Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reviews: Operation Spectrum public forum

A comment by an ex-detainee

by Teo Soh lung
3 July 2009
posted on yawningbread

Interesting and provocative article.

The criticism that lawyers were not creative enough after the ISA was amended to do away with judicial review is not fair.

4 detainees (including me) took out habeas corpus proceedings against the government. The Court of Appeal in Chng Suan Tze and 2 Ors released us on a technical ground. Incidentally, my lawyers did not raise this technical ground but the judges thought they were doing me a favour by releasing me as well. The release was just for a few minutes for soon after we were driven out of the prison gate, ISD officers rearrested all of us.

Being a lawyer then and having great faith in the courts, I filed habeas proceedings once again. Parliament then proceeded to amend the ISA to abolish judicial review. I lost the case in the Court of Appeal. The judgement did not respond to the eloquent submissions on judicial review of Lord Alexander QC who acted for me in the appeal. I would have proceeded to the Privy Council had parliament not removed that avenue.

On the criticism that detainees could have sued the government for torture but did not, well, I did. Unfortunately, I had to abandon my claim for damages and paid cost in exchange for my release after the Court of Appeal dismissed my appeal. I could have chosen to stay in jail indefinitely though but I did not.

As for living blissfully by not knowing the past, I guess it is a personal choice.


Remember or forget? The 1987 "Marxist conspiracy"
By Alex Au

"There are very few human rights which are absolute," lawyer George Hwang told the audience. "Even the right to life is not absolute."

"But freedom from torture is one of them; it is one of the few rights that is absolute."

He said this to explain that those detained without trial in 1987 and 1998 under the Internal Security Act (ISA) could have sued the government.

Some of those detained have, in the years since their release, that they were inhumanely treated while in detention. Tang Lay Lee and others have written about being physically assaulted with body blows. Others have recorded being interrogated in icy-cold rooms dressed in nothing but shorts, when their interrogators had woolen jackets. Or interrogated for long hours without sleep.

Despite allegations of torture surfacing repeatedly, the Singapore government has never denied such treatment.

The Habeas Corpus petitions were unsuccessful. The government also changed the law to remove judicial review of executive decisions taken under the ISA. But this shouldn't be the end of it. Our lawyers are not creative enough to find ways to sue, said George Hwang. Everybody seemed to have given up when the law was changed to remove judicial review of detention orders. But one could still have sued over torture.

He was speaking at a forum organised by filmmaker Martyn See (see his blog) on the arrests of the "Marxist conspirators", as the government labelled those they detained. It was held at a hotel last Sunday, 28 June 2009.

People don't want to talk anymore about these events, but nonetheless this episode has lasting consequences on the Singapore of today, Martyn told the room of about 40 participants. "I want to destigmatise this issue."

The first of the lasting consequences has been mentioned above -- abolishing the power of the courts to review executive decisions, one of the most fundamental principles in the rule of law, for how else do we ensure that government decisions are lawful? The government has in the years since applied the same change to other laws. Censorship decisions applied by the Media Development Authority and confirmed by the minister for example now cannot be challenged in a court of law either. This being the case, how can our courts protect the right to freedom of expression? We have repeatedly raped basic principles of constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

Another lasting consequence of the events in the late 1980s is the emasculation of the Law Society, though this was not a direct result of the ISA arrests, but more the result of the battle of wills between Francis Seow, the then president of the Law Society, and the government. Seow lost, and he was later to be detained under the ISA in 1988 for assisting the earlier batch of detainees.

Traditionally, law societies in democratic countries offer opinion on proposed legislation. But our Legal Profession Act has been amended to restrict that function to only such times as the government deign to ask the opinion of the Law Society.

Section 59(1)(d) says:
(d) to examine and if it thinks fit to report upon current or proposed legislation submitted to it and any other legal matters;

(emphasis in bold made by Yawning Bread).

If the government does not ask, the law society has to shut up.

Here is another area where I too think Singapore lawyers (there are exceptions of course) tend to be an underwhelming bunch. Nothing should have stopped them from forming another organisation to critique proposed and existing legislation. If the Law Society can't do it, form another. Yet, it is not done. The gag is accepted.

For example, does any reader recall lawyers coming together to comment on the recent amendment to the Films Act re political films? Or to the recently passed Public Order Act that redefines public assembly to be a group of one person, giving powers to police to chase him away, and stopping others from filming and photographing the actions of police?

There should have been vibrant debate, if not uproar, but there wasn't. Why this timid abandonment by our legal profession of their responsibility to the civic space? Is it a sign of how demoralised and scared our lawyers are, after the "edifying" experience of Francis Seow being detained in 1988?

* * * * *

Why were the 24 persons arrested between May 1987 and May 1988? The common denominator for nearly all those arrested was that they were trying to help low-paid factory workers and other underprivileged. They were Roman Catholics, and moved to manifest their faith by social action.

As Vincent Cheng, one of those detained, wrote:

What is justice and how do you bring it about? Was Jesus bothered about justice? Why are some churches more interested in charity than in justice?

The old theological understanding of justice as commutative justice – that is, the kind of justice that deals with how individuals relate to one another – clouds the newer understanding of justice as a Kingdom value that is fundamental to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Individual justice has to be understood as part of the larger whole of social justice, not the other way round. Thus, justice is to be understood primarily as being concerned with how society is organised, Working for justice means working to build a society that is intrinsically just. The World Council of Churches summed it up best: "What the world needs is a just, participative, and sustainable society."

-- Vincent Cheng in That we may dream again, published 2009 by Ethos Books, edited by Fong Hoe Fang,

Cheng, who had trained as a priest, committed himself to working for migrant workers and domestic helpers.

In 1982, the Geyland Catholic Centre needed someone to help coordinate its various functions as a mediation centre fo runaway domestic helpers, an activity centre for young Malaysian workers, a halfway house for ex-prisoners and a counselling centre for troubled people. I took up the job and concentrated on the issues of migrant workers. These foreigners came to develop our economy, many leaving their homes at high personal and financial cost to take up lowly-paid jobs here which were shunned by the locals. They lived in substandard housing conditions and faced various restrictions on their personal and social life.
- ibid.

Tang Lay Lee wrote about her involvement with the Young Christian Workers (YCW) Jurong Centre, 1980 – 1987.

I remember the long bus journeys to Jurong which seemed so remote. So when the YCW asked me to take one of their English classes for factory workers – mostly Malaysian and young females – why did I agree? I felt I wanted to do something practical, I wanted to see for myself what factory workers were like, and I wanted to see Jurong, our largest industrial estate.
-- Tang Lay Lee in That we may dream again, published 2009 by Ethos Books, edited by Fong Hoe Fang,

Such was the idealism of youth. Further on, she wrote,

I chatted, cooked, joked and laughed with the workers who came to the Centre for English classes, or games, or just to relax and socialise in the evenings and during weekends. We also had activities like Labour Day celebrations, labour discussions , outings and overseas holidays.

Knowing the law is one things, claiming workers' rights is an entirely different ball game.

So anyone who thinks that it is easy to "instigate" workers to do what seems to right should have his head examined and his heart replaced. Well, the YCW was not involved involved in instigating workers, which would be disrespectful, dishonest and heartless.

One thing we did together was to organise a modest survey on the effects of the 12-hour shift and publish our findings and recommendations in the Catholic News. Workmen's compensation was another issue workers were concerned about, so we organised volunteer lawyers to provide legal counselling and representation.
-- ibid.

My guess is that most younger readers of Yawning Bread would find all the above to be news to them. Was that all they were doing? And they got detained under the ISA and subsequently tortured, for that?

The horror of such heavy-handedness may be one reason why Singapore's political conversation in the years since has avoided discussing these arrests. It's as if we have been so traumatised by these events, we suffer a collective amnesia and mental block.

Our mainstream media, naturally, cannot delve far into it either. The problem is that the injustice is to stark, and official explanation so ridiculous, there is no credible way for journalists with any shred of integrity to revisit this story without poking huge holes in the government's case.

As my friend Russell Heng pointed out at the forum, by the late 1980s, Marxism was in terminal decline. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, workers in Poland -- the same workers that Marxism and communism claimed to champion -- were demonstrating under the banner of Solidarnosc against the communist state, while in China, Deng Xiaoping had buried Mao-Tse-tung thought and opened Special Economic Zones for capitalists. Did Lee Kuan Yew really think that labelling Vincent Cheng et al "Marxists" would convince anybody?

In my view, it didn't. That being the case, how does anyone -- journalists, academics, etc -- discuss this case without drawing attention to the absurdity, and thus the likelihood of illegal abuse of power, at its very heart? Yet, accusing the government of abuse of power is fraught with risk. Hence, talking about it became a kind of taboo for 22 years since.

* * * * *

The irony is, Martyn See said, non-government organisations today, such as TWC2 and HOME, are doing ten times more than what those early activists did for migrant workers. Indeed, it seems to me that people Like Bridget Lew, Jolovan Wham and Stephanie Chok are far more outspoken than any of those lay Catholics in the 1980s.

Heng, who is active in TWC2, reckoned that many of the younger volunteers would know very little of the 1987 detainees and their work history. Today's young volunteers go about their work driven by their own idealism.

If that is so, I asked, shouldn't we let forgetfulness stand? Why recall the details of 1987 and 1988 and scare a new generation away? Why not let the young beat a new path blissfully unaware of the pain suffered by others?

Because those who are unaware of history may end up repeating it? suggested See.
I don't know if history is programmed to repeat itself. Our government leaders change too, and old instincts to crack down on the slightest attempt by anyone to pursue an agenda not to the government's liking, may not stay the same. Or am I wrong?

* * * * *

I was a little surprised to see The New Paper send a reporter to Martyn See's forum. I thought our mainstream media would studiously ignore the forum. Even so, I was skeptical about a report eventually appearing in the newspaper.

Yet, there it was on the next day's print edition. And a pretty fair account it was too, one that even carried what Chee Siok Chin said. She is the sister of opposition leader Chee Soon Juan and herself one of the leaders of the Singapore Democratic Party. I had thought there was a complete ban on any publicity for the Chees.

Have some things changed?

Or is the editor going to get the rap for going out on a limb? We shall see.

* * * * *

The initial response of the Catholic Church in the days following the first arrests, was quire supportive, with a solidarity mass held. But by the second week, Archbishop Gregory Yong's arm had clearly been twisted by the government. After that the Church no longer stood by its lay workers, a betrayal that some of the detainees have written bitterly about. The archbishopric owes them all an apology.


Breaking The Ice After 22 Years

by Tng Ying Hui

Forty people comprising of social activists and members of the public gathered at the Diamond Room of Quality Hotel on Sunday June 28 to revisit Operation Spectrum.

22 years ago, in 1987, the government of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew detained 22
Singaporeans under the Internal Security Act. They were accused of being involved in a Marxist plot to destabilize Singapore politically and socially. They were never charged in court.

As Mr Martyn See, organiser, social-activist and filmmaker, read excerpts from various books relating to the incident, those present were reminded of the torture, beatings and psychological manipulations that were inflicted on the detainees.

Without a designated speaker, the forum attendees took to the floor to share their opinions for three and a half hours.

“Ghost of ’87 is still very much lurking everywhere”

Ms Sylvia, who is in her early 50s, shared her experience of how students at the Catholic Student Association in the National University of Singapore (NUS) “had concerns about the 80s”. She was helping with the association’s 60th anniversary celebration then.

As the local Catholic Church had played a significant role in Operation Spectrum, the Church’s method of handling the issue was controversial.

“History haunts us,” Ms Sylvia said.

“Victims of injustice should not let live”

Mr Michael Fernandez, an ex-detainee, not of Operation Spectrum however, captivated the audience with his personal experience.

Mr Fernandez was a student in the University then, and a member of a socialist club which supported the ideas of Marxism for Singapore and Malaysia. He later joined the Naval Base Union to help workers obtain economic benefits, such as increase in pay, annual leave and medical leave. As previous negotiations were futile, they went on strike on October 7 1964. The government called his effort a “political issue” and detained him in Changi prison for 9 years.

“I paid a price for the views I held. No regrets,” said Mr Fernandez as he smiled and spoke of his past.

His experience raised questions of the government’s bona fide intentions in Operation Spectrum.

Mr Russell Heng, former Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said it was nearing the demise of the cold war, and therefore “in 1987 for a government to come out to say people are Marxist is shocking.”

“It is odd to fashion a whole internal detention on claims that are so flimsy and irrational, when Singapore’s government always pride themselves on being rational,” Mr Heng said.

“Capture the imagination of the public”

Beneath Mr See’s agenda of “breaking the ice on a taboo subject” hid complications of the silenced history. The question, “What were the detainees doing before going to prison?” asked by Mr Alex Au, social activist, was left unanswered, and perhaps lingered in the minds of many who had hoped that the detainees would be present to provide their personal experiences.

Mr Au asked for the counter narrative to the government’s story to be told in ways that would capture the imagination of the public. He also urged Singaporeans to break the boundaries and think of imaginative ways to speak up.

“[People] often play by the rules, think and act in linear ways rather than explore new continents,” he said.

Despite the importance of speaking up and thinking out of the box, the nagging suspicion of whether there is space for them to do so lingers. Without it, to be able to think freely becomes questionable.

To this Mr See said: “Our role as bloggers is to lessen the climate of fear and think freely.”

“What I can do as an individual?”

Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Ms Chee Siok Chin raised this question while advocating for togetherness, personal commitment and conviction against PAP’s “divide and conquer” style, which denies the public a platform to challenge policies.

In furthering this point, Mr John Tan, Assistant Secretary General of the SDP, said that in order for Singapore to be a vibrant democracy, civil participation was needed. His suggestion to abolish the ISA did not materialize into a call to action when the forum ended, however. Despite being disappointed, he is not discouraged as the forum is “definitely a step forward”, he said.

With the availability of the internet, the government has to relinquish its grip on civil society. The incremental progression however, is considered “too slow” by Mr See.

In the future

The mood on the whole was not dampened by the absence of the detainees. Although two of them were scheduled to be present at the forum, they could not make it due to last minute changes in the date. There were a few, however, who expressed disappointment.

Mr Terence Teo, 26, a member of the audience, said, “[The event] would have been better if there were some detainees there to shed light on the whole issue. Or else it’s just speculation.”

Mr See intends to hold another forum to commemmorate Operation Coldstore which saw hundreds detained in 1963. He hopes to hold the event in February next year, this time with at least a designated speaker.
For more on Operation Spectrum, read The Online Citizen’s special focus: Truth or Government Propaganda?


'If only detainees were there'
Film-maker holds forum to raise awareness on 1987 Marxist conspiracy
By Tay Shi'an
The New Paper
June 30, 200

HE CAME hoping to hear first-hand accounts of one of the biggest political shockers in Singapore history.

Operation Spectrum by the Internal Security Department (ISD) had led to the detention of 22 people accused of being part of a Marxist conspiracy in 1987.

But Mr Terence Teo, 26, was left disappointed when none of the 22 attended an open forum at the Quality Hotel at Balestier yesterday to discuss the topic.

The forum, organised by film-maker Martyn See, was aimed at keeping the issue in the public consciousness, and having an open discussion on it.

It worked to some extent. Mr Teo, who works for a GPS company, read about the event on blogs, got curious, and decided to attend.

He said wryly: 'My friends will laugh at me for attending, how come I'm bothered about something that happened more than 20 years ago.

'(The event) would have been better if there were some detainees there to shed light on the whole issue. Or else it's just speculation.'

Mr See said he had invited several of the Operation Spectrum detainees to attend. But he was forced to change the date of the event from 20 Jun to yesterday, as the previous venue's management cancelled the booking at the last minute.

Two of the former detainees then e-mailed him, saying they couldn't make it on the new date.

So for stretches during yesterday's forum, Mr See took to reading from books on the incident.

40 people attend

The forum was attended by about 40 people, including Ms Chee Siok Chin, the sister of Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, SDP lawyer M Ravi, activist and blogger Alex Au, and MrLeong Sze Hian, president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals.

With no designated speakers, the attendees took the floor. One spoke about how the interest level on the Internal Security Act was low. When she told a taxi driver about the event, the driver mistakenly replied that he was also in the security business.

Mr Au felt the key was more information from the detainees. While they have given accounts in books on what they went through when they were arrested and detained, he felt more information needed to be given about what they had done before being arrested, so that people can judge for themselves if they had really deserved to be detained.

He felt such stories needed to be told from a human interest level as well, rather than the human rights language most activists are used to. 'We're too comfortable preaching to the converted,' he said.

He said he has given one of the key detainees a standing invitation to be interviewed for his blog, Yawning Bread, but has not received a yes.

The attendees did get to hear of one detainee's story, though it was not related to Operation Spectrum.

That was Mr Michael Fernandez, 75, who was arrested in 1964 and detained for nine years.

Mr See paid $450 out of his own pocket for the venue. Some who attended the event dropped money into a box at the end of the event, covering more than half the cost.


Read also

Operation Spectrum open forum: a good start

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