Ex-detainees, activists mark 30th anniversary of 1987 'Marxist conspiracy'

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
(L-R) Former detainees Low Yit Leng and Chng Suan Tze, moderators Constance Singham and Kirsten Han, and former detainees Vincent Cheng and Kenneth Tsang. Photo: Nicholas Yong

Former detainees and social activists marked the 30th anniversary of the alleged Marxist conspiracy in 1987 with the launch of a new book at The Projector on Sunday (21 May).

Entitled “1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On”, it consists of essays by some 30-odd contributors, including many who were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). It is published by civil society group Function 8.

The launch was preceded by a screening of the documentary 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy by filmmaker Jason Soo, and a dialogue session with former ISA detainees Vincent Cheng, 70, Kenneth Tsang, 64, Chng Suan Tze, 68, and Low Yit Leng, in her 50s. The ex-detainees called for the abolition of the ISA and to allow political exiles to come back to Singapore.

Cheng, who was a full-time church worker in 1987, was fingered as the ringleader of the so-called conspiracy.

“Deep down, the trauma is still there… it still features back, now and then, in my dreams,” he said in response to a question from the audience about whether he had suffered any post-detention trauma. He also noted that, before the events of 1987, he had been “very pro-PAP” – referring to Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party – while training at a seminary to become a Catholic priest.

Veteran activist Constance Singham, who moderated the event, also called the detainees’ experience “the cruelest of injustices”, adding that the events of 1987 had made Singaporeans “cynical, suspicious and fearful” of civil society. “We all lived in fear of detention, that knock on the door at midnight,” she said.

(PHOTO: Yahoo Newsroom / Nicholas Yong)

The ‘Marxist conspiracy’

On 21 May 1987, the authorities carried out Operation Spectrum, which saw 16 people detained 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. The following month, another six individuals were arrested.

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.

An International Court of Justice delegation visited Singapore in 1987 and concluded in a report that there was “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.

About 200 people were in attendance at Sunday’s event, including opposition figures Chen Show Mao, Chee Soon Juan and Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss.