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)
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