An essay by Dr Vincent Wijeysingha – to mark the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum. This article was first published in publichouse.sg.
In 1987, I was at junior college. Just across the road, twenty-two other Singaporeans were at Whitley Road Detention Centre. They were locked up under the Internal Security Act, a sinister law designed to silence critics, first of the colonial government and later of the People’s Action Party who had promised to bring freedom to the people of our island.
Speaking to the press in 1995, after a whole generation had been effectively silenced, then Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, told The Straits Times:
“As Prime Minister, I reserved executive powers in the Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, both inherited from British times, which I did not repeal in order to be able to act against subversives or criminals like drug traffickers against whom there is insufficient evidence for a court of law, without having recourse to the courts.
In other words, I was my own carrier of a hatchet. I needed no hatchet man.
All those who have been dealt with by me know that I have never flinched from going into a dark street on a dark night and it happens to be a cul-de-sac. No outlet – either the gangster of I will come out alive.
I have done this a few times. I am prepared to do this again.”
These brave words belie an insecure man; a man who has never had to meet a gangster in a dark alley. A man who played out the dismal drama of his bullying oppression by recourse to powers outside and beyond himself. Power operated by henchmen against those who dare to think a different world. Power to make men torture one another. Powers which allowed Operation Spectrum to happen.
I was too young at the time of the arrests to take much of an interest in them. I knew none of the detainees or their families personally. And even if I wondered what lay up Onraet Road which I passed every day on my way to the bus stop I was insufficiently curious to find out. Today, having read Teo Soh Lung’s book, Beyond the Blue Gate, an autobiography of her two-year detention, I know I would have been met by a blue metal gate and another world beyond. A world I was entirely innocent of until I arrived at Sheffield to commence postgraduate work in August 1996. Suddenly I was exposed to the truth of Operation Spectrum.
I devoured what I found: books and articles and newspaper clippings about that distant moment in our past when, like a key slammed in a bolt, Singapore suddenly stopped being a community and became a police state. It was a world where people were imprisoned for helping the poor; where men were ordered to torture their fellow citizens and found it agreeable to do so. A world where rulers reshaped their actions into a truth recognisable only to them: a government determined to stamp out even the possibility of ideas or activity contrary to its worldview.
The Singapore in which the detainees happened to find themselves in the mid 1980s was beset by a deep recession, the result of the government’s ambition to upgrade the economy from one where low-skill production manned by cheap labour gave way to high technology. A programme aimed at what the then Minister for Trade and Industry, Goh Chok Tong, described as a Second Industrial Revolution. The failure was widespread and deep. It was typical of centralised management, of insufficient forward planning and limited understanding of the global economy.
Singapore was not ready for such a massive and wholesale restructuring. It was too small on the world stage to effect such change and too dependent on capital and production flows which were decided far away. The result was the worst recession the nation had known in twenty years. Unemployment numbers soared and the factories began to operate on 24-hour shifts to recoup losses. The social impact was considerable although the controlled media, by and large, were silent. It was left to social workers, lawyers, student activists, playwrights, and religious leaders to highlight the problems and try to alleviate the distress of the unemployed and the poor.
On the political side, the middle eighties was a period of neoliberal strongmen. In Manila, Ferdinand Marcos still oppressed his poverty-stricken people, once one of the wealthiest in the region. Further south in Jakarta Suharto continued his harsh reign. Across the Causeway, Mahathir Mohamad had just come through his second General Election. In the west, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, loud proponents of economic growth at the cost of individuals and communities, were secure in office. So was the Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, who had seized office in a coup that despatched the popular leader, Salvador Allende. In Rome, a right-leaning, anti-Communist Papacy looked less than unfavourably upon the dictators of the world and when it raised its voice to call for justice was less strident against leaders of the right than of the left.
But a wind of change was beginning to blow across the world. In 1986, Marcos was toppled in a bloodless, almost elegant coup led by the widow of his slain enemy who was strongly championed by the Catholic Church. Advocates of justice all over the world saw in the ascent of that diminutive, kindly lady to the leadership of her nation the sign of a new dispensation, one which would place people at the heart of governance.
In Singapore, the nation’s Parliament now contained two opposition members after a hiatus of more than a decade during which only People’s Action Party members occupied its leather couches. The people of Anson and Potong Pasir had responded positively to the call for better treatment of the poor emanating from the Workers’ Party member and more democracy and accountability from the Singapore Democratic Party Member. A fairer, kinder world was not far off.
But at the Istana Annexe a startled Lee Kuan Yew, jockeying hard to establish the next generation of PAP leaders, saw only unrest and a threat to the settled order. An order that, to be sure, brought significant economic growth to a tiny island only twenty years away from, in his words, “an independence we never sought”. An order founded, in his words, on “a very tightly organised society”. Confidently, he had said,
“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yet, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use.”
As the late President Devan Nair recounted, he had greeted the news of Mr Jayaratnam’s entry into Parliament in 1981 “like a caged fury”. No doubt his return to Parliament in1984, joined there by another opposition Member, terrified him. The downfall of the once unassailable Marcos in 1986 would only have added to his alarm. It became a time to act.
When Pope John Paul visited the city state in late 1986 the Prime Minister raised his fears with him. Claiming a reverential esteem for the church’s stand against communism, he alluded to “funny goings on” in the modern church. No doubt he was mindful of the role played by the Filipino church in the defeat of his friend. (Indeed he protested to the Pope that he was no Marcos.) And of course in terms of that man’s blatant ransack of his people’s wealth, he was not. In terms of the general uplift of the population that Lee’s government had achieved in the past thirty years the assertion must be accepted as true. But not all of the community had shared in the progress and there were significant pockets of deprivation and poverty, enlarged by the recession.
Twenty-two young men and women, motivated by the relief of suffering, went among the poor, comforting the afflicted, cataloguing their hardships and educating the community. The worst fallout was borne by local factory workers whose wages and conditions were not keeping pace with the overall (in some years, spectacular) economic growth. Among their number were lowly-paid, badly-treated migrant workers whose rights and conditions Jolovan Wham, the social worker who runs a labour welfare organisation, and won two awards this year for his work, will confirm have shifted very little.
That Wham is able to continue his work, in many ways far more outspoken than that of the activists of 1987, unmolested by the state, is testament to how much our society has grown. But these days are a long way off from 1987 when in the early morning of the 21st of May, the men and women of the Internal Security Department were despatched to arrest from their beds, in the silent hours of the morning, sixteen men and women (later to be joined by a further six) whose values had become so despised of the government.
The foundational principle of the work that social activists do is the dignity of the individual rooted in a rights discourse that is such a valuable part of our human heritage. We recall the uplifting words of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
The idea of rights being inherent in individual conscious entities is an old one. We instinctively know that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements merely by reason of being human. As human beings, we draw from our common spiritual and philosophical heritage and we agree that by virtue of having consciousness, being able to feel pain, being moved to share in (and therefore alleviate) the sufferings of others, we enjoy certain rights. We basically agree that our fellow human beings should have access to the full range of resources that enables them to grow and develop not merely as homo economicus but also as entities with hopes and dreams, creative urges and compassionate impulses. Those same attributes that lead us to detest suffering also guide men and women to work for their removal.
But in years following, an almost convincing argument crept in: that social justice must take second place to economic development. This found a conceptual home in the theory of ‘Asian values’ with Lee Kuan Yew as a most vociferous proponent, declaring, “A country must have economic development, then democracy may follow.” The Asian financial crisis of 1997 decisively put paid to that idea and Lee himself, in his autobiography published three years later, went so far as to say that actually such values are shared by humanity as a whole. Thanks to the important work of the Nobel laureate, Professor Amartya Sen, among others, today we know instinctively that human rights and economic development should and can go hand in hand. Otherwise, the denial of rights becomes the very means by which adequate resources are restricted from the broad mass of the community and distributed more abundantly among the rich and the powerful. Singapore’s cabinet ministers’ wages are a case in point.
Instinctively, these ideas of fairness and justice formed the basis of what the twenty-two who came to be referred to as “Marxist conspirators” were advocating through their writings, their literary productions, and their work among the poor. They laboured peacefully to uplift their brothers and sisters from whose hands we secure our wealth. Though they were called conspirators, they worked entirely in the open. Though they were accused of seeking the violent overthrow of the state, in all of their writings they denounced aggression and advocated collaboration and partnership.
The government made no case against them apart from fanciful assertions duly reported in the press complete with illustrations and charts. But from all the available reliable evidence, and there is much, these men and women were as far away from conspiracy and violence as it is possible to be. The simple and very straightforward reason is that there was no case. Prime Minister Lee said in 1988,
“It is not a practice, nor will I allow subversives to get away by insisting that I’ve got to prove everything against them in a court of law or evidence that will stand up to the strict rules of evidence of a court of law.”
As a lawyer schooled in the English legal tradition, he would have been aware that the rules of evidence have been carefully built up precisely to safeguard against the caprice of rulers. It is no wonder that the PAP government has refused international calls for a commission to investigate the claims of a violent Marxist conspiracy. When the Home Affairs Minister recently pronounced on the use of the Internal Security Act he was unable to offer any evidence of the veracity of the government’s assertions in 1987 and had to resort to allegations and hyperbole.
And significantly, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, speaking in 2001, declared, “Although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but not out to subvert the system.” He should know for not only was he a friend of one of the detainees, he himself was investigated for similar false charges.
The twenty-two were not out to subvert the system. The singular evidence of their work was that they functioned within the system. The government did not act to avert disorder and carnage. The reality is that the government’s objection was to their work among the casualties of the economic policies of the 1970s and 1980s. They told them that, regardless of Lee’s characterisation of them as “economic digits”, they were in fact beings of worth and prestige. That their privations mattered; that they were a blot on the government’s copybook, an insult to its claim to Confucian government. It had turned a deaf ear to their cries and intimidated the media and the academe into silence so that their fellow Singaporeans might not know they existed. The spoke truth to power and power was offended. It responded in the most brutal way: by taking away their freedom and by inflicting pain on their bodies.
Recalling the case of Operation Spectrum, and reading the papers gathered by concerned parties all over the world, I am suddenly struck by the realisation that the real conspirators, the real practitioners of violence were the government and its officers. Its construction of this elaborate tale of shadowy fifth columnists patiently and painstakingly planning the violent deposition of the PAP government to usher in a Marxist utopia would be laughable were it not for the psychological damage it left on our society and on the detainees. They constructed poor arguments and made clumsy allegations of clandestine networks. They told convoluted stories that imputed culpability from innocent, pedestrian activities. They humiliated a senior religious leader. Most shameful of all, they used brutal torture to elicit false confessions. This is the real narrative of the era. Our government forfeited its moral right to lead the nation the instant it resorted to torture.
Now, let us be clear. The interaction between economic stability and human rights is a reality: a perennial exchange and a constant weighing up of priorities. But today we countenance a nation whose GINI coefficient (high even in 1987) is almost double that of the First World, whose ratio of income between the top and bottom 20% of earners has doubled in twenty years, whose elders work into their old age or scavenge the dustbins of our nation while our leaders still draw the highest wages of politicians anywhere in the world. We are entitled to wonder why the persistent promise of future wealth has never arrived for the common man. Have we not mortgaged our values to pay a cheque drawn upon the hopes and dreams of our people only to be told that the cheque has bounced?
This question was posed in 1987. Doing research, writing reports, engaging in public debate, the detainees sought answers to these questions. But they did not vest the responsibility to find solutions solely with the government. Nor did they enter into a quarrel. Instead they went out quietly among the poor and the marginalised to work out what to do. They crafted many solutions: legal advice, social activities, language classes, support for poorly-treated workers to negotiate with their employers. They also sought to enlighten the community and train us to care for the oppressed.
The government’s alarm was not at the possibility of a Marxist revolution. It was that the status quo was being challenged. It was that the economic digits, whose quiescence and docility facilitated the wealth that Singapore became renowned for, were being made aware of their rights. The cardinal sin that the detainees committed was to tell the poor that their state was neither inherent in their genes nor characteristic of their ethnicity but the outcome of government philosophy. Lee famously said, “God did not make the Russians equal. Lenin and Stalin tried to. You are too long, they chop you down. The end result is misery.” In the pursuit of meritocracy, a laudable idea, his government formed instead a society intolerant of the weak and sceptical of compassion. The twenty-two paid heavily for their audacity and presumption.
Today, we are twenty-five years from that dark moment. There are many Singaporeans alive today who were not born when Operation Spectrum took its terrible course but its effects are yet with us. Individuals and organisations still act under a cloud of uncertainty, unsure of where the famous Out of Bound Markers lie since ministers have said they cannot identify them until they are breached. Such a formulation would be immediately recognisable in a civilised society as an insidious authoritarianism.
Twenty-two young idealists, optimistic of our society’s capacity to become better, decided to make it so. That they (and we) are only just recovering from the effects of Operation Spectrum is testament to its dreadful effectiveness. If on the anniversary of that day we celebrate their courage, it is because we know their work was right. The government was wrong. It is only the passage of time – nothing more – that has sent them from the political stage and released them from the obligations of justice.
Dr Vincent Wijeysingha is a lecturer is social work and Treasurer of the Singapore Democratic Party. He writes in his personal capacity.
On Saturday 2 June 2012, That We May Dream Again, a commemoration of Operation Spectrum including speeches by Dr Wijeysingha and others as well as an exhibition, will take place at Speakers’ Corner from 3 to 7pm.