We are all marxists

This month marks the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, a series of arrests and detentions of over 20 persons accused of being part of a “Marxist Conspiracy”. It is one of the most disgraceful episodes in Singapore’s history – an abuse of power, a mockery of the rule of law, and a trampling of truth. Not a single one of those arrested was given a fair and open trial; all were detained under the infamous Internal Security Act for varying lengths of time. 

Survivors will be marking this anniversary on Saturday, 19 May 2012, at Hong Lim Park, with additional events in the months to follow.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Operation Coldstore, an earlier wave of detentions, also without trial, carried out in 1963.

Since the People’s Action Party (PAP) came to power in 1959, a total of 2,460 persons had suffered detention without trial. This was revealed when the government was forced to respond to a parliamentary question last November.

On 21 November 2011, non-constituency member of parliament Lina Chiam asked Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean

whether he will provide a breakdown of arrests and detentions made under the Internal Security Act from 1959 to 1990, according to the type of offence and the names of the detainees.

Teo replied:

From 1959 to 1990, a total of 2,460 arrests were made, of which 1,045 persons were detained under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (1959-1963) and Internal Security Act (1963-1990).The reasons for arresting these persons and/or detaining them include involvement in the Communist Party of Malaya and communist-related activities to overthrow the Government; racial and religious extremism; Indonesian Confrontation; foreign subversion and espionage; and terrorism. Many of these individuals and their families have put the past behind them and carried on with their lives over the past several decades. The Government will not be further releasing the specific identities of the persons arrested and detained under the PPSO and ISA.

– Hansard, 21 November 2011

Many ex-detainees are now abroad. They are Singapore’s political exiles.

* * * * *

The 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy” charge was particularly ridiculous. This is because what that mostly Catholic group was doing then was to help low-wage foreign workers understand their rights under employment law, and thereby get a fairer deal. That was a time when Catholics around the world began to see how much suffering in the world was due to institutional structures that trapped the disadvantaged. Doing charity, feeding people, was not enough. Empowering people and speaking up for institutional change was what was needed for real and lasting progress. But to our government, the prospect that workers might want to assert their rights was considered shockingly seditious, and those persons aiding workers in standing up  to fat cat capitalist employers must surely be marxist enemies of the state.

If they were marxist, then we are all marxists.

The 1987 arrests resonate especially with me because by volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too today, I am doing the same thing. The fact that the problem of ill-treated workers is still with us 25 years on, and in terms of numbers, multiplied ten thousand-fold, tells us how much such work is needed. It also suggests to us why the PAP continues to deny their 1987 wrongdoing. The labour policies that they chose to defend through detention without trial are still the policies today.

* * * * *

This is not an anniversary for 2,460 people. It is a sombre anniversary for all Singaporeans, because the shadow of the Internal Security Act envelopes everyone. As a society we have been impoverished by it. As individuals we have been cowed and castrated.

The average Singaporean has internalised a fear of speaking up and acting politically. There is no better demonstration of this than when we see how, unlike most other countries around the world, the “right” to remain anonymous on the internet is a very big deal here. The reason is obvious:  people have things to say, but are afraid to say them.

Coming out into the open with our opinions is done with great trepidation. Joining civil society groups is considered a risky move, when elsewhere  it is considered routine and a mark of good citizenship. Our friends and families appoint themselves as our “wiser” counsel, suggesting pointedly to us that we would risk our careers and livelihood if we stuck our necks out.

We are nation of mice.

Some among us have so brainwashed themselves, they become apologists. There are enough avenues for dissent, they say, why go outside the prescribed boundaries?  Why demonstrate on the streets?  Why get personal in attacking government leaders? Why the desire to join associations when there are so many channels for feedback? Why break the law?

They don’t realise that many laws in Singapore are designed to box us in. The Internal Security Act is just the most indefensible of them. They don’t realise that personal interests of government leaders inform their public policies. They don’t realise that using government channels for feedback is to concede away the right to set our own agenda.

But you have the vote every five years; isn’t that enough?

No it isn’t. Because five years is a long time and much vitality can drain away in that period. All sound and fury, yet letting up after an election season is a surefire way to get no change. Like long-entrenched governments everywhere, ours is highly prone to want to preserve the status quo. Change requires outside forces pushing them. Speaking up under anonymity is not good enough. What is needed is coming together publicly and organising, and maintaining pressure on them for years and years until we get change.

This is currently more hope than reality. And we are this way because of the psycho-social legacy of the Internal Security Act and our collective memory of arrests such as those made in 1987.

* * * * *

Two important events are coming up to mark this anniversary.

Ex-detainees will be at Hong Lim Park on Saturday, 19 May 2012. Details are available from their blogsite (remembering1987.wordpress.com, imaged below). Click the appropriate tab on the menu bar.

The day after, 20 May 2012, there will be a re-enactment of a momentous 29 July 1987 parliamentary sitting in which then-member of parliament Chiam See Tong moved a call “upon the Government to release immediately the 15 persons detained under the Internal Security Act for allegedly being involved in a Marxist plot to destabilise the Government”. He was then the sole opposition member in the chamber, and he stoutly criticised the government for detaining them.

Click on the banner at right for a larger image.

In his opening remarks, Chiam said:

In any event, they are all young people, aged 22 to 40 years, mostly in their 20s and the majority of them, I believe, are females. Some of them are professional people, two lawyers, Harvard trained, polytechnic trained. . . . I would say that there is no reason, no valid reason at all, why they should be detained for another day. They should be released immediately. They are really no threat to our national security.

– Hansard, 29 July 1987.

This is not history.  This is unfinished business. This is the incubus that paralyses us, raping our dignity as citizens.

31 Responses to “We are all marxists”


  1. 1 harishpillay 11 May 2012 at 23:40

    Thanks for the post, Alex. It is indeed the most shameful time in our history. And yet the perpetrators are still in power and continue their craft. Nation of mice, indeed.

  2. 2 Kay 12 May 2012 at 01:07

    Another great article, Alex. I hope it will be read by many

  3. 3 octopi 12 May 2012 at 01:13

    There are basically 2 separate issues. First, should we always remember this? Yes. We should always remember what could happen when our civil liberties are taken away from us. The government should always remember that it has commited a grievous error in the past. We should always hold them to account and make sure that something like this will never happen again.

    Second, should we fear the government or expect that there is going to be a repeat of this? Now I have been branded naive in the past about certain statements I made. I’ll say this: there should not be fear. People have to unlearn the fear. The lesson is not that the government is always ready to lock up its citizens and hold them in detention without trial. There will be no operation spectrum in the next 20 years. The lesson is that we all have to make our voices heard – without the fear. The other big lesson is that operation spectrum is in the DISTANT past.

    Are they always unwilling to listen to us? I think not. It is possible to have a discussion with them that can help shape public policy that does not involve a shouting match, because shouting matches never get things done. Never start a shouting match before talking to them gently. Never talk to them in public if you can talk to them in private first.

    Will you get what you want in a truly democratic society? Never. It will never happen, nobody ever gets everything he wants in a democratic society. Democracy is all about compromise – and I hope that Singaporeans don’t forget that.

    • 4 Poker Player 12 May 2012 at 15:08

      “Never talk to them in public if you can talk to them in private first.”

      The 2011 elections and it’s aftermath are what happens when we get rid of the mentality exemplified by that sentence of yours.

      Glad the South Koreans, Taiwanese … even Hongkongers under communist dictators (ask them how they got their govt to abandon their GST plans) are nowhere near as servile as the sentiment expressed in that sentence.

    • 5 Name not revealed - hey, almost everyone here is doing it ;) 12 May 2012 at 16:54

      “Now I have been branded naive in the past about certain statements I made. I’ll say this: there should not be fear. People have to unlearn the fear.”

      For this sort of thing I defer to people like YB whose identities are known.

    • 6 slychiu 17 May 2012 at 21:49

      ” should we fear the government or expect that there is going to be a repeat of this? Now I have been branded naive in the past about certain statements I made. I’ll say this: there should not be fear. People have to unlearn the fear. The lesson is not that the government is always ready to lock up its citizens and hold them in detention without trial. There will be no operation spectrum in the next 20 years. ”

      It is indeed naive to think that something that has happened before will never happen again. 25 years ago is not the DISTANT past

  4. 7 ricardo 12 May 2012 at 03:20

    The most telling indictment is Teo, the Dep. Prime Mininister saying in 2011, “Many of these individuals and their families have put the past behind them and carried on with their lives over the past several decades”.

    ie “we torture & imprison you indefinitely without trial but just get on with your lives .. as long as our Multi-million Dignity is intact. Oh! And don’t create too much fuss about poorly paid workers.”

    Indeed, unfinished business.

  5. 8 kungfuzi 12 May 2012 at 04:14

    Thanks for this. For those interested in reading further about the “Conspiracy,” the seminal article is Michael D. Barr’s “Marxists in Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew‘s Campaign against Catholic Social Justice Activists in the 1980s” in the journal Critical Asian Studies (see http://criticalasianstudies.org/issues/vol42/no3/marxists-in-singapore.html). It’s a long but terrific piece of history-cum-investigate journalism. Unfortunately, it may not be available online. Send me an email at kchienw at gmail dot com if you’d like a copy.

  6. 10 yuenchungkwong 12 May 2012 at 06:19

    We are all marxists ? I dont think many people here took an interest in foreign worker rights; in fact, judging by the reaction to the proposal to given maids a day off each week, most people want little foreign worker rights, and would not want to join the kind of worker rights activity you have participated in, today there would be no treatment of worker rights activism as a communism-inspired threat, compared with opposition party support through social media, its scale is insignificant

    • 11 octopi 12 May 2012 at 13:08

      You know, the irony is that their detainment and torture (OK not waterboarding but this is still torture) kinda overshadowed the fact that this was about foreign workers’ rights in the first place. Like we are all so outraged by what happened to these fine young people from the middle class that we forgot that they got into trouble because they were trying to help the underclass.

      It’s like you’re peeling away the layers of an onion to reveal the inner layers of bullshit. So far we have gotten down to the “the government is pulling wool over our eyes” layer of bullshit. But we haven’t gotten down to the inner layer of bullshit: which is that these banglas have as much right as we do to say that we built this city.

  7. 12 fairplay 12 May 2012 at 10:02

    Lets make “That We May Dream Again” into an annual affair until the PAP government apologises and make suitable atonements to those unjustly detained for political reasons.

  8. 13 SN 12 May 2012 at 13:42

    Thank you for the article, Alex.

    I await the day for the Government to apologise to the so-called conspirators. Alas, I fear that only a non-PAP Government has the conscience to do just that.

    Yesterday, Marxists; today, jihadists. If there are legal grounds to prosecute perpetrators of political violence, fueled by religion or otherwise, do it. Don’t hide behind the veil of the ISA. The upshot of all this secrecy is to demonise Singaporean Muslims as a community of lesser Singaporeans.

    Regards.

  9. 14 Lye Khuen Way 12 May 2012 at 15:44

    Yes, we do need to keep the memory alive. Even if the PAP just refused to acknowledge that the Marxist claim sounded hollow, and we can expect no further revealation from this current Govt, there is no reason for reasonable Singaporeans to ask for proper accounting.
    Maybe, we can only re-open the files when a non-PAP dominated Govt is in place. (assumption : these files are not destroyed for National Security reasons!)

  10. 15 Poker Player 12 May 2012 at 16:04

    YB writes:

    “We are nation of mice.”

    And as if to prove his point, an apparently free citizen says:

    ” Never talk to them in public if you can talk to them in private first.”

    • 16 mellkie 15 May 2012 at 06:56

      I think the bearer of that statement should explain clearly what he meant. The statement is not as simplistic as it sounds but let’s give him a chance to explain.

      • 17 octopi 21 May 2012 at 05:14

        Sometimes you get the chance to meet with government officials. Are you going to tell him what you really think about policy? Sometimes you meet senior bureaucrats who are not senior enough to be public figures, but have a little bit of say on things. In fact, those are the people you want to be talking to – 1 or 2 levels below the perm sec. Cabinet ministers – forget it, their bodyguards are too excitable.

        You think that it doesn’t take courage to be frank with them and discuss things with them? Or you can go to your MP in meet the people sessions, why not give it straight to them?

        No politician will ever admit to you that he is wrong in public. A lot of public debates are just circuses. 90% posturing and 10% content. People usually make up their minds in private, and wayang however they want in public after that. If you talk to them in private, they might be willing to share with you why they’re afraid to do what you’re suggesting, and you might actually learn something about why their jobs are difficult.

      • 18 Poker Player 21 May 2012 at 11:11

        Err…OK…but now make the logical connection to:

        “”Never talk to them in public if you can talk to them in private first.””

        and why it doesn’t apply to other countries with governments at least as effective as ours.

      • 19 octopi 22 May 2012 at 10:23

        I brought it up because it’s relevant to the issue. One of the problems raised by the Marxist conspiracy is reconciliation. Now there are a lot of people out there who think that the PAP is the enemy. I don’t think so. At the most they are political opponents. And even if they are opponents, they’re also the government, they run things, make laws, provide services. Everything you do, be mindful of what sort of relationship you’re having with them.

        Contrary to what the PAP tells us, it is not democracy that produces deadlock. It is the way that relationships between political opponents have been poisoned. See what happens in the US. 1 generation ago, Republicans and Democrats could sit down together to work things out. Now, every election will elicit the comment “this is the most vicious election I’ve ever seen”.

        A lot of what goes online these days – I don’t want an internet code of conduct, but you can see why people who cherish law and order get upset. A lot of people misunderstand freedom. It doesn’t mean “fuck the PAP”. It doesn’t even mean that you will get your way. All it means is that when you speak, somebody will probably hear you and you won’t go to jail – whether he will listen to you is a totally different matter. So since Singapore is evolving into a real democracy, let’s think for a minute, since we have the luxury of doing this without shooting anybody in the head, what kind of democracy this is going to be.

        So suppose you wanted something from the government, do you actually ask them first, or do you bitch about it on the internet and have a public march first?

        Now, since you asked why the gahment will give up the ISD voluntarily, the PAP has to consider what sort of relationship it has with the opposition. If it loses power, will the ISD be used against PAP members? If it has to share power, will it poison the relationship with the opposition backbenchers? It didn’t really matter when there were only 2 opposition members but it will become more important in time to come, because these are the guys you will be horse trading with.

        And as for “other governments as effective as ours”, which one did you have in mind?

  11. 20 Yap Kim Hao 13 May 2012 at 08:48

    Thanks Alex for the excellent article which serves to remind us of our continuing responsibility. It took 25 years to watch the response of detention then to see now the grudging willingness to listen sometimes to the cries of the oppressed workers for their rights as a human being. How long will they still have to take to redress the wrong and arrest their inhumanity to human workers. The struggle continues…

  12. 21 Anonymous 13 May 2012 at 11:13

    Hi Alex. Although I do not entirely agree with Marxist arrests I still think isa or preventive detention is important in this time of terrorism. Maybe need to change the law. Thanks.

    • 22 octopi 13 May 2012 at 19:43

      I’m going to say something controversial here. We actually have to thank the terrorists for 1 thing. And that is how they have focused the ISD’s attention away from listening to political enemies, to watching out for terrorists. And these days, if the ISD had to patrol the internet for anti- government content, they would have time to do anything.

      Good thing is that Malaysia is willing to conduct for us the great social experiment of removing the ISD. We’ll just see how that one works out.

      In the future, I hope we won’t have to worry that much about terrorism. We have so much other things on our hands – economic insecurity, competition. I think the Arabs have to worry more about how to make their fledgling democracies work rather than how to blow things up.

      • 23 Poker Player 20 May 2012 at 17:21

        “Good thing is that Malaysia is willing to conduct for us the great social experiment of removing the ISD. We’ll just see how that one works out.”

        When a group a people have a specific power – what do you think is their attitude towards it?

        1) I have it now. Why should I give it up?

        OR

        2) Do I really need this power? I want to look for reasons to give it up for the greater good.

    • 24 Lye Khuen Way 13 May 2012 at 20:32

      We do need laws to counter terrorism , but having the ISA & the Temporary Detention Provision Laws are not the way forward. We have 10 years after 2001 and just look at Malaysia for some comparison.
      The risk, is as always tendency to abuse the provisions for other purposes.
      Is the checks sufficient, it is debatable.

    • 25 Anonymous 14 May 2012 at 12:13

      “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

      Benjamin Franklin

  13. 26 swh 14 May 2012 at 22:51

    “Some among us have so brainwashed themselves, they become apologists. There are enough avenues for dissent, they say, why go outside the prescribed boundaries? Why demonstrate on the streets? Why get personal in attacking government leaders? Why the desire to join associations when there are so many channels for feedback? Why break the law? They don’t realise that many laws in Singapore are designed to box us in. ”

    I’m not here especially to sing the praises of the PAP, but everything is about balance. As much as this is a long-muttered statement, the extremes (and excesses) of democracy that paralyses the US constitution today is something we have to avoid. You yourself mentioned already of the inefficiency in response of today’s systems. Do consider how it will worsen if we were to have a big racket over every single thing that happens. A protest march over every conceivable issue to be raised, and everyone knows there are a lot of issues, is not going to solve everything.

    To solve the problems that plague Singapore today, what we need is constructive criticism, active suggestions, incisive feedback. Not the extravagant displays of sound and fury, the rehashing of old issues. The ISA and other policies may still be controversial today, but at some point we must move on to develop as a society.

    • 27 Poker Player 20 May 2012 at 18:15

      Ahem…them mindset behind this comment is exactly why Hongkong has no (regressive) GST.

      And exactly why Hongkong buyers of toxic financial products from DBS got a far better deal from DBS than Singaporean buyers.

      BTW what does the “S” in “DBS” stand for…ahem…what?…wow…coulda fooled me…

  14. 28 Anonymous 15 May 2012 at 14:15

    1) There are 24 dots on the mainland plus one dot on Pulau Tekong – who is the 25th person arrested?

    2) If you divide mainland Singapore by half horizontally, all the “Marxists” are in Southern Singapore. None in the north.

    3) Conclusion – we are NOT all Marxists – only Southern Singaporeans. (Pulau Tekong is an outlier – overseas Marxist).
    ;)

  15. 29 Tan Tai Wei 16 May 2012 at 15:15

    Teo said many of the detained “have put the past behind them and are living their lives”. Is that a plea that the rest of us and government, no matter how unjustly and cruelly treated they were by government, and we all acquiesced and turned the other way not daring even to query, should now also get on with normal business and our lives, and forget the past? And so, too, our criminal law should also ignore past crimes, and let’s all, with past undealt with criminals, get on with our present lives, so long as we and they have long returned to living normal lives seemingly well, and so, why resurrect and bother the past?
    We have often been told to remember our roots. So let’s do so, and set it right should any doubt remains on matters as fundamental to our sense of national worth as justice and humanity, either through vindicating past governance, or do due restitution to victims. Only then can we have a national founding, and a “founding father” to conceive of, and a proper occasion to talk of “love for nation” this national day.

  16. 30 Sgcynic 21 May 2012 at 01:02

    “constructive criticism, active suggestions, incisive feedback”. To deaf frogs?

  17. 31 fairplay 22 May 2012 at 10:33

    We should see what the German people are doing – they never allow their young to forget the cruelties and injustices perpetrated by their earlier NAZI regime. They made iconic monuments at Auschwitz and Dachau and annual remembrances ceremonies. This is the correct way to let future generations NEVER FORGET their history, particularly the odious, atrocious and unjust aspects. So the detention of “MARXIST” conspirators in Singapore must NEVER be swept under our historical carpet but must be aired and constantly aired, even if some future PAP govt make amends. This incident must never be forgotten by future generations lest it be repeated by some future despotic leader.


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