Degrees Of Distance
1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On
Edited by Chng Suan Tze, Low Yit Leng and Teo Soh Lung
(2017), Ethos Books
In mid-1987, 22 Singaporeans were arrested and detained for conspiring to “establish a Marxist state.” Codenamed Operation Spectrum, the arrests saw the detainees making sworn admissions to the fact on national television. The admissions were later retracted by nine of the detainees, which led to re-arrests and subsequently the arrest of their lawyers.
Throughout the entire episode, none of the detainees was formally charged or put on trial. The last detainee was released in June 1990.
1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On, edited by three of the detainees, Chng Suan Tze, Low Yit Leng and Teo Soh Lung, features over 30 personal accounts of the incident — from detainees, those who escaped detention, lawyers involved in the case, family members, close friends and other observers. This makes 1987 the most extensive record of personal accounts from Operation Spectrum.
Many of the detainees were involved in voluntary or paid work relating to workers’ rights, and a number of them were staff or volunteers in the Roman Catholic Church. They were lawyers, educators, artists and student leaders. Not all knew one another; some only met decades later. Not all detainees are represented in the book either, and one would assume that the stigma of detention remains.
For some of the writers it is also the first time that they “cast their minds back to 1987 and try to make sense of the incident.” Consistent throughout is the insistence that there never were plots for any Marxist insurgency.
What’s interesting for the reader is therefore the piecing together of different accounts, to try and uncover the “real” reason for the arrests.
For instance, we learn that the arrests could have been the culmination of a series of events, one of which is a televised parliamentary inquiry on the Legal Profession Act Bill that involved three would-be detainees who were members of the Law Society. (The inquiry was described elsewhere as “highly adversarial”.)
In addition, there are also suggestions that some of the detainees were supporters of, or sympathetic to, the political opposition led by JB Jeyaretnam, and that this made them targets of the ruling party.
In the book, what immediately stands out is the richness of expression from the writers. Some are intimate and full of detail, others spare and somewhat oblique. Yet others write with a glinting sense of humour when relating their encounters with Internal Security Department officers.
These varied expressions also hint at the different ways some of the writers had coped with the incident. Some continue to hope, even dream of justice, while others have decided that the any course of action to secure this is futile and irrelevant.
Explaining the motivation for writing, Fong Hoe Fang, a close friend of several detainees, explains in his essay:
Many have asked me why some of us from that era are still harping on the past. They wonder why we have not forgiven and moved on.
They are mistaken. We have moved on. Many of us have carved out careers and new lives for ourselves despite the shadows. What we seek is not retributive justice but reconciliation through restorative justice.
Indeed, many of the detainees and their families and friends have “moved on”, raising families and pursuing fruitful careers. From lawyers to CEOs of successful companies, one would be hard pressed to pick out a former Operation Spectrum detainee based on their profiles today.
Among the second group (who no longer hope for justice) is one Paul Lim. Lim was pursuing his doctorate in Brussels at the time of the arrests. Unwilling to return to Singapore and be detained without trial, he became a political exile before gaining Belgian citizenship.
For me, 1987 is the past. I do not want to cling to it, I look to the future. I have to let the past go for the good of my health. The incident cannot wreck my mind now as it did in the past…. Why do I agree to write something now? I feel that I cannot keep on saying no to the same friends who asked me to write. [This will be] my first and only piece.
Two other essays from 1987 also stand out, from Catholic priest Fr. Patrick Goh and former priest Edgar D’Souza.
For Catholics who lived through the 1980s in Singapore, the “Marxist Conspiracy” may have a very particular ring. Other than the paid church staff and volunteers who were among the detained, four Catholic priests were also implicated and suspended by the Church, although none of them was arrested. Goh and D’Souza were among the four.
Goh and D’Souza’s descriptions of urgent meetings among the Catholic clergy are eye-opening, especially as the Church has remained rather tight-lipped about the Archbishop’s controversial meeting with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to discuss the detained church workers. The meeting is seen as a turning point in the Church’s support for the detainees.
Recounting the Archbishop’s eventual acceptance of the government’s actions, D’Souza, who was the press officer of the Church at the time, writes:
[The Archbishop] must have felt that if he did not “co-operate”, the PM [Lee Kuan Yew] would fulfil his promise to “make life hard” for the Catholic Church as a whole. However, there is so much respect, influence and status that the Singapore Catholic Church has lost since.
The essay by Fr. Patrick Goh, one of the four implicated priests, also denotes disappointment at the Church’s position:
Though [the Archbishop] gave moral and financial support to his priests and the organisations living out the social mission of the Church, he was not well versed in the Church’s social teachings. Hence his caution to us sometimes was “not to needle” the government too much. When faced with a battle against Goliath, unlike David, he was unprepared mentally, hence his quick recapitulation.
Today, Fr. Patrick Goh continues to minister at the Church of St. Bernadette in Singapore, while Edgar De Souza left priesthood and now lives in Australia.
To be clear, there’s very little that is uplifting about 1987. And understandably so. It serves as a grim reminder of how tenuous personal freedoms are when weighed against the “security” of the state. It also illustrates how easily a group of individuals can be isolated from legal restitution (and these were people with social capital and at least moderate resources).
Nonetheless, several writers attempt to draw lessons for themselves and the reader. Vincent Cheng, the last detainee to be released in June 1990, shares one such reflection:
When one is caught unawares, the experience becomes more traumatic. When one is prepared, the very least one can feel is a certain confidence of being human… Knowing your rights… Learning how to cope with solitary confinement… Learning how to cope with the fear of indefinite detention.
To date, there has been no formal government statement withdrawing the accusations of a Marxist conspiracy.
The sense of trauma and anguish are understated in the essays and requires some reading between the lines. This is perhaps a function of the medium; penning down one’s thoughts requires deliberation and often results in a degree of distance.
Nonetheless, one is struck by how the detainees have seemingly returned to “normal life”, which perhaps speaks volumes about one’s propensity for forgetting, if not forgiving. One cannot help but also wonder if the book serves as much as catharsis as it does a record of the “national psychodrama” that was Operation Spectrum.
1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On is available online from Ethos Books.