Operation Spectrum (Chinese: 光谱行动) was launched on May 21, 1987 by Singapore's Internal Security Department (ISD) using the Internal Security Act (ISA). 16 people were arrested for their involvement in what was described as a "Marxist conspiracy". On June 20, 1987, four of the original 16 were released and six more were arrested. They were detained without trial for between one month and three years. Tan Wah Piow, a former University of Singapore Students' Union president residing in England was named the mastermind behind the plot. Tan had fled Singapore in 1976 after evading National Service.
The 16 people who were arrested were Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan, Teo Soh Lung, Kevin de Souza, Wong Souk Yee, Tang Lay Lee, Ng Bee Leng, Jenny Chin Lai Ching, Kenneth Tsang Chi Seng, Chung Lai Mei, Mah Lee Lin, Low Yit Leng, Tan Tee Seng, Teresa Lim Li Kok, Chia Boon Tai, Tay Hong Seng and William Yap Hon Ngian. One of the six arrested on June 20, 1987 was Tang Fong Har. The mostly English-educated group was a mix of church workers, social workers, graduates and professionals who were arrested and accused of being part of a Marxist conspiracy to topple the PAP-ruled government. Their intention was to "subvert Singapore's political and social order using communist united front tactics". Vincent Cheng, a full-time church worker was alleged as Tan Wah Piow's key assistant. They supposedly shared a common goal of establishing a classless society.
By December 1987, all the detainees had been released except for Cheng. However, in April 1988, nine of the released detainees issued a joint statement accusing the government of ill treatment and torture while under detention. They also denied involvement in any conspiracy and alleged that they were pressured to make the confessions. Eight of the nine were re-arrested and detained for a second time. The ninth member, Tang escaped re-arrest as she was in the United Kingdom.
They were later released on condition that they sign statutory declarations denying everything they had said in their earlier press statement. Lawyer and former Solicitor General Francis Seow, stepped in to represent one of the detainees who had sought his legal assistance. When Seow arrived at the detention center, he himself was detained by the ISD and was not released for more than two months. He was later charged and convicted in absentia for tax evasion. Seow now lives in exile in the United States.
Even until recently, the case of the alleged Marxist conspirators remains a puzzle. The detainees themselves did not fit the stereotype of the "agitators" whose activities were so troublesome to the PAP in the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by the success of communist insurrection in China and Vietnam, the old guard leftists tended to be hot-headed, populist orators. The detainees, by contrast, consisted primarily of educated professionals. Indeed, the man accused of masterminding the plot was Vincent Cheng, a 40 year-old social worker for the Roman Catholic Church, who had once studied to be a priest. Another prominent target was lawyer Teo Soh Lung, a Workers' Party supporter who had tangled with then-prime minister Lee Kwan Yew during parliamentary hearings on the Law Society in 1986. Other detainees included social workers, lawyers and actors.
TimelineMay 1987 : Sixteen persons are arrested under the ISA. Government says detainees are involved in a Marxist conspiracy.
Jun 1987 : Lee meets Archbishop Yong and Catholic leaders. Four of the original 16 detainees are released. Six more people are arrested.
Sep 1987 : Teo and six others are freed.
Dec 1987 : All detainees freed except for Cheng.
Apr 1988 : Nine detainees issue statement denying involvement in Marxist plot and alleging ill-treatment while under detention. Eight are re-arrested. Teo files writ of habeas corpus.
Jun 1988 : Four more detainees freed. Teo, Tsang, Wong and Kevin de Souza are issued with one-year detention orders. They begin habeas corpus proceedings.
Aug 1988 : Teo's habeas corpus dismissed. She files appeal to Court of Appeal.
Sep 1988 : Appeal is heard.
Dec 1988 : Court of Appeal orders four detainees released but are re-arrested immediately.
Feb 1989 : Two more detainees freed.
Mar 1989 : New writ of habeas corpus hearing on Teo's re-detention. Three other detainees withdraw their writs and are released.
Apr 1989 : Teo's habeas corpus application is dismissed. She appeals.
Jun 1989 : Detention orders for Teo and Cheng extended for one year. Cheng files writ of habeas corpus.
Feb 1990 : Cheng's application is dismissed.
Apr 1990 : Teo's appeal is dismissed.
Jun 1990 : Teo and Cheng are released.
Conflict between State and ChurchIn the plot, the Singapore government charged that Vincent Cheng, a full-time church volunteer was Tan Wah Piow's key assistant. Cheng, who once studied to be a Catholic priest concentrated on two main areas - church groups and students via the student union, especially those of Singapore Polytechnic. The strategy was to use the church as a front in their political struggle. During small Bible study sessions, Cheng and his members spread Marxism and anti-establishment ideas.
The government listed church organisations that it believed were used to further the Marxist cause. This included the Justice and Peace Commission, of which Cheng was the executive secretary, the Student Christian Movement of Singapore, the Young Christian Workers Movement and the Catholic Welfare Centre, which assisted foreign workers and maids working in Singapore.
It was also said that the detainees had links with Filipino leftists and advocates of liberation theology as well as Sri Lankan separatists. Liberation theology or Christianised Marxism, began within the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s–1960s as a moral reaction to the poverty caused by social injustice in that region. However, elements of liberation theology was strongly criticized by the Vatican during 1984-1986 after it was used for political ends where sins of the individual were transferred to institutions.
Following the Marxists arrests, Catholic priests Fathers Edgar D'Souza and Patrick Goh issued statements questioning the detentions. Church services were held for the detainees and their families and this led to the build-up of tension between the Church and the government. A meeting was arranged between Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the head of the Catholic Church in Singapore, Archbishop Gregory Yong and several other Catholic Church representatives. Lee's prime concern was that there should not be any conflict between the Church and the State because of the arrests.
The group was shown documents relating to Cheng, which included letters, and meeting notes in Cheng's handwriting. Archbishop Yong said that he accepted the Internal Security Department's (ISD) evidence against Cheng and was convinced that the government had nothing against the Catholic Church when they arrested him. Lee stressed that the government upheld freedom of religion but will not tolerate the use of religion for subversive activities.
In a move to avoid conflict, Fathers Joseph Ho, Patrick Goh, Edgar D'Souza and Guillaume Arotcarena resigned from all positions in church organisations. Archbishop Yong later suspended them from their preaching duties and warned the clergy not to mix politics and religion. He also announced that the Catholic Centre for Foreign Workers would be shut down.
The re-arrests of 1988With the exception of Vincent Cheng, all the above detainees were released, on various dates, before the end of 1987.
On 18 April 1988, nine ex-detainees issued a joint public statement (see below) repudiating earlier confessions and alleging ill-treatment by ISD officers while in detention. Eight of whom - Tang Lay Lee, Kenneth Tsang, Teo Soh Lung, Ng Bee Leng, Chng Suan Tze, William Yap Hon Ngian, Wong Souk Yee and Kevin De Souza - were re-arrested the next day. The ninth member, Tang Fong Har, escaped the re-arrest as she was overseas at the time, and has remained in exile to this day. Also arrested was lawyer Patrick Seong, whom the government accused of having been a "propagandist" in providing information to foreign correspondents during the 1987 detentions.
Ten days later, the government announced that a proposed commission of inquiry into the allegations made by the detainees was no longer necessary as the signatories have since recanted their statement while in detention.
On 6 May, Francis Seow, while waiting to meet two of the detainees, was himself arrested within the premises of the ISD. The government accused him of "colluding with U.S. diplomats to build an opposition in Singapore."
Arrested two days later was Chew Kheng Chuan, who was not among the signatories but had allegedly helped edit, printed and distributed the statement.
Most of the detainees were released in stages in late 1988 and throughout 1989, after signing statutory declarations recanting earlier allegations.
Teo Soh Lung, who had chosen to take her case to court, was held until 1990. Vincent Cheng was the last of the "Marxist conspirators" to be released, shortly after Teo.
Statement by detaineesOn 18 April 1988, nine ex-detainees of Operation Spectrum released a statement saying that even though they had kept a "rueful and fearful silence" on the "unjust treatment," they decided to make the statement now because of "the constant barrage of Government taunts and its public invitation to speak the truth".
The statement alleged torture during their detention.
Excerpt as follows -
- "...we were subjected to harsh and intensive interrogation, deprived of sleep and rest, some of us for as long as 70 hours insides freezing cold rooms. All of us were stripped of our personal clothing, including spectacles, footwear and underwear and made to change into prisoners' uniforms.
- Most of us were made to stand continually during 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 doused with cold water during interrogation.
- Most of us were hit hard in the face, some of us for 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 more physical abuse during interrogation.
- We were threatened with arrests, assault and battery of our spouses, loved ones and friends. We were threatened with INDEFINITE detention without trial. Chia Thye Poh, who is still in detention after twenty 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 on 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 representations to the ISA Advisory Board) so as not to jeopardise our chances of release.
- We were compelled to appear on television and warned that our release would depend 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 ourselves and other detainees."
Reactions to Malaysia's repeal of ISADuring his speech of 2011 Malaysia Day on Sep 15, 2011, PM Najib Razak announced that the Malaysian ISA would be repealed and replaced with new anti-terror laws that will still grant the Malaysian government the right to detain persons without trial on suspicion of terrorism. The sparked off the a reaction in Singapore which shares a similar law, a vestige of the British Colonial regime and the Malayan Emergency Period. 16 former detainees held during different periods of Singapore's history issued a statement on Sep 19, 2011 calling for the abolishment of the ISA. The 16 were Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Said Zahari, Lee Tee Tong, Loh Miaw Gong, Chng Min Oh @ Chuang Men-Hu, Tan Sin alias Tan Seng Hin, Toh Ching Kee, Koh Kay Yew, Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan, Teo Soh Lung, Yap Hon Ngian, Tan Tee Seng, Low Yit Leng, Wong Souk Yee, Tang Fong Har.
They argued that the ISA was against human rights, anti-democracy and curb civil liberties. They added that in 1991, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Singapore will seriously consider abolishing the Internal Security Act if Malaysia were to do so”, and called for the Singapore government to repeal the law.
In its reply on Sep 23, 2011, the Ministry of Home Affairs charged that the 16 were involved themselves subversive activities which posed a threat to national security. Nine were actively involved in Communist United Front (CUF) activities in support of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and seven of the sixteen ex-detainees were involved in a Marxist plot to subvert and destabilise Singapore. It claimed that plot was part of the CPM’s renewed efforts to rebuild the united front by penetrating and manipulating legally-established organisations. MHA maintained that the ISA remained relevant in countering serious security threats, protect our people, and preserve our racial harmony and social cohesion.
In its second statement on Sep 28, 2011, the 16 detainees reiterated the draconian nature of the ISA and the torture, cold room treatment, deprivation of sleep and the threat of indefinite detention that they were subjected to. They called upon the Government of Singapore to set up an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate if the allegations made against us former ISA detainees.
In its second reply on Sep 29, 2011, the MHA termed Communist insurgency from the 1940s to the 1970s are a historical reality and justified that the Government’s actions against the Marxist plot in the late 1980s were fully explained and justified at the time, and extensively debated in Parliament. The detentions under the ISA were made for valid security reasons and properly dealt with according to the law. Every case was reviewed at that time by the Advisory Board chaired by a Supreme Court judge.
- Internal Security Act (Singapore)
- Internal Security Department
- Chng Suan Tze v. Minister for Home Affairs
- Teo Soh Lung v. Minister for Home Affairs
- "16 held in security swoop". Newspapers. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
- "The Straits Times, 10 June 1987, Page 1". Newspapers. 1987-06-10. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
- "How I used the Church". Newspapers. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
- "Archbishop accepts evidence". Newspapers. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
- "Archbishop suspends the 4 priests". Newspapers. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
- "Call to abolish Singapore's notorious Internal Security Act. It is too long overdue.". Facebook. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
- "Ministry of Home Affairs - Ministry of Home Affairs Press Statement on ISA, 23 September 2011". Mha.gov.sg. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
- "Goodbye fear". Facebook. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
- "Ministry of Home Affairs - Ministry of Home Affairs Response to Media on the Internal Security Act, 29 September 2011". Mha.gov.sg. 2011-09-29. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
- Francis T. Seow (1994). To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew's Prison. (Monograph 42/Yale Southeast Asia Studies) ISBN 0-938692-56-9
- Teo Soh Lung (2011). Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner. ISBN 978-981-08-8215-0
- Chronology of the "plot", from That We May Dream Again: Remembering the 1987 "Marxist Conspiracy"
- Background of "Marxist conspiracy"
- Tang Fong Har remembers
- Vincent Cheng's speech at SDP's Pre-Election Rally in 2010 Part 1 and Part 2
- Transcript of Francis Seow's ST interview
- 'Marxist Conspiracy' anniversary remembered
- 15th Anniversary of May 21 ISA Arrests
- Marc Rerceretnam, International response to "Marxist conspiracy" arrests (PDF)
- Geoffrey Robertson, "Torture: the human-rights answer"
- Straits Times of May ‘87 – Four days of government statements on “Marxist Conspiracy”
- On Beyond the Blue Gate, Teo Soh Lung's account of her arrest.
- Straits Times, June 10, 1987 "Vincent Cheng:What I did for Wah Piow