Documentary on 1987 Marxist conspiracy plays to sold out crowd

(L-R) Former Internal Security Act detainees William Yap, 69; Teresa Lim, 61; Kenneth Tsang, 63; Vincent Cheng, 69; Chng Suan Tze, 67 

A documentary on the alleged Marxist conspiracy of 1987, which saw 22 people detained under the Internal Security Act, played to a sold-out audience on Wednesday night (13 April).

A rough cut of “1987: Untracing The Conspiracy”, which was first shown at the Freedom Film Festival in Singapore last November, was screened before an audience of about 200 people at The Projector.

The 54-minute version, rated R21, was screened in hopes of raising funds to finish filming the documentary. The filmmakers have so far raised about $25,000, and are hoping to raise a total of $65,000.

According to the Media Development Authority, “the film is rated R21 with the consumer advice of ‘Mature Content’ as maturity will be required to understand the historical and socio-political circumstances surrounding the incident, and to discern that the film presents a perspective by the detainees.”

Controversial moment in history

In May and June 1987, authorities carried out Operation Spectrum and detained 22 people under the ISA for their alleged involvement in a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government. Those arrested included social workers, church workers and theatre practitioners.

Many of the detainees made televised confessions of their roles in the alleged plot. Nine of them later signed a statement saying that they had confessed under duress and were subjected to torture. They were subsequently re-arrested in 1988, with some of them detained for up to three years.

The detentions prompted protests from about 200 organisations abroad. An International Court of Justice delegation went to Singapore in 1987, and concluded in a report that “there is no evidence of a Marxist conspiracy”.

Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong also revealed in 2009 that former National Development Minister S. Dhanabalan left the Cabinet in 1992, partly because he did not agree with how the issue had been handled.

Filmmaker Jason Soo, 39, told Yahoo Singapore that he had spoken to more than 10 of the former detainees for the documentary and hopes to get input from the authorities as well. “For some of them, the scars they have suffered have not healed. They still dream about it.”

The movie’s rating

Soo said that it took more than three months before the film was given a rating by the MDA in March. “It’s very officious, and there is not much of an engagement. You just apply and then you get the answer. You don’t know why it’s rated R21.”

He added, “The so-called confessions of the ex-detainees were broadcast on prime time in 1987. Everyone could watch it, including children. So why should they put an R21 rating on it? It is very frustrating that the audience will be limited.”

Authorities here have had a touchy relationship with politically themed films and publications. In 2014, Tan Pin Pin’s documentary “To Singapore, with Love”, which features interviews with several detainees of the 1963 Operation Coldstore, was banned from public screenings in Singapore. Last year, Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which has a strong focus on Singapore’s tumultuous history during the 1950s and 1960s, also had a grant by the National Arts Council withdrawn for its “sensitive” content.

The detainees have their say

During a question and answer session with five former detainees at The Projector, an audience member asked if they felt any bitterness.

In response, William Yap, 69, said, “A little, I must say. I cannot forget the day when they took me away, when my mother was there hoping for a hug from me, but it didn’t materialise.”

Vincent Cheng, 69, a full-time church worker in 1987, was fingered as the ringleader of the conspiracy. He said, “If you ask me whether I have righteous anger at this social injustice…yes, I’m angry. This is an injustice which the government would like to gloss over.”

1987: Untracing The Conspiracy will screen at The Projector again on 26 April. More details can be found here