Political dissent abroad

Recently the Malaysian online newspaper, Malaysiakini, published a series of feature articles as part of a two-week segment on Singapore entitled ‘A New Singapore’? Below is a piece contributed by Mr Marc Receretnam.

Political dissent among Singaporeans abroad
Marc Rerceretnam
21 August 2004

The penalising of prominent opposition figures via the Singaporean legal system has made many weary of confronting the PAP government on their own turf. Unwilling to take up this challenge, some Singaporeans appear more willing to push for change from overseas – outside the clutches of the PAP government.

While it is undeniable that a considerable number of Singaporeans opposed to the PAP government, continue to work for a more open and democratic society from inside Singapore, just as many, if not more, are only prepared to take this course of action from overseas.

There have been many prominent personalities within various expatriate Singaporean communities who have become involved in campaigns because they already had first hand experience of PAP government’s crackdown on dissenters. Those who fled or left Singapore preferred to carry on the fight from abroad.

This article examines the conditions surrounding the controversial ‘Operation Spectrum’ beginning in 1987, showing how this event played a major role in arousing suppressed feelings of justice among a new generation of Singaporeans, many of whom were living outside Singapore at the time.

Circumstances and conditions surrounding resistance to the authoritarian rule of Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party up to the late 1980s had already tempered the outlook and response of the Singaporean citizenry.

Not an option

Resistance, under normal circumstances, was difficult to overtly articulate in view of socio-economic or political retribution and marginalisation by ‘hostile’ government authorities.

Challenging the status quo was not an option open to the vast majority. Many found it necessary to put up with daily humiliation, rather than confront the uncertainties of unemployment and victimisation. Singaporeans felt the political, social and financial power of the PAP very deeply.

The fear of government retribution was constant. Consequently many felt the price of dissension was far too high and accepted anything they were served.

However to suggest that Singaporeans, under the dictates of such an oppressive relationship, played a part in the perpetuation of their own oppression is not to deny the many ways the PAP kept them involuntarily in their place.

The whole process was primarily an interaction between the powerful and the powerless. These people got something from the relationship and that was employment and a standard of living unattainable in any other Southeast Asian country.

Political purges in post-independence Singapore were not unusual. Purges in the post-colonial period occurred in 1963, 1968, 1972, 1975, 1984, 1987 and most recently in 2002.

While these events are regarded as controversial particularly in relation to the use of the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), the purge of 1987 acted as a catalyst for expatriate Singaporeans and their many supporters to challenge the hegemony of the PAP.

The event encapsulated an ambivalence, and in some cases anger, against the authoritarian rule of Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party.

The 1987 Marxist conspiracy

The arrests began in early hours of the 21st May 1987, and within weeks a total of 22 people were detained, for varying periods of time.

Most were social workers, dramatists, and Catholic church welfare workers, detained on the pretence that they were part of a ‘Marxist conspiracy’ intent on overthrowing the government. (Emergency Committee for Human Rights in Singapore, 20 July 1987, p. 7)

While there is little doubt that the 1987 arrests had a big impact on the lives of the detainees and their families and friends, its effect went much further than this. Outside of Singapore, a myriad of individuals, informal groups and NGOs, for the first time, found themselves united by an issue.

Such overseas attention was particularly strong during the 1987 arrests, much more so than in similar events in the 1960s and 1970s. A mere five weeks after the initial arrests, the then Foreign Minister Rajaratnam complained that over 200 organisations from around the world had sent protest letters to the government. (ECHRS, 31 August 1987, p. 3)

Apart from the very important and active role played by detainee support groups and several opposition political parties in Singapore, overseas Singaporeans, small and large international groups, and even Malaysians (their support predates the Malaysian governments own detentions several months later) played a disproportionately large role in highlighting and publicising the inequities of the PAP government arrests.

So, why did foreign organisations and expatriate Singaporean communities played such a prominent role while public opinion in Singapore remained largely muted?

The concept of a ‘pacific community’ gained popularity by the early 1980s mainly via governmental, business and intellectual circles. This lingo naturally seeped into community circles soon after and was taken up in earnest by some NGOs, based in various capital cities in the region.

Growing regional economic success brought with it greater economic interdependence between communities, which in turn fueled local versions of ‘regionalism’. NGOs were set up and grew stronger under this growing climate of regionalism.

In previous times, such organisations would have sufficed to handle issues delineated by nationalist or domestic concerns. However, by the 1980s, these concerns began to encompass issues outside traditional nationalistic boundaries.

It was this up-and-coming NGO movement that helped to highlight the plight of the Singaporean detainees in 1987.

Singaporean exiles network

Former student leaders of the Singapore University (1974-75), some of whom were implicated as ring-leaders of the Marxist conspiracy, were instrumental in drumming up opposition to the Singaporean government during 1987 arrests.

Mr Tan Wah Piow, based in London, and Mr Tsui Hon Kwong, in Hong Kong, and several other ex-student union activists living in Netherlands and France acted as catalysts for the growing resistance to the PAP government. This network formed in response to the 1987 arrests was named ‘Khemas’.

Unlike earlier political purges, this group of tertiary-educated individuals were more professionally mobile in comparison to their earlier political counterparts. Over the years, many relocated to affluent first world countries where they established themselves professionally.

The trend continues with the likes of Mr Tang Liang Hong in 1997 and Mr Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff (photo) in 2002. A large number of past and present activists also make an effort to leave Singapore, even for short periods of time, usually for further studies or employment.

This constant movement feeds growing enclaves of anti-PAP resistance in the Asia-Pacific region, the USA and Europe.

The economic ascendency of Singapore in the 1960s brought about a new generation of young, outspoken, educated, English language proficient, middle class. Unlike their parents’ generation, this new generation looked to other areas for socio-economic and political inspiration.

Familiarity with post-colonial concepts of equality, justice and democracy played a large role in how many comprehended the world around them.

In Singapore, increased urbanisation broke down cultural barriers that had existed just a generation before. In the new emerging post-colonial Singapore, issues such as race, religion, language or gender were largely overlooked.

Growing economic success in the Southeast Asian region similarly way broke down barriers between their fellow middle-class compatriots in the region. The level of socio-political interdependence increased and in turn fed a rise in political awareness. This caused many to question the contradictions and inequities long accepted by the previous generations.

More Singaporeans study abroad

With economic success in Singapore and the rise of the new middle class, many families found they could send their children to study abroad. The USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand were the countries where Singaporean students were sent to get a tertiary education.

Misgivings about the Singaporean tertiary educational system plus the high government-imposed second language requirements for acceptance forced many more abroad. However when overseas, many a Singaporean saw through the naive PAP view of Singaporean society and the world.

Away from the shackled Singaporean media, government infrastructure and political system, they began to see gapping holes in the traditional authoritarian rationale of Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP.

When abroad many young Singaporeans found themselves left in a truly politically plural, multicultural, multinational and multiracial environment. Socialisation, while still often within the context of a Singaporean student clique, often included students from other parts of Southeast Asia or the wider Asian region.

This inculcated a new affinity between students, often inspiring a kind of pan-Asian identity on campus.

Unfettered by the real or imagined prying eyes of the police and ISD and inspired by youthful optimism and exuberance, some began working (to varying degrees) in support of causes outlawed or frowned upon by the PAP.

The overseas trained Singaporean student was seldom happy on their return to Singapore. Many having tasted the fruits of ‘freedom’, upon their return to the stringent Singaporean ‘nanny state’ environment, often found themselves very frustrated.

Barriers to political and cultural links began to fall away in many host countries, resulting in strong support for Singaporean and Asian issues from local organisations, including political parties, student groups, Church groups, professional and academic bodies.

In the 1980s massive changes were taking place in countries such as Australia, Canada, NZ, the UK and the US. Large-scale immigration from the Asia-Pacific region began in earnest around this period, and this facilitated the dismantling of long held barriers to socialisation with persons of Asian descent.

The interaction between the host countries and the overseas student communities played a very important role in influencing Singaporean and other overseas students. Political views, lifestyles, philosophies and practices were adopted and brought back to Singapore.

New technologies

In the 1980s new technologies that facilitated global communication were fast becoming affordable. Fax machines, personal computers/word processors and cheaper direct dialing phone services were now more accessible to students and community organizations.

Many student groups had easy access to university-funded facilities. Local student government bodies were often very supportive and would not only provide political support but also give open access to a full range of modern office, telecommunication and even sometimes TV and radio facilities.

A perfect example of this was a publication called the “Emergency Committee for Human Rights in Singapore”. This fortnightly newsletter was relayed around the world via a simple office fax machine from Christchurch in New Zealand and was one of the main sources that helped garner international support for the 1987 detainees.

In Australia, local Singaporean support groups had extensive use of university union facilities enabling them to put out high quality publications, media releases, organise public meetings and coordinate demonstrations in support of the detainees.


Emergency Committee for Human Rights in Singapore, 26 May 1987 – 3 Oct. 1988, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Tadashi Yamamoto (ed.), Emerging Civil Society in the Asia Pacific Community, (Singapore: ISEAS, 1995)

Michel Foucault, Truth and Power, in Power and Knowledge: Selected Interviews of and other writings, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972)

Interview with Ms X (anonymous), 10 July 2004, Sydney, Australia.

Interview with Ms Y (anonymous), 4 July 2004, Sydney, Australia

Marc Receretnam completed his PhD at the University of Singapore. He is currently president of the Australian Malaysian and Singapore Association.

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