Under the Internal Security Act (ISA) of Singapore, detainees can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial. The case of opposition Member of Parliament Chia Thye Poh is instructive. Detained under the ISA in 1966 until his release 32 years later. Chia is on record as the longest serving political prisoner of the entire 20th century.
Faced with the ISA, even the law courts are powerless. In December 1988, the Court of Appeal had ordered 4 detainees of Operation Spectrum to be released. All four detainees were simply driven outside the gates of the detention center, and re-arrested the moment they stepped out of the car.
The ISA is therefore not just a special kind of law, but rather, a suspension of law. We could also describe it as a zone of lawlessness within law. The 17th century French scholar Gabriel Naudé describes the theatricality and violence of this state of exception in the following manner:
"We see the thunderbolt before we hear it rumbling in the clouds… Matins are said before the bells are rung,
the execution precedes the sentence… everything is done at night, in the dark, in the fog and shadows."
The ISA has its origins in the Emergency Regulations enacted by the British colonial government. Reformulated as the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO) in 1955, it was replaced to become the Internal Security Act in 1963. That year, more than 133 left-wing activists were arrested under Operation Coldstore. The arrests decimated the left-wing as a political force and led to the imposition of an authoritarian regime. For more than 50 years of Singapore history, the ISA has been used to incarcerate opponents of the ruling party. It has not only deprived the country of generations of potential leaders forced into exile or silenced under detention, it has also left a culture of fear and conformism that has crippled social activism at its roots.
This situation is exacerbated by the lack of any independent mainstream media. In Singapore, all local newspapers and TV stations are owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp respectively. The parent company of Mediacorp is Temasek Holdings, the investment firm managed by the Singapore government. As for SPH, while it may be a publicly listed company in name, under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974, the government has the effective power to appoint or dismiss anyone it chooses at the newspaper company. It is therefore no coincidence to find that the Director of ISD during Operation Spectrum, was subsequently appointed in 1994 as Executive Director of SPH.
In the 2015 Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders), Singapore is ranked an abysmal 153 out of 180 countries, while in the 2013 Global Press Freedom Rankings (Freedom House), Singapore shares the 153rd spot together with Afghanistan and Iraq. These rankings reflect a long-standing climate of fear, surveillance, and self-censorship. Journalists in Singapore risk permanent unemployment if they dared to ask questions deviating from the status quo.
The ISA has therefore only been the most conspicuous instrument used by the state to suppress dissent. Activists, critics, and even opposition members of parliament are consistently harassed by the police, disparaged in the mass media, and penalized by a deferential judiciary. Such measures were once again mobilized in the aftermath of Operation Spectrum. Foreign publications were sued for libel and had their circulation restricted, opposition politicians were arrested for protesting against the arrests, and even lawyers for the detainees were themselves detained and implicated in the conspiracy. In fact, of the six detainees arrested 30 days after the first wave of arrests, three were polytechnic students whose only crime was to issue an open letter calling for the unconditional release or open trial of the first 16 detainees.
In short, a film about the alleged Marxist conspiracy is not just a film about the abuse of a draconian law such as the ISA. On a more fundamental level, the film shows how purportedly democratic institutions such as the mass media and the judiciary can be easily undermined to become instruments of control. The story of Operation Spectrum reveals these flaws of modern state institutions and will contribute, I hope, to the creation of a more active citizenry.
Finally, on a different and more immediate level, the film serves as a vehicle for ex-detainees to tell their side of the story. The reflexive format of this documentary, with a concluding scene of participants evaluating the edited film, is therefore an attempt to give the ex-detainees a truly active role in the making of the film. In this manner, we hope to present a more authentic account of history, through a method that gives expression to the creative energies of each participant.