Hundreds turn up at rally against arbitrary detention

“To be very honest,” said Mei, a student aged 23, “I don’t know much about what happened then.” She wasn’t even born when the arrests began in 1987.

“But somehow the whole idea that you can imprison somebody without having to show proof in a court just strikes me as wrong.”

Are you here to lend support, or just to find out more? I asked.

She gave me a look that said, oh, it’s a difficult question, before finally answering, “a bit of both.” And after another pause, decided she could be more categorical. “But the ISA should go, of that I’m sure.”

The ISA is the Internal Security Act, which in different forms over the last 64 years, has been used to detain thousands without trial. The longest detainee was Chia Thye Poh who was held for 23 years, and had his movements severely restricted under the Act for 9 more years, making a total of 32 years. He never got his day in court.

This 2 June 2012 rally was organised by the survivors of the 1987 round of arrests. In that year 22 persons were alleged by the Singapore government to be “Marxist Conspirators”, a charge they have always denied. In 1988, two more persons (their lawyers) were also detained. Below are sketches of the claustrophobic cells they were held in, by Chew Kheng Chuan, one of those detained.

About 400 people were on the field for the rally at any given time. With people coming and going, perhaps 600 spent at least some time at the event. Considering that this was not a bread-and-butter issue, and that any call to abolish the ISA would be viewed with great suspicion by the government, it was a respectable turnout. It is the repeated use of the ISA itself over the last few decades against political and civil society dissenters that has created a widespread climate of fear; the typical Singaporean still considers it highly dangerous to be visible while voicing opposition to the government’s policies and actions.

In the image below (click image for a larger version), the block of seated people on the right numbered 72 – they were easy to count since they sat relatively still – with about 300 more milling around at the back.

There were people of all ages. Said Wong Souk Yee, one of those detained in 1987, “I am very happy with the crowd I see here.”

Seated on a mat was Catherine, 54, who knows Souk Yee and Teo Soh Lung personally. Like many citizens in their forties and older today who would have lived through those years, “During 1987, I was busy working, and didn’t really follow what was happening,” she explained.  “It’s only recently, with the internet, that we get to know more.”

She was convinced that the ISA should be abolished. “We – all of us – should do something and keep doing it until it is gone, because it involves us. It could be used against any one of us.”

Another on the field was James, 27, who said he came to learn more about the Marxist Conspiracy.

“You hear a lot about this,” he said, “but personally, I hadn’t gone out to find out more. Then I saw the lead-up to this event all over the internet,” and so here he was. “There’s probably a lot more to this thing,” referring to the 1987 arrests, but felt that because “society saw all this as negative”, it was hard to get a true picture of what happened.

“I just want to be more aware. I feel that my generation is quite ignorant about this.”

Did he have a view about the ISA? I asked him.

“The ISA is too draconian,” he felt. Pointing out that we could still have more specific laws targeted at terrorists for example, he said of the ISA: “It’s been abused a lot; this law has been used too broadly. Something must be wrong.”

Meanwhile, on stage, former nominated member of parliament Siew Kum Hong called on the government to “hold a commission of inquiry” to establish the facts and address the “gaping wound”. This is the only way to “begin to come to terms with this dark stain on Singapore’s history,” he told the crowd.

He was followed at the microphone by Vincent Wijeysingha, who declared: “Operation Spectrum was a fiction invented by our government to inoculate us against the idea that poverty and indebtedness were wrong and we should do something about it.” He was referring to the fact that those arrested in 1987 under Operation Spectrum had been working with lowly-paid workers so they were better empowered to bargain for their rights.

“We were lied to,” he said of the government’s allegations that those arrested had been conspiring to overthrow the government. “We will not forgive the government of lying to us.”

Channel NewsAsia sent a camera crew but no reporters, I was told by a reliable source. Clearly the TV station needed footage, but perhaps the story angle was pre-determined by other interests and could be written up without any need to witness events? Perhaps they knew Wijeyshingha’s words were too inconvenient to report?

I caught up with Vincent Cheng (above), one of the 22 arrested in 1987. He was happy to see so many turn up to listen and support the call for the abolition of the Internal Security Act. “I see a lot of young people here; I am very appreciative of that.”

He knows it’s going to be a long campaign, but “this reaching out to the public is a first step. We want to tell our side of the story, the telling of which has always been denied to us.”

As for what the government can and should do, “I hope they will be a little bit more open to the facts,” he said diplomatically. “People want to know more [of what really happened]. So why restrict the information so much?”

Touching on some people saying there’s no need for a commission of inquiry, Cheng argued: “The trauma we suffered was very deep. I myself don’t dare to say I have overcome it; it comes out in various areas of life, e.g. in my relationships with people.

“Having a commission of inquiry is important to heal victims’ trauma.”

In his opinion, the government realises they made a blunder, “but it’s very difficult for them to acknowledge that.” But how might they might bring themselves to be accountable? “Perhaps a new generation of leaders might be willing to look back and acknowledge that it was a blunder and people suffered.”

While personally, he was not looking for compensation, nevertheless it would only be right that the government, on acknowledging their wrongdoing, “should compensate [all those detained]. After all, they’ve taken away a part of our lives. ”

However, he wanted to come back to the crux of the matter. “The real issue is arbitrary detention without trial, without due process. How can society operate that way? It means there’s no rule of law.”

If you’re a Singapore citizen, please sign the petition calling for an independent commission of inquiry: Click here.

Recommended reading: Mightier than the pen: Remembering ISA detentions of writers, by Cherian George in the blog

31 Responses to “Hundreds turn up at rally against arbitrary detention”

  1. 1 mirax 3 June 2012 at 02:00

    I wasn’t there but I signed the petition for the COI. The ISA has been misused and will continue to be misused if it remains on the lawbooks. It is a pity that more Singaporeans are not deeply ashamed of such laws and refuse to challenge it.

  2. 2 wpcztnk 3 June 2012 at 02:56


    can it be Lee Kuan Yew was bankrupt for ideas then?

    was he human then?

    read “No Man is an Island” by Reverend James Minchin who was in the civil service of singapore then.

    or, read “To Catch a Tartar” by francis Seow who was the ex-Attorney General of Singapore then.

    Both books though are banned in Singapore bt readily available in any good libraries overseas or from some good malaysian bookstores.

    “the jolly Hangman” by Sherdarkee(?) on Lee Kuan Yew is also banned in Singapore but provides a good insighht into the mind of Lee Kuan Yew and his cronies.

    • 3 Rajiv Chaudhry 3 June 2012 at 11:48

      “can it be Lee Kuan Yew was bankrupt for ideas then?”

      Well, to add to the many powerful voices that have already spoken on this subject, here is what I said in response to Vincent Wijesingha’s powerful essay “The Ghosts of Whitley Road” here


      “These brave words belie an insecure man …”

      Never a truer word was spoken. A hugely insecure man.

      The whole of Singapore is a reflection of the lifelong insecurity of this one man Lee Kuan Yew, an insecurity now carried on and institutionalised by his successors in the PAP government. The obsession with growing the GDP and the Freudian desire to overtake Malaysia, the country that “threw Singapore out” has become a yoke around the necks of our citizens. It has destroyed not only our quality of life but also the greenery and harmony of our island. It has reduced many of our citizens to mere economic digits and created enormous disparities in our society, as you point out.

      In the last five years of his Prime Ministership, LKY did enormous political damage, unravelling much of the good the first generation leaders did economically. It was during this period that he introduced (rammed through?) the GRCs and the elected Presidency. (He obviously did not have much confidence in his successors in the PAP). It was also during this period that his frenzied imagination saw Marxist plotters in Singapore, despite the fact that the Soviet Union was then just four years away from collapse and Deng’s reforms in China were into their 10th year. Communism was dying in its bastions but LKY saw red in successful, arch-capitalist Singapore.

      Regrettably, LKY’s enormous and compulsive insecurity has been internalised by his son and his cohort, manifest in their continuing to push tired PAP policies well beyond the point of diminishing returns to society. They have thus, ironically, set Singapore on a dangerous, downward spiral, undoing much of the good that was done in the first quarter century of independence.

      LKY will leave a very mixed legacy for posterity to judge him by. Operation Spectrum symbolises everything that is wrong with Singapore. Unlike Japan, which has never apologised for its atrocities during World War II, Singapore must face this demon in its past squarely and come to terms with it, otherwise it will continue to haunt generations to come. If the current PAP leadership had any shred of moral fibre in its makeup, it would open up the matter for a complete re-appraisal. That, of course, is too much to hope for.

      • 4 Poker Player 4 June 2012 at 15:01

        Policies as a manifestation of LKY’s psychological complexes is a thread in the Minchin book. Accounts of childhood and early adulthood that will never make it to the pages of the ST (and which Minchin remarked he was never sued for) alone are worth the price of the book (but I think it could be out of print – not sure).

    • 5 Poker Player 3 June 2012 at 22:42

      I am not sure if “No Man is an Island” is banned – at the time of publication the author merely stated that no book store would sell it. Similar situation with the much more recent “Escape from Paradise”.

      And I don’t think James Minchin was ever in the civil service.

    • 7 Poker Player 3 June 2012 at 22:48

      “can it be Lee Kuan Yew was bankrupt for ideas then?
      was he human then?”

      He was Machiavellian.

  3. 8 ricardo 3 June 2012 at 04:07

    DPM Teo Chee Hean has stated the clear PAP response. We imprisoned & tortured you innocents without trial but, ” … just get on with your lives.” Is this what 60% of the electorate think fair?

    Or perhaps just, ” .. if I don’t criticise the PAP or help the poor & disadvantaged, it can never happen to me.”

    What also saddens me is, there is a buzz on social media that our Lord LKY needs to hang for his sins including use of the ISA for vindictive personal & political ends. Surely this is embracing his venomous ideals.

    For decades In the UK, police NEVER carried firearms. In the wake of terrorist bombings, an innocent man was shot & killed by armed police on the subway. This is perhaps the biggest injury that terrorism has inflicted on British society.

    The aim of the exercise must be to ensure that Detention Without Trial can NEVER be used again by evil men for their own ends.

    Only if the ISA is abolished, along with the laws passed soon after 1987 which allow the government in power to perpetuate such injustice with no checks from anyone including its own judiciary, can Singapore claim to be a just society.

    It’s existence shames all Singaporeans.

  4. 9 Lye Khuen Way 3 June 2012 at 08:08

    Was there but left before the end. Not without signing up first !

  5. 10 Alan Wong 3 June 2012 at 10:07

    The uppermost question is whether the person at the centre of all these detentions has abused his power and whether in that process was totally dishonest with all these accusations ?

    If that person has intentionally lied, it’s only fair that he should be made to answer for it especially when he is still alive, isn’t it ? Are they saying there is no Rule of the Law under our ISA ?

  6. 11 spectrekle 3 June 2012 at 10:21

    Sorry I didn’t turn up for this awesome event of the century. I was busy working for my bread and butter.

  7. 13 ymac 3 June 2012 at 10:37

    @ ricardo
    “For decades In the UK, police NEVER carried firearms. In the wake of terrorist bombings, an innocent man was shot & killed by armed police on the subway.”

  8. 14 anon 3 June 2012 at 11:00

    The first book written on LKY was by ex-Far Eastern Economic Review journalist, T.J.S. George. You will get a real insight into LKY’s character from when he was young and on the way to the UK on board a ship to study law. Some of his cronies dated from that time. It make for compelling reading. Even from young the signs were already there about his self-centred and even selfish character traits. George wrote how LKY would get up before his cabin mates on board the ship and used up all the rationed hot water for himself. When first published it was banned shortly after. For some reasons the ban appeared to have been lifted later as fortuitously I saw several volumes freshly delivered to the original National Library at Stamford Road. But, it may not be available for general loan.

    You would understand why, the FEER has never been a favoured news magazine of the govt up till today.

    The title of the book: Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore.

  9. 15 raintreebranches 3 June 2012 at 11:04

    Reblogged this on Raintree Branches and commented:
    We may have limited power, but still we have the ability to make a stand for the kind of world we want to live in.

  10. 16 mano 3 June 2012 at 11:16

    I know of a teacher who was put in prison at a very young age and was released when he 55years old.He looked frail and lost except for a wife who was loving him inspite of the injustice.

    I don’t like ISA,as it has abused people,and curbed us for thinking and being unique individuals.We were made to silence,and we couldn’t voice our views or opinion for fear of ISD+A and detention.
    Basically its a fear based rule!Control!

  11. 17 cmlee 3 June 2012 at 11:38

    i signed the petition,but i hope that opposition parties do not use this as an opportunity to shame PAP if a commission of inquiry is set up. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity for restorative justice, for the victims to forgive PAP and praise them for their courage in setting up a commission of inquiry (if they do)

  12. 18 Daniel Yap 3 June 2012 at 13:05

    I am generally in favour of abolishing the ISA because it serves no effective purpose for our nation. However, I disagree with the argument that abolishing the ISA will make our system more just. The ISA is a law – blind as lady justice herself. It has been applied unjustly by evil men. The fault is primarily in the man.

    Abolishing the ISA may put a small barrier in front of such an evil man, but I think man is evil enough to pervert the courts and the police to achieve the same ends that were achieved through this application of the ISA. I see no great benefit to human rights that will come through the abolition of the ISA.

    Human rights will benefit when good people doing righteous things are in positions of power.

  13. 19 Tan Tai Wei 3 June 2012 at 14:38

    CNA sent its camera crew but no reporters? Then, was it that they never intended to report the event, but only to record the speeches, just like the police, or some other civil service personnel, must have been used in the past to record those political speeches at election rallies which subsequently became substances of lawsuits? So then, were such deployment of public service personnel proper?

  14. 20 Saycheese 3 June 2012 at 15:50

    Operation Spectrum was to intimidate any potential opposition to the ascent of Lee Hsien Loong, whose sub-committee, together with Lim Boon Heng’s, had just recommended a wage freeze for Singaporean workers. Union members were disgruntled and one union even removed its general secretary, Charles Chong. Here we had the NTUC supporting the wage freeze even though its other sub-committee, under Dr. Wan Soon Bee, did not agree with the wage freeze. The social activists were the sacrificial chickens slaughtered as a warning to the monkeys among the union leaders.

    After Operation Spectrum, the general secretary unceremoniously dumped by it’s members, was elected into parliament on the PAP ticket and remained as a citizens’ representative in parliament to this day.

    • 21 Poker Player 4 June 2012 at 11:29

      The Minchin book (mentioned in a comment above) had a different theory. Just before Operation Spectrum there was another operation but on Malays. Operation Spectrum was to provide a race-neutral cover and/or balance.

  15. 22 Poker Player 3 June 2012 at 23:01

    Notice something? This is no longer sedition but they still take stern action when you bad mouth the judiciary. They consider arbitrary detention obsolete – they have found more modern means of keeping citizens fearful. The SDP and CSJ were the unfortunate test subjects and we provided the unique environment where such methods work.

    • 23 octopi 4 June 2012 at 11:45

      That’s the thing about judges. You can never “prove” that a judge is wrong or biased, unless you can successfully prosecute him for corruption.. His word is literally the law. Although this is not going to save the estab from being voted out by angry people.

      • 24 Poker Player 5 June 2012 at 11:17

        Not always. You want to look up “appeal”.

        And not just “corruption” – any form of misconduct in his capacity as judge. To say “prosecute” is to oversimplify – to remove a judge in a Commonwealth country is very different from criminal prosecution. A concrete example is the Malaysian judicial crisis in the 80’s.

        If you want to make a factual aside like this, at least be accurate.

  16. 25 ricardo 4 June 2012 at 03:53

    I’m also saddened by Ms Bridget Tan instructing Jolovan Wham, her Executive Director of HOME, not to attend.

    If those helping the poor & disadvantaged still fear for their safety, it shows our Lord LKY’s venom is still venomous after 25 yrs.

    Has so little changed? That those helping the poor & disadvantaged are still treated like pariahs … even by their own? It’s not surprising so few are prepared to stand up and be counted.

    I hope at least, Singaporeans will recognise the courage of the 400+ who DID attend in this climate of fear and indifference.

    BTW, Jesus Christ was a political activist helping the poor & disadvantaged. He paid the price. At least the Sanhedrin & Pontius Pilate made a show of operating within the laws.

    Our Lord LKY had no such compunctions and could & did change the Law and Constitution if they got in the way of his personal ends. I think its called totalitarianism or “the PAP is good for you.”

  17. 26 Poker Player 4 June 2012 at 11:54

    “Considering that this was not a bread-and-butter issue”

    All issues of political significance (including this) are bread and butter issues. Some people’s butter depend on their being less bread for others. The detainees were paying too much attention to the “others”.

  18. 27 GoonDoo 4 June 2012 at 12:21

    I’m not trying to condone what the govt did back in 87… but just to add some ‘context’. ‘Liberation Theology’ was gaining momentum in S America and detractors even labelled it as Marxism in a Cassock. See:

    Coincidentally, there was a ‘power struggle’ that occurred in the catholic organizations in NUS just before 1987. There was even an AWARE-like coup that took place between different factions of the Catholic students, some of whom felt that one of the socieities was being ‘hijacked’ by students espousing Liberation Theology. Obviously the govt got wind of these goings on. The then bishop, Gregory Yong was also aware.

    Given the fear that some elements of the Catholic church was being ‘infiltrated’ by ‘Marxists’ – not only in Sg, but elsewhere – the govt probably reacted the way it did.

    It was probably a knee-jerk reaction in classic kiasu fashion that the lives & liberties of those detained were severely impacted by the use of the ISA in that situation.

    The other reason besides acting merely on cicumstantial evidence, besides the possibility it cld have committed a mistake in that knee-jerk reaction in detaining those people under the ISA – the govt has remained very quiet on this incident could also be attributable to what they think as the ‘religious sensitivities’ around it.

    I have my views on this, but i’m not going to expound it until the ISA is abolished.

    • 28 Poker Player 5 June 2012 at 11:41


      So on the one hand we have Liberation Theologians. When detained, legal counsel came from Francis Seow who was himself detained for working for US interests – fans I am sure or Liberation Theology. If you can believe this – you can believe anything.

  19. 29 Tan Tai Wei 4 June 2012 at 15:04

    Did you all watch the forum last night on CNA, where Kishore, former diplomat for LKY and now Dean of LKY School of Policy Studies, asserted that “a political leader needs to be cunning”? Was he having in mind such LKY-style conduct as complained by bloggers here? But Kishore seemed to be confusing two things. It is true that any leader, not only political leader, is often faced with a moral dilemma of having to choose the lesser of two evils. But one must be careful that this truly “hard truth” is not appealed to in order to cover-up cases where no such dilemma is really demonstrable, whether or not the dishonesty is innocently committed or insidioiusly motivated. When such care is not taken, how are we to distinguish LKY-cunningness from, say Sadam Hussein’s?

  20. 31 Anonymous 5 June 2012 at 11:08

    “Goondoo”, though, has hit the nail. Government’s “knee jerk, kiasu reaction” at using ISA is exactly what “abuse of ISA” means. Government’s justification of ISA has been that “the stringency” required for evidence to stand in court would be hard to comply due to such matter as potential witnesses’ fear of reprisals. But, surely, that argument presupposes that ISD indeed has those witnesses, and has doubly satisfied itself internally (precisely because there would be no open hearing and independent defence) that they do establish guilt. So it does not justify detentions based on, say, “mere circumstantial evidence”.

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