Do people become subversive after reading Animal Farm?
George Orwell’s allegory on totalitarianism was one piece of evidence Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) allegedly seized in 1987 during Operation Spectrum. Thirty years on, the arrest and detention without trial of twenty-two people accused by the government of plotting a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state is still an episode shrouded in fog. There are good reasons today for society to embrace a more honest conversation about it.
The facts bear mention. On May 21st and June 20th 1987, a total of nine men and thirteen women, aged eighteen to forty, were arrested and detained by the ISD using powers conferred by Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The accused were a mix of activists, Catholic Church members, social workers and theatre performers. Some had ties to the rejuvenated Workers’ Party.
A week after the first arrests, the government released a statement tying them to a supposed plot masterminded by Tan Wah Piow, a Singaporean student activist who had gone into exile in London a decade earlier. All of the detained eventually gave written and/or video confessions.
By the end of 1987, all except Vincent Cheng, a church worker, had been released. On April 18th 1988, nine of the ex-detainees issued a statement recanting their confessions, saying they had been made under duress.
All but one, who was overseas, were rearrested the next day. They eventually reaffirmed their original statements and were again released. Two lawyers representing the detainees were also arrested, detained and later released. Cheng, the last detainee, was released in 1990.
Almost immediately doubts emerged about Operation Spectrum’s veracity. In 1991, Walter Woon, later to be Attorney-General, said “As far as I am concerned, the government’s case is still not proven. I would not say those fellows were Red, not from the stuff they presented.” In 1992, Minister S. Dhanabalan resigned from the Cabinet because of his discomfort with Operation Spectrum.
In 2001, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, personal friends with some of the accused, said “although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.” Mary Turnbull, noted historian on Singapore, has called “the alleged Marxist conspiracy” a myth.
Despite this broad-based suspicion about what happened, the government has yet to conduct an inquiry. In 2011 the Ministry of Home Affairs reasserted its position that the twenty-two “were not detained for their political beliefs, but because they had involved themselves in subversive activities which posed a threat to national security.”
Many believe there is nothing to be gained from an inquiry into something that occurred thirty years ago. That is myopic. A nation cannot be built on collective amnesia. By conducting one, Singapore can finally ascertain the truth, strengthening societal cohesion, as well as public faith in its national security apparatus.
To understand why, it is worth first considering the allegations made by the detainees about their time in jail. Long reticent because of their fear of reprisals, some have in recent years started speaking out. Many claim they did not know each other before the arrests. The picture they paint of detention without trial, if true, is grim.
For the first seventy-two hours detainees claim they were made to stand barefoot in thin clothes while being interrogated in a tundra-like room by ISD officers wrapped in winter wear. Sleep deprived, the detainees started hallucinating.
Several of the male detainees claim ISD officers beat them. Chew Kheng Chuan, an entrepreneur and former student activist, alleges that one slapped him repeatedly across the face until his buccal cavity started bleeding. Kenneth Tsang, an advertising executive and opposition activist, claims another punched him and threatened to abuse his wife who had also been arrested.
Detainees say the psychological and physical torture continued until each admitted to being a Marxist. In other words, they believe that torture was used for the sole purpose of extracting confessions for use in state propaganda, in a bid to cripple civil society.
These, along with the Animal Farm anecdote, are some of the allegations. If true, they constitute an abuse of state power.
Justice, the rule of law and transparency are bedrocks of Singapore society. In Operation Spectrum, the worry is that all three were suspended. Failure to address that sets a dangerous precedent for future governments.
Moreover, there is no longer any national security reason for withholding state intelligence about communist activities in the 1980s. The twenty-two were charged in 1987, just two years before the Berlin Wall fell and four before the Soviet Union imploded—the twilight of global communism. In 1989 the Communist Party of Malaya was dissolved after its leaders signed a peace agreement with Malaysia and Thailand.
Any communist threat has been altogether extinguished, only to be replaced by more pernicious ideologies. These include anarchic cyber-terrorism and religiously-inspired terrorism. Though Singapore has specific anti-terror laws, the government claims the ISA’s extra preventative powers are necessary to defang aspiring terrorists.
The ISA has, however, been tarnished by suspicions that it has been used to serve political ends, as in Operation Spectrum. Opponents want it abolished or replaced. The government may believe that since the ISA remains broadly popular, any opposition to it can be ignored.
Yet public opinion can shift. The electorate is increasingly concerned with procedural legitimacy rather than just performance legitimacy—in governance, the process is starting to matter as much as the outcome. Better for the government to embrace transparency rather than risk being later accused, falsely or not, of any cover-up. Failure to hold the ISA accountable will undermine its future use.
Inquiries are fraught with difficulties, particularly when prior generations are assessed with contemporary moral lenses. What counts as torture is ill-defined today, never mind the 1980s. The primary aim of the inquiry should be to determine whether or not the twenty-two were wronged by the state. It should not be a witch-hunt.
Why might an inquiry be a bad idea? Sceptics worry about sullying then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. These fears are overblown. Lee is respected globally for, among many other things, his decisiveness, foresight and toughness in developing Singapore.
Even if we discover that the twenty-two were not subversives, the episode will fit neatly into the narrative of a leader willing to take preemptive action for the sake of the greater good. That he made mistakes in the process is something he admitted: “I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”
In a region where governments have butchered communists en masse, Lee’s treatment of the accused was relatively mild. This neither precludes his actions from scrutiny nor negates the suffering of detainees and their families. But it does explain why impetus for an inquiry has hitherto been muted.
Yet Singaporean society is mature enough to handle renegotiations of history, in our relentless pursuit of truth and justice. In a world deluged by falsehoods, there is a pressing need for clarity and objectivity in our national conversations.
There is no end point, of course, no definitive history. As with Gandhi, Pinochet, Reagan and Thatcher, Lee’s legacy will continue to be pored over by laypeople and historians alike. This is not simply an intellectual joy, but an expectation, of life in a pluralistic society.
“There is no hindrance to discussing the past in a normal way,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in 2014 in response to a question about Singapore’s communist history. Operation Spectrum deserves this normal discussion.
- Over the past ten days researching this and speaking to people, it has struck me how little Singaporeans know about Operation Spectrum. Many in this country could probably describe Abu Ghraib in greater detail. Yet among those who are familiar with it, and this includes many people within the establishment, they tend to be fairly sympathetic towards the plight of the detainees.
- I had wanted to time this article for May 21st, the 30th anniversary. For the past six days, I have been working with people within more mainstream channels towards getting something published. Today I was told “No”. So boh pian lah, publish here. I mention this so readers know that there are people “up there” who might want to engage in this kind of discussion; but ultimately the outcome is what one might expect. Certain issues will remain off limits for public discussion, never mind how inclusive, open, etc. the government claims it wants to be. No matter, will keep trying.
Untracing the conspiracy
If you have an hour, I recommend Jason Soo’s 2016 film, Untracing the Conspiracy, below. I believe he is in the process of turning this into a longer feature.