25 years on, Singaporeans remember the ‘Marxist conspiracy’

Original headline about Operation Spectrum.

On May 21, 1987, 16 Singaporeans were arrested and detained in a crackdown called Operation Spectrum. About a month later, four of the original 16 were released, and another six arrested. They were branded as Marxist conspirators out to “subvert Singapore’s political and social order using communist united front tactics” and detained without trial. Most of the detainees were lawyers, community workers or entrepreneurs. As the 25th anniversary of the crackdown approaches, activists are using the opportunity to raise questions anew about the repression of dissent in the country.

In Singapore, the Internal Security Act (ISA) allows the government to arrest and preventively detain individuals deemed to be threats to national security. A person can be detained for up to 30 days, after which a detention order must be issued. Although the ISA’s original purpose was for the protection of Singapore’s security, the government has long been criticized for using it as a tool to stifle activism and political opposition.

Unable to defend themselves in a court of law, those arrested in Operation Spectrum were made to appear on national television to give apparent confessions, admitting to plots to overthrow the government and establish a classless society. When nine of the detainees published a press statement upon their release recanting their confessions and accusing the government of ill treatment, they were swiftly re-arrested. Francis Seow, a former solicitor general, stepped in to represent one of the detainees. He, too, was arrested upon arrival at the detention center and held for over two months.

No public evidence – apart from the confessions – was ever produced to prove that any of the detainees were really threats to national security.

A similar spate of arrests and detentions — codenamed Operation Coldstore – occurred about two decades before Spectrum. Both events are rarely covered in Singapore’s primary and secondary school syllabi. But as Singaporeans begin to seek out alternative sources of information to the traditional media, ex-detainees are finding new platforms on which to tell their side of the story, raising awareness of the darker moments in Singapore’s history.

Several books have been written on the events of Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum, such as a collection of accounts published in 2009 under the title That We May Dream Again and Teo Soh Lung’s memoirs, Beyond The Blue Gate. When Ms. Teo stood as a candidate in the 2011 general election, fellow ex-detainee Vincent Cheng spoke in support of her at rallies and gave an account of his time in custody.

Whereas Singaporeans once only had access to the perspective of the government in the media — regarding Operation Spectrum, the national broadsheet The Straits Times simply carried the press release from the Ministry of Home Affairs — the stories coming from the detainees have revealed troubling abuses of power. Now, more and more Singaporeans support the abolishment of the ISA.

Calls for abolishment were further strengthened when Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced last fall that he would repeal Malaysia’s ISA. Since Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said in 1991 (when he was deputy prime minister) that Singapore would consider abolishing the ISA should Malaysia do so, many Singaporeans looked forward to the continued existence of the ISA being debated both in public and in the parliament.

However, a day after Malaysia’s announcement, the Ministry of Home Affairs put out a press release stating that “the ISA continues to be relevant and crucial as a measure of last resort for the preservation of our national security.” With that, the government signaled that there would be no talk of abolishing the ISA in Singapore.

Still, the campaign to abolish the ISA continues to press forward, hoping to slowly chip away at its public support until the government is left with no choice but to act. Emphasis is now being placed on educating Singaporeans and filling in the gaps left by schoolchildren’s history textbooks.

With the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum coming up, the anti-ISA initiative Function 8 and the human rights NGO Maruah are jointly organizing an event called “That We May Dream Again: Remembering the 1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy’” on May 19. It will be held at Speakers’ Corner — the only outdoor place in Singapore were cause-related activities can be held without a permit — and will feature exhibitions, performances, speeches and testimonies from ex-detainees.

In a statement released by the organizing committee, four main objectives were identified:

  1. Raise awareness on the misuse of the ISA in the past;
  2. raise awareness of the danger of 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.

As of right now, the campaign against the ISA progresses in fits and starts — the topic comes up from time to time, events are organized and then the issue once again fades to the background. To have a greater, lasting impact on Singaporean society, the campaign requires much more participation, but is often confined to the same group of passionately supportive activists. This group of people usually finds it difficult to sustain the campaign as they are more often than not also involved in other causes such as the death penalty, migrant workers’ rights, LGBT rights and more.

Perhaps the ISA itself makes other Singaporeans hesitate to join the struggle; one only needs to speak to the ex-detainees to be reminded of the price activists in Singapore have had to pay.

UPDATE 5/17/12: 

On May 17, 2012, Function 8 and Maruah posted a note on Facebook saying that their May 19 event had been postponed. They had been informed by the police that due to a by-election being held in one of Singapore’s constituencies, Hougang, “the exemption granted under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act to Speakers’ Corner, Hong Lim Park has been revoked with effect from 16 May to 26 May 2012.” This means that anyone who wants to hold an event at Speakers’ Corner in that period will be required to apply for a police permit. In their statement, the organizers wrote:

Owing to the short notice and uncertainties in obtaining a police permit, as well as the prospect of inconvenience to our guests and contractors should the permit be refused, we are sorry that our event at Speakers’ Corner, Hong Lim Park, has to be postponed. We deeply regret that a by-election in the single-member constituency of Hougang, has disrupted and inconvenienced Singaporeans from enjoying activities at Hong Lim Park which is not part of Hougang.

That We May Dream Again: Remembering the 1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy will now be held on 2 June 2012.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.