Twenty-five years later, a handful of people seek to redress an old wrong
To this day, no one is really sure what it was about. The 22 were mostly young Catholics who were forced to “confess” on television such sins as sending books to China, which might have made a good deal more sense if instead they had been receiving books from China, which was then still a putatively Marxist dictatorship. The detainees didn’t fit any stereotypes as agitators, such as those who rattled the island republic during the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. They were actors, social workers, lawyers and students.
The fact that 400 Singaporeans could assemble in a public park to discuss the 25-year-old events and demand that the government do away with its harsh Internal Security Act without seeing their leaders carted off to jail may be an indication that despite the country’s reputation for draconian punishment for anyone contradicting the government, some things may have indeed changed.
The June 2 event was organized by the human rights NGO Maruah, which calls itself the focal point for the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, a regional group with its secretariat based in Manila. Maruah appealed for 350,000 signatures to call for a commission of inquiry on whether there had been a Marxist conspiracy at all. Another group, Function 8, released a statement saying that “Nothing substantial or credible was ever produced to corroborate the government’s allegations. Later documents showed even greater ambiguity in the reasons behind the detentions in 1987. An injustice was perpetuated and continues to linger to this day.”
Many of the detainees have later alleged wrongful detention, ill treatment and torture.
There is considerable conjecture that then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was concerned about the Catholic liberation theologists who had become active across South America and, in Asia, the Philippines in particular – priests demanding social justice and an end to poverty, and that he didn’t intend to see anything like that happen in Singapore. In court testimony in a libel suit – one of many that Lee would file against the press and particularly several against the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, the then-prime minister said his concern was to prevent a collision between the church and the government. He said he wanted to defuse the situation, which he felt was being aggravated by the actions of some priests in whipping up emotion through press statements and special masses for the detainees.
In any case, the 22 netted by Operation Spectrum were charged with intending to "subvert Singapore's political and social order using communist united front tactics". Vincent Cheng, a full-time church worker was alleged to be the henchman of Tan Wah Piow, a student activist who was jailed in the 1970s and fled to the United Kingdom to claim political asylum and to say he had never had any intention of overthrowing the government.
After their televised “confessions,” all of the detainees were released. However, four months later, nine of them issued a joint statement accusing the government of ill treatment and torture while under detention, denying involvement in any conspiracy and claiming they had been pressured to confess, although those who watched the confessions found that what they had confessed to was pallid stuff indeed.
But the methods of gaining confessions were widely disseminated. Singaporean authorities are vehement that laws prohibit torture, and state that they oppose its use. But while there is no physical punishment, techniques included sleep deprivation, nonstop questioning by teams of interrogators while being blasted with chilled air conditioning after being doused with cold water, threats of physical violence and the complete absence of habeas corpus. Singaporean authorities told detainees they would never be released until they confessed what they were told to confess.
The nine claimed the government had entered into a bargain with them, that in exchange for their confessions they would be left alone to continue their lives in peace, but that the government had broken the bargain, continuing to hold them up as examples. The eight still in the country were immediately re-arrested and only released again on condition that they sign declarations recanting everything they had said in the earlier press statements.
Francis Seow, the former Solicitor General of Singapore, agreed to represent the detainees only to be arrested himself and held for two months during which the strain on him was so difficult that he had to be rushed to a hospital in fear of a heart attack. Seow fled the country and was later charged and convicted in absentia for tax evasion. He now lives in exile in the United States, firing occasional broadsides at the Singapore government in books from afar.
There was other fallout. The episode strained relations between the US government and Singapore when authorities singled out a US Embassy official and accused him of attempting to aid in the overthrow the Singaporean government because he had met with some of the dissidents before they were arrested. The official, a political secretary, apparently was only following regular US practice of meeting with people from all segments of society.
Also, it was that episode as much as any that capped the vendetta between Singapore and the Far Eastern Economic Review, which in its Dec. 17, 1987 issue carried a story that Lee alleged defamed him. Lee filed suit against the Review’s late editor, Derek Davies and the magazine itself over passages in an article that he said suggested that he was intolerant of the Catholic Church, was not in favor of freedom of religious belief and worship, and wanted to victimize Catholic priests and workers.
Lee also alleged that the passages meant that he tricked Archbishop Gregory Yong into attending a press conference at a press conference at the presidential palace, trapped or forced the Archbishop into accepting statements about Vincent Cheng, and used his influence to stop the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation and The Straits Times from broadcasting and publishing the Archbishop’s qualification of his acceptance of statements about Cheng. Lee, of course, won the case, as he has against every other new organization he and the government have sued for libel or charges of contempt of court – in Singaporean courts
Whatever else it did, Operation Spectrum also resulted in the Catholic Church keeping its younger priests and its social workers firmly on a political leash, where they appear to remain to this day.