Text of Vincent Cheng’s speech at SDP’s Rally

Vincent Cheng

Good evening everyone.

When I was young, I used to admire and support the PAP. Because I had witnessed corrupt practices in neighbouring countries and didn’t experience any in Singapore, I concluded that the PAP was incorrupt and incorruptible. I saw the men in white as true leaders of vision, action and great integrity, who worked hard to build a multi-racial Singapore against the disruptive communists and communalists. My thinking and belief was nurtured mainly from reading the Straits Times daily. I had been reading without a critical mind.

The time of rude awakening came in the 1970s. After my tertiary studies, I became a social worker in the new industrial town of Taman Jurong. This experience in Jurong changed my thinking about the PAP from then on. In Jurong, my work brought me into direct contact with poor people. Taman Jurong at that time comprised mostly of low-income Singaporeans and young migrant workers, male and female, from Malaysia. I had to visit every household, and I couldn’t believe the extent of the social problems affecting these people. Crowded small flats, poor bus transport, children not schooling or having to travel long distances to school, insufficient social facilities, mosquitoes, littering, noise and dust pollution, petty thefts, neighbours’ quarrels, sexual crimes, and many more. The factory workers had their own specific problems: low wages, long hours of work, night shift work, accidents on the factory floor but no workman’s compensation, harassment by employers, illegal deductions of salary which was already very low at $4.40 for eight-hours work.

I had one group of workers complaining to me about the twenty issues of exploitation in their factory. I found it hard to believe, so I went to work anonymously in their plywood factory. I found that the workers were not lying. With so many problems, the authorities were not proactive or passionate enough to help resolve. The project I worked in, on the other hand, identified the issues and organised the residents. With the people’s support, our project was more popular than the pro-government agencies. Of course, the authorities didn’t like our work because we were empowering people to solve their own issues. As the people’s power grew, we the organisers were branded as troublemakers and leftist agitators. Finally, harassed by government authorities, the board of governors had to close down the Jurong project after a three-year stint.

I continued my social work among the poorer sector of Singapore society, this time concentrating on the foreign workers. The labour law did not favour foreign workers, so it was difficult to organise them. I spent time educating them on their rights and the institutions they could go for help.

Then in 1985, the social arm of the Catholic Church, called the Justice and Peace Commission, invited me to work as its executive secretary. My task was to promote the social teaching of the Church and implement the justice concerns accordingly. Around the world and especially in Asia at this time, Catholic social action flourished. Philippines was a case in point. Because the Church played a big role in the overthrow of the dictator Marcos, the Singapore government feared a similar experience could take place here. Several church organisations and Catholic priests were targeted and warned. The final onslaught came with the use of the Internal Security Act to unleash Operation Spectrum in a massive exercise called the Marxist Conspiracy.

But there was no Marxist Conspiracy. I was never the leader of the alleged Marxist group. I never had any political connections with Tan Wah Piow nor did I ever receive any instruction from him to conduct a subversive movement to overthrow the State. People asked me: “How come then that the government is able to unveil such a long list of your subversive activities?” My truthful answer is: “Because the ISD tortured me to confess what they wanted to hear.”

I was arrested at 5am on 21 May 1987, having had only 3 hours of sleep before the ISD came to my house. I was interrogated in an extremely cold room, deprived of sleep for days, verbally abused, assaulted with slaps on my face and beatings on my chest and back, and a knockout punch to my abdomen. Before the assault I firmly stood my ground, refusing to be intimidated. After the assault I succumbed and allowed them to make me into a docile puppet, writing and signing long tracts of self-incriminating lies and half-facts. When I was made to appear on television to confess my activities, I quietly protested by changing my hairstyle to that of LKY.

When I was not released after one year, I summoned my courage to write an affidavit that recanted all my confessions and rebutted every allegation of the government against me. The ISD tried to prevent my affidavit from reaching the public by harassing my lawyers. After I lost my court hearing, the ISD wanted me to recant my affidavit and return to square one. I stoutly refused, and I was labelled “not rehabilitated”. How can I rehabilitate to a lie? You can only rehabilitate to the truth. So, all in all, I suffered three years jail, mostly in solitary confinement, financial costs of about $100,000 in court penalties and other legal costs. But what I lost I gained in the strong support and solidarity of my family, my friends and anonymous people both in Singapore and around the world.

This is only my story. But let us not forget the hundreds of other ISA detainees who have suffered much much more without the chance of seeking redress, especially those who have gone to their grave in a blanket of silence. We who are still alive owe them the duty to seek out the truth and accordingly proclaim their contribution to the true history of Singapore.

We must fight for the abolishment of the ISA.

If we do not redress history, history will repeat itself. The first step towards redress is for victims to open their mouth or to pick up their pen. The Singapore Democratic Party encourages and fully supports this move. Victims have kept silent for too long. It is time to stand up for our human rights.

Thank you.

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