Reflecting on Operation Spectrum: 37 years of injustice and legacy of ISA in Singapore

Reflecting on Operation Spectrum: 37 years of injustice and legacy of ISA in Singapore

by Teo Soh Lung

At dawn today, 37 years ago, six people, their families and neighbours were rudely awakened by loud banging on their doors. Their homes were ransacked by plain-clothes police officers.

Nothing incriminatory was found. No weapons were seized. No plans to overthrow the government were discovered.

Despite this, they were ordered to get into cars, blindfolded and driven to the Whitley Detention Centre, off Whitley Road. This detention centre or prison is now demolished, and its notorious history will be forever erased with the erection of public and private housing.

The six were Chew Kheng Chuan, Harvard graduate and entrepreneur, Chng Suan Tze. Polytechnic lecturer and Master’s degree holder, Tang Fong Har, lawyer and member of the Law Society’s Sub-committee on Legislation, Nur Effendi a Polytechnic graduate serving his national service and students, Ronnie Ng and Fan Wan Peng, member of the Students’ Executive Council and Polytechnic Student Union President respectively.

The students were arrested because they had the audacity to issue a statement on the 16 people detained on 21 May 1987 under the Internal Security Act (ISA). You can read about them in our earlier posts and on our blog.

Codenamed “Operation Spectrum” the so called security exercise arbitrarily arrested and detained a total of 22 people. They were all accused of being subversives who were planning to overthrow the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government not through the ballot box but through violence.

At the time the operation was mounted, the PAP held 77 seats in parliament while the opposition comprised of JB Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong. It is a great shame that despite its almost complete control of parliament, the PAP government had to resort to the use of the ISA against defenceless young people.

The viciousness of the PAP, which regularly uses the ISA to demolish the opposition and curb any dissent, is shown by its history. Drs Lim Hock Siew and Poh Soo Kai were imprisoned for 20 and 17 years, respectively. Utusan Melayu’s Editor in Chief, Said Zahari, was also imprisoned for 17 years. Legislative assemblyman, Lee Tee Tong and trade unionist Ho Piao, were detained for 18 years, and Chia Thye Poh, a Member of Parliament and Nanyang University lecturer, was imprisoned for 32 years.

You can view a list of ISA prisoners at Function 8 blog, “People detained without trial in Singapore from 1950 – 2024

This list of 1414 names is incomplete. Only the government knows the exact number of prisoners.

The cruelty of the PAP government with its periodic use of the ISA can only be outmatched by brutal dictators.

It is little wonder that the PAP is able to hold power for over 65 years. Its ruthless use of the ISA has damaged the psyche of Singaporeans and deprived generations of able people from contributing to the development of Singapore. This control must end.

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