Conspiracy Theorists

1987: Singapore's Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On, edited by Chng Suan Tze, Low Yit Leng and Teo Soh Lung.

A valuable collection of testimonies and memories by the detainees, their family members, their lawyers, the campaigners for their release, and other supporters. This is not the place to obtain a full historical understanding of Operation Spectrum, the detention of 22 people in May 1987 for allegedly conspiring as Marxists to overthrow the state of Singapore; the pieces here are too fragmented and personal to give a steady picture. This is the place, however, where an agonizing silence has been broken, as the different participants of the historical incident recount, explain, and wonder aloud. The two most penetrating insights to emerge are, one, the then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew might have ordered the detention to initiate the new generation of government leaders, including his son Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister, into the blood sport of politics. They found themselves having to accede to and explain the draconian and unjust action. The few who could not do so, such as S. Dhanabalan, ultimately quit politics. The second insight, which is also part of hindsight, is that Operation Spectrum set back civil society and social advocacy for 20 years. Singapore was not allowed to grow up.

The Art of Advocacy in Singapore, edited by Constance Singam and Margaret Thomas.

A valuable collection of the experiences of social advocates and activists in trying to change government policies and enlarge the space of civil society in Singapore. The remit of the different individuals representing different organizations is helpfully wide: Ageing, Animal Welfare, Health, Heritage and Environment, Human Rights, Literature and Theatre, Media, Migrant Workers, Sex Workers, and Women. It is clear that the most successful of the organizations have been those who back up their arguments with research, engage the authorities privately and publicly, and soften any confrontational language, in other words, they have abided by the rules of engagement set out by the authorities. This approach works best for issues against which the main forces of resistance are ignorance and prejudice. When the issue has to do with political power - as in the struggle for freedom of expression and other democratic liberties, this approach cannot work, for no amount of research, reasonableness, and outreach will persuade the government to give up its political controls. A sufficient political force must be mustered to contest the present dominance. Lacking such a force, to ask the current regime to give up its overwhelming power is like asking a lion to surrender its teeth.


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