Featured News Govt needs to come clean on "Marxist Conspiracy" arrests for Singapore to...

Govt needs to come clean on “Marxist Conspiracy” arrests for Singapore to move forward: Veteran architect

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"When truth is really known, bad blood and bad memories can dissipate and a new chapter can then begin. Thats what Singapore needs to reconcile with the past," Mr Tay Kheng Soon added

SINGAPORE: Veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon has called on the Government to “dispel the accumulated toxicity from the past” in order to help Singapore move forward. Mr Tay is the architect behind iconic structures in Singapore like KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Golden Mile Complex and the People’s Park Complex.

Writing on Facebook on Monday (21 Aug), Mr Tay listed three issues the Government should clarify: the truth behind Operation Coldstore, Operation Spectrum, and how the newspapers of the past were all shuttered with the exception of The Straits Times.

He wrote: “In George Yeo’s series 3 book, he makes the point of the value of Truth and Reconciliation to sow the seeds for the future. For Singapore to move ahead to the next stage, thats what is also needed. There is a great need to dispell the accumulated toxicity from the past!”

Mr Tay added, “When truth is really known, bad blood and bad memories can dissipate and a new chapter can then begin. Thats what Singapore needs to reconcile with the past.”

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Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum were two covert security operations led by the Internal Security Department in 1963 and 1987, respectively, to allegedly root out the communist threat in Singapore.

Those detained without trial as part of Operation Coldstore have suggested that the communist threat could have been exaggerated. Journalist Said Zahari, one of the detainees, claimed that the operation was not about arresting the communists but was instead used to weaken the opposition to the People’s Action Party (PAP).

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Scholars have been split on the issue. Historian Thum Ping Tjin has argued that the PAP utilised the operation for political capital, while fellow historian Kumar Ramakrishna has asserted that the communist threat was real.

The arrests that were part of Operation Spectrum have drawn more prominent criticism.

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 detained in 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.”

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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.”

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Members of Singapore’s ruling elite have also openly disagreed with the arrests. In 2001, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said, “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”.

Mr Tharman, the establishment pick for the presidential election next week, reiterated his opposition to the Operation Spectrum arrests in an interview with the Chinese daily just a few days ago.

Retired PAP parliamentarian Charles Chong, who was recruited into the party in the same year as the “Marxist Conspiracy,” revealed in 2020 that he told former Cabinet Minister S Jayakumar during his recruitment interview that the Government was making a mistake with Operation Spectrum.

Despite this, Mr Chong was selected and fielded as a PAP candidate and became one of the party’s longest-serving politicians until his retirement in 2020.

Charles Chong felt Govt was making a mistake with Marxist conspiracy arrests

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.

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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.”

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There is evidence that Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew did not believe 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”.

Despite widespread doubts over the basis of the “Marxist conspiracy” arrests, the Government has yet to clarify the issue or apologise to the detainees over 30 years later.

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