Sunday, 21 May 2017

1987: Untracing the Conspiracy

Debunking a 30-year-old Conspiracy
untracing 3

30 years on, details of the Internal Security arrests codenamed Operation Spectrum have only just come to light, first in Teo Soh Lung’s book, Beyond the Blue Gate, and more recently, in Jason Soo’s film, 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy.

The documentary can be viewed on Youtube.

On the 30th anniversary of this event which had a chilling effect on Singapore’s civil society, we would like to invite you to join us in an endeavor for restorative justice and reconciliation.

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Singapore, It Is Time for Answers on Operation Spectrum

It has been 30 years since officers from the Internal Security Department arrested, detained, interrogated, assaulted, threatened and bullied 22 young Singaporean activists and volunteers into confessing to a "Marxist Conspiracy." The claim that these Singaporeans had been Marxists out to subvert the state and overthrow the democratically-elected government has been refuted multiple times by academics, researchers, journalists and the detainees themselves, yet Singaporeans are still no closer to getting a proper accounting of 1987’s Operation Spectrum.

I was born a year after Operation Spectrum took place, but still feel the effects of the arrests in my work in Singaporean civil society. The aftermath of Operation Spectrum left fear spread liberally across Singapore – activists grew afraid to stick their necks out, lest they were next in line for detention. Singaporeans were afraid to be publicly aligned with particular causes, and criticizing government policy was seen as far too dangerous a game to play. Suspicious of one another, opportunities were lost for activists to form important connections with one another. All this hindered the growth and development of civil society, and we’re still dealing with the consequences today.

It’s an impossible task to try to figure out how much we have lost from this stunting of an active citizenry. How many problems could have been solved, how many creative solutions unearthed, if people had been given the space to debate, to argue, to protest and create?

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Vincent Cheng was detained for a period of three years, the longest out of all the detainees. He was kept in solitary confinement

In 1987, over 20 activists, theatre practitioners, social workers and lawyers were detained without trial and accused of being involved in a 'Marxist Conspiracy' under Operation Spectrum. The arrests killed civil society activity in Singapore for a long, long time.

So begins the story of Operation Spectrum as told by eight detainees in Jason Soo's 54-minute documentary 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy, screened to a packed hall at The Project on Wednesday.

Through interviews with the detainees and onscreen text, the story unfolds – from the arrests in the wee hours of the morning to the long, cold interrogations, the intimidation. The abuse and assault. The sleep deprivation. The psychological pressure. And of course, the forced confessions.

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30 years on, it’s time for the truth about Operation Spectrum

21 May 2017 will mark the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, when activists and volunteers were arrested and detained without trial under the Internal Security Act. They were later accused of having been part of a “Marxist Conspiracy” to overthrow the government. None of the detainees were tried for these allegations, and therefore their guilt never ascertained in a court of law.

On 21 May, Function 8 will be organising a commemoration of this 30th anniversary – I believe details will come soon.

Some of us younger members of civil society also felt that we should do something for this occasion – although it was three decades ago, the impact of Operation Spectrum on activism and the public sphere in Singapore can still be felt, and many questions surrounding the use of detention without trial still remains.

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Why Singaporeans need to discuss 1987’s Marxist Conspiracy

Do people become subversive after reading Animal Farm?

George Orwell’s allegory on totalitarianism was one piece of evidence Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) allegedly seized in 1987 during Operation Spectrum. Thirty years on, the arrest and detention without trial of twenty-two people accused by the government of plotting a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state is still an episode shrouded in fog. There are good reasons today for society to embrace a more honest conversation about it.

The facts bear mention. On May 21st and June 20th 1987, a total of nine men and thirteen women, aged eighteen to forty, were arrested and detained by the ISD using powers conferred by Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The accused were a mix of activists, Catholic Church members, social workers and theatre performers. Some had ties to the rejuvenated Workers’ Party.

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Beyond The Blue Gate

Synopsis: This is a moving and detailed account of the author's tribulations while under detention without trial.

Singapore lawyer Teo Soh Lung has written this careful account of her experiences and feelings when detained in Whitley Detention Centre 21 from May 1987 to 6 September 1987, and from April 1988 to 1 June 1990. Accused of involvement in the alleged "Marxist Conspiracy", Soh Lung discusses many legal aspects of the case, including Singapore's banning of London QC Anthony Lester and her various Appeal attempts.

She tells of the regime and her physical and emotional suffering, as well as the strategies and beliefs which enabled her to retain her integrity and balance in circumstances intended to subdue her. Relevant official documents are appended.

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Singapore: Remembering the 1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy’

Several Singaporean groups will commemorate the 25th anniversary of a government crackdown of suspected destabilizers in Singapore.

They are accused of being part of a ‘Marxist Conspiracy.’

Human rights groups claim that more than 2,500 people have suffered detention without trial since the ruling party came to power in 1959

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Remembering the Marxist conspiracy

It has been 25 years since Mr William Yap was detained for his part in an alleged Marxist conspiracy, but the bewilderment at being interrogated remains fresh in his mind.

Along with 21 others, he was accused of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the Government and rounded up under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in mid-1987.

'I had no idea what they wanted from me,' the 65-year-old told a crowd of some 400 people at Speakers' Corner yesterday.

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Remembering 18 April 1988, the 26th Anniversary

On 18 April 1988, nine former Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees who were released just a few months earlier, issued a joint statement. That morning, I remember picking up a call from a foreign journalist who wanted to confirm the authenticity of the statement. She asked if I had anything to add. I replied that a lot had already been said in the statement and I didn’t know if we would be rearrested! She said that up till then, I had not been arrested. We laughed. Yes, “not yet”, I replied, half believing that I would not be arrested.

Reading the statement today and reflecting on the political climate then, I think we must have been die hard optimists or idealists to think that we would not be rearrested. There was only one opposition member, Mr Chiam See Tong in parliament. PAP back benchers who were supposed to speak their mind freely were just a bunch of sycophants. They went all out to demonise us. Civil society which was living in fear, not knowing if they too would be in trouble after the mass arrests in May 1987, were still traumatised. With the joint statement, could we expect to be spared? It was no doubt an exercise of free speech but that meant nothing to an enraged government. We said, among a host of heart wrenching truths, these words:

“In making this statement, we do not intend to challenge the Government; we do not seek any official response; neither is there any desire to make “political capital” of this. Our sole purpose in making this statement is to clear our names.”

related: 25th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum

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Marxist conspiracy

In May 1987, the Ministry of Home Affairs arrested 16 people under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for their involvement in a “Marxist conspiracy”. They were detained without trial for between one month and three years. Tan Wah Piow, a former University of Singapore Students’ Union president residing in the United Kingdom, was named the mastermind behind the plot.

Description: The 16 people who were arrested were Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan, Teo Soh Lung, Kevin de Souza, Wong Souk Yee, Tang Lay Lee, Ng Bee Leng, Jenny Chin Lai Ching, Kenneth Tsang Chi Seng, Chung Lai Mei, Mah Lee Lin, Low Yit Leng, Tan Tee Seng, Teresa Lim Li Kok, Chia Boon Tai, Tay Hong Seng and William Yap Hon Ngian

The mostly English-educated group was a mix of church workers, social workers, graduates and professionals who were arrested and accused of being part of a “Marxist conspiracy” to topple the government. Their intention was to “subvert Singapore’s political and social order using communist united front tactics”

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Operation Spectrum: The Catholic Church and the State

(Chinese: 光谱行动; pinyin: guāng pǔ xíngdòng), also known as the 1987 "Marxist Conspiracy", was the code name for a covert security operation that took place in Singapore on 21 May 1987. 16 people were arrested and detained without trial under Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA) for their alleged involvement in "a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state." On 20 June 1987, six more people were arrested, bringing the total number of detainees to 22. The mostly English-educated group was a mix of Catholic lay workers, social workers, overseas-educated graduates, theatre practitioners and professionals.

According to the Singapore government, Operation Spectrum was conducted to "nip communist problem(s) in the bud". The mastermind behind the alleged Marxist plot was Tan Wah Piow, a former University of Singapore Students' Union president who had been in de facto exile in London since 1976. His "key man" in Singapore was Vincent Cheng, a full-time Catholic Church worker in the Justice and Peace Commission. Cheng's role was to use the Catholic church in Singapore as a "ready cover" to organise the infiltration of disparate groups of influence including the Law Society, the opposition Workers' Party and various student bodies. These would become pressure groups that would eventually come into open confrontation with the government. By December 1987, all the detainees had been released except for Cheng. However, in April 1988, nine of the released detainees issued a joint statement accusing the government of ill treatment and torture while under detention. They also denied involvement in any conspiracy and alleged that they were pressured into making confessions. Eight of the nine were re-arrested and detained for a second time. They were eventually released after they signed statutory declarations denying everything they had said in their press statement.

The truth of the allegations has been questioned. Historians Mary Turnbull and Michael D. Barr have described the conspiracy as "myths" and a "fanciful narrative", arguing that the arrests were politically motivated. In an interview with The Straits Times on 14 December 2001, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that "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." However, the People's Action Party (PAP) government has continued to maintain its stand that the ex-detainees "were not detained for their political beliefs, but because they had involved themselves in subversive activities which posed a threat to national security

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’1987 Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy, 30 Years On’ to be launched on 21 May
One of many other accounts detailed in the book, ”1987 Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy, 30 Years On”. It will be launch on Sunday, 21 May 2017 at 4.30 pm at The Projector

On 21 May 1987. 16 people were arrested and detained without trial under ISA in an operation, entitled “Operation Spectrum” for their alleged involvement in “a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state.”

On 20 June 1987, six more people were arrested, bringing the total number of detainees to 22. The government alleged that the mastermind behind the alleged Marxist plot was Tan Wah Piow, a former University of Singapore Students’ Union president who had been in exile in London since 1976. His “key man” in Singapore was Vincent Cheng, a full-time Catholic Church worker in the Justice and Peace Commission. Both have denied the allegations made against them by the government.

On 18 April 1988, nine detainees who were released just a few months earlier, issued a joint statement to deny they were subversives. The next day on 19 April 1988, they were re-arrested, along with Mr Patrick Seong, a lawyer for one of the detainees. A few weeks later, a lawyer for the detainees, Mr Francis Seow who spoke up against their rearrests in conferences abroad, was also arrested at the Whitley Road Centre where he had intended to interview Patrick Seong and Teo Soh Lung, one of the nine detainees who have been re-arrested. Till today, none of the detainees arrested under Operation Spectrum was charged or tried in open court and the government still stand by its claims.

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Police investigating MRT ‘silent’ protest
Activists in Singapore stage silent protest to commemorate 30-year anniversary of Operation Spectrum. Image via Jolovan Wham

SINGAPOREAN police are investigating a “silent” protest which reportedly took place on a Mass Rail Transit (MRT) train on Saturday, local reports said.

According to Channel News Asia, the authorities confirmed they were looking into the case after a police report was lodged on the matter.

On Saturday, a group of demonstrators reportedly gathered in an MRT train to protest against a series of arrests and detentions that took place 30 years ago under the Internal Security Act.

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To Singapore, with Love 星国恋

Sitting on a porch in Kuala Lumpur, Dr. Ang Swee Chai recalls that in 1977, when her husband Francis Khoo’s arrest was imminent, she had suggested that they get married – “that way I could at least visit him in jail”. Soon after their swift wedding, amidst threat of arrest and indefinite incarceration, they fled Singapore. Decades later, reality loomed. “It dawned on me that I was going to die alone in London… I want to be in 100A Upper Serangoon Road,” she says softly. Swee Chai has returned to Singapore just once — on a single-entry permit, carrying her husband’s ashes.

The men and women in Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, with Love are courteous in their painful recounting of the circumstances that forced them to leave their country of birth – four, maybe five decades ago. They instantly remember their dates of departure – long ago now. Their stories are factual, fragile and yet wistful. A lifetime of pent up yearning and loss has surprisingly not left them despondent. The grace and detail of their spirited, candid narratives taped conversationally at home, on streets and in offices, make this film intimate and engaging. True to Ms. Pin’s oeuvre, there are no gratuitous mood shots in this film; superfluous music is not necessary to pull at our heartstrings – the clear, penetrating words suffice.

“I knew that they had to get rid of me,” says the professorial, Oxford educated lawyer Tan Wah Piow, in a matter-of fact tone. He left Singapore after serving a jail term of one-year for blowing the whistle on what what he perceived as gross labour injustice. During that time he saw the forcible and complete dismantling of the university student union he had been an integral part of.

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