31 years after Operation Spectrum, the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy is still filled with doubt

Exactly 31 years ago, six people were arrested by the People’s Action Party government in what was the final sweep of the ‘Operation Spectrum’. About a month before that, sixteen people were arrested and detained without trial under the Internal Security Act.

Officially, the PAP government claimed that these detainees were trying to “subvert the existing system of government and to seize power in Singapore”. The alleged mastermind was the then University of Singapore’s Students’ Union President Tan Wah Piow while his alleged “key man” was Catholic social worker Vincent Cheng.

In April 1988, they issued a statement to say that they had been tortured and abused during their detention before being re-arrested and forced to sign statutory declarations denying everything they had said in their press statement. All in all, these detainees spent varying amounts of time in prison, with Cheng spending the longest at 3 years.

Freelance journalist and activist, Kristen Han wrote that the aftermath left Singaporeans “afraid to be publicly aligned with particular causes, and criticizing government policy was seen as far too dangerous a game to play. All this hindered the growth and development of civil society, and we’re still dealing with the consequences today”.

Even within the PAP, there were doubts over the version given by Lee Kuan Yew’s cabinet.

In the book Men in White: The Untold Stories of the PAP, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong revealed that Cabinet Minister S Dhanabalan had left the Cabinet in 1992 because he was not comfortable with the way that the detainees had been dealt with.

“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.” Goh said.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in 2001, “Although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but not out to subvert the system.”

Former Attorney General Walter Woon echoed this sentiment in 1991 when he said that “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”.

In a later interview, Tan Wah Piow said that an understanding of the issue must be approached from the context in 1987. At that time, it was a year before the General Elections. The late Mr. Lee was someone who planned everything, possibly including a list of people who were a threat to his party’s dominance.

Then, the opposition was effectively a “one man show” led by the late J B Jeyaretnam and there was not much he could do as an individual. Rather, it was a political movement that was required. The end effect of Operation Spectrum was that a “whole generation” was cut off from this potential political movement.

“After 1987 there was a lull, everyone was frightened, nobody wants to speak. In order to cut off this whole generation, they needed a name to justify the means of ISA; the only name they could use to sell to a population was the name ‘communism’”.

If this is anything to go by, this was not a light one for the detainees.

Filmmaker Jason Soo commented: “Their family members had to endure forced separation and see their loved ones demonized in the national press. The detainees who took up habeas corpus suits had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fees and legal costs”.

An injustice? Kristen Han said, “If – as we all strongly suspect by now – Operation Spectrum was an abuse of power, then Singaporeans deserve to know, and to fold this knowledge into our understanding of our country and ourselves”.

We, the undersigned, were detained by the Internal Security Department (ISD) on 21 May and 20 June 1987 and released in stages after the suspension directives and/or restriction orders in June, September and December 1987.

While we had privately always maintained our innocence and kept a rueful and cheerful silence about the unjust treatment we were subjected to, and would have been inclined to keep our silence, the government has repeatedly raised the issue of our arrest and detention and made false and damaging statements about us. On the one hand, we have been intimidated by implicit and explicit threats against our safety, should we speak up about our arrest and detention; on the other hand, the government and its spokesmen have continued to make bold and untruthful statements regarding the reasons for our arrest and detention and have denied that any of us were subjected to ill-treatment or torture.

We make this statement as principled men and women who will speak the truth and state our position for the record… we do not intend to challenge the government, we do not seek any official response, neither is there any desire to make political capital out of this. Our sole purpose is to clear our names.


We are accused of being involved in an alleged Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore using Communist united front tactics to establish a Marxist state. We categorically deny the government’s accusations: we have never been Marxist conspirators involved in any conspiracy.

We were never clandestine, Communist or a Marxist network and many of us did not even know of one another before the arrests. We were rather community and church workers, legal reformers, amateur dramatists, helpers of the Workers’ Party, professionals and ordinary citizens exercising our constitutional rights to freedom of expression and association in Singapore. We have never propagated in words or in actions a Communist state for Singapore. Rather we have through open and legitimate organizations and legitimate means advocated more democracy, less elitism, protection of individual freedoms, greater concern for the poor and the less privileged, and respect of freedom in the private lives of citizens.

We hold completely the beliefs expressed by fellow ex-detainee Chew Kheng Chuan in his representation to the ISD advisory board where he stated: “We are believers in an open and democratic policy and in the virtues of an open and accountable government. We strongly believe that for society to be meaningfully called democratic, interest and action in politics cannot be the sole prerogative of the professional politician. A citizen of a democracy, to be worthy of that society, has not just the right but indeed the duty to participate in the political life of his or her society. It is a grave danger to democracy to suggest that for one to comment on political and social issues or to hold differing political opinions, one should go and form a political party.”

We believe that, as in the case of an individual citizen, so too has an organization the same legitimate role to play in a democratic country. It seems to us that we were arrested and detained for the legitimate exercise of our rights as citizens, through registered and open organizations. We did not infiltrate these organizations but joined them as members, volunteers and full-time workers. Neither did we use these organizations as forums to propagate subversive activities. All acitivities carried out by these organizations are legitimate, open and approved by elected executive committees whose members clearly stand on their own right as capable, autonomous and intelligent individuals. Neither were we instructed by any person or organization, not Tan Wah Piow, Paul Lim, nor any political party.

Treatment during detention

Following our sudden arrest we were subjected to harsh and detailed interrogation. Some of us were for as long as 70 hours inside freezing-cold rooms. All of us were stripped of our personal clothing, including spectacles, footwear and underwear and make to change into prisoners’ uniforms. Most of us were made to stand continually during the interrogation, some of us for over 20 hours and under the full blast of air-conditioning turned to a very low temperature. Under these conditions one of us was repeatedly dowsed with cold water during interrogation. Most of us were hit hard in the face, some of us not less than 50 times, while others were assaulted on other parts of the body during the first three days of interrogation.

We were threatened with the arrest, assault and battering of our spouses, loved ones and friends. We were threatened with indefinite detention without trial; Chia Thye Poh, who is still in detention after 22 years, was cited as an example. We were told that no one could help us unless we cooperated with the ISD. These threats were constantly in our minds during the time we wrote our respective statements in detention.

We were actively discouraged from engaging legal counsel and advised to discharge our lawyers and against taking legal action, including making legal representation to the ISA Advisory Board so as not to jeopardize our chances of release.

We were compelled to appear on television and warned that our releases depended on our performances on TV. We were coerced to make statements such as, “I am Marxist-inclined”, “My ideal society is a classless society”, “So-and-so is my mentor”, “I was made use of by so-and-so”, in order to incriminate ourelves and other detainees. What we said on television was grossly distorted and misrepresented by editing and commentaries which attributed highly sinister motives to our actions and associations.

We state once more, clearly and unequivocally, that we never acted in any way to subvert the security of our country.