This month marks the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, a series of arrests and detentions of over 20 persons accused of being part of a “Marxist Conspiracy”. It is one of the most disgraceful episodes in Singapore’s history – an abuse of power, a mockery of the rule of law, and a trampling of truth. Not a single one of those arrested was given a fair and open trial; all were detained under the infamous Internal Security Act for varying lengths of time.
Survivors will be marking this anniversary on Saturday, 19 May 2012, at Hong Lim Park, with additional events in the months to follow.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Operation Coldstore, an earlier wave of detentions, also without trial, carried out in 1963.
Since the People’s Action Party (PAP) came to power in 1959, a total of 2,460 persons had suffered detention without trial. This was revealed when the government was forced to respond to a parliamentary question last November.
On 21 November 2011, non-constituency member of parliament Lina Chiam asked Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean
whether he will provide a breakdown of arrests and detentions made under the Internal Security Act from 1959 to 1990, according to the type of offence and the names of the detainees.
From 1959 to 1990, a total of 2,460 arrests were made, of which 1,045 persons were detained under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (1959-1963) and Internal Security Act (1963-1990).The reasons for arresting these persons and/or detaining them include involvement in the Communist Party of Malaya and communist-related activities to overthrow the Government; racial and religious extremism; Indonesian Confrontation; foreign subversion and espionage; and terrorism. Many of these individuals and their families have put the past behind them and carried on with their lives over the past several decades. The Government will not be further releasing the specific identities of the persons arrested and detained under the PPSO and ISA.
– Hansard, 21 November 2011
Many ex-detainees are now abroad. They are Singapore’s political exiles.
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The 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy” charge was particularly ridiculous. This is because what that mostly Catholic group was doing then was to help low-wage foreign workers understand their rights under employment law, and thereby get a fairer deal. That was a time when Catholics around the world began to see how much suffering in the world was due to institutional structures that trapped the disadvantaged. Doing charity, feeding people, was not enough. Empowering people and speaking up for institutional change was what was needed for real and lasting progress. But to our government, the prospect that workers might want to assert their rights was considered shockingly seditious, and those persons aiding workers in standing up to fat cat capitalist employers must surely be marxist enemies of the state.
If they were marxist, then we are all marxists.
The 1987 arrests resonate especially with me because by volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too today, I am doing the same thing. The fact that the problem of ill-treated workers is still with us 25 years on, and in terms of numbers, multiplied ten thousand-fold, tells us how much such work is needed. It also suggests to us why the PAP continues to deny their 1987 wrongdoing. The labour policies that they chose to defend through detention without trial are still the policies today.
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This is not an anniversary for 2,460 people. It is a sombre anniversary for all Singaporeans, because the shadow of the Internal Security Act envelopes everyone. As a society we have been impoverished by it. As individuals we have been cowed and castrated.
The average Singaporean has internalised a fear of speaking up and acting politically. There is no better demonstration of this than when we see how, unlike most other countries around the world, the “right” to remain anonymous on the internet is a very big deal here. The reason is obvious: people have things to say, but are afraid to say them.
Coming out into the open with our opinions is done with great trepidation. Joining civil society groups is considered a risky move, when elsewhere it is considered routine and a mark of good citizenship. Our friends and families appoint themselves as our “wiser” counsel, suggesting pointedly to us that we would risk our careers and livelihood if we stuck our necks out.
We are nation of mice.
Some among us have so brainwashed themselves, they become apologists. There are enough avenues for dissent, they say, why go outside the prescribed boundaries? Why demonstrate on the streets? Why get personal in attacking government leaders? Why the desire to join associations when there are so many channels for feedback? Why break the law?
They don’t realise that many laws in Singapore are designed to box us in. The Internal Security Act is just the most indefensible of them. They don’t realise that personal interests of government leaders inform their public policies. They don’t realise that using government channels for feedback is to concede away the right to set our own agenda.
But you have the vote every five years; isn’t that enough?
No it isn’t. Because five years is a long time and much vitality can drain away in that period. All sound and fury, yet letting up after an election season is a surefire way to get no change. Like long-entrenched governments everywhere, ours is highly prone to want to preserve the status quo. Change requires outside forces pushing them. Speaking up under anonymity is not good enough. What is needed is coming together publicly and organising, and maintaining pressure on them for years and years until we get change.
This is currently more hope than reality. And we are this way because of the psycho-social legacy of the Internal Security Act and our collective memory of arrests such as those made in 1987.
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Two important events are coming up to mark this anniversary.
Ex-detainees will be at Hong Lim Park on Saturday, 19 May 2012. Details are available from their blogsite (remembering1987.wordpress.com, imaged below). Click the appropriate tab on the menu bar.
The day after, 20 May 2012, there will be a re-enactment of a momentous 29 July 1987 parliamentary sitting in which then-member of parliament Chiam See Tong moved a call “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”. He was then the sole opposition member in the chamber, and he stoutly criticised the government for detaining them.
Click on the banner at right for a larger image.
In any event, they are all young people, aged 22 to 40 years, mostly in their 20s and the majority of them, I believe, are females. Some of them are professional people, two lawyers, Harvard trained, polytechnic trained. . . . I would say that there is no reason, no valid reason at all, why they should be detained for another day. They should be released immediately. They are really no threat to our national security.
– Hansard, 29 July 1987.
This is not history. This is unfinished business. This is the incubus that paralyses us, raping our dignity as citizens.
I came across a link on TOC's Facebook page to Alex Au's excellent article about Operation Spectrum a series of arrests and detention without trial of over 20 persons 25 years ago. (http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/we-are-all-marxists/) (if you don't already know it, there's an event and exhibition at Speaker's Corner on the 19th of May, do come down!) But one of the comments under the link caught my attention-
"How is everyone under the shadow of the ISA. Pray tell, because I do not believe that if we are so responsible a people that the ISA should be indiscriminately used against each and everyone of us. If that should be the case, many of you who had commented against the government since TOC's beginnings would have long ago been arrested. "
I do believe that nearly every single person who wrote for TOC had worried about that knock on his/her door in the middle of the night. Especially so when sensitive topics such as homelessness, and Operation Spectrum (TOC was, I believe, the first blog to revive the interest in the subject) I wasn't a part of TOC when it decided to publish a series of articles about the ISD arrests of 1987 a few years ago, but the editors confessed that they had a few sleepless nights before and after the publications of said articles.
Shortly after I begun writing for TOC, then-Chief-Editor Andrew Loh and I had this conversation about whether the ISA will come after us one day. We both agreed jokingly that we'd confess to every they want us to say the moment the ISD officers arrived at our doors, if they do. In fact we'd film our confessions on the spot. Hopefully that would save us a few hours under the blast of the infamous Whitley Dentention Airconditioning.
My first real brush with the 'fear of the ISA' came about when we started covering stories of the homeless situation. They gradually found their way first into the mainstream media, then foreign media (Al Jazeera was taken off Singtel's MIO TV shortly after this piece they did - (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2bP0sBBuag) and eventually, into parliament.
Then-MCYS-minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnam accused 'certain' websites of being “irresponsible” in “spreading falsehoods” about the plight of homeless people in Singapore. At that time TOC was the website which 'shalt-not-be-named-in-the-mainstream-media' but there was little doubt he was referring to us. I remembered spending the next few nights worrying, especially for one of the writers who was barely out of her teens and had worked on the homeless stories.
The same feeling of fear and dread visited me again when I came home late last January to find the Notification of Gazette from the Prime Minister's Office in my email. (I was the Acting Chief Editor then) My first thought was 'Oh #$$!. They're onto us."
When the news of the gazette finally made it to the mainstream media, I had to spend a few hours reassuring my parents nothing will happen to me. Eventually rather than closing down and going underground (ie become annonymous) we decided to go with the gazette and soldier on, because we believed that we shouldn't be afraid to speak truth to power and attach our faces to it.
A few months later, the topic of the 'climate of fear' was raised in a forum held at NUS, and featuring leaders of the opposition parties as well as PAP MP Michael Palmer. I remembered Michael Palmer's response because throughout I felt like going up to the stage and rebutt him point-by-point.
Michael Palmer pointed out to the large attendance and the fact that a forum was held as a sign that Singaporeans were able to debate and ask questions without fear. He specifically singled out the presence of the media including the foreign press as demonstrating how open Singapore was.
On defamation suits, he said that if people work within the laws, "there is no reason for fear", adding that Ms Lim and Workers' Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang have not been sued for defamation. (http://www.asiaone.com/print/News/Elections/Story/A1Story20110324-269714.html)
See the point is, Michael Palmer isn't wrong... if everyone thought like him. Or like the aforementioned commenter on TOC. If you think 'safe' thoughts, if your idea of debate is 'constructive criticism', and you do so through the proper channels, yup, no worries. But when your thinking ventures beyond the internalized OB markers, say... skepticism at the independence of certain institutions for example, the internal ISD officer steps in. Or, in most cases now, it's the internal Attorney General's Chamber.
'Even if you think it, don't say it," the little voice goes.
It's a very real fear for those whose thinking are not in line with the Establishment. And it's something that folks like Michael Palmer and the commenter on TOC would not have felt until they start questioning the long-accepted assumptions. (The simple fact that many people who criticized the government online do so behind the cloak of annonymity should have given Palmer a moment's pause as to why they chose not to come out in the open.)
When we did our events at Speakers' Corner, suspected plainclothes ISD officers are around filming us. (of course they don't have to - there are at least 6 security cameras there anyway). The initial feeling is never, "yay! say cheese!" but "shit this is gonna end up in a secret file." Of course we learnt to unnerve them as well, by pointing our cameras back at them.
If there's one thing GE2011 changed, it is that much more people were willing to speak up. But it is easy to forget that just two years ago, there weren't that many. And those that do, and do not hide behind the cloak of anonymity do so with a degree of trepidation.
What we did in TOC back then, was literally just lending a voice to the voiceless. It wasn't that much different from what the alleged 'Marxist conspirators' were doing. And look where it got them.
Were my fears irrational? Maybe. But that's the problem with the ISA. It's not WHETHER it will be used on you, but that it already has been used - metaphorically speaking - on EVERY Singaporean.
And even if people are much less fearful in speaking up now, even if the Government does keep to its assurance of using it only on 'terrorists', the ISA still has to go, for the simple fact that through its abuse, nearly an entire generation of Singaporeans grew up keeping silent, self-censoring their own thoughts and rationalizing that fear as 'pragmatism'.
That's thought-terrorism. And I'll have none of that.
A comment from Ravi Philemon:
"The ISA is like an axe that is hanging overhead - you never know when it's going to drop down on you. An entire generation of Singaporeans - my generation - were cowed and paralysed from activism and speaking up because of the arrests under the ISA in 1987. The fear is still real for this generation. Like any trauma victim, we have now come out to criticise the ISA vehemently, or we have repressed our fears and have convinced ourselves that it is better to live in fear.
For the younger lot, they do not know the effects of ISA because it has not been used in their generation; so many think it is unimportant or irrelevant if you had this Act still.
But with a powerful executive, the other centers of power taking the lead from the executive instead of checking them, and a relatively weak civil society, the ISA remains a real threat for people who would speak up against injustices and excesses of the powers that may be."