Excerpts from “Marxists in Singapore? Lee Kuan Yew’s Campaign against Catholic Social Justice Activists in the 1980s”
by Michael Barr (2010)
PDF Link to Journal Article: Ebscohost
1. Conspiracy: A secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.
Extracts from Article:
1) Singapore’s ruling elite runs a finely calibrated system of social and political control based on a mixture of monitoring and repression by the state, and self-monitoring and self-restraint by all elements of civil society.
2) In response to the challenges [of a fresh upsurge of social justice activism and dissent], LKY created a fanciful narrative about a “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the state. . .this article uses archival, oral, and secondary sources [to study the] motivations of the government — which essentially means the motivations of Lee Kuan Yew.
3) The comprehensive display [at Singapore’s Internal Security Department Heritage Centre] has one glaring omission: there is no mention of Operation Spectrum, the smashing of the supposed Marxist conspiracy in mid 1987.
4) The conspiracy was so shadowy that when one of the detainees protested during interrogation that he did not know anything about a conspiracy and did not even know half of his supposed twenty-one co-conspirators, he was told with a straight face that he was “an unconscious conspirator,” and he might as well admit it.
5) According to a former journalist who was working at The Straits Times in 1987, not a single person in the newsroom remotely believed the charges, but they had no choice but to report the government’s story as fact. (Note: Read Bertha Henson’s blog about the matter — TOC.)
6) The official amnesia is perhaps a convenient cover for the fact that there never was a conspiracy, Marxist or otherwise. Then prime minister Lee almost admitted as much in confidence at the time when he told the Catholic archbishop of Singapore, the late Gregory Yong, that the detainees themselves were of minimal concern to him. He dismissed them as “do-gooders who wanted to help the poor and the dispossessed.”
7) . . .Lee Kuan Yew personally orchestrated the exercise to try to guarantee what he understood to be the elements essential to the stability of the regime beyond his impending (or so it seemed) retirement.
8) [The authors of the Church and Society series] “criticis[ed] the Government on various secular issues…[and] accused the Government of emasculating the trade unions and enacting labour laws which curtailed the rights of workers.” This hardly amounts to conspiring to overthrow the state.
9) [The Catholic activists] had no reason to doubt that they would remain under the protection of Archbishop Gregory Yong. The first of these beliefs lasted until the early hours of 21 May 1987, when ISD officers awakened and arrested the activists; the second, until 3 June 1987, when the archbishop told the priests associated with the movement that he would not defend them if they were arrested.
10) [Historical records reveal that LKY managed the detentions in] the face of significant reluctance on the part of his Cabinet colleagues, and [there] is strong evidence that he did not really believe there was a Marxist conspiracy and was certainly not interested in or worried about the detainees themselves.
11) There is no room to doubt that this was a personal campaign, micromanaged by Lee in every respect.
12) [Goh Chok Tong’s] account depicts Cabinet members being dragged inch by inch into becoming complicit in taking the decision to act, but never coming up with any better reason for conviction other than that the accused were engaged in “some nefarious activity.”
13) S. Dhanabalan [said that the detainees] were “not on the verge of overthrowing this government or starting a revolution.” We know from subsequent developments that in fact he was very unhappy about the detentions.
14) Evidence shows that Lee never believed that the detainees were part of a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state. . .despite these statements he concluded the meeting by asking “the Church leaders whether they were satisfied that Vincent Cheng was involved in the communist conspiracy” based primarily on Cheng’s “admission” of this charge, which had been elicited under torture.
15) Lee’s stated reason for the detentions during these meetings was that he was concerned by the activities of the priests associated with the movement [Fr. Edgar D’Souza, Fr. Patrick Goh, Fr. Joseph Ho and Fr. Arotcarena].
16) Lee demanded the complete submission of the Catholic Church to his will. Records of both afternoon meetings on 2 June show Lee personally pressuring and coaching Archbishop Yong for two clearly stated purposes: first, to ensure that the archbishop did not give the impression that he had been pressured by the government into supporting the government’s actions, and second, to avoid giving the impression that Lee personally had been heavily involved in the archbishop’s decision-making process.
17) [The priests and Church] were displaying a capacity to operate across many levels of society with great independence and a strong sense of invulnerability.
18) In 1986, only a year before the detentions, the Law Society had used its role as the professional association for solicitors to criticize a government bill (the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act) because it threatened journalistic freedoms. . .in the words of Wong [Kan Seng], “Public policy is the domain of the government. It is not the playground of those who have no responsibility to the people.” . . .one of the detainees of 1987, Teo Soh Lung, was a prominent office holder in the Law Society throughout 1986 and 1987 and [after] the first month in detention, her interrogators completely lost interest in her involvement with the Catholics (specifically her work on behalf of foreign maids) and focused exclusively on her role in the Law Society.
19) [The] archbishop must have realized that in the eyes of the government, [the] real offense of these Church workers was not any supposed involvement in a Marxist conspiracy, but the blurring of the line between politics and religion, just as the Law Society was blurring the lines between “politics” and professional responsibility during the same months.
20) The capacity of activists to cross social and institutional boundaries (for instance, from church to campus to shop floor to the media) challenged the government’s monopolistic control over the public agenda.
21) LKY knew perfectly well that the Catholic Church had been instrumental in bringing down the Marcos regime in the Philippines and that it was taking a leading role in the democracy movement in South Korea. . .Lee probably had only a vague, two-dimensional understanding of the issues involved, but he was not one to view such a pattern of events complacently.
22) The documents show that the combination of these international and domestic perspectives generated in Lee’s mind a scenario in which, at the very least, the movement posed a short-term threat to the ruling elite’s monopoly on political discourse and power just when he was planning his retirement. Lee responded by using these detentions to set tighter limits on public dissent through two new mechanisms: the imposition of legislative controls to remove the capacity for such blurring of the lines in the future and the encouragement of a culture of self-censorship and self-monitoring to avoid future clashes with the government.
23) . . .the beginning of a new pattern whereby the Church supervised its own repression. Remarkably, it was the archbishop, not the government, who suppressed publication of the 14 June 1987 issue of The Catholic News — an issue that contained a defense of the detainees and a statement of support by the archbishop himself.
24) Lee Kuan Yew must have expected public skepticism about the accusations against the detainees to undermine the government’s credibility, but he was clearly prepared to bear this cost in order to establish a firm pattern of effective authoritarian rule that he could be confident would outlast his premiership. This he did by imposing a pattern of tough love both on society [and] on his successors in government.
25) As a direct consequence of this episode, the Catholic Church in Singapore lost both its independence and a vibrant element of its social conscience.
Source: “Marxists in Singapore? Lee Kuan Yew’s Campaign against Catholic Social Justice Activists in the 1980s,” by Michael Barr (2010)
PDF Download: Ebscohost
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DR. MICHAEL BARR is Associate Professor in International Relations in the School of International Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs behind the Man and other books on Singapore politics and history, and is Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review.
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1) Remember or forget? The 1987 “Marxist conspiracy” (Alex Au; 2009)
2) 2,500 pray at Mass for detainees (Function 8; 2012)
4) Today in history – remembering Operation Spectrum (TOC; 2015)
5) Fighting back with words! (Teo Soh Lung FB; 2015)