29 July 1987: Chiam’s finest hour (part one)

In support of the 16 ex-detainees call for Commission of Inquiry to investigate their detentions, TOC republishes this article which first appeared in TOC on May 20, 2009.


“You have got powers of detention without trial. You say you want security. But there are also other important considerations for our country. We have to ask the question: What sort of Singapore do you really want? You have to tell the people. Do we want a Singapore where only because of a slight dissent against the Government, people are arrested? Do you want a country that has a widespread fear, apathy?”

When Parliament sat on July 1987, Mr Chiam See Tong tabled a motion calling for the release of the alleged Marxist conspirators detained in May of that year. He was then the only opposition Member of Parliament (MP), JB Jeyaretnam having run into legal trouble the year before. It thus fell upon him to call for the detainees’ release in Parliament.

For a full day, Parliament debated the motion he tabled:

“That this House calls upon the Government to release immediately the 15 persons detained under the Internal Security Act for allegedly being involved in a Marxist plot to destabilise the Government.”

As People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs lined up to speak against the detainee’s release, he stood his ground. However, the conclusion was a foregone one.

To add injury to the insult of defeat, his motion was amended to congratulate the government:

“That this House supports the prompt action of the Government in arresting those involved in the Marxist conspiracy and supports the Government’s intention to release them as soon as they are rehabilitated and are unlikely to resume their subversive activities”.

The Online Citizen reproduces transcripts from the sittings. They have been edited for brevity.

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TOC Exclusive: Teo Soh Lung – In her own words (part one)

In support of the 16 ex-detainees’ call for the Commission of Inquiry to investigate their detentions, TOC republishes this article which first appeared in TOC on May 19, 2009.

Next on TOC: Lone opposition MP in Parliament in 1987, Mr Chiam See Tong, calls for the release of those detained under the ISA. TOC brings you transcripts of the day’s Parliamentary debate.

Teo Soh Lung was one of the original 16 accused of being part of a “Marxist plot” to bring down the Singapore government. She, along with 15 others, were arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act on 21 May 1987. Ms Teo spent two and a half years under detention.

Earlier this year, Ms Teo had several of her poems, which she had written while in prison, published in the book, “Our Thoughts Are Free”. (See TOC’s report of the book launch).

Teo Soh Lung

In the early 1980s, my good Catholic friend, the late Aileen Lau and I together with some others, helped to set up the Geylang Catholic Centre (GCC) at Lorong 17 Geylang. I think I worked 6 days a week without any salary. The work entailed teaching foreign workers how to speak English, giving talks on employment law and immigration, encouraging friendly table tennis competitions between the GCC and the Jurong Centre for workers.

In the 1980s the GCC was involved in a variety of activities. There were activities for foreign workers, Filipino domestic workers, ex criminals and ex drug addicts. At one time, the center was also involved in crisis management. There was a crisis center for battered women. I was not really involved in the crisis centre but made friends with some social workers and helped out when there was a need.

Filled with naiveté and idealism, I started a law firm at the Aljunied Industrial Estate. I rented one room above a tile shop. With the donation of a manual Olympia typewriter from my father, I began work as a lawyer. My aim was to make lawyers accessible to the people. I think my firm was the first to be operating outside the city.

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1987 “Marxist Conspiracy”? People are just “jealous”, says letter to ST forum

Letter to the Straits Times forum by Lionel De Souza:

I READ last Friday’s report, ‘Ex-ISA detainees remember 1987 arrests’, with some consternation.

I cannot fathom the necessity to resurrect and commemorate the arrest of members of a Marxist conspiracy that aimed to create a state of anarchy and topple the government 22 years ago.

My perception is that the commemoration was calculated to stir disquiet, as some people cannot bear to see Singaporeans happy and satisfied with the Government’s competence and proactiveness in softening the effects of the financial crisis for Singaporeans from all strata.

The $13.6 billion stimulus package payouts, coupled with tax cuts and rebates to put cash in the pockets of consumers and resuscitate domestic demand, and generous Jobs Credit to keep companies afloat and prevent mass retrenchments, the farsightedness of the Government in using the downturn to upgrade skills, plus spending $4.4 billion on infrastructure, health and education improvement have certainly aroused jealousy against the Government’s ‘lifeboat’ packages.

This has caused certain elements to fume when they see most Singaporeans content and happy with what the Government is doing to make their lives a little more meaningful in these trying times.

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“Operation Spectrum was political rape”

The Online Citizen officially ends its “Marxist Conspiracy: Truth or Government Propaganda” Special Feature Week with this article. We thank our readers for their patience and indulgence as we took the week to highlight the events of 1987. TOC also would like to give special thanks to everyone who has contributed, in one way or another, to the feature. We leave you with the words from some of the people who were most involved in that episode of May/June 1987 – and comments from some others. [You can view all our articles from the special feature here.] [For more pictures of newspaper reports, please visit TOC’s Facebook photos.]

“It is not a practice, nor will I allow subversives to get away by insisting that I’ve got to produce everything against them in a court of law or (produce) evidence that will stand up to the strict rules of evidence of a court of law.” 

Lee Kuan Yew, 1988


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. 

Chiam See Tong, 1987

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Let the people judge

Andrew Loh / With special thanks to Martyn See

On 10 June 1987, Mr Tan Wah Piow released a book, which few Singaporeans would have known or know about.

It was called, “Let the people judge – Confessions of the most wanted person in Singapore.”

The publication was a response to the Singapore government’s arrest and detention of a group of 16 Singaporeans about three weeks earlier that same year on 21 May.

In the book, Mr Tan, who was accused of being the mastermind to the 16 in a “Marxist plot” to subvert the social and political system in Singapore and install a communist state, refutes the allegations and evidence presented by the government. He also provides background to some of his activities in the 70s, particularly the period when he was President of the student union at the Singapore University and his arrest and detention in 1975 for “rioting”, a charge he denies to this day.

In 1976, he left Singapore and has been exiled since then. His citizenship was also revoked in 1987 – on 21 May, the day the 16 detainees were arrested. The government had amended the Constitution in 1985 to stipulate that anyone who has been away from Singapore for a continuous period of 10 years is liable to have his citizenship revoked.

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Remembering the 22

Andrew Loh / Pictures courtesy of Jacob George

In a simple but solemn gathering at Speakers’ Corner on Thursday, about 100 people observed the 22nd anniversary of the arrest and detention of 22 social activists by the Internal Security Department in May, 1987. They were accused of being part of a Marxist plot to “subvert the social and political system” in Singapore and replace it with a Marxist one.

The 22 were detained without trial for as long as three years.

Thursday’s event, organized by a group of five young activists, was held to “condemn the arrest, detention and torture of 22 fellow Singaporeans under the Internal Security Act in 1987,” the group’s statement said.

Taking turns to read out the statement, the five activists – Mr Seelan Palay, Ms Rachel Zeng, Mr Mohd Shafie, Mr Chong Kai Xiong and Mr Mohd Khalis – condemned the use of the Internal Security Act which “violate[s] the fundamental human rights of the 22 Singaporean citizens.”

“The ISA threatens the primary rights of freedom of expression and freedom from fear of the people and should be abolished,” they said.

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