“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 Journalism.sg