Remember or forget? The 1987 “Marxist conspiracy”

“There are very few human rights which are absolute,” lawyer George Hwang told the audience. “Even the right to life is not absolute.”

“But freedom from torture is one of them; it is one of the few rights that is absolute.”

He said this to explain that those detained without trial in 1987 and 1998 under the Internal Security Act (ISA) could have sued the government.

Some of those detained have, in the years since their release, that they were inhumanely treated while in detention. Tang Lay Lee and others have written about being physically assaulted with body blows. Others have recorded being interrogated in icy-cold rooms dressed in nothing but shorts, when their interrogators had woolen jackets. Or interrogated for long hours without sleep.

Despite allegations of torture surfacing repeatedly, the Singapore government has never denied such treatment.

The Habeas Corpus petitions were unsuccessful. The government also changed the law to remove judicial review of executive decisions taken under the ISA. But this shouldn’t be the end of it. Our lawyers are not creative enough to find ways to sue, said George Hwang. Everybody seemed to have given up when the law was changed to remove judicial review of detention orders. But one could still have sued over torture.

He was speaking at a forum organised by filmmaker Martyn See (see his blog) on the arrests of the “Marxist conspirators”, as the government labelled those they detained. It was held at a hotel last Sunday, 28 June 2009.

People don’t want to talk anymore about these events, but nonetheless this episode has lasting consequences on the Singapore of today, Martyn told the room of about 40 participants. “I want to destigmatise this issue.”

The first of the lasting consequences has been mentioned above — abolishing the power of the courts to review executive decisions, one of the most fundamental principles in the rule of law, for how else do we ensure that government decisions are lawful? The government has in the years since applied the same change to other laws. Censorship decisions applied by the Media Development Authority and confirmed by the minister for example now cannot be challenged in a court of law either. This being the case, how can our courts protect the right to freedom of expression? We have repeatedly raped basic principles of constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

Another lasting consequence of the events in the late 1980s is the emasculation of the Law Society, though this was not a direct result of the ISA arrests, but more the result of the battle of wills between Francis Seow, the then president of the Law Society, and the government. Seow lost, and he was later to be detained under the ISA in 1988 for assisting the earlier batch of detainees.

Traditionally, law societies in democratic countries offer opinion on proposed legislation. But our Legal Profession Act has been amended to restrict that function to only such times as the government deign to ask the opinion of the Law Society.

Section 59(1)(d) says:

(d) to examine and if it thinks fit to report upon current or proposed legislation submitted to it and any other legal matters;

(emphasis in bold made by Yawning Bread).

If the government does not ask, the law society has to shut up.

Here is another area where I too think Singapore lawyers (there are exceptions of course) tend to be an underwhelming bunch. Nothing should have stopped them from forming another organisation to critique proposed and existing legislation. If the Law Society can’t do it, form another. Yet, it is not done. The gag is accepted.

For example, does any reader recall lawyers coming together to comment on the recent amendment to the Films Act re political films? Or to the recently passed Public Order Act that redefines public assembly to be a group of one person, giving powers to police to chase him away, and stopping others from filming and photographing the actions of police?

There should have been vibrant debate, if not uproar, but there wasn’t. Why this timid abandonment by our legal profession of their responsibility to the civic space? Is it a sign of how demoralised and scared our lawyers are, after the “edifying” experience of Francis Seow being detained in 1988?

* * * * *

Why were the 24 persons arrested between May 1987 and May 1988? The common denominator for nearly all those arrested was that they were trying to help low-paid factory workers and other underprivileged. They were Roman Catholics, and moved to manifest their faith by social action.

As Vincent Cheng, one of those detained, wrote:

What is justice and how do you bring it about? Was Jesus bothered about justice? Why are some churches more interested in charity than in justice?


The old theological understanding of justice as commutative justice – that is, the kind of justice that deals with how individuals relate to one another – clouds the newer understanding of justice as a Kingdom value that is fundamental to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Individual justice has to be understood as part of the larger whole of social justice, not the other way round. Thus, justice is to be understood primarily as being concerned with how society is organised, Working for justice means working to build a society that is intrinsically just. The World Council of Churches summed it up best: “What the world needs is a just, participative, and sustainable society.”

— Vincent Cheng in That we may dream again, published 2009 by Ethos Books, edited by Fong Hoe Fang,

Cheng, who had trained as a priest, committed himself to working for migrant workers and domestic helpers.

In 1982, the Geyland Catholic Centre needed someone to help coordinate its various functions as a mediation centre fo runaway domestic helpers, an activity centre for young Malaysian workers, a halfway house for ex-prisoners and a counselling centre for troubled people. I took up the job and concentrated on the issues of migrant workers. These foreigners came to develop our economy, many leaving their homes at high personal and financial cost to take up lowly-paid jobs here which were shunned by the locals. They lived in substandard housing conditions and faced various restrictions on their personal and social life.

– ibid.

Tang Lay Lee wrote about her involvement with the Young Christian Workers (YCW) Jurong Centre, 1980 – 1987.

I remember the long bus journeys to Jurong which seemed so remote. So when the YCW asked me to take one of their English classes for factory workers – mostly Malaysian and young females – why did I agree? I felt I wanted to do something practical, I wanted to see for myself what factory workers were like, and I wanted to see Jurong, our largest industrial estate.

— Tang Lay Lee in That we may dream again, published 2009 by Ethos Books, edited by Fong Hoe Fang,

Such was the idealism of youth. Further on, she wrote,

I chatted, cooked, joked and laughed with the workers who came to the Centre for English classes, or games, or just to relax and socialise in the evenings and during weekends. We also had activities like Labour Day celebrations, labour discussions , outings and overseas holidays.


Knowing the law is one things, claiming workers’ rights is an entirely different ball game.


So anyone who thinks that it is easy to “instigate” workers to do what seems to right should have his head examined and his heart replaced. Well, the YCW was not involved involved in instigating workers, which would be disrespectful, dishonest and heartless.


One thing we did together was to organise a modest survey on the effects of the 12-hour shift and publish our findings and recommendations in the Catholic News. Workmen’s compensation was another issue workers were concerned about, so we organised volunteer lawyers to provide legal counselling and representation.

— ibid.

My guess is that most younger readers of Yawning Bread would find all the above to be news to them. Was that all they were doing? And they got detained under the ISA and subsequently tortured, for that?

The horror of such heavy-handedness may be one reason why Singapore’s political conversation in the years since has avoided discussing these arrests. It’s as if we have been so traumatised by these events, we suffer a collective amnesia and mental block.

Our mainstream media, naturally, cannot delve far into it either. The problem is that the injustice is to stark, and official explanation so ridiculous, there is no credible way for journalists with any shred of integrity to revisit this story without poking huge holes in the government’s case.

As my friend Russell Heng pointed out at the forum, by the late 1980s, Marxism was in terminal decline. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, workers in Poland — the same workers that Marxism and communism claimed to champion — were demonstrating under the banner of Solidarnosc against the communist state, while in China, Deng Xiaoping had buried Mao-Tse-tung thought and opened Special Economic Zones for capitalists. Did Lee Kuan Yew really think that labelling Vincent Cheng et al “Marxists” would convince anybody?

In my view, it didn’t. That being the case, how does anyone — journalists, academics, etc — discuss this case without drawing attention to the absurdity, and thus the likelihood of illegal abuse of power, at its very heart? Yet, accusing the government of abuse of power is fraught with risk. Hence, talking about it became a kind of taboo for 22 years since.

* * * * *

The irony is, Martyn See said, non-government organisations today, such as TWC2 and HOME, are doing ten times more than what those early activists did for migrant workers. Indeed, it seems to me that people Like Bridget Lew, Jolovan Wham and Stephanie Chok are far more outspoken than any of those lay Catholics in the 1980s.

Heng, who is active in TWC2, reckoned that many of the younger volunteers would know very little of the 1987 detainees and their work history. Today’s young volunteers go about their work driven by their own idealism.

If that is so, I asked, shouldn’t we let forgetfulness stand? Why recall the details of 1987 and 1988 and scare a new generation away? Why not let the young beat a new path blissfully unaware of the pain suffered by others?

Because those who are unaware of history may end up repeating it? suggested See.

I don’t know if history is programmed to repeat itself. Our government leaders change too, and old instincts to crack down on the slightest attempt by anyone to pursue an agenda not to the government’s liking, may not stay the same. Or am I wrong?

13 Responses to “Remember or forget? The 1987 “Marxist conspiracy””

  1. 1 Dee 2 July 2009 at 09:48

    I’ve always been vaguely aware about some of the abuses committed under ISA but not about the extent of them.

    I also wasn’t aware about most or all of those events listed. Incidentally, I’ve never heard any mention about them: whether among friends, acquaintances or family, on tv or in papers, or even online.

    Btw, does anyone know what webhost uses?

  2. 2 Anil Balchandani 2 July 2009 at 10:05

    I wouldn’t say you’re wrong, but probably incorrect to assume that Martyn See’s exercise is not valuable because of the changing reality we see with TWC2 and other NGOs.

    If unchecked, blatant political abuse of power is bound to repeat itself, almost always in some derivative form or related act.

    The event pushed the boundaries of the right to assemble and associate freely, and served to remind ourselves that the mighty PAP government is not a shining example of best practices it makes itself out to be.

    Thanks for providing your write up on the event.

  3. 3 D 2 July 2009 at 12:48

    We must remind the younger generation that the PAP can and will use such brute force on activists. The fact that the ISD is still monitoring social and political activists is a clear sign. They wouldn’t spend time and effort tracking them for nothing, would they?

    And forget about international intervention when that happens. Even the US or Europe didn’t interfere then (despite releasing statements debunking the entire ‘conspiracy), don’t expect them to interfere now.

    Lastly, don’t be surprised if just like before, many of the current batch of NGOs, activists and politicians run for cover and not help the detained either.

    Reality check.

  4. 4 Robert L 2 July 2009 at 22:29

    Quote: “Did Lee Kuan Yew really think that labeling Vincent Cheng et al “Marxists” would convince anybody?”

    Dear YB, you are so right. This had been the final straw that convinced me that LKY had turn from being a hero to being a monster. I have always seen him as a monster from the years since then.

    Thank you most profoundly for this article. Those shameful events should never be forgotten. It serves to prove that the ISA act should be abolished, that piece of scurrilous legislation is nothing but a tool of a dictatorship.

  5. 5 teo soh lung 3 July 2009 at 01:21

    Interesting and provocative article.

    The criticism that lawyers were not creative enough after the ISA was amended to do away with judicial review is not fair.

    4 detainees (including me) took out habeas corpus proceedings against the government. The Court of Appeal in Chng Suan Tze and 2 Ors released us on a technical ground. Incidentally, my lawyers did not raise this technical ground but the judges thought they were doing me a favour by releasing me as well. The release was just for a few minutes for soon after we were driven out of the prison gate, ISD officers rearrested all of us.

    Being a lawyer then and having great faith in the courts, I filed habeas proceedings once again. Parliament then proceeded to amend the ISA to abolish judicial review. I lost the case in the Court of Appeal. The judgement did not respond to the eloquent submissions on judicial review of Lord Alexander QC who acted for me in the appeal. I would have proceeded to the Privy Council had parliament not removed that avenue.

    On the criticism that detainees could have sued the government for torture but did not, well, I did. Unfortunately, I had to abandon my claim for damages and paid cost in exchange for my release after the Court of Appeal dismissed my appeal. I could have chosen to stay in jail indefinitely though but I did not.

    As for living blissfully by not knowing the past, I guess it is a personal choice.

  6. 7 quantum 3 July 2009 at 21:42

    Ms Teo has exhausted all avenues. No one on earth could or would help her.

  7. 8 yawningbread 5 July 2009 at 10:48

    Teo Soh Lung – I didn’t know you pursued it legally as far as that, and in the forum, no one brought it up or seemed to know either when we discussed this. But it’s good to know that you tried.

    This reminds me of a point myself a number of others made on that day – that this story of the 1987 and 1988 detentions suffers for an insufficiency of detail and of telling.

    We have on the one side, the simplistic story put out by the government, but no information about the inner workings behind its decisions and execution.

    On the other side, except for Francis Seow’s writings, we have a nearly equal paucity of detail about what the alled “marxist conspirators” had been doing prior to arrest, and what happened after. Even the little book published recently contained just sktechy stories form 2 or 3 detainees. Nothing from the rest.

    Both sides seem unwilling to say very much.

    People lose interest when a story appears both emotionally distant and detail-wise, sparse. Yet, it is a real pity because what you guys went through was a searing experience and an important lesson in the civics lesson for all Singaporeans. If we collectively do not undergo a national self-criticism and catharsis over it, we will never move forward as a democracy and in the rule of law.

    Re lawyers, I wasn’t referring to you, but to the law profession in general. We don’t see them rising up like lawyers regularly do in Malaysia over a similar Internal Security Act.

    But thanks for reading and responding. Much appreciated. Singapore needs this public conversation.

    • 9 Robox 5 July 2009 at 11:47

      Hey, YB. I have been hesitating about writing exactly what I’m about to but decided to after this post from you.

      In the absence of accountability from the government on this issue, there can only be speculation about this ignominious event.

      This is my own theory about what might have truly happened.

      1. The people detained were all Catholic social workers.

      2. Catholics are known worldwide for their strong sense of social justice, which the PAP government decided for the sake of political expediency to criminalize as an evil called ‘liberation theology’ which most Catholics in Singapore had not even heard of. The detained Catholic social workers could well have been typical of the people who might have found gainful employment in any NGO anywhere in the world that is not antagonistic towards social (and political) justice. Catholic ‘liberation theology’ then was the antithesis of the PAP’s march towards its now entrenched fascism and thus a threat to the PAP.

      3. At the time of the arrests, many Singaporeans I have spoken to had also noted a sudden upsurge of aggressive attempts at Christian proselytizing by Christians of the steeplejacked churches variety.

      4. Also after that period, there has been a burgeoning of social services agencies run by Christians (of the steeplejacked variety), the kind that has been referred to as “Christian charity scams” and that are more about aggressive conversions to Christianity than of any charity work.

      I believe that there is far more to this than meets the eye and you’re right: “If we collectively do not undergo a national self-criticism and catharsis over it, we will never move forward as a democracy and in the rule of law.” and that “Singapore needs this public conversation.”

  8. 10 Dee 5 July 2009 at 15:11

    Just a thought:

    If few or no one speaks up about the injustices delivered to them, then won’t the cycle just keep repeating itself?

    Having read about some of the more recent arrests(PoThePanda, etc.) under the ISA and perhaps other Acts, I think these crackdowns and arrests will likely never stop until there’s more public awareness. And then, I’ve to wonder if there’re more arrests which have never been mentioned or brought to light.

    And thanks, Ms Teo for the reply. 🙂

  9. 11 martynsee 5 July 2009 at 19:01

    Fact checks.

    To alex:

    #1 : I began the forum by going through the chronology of events from 1987 to 1990. Many of these chapters included applications and dismissals of habeas corpus proceedings by detainees.

    To robox:

    #2 : Not all detained were Catholics. And definitely not all were social workers. Others in the group included lawyers, lecturers, theatre practitioners, students, entrepreneurs and even a subtitler for the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.

    What triggered the arrests? Perhaps it was a reaction to the people’s power revolution that toppled Marcos the year before, perhaps it was the fear of sudden surge of professionals helping the Workers’Party, perhaps LKY needed to prove to the 2nd generation leaders that he’s still the boss.. Who knows? Even the ex-detainees can’t figure it out.

    But the public conversation should continue..

  10. 12 Robox 6 July 2009 at 01:55

    Thanks Martyn, for your reply and also for organizing the forum.

    While you have definitely given my memory a jolt with your clarifications, I still remember Catholicism, and particularly liberation theology being singled out for special mention. But yes, the support for the late JB Jeyaratnam’s Workers Party sounds like a plausible explanation; the man after all inspired an entire slew of retaliatory legislation to curb him much like Dr Chee and the SDP have been doing.

  11. 13 teo soh lung 7 July 2009 at 12:44

    yawning bread

    “Both sides seem unwilling to say very much.”

    On 18 April 1988, 9 of us who were released on restrictions the year before, issued a joint press statement disputing the government’s account. (This statement is found in various publications). The next morning, we were all rearrested except for Tang Fong Har who was then in the United Kingdom. She remains an exile to this day.

    “Yet, it is a real pity because what you guys went through was a searing experience and an important lesson in the civics lesson for all Singaporeans. If we collectively do not undergo a national self-criticism and catharsis over it, we will never move forward as a democracy and in the rule of law.”

    Two decades have flown by and we have all grown older and hopefully, more sensible. I don’t know if our government too have matured to accept alternative history and criticisms without retaliation? The myriad of recent legislations targetting individuals are just too frightening for me. It is the same old style. JBJ, Tan Wah Piow, Paul Lim, Francis Seow, Tang Liang Hong, Chee Soon Juan and I suffered the same fate.

    But on the brighter side of things, Singapore belongs to the young and I would like to dream that all of you can make a difference.

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