Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rev James Minchin and our secret police

I have often been asked if there are government-planted informants in our opposition and civil society groups.

My reply : Yes, there are.

The following is based on my investigation as well as observations made by veteran opposition members :

Singapore's Internal Security Department (ISD) had for many decades infiltrated pro-Communist and left-wing groups. When Communism collapsed, surveillance were re-calibrated to focus on three areas - political opposition, government critics and religious organisations (in particular Islamic groups).

How to spot an informant :

1. He or she is likely to join your organisation not at its inception but sometime after your group is publicised, or after some public controversy.
2. He or she is likely to sign up alone.
3. He or she is likely to not display much inclination to your cause although they will complete any task you give them.
4. He or she is not vocal during discussions.
5. He or she may volunteer to take minutes, videos or photographs at meetings or events.
6. He or she is likely to have some connection to Ministry of Home Affairs either by way of a previous vocation or family ties.
7. He or she will not take part in anything that is remotely deemed illegal, such as a protest (outside of Speakers' Corner).

All that said, there is really no need to be alarmed or get paranoid. The informant's job is not to subvert your work, at least not directly. Their job is merely to relay information to their political masters. They are likely to be free-floaters and are paid per assignment.

- Martyn See


Here, former ISA detainee Teo Soh Lung spills the beans on Singapore's secret police.

Rev James Minchin and our secret police
by Teo Soh Lung
21 Nov 2012
When I wrote my last post (11 Nov 2012) on the deportation of Rev James Minchin, I did not even remotely think that two mainstream media (The Straits Times (ST) and TODAY) would on the following day, 12 Nov 2012, inform the world that Function 8 had, more than a year ago (allegedly in Aug 2011), contributed to the Singapore government’s dossier against him. How did ST and TODAY know it was Function 8 which had organised the forum at which Rev Minchin had allegedly said that “the rule of law was bypassed and corrupted in Singapore, and questioned the independence and integrity of the judiciary?” Incidentally, this oft repeated phrase “questioned [or sometimes “undermined”] the independence and integrity of the judiciary” irritates me. Is the judiciary our most fragile and sweetest smelling flower, our beautiful Keng Hua that blooms at midnight and survives only a few hours? Does it always need the government to protect its standing?

As stated in the press release of Function 8 of 19 Nov 2012, it did not invite anyone from the media to any of its forums. How did Janice Heng of ST and the anonymous reporter/s of TODAY know that it was at a Function 8 event that Rev Minchin uttered the alleged words MHA complained about? Did the reporters tail Rev Minchin throughout his stay in Singapore? Or did anonymous officers of MHA instigate the reporters to name Function 8? Was the media aiding and abetting MHA in its preparation for some sinister happening to Function 8? Even if the media intended to aid and abet MHA, shouldn’t its reporters check with Function 8 as to the truth of MHA’s allegations before publication? Compliance with this golden rule of good journalism is surely important when the alleged words had contributed to Rev Minchin’s traumatic expulsion from Singapore.

ST also reported that MHA said that Rev Minchin “had breached regulations on the involvement of foreigners in political talks by speaking at the forum without the necessary permit.” MHA did not cite the law but ST took it upon itself to proclaim that Rev Minchin should have had a “Miscellaneous Work Pass” before he commented on domestic politics. This implied that Function 8, if it was indeed the organiser of the forum, was in breach of the law more than a year ago. Function 8 had in its press release denied any breach of the law.

I don’t know if the ST had consulted its lawyers on this issue. I am very certain that ST is incorrect but the law is not my concern in this article. My concern is this: “How did MHA know that Rev James Minchin had said “the rule of law was bypassed and corrupted in Singapore, and questioned the independence and integrity of the judiciary”” at the forum? Which forum and where and when was it held? MHA must be precise when it makes serious allegations against a person who because of what he is alleged to have said, is deported.

We all know that MHA has the habit of bugging private conversations of citizens, non citizens and members of organisations. It is part of its job and we pay them. But I question the legitimacy of spying on lawful activities of people and organisations. Let me narrate one instance of MHA’s snooping of a respectable organisation, The Law Society of Singapore. 
In 1986, lawyers requisitioned an extraordinary general meeting to pass a resolution calling upon the government to withdraw the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill 1986. One of the objectives of the bill was to oust the popularly elected Mr Francis Seow from being the society’s president. The meeting was held at a hotel and more than 400 lawyers attended. I was the mover of the motion which was passed almost unanimously. What surprised me subsequently was the revelation that the entire private proceedings was tape recorded by the Ministry of Law, presumably using the good services of MHA. Soon after the meeting,  
I was summoned before a parliamentary select committee at which the former prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew questioned me at length about my speech at the meeting. He showed me a transcript of my speech. I quote part of the report of that parliamentary committee. For easier reading, I have inserted “Prime Minister” and “Teo” in the questions and answers: 
Prime Minister: … Read your first paragraph. I have sidelined it for you to make it simple. “We call this meeting simply because …, read it? --- 
Teo: Mr Chairman, can I ask a question? This speech appears to me to have been a transcript of what I said at the EGM. And I would like to know how this manage to get into the hands of Mr Lee. 
Prime Minister: In the age of the tape recorder, you want to know how I am able to get a transcript of what you said? --- 
Teo: But how did the tape recorder get into the EGM room? 
Prime Minister: I am not interested, Miss Teo. I am interested in taking you through what you said. I didn’t make the speech. You did. If you didn’t make the speech ---?--- 
Teo: I don’t deny making the speech. 
Prime Minister: Let’s go through it? --- 
Teo: But I would like to know how that --- 
Prime Minister: How I was given the speech? By the Ministry of Law? 
Teo: So the Minister of Law had set a tape recorder in the room. 
Prime Minister: Yes, please. I assume that?--- 
Teo: Right, thank you. 
Prime Minister: Read it?--- 
Teo: Where do you want me to read?
…. 
Now that I have re-read the Minutes of Evidence recorded, I realise that some words may be missing and they are probably represented by ---. I recall that after asking several questions, the prime minister said “I am told that it was so easy to transcribe your speech”. 
Somehow this sentence is missing from the Minutes. But it does not matter. The prime minister did admit after some persuasion, that the Ministry of Law bugged the room. 
Once upon a time, in Eastern Europe, the secret police spied on everyone. For the secret police, it was a comfortable job (even if it was a loathsome job) that enabled them to live well. For those imprisoned as a result of their work, like the dissident Czech playwright, essayist and poet, Vaclav Havel who later became the president of Czechoslovakia, it was years of torture, loneliness and hardship in cold prison cells. 
In today’s Singapore and in the light of our earnest National Conversation, should the subject of how much money we spend on spies who invade the privacy of individuals and organisations that mean no harm to Singapore be discussed? Are such spies necessary for the progress of our country? Shouldn’t we open our minds about what foreigners say about us and debate with them when we do not agree with what they say instead of shutting them out of our country? Or should we tell the world that Singapore is not a developed country and does not believe in freedom of speech and the rule of law? And lastly, shall we tell the world that our judiciary is as fragile as our lovely keng hua, and has to be protected by the executive always?
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Fr James Minchin barred from entering Singapore
by Teo Soh Lung
11 Nov 2012
I said in an earlier post that “It would have been better for the government to demolish Minchin's arguments using its controlled media rather than to ban him. Its action has defeated itself. Its refusal to change will ultimately bring about its downfall.” 
The deportation of Fr James Minchin, author of “No Man is an Island” may have surprised somepeople in Singapore even though there had been deportations of lawyers assisting the SDP recently. In the 1990s, some of my friends and acquaintances were prevented from entering Singapore. There were occasions when I had waited at the airport for friends who were supposed to have arrived but failed to show up at the arrival hall. They were simply detained in a room, disallowed the use of the telephone and told to board the next flight home. A friend’s friend was interrogated for several hours by “old hands” of the secret police and departed to the last port of embarkation. In those days, there were no handy mobile phones and I wouldn’t know if they would have been allowed to call from their mobile phones and communicate with their friends who were waiting for them when they were denied entry. In those days, I was in no position to comment as there was no internet. So my friends and acquaintances were quietly deported. We simply felt the injustice of it all but did nothing, not that we can do more or anything for Fr James Minchin this time.
In the 1990s, the intimidation of the immigration police and I suspect, officers from the Internal Security Department was common. Anthony Lester QC was stopped at the airport and made to wait in a room while officers apparently checked if he had a right to return to see his former client.

A friend had her passport retained at the airport and told to report to the immigration department to retrieve it. She was interrogated for two days and told to cooperate in order to make life easier for them and for her. In the end, she had the sense to tell them that they can do whatever they want but that her passport did not belong to the Singapore government. 
In the 1990s, there was no internet. The inability of a person to enter Singapore means that his channel of communication with friends in Singapore would have ended more or less. Letters by snail mail would take time and effort and the chances of him losing contact with friends in Singapore would be natural. Today however, skype, emails, facebooks, youtube, twitter, cheap telephone calls and airflights etc would not cut off links between the deported and whoever he wishes to contact in Singapore. So what is the use of the Singapore government barring Fr James Minchin from entering Singapore? 
I can only think of two reasons. Old habits die hard and old methods that worked in the past are hard to discard. The temptation to remind individuals that the Singapore government is all powerful and that its power to deport anyone it deems acting against its interest (not necessarily against the interest of the country) cannot be undermined. That may be so but in today’s internet age, would the Singapore government like to preserve and project the old image that it is intolerant of criticisms, whether from Singaporeans or foreigners? I don’t know. I can only say that by preserving and projecting its old authoritarian image, it has failed to keep up with a changing society and may ultimately bring about its own downfall. It would have been better for the government to openly criticise what Fr Minchin said in the interview with Vincent Wijeysingha of the SDP using its mainstream media, issue press statements or call a press conference, (here I am assuming that this interview sparked the action taken by the immigration for it happened just a few weeks ago), listen to what others say about its views and that of Fr Minchin. After all, “No Man is an Island” was written in the 1980s and even Fr Minchin admits that Singapore is now a more open society. Surely such a view is a compliment to the PAP. But perhaps the government no longer has faith in its own mainstream media since it is always “slightly behind the curve” as Cherion George said recently.
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From the time Lee was a schoolboy, his aggressiveness has been the subject of comment. A story in circulation during the 1960s came from a family source. The eleven-year-old Harry asked an uncle for one of his canaries. The uncle refused an
d thought no more of it until he discovered the dead bird: the boy had pulled all its feathers out. 'If he could not have it, no one else would.' 'Lee would hit anybody' was the testimony of another old family friend.

Since coming to office, Lee has tended to indulge his instinct to bully and demolish. The need to flee from untenable situations have been reduced and dignified by the mechanism of physical or mental withdrawal. Power mostly removes the humiliation of being bested.

Within this dominant characteristic of aggression we may trace elements of rage, fear and self-aggrandisement. They may be proportionate to what arouses them, or they may carry an extra force derived from a previous injury. They make a negotiated settlement so much harder.

Two quite separate sources related the following story: 'A former Singapore newspaper proprietor, now retired, was having an audience with Lee and apparently not toeing the line. Lee leaned over, grabbed him by the collar, and said "I'm a thug, you're a thug, and as one to another, you'll do what I say."

- James Minchin. No Man Is An Island, 1987



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Further readings :

James Minchin refused entry to Singapore

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