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Untracing the Conspiracy: The story of Operation Spectrum

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Untracing the Conspiracy: The story of Operation Spectrum
In 1987, over 20 activists, theatre practitioners, social workers and lawyers were detained without trial and accused of being involved in a 'Marxist Conspiracy' under Operation Spectrum. The arrests killed civil society activity in Singapore for a long, long time.

The police came in the early hours of the morning, banging on doors and demanding to be let in. Some were told that it was regarding "illegal immigrants", only to find out later that the officers were from the Internal Security Department, and that they were to be arrested under the Internal Security Act. They were then bundled into cars, blindfolded and taken away.

Tan Tee Seng and Low Yitleng recount their interrogations under Operation Spectrum.

So begins the story of Operation Spectrum as told by eight detainees in Jason Soo's 54-minute documentary 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy, screened to a packed hall at The Project on Wednesday. 

Through interviews with the detainees and onscreen text, the story unfolds – from the arrests in the wee hours of the morning to the long, cold interrogations, the intimidation. The abuse and assault. The sleep deprivation. The psychological pressure. And of course, the forced confessions.

Operation Spectrum, also known as the Marxist Conspiracy, nipped Singapore civil society – as it was in the 80s – in the bud, sending theatre practitioners, social workers and advocates into a tizzy of fear and paranoia. Its impact is still felt today; civil society, activism and citizen engagement in 2016 is still in such a nascent stage because the arrests frightened a generation, and Singaporeans are only recently starting to explore (again) political action and discussion. Yet the government continues to be tight-lipped about the episode, and there is no national reconciliation effort to bring the whole episode into the daylight, and to deliver justice to those who were detained without trial.

The detainees speak matter-of-factly about being slapped, punched and coerced. Chew Keng Chuan even recounts his arrest as a funny story, triggering laughs even as he describes being assaulted with a "slam dunk" blow from an ISD officer.

One particularly heartbreaking anecdote comes from Vincent Cheng – the supposed ringleader – when he talks about how he confessed. After being beaten, Cheng finally cracked and said, "Okay, I'm Marxist." The lights came on in the interrogation room, and he was brought a cup of tea and ang ku kueh, a traditional Chinese delicacy. He still feels revulsion towards the dish today.

Vincent Cheng was detained for a period of three years, the longest out of all the detainees. He was kept in solitary confinement.

I have the privilege of knowing a number of the detainees, including some who weren't in the film, so I already knew the broad bones of the story. But the stories, and the painstaking detail with which they were told, brought it home again and again. It brought me face-to-face with the fact that this was something that happened in Singapore; that this abuse of power had taken place in my home country, and that there is still no accountability, no redress, no justice.

I do wish, though, that Soo trusted his audience more. There was too much spoon-feeding going on, with the text onscreen sometimes telling viewers what to think or even what to look out for in a scene. These interjections disrupted the flow and tone of the detainees' accounts. It would have been more emotionally hard-hitting if the audience had been able to arrive at their own reactions without being told what they should feel. The detainees' experiences, after all, are more than able to speak for themselves.

A Q&A session, moderated by filmmaker Martyn See, took place after the screening. Five detainees – William Yap, Teresa Lim, Kenneth Tsang, Vincent Cheng and Chng Suan Tze – took to the stage to field questions.

All five said that they bore no bitterness over what had happened, and had managed to move on with their lives. Yet they clearly felt the importance of telling their stories, of making sure that Operation Spectrum does not fade into obscurity without a proper accounting. 

"This is an injustice the government would like to gloss over," Cheng said, calling for a national reconciliation to investigate the period and bring the truth to light.

He also pointed out that the oppression did not simply end at the detentions; many of the detainees were slapped with restriction orders upon their release. Cheng's restriction orders included a ban on communicating with anyone who was a member of any organisation implicated in the supposed conspiracy for a period of five years. This included the Catholic Church, which meant that Cheng was not even able to speak to his religious leaders about the trauma that he had endured for a period of three years in solitary confinement.

It was a testimony that was shocking and outrageous, revealing a vindictiveness that was hard to swallow. Like the accounts in the film, it was a testimony that was difficult to listen to.

But that is precisely why Singaporeans must listen. And not forget.

#human rights, #politics, #singapore, #detention without trial, #operation spectrum