Singapore, It Is Time for Answers on Operation Spectrum

Why you need to know

[OPINION] It’s high time that documents related to Operation Spectrum were declassified, and an independent Commission of Inquiry held, argues Kirsten Han.

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It has been 30 years since officers from the Internal Security Department arrested, detained, interrogated, assaulted, threatened and bullied 22 young Singaporean activists and volunteers into confessing to a "Marxist Conspiracy." The claim that these Singaporeans had been Marxists out to subvert the state and overthrow the democratically-elected government has been refuted multiple times by academics, researchers, journalists and the detainees themselves, yet Singaporeans are still no closer to getting a proper accounting of 1987’s Operation Spectrum.

I was born a year after Operation Spectrum took place, but still feel the effects of the arrests in my work in Singaporean civil society. The aftermath of Operation Spectrum left fear spread liberally across Singapore – activists grew afraid to stick their necks out, lest they were next in line for detention. Singaporeans were afraid to be publicly aligned with particular causes, and criticizing government policy was seen as far too dangerous a game to play. Suspicious of one another, opportunities were lost for activists to form important connections with one another. All this hindered the growth and development of civil society, and we’re still dealing with the consequences today.

It’s an impossible task to try to figure out how much we have lost from this stunting of an active citizenry. How many problems could have been solved, how many creative solutions unearthed, if people had been given the space to debate, to argue, to protest and create?

In order for Singaporeans to learn from this episode and move on, it’s important that we are finally given the opportunity to openly discuss and understand this period of our history. As historian Thum Pingtjin pointed out, most developed countries declassify documents in the state archives after 30 years. A wait of three decades is enough for a country to begin to come to terms with the choices made and actions taken, and to understand how these choices and actions have reverberated across the years.

It’s high time that documents related to Operation Spectrum were declassified, and an independent Commission of Inquiry held. If the government – still dominated by the People’s Action Party, as it was in 1987 – is confident of its allegations and that it had acted rightly in the best interests of the nation, then it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by being open and presenting the evidence of the conspiracy they claim to have thwarted. A refusal to be open and accountable merely strengthens the belief that the government does in fact have something to hide.

Some might argue that the past should just be left in the past, and that Singaporeans should just “let go” of things like Operation Spectrum or the even older Operation Coldstore (the wave of arrests and detentions that took place in 1963), but truth and reconciliation is important for any society. Demanding accountability can also be part of moving forward, because learning about our history gives us a deeper understanding of how the challenges we face today came out, and helps us find ways to overcome them.

I think about my own experience. I was about 20 years old when I first heard about Operation Spectrum – that I’d managed to grow up through the Singaporean education system without even once hearing the words “Operation Spectrum” is a pretty clear indicator of how well the establishment has erased it from the public consciousness. I found out about the detentions without trial by chance one afternoon, landing on websites and blogs with profiles of the detainees and brief overviews of the arrests.

The discovery marked a profound shift in the way I thought about Singapore. For the first time, it struck me that not only had my government not been open with me about their actions and our history, they had done so deliberately. It was the first time it occurred to me that passive acceptance was woefully insufficient, and that, as a citizen, more questioning and excavation would be required for me to find a fuller picture.

In the years that followed I not only read about Operation Spectrum, but came to know and befriend the former detainees. I also started to learn about Operation Coldstore, and to interact with survivors of detention without trial of the 1950s and 1960s. It was then that it really hit me: all the things that I’d been told about being a Singaporean, about what it meant to be a Singaporean, were false.

We’re told that Singaporeans are by nature rules-obsessed, politically apathetic, and that collective action – strikes, demonstrations, protests – aren’t “the Singapore way.” Meeting former political detainees changed things for me. I realized that Singaporeans aren’t the way we are by nature, but by design. Our society was engineered this way through power and control: arrests, political dominance, restrictive legislation, power over the media and the education system.

This epiphany was empowering. When I was told that this was just “our way,” I felt boxed in, forced to play by certain rules. But when I realized that we had been made this way, I found that things could be unmade and reclaimed. Learning about the Singaporeans in earlier generations who were brave and vocal and active gave me a point of reference in my own work and struggles.

This is why a Commission of Inquiry into Operation Spectrum is important. If the government does have evidence, then openness would put all this conflict to rest. But if they don’t, if – as we all strongly suspect by now – Operation Spectrum was an abuse of power, then Singaporeans deserve to know, and to fold this knowledge into our understanding of our country and ourselves.

Editor: Edward White

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