More than 400 people, young and old, gathered at Hong Lim Park on Saturday afternoon to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Operation Coldstore, a round of mass political arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA) that took place on the same day in 1963.
Organised by a group of former Operation Coldstore detainees and volunteers, the event, titled “We Remember”, saw five former detainees from the Coldstore detention period, as well as Operation Spectrum detainee Teo Soh Lung, share their experiences in incarceration.
For organiser and former detainee Tan Kok Fang, 72, the commemoration of the day that changed his life and that of more than a hundred others is of great importance.
“It is something which happened to our lives long ago — 50 years ago — and it has left an indelible mark in our lives... and every time we think about it it pains us,” he said.
Sharing about the “very strong sense of camaraderie” that he has built up with fellow former detainees over the years, Tan said it was in mutual suffering and the pursuit of a common cause that bonded them together.
“I mean we suffered in prison, during hunger strikes we were beaten up, taken away and put into solitary confinement and so on,” he said. “So we shared all these hardships together, and that is the thing that made us come together.”
The group also launched a commemorative book of the same title, with accounts and reflections from former detainees in both English and Mandarin.
Several opposition leaders and civil society members were spotted at the event in support of the anti-ISA cause, such as Singapore Democratic Party leaders Vincent Wijeysingha, Vincent Cheng and Mohamed Jufrie Mahmood; blogger Alex Au; filmmaker Martyn See; and new Democratic Progressive Party leaders Benjamin Pwee and Wilfred Leung.
Although the crowd of attendees consisted mostly of Singaporeans who lived through the period, a significant number of younger people were present as well — not just as spectators either. Several were there as volunteers, with some documenting the event in pictures or video, and others assisting in the sale of the newly-launched books and collection of donations toward the cost of the event.
One of them was 25-year-old Anngee Neo, a freelance illustrator who helped the organising committee to set up chairs and sell books, while collecting donations at the same time.
“I think we have a long way to go in Singapore before we achieve democracy,” she said, although she also acknowledged that the advent of the internet and social media has triggered “a lot of winds of change”.
Neo said she was happy to see more young people like her present and interested in the event, adding that the older guests she spoke to said they were encouraged by their presence as well.
“I just want to do whatever I can, be it selling books, arranging chairs or whatever little bit that can be done,” she said. “I also hope the older folks will see that there are more young people interested (in the cause) and feel encouraged by that... it’s really nice to see them responding really positively.”
The six speakers at the event may have shared different aspects of their experiences and views on the events that unfolded in the early 1960s, but all of them hammered home the same message: for the government to abolish the ISA.
“As victims of the (ISA) we certainly would want that to be abolished,” said Tan. “That is something we hope the younger generation will see and help us in moving that way... because as long as that act is around, we do not have freedom of association, of publication, of expression... the possibility of being detained arbitrarily is there as long as it stays in place.”