Rachel’s note: In the process of writing a blog entry to commemorate the 26th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, I cannot help but notice that I seem to be writing the same things all over again. Basically my personal stand is that nobody should be subjected to detention without trial or/and torture and that there should be a commission of inquiry towards all the ISA detentions that happened before. Most importantly, the ISA should be abolished. So anyway, I came across a piece of writing by one of the former detainees Teo Soh Lung and I thought I should share this here instead of repeating the same points ad nauseum.
Twenty-six years ago today, 16 young and idealistic people were rudely awakened from their sleep in pre-dawn raids conducted by gangs of plainclothes policemen all over Singapore. Their homes were ransacked as family members watched in horror. No weapons or subversive documents were found.
The 16 were handcuffed and marched to waiting police cars. They were blindfolded and driven to Whitley Road Centre. There they were subjected to humiliation, stripped off their clothes in exchange for thin prison garbs. Finger printed and photographed like criminals, they were taken to interrogation rooms. Still dazed, they were subjected to continuous interrogation in cold and often smoke-filled rooms with spotlights shining into their eyes. Ordered to stand barefoot for hours, they shivered and their teeth clattered uncontrollably. They were shouted at by men who wore thick jumpers. Several of them, including women, were hit hard on their faces and bodies and doused with cold water.
Arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA), the 16 comprising a mix of church workers and professionals critical of government policies were at the mercy of police officers who had the power to detain them for 30 days. Within three weeks, a sinister story was weaved by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) with the collaboration of the state television, the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). The bizarre story that emerged was an ISD scripted fiction that the detainees were involved in a plot to turn Singapore into a Marxist state. The 16 were told that they either co-operate or the key out of the prison gate will be thrown away and they could remain incarcerated like Chia Thye Poh who after 21 years was still in prison under the same ISA.
The 16 were described as “do gooders” by the then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. They became instant actors in the cruel political movie “Tracing the Marxist Conspiracy”. Filmed in the garden and rooms of one of the old bungalows in Jervois Road, SBC interviewer, Kenneth Liang, attired in blue jeans and shirt, pretended to be sympathetic. Coached by senior officers of the Special Branch on what to say at the “interviews” in order to secure their release, the detainees regurgitated their prepared speeches. When wrong answers were given, the interviews were re-recorded. Kenneth Liang taught them how to relax and be natural. They had to breathe in deeply and their nerves would instantly be calmed. And so the 16 became actors in an imaginary plot, scripted and directed by the MHA.
The 16 detainees were:
Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan, Church worker
William Yap Hon Ngian, Translator
Chia Boon Tai, Businessman
Tay Hong Seng, Translator
Kenneth Tsang Chi Seng, Advertising Consultant
Teo Soh Lung, Lawyer
Teresa Lim Li Kok, Bookshop owner
Jenny Chin Lai Ching, Journalist
Tang Lay Lee, Lawyer and Church worker
Wong Souk Yee, Journalist
Kevin de Souza, Lawyer and Church worker
Tan Tee Seng, Businessman
Low Yit Leng, Journalist
Ng Bee Leng, Church worker
Chung Lai Mei, Church worker
Mah Lee Lin, Church worker
A month after the pre-dawn raids, another six were arrested. They were:
Chng Suan Tze, Lecturer
Chew Kheng Chuan, Businessman
Tang Fong Har, Lawyer
Ronnie Ng, Polytechnic student
Nur Effendi Sahid, Polytechnic student
Fan Wan Peng, Polytechnic student
The first three were recruited to be actors of the second part of the same movie. The other three being polytechnic students were spared.
“Tracing the Marxist Conspiracy” was an instant hit. It sent shivers down the spines of the entire population of Singapore and silenced them for more than a decade. Civil society died. Friends of the 22 living abroad watched the movie with disbelief and dismay. The plot was narrated by SBC broadcasters and the 19 played their role without knowing the relevance of what they said because they never read the entire script. They also did not know who the other actors were as they never met each other. Each detainee was interviewed in isolation. How the film was made, is a feat that only SBC and MHA can be proud of. Only the fertile imagination of fiction writers could put together such a plot.
The 22 young people were never brought to trial. They were subjected to endless condemnation. Not a week passed without something being written about the detainees. Every article or letter that defended the 22 were responded to by the government. The Catholic Church too was embroiled as several of those arrested were full time staff and volunteers of her organisations. The late Archbishop, Gregory Yong together with his priests were summoned to a meeting with the prime minister at the Istana on 2 June 1987. After that meeting, the Church abandoned the detainees. It was not too long ago that Catholic priests concelebrated a mass for the detainees that was attended by more than 2500.
The television appearance did pay off for by December 1987, all the detainees except Vincent Cheng were released. Their release however did not end the government’s accusations against them. Unhappy with the continuous bombardment of unfounded allegations by government officials, nine of those released issued a press statement on 18 April the following year. The statement rebutted the government’s allegations and confirmed the ill treatment they suffered. They were immediately re-arrested together with their lawyer, Patrick Seong. Habeas corpus proceedings were commenced but even before the cases could be heard, their lawyer, Francis Seow was arrested under the same law.
If the government had calculated that by arresting the lawyers, the detainees would not be able to proceed with their habeas corpus applications, they were mistaken. Eminent Queen’s Counsel, Anthony Lester, Lord Alexander, Geoffrey Robertson and Michael Beloff came to their rescue when local senior lawyers declined to act for them.
The 1987 detainees were perhaps the “luckiest” detainees in the history of detentions under the ISA. Most of them were from middle class homes and were English-educated. They had friends all over the world who believed in their innocence. And so a world-wide campaign to free them was launched. Never before had the PAP government been subject to so much criticisms from governments, groups and individuals around the world. Its image suffered even though government officials refused to admit.
The price paid by the government for arresting the “Marxist conspirators” was definitely heavy as the legitimacy for using the ISA as a form of social control was undermined. Operation Spectrum was openly questioned by seasoned politicians and renowned historian, C M Turnbull described the conspiracy as “myths.”
Source: That We May Dream Again (FB page)
Filed under: Bukit Brown, Events, Gender, Internal Security Act, Singapore, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign
Therefore, in this spirit, we recall and acknowledge some of the contributions of our fellow human beings in the collective struggle for the realization of our human rights in 2012.
Heritage and development
We cannot deny the audacity of a small but growing and determined network of people from different walks of life galvanising to save Bukit Brown, a precious national heritage and nature area – a fact sadly unrecognised and unappreciated by our government. Groups and individuals, not having known one another before, gathered together and spontaneously organized themselves to gather signatures, ask for dialogue with government officials, and to learn and educate themselves more about the rich history of Bukit Brown. Unfortunately the government has only given a token acknowledgement of civil society’s efforts, responding by making plans to go ahead with construction of a transport corridor with little change.
- We call on the government to recognise, respect and fulfill the social and cultural rights of all Singaporeans and to review its developmental mindset that over-values economic growth to the detriment of our society’s identity and disappearing heritage.
Amplifying the marginalized voice
The rights of streetwalkers in Singapore need to be addressed. Streetwalkers face stigma and discrimination, as our society deems sex workers the scourge of the world. This mentality somehow justifies the human rights abuses against them. As a result, the voices of sex workers remain unheard. Petitions to the state to engage on this issue have been met with unsatisfactory responses.
Victims of sexual assault are often invisible in this society. There is a fear to report cases of rape due to a society that is trapped in a paradigm of victim blaming instead of convicting the rapist. More work needs to be done in order to educate Singaporeans on the concept of affirmative consent and to dispel the myth surrounding rape. There is also a need to address the structural barriers such as in regard to the process of rape trials.
- We call for the government to recognise the need to engage in constructive dialogue and in particular, to work with civil society to embark on a rigorous sensitization programme for police officers, as well as to review the current approach on sex education in Singapore;
- We call for the redefinition of rape in the law so as to include female rapists and same-sex rape.
- We urge the government of Singapore that no reservations should be placed on any of the CRPD articles;
- Give due regard to articles 10 and 15 of the CRPD, which recognises that no persons with disabilities – including persons with mental or intellectual disabilities – should be subjected to the death penalty.
We appreciate the Singapore government’s initiative to review the mandatory death penalty. The recent changes should be seen as an ongoing process on the path towards abolishment of the death penalty in its entirety and on the need to find alternative forms of humane punishments. It is our view that the death penalty is a “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” punishment.
- We urge the government to continue the current stay on executions and establish an official moratorium to allow time and space for society to explore alternative sentencing options and to work ultimately towards the abolishment of the death penalty.
Persons of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identities (SOGI)
LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] persons continued to face institutionalize discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. We cannot ignore the cascading effects of laws like 377A that criminalize sex between consensual men that continues to be used to justify discrimination and hate crimes. The Media Development Authority continue to classify LGBT persons together with paedophilia and other classifications to demonise LGBT persons. Neutral or positive portrayals are disallowed.
- We call on the state to remember that we too are Singaporeans and are in dire need of protection against discriminatory state laws and actions by non-state actors.
- We remind the government that all citizens are equal in front of the Constitution.
All workers – Singapore citizens, Residents and Migrant workers
Singapore citizens, residents and migrant workers contribute to economic progress but do not enjoy the full respect and protections of the internationally recognized International Labour Organization (ILO) Core Labour Standards (CLS) including their right to freedom of expression, associations and assembly, living wages, decent jobs and living conditions.
Migrant workers continue to endure poor work conditions with no bargaining power. Their treatment exposes the dark underbelly of Singapore’s success story. The frustrations of these itinerant workers have been boiling for some time and have recently bubbled over when 171 public transport workers refused to go to work for a day. Issues of sub-standard living conditions and inadequate pay that were the central focus of their work stoppage are merely symptoms of more serious issues within our state-dominated and corporatised public sector enterprises.
- We call on the government to recognize that all workers must be free to express their friendship, provide support, care and share their solidarity with one another especially for workers whose dignity is being denied, abused, and exploited;
- We urge the government to respect, promote and realize the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
Detention without trial: Internal Security Act (ISA) and Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act
The use of these unjust laws over more than half a century has caused untold misery to thousands of prisoners, their families and their friends. It has deprived Singapore of good leaders who would have contributed greatly to the well-being of the country and the region. Singapore as a first world nation must respect the rule of law and no one should be deprived of his or her freedom without a just and fair trial.
- We call upon the Singapore government to repeal both the ISA and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act which, like the ISA, permits imprisonment without trial and has been in force since 1955.
ASEAN Human Rights Declaration
Although the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (or AHRD) has been formally adopted by the governments of the region, there are too many flaws in its formulation, wording, and intentions. The lack of transparency and consultation with regional, national, and local human rights groups is a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the AHRD.
- We are in solidarity with the ASEAN Civil Societies to continue engagement with the ASEAN governments to ensure the harmonization of the national laws in line with internationally recognized human rights standards provided in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Statement delivered by members and friends of the Singapore Unity Project on 9 December 2012 at Speakers’ Corner, Singapore.
Note: The Post-event addition on Detention without trial: Internal Security Act (ISA) and Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.
You can find the transcript here.
William Yap was one of the former detainees arrested and detained in 1987. Read more about him here.
To find out more about Operation Spectrum, please visit That We May Dream Again.
“Some of you may have heard that when you are young you are idealistic, when you’re old you are realistic. Now this is the kind of rubbish that is used by those who have either lost their ideals or have sold their ideals for self-interests. Each should not wither one’s ideals or convictions. If anything, it should only consolidate and make it more resolute. If age has anything to do with it, it is only by way of expression and application of these ideals and convictions having the benefit of a youthful experience. And a life without convictions, without idealism, is a mere meaningless existence, and I’m sure most of you will agree that as human beings, we are worthy of a life much more meaningful than just that.”
- Dr Lim Hock Siew
It was with a heavy heart that I attended the wake of the late Dr Lim Hock Siew on Tuesday evening.
Gone is the doctor who looked out for the poor by dispensing free medication to patients who could not afford it and gave them money to cover their travelling expenses; gone is the former politician who had contributed to the founding of PAP (which was a left-winged party then) but left to join the Barisan Socialis in 1961 when the PAP expelled 13 MPs who did not agree with its Malaysia scheme. Gone too, is the man who suffered 20 years of detention without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA), accused of being a communist – something which was never proven til this day.
Due to his detention, he was separated from his family and was not given the opportunity to see his only son grow up. It must have been an extremely painful ordeal, but the remarkable spirit within him was not destroyed. After he was released in 1982, he was actively involved in calling for the abolition of the ISA. Last year, he was among the 16 former detainees who issued joint statements calling for the abolition of ISA as well as the setting up of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the claims made against the former detainees.
Although almost 20 years of his life was cruelly robbed from him with his arrest during Operation Coldstore (1963), he never seemed to be bitter or revengeful. Instead, he often spoke softly but articulately with a calm demeanor which never failed to fill me with awe.
After having the pleasure of speaking to his family, as well as witnessing the amazing strength that Dr Beatrice Chen still carries within her at the wake, I left the wake with one thought: Lee Kuan Yew owes this entire family as well as other surviving victims (and their families) of the ISA an apology which can only be expressed with an independent commission of inquiry, the abolishment of ISA as well as re-writing the history textbooks to include the accounts of the former detainees.
May Dr Lim Hock Siew rest in peace, and may his family continue to remain strong. Hopefully, Lee Kuan Yew will wake up one of these days, feeling the guilt of throwing his friends, former comrades and other individuals into detention for reasons unproven, robbing them of their youth and freedom, causing great grief to their immediate family members and friends so much so that before he too kicks the bucket, he shall atone his political sins by clearing the surviving victims of ISA of their alleged crimes… crimes that all of us who have come to know the former detainees personally, are sure that they did not intend to commit nor part of.
Received the news this morning that Dr Lim Hock Siew passed away on Monday night at 10.30pm. His wake is at 135 Joo Chiat Terrace. The funeral will be held on this coming Friday.
Do rest in peace, Dr Lim.
Three years ago, I was involved in organising an event commemorating the 22nd anniversary of Operation Spectrum with fellow activists which took place at Speakers’ Corner. Although it was a weekday evening, we had a good crowd of about a hundred. We put out a statement against detention without trial and the Internal Security Act, read a letter from Francis Seow, read a poem from the book That We May Dream Again, sang It’s Blowing in the Wind and we threw our fists into the air shouting “Abolish ISA!”. At that point of time, what happened in 1987 was not well known to many of our peers. Singaporeans in general, did not seem interested at all to find out what the Internal Security Act was all about too. I remember having to explain to some of my friends what the ISA was all about and what the former detainees had gone through but all they could ask were “Are you sure?” I thought that was pretty sad.
Fast forward to this year, more people have shown interest in finding out what happened in 1987 which motivated them to attend the event That We May Dream Again jointly organised by Function 8 and Muruah on Saturday at Speakers’ Corner. It was heartening to see the crowd of about 400 (perhaps a little more than that) filled with both familiar and non-familiar faces. Without a doubt, plainclothes police were among the crowd (they should work on improving their acting skills), but nothing they did (including taking closed up shots of me, which was plain rude) could intimidate us. I should have smiled for that camera though but I glared at the photographer, whose camera was merely a few centimetres away from my face. When that happened, I was inside the mock-up of the tiny one-bed cell, taking care of the exhibits, imagining how it must have been like for the detainees to be locked up in one (the actual size is equated to the size of a queen size bed). I wasn’t the only one to notice their presence, their DSLR, camera phones and ear piece, but I do hope that they went back learning something that our history textbooks have failed to inform us about.
Sadness engulfed me when I first stepped into the mock-up of the one-bed cell, so much so that tears were springing into my eyes. Beside me, Suan Tze, one of the former detainees was telling me that the actual cell had a smaller window and ventilation holes on the ceiling. It was too much for me, I had to step out. One thought came to my mind – “They were treated worse than animals in captive”. That was depressing.
For the rest of the day, I went in and out of the room, just to make sure that the exhibits were in place. Everytime I went in, questions began to fill my mind… I began to have a greater respect for the former detainees who I already have a high amount of respect for. It must have taken a lot of courage and strength for them to be able to survive the ordeal and to come public about what had happened. I am glad that they are not keeping their silence because the public should know about what they had gone through under ISA – the arrest, torture and ill-treatment, and being forced to confess to something they did not plan to commit.
Detention without trial is an act that goes against the very principle of law. Its continued existence and practise insults the existence of a legal system that generally proclaims that one is innocent unless proven guilty (perhaps debateable in local context?). How can any country accuse any individual of committing a crime without giving them a right to trial?
Singapore did… in the 50s, 60s and 80s… til now. The injustice caused by detention without trial disgusts me. Shouldn’t it be abolished already?
In my opinion, no one should be detained without trial and no one should expect the former detainees to “move on” and forget about what had happened to them. Being arrested in the wee hours of the day, put into tiny cells, ill-treated and tortured into confession without being given a fair trial, is not something one can move on from.
It is time for a commission of inquiry (a truly independent one), it is time to abolish the ISA. It is also time to let the exiles come home in safety.
From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank the former detainees for coming public with their stories. It has been an honour being part of the event!
For more information, please visit That We May Dream Again.