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.

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.

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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

 

GE2015: Final thoughts (4 of 4)

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This is part 4 of 4. To read part 3, click here.

Conclusion: GE 2015

Over time, the PAP has become a party more for the rich and for the elite. Yes, it will do things for the lower- and middle-income citizens. But more because it wants our votes to stay in power. I’m not convinced it genuinely, compassionately considers every Singaporean as an equal human being. Maybe a long time ago it did; but not anymore.

Some government critics think the party is corrupt and is enriching itself at our expense. Again, I don’t buy that argument at all.

I just think the PAP has become so fixed in its ways, in its belief in a natural aristocracy, that the best way for society to progress is by nurturing the elites.

Which many of us don’t agree with. So, in 2011, I thought, OK, if the PAP loses one GRC, it’s going to reform.

Sadly, no. A few tweaks here and there, but it’s the same old party with the same archaic beliefs. Does the PAP have the ideological adaptability to lead Singapore in our next phase of growth?

I have serious doubts. The demands of the next fifty years are immeasurably different from the last. The PAP’s perennial, indefatigable, prioritisation of growth over distribution, and its aversion to welfare, are ill-suited for an ageing population, slower growth, rising income inequality and wage stagnation.

On a related note, one of the many problems governments around the world are grappling with today is striking the right balance between national priorities and the demands of transnational corporations/the global elite. The PAP has always been far too accommodating of both constituencies. (And, as mentioned, all its leaders probably belong to that global 0.1%.)

How I think about my vote

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GE2015: Final thoughts (2 of 4)

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This is Part 2 of 4. To read Part 1, click here.

The nexus of power

Conflicts of interest in turn point to the dangerous nexus of political, policy and business power in Singapore.

Before I begin describing this and highlighting why it is bad for Singapore’s future, I want to emphasise three points. First, my arguments here are about conflicts of interest; not cronyism or nepotism. There is no evidence that cronyism or nepotism afflicts Singapore in any significant way.

Second, I have chosen to name certain public figures below simply because there is no other way to show the existence of these close networks of families and friends in power. Naming them in no way implies that they or their families/friends have ever been involved in anything illegal.

Third, this point is a non-partisan one. Though all the names below are of people close to the PAP—owing to our country’s unique political and institutional history—my broader argument is that Singaporeans should, from here on, vigilantly guard against the emergence of these networks. Today the PAP; tomorrow perhaps the WP.

Every time I think I finally comprehend how closely-knit our leaders in Singapore are, I learn something new that shocks me. This time, it is the network of a new PAP candidate in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, whom I will eventually get to.

But first, we need to start at the top: Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching. Though all of you are aware of this trio, it is important to reiterate its existence and continued power in Singapore today, albeit without the late Mr Lee.

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Nepal, Singapore, Gurkhas

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It seems like Nepal has faded quickly from our thoughts.

More than 5,000 have died and one million children are in urgent need of help following a 7.9-magnitude earthquake that hit on April 25, 2015. That was followed by dozens of aftershocks and tremors registering more than 4 on the Richter Scale.

The earthquake’s epicentre was in Gorkha, the district from where Gurkhas historically come.

Many people from many countries have contributed to Singapore’s success over the years. Perhaps the most colourful, charismatic community—albeit publicly stoic and reserved—is the Gurkhas.

I was lucky enough as a boy to hang out with them in Mount Vernon. I remember eating devilishly hot onion chilli “salsas”, sometimes with sukuti, tough buffalo meat, then marvelling at them cooking goat curry in a giant wok, using spade as spatula, above a wooden fire sitting in a freshly dug cavity.

But why does Singapore need Gurkhas for our highest-security tasks?

According to our first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew:

“When I returned to Oxley Road [Lee’s residence], Gurkha policemen (recruited by the British from Nepal) were posted as sentries. To have either Chinese policemen shooting Malays or Malay policemen shooting Chinese would have caused widespread repercussions. The Gurkhas, on the other hand, were neutral, besides having a reputation for total discipline and loyalty.”

Two other anecdotes, told to me on Mount Vernon, possibly exaggerations, went something like this.

First, the difference between Gurkhas and the local police is that the Gurkhas, if faced with that cruel choice, will shoot down their family, even wife and kids, in defence of their master. Locals won’t.

Second, like great martial artists, Gurkhas exercise incredible control over their strength and skills, preferring to defuse situations in non-violent ways. Apparently Singapore informed the Gurkhas that if they ever got into a brawl in public, our judicial system would regard their hands as “deadly weapons”.

Of course, the Gurkhas represent just some of the many Nepalis in Singapore. And of course, we should help the Nepalis like we would any other human in their position—simply because we can.

Still, it is a good time to reflect on the Gurkhas in Singapore and elsewhere. Singaporeans who want to help can give to the Singapore Red Cross or one of the many other organisations doing work there.

For those who prefer to support smaller organisations, please click here for one that is vouched for by Zakaria Zainal, Singaporean photographer who has spent much time there.

Note: This post was first published on Mothership.sg

Top photo via

Two pieces on Lee Kuan Yew

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Image credit: Lyn Ong for POSKOD.MY

Dear friends, I recently took a break from my China/India book to write two pieces on the great man.

The first is on POSKOD.MY, a Malaysian outlet that had the neat idea of publishing two reflection pieces, one by a Malaysian, one by a Singaporean. I was asked to respond to “What LKY means to Singaporeans”.

Mine is here. The other, by Malaysian Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, is here.

My second piece is on Mothership.sg. Here I had to write more of a traditional obituary. But rather than a comprehensive sweep, I chose to focus on some of his seminal life events and influences, such as his wife.

You can read it here.

As you might imagine, it is both easy and difficult writing about this complex man. Easy because there is so much good material. Every time I poke my nose into one of his books, I come away with a memorable quote.

But therein lies the problem. Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Singapore

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Dear friends, I published an essay about Singaporean nationalism and patriotism on Mothership.sg, one of Singapore’s newer alternative news sites. Incidentally, I sit on the advisory board of Project Fisher-men, a social enterprise that owns Mothership.

Click here to read it on Mothership.

Alternatively, it is reproduced here:

Every year in the days leading up to August 9th, a maelstrom of emotions swirls deep within me. I am never quite sure how to react to Singapore’s National Day.

“But why are you singing Stand up for Singapore?” asks my Chinese Peranakan wife, who is indifferent towards the patriotism, but wholly enthusiastic about the day off. It’s subconscious, I say, a reaction to hearing the catchy tune somewhere in July, the month of cheesy patriotic jingles in Singapore.

My fundamental problem with National Day has nothing to do with Singapore per se. Rather, I am generally skeptical about nationalism and patriotism, and their expressions anywhere in the world. Nationalism’s slippery slope to fascism — from Adolf and Idi to Perkasa — seems to far outweigh any benefits.

I prefer to exist, naively, in an idealistic parallel universe where borders are fluid and the oneness of humanity is cherished. With ethnicity, religion and culture already dividing the peoples of the world, why cloak ourselves with another layer of differentiation?

There are also particular, localised reasons for my ambivalence. And it is, indeed, ambivalence, not just doubt, because National Day has first always made me warm and fuzzy inside.

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On racism and xenophobia in Singapore

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“Do you think that the hatred Singaporeans feel towards foreigners is because of an identity crisis, as you suggested, or because the government has failed to provide sufficient basic services, like housing and transportation?” a young Filipino journalist asked at last week’s book launch (see here).

The crowd released a collective gasp when they heard the word “hatred”. I was shocked. I mentioned in my reply that it was too strong a word to use. Regardless, the fact that she said it bothers me, and has prompted me to share some thoughts.

These are casual observations and musings that build on the one serious analytical piece I’ve written on race, Chapter 8: Colour Matters, in Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore.

As such, please treat each of my main statements below as postulations, to which I invite discussion and debate. Any thoughts and responses are much appreciated.

Note: Though racism and xenophobia are somewhat distinct, they often get conflated in contemporary Singaporean discourse. I will therefore sometimes discuss them collectively.

1) In Singapore, the moderate voices far outweigh the racists and xenophobes

In the immediate wake of the Little India Riots, there were some anti-South Asian racist and xenophobe rants. However, there was an instant backlash from voices of moderation. Same thing with the furore over the mooted celebration of the Philippines Independence Day in June this year. In both instances, I was heartened by Singapore society’s collective rejection of racist and xenophobic strands.

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Five notes from The Malayan Forum

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I just wanted to share some thoughts from the interesting discussion I participated in last week, “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” (see here).

Background: “The Malayan Forum was set up in London by future leaders of Malaysia and Singapore. Primarily a platform for politics, the topics would however have extended to governance and other related aspects for future independence. Key to the premise was the joint stewardship of matters relating to the lands, and hence the term “Malayan” was used. The sessions seeks to interrogate and delineate the term “Malayan” in its myriad representations, and to consider the impact of the term on the socio-political landscape, and on the arts and culture, in the period leading up to the Merger. 65 years after its inception, the forum will question the relevance and legacies it has engendered over time.”

The wide-ranging discussion was moderated by Lai Chee Kien, a Singaporean architect and good friend whom I first met in Berkeley, when I was an undergrad and he was completing his PhD. Alongside was fellow panellist Tay Kheng Soon, also an architect, but much older, more established, and famous as a social activist from the 1960s. Mr Tay has, in many ways, been a leading voice of our national conscience, on everything from the environment to language. He has also played crucial roles in specific Singapore developments.

The story of how Mr Tay lobbied for Changi as the site of our airport—publicly disagreeing with plans by the PWD (Public Works Department) to expand the Paya Lebar Airport then winning in the court of public opinion, which infuriated PWD and forced it to change its plans—is interesting not simply as a window into the history of one of the world’s most recognisable institutions, but also because it harks back to a time of remarkable democratic activism and accountability in Singapore.

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Letter from China: Shaolin and Bodhidharma

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

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Zhang Yong, one of the shifus at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center

A continuation of Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

The Shaolin Temple…at last

Two days after reaching Dengfeng, we visit the Shaolin Temple. After paying the RMB100 (US$16) per head entrance fee, we walk through the ticket counter, and soon pass one branch of the Tagou school on our right. We keep walking for another five minutes to arrive at the wushu demonstration centre, which has hourly performances. Even at 9 in the morning, some 30minutes before the first performance, a queue has formed.

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