This year marks the 20th anniversary of the arrest of 22 Singaporeans under the Internal Security Act for their involvement in an alleged Marxist conspiracy. LYDIA LIM and LI XUEYING look back at this episode in Singapore’s history and its impact on the intersection between religion and politics
ISA DETAINEE: Vincent Cheng in a televised confession in 1987 about wanting to set up ‘a classless society’ in Singapore.
THE press statement contained skeletal information. There were only names, and no details of age, sex or occupation. From it, the public was to learn that 16 people had been arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
As reporters fanned out to attach faces to the names on the list that evening of May 21, 1987, the Law Society confirmed that one of its council members was among the 16 held. The society, already gripped by a series of altercations with the Government the previous year, met for yet another emergency meeting that night.
More arrests followed. On June 20, another six people joined the original 16 in detention.
This time, at least one of them was prepared.
When the fateful knock on his door came in the dead of the night, he took a shower and put on a suit and tie so that he would not look dishevelled when the police photograph was snapped. When the detainees’ headshots were released to the media, his would be the only one wearing a ready smile.
However, nothing could conceal the seriousness of the affair. It was the biggest ISA swoop for more than a decade, and would not be surpassed in scale until the terrorism-related arrests post-Sept 11.
Through a series of statements and television interviews, the 22 men and women were presented to a stunned public as members of a Marxist conspiracy out to topple the Government by illegal means.
The spectre of communism was nothing new to Singapore, but the profile of the detainees was seen as unusual: They were mostly English-educated professionals; four worked full time for social organisations under the Catholic Church. These were not Singaporeans influenced by Chinese communism, but by the leftist liberation theology that had been gaining ground within the worldwide Catholic Church.
Aged 18 to 40, the individuals were detained without trial for between one month and three years at Whitley detention centre. The last was freed on June19, 1990.
At the time, the affair was stunning, complete with official revelations that one of the conspirators visited a training camp of Tamil Tiger guerillas, confessions broadcast on national television and condemnations by international human rights groups.
Twenty years since the arrests, the shock and trauma have been all but forgotten. Even a visit to the Internal Security Department’s Heritage Centre, which relives earlier security swoops, will not unearth anything about 1987.
The intervening years have shed little or no additional light on the affair, with no new documents having been released.
The former detainees themselves seem equally reluctant to reopen the issue. It is understood that one group met some months back and, anticipating media attention in this anniversary year, agreed not to grant interviews.
A handful of them live and work overseas. Most chose to remain in Singapore after their release. None is engaged in political or civil society activism. A number of them have successful careers in the private sector, and two have retired.
Two former detainees did agree to speak with Insight on condition of anonymity and a third gave a short e-mail reply.
The first two showed no obvious rancour and even laughed as they recalled how officers from the Internal Security Department (ISD) banged on their doors in the early hours of the morning 20 years ago, changing their lives forever.
When described as a Marxist conspiracy, the affair seems almost quaint in hindsight.
The post-1987 years witnessed the implosion of communism as an alternative ideology. Communist literature is now available here and even former members of the Malayan Communist Party have been on occasion granted special permission by the Government to re-enter the country.
Time appears to have healed the psychological wounds and neutered the radical left, perhaps explaining why the anniversary of the arrests has been a virtual non-event.
YET, 1987 may have cast longer shadows and caused deeper political changes than most people assume.
Although the Government described its swoop as anti-Marxist, many critics read it as a much broader clampdown on political activism – and therefore as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.
These alternative interpretations are still being debated. On Internet forums these past months there have been a few fierce exchanges, with some praising the Government for being ‘proactive’ in putting down a genuine security threat, while others portray the Marxist spectre as a ‘bogeyman’ conjured up to justify crushing any potential political challenge.
What is not in doubt is that many of those who were arrested were doing social work to help the poor and migrant workers, in organisations linked to the Catholic Church. Their ultimate goals, however, were a matter of dispute.
The official account stated that the detainees had infiltrated these various social organisations as part of a clandestine operation aimed at overthrowing the Government through illegal means.
In a televised confession, detainee Vincent Cheng said that he and former student leader and fugitive Tan Wah Piow, based in Britain, wanted to establish a broad base of groups to oppose the Government using violent means, if peaceful ways did not work out. The aim: to set up ‘a classless society’ in Singapore.
He used the Church because it provided ‘ready cover’ for his activities.
After their release, however, nine of the detainees retracted their confessions and denied the Government’s allegations.
In April 1988, they issued a joint statement saying that they had, through legitimate means, ‘advocated more democracy, less elitism, protection of individual freedoms and civil rights, greater concern for the poor and the less privileged and less interference in the private lives of citizens’.
Eight of those who signed the statement were re-arrested and detained for a second time. The ninth was out of the country and did not return.
What followed was a recanting by the eight of the charges of ill-treatment. Nineteen of the 22 detainees also made statutory declarations reaffirming their involvement in the conspiracy.
Many Singaporeans found it hard to reconcile their image of radical communists, like those of the 1950s or 1960s, with this crowd, several of whom were English-educated graduates who were economically well-off and had along the way developed what appeared to be a social conscience.
This uncertainty was even expressed by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam when he was interviewed upon his induction into politics in 2001.
‘Although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but not out to subvert the system,’ said Mr Tharman, who is now Education Minister.
In London, he had been part of a study group led by lawyer Tan Wah Piow – the former dissident student leader named by Vincent Cheng and accused by the Government of being the offsite ‘mastermind of the communist conspiracy’ days after the first arrests in 1987.
The detainees included friends of Mr Tharman, who himself was questioned for a week by the ISD.
Since many civil society types saw the detainees as fired-up do-gooders not very different from themselves, the arrests were interpreted by critics as a warning against activism of any kind.
The Government’s later encouragement of active citizenship had to contend with this deeply-held perception, especially in areas perceived to be politically sensitive – such as foreign workers’ rights.
Today, TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too) and other groups speak up openly for migrant workers. Several of the 1987 detainees had taken up this same cause.
Ms Braema Mathi, former president of TWC2, says it has had to work at exorcising the ghost of 1987 along the way.
‘What got ingrained was the power of the state and the instruments that the state could use. What we embraced was fear. This kind of thing takes a lot of time to shed,’ she says.
Says Think Centre president Sinapan Samydorai: ‘If the intention was to break the backbone of a social awakening of people who could become politically active, then I think they – more or less – achieved it.’
Others take a less bleak view. Mr Robert Kee, founder of Operation Hope Foundation and former president of the Community Outreach Services, the social outreach arm of the Methodist Church here, believes that 1987 had no impact on social activists such as himself, much less caused them to fear.
He believes the Government had done the right thing.
‘It’s a matter of trust, we have to trust the Government to do the right thing. Some people are quite easily misled. You always find people who are attracted to certain causes for whatever reason.
‘In this case, the detainees had not blown up anything. Prevention is always very boring.
‘So, unfortunately for the Government, what it did was not appreciated.’
Religion and politics
THE events of 1987 had a tangible and lasting effect on the relationship between religion and politics in Singapore.
Indeed, one of the counter-conspiracy theories around is that this was the Government’s real target – but since the Government could not be seen as attacking the Church, the ‘Marxist’ label would have to suffice.
Theories aside, the facts are that of the 22 detained, four worked full-time in organisations affiliated to the Catholic Church: the Justice and Peace Commission, the Geylang Catholic Welfare Centre, the Young Christian Workers’ Movement and the Singapore Polytechnic Catholic Students’ Society.
Others volunteered their time at these organisations, which were involved in causes such as the rights of workers, both local and foreign.
In the aftermath of the detentions, the Government showed clearly that it was more concerned about political activists’ links to God than their links to the avowedly anti-religion Karl Marx. It tabled the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, which – in addition to regulating aggressive proselytisation – banned the mixing of religion and politics.
In the Government’s White Paper on the Bill, the ISD said the 1987 detainees had shown how religion could be used for subversive purposes. The ISD highlighted the activities of four Catholic priests who had ‘ventured into social action and acted as a political pressure group’.
These were the same four priests who had led the Catholic organisations implicated in the alleged Marxist plot.
These priests had also published ‘political booklets’ that criticised the Government for ’emasculating the trade unions and enacting labour laws which curtailed the rights of workers’, and made statements that ‘agitated’ against the ISA detentions, the ISD said.
The White Paper spelt out the Government’s position that, in a multi-religious society like Singapore, religion and politics must be kept ‘rigorously separated’.
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) became law in 1990.
With the Act in place, people who repeat the kinds of activity that the Catholic workers were accused of in the 1980s would not need to be detained under the ISA: The Act empowers the Minister for Home Affairs to issue restraining orders against preachers who engage in harmful conduct, which includes causing ill will between religious groups, promoting a political cause or exciting disaffection against the President or Government, under the guise of propagating or practising any religious belief.
Anyone who breaches a restraining order can be fined and jailed.
In February this year, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng informed Parliament that no restraining orders had been issued since 1990, although the ISD had on several occasions warned religious leaders against mixing religion with politics and putting down other faiths.
It would be unrealistic, however, to claim that the MRHA settled once and for all the age-old issue of how best to separate church and state.
Even during the debate on the Bill, religious leaders and several Members of Parliament voiced their concern that the faithful cannot be expected to keep their beliefs completely out of public life.
The Government itself has nuanced its position. With the means in place to discipline errant religious leaders through the MRHA, it was able to invite religious groups, along with other people-sector organisations, to help build a stronger civic society.
So it was that in 1991, then acting minister for information and the arts George Yeo acknowledged in a landmark speech the need to ‘prune the banyan tree’, an apt metaphor for the state to recede a little, to let civic organisations grow. The growth of groups of people invested emotionally in the country would help in transforming it from a hotel into a home, he said.
‘What are these civic institutions?’ asked Mr Yeo, who went on to list five major categories. Religion was one of the five.
‘I would say that so long as we avoid extreme positions, civic activity organised around religious worship is a positive, not a negative, force,’ he added.
Social organisations have proliferated over the past decade. Today, many social services are run by religious groups, and their leaders are actively consulted on relevant policies. Singapore is not a ‘fundamentalist secular’ state, as the religion scholar Karen Armstrong has put it – one that bans religion from public life.
But where exactly to draw the line between welcome engagement and questionable interference remains a much negotiated issue.
While there is broad agreement that religious groups should not be directly involved in elections and party politics, Singaporeans may differ in how much they are prepared to separate their spiritual from their day-to-day public lives.
Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Education) Masagos Zulkifli maintains that an attempt must be made to keep religion and politics separate, to avoid a descent into explosive confrontations.
He cites the example of compulsory education, which the Government introduced in 2002 to ensure a minimum level of mainstream education for all children here.
The madrasahs, or Islamic religious schools, and some members of the Muslim community reacted to the move but left it to their political and community leaders to engage the Government on the issue.
‘Had this been also debated in the pulpits of mosques rather than the two-way engagement of the Government and the Muslim community leaders, it could have potentially further enraged and incited the Muslim public,’ he says.
But religions such as Christianity and Islam have their own conceptions of what makes for a just society. Here is where clashes can arise between the teachings of these faiths and the policies that governments consider right and necessary.
As Catholic priest Father John Paul Tan explains: ‘At times, in this goal of ensuring a just society, there might be different approaches and that is when a reason-based discourse is needed.’
Similarly, Imam Syed Hassan Alattas of Ba’alwi Mosque says Muslims have a duty to speak out against injustice.
‘In Islam, you cannot be impartial. To say, ‘I don’t want to get involved’, means I am letting injustice happen. That is wrong,’ he says.
In her recent public lecture here, renowned scholar Armstrong noted that religion had a special responsibility to question political power when important principles were being violated.
Yet, it is when they get involved in such issues of social justice that preachers and religious groups are at greatest risk of being seen to be engaging in politics.
A new balance?
THE most profound effect of 1987 may have been to dampen overtly faith-based social activism.
Mrs Bridget Lew recalls that when she first began working with migrant workers 10 years ago, as chairman of a group under the Catholic Church, ‘1987 was like a ghost haunting many church workers’.
Her work was seen as politically sensitive and she found it difficult to express her views in public, she says.
In 2004, Mrs Lew left the church-run group to set up her own non-profit and secular outfit, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics.
Mr Samydorai is another Catholic who has chosen the secular route to politics as a result of 1987. That year, he was president of the Young Christian Workers’ Movement, one of the groups linked to the alleged Marxist plot. He left for Hong Kong a day before the second round of arrests.
Back in Singapore since 1999, he took on the role of president of the Think Centre, a political NGO, in May 2001.
Mr Shane Pereira, 29, believes that self-censorship set in as a result of 1987. He claims that the National University of Singapore Catholic Students’ Society underwent a major shift in direction as a result. He was a member of its executive committee from 2000 to 2005.
‘Pre-1987, they were more active, bringing up issues such as the concerns of poorer Singaporeans to the media,’ he says.
‘Now, we do not engage in any such activities, merely in faith-building for our members. The most ‘civil society’ thing we do is to visit old folks’ homes, but we do not desire to lobby for better welfare,’ he adds.
Others see no such obstacles. Says Buddhist youth leader Yap Ching Wi, 39: ‘If you want to be active in the community or civil society, there are certainly risks involved, and you have to reckon with how the Government will feel.
‘Following 1987, in the 1990s, we knew that if you mix social welfare and religion, it was a lethal combination. But it didn’t turn me off because if something needs to be done, whether it’s in correcting social injustice or whatever, it just needs to be done.’
Mr Mohamad Saiful Mohamad Anuar, 22, a youth leader at An-Nahdhah Mosque in Bishan, is among those at ease navigating the unclear lines overlapping religious and social activism.
He says he would like to see faith-based groups speak out more in areas where they see a need for social change, such as on the poor, homeless, and abortions.
As the Government encourages Singaporeans to participate more actively in shaping the society they live in, it has gradually opened up the space available to secular advocacy groups such as TWC2 and sought to engage them in their areas of expertise.
Where a consensus has yet to be forged is on the extent to which members of religious groups can engage in the same kind of activism, in line with the social teachings of their faiths.
The question is whether society is the poorer for failing to harness the energies of all its socially conscious citizens, whether their motivation springs from religious or secular sources.
Given that wars and revolutions have been fought through the centuries to redefine the relations between political and religious authorities, it is unlikely that Singapore has seen a final resolution to this eternal tension.
Seen in that light, the events of 1987 were a significant milestone, but not the end of the road.