Call made to abolish ISA, for truth commission over detentions

“I call for the ISA (Internal Security Act) to be abolished. The ISA and its predecessors have destroyed many lives from the time of the British to today,” said Teo Soh Lung at the launch of her book Beyond the Blue Gate, on Saturday 26 June 2010.

“[We feel] like rape victims,” was how she described her own and her fellow detainees’ traumatising experiences. “Some still cannot speak about their experiences to families and friends.”

Teo and 15 others were brusquely arrested on the night of 21/22 May 1987 under the Internal Security Act. After succumbing to lengthy interrogations in cold rooms and agreeing to participate in a show confession on television, she was released in September. However, on 18 April 1988, she and some others issued a joint statement categorically denying the government’s accusations that they had been “Marxist conspirators”, and for their trouble were promptly rearrested the following day. She would be held without trial for more than two years to June 1990.

Today, none of the people I have met and who have taken an interest in those events believe the government’s claim that the detainees were part of a Marxist plot to subvert the constitutional order. Instead, we see those claims as trumped-up charges against people the government disliked. But how and why a paranoid virus got into the heads of then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his cabinet colleagues (which included current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong) leading them to mount another round of stalinist-style arrests and show confessions — this had been the pattern since Operation Cold Store in 1963 — remain unanswered questions.

It is this lack of closure that prolongs the injury to the 24 persons who suffered in 1987/8, and which led to playwright Alfian Sa’at calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the book launch.

* * * * *

Beyond the Blue Gate – Recollections of a Political Prisoner was twenty years in the making. This nearly 400-page personal account by Teo of her experiences makes captivating reading, detailing as she does the night of her initial arrest, the interrogations she was subjected to, and the legal challenges she mounted. Throughout, she describes with honesty her own thoughts and fears, including her attempt at empathy with her interrogators.

Yet, it is also about more than her alone. At critical points, she puts her own arrest and detention into context with references to previous rounds of ISA swoops, and a discussion of the “desperate and shameful” amendments made to the ISA in January 1989, removing judicial oversight from decisions of the executive. The latter was almost surely prompted by the success of a Habeas Corpus application a number of detainees mounted in mid 1988. Under judicial order, Teo and others were released on 8 December 1988, only to be rearrested within the hour — her third time.

Here was a victim who fervently believed in the integrity of the law to provide justice, with a government riding roughshod over it.

Meanwhile, the politics of disappointment continued outside the azure gate of the detention centre. A general election was called for 3 September 1988 in which one of the recently-released detainees, former Solicitor-general Francis Seow, stood with  opposition stalwart Lee Siew Choh and Mohamed Khalit bin Md Baboo in Eunos Group Representation Constituency under the Workers’ Party banner.  They came within a whisker of winning, with 49.1 percent of the vote. The Workers’ Party, then led by J B Jeyaretnam, called for the abolition of the ISA. In a remarkable act of pettiness, the government refused to allow Teo to cast a vote.

She began writing of her experiences as soon as she was finally released, learning to use a computer in order to do so. The accounts were therefore written while fresh in her memory with a crispness and immediacy not dulled by the passage of time. However, her first draft sat in storage for more than ten years, and understandably so. It is very hard for a person to revisit the trauma again and again which publication and the editing process it entails would require.

But — and it’s a hopeful sign — the times are changing. There is a gradual re-opening of political discourse in Singapore and an increasing boldness of people who would say openly today that they never believed the government’s absurd claims about the so-called Marxist conspiracy, when they might only have said so in hushed tones within ivory towers or in trusted company before. It is possibly this assurance of a receptive public that at last offers a chance for the detainees to speak once again, however painful that process may be, and more importantly, to publish.

In doing so, they are successfully challenging the official narrative, and I daresay when a more objective history of Singapore is written, theirs will be the prevailing account.

Satisfying though that may be, it is not complete. Will we ever get the full story? At the heart of it is the mystery of why Lee Kuan Yew and the government did what they did. I don’t think we’ll ever know until the government archives are opened, and in this connection I would note that in two years’ time, it will be the 25th anniversary of the initial arrests. In democracies that do not suffer authoritarian constipation, the anniversary would mean the opening of official records, especially when there is no reason to believe that the issue (or “threat”, as the government would have us believe) is still alive.

I won’t hold my breath. They haven’t even opened the records for the 1963 Operation Cold Store detentions when the “pro-communist subversion” that that larger group of detainees were accused of had long faded into the sunset.

Even the opening of the archives, unrealistic as that may be, will not be sufficient for a proper healing process. The people who ordered, defended and perpetuated the arrests have to be called to account for their roles. And that’s what  a Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be about. Needless to say, this is even more unrealistic, but nobody should fault Alfian for his idealism.

“Do we have to wait for a death?” he asked rhetorically, a reference that everybody in the room understood. I would hardly blame anyone for saying that death can hardly come a day too soon. So that others may live and speak again.

* * * * *

Beyond the Blue Gate is published by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRDS), No. 11, Lorong 11/4E, 46200 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia. Email: sird at streamyx dot com.  Website:

I don’t know yet which bookshops in Singapore will be stocking the book, but in the meantime, Ethos Books in Paya Lebar ( may be able to help if you are interested in obtaining a copy.

[update: The book is available from Kinokuniya bookshop. Perhaps other places too, but I don’t know.]

25 Responses to “Call made to abolish ISA, for truth commission over detentions”

  1. 1 yuenchungkwong 28 June 2010 at 15:54

    The cause of the “gradual re-opening of political discourse” was internet, a development endorsed by LKY himself: when someone criticized Straits Times at a public forum at which he was a speaker, he replied “why dont you start your own blog?”

    Ms Teo should have followed this advice; her story would have been heard much earlier and received extensive discussion among blog readers – I trust this would happen now.

    • 2 Robox 29 June 2010 at 04:06

      That’s a good idea for Ms Teo to make excerpts of her book available in a blog or some or other form.

  2. 3 Mat Alamak 28 June 2010 at 20:53

    During the British days and early years of independance, the ISA was used against the communists and subversive elements. They were a political and military force to be reckoned with and if ISA and other hard tactics were not used, the communists might even capture power.

    However as the decades went by, communism no longer was a threat, especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union and China moving towards a capitalist system under the late Deng Xiao Peng.

    However, the govt still think ISA is justified, because they said subversion through other forms, whether real or imagined, still exist.

    But since the 90s, it has been rarely, if at all used, against political opponents. They prefer suing them to bankrupty rather than detaining them. Or creating new electoral systems like GRCs to make contesting elections more difficult for the already weak opposition. It was only used, for reported cases, against Muslim extremists and also as a warning first to those inciting racial and religious hatred and disharmony.

    So in a sense the govt thinks ISA is still needed, not so much for political purposes but for peace and security.

  3. 4 Joe 28 June 2010 at 21:02

    On your point about whether you will get a full story, particularly Lee Kuan Yew administration’s (in that era) motivation, I seriously doubt it would happen, even if the record was opened.

    Firstly, many of the actors in that administration are long gone and unlike the UK or the US, many have not penned their thoughts. Look at Goh Keng Swee, he has left not memoirs.

    Secondly, unlike their US or UK counterparts, Singapore officials, apart from Lee himself, are not known to be candid in their views.

    Thirdly, as for official records, well I would be surprised if any were kept systematically, particularly for an organisation like ISA. I suspect much of it have already been destroyed.

  4. 5 lee sg 29 June 2010 at 23:31

    In 1987, before the collapse of the soviet union and the 64 tiananmen incident, why is it ridiculous that a group of Singaporeans will be interested in Marxism?

    If the book by Teo Soh Lung is mostly about the detention and her legal challenges , then it will shed no light on whether she seek to promote Marxism or assosciate with people who do.

    If Teo soh lung or Vincent Cheng has condemned Marxism before it is consigned to the dustbin of histoey, then their story will be more credible.

    Was there a book store by the name of “liau yuan’ which means the embers of a fire can light up a whole praire (passage from Mao’s sayings)?

  5. 6 yawningbread 30 June 2010 at 00:11

    lee sg –

    Let me point you to a slim book published 2009 by Ethos Books. It’s called ‘That we may dream again’. In it Vincent Cheng gives a concise, but quite detailed account of what they were about.

    I would also say this: get to know these persons like Vincent and Soh Lung; talk to them, ask them, if you will, to explain what they did and what motivated them. Don’t just sit at a computer terminal and speculate based on whether the truth ought to have been this or ought to have been that. The sources of first-hand information are right here with us today.

  6. 7 yuenchungkwong 30 June 2010 at 00:32

    the detentions were followed by various signiificant events:

    1. contact between Francis Seow, Patrick Seong and US diploma Hendrickson leading to the arrest of the former two and expulsion of the latter, followed by Seow’s exile to Harvard

    2. Francis Seow standing for election in Eunos GRC 1988, his son Ashleigh in Ulu Pandan in 1991 and in Marine Parade 1992

    3. SDP unseating See Ai Mee in 1991

    4. Various events relating to Chee Soon Juan

    while these events are also contraversial, the activities of the various participants are more transparent and they produce better public spectacles; in contrast, neither side in the “marxist plot” event have provided a full, even if onesided, story; this makes meantnigful discussion rather difficult

    • 8 yawningbread 30 June 2010 at 01:18

      It is true that for more than a decade after their release, the detainees did not provide their side of the story. I suspect there are three reasons:

      1. As Teo Soh Lung herself said, the wounds were very raw (felt like rape) and it was extremely painful to do so.

      2. They were under restriction orders as a condition of their release. They couldn’t speak publicly.

      3. Pre-internet, there was no media platform, since our mainstream media… well, you know. The fear instilled by those then-recent events also meant that book publishers would shy away.

      But… they are speaking out now. So people, please take the trouble to listen.

  7. 10 Pritam Singh 30 June 2010 at 11:30

    Thanks for penning this post Alex. I picked my copy up from Kinokuniya yesterday. $37.45. The stack was half sold by the time I got mine. I am glad there is interest in the book. And I certainly hope more people read it.

    The idea about creating a blog with excerpts may be an interesting one. Or a website that covers the issue in detail and puts out the stories of the detainees and the principles / values they represented. This could be one model to consider, ,although it would only be appropriate to ask brave people like Teo and her compatriots for permission.

    I doubt the political leadership is going to agree to open their archives anytime soon, although I hope they do. That said, I support Alfian’s call for a Truth Commission, idealistic though it may be. A journey of a thousand steps begins with the first. And the first is often the hardest.

  8. 11 yuenchungkwong 30 June 2010 at 13:30

    some bits of what I remember from 20 years ago

    I have no idea how large/well organized this “marxist group” was, but it had -some- connection to Catholic Church groups, Law Society and, as the case of Francis Seow/Patrick Seong showed, US embassy; in well controlled Singapore this looked very threatening,(you have to remember things were different then; SDP was a rising organization then; even a few years later, IHT would still publish an NUS professor’s article discussing “intolerant regimes” using “compliant judiciary” that resulted in his conviction for contemp of court) and the government took action on multiple fronts: on the Catholic Church side, by getting Archbishop Yong to publicly state that he did not think Singapore government was hostile to his church; on the Law Society side, reducing its influence by setting up alternative organizations like Academy of Law; on the embassy side, by the expulsion of Hendrickson

    yet, the detainees were mostly college educated women with almost no experience of the urban jungle; they are hardly in the same category as dedicated marxists Chia Tye Poh; to apply the same inquisitorial processes on them did not put ISD in a very heroic light; as one commentaor in Singabloodypore put it (unfortunately I can no longer find the posting in history repeating itself as farce

  9. 12 Teo Soh Lung 1 July 2010 at 14:29

    Thank you all for suggesting that I put extracts of my book in a blog. I apologise for being slow in such matters. Yes, my friends are helping in this regard and you will soon find some extracts in If you have questions, I will try and answer them too.

    Thank you Alex for explaining our silence. Russell raised the question at the launch but none of us explained. For me, it was because I forgot the question!

    I had restriction orders for 4 years I think. But it wasn’t solely because of those restrictions that I didn’t speak. No one asked. I also had to earn a living. All those law suits had cleared out the little money I had in my bank account and I was in debt! So I had to my work real hard. I had to start my law firm from scratch.

    I stayed out of everything, including the law society because I knew that everything I did would not be viewed kindly by the authority.

    The internet certainly helped to open up things. Many reasons, including the repeated requests by young people that I should tell my story did finally push me to early retirement and to the publication of this book.

    Finally, many have passed on and it is only fair that the main players have the opportunity to rebut what I write in the book.

  10. 13 Isrizal 2 July 2010 at 19:46

    Dear All,

    Here are the contacts for you to get a copy/copies of Beyond The Blue Gate.

    The book is available from the following:
    a) Contact Rizal – cell phone: 91460944 or email:
    b) Online purchase: Ethos Books Online
    c) Bookstores: Kinokuniya (Takashimaya, Ngee Ann City), Select Books (Tanglin Shopping Centre)
    d) At Pagesetters Services Pte Ltd, 65 Ubi Crescent, #06-04 Hola Centre, Singapore 408559


  11. 14 George 3 July 2010 at 20:48

    If not mistaken, some Filipinos priests or Filipino ideas were also in the picture/reported. The phrase ‘liberation…’ something was mentioned. Can’t really remember the details. Can somebody, do a check of the Straits Times archives? There was also at least one article on it at that time in a Christian magazine (Impact?). Can someone verify. I don’t expect So Lung or Vincent to recall these
    since they and the rest were already detained by then. Was it entirely part of a one-sided govt propaganda blitz then to justify its action against the group?

  12. 15 Loh K L 10 July 2010 at 00:13

    Dear Ms Teo,

    The book arrived at my home this afternoon. I’ve only read 3 chapters but already my heart bleeds for you. I know it isn’t my fault but I feel a sense of guilt. Guilt in that I was one of those who believed the government’s version of what happened to you and your friends in 1987. Guilt in that I might have done something to help you (I could have written a letter of protest to the Straits Times or highlight your plight to everyone I know) but I did nothing.

    I don’t know what to say now other than to wish you well. May you live long and prosper.

    • 16 Robox 10 July 2010 at 05:55

      This is so odd. When this story was first posted, I couldn’t help realizing – but not understanding it at all – that I feel so much guilt for what happened then and how powerless I was then.

    • 17 teo soh lung 16 July 2010 at 12:36

      Not to worry. The Straits Times was too powerful in those days without the internet. I am very well. As for living long, well even if I have to leave this world now, it is fine. Enjoy the book!

  13. 18 Hong Lysa 14 July 2010 at 10:40

    Men in White: the untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party recites the official reasons for the 1987 arrests. (pp 436-440)

    HOWEVER, on pages 467-8 it has this to say:

    S Dhanabalan left (Cabinet) in September 1992. His reasons for quitting ,as he put it some 12 years later, was one of conviction. ‘My philosophy is one where I need to have complete conviction about some key policies and if I have differences, it doesn’t mean that I’m against the group.I still want to make sure the group succeeds, but I have to try and live with myself if I have some disagreements on some things,” he said. He had different views on some government policies and although ‘they were not so sharp that I wanted to leave immediately…I could see for myself it could pose problems in the future for the group and me’.
    Goh (Chok Tong, then prime minister) did not wish to go into specifics, but in his interviews for this book, he revealed for the first time that Dhanabalan was not comfortable with the way the PAP government had dealt with the Marxist group in 1987. He said, ‘At that time, given the information, he was not fully comfortable with the action that we took…His makeup is that of a very strong Christian so he felt uncomfortable and thought there could be more of such episodes in the future. So he thought since he was uncomfortable, he’d better leave the cabinet. I respected him for his view.’

    CHUA Mui Hoong, writing in Straits Times 22 May 2010 on the making of her book Pioneers Once More: The Singapore Public Service 1959-2009

    This book touches on some public policies which were controversial and which were acknowledged as mistakes. The most obvious is the stop-at-two policy, which encouraged parents to limit the number of children they had. There is scope for a more detailed look at public policy errors in the past, perhaps done in the form of case studies.

    The anti-natalist policy is one such example. Streaming in education is another. The emphasis on bilingualism and the enforcement of over-exacting standards is another – as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself admitted recently.

    Circumstances surrounding the arrest of the so-called ‘Marxist conspirators’ and the aftermath are another instance of public policy which calls out for further study. A case study on Singapore’s experience with the Suzhou Industrial Park would also be instructive.

    Both books are commissioned works, published by STP.
    I wonder if such hints of what almost amounts to a ‘confession’ would have been permitted if Soh Lung’s book had come out before them.

  14. 19 yuenchungkwong 14 July 2010 at 13:05

    danabalan’s resignation occurred 5 years after the arrests; it is hard to credit one as the cause of the other, though he could have harboured reservations about the incident

    GCT, shortly before he handed over to LHL, mentioned a widespread but incorrect story that Dana was “slapped” during a cabinet meeting; certain events led to this rumour, and it is far more likely that his resignation was connected to that

    • 20 Robox 15 July 2010 at 01:42

      yuenchungkwong, you said: “GCT…mentioned a widespread but incorrect story that Dana was “slapped” during a cabinet meeting.”

      Acooording to very insider source that I have personally known, someone I do trust to both know and not embellish any news, the slapping did occur.

      • 21 yuenchungkwong 15 July 2010 at 06:22

        as a matter of interest, I heard an alternative version that sounds more creditable but prefer not to spread it here;

        in any case, the official position was the slapping story was widely circulated but incorrect; the interesting thing is why GCT chose to mention it in pubic

    • 22 Robox 15 July 2010 at 07:24

      Well, we’ll never know, will we, given the level of truth that we already know the PAP government to be not fortcoming with because they prioritize facesaving over fact.

      I trust my source, and I don’t care for any official version of what is being claimed as the truth by the same official sources who have a vested interest in delivering only their version of the truth.

  15. 23 Teo Soh Lung 14 July 2010 at 17:10

    It is hard for me to believe that S Dhanabalan did not believe in the “marxist conspiracy”. As minister for foreign affairs then, he was one of the 18 PAP members who spoke in parliament on 29 July 1987 justifying the arrests.

  16. 24 MrT 15 July 2010 at 19:08

    I suppose it’s about HOW Dhana spoke about the so-called “marxist conspiracy”. Maybe if we have a video of his 1987 speech – unlikely as it may to be found – we can get clues as to what really were his deep-seated beliefs? Could it be he’s also “forced” to recite out what he knew to be lies or half-truths?

    Not that I wanna defend him, but just stating another point of view?

  17. 25 True Freedom 19 July 2010 at 00:09

    I was still living in Spore at the time of the ridiculous arrests. Most people were shocked and worried for the detainees even from overseas. I attended the church gathering for the detainees, it was always packed out completely and you could see LKY’s cronies taking down all the car registration numbers. Hilarious. I suppose it was to use against us not getting a flat, etc. Well, that’s an insecure petty regime for you! And as for Gregory Yong, I hope you’re proud of yourself.

    The fact that so many copies of Soh Lung’s book were grabbed from the book stands shows how hungry Singaporeans are for the truth.

    As for lee sg, go do your research before explosing such ignorance. No excuse, the material is available for you to consult. I feel sorry for you. Are you aware that no evidence or hardware/ammunition was ever found with the detainees despite being accused of planning to overthrow by force – just the 22 of them against the whole regime? They were never charged or convicted? Does that tell you anything? All because they wanted to help the oppressed! Is that Marxism? Go do your research about Tianamen as well, doesn’t sound like you know what that was about either.

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