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25th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum

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  • tremeritus
    25th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum: Remembering the 1987 “Marxist
    Message 1 of 1 , May 19, 2012

    25th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum: Remembering the 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy”

    History of the ISA

    The Internal Security Act or the ISA as it is notoriously known, is the most unjust and intimidating law enacted during peace time in Malaya and forced upon Singapore by the colonial authorities.

    Japan invaded Malaya in December 1941 and Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. The British promptly left Malaya leaving the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) to resist the occupation. The courage and sacrifice of the CPM during the war years is well known and acknowledged by both the people and the British after the war.

    When the British returned to Malaya in 1945, they presented Chin Peng, the leader of the CPM with two medals and awarded him the highest honour for outstanding achievement, namely the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Wu Tian Wang, a representative of the CPM was appointed by the British as a member of the Advisory Council.

    But the alliance between the British and the CPM came to an end shortly after. The murder of three white men in plantations in Malaya gave the British the excuse to declare a state of emergency and to introduce emergency regulations in Malaya in 1948. The CPM was declared an illegal organisation.

    Singapore was then a crown colony. Because of her proximity to mainland Malaya, the British also proclaimed a state of emergency on the island. Their excuse was that they did not want the island to be used by the communists. The proclamation of emergency was supposed to be effective for just three months.  Sadly, the British abused their power and extended the emergency for seven years and more.

    In 1955, Singapore’s then Chief Minister, David Marshall introduced the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO). He took great care to insert two safeguards:

    (a) An independent Appeal Tribunal comprising two High Court judges and one District Court judge who had full powers to order the release of detainees.

    (b)  A mandatory review, at least once in every six months, of a detention order or restriction order by a Reviewing Officer who must be a person qualified to be a judge. The Reviewing Officer had the duty to make recommendations to the Chief Secretary or to the Appeal Tribunal.

    The PAP which was then in opposition, vehemently opposed the law. However when it came into power in 1959, it immediately removed the above two safeguards by replacing the Appeal Tribunal with an Advisory Committee, comprising a judge and two lay persons. As the name implies, the Committee’s power was reduced to one that could only advise the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State).

    In 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia. The Malaysian Internal Security Act (1960) with modifications, was introduced to Singapore. The new Act enacted the Advisory Board which basically performs the same function as the Advisory Committee. When Singapore left Malaysia in 1965, the ISA continues to be in force.

    The government claims that when the Board recommends the release of a prisoner, he/she has to be released unless the President of Singapore decides to veto the Board’s recommendation.  This very limited power of the Board and the President does not detract from the fundamental evil authorised by the law.

    An ISA detainee is imprisoned without a trial for an indefinite period of time. Thousands have been detained without trial and a significant number like Dr Chia Thye Poh, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Ho Piao, Lee Tee Tong, Said Zahari and Dr Poh Soo Kai have been detained for decades. Many have been severely tortured. Just imagine the hardship caused to the detainees and their families. Imagine the loss to Singapore with so many brilliant people spending the prime of their lives in prison.

    There has not been any debate in Singapore as to why we should not abolish the ISA. The situation in Malaysia has improved. After severe criticisms from the people, Malaysia abolished the ISA in April 2012.

    In 1991, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked why the ISA was still needed in Singapore even though the CPM no longer posed a threat. His reply was that if Malaysia did not abolish the Act, it must have its reasons. Singapore would seriously consider abolishing the ISA if Malaysia were to do so. Now that Malaysia has repealed the ISA, would Singapore do likewise?

    If Singapore is truly a first world nation, there is no place for detention without trial. Every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, assembly and expression.  As a member of the international community, Singapore has for 64 years flouted and continues to flout Article 9 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads:

    “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”

    The ISA, a tool of our colonial masters, has been used to full effect in post colonial Singapore against law abiding citizens. If Singapore claims to be fully democratic, then there can absolutely be no doubt that the ISA must be abolished.

    You just need to ask yourself one question: Would you feel wronged if you were arrested and have no means to defend yourself, i.e. detained without trial, for an indefinite period of time? If your answer is “yes”, then join in the call for the abolition of the ISA now!

    25th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum

    “Operation Spectrum” was mounted by the Singapore government on 21 May 1987 under the ISA. Sixteen individuals were arrested in the first wave, with another six detained soon after. Two of the lawyers (including a former Solicitor-General of Singapore) who represented these individuals were subsequently detained as well. The 24 arrested were mainly professionals such as lawyers, journalists, community and church workers and entrepreneurs.

    The government alleged that the detainees were “Marxist conspirators”, without giving them the right of defence in an open court. Instead, public “confessions” were elicited under the threat of indefinite detention without trial.

    These “confessions” were repudiated in a press statement by nine of these individuals some months after their release. Eight of them were immediately re-arrested the next day, while the ninth signatory was in England at the time of re-arrest.

    Nothing substantial or credible was ever produced to corroborate the government’s allegations. Later documents showed even greater ambiguity in the reasons behind the detentions in 1987. An injustice was perpetuated and continues to linger to this day.

    Function 8 Limited and Maruah as well as other civil society organisations, have come together as partners to remember the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum through a series of activities.

    A session themed That We May Dream Again. Remembering the 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy” will be held from 3pm to 7pm on Saturday 19th May, 2012 at Speakers’ Corner, Hong Lim Park.

    Amongst other activities, survivors of the 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy” will be sharing  stories of their lives before and after their detentions with members of the public.


    Desired outcomes

    We hope these activities would:

    1. Raise awareness on the misuse of the ISA in the past;
    2. Raise awareness of the danger on the continued existence of the ISA which may lead to complacency of the authorities in dealing with real security threats to our country;
    3. Work towards the abolition of the ISA; and
    4. Press the government to welcome the return of those who have been forced into exile because of the ISA, such a move being the first step towards national reconciliation and healing for all parties.


    By: the organising committee of “That we may dream again: Remembering the 1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy’”

    More than 2,500 Singaporeans have been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) since the 1960’s. The ISA, which allows the arrest and indefinite detention of citizens without trial, is a blunt national security instrument open to abuse by governments which can use, and have used, it in the decimation of legitimate organisations and individuals opposed to their social, economic and political directions.


    14 Responses to “25th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum: Remembering the 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy””

    • ISA should be abolished:

      ISA was used by LKY against those who opposed PAP even though they were not subversives. The PAP cannot be trusted. To prevent its further misuse by PAP the ISA should be abolished.

    ---------- Forwarded message ----------
    From: Robert HO <robert.ic019@...>
    Date: 15 May 2012 11:54

    Subject: TEO Soh Lung, lawyer, jailed 2-1/2 years without charge or trial, without reason except to intimidate others from also helping Opposition [see Attachment]


    Monday, 14 May 2012 17:51

    Teo Soh Lung - 25 years since Operation Spectrum

    Teo Soh Lung, 25 years from Operation SpectrumTeo Soh Lung, 25 years from Operation Spectrum

    By Loke Hoe Yeong

    When Teo Soh Lung was growing up, she had to walk home from school whenever there were bus strikes. Her route saw her passing by the central police station. She had dreamed of being a policewoman but her desire to join the police force, however, was not fulfilled because, she says, she “didn’t have the height.”

    Soh Lung led a carefree and happy childhood - “No tuition at that time!” she says. The seventh child in a family of eight, her father was a self-taught photographer who set up the well-known Studio Deluxe at Stamford Road. A specialist in black-and-white portraits, his clients included prominent figures of the day, by virtue of the studio’s proximity to the courts and the Legislative Assembly. These clients included figures such as the last British governor of Singapore, Sir William Goode, as well as one young politician by the name of Lee Kuan Yew.

    Soh Lung eventually chose to study law at the university, and it was for no fanciful reason. “It turned out to be the right choice – law was a relaxing course! Just one lecture, one tutorial per week, lots of free time, unlike law students today," she told publichouse.sg.

    “We weren’t rich,” she says, “so I used to work in the library, doing shelving, working at the red spot counter. I spent whole vacations working. The librarians liked me, because I could do one stretch of three hours, unlike arts students who had a lot of readings to do!”

    Marshall, the pupil master

    Upon graduating in the early 1970s, she did her pupillage with David Marshall. While most Singaporeans would recognise Marshall as Singapore's first Chief Minister, Soh Lung knew him as a generous man and a thoughtful pupil master. He made his pupils sit in his room, and interviewed his clients in the presence of his pupils. Marshall had a policy in which his clients had to buy his pupils a cake whenever they won the case, as recognition of the combined efforts of his team.

    A case of appeal that Soh Lung worked on had successfully acquitted a man for a fatal road accident he never caused. Even though she had already moved on from her pupillage by the time of the good news, Marshall did not forget to ask her out for chicken rice as a show of appreciation for the work she had put into the case.

    Wine and cheese and legal aid

    As a young working adult, Soh Lung started volunteering to give tuition to children at void decks and church centres, seeing it as a chance to “do a little good.” It was from this period of her life that the early stirrings of political and social consciousness began to take root. By her own admission, Soh Lung had hitherto been apathetic to most issues outside of work. “The 70’s were a time when there was a lot of repressive laws,” she says. “The Voluntary Sterilization Act required a permanent resident spouse of a Singaporean citizen to be repatriated, if the couple had more than two children. This couldn’t be right.”

    Together with her friends, Soh Lung collected signatures to oppose this Act and sent the letter to The Straits Times. She also questioned the Law Society for doing nothing and “only talking about golf.”

    When she and her partners moved their law firm to Geylang Lorong 24, the young lawyers indulged in wine and cheese every Friday in the office after business closed for the day. Friends often dropped by. It was during these sessions that they discussed setting up the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, an idea that was subsequently sold to the Law Society. Hitherto only the civil part of the Legal Aid and Advice Act had been activated.

    Anson and JBJ

    Because Soh Lung’s mother lived in Bukit Merah, they were close to the action surrounding the 1981 Anson by-election, where the late JB Jeyaretnam, then secretary general of the Workers’ Party, was contesting. On polling day, she remembers chatting with a neighbour who was dead certain that Jeyaretnam would win this time. It turned out that the neighbour simply did a straw poll among her own family members to determine who voted for whom, and because that neighbour had a large family, she came to the conclusion that it was representative of the entire constituency’s result.

    Indeed that evening, the Anson constituency elected the first opposition politician to parliament since 1966.

    Soh Lung recalls the whole neighbourhood erupting into ecstatic cheers the moment the result was announced.

    In the next general elections in 1984, Soh Lung and some of her friends thought it was important that Jeyaretnam kept his seat. Otherwise it would be “back to square one”, with a Parliament entirely dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Soh Lung and her friends thus volunteered to help Jeyaretnam campaign in Anson, but they were sent to help the Workers’ Party candidate for Leng Kee instead.

    For the duration of the campaign, her law office was abuzz, like it was the election headquarters, she says. They had a “manager” who directed the distribution of pamphlets by blocks of flats. They accompanied election candidates throughout the hustings, and stayed in the office till the wee hours.

    Straits Times, May 1987. Soh Lung is on the left, top row.

    Forebodings of arrest

    One day, around the time that Soh Lung started to be active in the Law Society, the lawyer and former ISA detainee Tan Jing Quee dropped by unannounced at her office. He asked Soh Lung, “Why have you set up your office in Geylang? You are just attracting unnecessary attention to yourself.” Geylang, of course, was already known as the seedy red light district of Singapore and the target of police raids. While puzzled by the question, Soh Lung was nonetheless adamant that she was not doing anything wrong, and had nothing to be afraid of.

    Even Vincent Cheng, whom she knew from the Geylang Catholic Centre, offered her advice in the event she was arrested, such as tips on keeping herself warm during interrogation. She laughed it off.

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