The launch of Beyond the Blue Gate, Recollections of a Political Prisoner at The Legends, Fort Canning Park, Singapore on 26 June 2010 marked the beginning of Function 8 which was formed by a group of former 1987 ISA detainees and their friends. The publication gave them a reason to return to activities of their good old days when they were filled with the idealism until several of them were arrested and detained without trial on 21 May 1987.
Welcome by Low Yit Leng
02:15 Opening remarks by Alfian Sa’at (transcript below)
23:50 Speech by Teo Soh Lung (transcript below)
39:40 Chng Suan Tze reads well-wishes
55:35 Q&A with panel moderated by Alfian Sa’at
Alfian Sa’at’s speech
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the pleasure of your company this afternoon. I think I will start with a little anecdote. I’m a playwright and in the year 2005, I did a play with the theatre company, Teater Ekamatra. I hope not to get too long-winded about this.
I was doing research basically. One day someone handed me a booklet and the title of that booklet was: Why the ISA? There was an English version but someone handed me the multi-lingual version. The Malay title of which was called: Mengapa ISA (mengapa is why)? I was intrigued by this booklet because obviously it was printed to legitimize the ISA in the wake of the JI arrests. For me, I looked at it and it had the potential for mischief because in Malay ISA is spelled “Isa”, which is the quranic name for Jesus. So “Mengapa ISA?” is also “Why Jesus?” It did look like an evangelical pamphlet. Propaganda, evangelical are close cousins.
I was browsing through it and what struck me was that there was no mention at all of 1987 Operation Spectrum. So in an attempt to legitimize and justify this draconian law, it seems there was this striking omission. It seems there was something still needed to be hidden. Of course, it gave rise to a lot of questions, what are they hiding if really there was this anxiety to justify during that time – the entire parliament almost chorusing in unison in support of what happened in 1987. Why then it glossed over that very important piece of history? And it was an informative book because it talks about stuff like terrorist activities, some laju ferry whatever, a lot of crook-and-dagger espionage that kind of stuff. But there was zero mention of 1987 as well as how the ISA was used in 1963.
And of course that was mystery to me, that if you had conducted this particular operation spectrum, then why are you not proud of it? Why are you not wearing it as a certain badge of honour? It is part of the history of the ISD.
It made me think and I’m going to make, I suppose, a general statement here. I always believe that all politicians lie. It’s in the nature of being a politician. I’m not saying that all politicians are liars but they do lie because it’s in the nature of politics and it’s in the nature of power. Some lies are whiter than others. But for most part they lie and how do they lie – by narrowing alternatives into ultimatums, for example. They either go this way or that way and by not looking at other alternatives, and by omissions as I’ve observed in that “Why ISA?” booklet. By also taking undue credit, for example, we were the ones who came up with this particular idea of a civil society had no part, for example, in coming up with these initiatives. Everything is so centralized and everything came from the top because we have the best gene pool.
So I have to qualify that. I’m saying all politicians are liars. I seem to be covering my backside a lot! I’m saying there are always instances of lying which is part and parcel of being a politician, because the edifice of power, however monumental it looks, is also very fragile because every day you’ve to pepper over it with these little lies. And what’s very interesting for me is living in Singapore, this idea of Operation Spectrum and the Marxist conspiracy has been one huge lie. And I say that because of the absence of any credible evidence that can be used to convince the population that this was something that was completely essential to maintain the security of this country.
What does Operation Spectrum mean to me and, I think specifically members of my generation? I think it represents a kind of a little black hole in our history. We don’t have all the answers as to why it happened. And also a kind of an open wound for me as well because there has not been any admission of error on the part of the authorities. Once in a while, you hear statements like “Oh, actually the people who were arrested – they weren’t really trouble-makers. They were idealists or they were do-gooders.” But it begs the question then why do-gooders were being punished.
What kind of a society do you live in if you punish people whose only aim was to do good? And I think it all boils down to this question of moral legitimacy. And I think this is the question I’m always struggling with. What does it mean to be a ruler? What does it mean to be a leader of a people?
We look at the legitimacy of the government in Singapore based on what they can deliver in economic terms. So if they can give us certain continued GP growth, economic prosperity, etc, then they’re apparently a good government. But I don’t think this is just the standard that we should hold them up to. I think as a leader, you should also be able to demonstrate certain kind of – I will come back to this theme over and over again – moral legitimacy.
I don’t expect the state to be the conscience of a country. But it has to act in ways which are ethical. And I think 1987 for me represented a certain kind of betrayal of those kinds of expectations.
When I come to moral legitimacy, it becomes a little clearer to me why a lot of the people who were persecuted were actually people who were engaged in, for example, social work, engaged in ideas of social transformation even if this was, let’s say, through the round of ideas. Let’s take an artist.
Artists are the conscience of society because they raise difficult questions. They ask all these hard questions about which direction we’re going, etc. There seems to be that sense for me of how the state saw this as a kind of threat to their own legitimacy because they could not claim certain moral legitimacy for themselves. Therefore they couldn not allow other sectors of the population to act as this particular conscience of society. And it’s always very disillusioning for me to see how this idea of moral legitimacy has been corrupted over time and how it’s been streamlined, defined and circumscribed in a very narrow manner.
By that I mean, we have moral legitimacy because we are not corrupt, for example, because we do not take bribes. But I think there are definitely other much, much larger dimension of those things – things that involve issues like what are the rights of citizens, what kind of freedom do we have, what is the meaning of social justice, for example, which are all moral and ethical issues as well.
Reading Soh Lung’s book, I found it to be a very harrowing experience because I see the book as a kind of counter-testimony to the kind of things that were printed and published during that time 87. I don’t know whether… Some of you have done research but if you look at the Hansard transcripts (the parliamentary transcripts in ‘87), it was so frightening to see how so many of the MPs were basically echoing one another. And for me, it made me all the more convinced that we need some kind of political pluralism. It’s not just about checks and balances or whatever, but basically the more people you have who are potentially say from the opposing side, the closer I think you get to the sense of the truth.
When you have an almost a near monopoly of the parliament, I think it’s much easier to lie. And as I said, politicians lie all the time. So I see Soh Lung’s book as this lone voice, but I hope there’ll be more in the future that acts as a counter to the kind of propaganda that were actually manufactured during that time and are still being manufactured today, with phrases like these people are dangerous because they are part of a united communist front. What does that mean? So much of it is rhetorical and there is so much we really need to start unpacking, and not take these things for granted. I think there is also the other issue about what are the effects of this so-called Marxist conspiracy. I just list down a few.
I think it had very far-reaching consequences on civil society, for example, the nightmare scenario of having people visit you at night, knocking at your door, barging in and arresting you, was materialized. So it definitely had a chilling effect. You want to do good but please do it through the proper channel.
So civil society was one casualty. He had effects on social dimensions of religious activity. And I won’t go too much into it. It always made me a little sad that. I used to think people who were involved in religious organizations as involved in altruistic ideals, like welfare for the poor, etc. And these days that connection between capital and religion is becoming quite scary. It seems it’s more a self-enrichment than anything else. Obviously I come from an artistic background so this particular incident did have a very, very chilling effect on artistic expressions in Singapore. That idea, that myth was being played out. Our worst fears: the knock on the door in the middle of the night, no recourse to the law because in a sense the Internal Security Act transcends the law.
These are all the effects but I think on a more general note, it was also about this kind of epicenter where the aftershock, this sense of fear that gripped everyone. And when I say fear, there are many, many dimensions to it. One which is basically the fear of taking initiative. One, a permission seeking behaviour.
A lot of us don’t start acting on our consciences unless we have some kind of permission from somewhere, so there are many mechanisms in place, like for example, registration of societies act, etc. So I think it’s so difficult for members of civil society to translate their knowledge into action precisely because of this permission seeking behavior. And an automatic trust in authority I think is also one of the ill-effects of this. We trust so much people who are in power that we believe they know what is best for us. I think in other societies, let’s say someone says so, we need the so-called law, that move on order because we trust that our policemen will not abuse their power. But I don’t believe this at all. For a moment, I think we should always be skeptical of those who have more power than us. I think it’s only a very natural instinct, for a small dog to look at a big dog. I don’t think I trust you because you’re bigger than me. You can harm me. You have that power to commit some kind of violence against me.
Lastly, it’s this instant assumption of guilt I think which is a product of living in this regime. It’s a certain climate of fear. So when someone in uniform approaches you, almost immediately, “OK, what did I do wrong?” That almost became reflective instead of “What does this guy want? What’s going on?” One of the first things is almost automatic self-recrimination: “What did I do wrong? How can I start to prove my innocence?”
So for me, looking at 1987, I don’t think as a society we can actually move forward unless we come to terms with what happened. Of course, ideally there should be some of kind of truth and reconciliation committee that’s being set up to examine what actually happened. Where were the directives taken? Why were certain people behaving in a certain manner? And I’ve to say personally I feel very invested in this particular moment in our history because I think about Whitley Detention Centre and I think in a sense two kinds of people were there – the detainees as well as the officers. The detainees who are subjected to various forms of not just incarceration but even violence, and of course the officers who committed these acts of violence.
Let’s see the history of certain countries, like Nazi Germany or Japan is that they have had this stained past. But a way to heal to come to terms with that past. For example, in Germany, you’re being taught about the holocaust as early as in primary school. You know this and you’re aware and you’re conscientized. You ask yourself “Do I have that propensity for evil in me? Can I always remind myself never again?” Japan is a little bit more complicated because there’s this kind of distancing. “Oh, that was the product of that particular era and a particular kind of propaganda machine that was operating the cult of the emperor, etc, and those people are different from us.”
When I think of what happened in Whitley Detention Centre in 87, I feel that I am both the detainee as well as the officer. As a human being I think all of us, we carry the capacity for violence in us. There is certain darkness that all of us are capable of. On the other hand, on the part of the detainees, I think they’re also capable of remarkable courage.
One of the things that immediately affected me reading Soh Lung’s book was how, she’d mention at times she would try to empathize with her case officers. She would try to see them as human beings who have jobs and families. She even think of cooperating just so that they would not risk their jobs. She did try to rationalize it as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome – this kind of sympathy for your kidnappers. And I think it was very clear to me that it was an asymmetrical relationship. You have these detainees who exhibited much greater humanity than their captors who obviously saw them, I don’t know, either as scapegoats or this vessels through which you’re supposed to break and extract confessions from. That for me was a very harrowing moment in the book, when you obviously have this asymmetrical relationship, one party trying to humanize the other and the other party is trying to completely dehumanize the other because how can you beat someone up unless you see the person as less than human. You see the person as not consisting of your own anatomy, of that very nerve that can cost you pain.
So when I looked at this, I realized that this is a society that has this kind of duality – we’re both the captors as well as the detainees. The way to move forward is to try to identify with one of these parties more than the other. That’s why I always keep insisting that the truth will have to come to light. There needs to be some kind of commission of inquiry into what happened because otherwise this present government will not have any kind of moral legitimacy.
Lastly, I will just talk about the title of this book. I think it’s a beautiful title because it’s called Beyond the Blue Gate. The idea of a beyond – you can see it from the perspective of someone who was within Whitley Detention Centre and yearning for the freedom outside. But I think from the perspective of some of us who have enjoyed free lives, it is also about being from the outside looking in so that there is that dual perspective. As we, as people who have not been through this incident and have not suffered, what then is our responsibility? How can we try to imagine what happened inside and tell ourselves that this should never happen again. How can we build a network for solidarity and empathy for one another to ensure that this must never happen again. And I think that one of the ways to really guarantee that no matter how much they try to soft sell the Internal Security Act as a kind of new anti-terror legislation and a very useful took, etc, the ISA really has to go if we wish to see ourselves closer these people, to these courageous detainees.
And if we believe in the idea of certain conscience in society… (The lights went off at this juncture I think.) So I don’t see any other choice actually than to call for the abolishment of the Internal Security Act. And with that, I would like to hand over to Miss Teo Soh Lung who will share with you. Thank you very much.
Speech by Teo Soh Lung
Friends, relatives, Dr Lim Hock Siew, my fellow former ISA detainees, a very good afternoon to all of you. Thank you so much for making time to attend the launch of my book.
I would also like to thank all my friends who have worked so hard to organise this event for me.
Today I am very happy because at long last, a manuscript which I wrote some 20 years ago need not be kept a secret anymore! It is a relief for me because I no longer need to smile and keep a dumb look when friends and young people ask me if I would write about my experience in detention. Now I can tell them that they can read my book to find out what happened in 1987.
Let me tell you why and how this book was written. In a way, I owe it to the ISD.
Before my release from detention in 1990, I asked senior ISD officers if I could take a holiday abroad. They assured me that it would not be a problem and they would give me permission in the shortest possible time. Accordingly, I applied for permission to leave for Australia soon after my release. The ISD asked me to show proof that I was really going abroad. Dutifully, I applied for a visa and booked a return air ticket to Australia. After some time, they rejected my application to leave Singapore.
What could I say to that rejection. My trip had been planned and I had received some money from my sister in Perth. I decided to put the money to good use. With the help of friends, I purchased a computer and learnt to use it. I thought it would be good if I knew how to use the computer as it would help me when I return to legal practice one day. So my friends gave me some free lessons. And so I learnt to use the computer and indeed it was very useful when I re-started my legal practice. It was while learning how to use the computer, that I decided to write about my prison experience.
In those days, I spent a lot of time reading documents about the Marxist conspiracy that I could not read when I was in prison. I was pretty disciplined. I spent a few hours every day writing. I wrote furiously, putting down everything I could remember. The chapters were very long, not like what they are in the book today. I wrote and wrote and when it was done, I asked my good friend, the late Aileen Lau to read it. Thereafter, I just put the manuscript away. No one read the manuscript except Aileen and another friend. Many years later, I took the manuscript out but just could not read it. The secret manuscript however bugged me time and again. Friends and young people ask if I would tell my story. I decided that I must look seriously into the possibility of publishing my account so as to avoid all these queries. And that was one of the reasons why I retired from legal practice several years ago.
But I did nothing until one day, an old friend told me that since I have retired, I should try and write about my prison experience. She volunteered to edit my script. I accepted her offer. So for several months, I laboured over the editing of my 20 year old manuscript. I gave my friend instalments of my writing and she was amazed at what I wrote and assured me that it was worthy of publication. Encouraged by her comments, I showed it to a few friends and they too said that it was quite interesting and that I should set the record straight for posterity.
Last year, one of my neighbours told me that my name was mentioned in the Men in White. He asked me if I would give him a lesson on Marxism! I told him that I have not read Marx and wished I am really a Marxist as alleged by the government! Out of curiosity, I decided to borrow the book from the library but before I could do that, my sister in law bought the book for me as a Christmas present! So I flipped the index and found that indeed my name and that of several of my friends were mentioned in the book. The authors did not interview me or my co conspirators. I think they did not even read available documents when writing the book. One glaring error is found at page 437 about my appearance and that of Tang Fong Har and Francis Seow before the Select Committee on the Legal Profession Amendment Bill. I quote the paragraph:
“Both Teo and Tang, together with Seow and several other witnesses, appeared at the select committee hearing at the Parliament House Annexe in October before a panel chaired by the speaker of parliament, Yeoh Ghim Seng. They faced relentless questioning by Lee, law minister E W Barker and Jayakumar. The proceedings, held over two days, were televised. At the end of the hearing, all were agreed that the Law Society should keep out of politics.”
If the authors had bothered to read the official report of the select committee, they would have discovered that the relentless questioning of the three of us was by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew alone.
Sometime in 2007, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew advised his MPs on the writing of memoirs. He said:
“When writing memoirs, you are talking to posterity. Among them will be historians who will check what you write against the accounts of others. Do not shade the past.”
My book is my account of what happened in 1987 and what I did before that. I leave you to form your own conclusion as to who is telling the truth, the men in white or me.
The alleged Marxist conspiracy which saw the arrest and imprisonment without trial of 24 people in 1987 and 1988 have caused tremendous hardship and misery to many. Some of those arrested were young polytechnic students of 16 or 17 years old. You can imagine the trauma they experienced when they were arrested. Today, six of the 24 have left Singapore and several friends who were accused of instigating us are now living in exile. Many of us still suffer from the trauma of arrest and imprisonment and like rape victims, some still cannot speak about their experience to their families. They would rather be left alone and not be reminded of the episode.
As a victim of the ISA, and many in this audience are also victims, indeed victims who have suffered much more than me, I call for the ISA to be abolished. The ISA and its predecessors, the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance and the Emergency Regulations have destroyed and damaged many lives from British colonial days till today. We do not know how many have suffered under the ISA but it would not be wrong to estimate the figure as several thousands. To imprison a person without trial for an indefinite period of time is cruel and inhuman. Singapore as a rich first world nation cannot tolerate such a law. As early as 1955, Lee Kuan Yew in arguing against the passage of the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance said eloquently in the legislative assembly:-
“… If it is not totalitarian to arrest a man and detain him when you cannot charge him with any offence against any written law – if that is not what we have always cried out against the Fascist States – then what is it?”
(Hansard September 1955 Col 726)
Further in his speech he said:
“I believe that for seven years now we have developed an Emergency mentality. Many people believe that the only way to keep down any form of agitation, which anybody may have exploited for their own personal or political ends, is by the use of repressive laws, more policemen, and more arrests. But this has been proved false after seven years. I hate to think that after another three or four years, or whenever it may be when the Chief Minister decides to go back to the people, that it is again to be proved false. It is such a futile answer to the Communist challenge. If we are to survive as a free democracy, then we must be prepared, in principle, to concede to our enemies – even those who do not subscribe to our views – as much constitutional right as you concede yourself. My plea – to quote from someone in another context – is that the time has come in Malaya for an agonising reappraisal of strategy and strength. To go blindly in the hope that somehow or the other suppression can prevent latent social, economic and political discontents from manifesting themselves and disrupting the structure of society is a piece of folly to which my Party does not subscribe.”
It is my sincere hope that the Senior Minister will today reflect on what he said and believed in 1955. More repressive laws, more policemen and more arrests can never prevent latent social economic and political discontents from manifesting themselves and disrupting the structure of society.