Singapore is a little country with an outsized reputation on the international stage. It’s lauded as a clean, corruption-free, safe city with great infrastructure and impressive levels of urban development. The city-state’s darker periods of history are less well known.

The police made their appearance in the early hours of 21 May 1987, knocking on doors and claiming to be looking for illegal immigrants. Once inside, though, officers from the Internal Security Department (ISD) arrested Singaporeans and searched their homes. Sixteen social activists and volunteers were arrested and taken away. Six more were arrested about a month later, on 20 June 1987.

This sweep of arrests has been identified by its code-name: Operation Spectrum. The 22 young activists were detained under the Internal Security Act, which allows the government to keep people behind bars without trial. They were accused of having been involved in a ‘Marxist conspiracy’ to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Singapore and establish a Marxist state in its place. Government statements were published at length in the mainstream media, and detainees were plopped in front of the camera to “confess” live on television.

It took about two decades after Operation Spectrum for the detainees to finally open up publicly about how these “confessions” were obtained. They described being brought into dark, freezing rooms; their interrogators were bundled up in thick winter gear, while they stood, barefoot, for hours wearing thin prison uniforms. They talked about sleep deprivation as officers took it in shifts to interrogate them. They recalled the assault: open-handed slaps and blows that cut the inside of their mouths or had them doubled over in pain.

“Confess! Confess!” the ISD officers would shout at them.

Vincent Cheng, then a full-time worker for the Catholic Church, was identified as the Singapore-based ringleader of the plot. (The real ringleader, the government claimed, was Tan Wah Piow, a former student activist living in exile in the United Kingdom.) He detailed his interrogation in the documentary "1987 Untracing the Conspiracy," describing the way he was beaten and forced to confess:

“I was so fearful, I was worried there might be internal bleeding, and so I looked up and said, ‘Okay, okay lah, Marxist.’ At that very moment, the lights came on… and they brought a glass of hot tea and a plate of "ang ku kueh" (a Chinese pastry made with sticky glutinous rice). So that was their victory, that they have got me into submission. Till today when I look at "ang ku kueh," I have a… real dislike for this Nyonya delicacy.”

Impact on Singapore civil society

Operation Spectrum’s impact was immediate. Fear and paranoia spread across Singapore’s tiny civil society – people worried about whether they would be next in line for arrest and detention.

Veteran activist Constance Singam spoke about this fear while moderating a panel with four of the former detainees at the 30th anniversary commemoration on 21 May 2017, recalling how she had become the president of a gender equality organization in 1987 simply because no one else had wanted to take on such a prominent role at the time. Even members of the organization had been afraid of being identified.

“Activists were suspicious of each other,” she said; people were constantly wondering about each other’s motives, and were often unwilling to work together. Under such circumstances, activism and advocacy in Singapore was quelled.

The detention of the activists also had another effect: just like arrests in earlier decades, it disrupted the continuity of resistance, organizing and mobilization in local civil society, essentially preventing activists from learning from the past and the veterans who came before them.

“The arrests in the 60s have effectively checked the capacity and capability of the social and political activism of the left and of progressive people. The organizing capabilities of such people were not passed on to the new generation. The continued arrests in the 70s and 80s were meant to the cut the root of any resistance to the [People Action Party’s] dominance,” Tan Tee Seng, who had been detained for four months, wrote in "1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On."


No dissent from the state narrative was tolerated. On 18 April 1988, nine of the detainees – who had by that time been released – issued a public statement in response to the government’s accusations. They denied having been involved in any Marxist conspiracy, and stated that they had been ill-treated in custody. Eight of them were re-arrested the next day. The ninth, Tang Fong Har, who had been out of Singapore at the time, remained overseas and later lost her citizenship after the government refused to renew her passport in 2000.

Two lawyers – the former Solicitor-General Francis Seow and Patrick Seong – were also arrested and detained while acting for the detainees.

Still no answers

Thirty years on, Operation Spectrum continues to be a topic the ruling People’s Action Party prefers not to address. The event is not included in the official history curriculum as taught in schools, which means that many Singaporeans, particularly young Singaporeans, remain oblivious to such an abuse of the Internal Security Act. Claims that the detainees were Marxist conspirators continue to be found on state-linked resource sites, even though the “Marxist conspiracy” has been widely criticized and debunked by not just the detainees themselves, but also academics, historians and journalists.

Doubt over claims of subversion have also come from influential places. “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,” stated then-Minister for Finance Tharman Shamugaratnam in 2001.

Efforts to educate and raise awareness are underway. Function 8, a group which counts former Operation Spectrum detainees among its members, actively campaigns against the Internal Security Act and organizes events such as the 30th anniversary commemoration. Former detainees have also written about their accounts, such as in "To Catch a Tartar" by Francis Seow and "Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner" by Teo Soh Lung.

But the ex-detainees themselves have little hope for accountability from the government.

“I’m not expecting anything from this government,” Low Yit Leng stated boldly at the panel discussion. “I hope that it is the young people who think about what kind of Singapore they want.”

Editor: Edward White