Why Singaporeans need to discuss 1987’s Marxist Conspiracy

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.

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Post-script

  • 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 highly recommend Jason Soo’s 2016 film, Untracing the Conspiracy, on YouTube below. I believe he is in the process of turning this into a longer feature.

The santan revolution: coconuts, nasi lemak and cendol

By using better coconuts, can a new restaurant raise the bar for Singaporean cuisine?

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Worker at a coconut processing plant, Sabak Bernam, Selangor, Malaysia


Better coconut milk will revolutionise Singaporean cuisine. That, at least, is the belief of Lee Eng Su, a Singaporean chef, who has spent months on small-holder plots in Malaysia tasting different coconut varietals.

The fruits of his search will soon be put to the test, when The Coconut Club, his new restaurant on Ann Siang Hill, launches with its two signature dishes, nasi lemak (coconut rice) and cendol (a coconut-milk iced dessert).

Coconut milk is generally seen as the poorer cousin of coconut oil and water. Coconut oil is feted as a “superfood”  by many nutritionists, while packaged coconut water has become a billion-dollar industry driven by electrolyte-sapped athletes.

Coconut milk, by contrast, has a much narrower global appeal. Yet it is a fundamental ingredient across South-east Asia. In Singapore, where it is also known as santan, its Malay name, every ethnic group uses it in both savoury and sweet foods, from Chinese laksas and Indian curries to Malay desserts.

Yet decades of market-driven cost-cutting in the local food scene has commoditised it. “Hardly anybody in Singapore uses fresh coconut milk anymore,” admits Eng Su, who graduated in 2005 from the French Culinary Institute in New York—now called the International Culinary Center—and then worked in Manhattan as a sous chef before opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv (since closed).

In keeping with contemporary food movements—including single origin, heirloom and heritage—that place a premium on sourcing quality ingredients, Eng Su identified a coconut strain and worked out a supply chain that will soon deliver a freshly-squeezed, premium coconut milk to Singaporean palettes.

But, with his $10+ nasi lemak priced at more than double the market norm, the question remains: is better coconut milk worth the fuss?

[Full disclosure: I have known Eng Su and his two restaurant partners, Lee Chan Wai and Kamal Samuel, since we were teenagers.]

***

Eng Su’s interest in coconuts was sparked off in late 2014 at I Eat Nasi Lemak, an annual convention in Kuala Lumpur that showcases Malaysia’s best nasi lemak vendors. Continue reading

Singapore, the (occasional) garden city

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For a bit of context, this reflection was originally published in Suddenly The Grass Became Greener, a limited edition “book of photographs made in Singapore during her 50th year as a nation, and the coincidental death of her gardener”, by photographer Kevin Lee. Check it out here.

A friend wrote yesterday to say that she found the piece relevant given the return of the dreaded haze, so I’ve decided to publish it here.

—–

All of Singapore’s glories, successes, tensions and contradictions are played out in the green.

Surely Lee Kuan Yew deserves credit for nurturing the Garden City, but there were many other green thumbs plucking and planting. What of them? In the green, as in much else, we deify one to the exclusion of many.

We are lucky to have been born into a Garden City rather than a choking, clogged one. But how is it possible that we grew a Garden City while felling almost all of our primary forest? When we call Singapore a Garden City, it does not mean that we’ve nourished a garden out of nothingness; rather, that compared to the Bangkoks, Beijings and Delhis of the world, we’ve destroyed less.

Even as the urban jungle has grown, relentlessly, irrepressibly, we’ve kept a bit of the tropical: cow grass on which black mynahs hop and couples canoodle; bougainvilleas whose stalks droop lazily over green fences, flowers fluttering in the wind, gaily watching the morning rush; durian trees under which tycoons in Beemers slouch, bucket in hand; frangipanis that wink at you, stain the tarmac and herald the pontianak; the untamed splendour of MacRitchie, our wellspring, which sparks memories of group runs and puppy loves; and rain trees, expansive, dependable, unmistakable, a guard of honour from Changi, ushering in guests, welcoming home peripatetic residents.

There is romance in scarcity yet it is unclear if we’ve struck the right balance. Do we need so many refineries on our islands? Must we build a footpath everywhere there is none? Why do we flatten Bukit Brown while spending a billion dollars for an artificial garden on an artificial bay?

Even in our crowning green glory, the Botanic Gardens, Singaporean exceptionalism is evident. World Heritage Sites are typically celebrations of ancient, traditional culture. Singapore’s is an homage to a colonial legacy. We are arguably the only post-colonial state that is comfortable with, even glorifies, our colonial past. While other countries bicker about reparations, we worry about our English.

If Raffles hadn’t chosen Singapore in 1819, what would this island be like today? Smaller, poorer, and probably greener. A Garden City this might be, but by being among the world’s leaders in food wastage, energy consumption and carbon emissions (in per capita terms), it is clear that we are not very responsible stewards of the earth.

We squeal about smoggy air and barricade ourselves against rising sea levels, blissfully unaware of our own complicity. The irony is that if every person in the world lived like a Singaporean—like a “Garden City” inhabitant—humanity would need more than four planets to subsist (says the WWF).

While the edifice of a Garden City exists, its soul needs cultivating.

For long Singaporeans have had an uneasy relationship with nature—flora and fauna are to be manicured and managed like everything else in life. The experience of the natural world here is a distant one, mediated by buffer zones, safety signs and the closest toilet.

Yet there seems to be a growing appreciation of the oneness of life on earth. We have started muddying our feet, growing edible gardens on sky-high balconies and paying attention to our meat’s provenance. Slowly, Singaporeans seem to be realising that humanity’s fate is intertwined with every other living thing’s.

And that death, when it comes, will be a return of our ashes, eventually, to the earth, to a planet more than four billion years old.

We do not know what will be of Singapore in a hundred years, never mind a billion. Yet the insignificance of our lifespans need not dampen the significance of our lives. And even as we touch strangers far away, we love, intensely, those closest to us.

Those, perhaps, are Mr Lee’s greatest life lessons. Even in death, his heart flickered: “I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.”

 

Image credit: Jodarl collections

 

May 4th: Interviewing Sonny Liew

GN-CharlieChan-CVF-300

Dear friends,

on May 4th at 630pm I’ll be interviewing Sonny Liew in Raffles Place, Singapore.

Sonny’s graphic novel, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, was arguably Singapore’s most important book in 2015. The Economist called it a “brilliantly inventive work” that “does not shy away from controversial periods in the nation’s history.”

We’ll be talking about Singapore’s history, life as an artist, political storytelling through graphic novels, and much else.

Join us!

Spaces are limited, so please do register here. Event is co-hosted by the Berkeley Club of Singapore and the Harvard University Association of Alumni in Singapore (HUAAS).

Tickets are available for alumni and non-alumni (“friends of”).

Hope to see you then.

The King’s reign ends in twelve days: squid ink curry aka black sotong curry

Black Sotong Official

Singapore is soon to lose one of its great chefs and personalities when Rajah’s Curry closes—its last day of operations is Dec 13th 2015. Mr Rajah is planning on retiring and moving his business to Perth.

Mr Rajah is the man who revolutionised South Indian cooking in Singapore in 1972 by declaring “No MSG, No Coconut Milk and No Yogurt in any of his cooking”.

Though he has a broad repertoire, and his fish head curry is justifiably popular, I want to focus on my favourite dish.

There are many expressions of squid ink around the world—in paella, pasta, risotto, and more—but for me it reaches its apogee in squid ink curry. I am partial, however, to the intense South Indian variety, not the much milder Malay sotong masak hitam.1

It delivers a roundhouse kick to your senses, as sharp acid notes and fiery spice, from the various chillies and the black pepper, enliven the earthiness of squid ink. Depending on your palette’s sensitivities, it can cause you to scrunch up your face or gasp for air. Often, both.

This is not a dish easily found. Though I first tried it in Malaysia, I actually don’t even know of any other Indian shops in Singapore which make it.2  When I first tried Rajah’s version in 2006, I wanted to cry.

Continue reading

Nov 5th: Speaking in Cambridge, MA

Social inclusion image

Dear friends, I’ll be speaking at this event. Join us!

When: 5pm-7pm, Nov 5th 2015

Where: Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) Harvard, 1730 Cambridge St, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Description:

Singapore is a small city-state often lauded for its economic transformation over the last 50 years. Less attention has been paid to the social integration policies that brought a racially divided nation together, and the unique approaches and principles that produced them. Today, as Singapore celebrates her golden jubilee, new cracks in the social fabric are starting to emerge: class, immigration and race relations. This panel discussion series focuses on how Singapore has confronted social integration challenges in the past, and the challenges and solutions to social faultlines on the horizon.

Speakers:

Continue reading

GE2015 panel discussion this Sat, Sep 19th

UPDATE! Venue and (slight) time change due to demand. New details:

Date:   19 Sep 2015 [Sat]
Time:   3pm – 7pm
Venue: 9 Penang Road, #13-03 Park Mall

Please remember to sign up here.

Original post:

MARUAH

Dear friends, I will be taking part in a dialogue at Bras Basah Complex this Saturday at 230pm alongside Alex Au, Braema Mathi, Derek Da Cunha, Jack Lee and Rafiz Hapipi, organised by MARUAH, a Singapore Human Rights NGO (no, that’s not an oxymoron).

Please sign up here. For those interested, my two books, Floating on a Malayan Breeze and Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, will be available there.

Hope to see you!

More details from organiser:

Post-elections forum – What’s at Stake?

On 11 September 2015, Continue reading

GE2015: Final thoughts (1 of 4)

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We are at a curious point in history. Whenever I share my electoral preferences, my PAP friends call me an opposition supporter; and my opposition friends call me a PAP supporter.

Why? I’ll come back to that at the end of these four pieces, but first I want to discuss three issues I think are important.

This is not some comprehensive analysis of this election. Just three issues that I think haven’t been given enough consideration; and that have affected my choice.

They are: the diversity of ideas in Singapore; the nexus of power in Singapore; and Singapore’s population policies.

Diversity of ideas

First, as Singapore prepares for its next phase of development, we simply do not have a sufficient diversity of ideas in the public realm. Our level of public debate and discourse is terrible. Our country is not having the conversations it so desperately needs.

Continue reading

SDP’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t

chee04a

Dear friends, following up on my first post dissecting the WP’s manifesto, here is my take on the Singapore Democratic Party’s (the manifesto available here). This time, I have added an extra section at the bottom: Undecided.

Again, please treat this as first impressions. Many of these suggestions merit closer study, which can happen if the opposition has more resources or if the government and its media starts listening to alternative suggestions. Most importantly, what is needed is better data and information from the government. For instance, how big are Singapore’s reserves?

I love the easy, lazy dichotomy that the PAP and its fans have been trotting out these past few days: Either Singapore or Greece.

Please lah. There are many ways Singapore can increase social spending without surrendering itself to fiscal recklessness. As Yeoh Lam Keong has emphasised here, these proposed social spending packages may not be as onerous to Singapore as the PAP makes out.

What I like

Healthcare Continue reading