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story | Neo Huiyuan, Arts Editor
photo | Lynn Voight
What happens when the very institutions you trust for protection turn against you? What happens when the social contract is broken?
These are questions that people detained without trial are uniquely qualified to answer. On May 21, 1987, 16 Singaporeans were detained without trial under Operation Spectrum. The number detained eventually increased to 22. They were social workers, church workers and professionals. A legal remnant from British colonial rule, the Internal Security Act (ISA) allowed these Singaporeans to be kept behind bars, some of them for up to 3 years. In the documentary 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy, director Jason Soo examined what the ISA meant for Singapore both personally and politically. On Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, students of Yale-NUS College gathered for a rare screening of this story about injustice and courage.
The title of Soo’s documentary, is a reference to Tracing the Conspiracy, a documentary produced by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, featuring detainees of Operation Spectrum confessing their alleged Marxist conspiracy on national television. Soo’s documentary lets the real stories of the detainees be heard, correcting the imbalance in perspectives. The documentary is a tapestry of personal recollections about the experience of detainment without trial, from the first hour of arrest to the day of release.
The film opened describing the initial arrests, edited to cross-cut one after another. This created a sense of collectiveness; the experience of Operation Spectrum was both a shared experience for the detainees and for the nation as a whole. Following the opening sequence, the documentary focused on individual interviews. These interviews with ex-detainees, including Vincent Cheng, Chew Kheng Chuan and Tan Tee Seng, detailed their experiences in Operation Spectrum. They recounted the psychological and physical torture they received from the Internal Security Department (ISD), as well as the way their words were twisted in their forced confessions.
To the state, Operation Spectrum might be a clampdown on political conspiracy. To the ex-detainees, however, the Operation was an individual ordeal. Ex-detainees recalled minute details such as their initial thoughts when the ISD knocked on their doors, or the overwhelming glare of the lights during interrogation. The documentary’s emphasis on details, coupled with the chronological detailing of ex-detainees’ experiences, successfully placed the audience in the shoes of the ex-detainees. This is a reminder that a state’s actions reach far into an individual’s life. The personal stories of the ex-detainees are really the story of each and every Singaporean, whose nation was impacted.
The interviews were conducted in a spacious house, well-lit with natural light and well-ventilated. The openness of the house and the light-hearted way some of the ex-detainees spoke was juxtaposed against the dark undertones of their stories and the political climate in 1987. Some ex-detainees, such as Chew, relayed their experiences with ingenuous humour, provoking laughter among the audience. The ex-detainees were forthright in their depictions–a projection of their simple and pure intentions in their social activities in 1987. One could begin to feel the ex-detainees’ sense of incredulity when faced with how the state interpreted their activities. The ex-detainees’ frankness contrasted sharply with the complex motivations of the state and the mass media, both of which twisted the portrayal of the ex-detainees’ motivations. This was especially so as Soo highlighted the official media’s blatant denials of ISD’s use of torture techniques. At certain parts, the dynamic between the ex-detainees and the state was reminiscent of that between Josef K. and the institution in Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The former were not sure of what they had done wrong and why they were targeted, while the latter and its decisions were impenetrable and opaque during the entire process.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of Operation Spectrum was fear — fear of instability, and consequently, fear of political participation. In a similar vein, as long as documentaries and movies that allow Singaporeans to tell their side of the narrative continue to be restricted, the Operation never really ends.
Veteran socialist leader, M. K. Rajakumar wrote in Comet in Our Sky that “the task of these new generations…is the reinvention of our societies.” 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy is a timely reminder that Singapore’s history consists of more than just the few familiar faces and that it is more than just a linear, uncontested arc. One of the organizers, Matthew Ware ‘18, said that the ex-detainees have given a lot for the country and faced giant hardships. He also noted, however, that,, “not very many people have heard these narratives from their perspective, or have even heard them at all.” Hence, as this generation emerges from the shadows of the past, it becomes their responsibility to reexamine Singapore’s history and reshape Singapore’s society and citizenry.