While the entire nation was entertained by the live telecast of the first- ever- held Miss Universe contest in Singapore late into the night of 20 May 1987, the secret police had been hard at work from dawn. Hound-like ISD agents fanned out all over the island, trailing 16 peaceful, unarmed people to arrest them in the early hours of 21 May 1987. It was the “shock and awe” tactic – loud and continuous bangings on doors in the still of the night, waking up the dead, shocking all and sundry into a paralysis. Handcuffed and blindfolded, the 16 were escorted to the Whitley Road Detention Centre.
The next day, The Straits Times screamed on its front page : “16 held in security swoop – Probe into clandestine communist network underway”. The headline must have also shocked and awed its readers, leading them to believe the 16 were terrorists. Through the fertile minds of the ISD, the “communist network” later morphed into a “Marxist conspiracy” allegedly masterminded by Tan Wah Piow, a law student at Baliol College, Oxford University.
Following that announcement, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a 41-page press release by instalment to strike fear into the hearts of Singaporeans, including the detainees and their families. The state- owned print and television media were flooded with news and “confessions” of those arrested. With no alternative media or the Internet to investigate government allegations against the detainees, the public fell into an abyss of acquiescence. The detainees’ families and friends could only turn to a small number of foreign journalists who bravely reported their stories to the outside world. Foreign media in Singapore were scarce, having been “gazetted” to sell only a few copies of every issue in the country, a punishment for “interfering in domestic politics”. Thus a total news black-out enshrouded the detainees and their families.
On 20 June 1987, another six were arrested from various parts of Singapore bringing the total number of detainees to 22.
By December 1987, all were released except Vincent Cheng . On 18 April 1988, however, nine released detainees responded because they could no longer tolerate the constant barrage of taunts from the government. A joint statement refuting the “Marxist conspiracy” was issued on 18 April 1988 . Eight of the nine signatories were immediately re-arrested the next day. The ninth signatory, Tang Fong Har, was then in England. In addition, Patrick Seong , the lawyer for many of the ISA detainees, was himself arrested at a dental clinic for having the audacity to publicise the plight of the detainees.
The following month, on 6 May 1988, Francis Seow , former solicitor-general and lawyer for several detainees, was arrested at the Whitley Road Detention Centre when he went there to interview his clients.
On 8 May 1988, Chew Kheng Chuan was re-arrested.