Lee’s law: How Singapore crushes dissent – excerpts II

June 6, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Below is the second instalment of excerpts from ‘Lee’s Law: How Singapore crushes dissent’ by Chris Lydgate. It is not sold in Singapore.

May 21 2003 marks the 16th anniversary of Operation Spectrum. In 1987, The ISD arrested and detained 22 young professionals for an alleged “Marxist” plot to subvert the government. What went almost unnoticed was a protest staged by JB Jeyeretnam and two other opposition politicians on 30th May at the gates of the Istana. In part two of our excerpts of ‘Lee’s Law : How Singapore crushes dissent’, author Chris Lydgate takes the reader through one of the darkest periods of our history and its resultant legacy of fear.

On the surface, Singapore’s political situation appeared utterly inert. But this tranquility was deceptive. In May and June 1987, Singaporeans witnessed one of the most bizarre political episodes in the island’s history: under the provisions of the Internal Security Act, security officers arrested 22 young professionals – including two key members of the Workers’ Party – for their alleged involvement in a “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the government.

More than a decade later, the case of the Marxist conspirators remains a puzzle. The detainees themselves did not fit the stereotype of the “agitators” whose activities were so troublesome to the PAP in the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by the success of communist insurrection in China and Vietnam, the old guard leftists tended to be hot-headed, populist orators. The detainees, by contrast, consisted primarily of educated professionals. Indeed, the man accused of masterminding the plot was Vincent Cheng, a 40 year-old social worker for the Roman Catholic church, who had once studied to be a priest. Another prominent target was lawyer Teo Soh Lung, a Workers’ Party supporter who had tangled with prime minister Lee during parliamentary hearings on the Law Society in 1986. Other detainees included social workers, lawyers and actors.

On 26 May, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a statement denouncing the group as a Marxist conspiracy whose ultimate mastermind was Tan Wah Piow, a student radical who had spent a year in prison in the early 1970s for the crime of “inciting workers to riot.” At the time of the arrests, Tan was reading law at Oxford University, where he dismissed the charges against him as “nonsense.”

The thrust of the government’s claim was that the conspirators had subverted seemingly innocuous institutions such as the Geylang Catholic Church for Foreign Workers and were turning them into pressure groups, with the eventual aim of making Singapore a classless society. The dramatists involved with the Third Stage were accused of “arousing disaffection with the existing social and political system” with plays such as Esperanza, which dramatised the difficult life of Filipino maids working for affluent Singaporeans.

Jeyeretnem was outraged by the arrests:

“Their crime is that they were following what their social conscience dictated – to do something for the less fortunate and privileged members of society by drawing attention to their lot and condition. In the eyes of the PAP government it is a crime to care for the poor and the less privilege in the society if that caring takes the form of awakening the conscience of the people.”

But what could he do? He had lost his seat in parliament and, stripped of his law licence, he could not represent the detainees in court.

Nonetheless, Jeyeretnam felt so strongly about the detentions that he took an extraordinary risk. Just after dawn on 30 May, he met with Wong Hong Toy and Jufrie Mahmood at the Holiday Inn for a daring mission: a political demonstration.

By the late 1980s, demonstrations were practically unheard of in Singapore. The nation’s strict laws prevented gatherings of more than three people without a licence. By keeping their number small, however, Jeyeretnam skirted the edge of the law. Carrying a banner reading “Justice Not Terrorism,” the three men marched down Cavenagh Road to the Istana.

Formerly known as Government House, the Istana was once the domain of the British governors who ruled the colony. Now it housed the office of prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. As the plucky protesters entered the Istana’s grounds, a police officer approached them and demanded that they hand over the banner. Jeyeretnam refused: the sign was wrenched out of his hand. Undeterred, the three men trooped off towards the palace, where a squad of riot police awaited them. By 9.00am, word of the protest had spread to news reporters, who made a beeline for the Istana.

Just before prime minister Lee’s car was due to arrive, a police officer approached Jeyeretnam and asked him to move along. “I wasn’t blocking the path,” Jeyeretnam remembered years later. “So I refuse. Then he said, I’ve got to arrest you. I said, what for? Then he grabbed my elbow and they pushed us into a police car.”

The three men were taken to the Tanglin police station and charged with attempting to hold an assembly without a police permit and obstructing the police. They were released that afternoon. The protest was hardly a mass demonstration. But protests of any kind were so rare in Singapore that it made the front page of the International Herald Tribune.

Within a few weeks of their arrests, most of the detainees had signed statements confessing their revolutionary activities, and an interview with several of them was broadcast on local television. For many Singaporeans, the confessions justified the government’s action. But Jeyeretnam was not convinced. Between the lines of the detainees’ statements, he read the unmistakable imprint of the air-conditioner.

The case of the Marxist conspiracy was to have a tremendous impact on Singapore politics. First, it neutralised 22 educated professionals who opposed the PAP regime. More importantly, it struck fear into the hearts of other potential opponents. After all, if you could be arrested for staging a play about Filipina maids, what would happen if you actually joined the opposition?

What the critics say

A splendid account…Lydgate does an excellent job of exposing the dangers that restrictive libel laws…pose to democratic freedoms…It would be nice to think that Singaporeans could read this foreigners account of their history, and make up their own minds. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, the government will do that for them.
Christopher Kremmer, The Sydney Morning Herald, March 22, 2003.

Lydgate demonstrates that the misuse of democratic power can be as brutal and suppressive as a dictatorship.
Patrick Cullen, Newcastle Herald, March 29, 2003

“Can the concept of democracy be effectively transferred to countries with little experience of its workings? That question has been lurking in the international background since the founding of the United Nations, and may well be driven to the surface by the current terrorist scenario. Dividing the world into good and bad on the basis of countries’ institutions is easy to attempt, but not so easy to achieve. Singapore is a prime example of the difficulty of applying such a test, and Chris Lydgate’s account of how one man was broken by the methods it used shows that governments can silence dissent quite efficiently without attracting outright condemnation This is an important and well-researched book.”
Canberra Times, March 29, 2003