Retired People’s Action Party (PAP) parliamentarian Charles Chong revealed in a recent interview that he openly expressed his disagreement with the “Marxist Conspiracy” arrests in 1987, during his PAP recruitment interview.
Recalling his political beginnings in an interview published by the Straits Times yesterday (11 July), the 67-year-old said that his name was proposed by ex-Cabinet minister Lim Boon Heng who apparently told the party, “I think Charles would be more troublesome outside the PAP than within.”
Mr Chong, a 35-year-old aircraft engineer then, was invited to one of the PAP’s recruitment tea sessions where he told former Cabinet Minister S Jayakumar that the Government was making a mistake with the “Marxist conspiracy” arrests that took place earlier that year.
A total of 22 people were arrested and detained without trial under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) in mid-1987 for their alleged involvement in “a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state.”
The mostly English-educated group, who were detained in the covert security operation called ‘Operation Spectrum’, was a mix of Catholic lay workers, social workers, overseas-educated graduates, theatre practitioners and professionals.
Many political commentators, academics and observers have expressed scepticism over the years that a Marxist conspiracy ever existed. Historian Mary Turnbull wrote that “the alleged Marxist conspiracy and the Liberation Theology menace turned out to be myths.” Fellow historian Michael D. Barr, called the conspiracy a “fanciful narrative.”
Walter Woon, who later became Attorney-General, said in 1991: “As far as I am concerned, the government’s case is still not proven. I would not say those fellows were Red, not from the stuff they presented. I think a lot of people have this scepticism.”
Mr Chong is not the only member of Singapore’s ruling elite to have disagreed with the arrests. In 2001, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that “although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.”
PAP heavyweight S. Dhanabalan was the most vocal about his convictions. The former Cabinet minister resigned from the Cabinet in 1992 over disagreements with Mr Lee on the use of ISA in the “Marxist conspiracy” arrests.
Then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong shed more light on why Mr Dhanabalan left the Cabinet in his interviews for ‘Men in White: The Untold Stories of the PAP’. He said: “At that time, given the information, he was not fully comfortable with the action we took…he felt uncomfortable and thought there could be more of such episodes in future. So he thought since he was uncomfortable, he’d better leave the Cabinet. I respected him for his view.”
There is evidence that Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew himself did not believe that those arrested were part of any Marxist conspiracy.
According to notes taken by the Internal Security Department at a private meeting in the Istana on 2 June 1987 at 1500 hours between Mr Lee and Catholic church leaders, Mr Lee said that he regarded the detainees as nothing more than “do-gooders, who wanted to help the poor and dispossessed”.
Although Mr Chong openly expressed disagreement with the Government’s arrests, he was selected and fielded as a PAP candidate and went on to become one of the party’s longest serving politicians until his retirement earlier this year.
Meanwhile, despite widespread doubts over the basis of the “Marxist conspiracy” arrests, the Government has yet to apologise to the detainees over 30 years later.