Comment: Episodes the Singaporean history textbooks forgot

This is what I got from my secondary school days of studying Singapore history: Lee Kuan Yew, when fighting for independence from the British, worked together with the Chinese Communist groups to garner more support and strength.

Together, they inspired and motivated an entire nation into calling for the Britishers to allow Singapore independence, which we ended up getting by merging with Malaya (and we all know how that worked out). And after the PAP came to power, Lee Kuan Yew got rid of them Commies.

It wasn’t very friendly-like and he didn’t get a present from Santa that year, but it was for The Good of Singapore. Isn’t it great with have a guy who is willing to make these tough decisions for the good of the nation, of our grandparents, and ultimately for us?

I once repeated this, with full confidence, to a History major, and was (figuratively) drop-kicked all the way from here to the Lanfang Republic.

Strangely enough, I still remember the day when I first found out about the Internal Security Act, right down to the details. I was on my bed in my room in Wellington, New Zealand. I was wearing my blue fluffy cheapskate dressing gown from Cotton On, the very picture of collegiate sloth.


My laptop was heating up against the duvet, and I was reading in disbelief about Operation Coldstore*, about the people who had been detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA), without the opportunity to present their side of the story in a court of law despite the evidence (which is now widely acknowledged as being pretty unsubstantial).

The day I stopped bragging about my country

Chia Thye Poh and Lim Chin Siong

What was worse, I was soon to find out, was that Operation Coldstore was not the only time this happened in Singapore. 24 years ago today (21 May 1987), Operation Spectrumwas launched. 22 people were arrested and detained without trial from 1987 to 1988, many of them from the Roman Catholic church, and social activists.

They were accused of a Marxist conspiracy, plotting to subvert the PAP government and establishing a Marxist state in Singapore.

The Straits Times printed statements from the Ministry of Home Affairs day after day, imprinting upon the public consciousness that these people were Marxists and dangerous to Singapore. But like the detainees of Operation Coldstore, these people never got to defend themselves in a court of law, and claimed that confessions of guilt had been forced and cajoled out of them**.

Ms Teo Soh Lung, an SDP candidate during the GE 2011, had also been detained as part of Operation Spectrum. She wrote a book about it, entitled Beyond The Blue Gate. This book is available in Singaporean bookstores (I bought my copy from Kinokuniya).

Of course, one can say that these things happened a long time ago, and that every country has moments that it’s not proud of. Anyone can point out shameful episodes of damning human rights violations occurring in pretty much every country in the world, and say, “Look at *insert country here*! So why are you bitching about Singapore?”

But just because another country has human rights violations, doesn’t make it okay for ours to have them. We should always strive to be better, and not to seek out examples of situations/countries/people who are worse off just to make ourselves look shiny.

There has not been a Commission of Inquiry on both Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum, so that Singaporeans can find out what exactly went on and why these people were deemed to be such threats to national security that they had to be detained, and why these people were not allowed to defend themselves in a court of law.

Unless the syllabus has changed, I don’t think Operation Coldstore or Operation Spectrum are taught in schools. I think they should be. They are an important part of Singapore’s history, and Singaporean students need to be aware of them, and to be aware of the implications and human rights and justice issues that come with them.

It’s all part of nurturing a more politically aware and informed society, something we need to have if we really want to progress as a First World nation.

And so today, on the 24th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, I hope that with all the reform and change that is happening within the PAP, with promises of a more inclusive and open political party that listens to the people, we will be able to find out the truth about these episodes of Singapore’s history.

I hope that we will no longer try to pretend that these things never happened, but face them head on, learn from them, and make a commitment to make sure they never happen again.

Abolish the ISA.

* It is interesting to note that one of the men rounded up during Operation Coldstore was Dominic Putucheary. His son, Janil Putucheary, is now a PAP MP in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. Janil Putucheary had this to say about the ISA, “It was something that… happened in the long history that we were told about. It wasn’t something that we lived with or we knew of ourselves.”

** From an article by The Online Citizen published in 2009 – the statement released by 9 of the detainees of Operation Spectrum after they were released, recanting their confessions of being Marxists. The day after this statement was released, they were re-arrested.

We, the undersigned, were detained by the Internal Security Department (ISD) on 21 May and 20 June 1987 and released in stages after the suspension directives and/or restriction orders in June, September and December 1987.

While we had privately always maintained our innocence and kept a rueful and cheerful silence about the unjust treatment we were subjected to, and would have been inclined to keep our silence, the government has repeatedly raised the issue of our arrest and detention and made false and damaging statements about us.

On the one hand, we have been intimidated by implicit and explicit threats against our safety, should we speak up about our arrest and detention; on the other hand, the government and its spokesmen have continued to make bold and untruthful statements regarding the reasons for our arrest and detention and have denied that any of us were subjected to ill-treatment or torture.

We make this statement as principled men and women who will speak the truth and state our position for the record… we do not intend to challenge the government, we do not seek any official response, neither is there any desire to make political capital out of this. Our sole purpose is to clear our names.


We are accused of being involved in an alleged Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore using Communist united front tactics to establish a Marxist state. We categorically deny the government’s accusations: we have never been Marxist conspirators involved in any conspiracy.

We were never clandestine, Communist or a Marxist network and many of us did not even know of one another before the arrests. We were rather community and church workers, legal reformers, amateur dramatists, helpers of the Workers’ Party, professionals and ordinary citizens exercising our constitutional rights to freedom of expression and association in Singapore.

We have never propagated in words or in actions a Communist state for Singapore. Rather we have through open and legitimate organizations and legitimate means advocated more democracy, less elitism, protection of individual freedoms, greater concern for the poor and the less privileged, and respect of freedom in the private lives of citizens.

We hold completely the beliefs expressed by fellow ex-detainee Chew Kheng Chuan in his representation to the ISD advisory board where he stated: “We are believers in an open and democratic policy and in the virtues of an open and accountable government.

We strongly believe that for society to be meaningfully called democratic, interest and action in politics cannot be the sole prerogative of the professional politician. A citizen of a democracy, to be worthy of that society, has not just the right but indeed the duty to participate in the political life of his or her society. It is a grave danger to democracy to suggest that for one to comment on political and social issues or to hold differing political opinions, one should go and form a political party.”

We believe that, as in the case of an individual citizen, so too has an organization the same legitimate role to play in a democratic country. It seems to us that we were arrested and detained for the legitimate exercise of our rights as citizens, through registered and open organizations. We did not infiltrate these organizations but joined them as members, volunteers and full-time workers. Neither did we use these organizations as forums to propagate subversive activities.

All acitivities carried out by these organizations are legitimate, open and approved by elected executive committees whose members clearly stand on their own right as capable, autonomous and intelligent individuals. Neither were we instructed by any person or organization, not Tan Wah Piow, Paul Lim, nor any political party.

Treatment during detention

Following our sudden arrest we were subjected to harsh and detailed interrogation. Some of us were for as long as 70 hours inside freezing-cold rooms. All of us were stripped of our personal clothing, including spectacles, footwear and underwear and make to change into prisoners’ uniforms.

Most of us were made to stand continually during the interrogation, some of us for over 20 hours and under the full blast of air-conditioning turned to a very low temperature. Under these conditions one of us was repeatedly dowsed with cold water during interrogation.

Most of us were hit hard in the face, some of us not less than 50 times, while others were assaulted on other parts of the body during the first three days of interrogation.

We were threatened with the arrest, assault and battering of our spouses, loved ones and friends. We were threatened with indefinite detention without trial; Chia Thye Poh, who is still in detention after 22 years, was cited as an example. We were told that no one could help us unless we cooperated with the ISD. These threats were constantly in our minds during the time we wrote our respective statements in detention.

We were actively discouraged from engaging legal counsel and advised to discharge our lawyers and against taking legal action, including making legal representation to the ISA Advisory Board so as not to jeopardize our chances of release.

We were compelled to appear on television and warned that our releases depended on our performances on TV. We were coerced to make statements such as, “I am Marxist-inclined”, “My ideal society is a classless society”, “So-and-so is my mentor”, “I was made use of by so-and-so”, in order to incriminate ourelves and other detainees.

What we said on television was grossly distorted and misrepresented by editing and commentaries which attributed highly sinister motives to our actions and associations.

We state once more, clearly and unequivocally, that we never acted in any way to subvert the security of our country.

Teo Soh Lung
Ng Bee Leng
Kenneth Tsang
Chng Suan Tze
Tang Lay Lee
Kevin De Souza
William Yap
Wong Souk Yee
Tang Fong Har