The use of the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial, sparked one of the most cataclysmic events in Singapore. In what came to be known as the "Marxist conspiracy" arrests, the detentions in 1987 of a group of young social workers, lawyers, businessmen, theatre practitioners and other professionals sent shockwaves across the nation and the world. It triggered the resignation of senior Catholic priests, prayer masses for the detainees, and unprecedented international condemnation from human rights groups and foreign governments. Although the "Marxist conspiracy" story effectively ended in 1990 when the last of its detainees, Teo Soh Lung and Vincent Cheng, were released, its effects are still being felt in Singapore today, particularly within civil society and the Catholic Church. A shadow of fear continues to hang over any discussion of the subject. Very few articles are written about it and many of its players, including ex-detainees living in and out of Singapore, are reluctant to speak about it in public.
However, one ex-detainee did speak out publicly against the detentions. Miss Tang Fong Har was a lawyer when she was arrested on June 20, 1987. She was released 85 days later, having had spend most of her time in solitary confinement. In April of 1988, along with eight others, she issued a joint statement alleging unjustified arrests, ill-treatment, forced TV confession and a recantation of their earlier signed confession. Immediately, the government ordered their re-arrests. Tang escaped re-arrest as she was overseas at that time, and has remained in exile ever since.
Dated 27 May 1987, this Straits Times headline was the first report of the "Marxist conspiracy" detentions which were actually carried out six days earlier on May 21. In my interview with Said Zahari, he had said that the first weeks of interrogation were the roughest. In this case, one would imagine the five day lapse between the initial arrests and the government's press release gave the ISD interrogators ample time to extract confessions and recantations from the detainees.
This Straits Times headline on June 21, 1987 stated that the government had released four detainees and arrested six more. Therefore, although it is often quoted that the "Marxist conspiracy" involved 22 detainees, truth is not all of them were incarcerated at the same time. Miss Tang Fong Har is pictured on the top left between Vincent Cheng and Chew Kheng Chuan.
May 21, 2007 will mark the 20th Anniversary of the "Marxist conspiracy". As a personal commemoration, I went scouring for articles hitherto unavailable online and found a booklet of speeches made by Singaporean and Malaysian activists and academics in a conference held at the European Parliament in March of 1989.
The experience of detention under the ISA in Singapore
by Tang Fong Har
I was one of the twenty-two people arrested by the Singapore Government in 1987, detained for 85 days (of which 75 were in solitary confinement) and when released, was still subject to severe restrictions which infringed on my basic civil liberties.
The Government's accusations against the twenty-two people who were detained (who were made up of community and trade union workers, lawyers, amateur dramatists and other professionals) were that we were all involved in a 'marxist conspiracy' to overthrow the Singapore government.
After our release, in April 1988, some of us issued a joint statement in which we categorically denied the Government's accusation against us and we also described the ill-treatment that we had undergone while in detention. Within a day of the release of the statement, those who signed the statement who were in Singapore (eight people) were re-arrested, and today some of them are still in imprisoned by my Government.
Let me described a little of the experience of being detained in Singapore.
My ordeal began on the 20th June 1987, when at 1 o'clock in the morning, four plain-clothed police entered my house without a search warrant saying that they were looking for an illegal immigrant. They gained entry into my home and then stated that I was under arrest under the Internal Security Act. My husband and I were ordered not to move, speak to each other or make any calls to my lawyer or any family member. They systemically searched my house and confiscated my passport, diary, minutes of my law society meetings and other things. I should state that I was a lawyer and was actively involved in the Law Society of Singapore and also a member of a women's group.
Eventually, they took me to the Detention Centre. I was always guarded by two people. I was ordered to strip and change into prison clothing. Then I was photographed, finger-printed, and brought down a passageway. One of the doors of the passageway opened into a basement dungeon of many rooms. One of my first impressions was that the room was very cold, and the spotlights were such that I could not see the faces of my interrogators. I was ordered to stand with my hands behind my back, and then the interrogation began.
It was shouting, verbal abuse, about my Law Society activities, my work and my family life. I was threatened constantly with indefinite detention, and the name of Chia Thye Poh (who had been detained for over 20 years at that time) was referred to several times. They said that if I did not cooperate with the secret police, they would wait for me in the same way that they were still waiting for Chia. During my interrogation, which lasted non-stop for 20 hours, I obviously gave 'unsatisfactory' answers. I was slapped in the face, and the impact of the assault sent me rolling on the floor. There was a silence followed by further interrogation. After 20 hours I remember throwing up. I indicated to them I would be willing to sign a statement.
I was then moved from that room to another one. I started and finished my statement. After each page I had to give it to the case officer, who would look through it. If he was unhappy with any part of it, he would pass it back it again and I would have to re-do it until it was to his satisfaction. And so we continued in this fashion. I had to write about the Law Society, make a list of about a hundred people (of whom J.B. Jeyaretnam was one) and then I was told that if I did not publicly confess on TV, I would not be released. And so I went on TV.
Thereafter I was moved to a bigger cell. After the third week, I was allowed a few hours rest in a cell 3 ft. by 6 ft. by about 15 ft. high. This cell had no windows but had some ventilation slits. After one month, I was served with with a detention order for one year specifically on two charges of manipulating the opposition Workers' Party to further the marxist cause and of instigating the Law Society of Singapore to become a political pressure group. I was moved to a bigger cell but was still in solitary confinement. Family visits were limited to one visit of half-an-hour a week. At every visit, three internal security police stood in the same room, and we were told not to talk about the conditions of the cell or to talk about the statement. To ignore this would mean the loss of such visits. We were also strongly discouraged from filing habeas corpus actions to challenge the legality of the detentions.
Except for the sun and the weather, you have no idea of the time, no contact with the outside world and you know that the detention order is an administrative order. What this means is that the Minister of Home Affairs can decide, after the initial two years, to extend the order for another two years, and so on, ad infinitum.
At the end of 85 days in detention, I was told, at two hours' notice, that I would be released. I was also told that if I created any more trouble, I would be detained again and this time 'left to rot'. I was warned to be careful about what I said to the press, as this could jeopardise the release of those still held in detention. I was given conditions on my release: that I could not leave the country without permission, and that I could not join any society without permission.
I also had to periodically report to the police so that they could monitor my progress.
Let me take this opportunity to read from an Amnesty International report on the detentions in Singapore, who quoted the experience of another detainee:
'The interrogation room was 16 ft. by 12 ft.. It was soundproof, and two teams of interrogators worked in twelve hour shifts, round the clock for the first three days. The worst treatment was during these first three days. While I was being questioned and shouted at, I was made to stand continuously for 32 hours in the cold air-conditioned room. My first non-stop interrogation lasted 64 hours. I received my first slap across the face three minutes into this interrogation. It was during the first 36 hours that I received all the slaps and hits. I would have received about 50 hand slaps across my face, chest, stomach and back.
According to others, they slapped man or woman alike if they did not get a satisfactory account. The slaps brought on uncontrollable coughing and head spun. I kept telling myself all the time that I was not a communist. They threatened to slap me more if I did not stop lying. I persisted and was slapped some more. It was incredible. My head was groggy and they threatened to pour cold water on me. But I gave the same answers to the same unreasonable questions. Water was thrown on me and I shivered uncontrollably. My jaws were chattering and I collapse to the floor.'
What have the families of the detainees undergone and are still undergoing? Visits are limited and contact at the visits inhibited by a glass panel. If words are said which displease the security police present, they will cut off the telephone through which communication is made. There are many rules for the detainees. They are allowed to write letters but not allowed to draw any pictures or sketches. Cards, Christmas cards, cards from Amnesty International and other organisations and individuals are impounded. They are not allowed any papers or any other communication. There is no human contact beyond the occasional half an hour with their solicitor.
The Archbishop of Singapore has stopped saying masses for the detainees although families and friends continue to hold them. Recently, friends and supporters of detainees have started a regular monthly newsletter at very great personal risk, about the situation in the country.
As a conclusion, I would like to salute the spirit of the people who are still being held in detention, and emphasise most strongly how much they and their families need our support.
- Tang Fong Har, 1989
Wikipedia on Marxist Conspiracy
Tang Fong Har remembers
Singapore says it is holding 39 people for terrorism, espionage involvement