25 Years after Operation Spectrum

Singapore Democrats

Leaders of Singapore’s social and political scene gathered at Hong Lim Green on 2 June 2012, Saturday. They joined about 400 Singaporeans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum in 1987.

Academics, political party leaders, NGO leaders, prominent bloggers, and members of the media joined the ex-detainees as they were entertained by local bands and took in the well-crafted exhibition that included mock-ups of cells and investigation rooms at Whitley Road Detention Centre.

Included in the exhibition were actual artefacts collected by the detainees during their imprisonment: prison garb, sketches, and greeting cards for family members made by the detainees. There was even a set of the drawstring pyjamas worn at Whitley Road Detention Centre.

Booths offering free drinks and donated ice cream were manned by young volunteers, while two makeshift bookstalls struggled to organise the crowds determined to get copies of the three new books launched that day as well as Ms Teo Soh Lung’s autobiography, Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner, published in 2010.

The three titles, which are available at Function8 and Select Books, are: That We May Dream Again, edited by Fong Hoe Fang; Escape from the Lion’s Paw: Reflections of Singapore’s Political Exiles, edited by Teo Soh Lung and Low Yit Leng; and Smokescreens and Mirrors: Tracing the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’, by Tan Wah Piow.

Activists Ms Braema Mathi, Mr Siew Kum Hong, Ravi Philemon, Martyn See, and Alfian Sa’at addressed the crowd. NSP’s Ms Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss and former detainee Mr William Yap, who spoke speaking in Mandarin, also took to the stage. All the speakers denouced the 1987 arrests.

The final speaker, Dr Vincent Wijeysingha, the SDP’s Treasurer, rounded off the speeches with a ringing 20-minute denunciation of Operation Spectrum (see text of speech below). He said emphatically that Operation Spectrum was a fiction, invented by our government, to innoculate us against the idea that poverty and repression are wrong.

He called on Singaporeans to work for change because that is what the 22 who were arrested were actually doing: working among the poor and trying to raise our consciousness of their existence. There was no Marxist conspiracy: it was a lie.

As the sun set behind the skyscrapers that tower over the single valley of free expression that exists in Singapore, chairs were arranged in small circles for the audience to quiz the former detainees on their experiences of Operation Spectrum. Youths sat spellbound as the detainees told them the unadorned truth, answering questions and recounting their experiences.

The circles got smaller and smaller as the young people huddled closer and closer as the detainees recounted their stories of torture, intimidation and betrayal. At the end of the evening, the organisers had to literally chase the audience away as the contractors moved in to clear away the stage and the other furniture of the event.

Among those who were present at the event included the Rev Yap Kim Hao, founder of the Free Community Church; the Rev Jim Minchin, the Australian Anglican priest who wrote the groundbreaking biography of Lee Kuan Yew, No Man is an Island; and Prof Christopher Tremewan who wrote The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore.

Text of Dr Vincent Wijeysingha’s speech:

We gather this afternoon on a moment of high historic significance. There are many people -many, many people – who have no conception of why we are here and why we have not forgotten. But even they exist, just as we do, still in the shadow of the 21st of May 1987: a shadow that has not lifted from over our minds and our hearts.

There are those who have told me in these last few weeks, as I have joined others in trying to publicise the facts of Operation Spectrum, that the government probably had a reason to do what it did; that we are experiencing the benefits of the hard decisions that were taken at the time; that we should learn to move on. The very reason their words seem convincing to them is an outcome of Operation Spectrum.

Now, let’s put one thing to rest. I have grown tired of covering my words, every time I speak on this subject, under a cloak of legal ambiguity. Let’s examine the facts.

We know that former minister, S Dhanabalan resigned from the Cabinet because of Operation Spectrum. We know that Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is on record in 2001 as saying that he did not believe the twenty-two detainees were engaged upon a Marxist conspiracy. And we know that Lee Kuan Yew, the engineer of Operation Spectrum himself, told Archbishop Gregory Yong that he was not interested in those who were arrested but his real objective was some Catholic priests; that Tan Wah Piow was a simpleton; and Vincent Cheng and his group were mere novices. In fact, it was on this day 25 years ago, the 2nd of June, that he met the bishop at the Istana, and uttered these words. The minutes of that meeting are in public circulation.

You may remember the pre-election debate on CNA last April when I said that Operation Spectrum was based on trumped-up charges that history had shown to be untrue. The two PAP members on that panel – Josephine Teo and Tharman Shanmugaratnam – neither one of them denied it. Even though they had the last words in the debate and had every opportunity, they did not deny it.

So I think today, we can finally dispense with the legal niceties, and we can tell the truth. The truth is this: Operation Spectrum was a fiction, invented by our government, to innoculate us against the idea that poverty and repression arre wrong and we should do something about it. Because that is what the twenty-two were actually doing: working among the poor and trying to raise our consciousness of their existence. There was no Marxist conspiracy: it was a lie.

The Prime Minister at the time, the Senior Minister, Deputy Prime Ministers, every Cabinet Minister, every Minister of State, Parliamentary Secretary, and every Member of Parliament except Mr Chiam was complicit in that lie. And every single one who has joined their ranks since is a co-conspirator of that lie.

That is the reason why we are here today. We come to acknowledge that we were lied to and that we will not forgive the government for what it did, not just to the twenty-two who were detained but to our whole community.

You should no longer be afraid to speak against the ISA; against detention without trial; against confessions obtained under torture. But you should be troubled if you still believe that our wealth and success are prizes worth sacrificing our humanity for. We want to be rid of the fear our government put into our hearts that day. We want to reclaim a humanity that is offended by fear just as much as it is offended by violence.

And to those who say we must move on, I say yes, wholeheartedly, our community must move on. But it can never move on until we have scrubbed out the blood-red stain of Operation Spectrum that still covers the walls of our hearts and minds.

My profession is social work, just like the twenty-two detainees, I say proudly. I worked with abused children. And I can tell you from all the years I worked in that field, that when abuse is commited against a human being, the entire family, the community, is infected with the horror of the abuse. The entire community becomes a little bit darker, a little bit more soulless, a little bit less joyful. And it is only by acknowledging the truth of what happened, by evicting the ghost of that abuse, that we can recover and move on. Otherwise we crawl within ourselves, and we avoid knowing that to live is to live despite our past, not because of it.

I have never been able to imagine what it must be like to hear a knock on my door at 5am in the morning and to be hauled away by shouting, screaming policemen. I don’t know what it is like to be thrown into an unknown jail. I don’t know what it is like to be tortured, to be beaten.

Last year on the 21st of May, I happened to be with one of the twenty-two. I acknowledged the date. He looked down at his watch and responded, very simply, “It was at this time that they were preparing to interview me.” An entire history of an entire generation stood behind those brief words. We all now what happened next. Well, some of us still don’t, and the members of our government still pretend it didn’t. What happened next continued for the next three years as far as the twenty-two were concerned and for us, it lodged deep in a place in our psyche from where it will not budge until we step out from the shadows into the sunlit places of the truth. It is a truth that will harm us like the sun harms our eyes if we look directly into it; it is a truth that will hurt.

Because for so many of us, the hideous image of Operation Spectrum, cast upon the walls of our collective mind was, for so long, the truth. And to fashion a new truth is painful. But we must, if we are to grow up. On that day, only one generation ago, the government drew a heavy curtain across the humanity of our people, across the courage and compassion and fellow-feeling and self-sacrifice that should be our finest qualities, and turned us into frightened associates in a police state. And from that day onwards, the government stopped talking to us. Because it knew it could.

Lee Kuan Yew once told Charlie Rose, the American interviewer, that his was not a police state, and he was not a policeman. All he needed, he said, was the administration of the law. Let me say to him today: in your name, in the name of those he imprisoned and tortured, and even in the name of the officers he made to do his grubby work, that was not all you needed. What you needed, and you worked so hard to achieve it – and you did – was to degrade the humanity of your people. You hobbled the trade unions, you threw the politicians into jail, you silenced the newspapers, you co-opted the professional bodies, you impoverished the universities, and you bankrupted and exiled so many honest, decent Singaporeans, some of the best of our people.

In a sense, you exiled and bankrupted us all.

To breathe the air of freedom, to know that I am able to share my thoughts, come together in groups, try to improve the world, these should be the first of our rights.

And what is most offensive, what is most objectionable, what was the greatest crime of Operation Spectrum was this: That twenty-two young people, idealistic people, filled with justice and compassion, were thrown in jail and were tortured because they looked around them and saw that poverty was increasing, that people were being bullied by their employers, losing their jobs, and set out to help them.

By doing research, by setting up shelters for battered women and training centres for foreign maids, by helping Mr Jeyaratnam, by staffing helpdesks and welfare programmes, by providing warmth and shelter and hope to our most disadvantaged brothers and sisters. Gently, with determination, and with courage, they put a question mark on the soul of the assumptions upon which the PAP had presumed to recreate our country, where wealth and status became preferred over kindness and community. And so, allow me to repeat it because it bears repeating, they were imprisoned and tortured. Think about that for a moment in the silence of your hearts: for helping their fellow men, the poor and the disadvataged, they were imprisoned and tortured. Who will still say that he has even begun to understand the violence that was done to us that day? And who will say that it was justified?

I hope you will read what has been written in the three books which are launched today. Because they represent the only published truth of Operation Spectrum. And when you are finished, you will no doubt ask the pressing question: Why did our government do it? In a nutshell, in the middle 1980s Singapore faced a severe recession because of the economic policy named the Second Industrial Revolution by Mr Goh Chok Tong. Wages went down and factory hours increased. Putting the twenty-two in jail was their way to silence the dissent, the suffering. But if you think that the repression of those years has departed the scene, you are wrong. It has only replaced the mask that it wears.

This morning we read how Jolovan Wham, one of our most respected civil society activists, twice awarded for his work – and also a social worker – was told by a large multinational on Thursday that he must not speak at these proceedings; that to do so would jeopardise his standing among donor organisations.

In 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the distinguished – probably the greatest – Nigerian writer, was hanged on trumped-up charges because he opposed the degradation of the Ogoni Delta by the Shell corporation. In Singapore almost 20 years later, a multinational corporation presumes to tell a Singapore citizen what he may or may not say; and when. Mr Wham will not be hanged, we hope. But silence is still silence, whether it is achieved by threats and bullying or at the end of a rope. And when you become silent about injustice, you start to die inside. To his credit, Mr Wham has not become silent.

Silence, achieved through a complicit media, allowed our government to achieve Operation Spectrum; only silence.

Today, if you keep the silence, if you pretend that old women do not work as cleaners; that old men do not collect tin cans to stay alive; that jobs are not being lost to those who would accept starvation wages; that workers are not still deprived of their rights; that people don’t commit suicide to avoid hospital costs, that one in ten of our people doesn’t suffer a mental illness, and if you console yourself that all you need is a high GDP; rising house prices; bars, nightclubs and fast cars; covered walkways, and estate upgrading, and that our rights are a price worth paying, you have begun to die inside.


More report and videos of event at: That We May Dream Again

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