Excerpts from “Marxists in Singapore?”

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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

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Definitions:

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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AUTHOR:

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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.

Michael Barr Online: Profile | Publications | Interview with James Minchin | Interview

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ADDITIONAL LINKS:

1) Remember or forget? The 1987 “Marxist conspiracy” (Alex Au; 2009)

2) 2,500 pray at Mass for detainees (Function 8; 2012)

3) 23 years after Operation Spectrum: Ex-detainees recall mental and physical abuses (SG Rebel; 2010)

4) Today in history – remembering Operation Spectrum (TOC; 2015)

5) Fighting back with words! (Teo Soh Lung FB; 2015)

6) Interview with Thum Ping Tjin about Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore – Part 3 (TOC; 2015)

Excerpts from “The Bonsai under the Banyan Tree”

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Excerpts from “The Bonsai under the Banyan Tree: Democracy and Democratisation in Singapore”

by Michael Barr (2012)

PDF Link to Journal Article: Taylor & Francis

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Extracts from Article:

1) Singapore’s democratic processes are a bonsai version of the real thing, meaning that what passes for democracy is constrained, pruned, stunted, and mainly for show.

2) The government’s aversion to political contestation is complemented by its propensity to identify national crises and apocalyptic choices. . .Lee Hsien Loong describes this mindset as ‘paranoid government’, and it is a technique directed in part towards manipulating public fears.

3) Lee and the ruling elite do not believe in democracy, in the sense of contestation for power through the ballot box, negotiated by rules and social power structures that apply even-handedly to all parties.

4) . . .exaggerated by the system of punishment politics introduced by Goh Chok Tong that brazenly twisted the principles of technocracy and professionalism whereby services and upgrades were withheld from constituencies and even from individual housing blocks that voted for the opposition.

5) This reference to the banyan tree entered political parlance in 1991, when Minister for Information and the Arts, George Yeo, delivered what seemed at the time to be a landmark speech, promising to ‘trim the banyan tree’. It alludes to the fact that nothing grows under a banyan tree because, between the thickness of its foliage and the dominance of its root system, it sucks the life out of anything that tries to share its space.

6) Even at the time he was explicit on the limits of the ‘trimming’: ‘We cannot do without the banyan tree [. . .] We need some pluralism but not too much because it will also destroy us. In other words we prune judiciously’.

7) Since April 2009 freedom of assembly has become more restricted than it was in 1991, with the courts now having the power to declare a single person in any public place to be an ‘illegal assembly’.

8) It is with this history in mind that I turn my attention [to] the possibilities of democratization in this stultifying atmosphere, and characterize the operation of democracy in Singapore as being akin to a bonsai growing under the banyan tree.

9) In 2011 the bonsai plant started growing beyond its wire binding, thanks in large part to the perseverance of both opposition and civil society groups that have learnt their craft under the shade of the banyan tree, operating in an environment where the media, all the instruments of the state, and most elements of society are subservient to the ruling elite.

10) Government ministers have lost – possibly forever – the presumption of professional authority that they enjoyed before. This changes the dynamic of political contestation in Singapore.

11) The government is being challenged by a new constituency and found to be out of touch. This is a constituency of tertiary educated, middle-class Singaporeans, who are too young to have personal memories of the hardships of the 1960s and 1970s but are acutely aware of numerous grievances.

12) [The government] has built an education and social system based on ruthless competition, but argues that competition is bad in politics. It sets the pay scales for ministers by the standards of the CEOs of multinational companies, but argues that neither ministers nor the Cabinet as a whole should be held to account when they make mistakes.

13) Some of [the 2011 opposition] candidates are clearly more competent as politicians than most members of Cabinet, but this is setting the bar rather low, since none of these government ministers has had to face serious adversarial interrogation or criticism for decades, if ever.

14) Put bluntly, the crop of ministers and new candidates that contested the 2011 general election would not have passed muster in Lee Kuan Yew’s heyday.

15) It is easy to be pessimistic about the prospects of dramatic change, and yet who would have thought the opposition would even get this far? It has learnt how to survive under the banyan tree, and even forced the government to engage in some reluctant pruning.

Source: “The Bonsai under the Banyan Tree: Democracy and Democratisation in Singapore,” by Michael Barr (2012)

PDF Link to Journal Article: Taylor & Francis

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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.

Michael Barr Online: Profile | Publications | Interview with James Minchin | Interview

Book Review: The Ruling Elite of Singapore

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* Featured on The Real SG, SG Daily, The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus.

The Ruling Elite of Singapore is a brilliant publication, in which Michael Barr, a senior lecturer in International Relations at Flinders University, Australia, explores “the complex and covert networks of power” in the city-state of Singapore.

The text is divided into eight concise chapters, written in a clear, objective style that is not bloated with academic jargon. The content is juicy without being slanderous, and factual without being pedantic.

The book takes an incisive look at the “twin myths that Singapore is a meritocratic and multiracial society,” by revealing how the power of personal networks and the centrality of Chinese ethnicity form the true core of the networks of power and influence in Singapore.

The introduction gives a quick outline of the book, which is very useful for quick reference. I especially liked the summary for Chapter 3 (“a brief account of the historical evolution of the elite, the basis of its monopoly of power and the nature of its self-perception as a proud, self-satisfied elite”).

Chapter 5 features a quote by retired Permanent Secretary, Ngiam Tong Dow, who said in a 2003 interview:

“However good [Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls’ School] are and however brilliant their teachers are, the problem is that you are educating your elite in only two institutions, with only two sets of mentors.”

This comment highlights a lack of diversity in the process of elite selection and elite formation. It reminded me of the case with Wee Shu Min in 2006 (who exuberantly advised all commoners to “get out of [her] elite uncaring face”). While this disgraceful incident was not mentioned in Barr’s book, it displayed the self-entitlement and snobbish behavior that often accompanies a closed, elitist mindset.

Barr takes note of “the Lee family’s supremacy” in Singapore with a reminder (through a quote by Hamilton-Hart) of how the Lees are “effectively off-limits as subjects of criticism.” Barr also mentions how Ho Ching and Lee Hsien Yang have never been brought to account for any part in running down the value of their respective government-linked companies. Instead, both were praised and rewarded, despite their companies having engaged in “high-risk ventures that failed spectacularly.”

In the final chapter, Barr is diplomatic in pointing out how even the scenario of an opposition victory would not “necessarily challenge the system bequeathed by Lee Kuan Yew.” The author offers some critical thoughts without being overly optimistic or judgmental, in an effort to determine how much change or continuity there will be in the near future of Singapore’s political situation.

The job of an objective academic or historian is neither to sing praises nor hurl insults. It is to gather information and study the facts, in order to provide analysis and insightful commentary in order to educate the reader. I believe Barr has done very well in this regard, with his book’s intense focus on Singapore’s “ruling elite.”

It reminds us that politicians are supposed to govern society, not simply reward themselves at the expense of their serfs, I mean, citizens, because they feel entitled to do so.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the author, Michael Barr, for expanding his original paper into a full-length book, to the prestigious I.B.Tauris for publishing the title (and providing fine editing), and to Palgrave Macmillan for distributing the title in North America, where I am currently residing.

— By Jess: a former Singaporean who has a keen interest in the country, its people, and the direction of its leadership.

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More Information:

The Ruling Elite (Amazon.com)
Book Depository (Free Shipping)
Michael Barr – Flinders University (Author)
I.B.Tauris | Palgrave Macmillan (Publishers)