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin (PJ) at the hearing conducted by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods last week has proven nothing about detainees conspiring to overthrow the government.

“Absolutely nothing was brought up as to why there is a need to have more legislation to combat deliberate online falsehoods,” Mdm Chng lamented.

Dr Thum asserted that there was no need for further legislation because current ones are already enough to take care of deliberate online falsehoods. However, Law and Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam chose to focus on another part of Dr Thum’s submission, which was on Operation Coldstore in 1963, she noted.

Dr Thum had included the following statement in his submission: “Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state. Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie.”

“He (Law Minister) spent six long hours trying to debunk the above statement,” Mdm Chng commented. “Shanmugam cross-examined PJ as if the hearing was a court of law and PJ was the accused.”

“Shanmugam tried to assert that those arrested were communists or communist-controlled but all his ‘evidence’ was based on unreliable sources with no citation to support their claims. At one point Shanmugam tried to split hair over a sentence written by Chin Peng – forcing PJ to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. PJ managed to quickly add that Chin Peng was also an unreliable source,” she added.

Most notable of all, Mdm Chng asked how could the Minister use LKY’s own book to prove that he has evidence to arrest people? She said, “LKY was the accuser – so how can you use the claims of the accuser to prove that the accuser is right?”

The Minister also showed notes about CPM’s intent to resort to arm struggle but Mdm Chng countered how could this be used as a reason to arrest and detain people who “were not proven to be communists or communist-controlled”?

“The whole session simply showed a minister in a position of power, on a raised platform, talking down to PJ and trying hard to prove PJ (an academician and historian) wrong. Kudos to PJ for patiently sitting through the six-hour battering – forced to give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers… and hardly getting any opportunity to elaborate on his answers although he was promised many times that he would be given a chance to reply,” she commented.

“Shanmugam based his ‘evidence’ on subjective and unverifiable accounts of people to justify the Operation Coldstore arrests while PJ based his evidence on verifiable accounts from archival records to say that the arrests were unjustified. So who is the objective one and who is subjective?”

“At the end of the day Shanmugam was unable to debunk the fact that in 1963 hundreds of people were arrested during Operation Coldstore and some were detained for many years based on sham evidence that they were communists/communist sympathisers, supporters and fellow travellers and that the real motivation for the arrests was to wipe out effective political opponents of Lee Kuan Yew,” she added.

Who is Chng Suan Tze?

Mdm Chng was one of the detainees accused to be a “Marxist” during Operation Spectrum in 1987. She was arrested together with others under the Internal Security Act (ISA) on grounds that they were members of a clandestine communist network.

In its press statement, the Ministry of Home Affairs claimed that the group had planned to “subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore through communist united front tactics to establish a communist state”.

The mastermind of the conspiracy was said to be Tan Wah Piow, a former student activist in exile in the UK. The People’s Action Party government’s stand was that Mr Tan continued with his Marxist activities and hatched a plan to establish a network of communist infiltrators who would penetrate and eventually dominate lawful organisations in Singapore. His ultimate aim was to return to Singapore and establish a Marxist regime in Singapore, said the PAP government.

At the time of her arrest, Mdm Chng was a poly lecturer and 38 years old. She was released towards the end of 1987 together with others, after signing “confessions” denying their involvement in the alleged “Marxist” plot. However, a few months later in Apr 1988, she and 7 others were re-arrested when they made a public statement denying the accusations leveled against them that they were “Marxist” conspirators and also alleging mistreatment in detention. The Ministry of Home Affairs later said that the detainees’ public statement was a political ploy to discredit the Government.

Chng Suan Tze v Minister for Home Affairs

Later in 1988, following their unsuccessful application to High Court to hear their case of “unlawful detention”, Mdm Chng and others appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The appeals were allowed on the ground that the Minister had not discharged the burden of proving the validity of the detention orders that the President had been satisfied that the appellants were a danger to national security.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeal observed that the exercises of discretion by the President and the Minister under ISA are reviewable by the courts because the subjective test used in previous cases could no longer be supported and should be replaced by an objective test. That is, the court would have the power to examine whether the executive’s decision to detain a person was in fact based on national security considerations.

It thought that applying subjective test in reviewing the exercise of discretion under the ISA would mean giving the executive arbitrary powers of detention, rendering such powers unconstitutional and void.

The Court of Appeal also concurred with judicial opinions from other Commonwealth jurisdictions brought up by the defence that courts can objectively review the executive’s exercise of discretion in the context of preventive detention on national security grounds.

Finally, the Court of Appeal was of the opinion that “the notion of a subjective or unfettered discretion is contrary to the rule of law” because “all power has legal limits”, and therefore the exercise of discretionary power warrants court examination. It also refuted the argument that accountability to Parliament was an alternative safeguard against the executive abusing its powers under the ISA.

PAP Government quickly amends Constitution and Law

Following the Court of Appeal’s decision in December 1988, the PAP Government immediately introduced new bills into Parliament to amend the Constitution and the ISA to reverse the effect of the “Chng Suan Tze v Minister for Home Affairs” judgment. The amendments to ISA and Constitution took immediate effect in Jan 1989.

Essentially, judicial review of preventive detention pursuant to the ISA was curtailed. It stopped all possible court applications that might be brought against executive directions and orders made under the ISA. Also, the amendments stated that no judicial decision on or after 13 July 1971 from any other Commonwealth countries would apply in Singapore. This was intended to overturn the arguments opined by Court of Appeal in Mdm Chng’s case. It limits judicial review only to questions of “compliance with any procedural requirement of [the ISA]”.

Finally, the amendments provided for the retrospective application to any proceedings for judicial review prior to the 1989 amendments.

Doubts emerge over conspiracy to overthrow government

Almost immediately, doubts emerged about the alleged Marxist conspiracy when Mdm Chng and others were detained. In a mere five weeks after the initial arrests, then Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam complained that over 200 organizations from around the world had sent protest letters to the PAP government.

Chiam See Tong in 1987, said, “What is the case against them? What evidence do you have? Although the Government has been saying, ‘Yes, we have evidence, otherwise we would not have arrested them.’ What evidence? You tell me. There is no evidence. The only evidence is their own confession. That is all. Any court of law would throw out this kind of a confession.”

In 1988, the Australian government called in Singapore’s High Commissioner in Canberra to express its concern and regret over the re-arrest on of the eight former detainees as well as their lawyer Francis Seow under the ISA. A group of Japanese human rights activists also called for the immediate release of the detainees in an official letter to then PM Lee Kuan Yew in the same year.

In 1991, former Attorney General Walter Woon said of the arrests, “As far as I am concerned, the Government’s case is still not proven. I would not say those fellows were Red, not from the stuff they presented… I think a lot of people have this scepticism.”

And in 2001, DPM Tharman, personal friends with some of the accused, said, “Although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.”

Former PM Goh Chok Tong also revealed in 2009 that former National Development Minister S. Dhanabalan left the Cabinet in 1992, because he was not comfortable with the way the government had dealt with the “Marxist Conspiracy”. “At that time, given the information, he was not fully comfortable with the action we took… he felt uncomfortable and thought there could be more of such episodes in the future… he’d better leave the Cabinet. I respected him for his view,” Mr Goh said.

Mary Turnbull, noted historian on Singapore, has called “the alleged Marxist conspiracy” a myth.

“There is no evidence of a Marxist conspiracy or that this informal network of community development groups and workers posed any imminent threat to the security of Singapore. The Singapore government has continually rejected demands for it to prove this alleged ‘conspiracy’ in open court, and give those detained a fair trial. We believe it has refused because its evidence of a ‘conspiracy’ is simply too weak to stand up in court,” said International Commission of Jurists.

Till today, the detainees have not stood trial for the alleged conspiracy that they were involved in. A case which brings to question on what will happen when the government dictates what are “facts” and “falsehoods”.