Posts Tagged ‘political detention’

Transcribed and compiled by Kwee Hui Kian

On February 5, 1994, the Straits Times (ST) published a report by Felix Soh that Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma – artistic director and resident playwright of The Necessary Stage (TNS) – were trained at workshops conducted by the Brecht Forum in New York. After this fiasco of insinuating that they were attempting to promote Marxist principles through theatre in Singapore, both Tan and Sharma went abroad for further studies in Directing and Playwriting respectively. (more…)


Read Full Post »

Sketches from Prison

Teo Soh Lung

Lizard scratching its ear. It is kind of funny to see this lizard using its hind leg to scratch its ear! It was the first time in my life seeing this and I was very amused!


Read Full Post »

Tan Jing Quee, who passed away on 14 June 2011, was a frequent contributor to s/pores. He wrote for our inaugural issue quite by chance, when two s/pores members had just got to know him then, and learnt that he had written obituaries for his friends Linda Chen Mong Hock (1928-2002), and Usman Awang (1929-2001). He was hesitant about letting us publish them, concerned that the new e-journal would attract unwelcome attention from the authorities by associating with him, a former political detainee (1963-1966; 1977), and one who had not avoided a public profile. In 2006, Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez had spoken as former political detainees who were among the more than a hundred people detained in Operation Cold Store and the subsequent Operation Pechah at the Singapore Arts Festival fringe event Detention-Writing-Healing. The event drew a good-sized audience and received press coverage. The Ministry of Home Affairs then issued a rebuke of the two men in the Straits Times Forum, in the form of the oft-repeated but never substantiated litany that they took part in communist subversion and were detained for threatening the security, stability and economic well-being of Singapore, and not for holding different political views or pursuing lawful, democratic political activities.

As it happened, Ho Piao, a former long-serving political detainee died in February 2007 in England where he lived since 1986. Jing Quee had to concede to our argument that s/pores was the most efficacious place for Singaporeans and others to read about the life of this little-known trade unionist who was detained in Operation Cold Store for eighteen and a half years. Jing Quee wrote an informed, detailed, analytical and sensitive account of the man who was in RB block in Changi Prison with him. He described Ho Piao’s house in Middlesex, which he noted looked like any of the other modest houses on the street, but the furnishing and ambience of the interior was a replica of a Singapore home. He treasured his success in becoming a friend of the family, and being asked by Ho Piao’s children to tell them about their father, on one of his trips to visit them with his wife Rose, where they were house-guests of the family. In 2007, Jing Quee organized a memorial gathering for Ho Piao. Former detainees, Ho Piao’s friends and colleagues turned out in force to remember and honour one of the most resolute of their comrades, at the first such event to be held in Singapore. When Lim Chin Siong passed away in 1996, a huge memorial gathering was organized in Kuala Lumpur, which received wide coverage in the Malaysian Chinese press. At the time, it was not possible for such an event to be held in Singapore.

Throughout his life, Jing Quee consciously made the effort to maintain the friendship of former political detainees, and their children as well, including those who lived in Malaysia, Southern Thailand, Hong Kong and China and various western countries. Aside from developing friendships and fostering group solidarity and mutual help, this was also to draw them into deliberations on the political events which they had lived through. Together with his own experience, observations and research, this also helped him piece together an intricate and uncanny understanding of the political maneuverings and machinations in particular of the 1950s and 1960s.

The first major breakthrough which charted new directions in Singapore history that Jing Quee made was Comet In Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History (2001), which he edited with Jomo K.S. This book has had wide readership, with the chapter by British historian Tim Harper ‘Lim Chin Siong and the Singapore Story’ being most popularly cited for its revealing that Special Branch reports in 1962 stated that there was no evidence that Lim was receiving orders from the Communist Party of Malaya, Peking or Moscow, and that he had consistently kept to a constitutional path. Jing Quee’s essay, ‘Lim Chin Siong—A political life’ charts the milestones in the political development of Singapore in the postwar period, challenging the wisdom that the 1950s was a decade of ‘riot and revolution’. Instead, the thread running through those years was one of mass anti-colonial struggle which was met by repression and colonial duplicity. In this piece, the key elements which were to be elaborated in Jing Quee’s subsequent work were already in place. He noted that the conjunction of two major events in 1954 set the tone and tempo of the new politics that was to emerge: the May 13 incident and the subsequent sit-in by the Chinese middle school students, and the Fajar trial. The ascendency of Lim Chin Siong as a national figure when he was elected as a PAP member of the National Assembly in 1955 galvanized the labour and mass political movement, but also made him the key target of attacks as a communist, which continued through his life. Jing Quee highlighted the fact that Lim Chin Siong and others detained by the Lim Yew Hock government in 1956 and 1957 were prohibited from contesting in Singapore’s first general election in 1959; Operation Cold Store served this purpose in 1963.

Jing Quee’s most insightful observation about Lim Chin Siong was that after he was released from detention in 1959 at the age of 26, his public addresses were more serious and analytical, as befitting the new political situation where Singapore had been given self-government. He spoke less Hokkien and more Mandarin on these occasions. He had learnt English and Malay in prison, and could fraternize with non-Chinese colleagues in the trade union movement with greater ease and confidence. He also pointed out that despite the common impression that the Barisan Socialis of which Lim Chin Siong was the secretary-general was dominated by Chinese speakers, a look at the composition of the party’s Central Executive Committee would show that it comprised predominantly English-educated leftists, including Dr Poh Soo Kai, S Woodhull, James Puthucheary and Dr Lim Hock Siew.

The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the politics of postwar Malaya and Singapore (2010) and The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore politics in the 1950s (2011) of which Jing Quee was an editor and a chapter contributor, developed out of the framework he had built in Comet in the Sky. The Fajar Generation brought back into focus a key component of the left-wing anti-colonial movement: members of the Socialist Club in the University of Malaya (University of Singapore), which cut across ethnic boundaries. While they constituted only a small fraction of the student population in terms of numbers, their strength was in their ability to talk back directly to the colonial government on their own terms, which was particularly effective when they connected with the Chinese middle school students, led trade unions, connected with the Chinese middle school students, and came together in the Barisan Sosialis. Their ranks included individuals who withstood detention for the longest period of time. (One of the articles in our first issue was on the Fajar Trial of 1954, which Jing Quee generously gave comments on)

The counterpart of The Fajar Generation, The May 13 Generation sought to map out the colonial antipathy towards the Chinese middle schools and their students in the Cold War context, and to delineate the nature of the student movement—which was not only political in nature, but also cultural and social. Their understanding of anti-colonialism included the preservation of the Chinese schools and education system, which they saw as a progressive one, in contrast to the English stream secondary schools which to them produced only colonial subjects. It was also the Chinese middle school students who took the lead, along with the trade unionists who graduated from their ranks, in raising issues of the colonial capitalist exploitation, and who worked directly with the disadvantaged and dispossessed, whether they be flood and fire victims, exploited workers, the jobless, or children from impoverished families who had no chance of attending school. They moved towards defining a Malayan literature that addressed these conditions, derived from the tussles and debates with fellow students on the role of art and culture, the definition of the new woman, the concrete realities that they and the vast majority faced of economic survival. The May 13 Generation, as students or union and civil group leaders, were the bulk of those arrested in 1956, the biggest mass arrest of the time, and except for well-known political leaders like Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, remained in detention despite the coming into power in 1959 of the PAP, of which they were dedicated supporters.

Picture taken in Bangkok, March 2009. The trip was to meet up with He Jin, the author of Ju Lang to seek his permission to translate his roman a clef, into English. The protagonists of the novel are students leaders of the May 13 1954 event, where the Chinese middle school students petitioning the colonial government for exemption from national service were set on by the riot police. This event led to their unprecedented their unity and the middle school students became the vanguards of the anti-colonial movement in Singapore. The Mighty Wave, translated by Tan Jing Quee, Loh Miaw Gong and Hong Lysa was published in May 2011.
Back, from left: Rosemary Tan, Tan Jing Quee
Front, from left: Hong Lysa, Loh Miaw Gong, Su Shi Hua (He Jin's wife) and He Jin.

Jing Quee’s writings arose out of his drive to write the history of the left in Singapore of which he was a part and to call the dominant narrative into account. His writings have not been directly challenged by historians, journalists and other writers who have conveniently ignored them. Yet, it is not inconceivable that the works that he had relentlessly spearheaded may explain the spate of tomes reiterating the authorized position. His writings constitute an inextricable and powerful blend of autobiography, collective biography and history. He made sure that there is a Chinese edition of the books as well, for theirs was a joint mission and a shared legacy. It remains to be seen whether his books will enter the reading lists of Singapore history courses taught in Singapore universities.

Jing Quee’s approach was always to look at the long term, never to rush into things. He once recalled that when he narrowly lost as a Barisan candidate in the 1963 election, his branch workers were upset and bitter, and at their post-mortem meeting repeatedly accused the PAP of resorting to unfair and underhand means. When he was finally asked to make a speech, he told them that the fate of Singapore did not depend on one election result, and that certainly the election had been stacked against them unfairly from the very start. But they should accept the result, and plan to take the next move which would not gain immediate results, but was targeted at the long term. This meant working to build relations with the progressive parties in Malaysia, among other things. This was not what they wanted to hear at the time, and they gave him the cold shoulder.

With his writings, he bid his time, in order to gather sufficient materials, think carefully through his analysis, and await the appropriate time to go public. This was an on-going process in his life. The stream of publications that Jing Quee produced belied the physical challenges that he faced. The deterioration, and eventually the loss of his eyesight meant that he could not read or use the keyboard at all. He would have materials read to him, and would ask for specific points and paragraphs to be keyed in. After mulling through the issues in his head, he would then dictate what he wanted to say in complete sentences (with the word ‘accordingly’ regularly featured at the beginning of a paragraph he was dictating, it was pointed out to him, to his amusement.) He had such intense focus that he could with seeming ease ask for a word to be changed, knowing exactly where it was in the piece after having it read back to him. This could well be a day or two later, or even longer. He also wrote poetry (Love’s Travelogue [2004]; coeditor and contributor, Our Thoughts are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile [2009]) and wrote short stories (The Chempaka Tree [2009]). His poems have been included in Singapore anthologies (man/born/free: Writings on the Human spirit from Singapore [2011]). It is fitting that as it turned out this issue of s/pores features Alvin Pang’s essay ‘Reclaiming Literature for Singapore’, commissioned by Tan Tarn How and written in 2010, which discusses Jing Quee’s poem, ‘Afternoon’ published in the Rafflesian in 1957.

Jing Quee was above all a warm and thoughtful person. He loved company, young and old. He enjoyed discussing issues related to politics, but was open to any substantive subject of conversation, be it travel, books or BBC radio reports, his regular window to the world. He was generous in sharing what he knew, and supportive of the endeavours of others, especially the younger generation. He had students who had just finished their A levels do bits of research, reading and typing for him, and when he felt that they had interest, would open his world to them, without imposing his views. He readily invited his visitors to share a meal, which his wife Rose would expertly whip up. He was good company, full of life and good cheer. Anyone who knew Rose and Jing Quee would have been impressed by the deep bond between them, which Jing Quee expressed in his poem, ‘Love’s Travelogue’.

Jing Quee once said half-jokingly that he hoped he would not be remembered, if at all, only as the person who lost by 200-odd votes to S Rajaratnam in the 1963 elections. A number of books that mention his name in passing have made reference to this fact.

His own writings reveal a sensitive and bold intellectual dedicated to producing sound, critical history which are devastating to the self-serving narratives that pass off as Singapore’s history.

s/pores remembers our friend, Jing Quee for this and so much more.

Read Full Post »

Philip Holden

Teo Soh Lung, Beyond the Blue Gate, Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Centre, 2010.

In recent years, historians have increasingly written not of a single Singapore story, but of Singapore stories. Such stories are various: the experiences of political activists outside the People’s Action Party, for instance, or the lives of groups marginalized in terms of class or community by the colonial and then the new national states. One genre of narratives that has proved particularly powerful has been accounts of political imprisonment under the provisions of the Internal Security Act, exemplified by Said Zahari’s two books, Dark Clouds at Dawn (2001) and The Long Nightmare (2007). Such stories consciously aim to give sympathetic inside accounts of principled positions of opposition to the People’s Action Party, to testify against injustice, and thus to rehabilitate the reputations of their protagonists which have been crushed by dominant historical narratives. Yet their writers also face a difficulty. The act of witnessing is always haunted by the invisible presence of an official history that must be rewritten. In Said’s account, and indeed in accounts which feature later, and less prolonged, periods of imprisonment, such as Francis Seow’s To Catch a Tartar, the task of the rehabilitation of personal reputation often overwhelms the narrative, making it more difficult for it to do other kinds of historical work.

Testimony published more recently by those arrested under Operation Spectrum in May 1987 and later, in what is now remembered as the “Marxist Conspiracy,” tells a different kind of story. Seow apart, those who were arrested under the ISA during the period were not public figures, but rather church workers, theatre practitioners and social activists, as the testimonies from detainees such as Vincent Cheng, Kevin De Souza, and Tang Lay Lee collected in Fong Hoe Fang’s That We May Dream Again (2009) show. Teo Soh Lung, who recounts her detention in Beyond the Blue Gate, at one point reflects that unlike Nelson Mandela, Chia Thye Poh, or Said Zahari, she has “no cause to fight for” (212), and her story concludes with her giving up all legal action against the Singapore government immediately before her release; on one level, her detention is “a waste of time” (212). Yet no one could say the same of her retrospective account of the imprisonment. The book is engagingly written in two sctions. The first is a diary constituted immediately after Teo’s release in September 1987. The second is a longer narrative account of the detainees’ public statement concerning their treatment when in jail and protesting their innocence, their re-arrest, and Teo’s subsequent legal actions while in detention until her release in June 1990. Teo’s memoir, if it can be called that, was completed in 1991, and as now published—with a few new elaborations–it also the status of a historical document.

Having “no cause to fight” for apart from a desire to testify for the benefit of future generations of Singaporeans liberates the book from the burden that many previous accounts of detention have carried. Beyond the Blue Gate becomes compelling for two further reasons: its storytelling, and its detailed legal analysis of the ebb and flow Teo’s legal applications for habeas corpus. The narrative is more powerful because of its acts of unmotivated testimony –- in the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s words, “as witness to the common lot, survivor of that time, that place”—and the sharp legal analysis that it brings.

The story Beyond the Blue Gate tells is in itself compelling. If experiences of detention are often monotonous and disorienting, their retelling is not. Teo’s memoir has the drama of initial arrest, of interrogation, personal reflection, and release, and then, under the second detention, of court cases and appearances before the review board, of hopes and disappointments. Two elements of the narrative stand out, and indeed have parallels with other prison memoirs. The accounts of the psychological cat-and-mouse game between the prisoner and her interrogators and later case officers are acutely observed, and intensely self-reflective. Her description of the complex relationship between prisoner and prisoners, in which the prisoner often establishes affective relationships with her jailors despite knowing that these are psychological traps, recalls the prison memoirs of South African Ruth First; such self-awareness, indeed, seems to be a marked feature of women’s prison narratives. The detailed descriptions of cell interiors, and in particular the almost microscopically observed encounters with creatures such as lizards, toads, crickets and even ants, are hauntingly similar to Jawaharlal Nehru’s chapters on animals in prison in his Autobiography.

As a lawyer, Teo is eager not simply to testify, but also to explain the legal complexities and consequences of her various legal challenges to her detention To non-lawyers, arguments and detailed quotations from submissions made in court initially seem overly abstract, slowing down the narrative, and moving from issues of justice to ones of legal technicality. And yet the consequences of her law suits are highly important to Singapore today. The amendments to the constitution made during Soh’s detention changed the relationship between the executive and the judiciary considerably. The abolition of appeals to the Privy Council was perhaps an inevitable development in a postcolonial nation-state. The amendment of the constitution in 1989, however, to limit (and possibly—although this has not yet been fully tested—abolish) the role of judicial review of detention under the Internal Security Act, has less justification, especially given that Singapore’s government is a unicameral legislature that has, since independence, seen prolonged one-party dominance.

Nehru famously commented that the regime in a colonial British prison, with its arbitrary abuses of authority, incompetent management, and widespread use of informers, was a mirror of India under British rule. Teo makes no such explicit argument concerning politics in Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew’s ultimate rejoinder to British journalist Bernard Levin’s critique of the detentions, indeed, was the fact that his government had legitimacy and public trust gained through large majorities in regular elections. As we wait for an election in which a constitutional amendment to substantially increase the number of non-constituency MPs is likely to again change the practice of politics in Singapore, however, Teo’s story has the power to disturb and promote critical thought. It does not lecture, but it educates in the original sense of the word—it leads its readers out, causing them to think not simply about an historical incident, but about principles of constitutionality, separation of powers, justice, and indeed the political and judicial developments necessary for an expanded public sphere in Singapore in the future.

Philip Holden is associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, teaching and researching Singaporean and Southeast Asian Literatures. He is also currently an Exco member of the Singapore Heritage Society.

Read Full Post »

Wong Souk Yee

The theatre company Third Stage was formed in 1983 by a group of drama dabblers who wanted to see life in Singapore played out on the local stage in all its glory and decay. They felt that drama in English in post-colonial Singapore had arrived at its third stage of development.

They traced the first stage of English drama to colonial days when British personnel formed the major patrons and players, and the plays were accordingly British. The second stage, in the 1960s, saw the formation of the Experimental Theatre Club with the aim of encouraging the staging of local works. Although foreign plays continued to dominate the scene, the casts were fast turning multi-ethnic. The trend took another turn in the 1970s when English-language playwrights drew inspiration from the modernising society, and high-rise living, family conflicts and changing social norms became common themes. This ushered in the third stage of theatre development which marked the growing importance of the search for cultural identity and the telling of stories grounded in the Singaporean imaginings.


Third Stage was formed by 10 friends who had been active members of students’ unions in Singapore and British universities in the 1970s. In the students’ unions, drama was both a creative recreation and medium for social discourse. Third Stage, therefore, served as part of a continuum of the founding members’ pursuit of critical leisure.

The theatre company saw that it could play its part in performance art that goes beyond the mythologizing of the East as an exotic and inscrutable throwback to the 19th century. It did so by creating works based on the present context and members’ musings of lived experiences. The attempt to faithfully portray the coffee shop Ah Pek and our next-door Bee Lian, (without irony), led to the organic use of Singlish, but members were mindful of not turning it into a gimmick or kitsch. Today, few stand-up comedians are able to provoke a laugh without speaking Singlish, and it is used liberally in social dramas on stage and TV, resulting in some critics complaining of its gratuitousness and over-use. But in the theatre scene of the early 1980s, it represented a milestone of sorts in its recognition of and relevance given to the local vernacular. Singlish also added an important dimension to Third Stage’s exploration and representation of the Singaporean identity: its concerns, creative spirit and quirkiness.


Third Stage was at its most productive from 1983 to 1986, staging a total of eight plays, all written and developed by its members, on issues and themes that affect Singaporeans, such as the graduate mothers’ scheme, education policy, in particular the destructiveness of the early streaming of school children, marginalisation of the lower-income and foreign domestic workers. Literary critics might consider the plays counter-discourse to Singapore’s nation building. Because of the group’s predilection for creating plays that depict human frailties and destabilising official narratives (such are the staples of any number of theatre groups in the world — with the exception of some dictatorship regimes), it was considered a security threat in the insecure minds of the government.

Meanwhile, the mid 1980s saw the emergence of the then fledging civil society. Political parties, such as the Workers’ Party and the Singapore Democratic Party, had gained a toehold in the erstwhile one-party parliament. The Law Society was injected with new blood and saw a group of lawyers questioning undemocratic legislations such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses (Amendment) Bill. The Government wanted to introduce the bill to restrict the circulation of foreign publications it deemed to have engaged in domestic politics. Several groups under the Catholic Church, following its teachings, adopted an outward orientation beyond personal salvation in their work, which took them to witness and report on social justice issues. They were a thorn in the flesh of the paranoid government which then responded quickly before that thorn had a chance to grow.

In 1987 the Internal Security Department (ISD) arrested 22 people and accused them of being involved in a “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the Singapore government. Of the 22, four were key members of Third Stage: Wong Souk Yee, Chng Suan Tze, William Yap, and Tay Hong Seng. Thus while negotiating the slippery path of critical dramaturgy, these members fell into a dark ravine of detention without trial. The four members were detained from seven to 15 months on the allegation that they used Third Stage as a front to subvert the social and political system of Singapore. This was despite the fact that all the plays produced by Third Stage made the cut at the censorship board (with a few even receiving monetary grants from the then Ministry of Culture) and were performed in a public venue.


On the artistic plane, Third Stage members had good stories to tell but many were still in the midst of honing the art of telling them. They were said to have the zealousness of the Crusaders, and little was left to the imagination. But the audiences were forgiving, as Third Stage was like a breath of fresh air in the wake of esoteric plays written by dead white males, plays which only literature undergraduates could endure. The comic-tragedy of living in a city that is perpetually under construction, that decides for you what language you should speak, who your neighbours are, whom you should marry and how many children you should have, resonated with the audience. Also, the use of Singlish, unlike the convoluted monologues of damaged souls, endeared the plays to the audience who would otherwise watch TV.

The ISD detention of the five Third Stage members certainly dampened the morale of the group, not to mention striking fear into the hearts of members and audiences. Third Stage became quite dormant after the macabre 1987 dragnet. They put up two more productions in 1988 and 1992, after which members were caught up in their own personal drama of marriage, family and career. Third Stage was de-registered in October 2005.


List of Third Stage plays

1. No Foul Play, written by Lim Soon Neo and Wong Souk Yee, directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre in July 1983. Based on a real-life story, a young woman decides to take her own life when it gives her too much pain and too little joy.

2. Things We Paid For, written and directed by Tay Hong Seng, performed at the Drama Centre in July 1983, together with No Foul Play as a double bill. A middle-class couple finds out after several years of living together that the only things they share are the things they paid for together.

3. Cry for a Cactus, written and directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1985. A young man’s gentle soul grates against the harsh terrain of parental expectations, National Service and social normalisation.

4. Oh! Singapore, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1985, together with Cry for a Cactus as a double bill. An expressionist drama that depicts the progress and transgression of modernity on Singaporean life, quirky and sad, mundane and bizarre.

5. Corebela, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1986. Set in the watery world of Neptune and his wide-eyed and bubble-blowing citizenry, Corebela parodies the government-funded Social Development Unit and ponders the eternal question of whether it is nature or nurture that determines the intelligence of fish and crustaceans.

6. Baby, written by Lim Soon Neo and directed by Yang Siew Mooi, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1986 together with Corebela as a double bill. Falling birth rate has brought about a baby drought in 2010, and a reluctant mother of the 1980s becomes an eager grandmother-to-be embroiled in a hysterical baby grab.

7. Esperanza, written by Tay Hong Seng and Wong Souk Yee, directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre as part of the 1986 Arts Festival Fringe. A social realist play on the still raging conflict between Singaporeans and their foreign maids, Esperanza foregrounds issues about what humans are capable of when in possession of almost absolute power over another individual.

8. Oh! Singapore II, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in November 1986. A sequel of sorts to Oh! Singapore.

9. Kevin’s Birthday Party, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in 1991. A monologue about our Generation Zzz – well-to-do, well-fed and well, kids from hell. It is also about children who enjoy birthday parties and adults who don’t.

10. Uhh!?!, written by the collective unconscious, directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre in 1991 together with Kevin’s Birthday Party as a double bill. It is all about realisations of some things that have always been stored in the inner recesses of our minds which surface tumultuously in the course of benign conversations and throwaway remarks.

Wong Souk Yee is a founding member of the socially conscious and path-breaking theatre group Third Stage. She and four others in the company were detained by the Internal Security Department in 1987 for alleged involvement in a “Marxist conspiracy”.

Read Full Post »

Jason Wee

Editors: this essay was originally written for the catalogue of Raised, a mini-art carnival that was part of the Singapore Art Show 2007 [see postscript]. See the Raised blog for documentation by the project artists, Amanda Heng, Shenu Hamidun, Siti Salihah bte Mohd Omar, Sriridya Nair, Nurul Huda Farid, Joshua Yang, Justin Loke and Cheo Chai-Hiang. Pictures here are from the project blog.

When I think about one of the subjects raised by this project, I think about the year 1987 and the state’s previously antagonistic relationship with social justice, especially with regards to foreign workers. In the early hours of 21 May 1987, sixteen people were arrested under an Internal Security Department swoop known as Operation Spectrum. At issue was their alleged foment and participation in a ‘Marxist conspiracy’. In all, twenty two people were detained without trial and, until the last orders were lifted in 1990, all had their movements restricted under various forms of suspension orders and house arrest. Among these men and women The Straits Times had tendentiously called ‘the new hybrid pro-communists’[1] were a number of Catholic church workers working in the Geylang Catholic Centre for Foreign Workers, as well as members of a theatre company that made its name with socially conscious productions such as Esperanza, a dramatization of the lives of Filipina maids working in Singapore.[2]


At this point I could try to exonerate that state action by tracing a history of occasional liberalization in the intervening decades, a trace that is itself only possible if the state is at least willing to retrieve this episode from collective amnesia. But this will not be a bumper-sticker essay, where ‘Things Are Better Now’ trumps ‘What You Don’t Remember Can’t Hurt You’. Instead, I suggest that this figure we call the foreign worker is not here. This is not the same as being invisible. If anything, the migrant workers are all too visible. If Little India is as a Member of Parliament once suggested, so dark you can hardly see or drive through it, perhaps it is because black is an additive consequence of too much colour. And unlike our white-uniform politics, which the state sternly classifies as privy to political parties only, crime and sex suffer no out-of-bound restrictions on commentary. The foreign worker makes an appearance when he or she is victim, witness or perpetrator in misdemeanors and vice, as often as the papers think their readers demand, but not as a person vital to our claims of hospitality, fairness and equality.

To say that the foreign worker is not here is to trace a dispossession. My claim requires a detour through events in Singapore law after 1987 (If you bear with me, the pertinence for art that raises this subject will come through towards the end). Chng Suan Tze, one of the detainees, brought a case against the Minister of Home Affairs in the Court of Appeals. Chng appealed against her re-detention after releasing a press statement detailing the conditions of her detention. The statement includes the following:

Most of us were made to stand continually during interrogation, some of us for over 20 hours and under the full blast of air-conditioning turned to a very low temperature.

Under these conditions, one of us was repeatedly doused with cold water during interrogation.

Most of us were hit hard in the face, some of us for not less than 50 times, while others were assaulted on other parts of the body, during the first three days of interrogation.

We were threatened with more physical abuse during interrogation.

We were threatened with arrests, assault and battery of our spouses, loved ones and friends. We were threatened with INDEFINITE detention without trial. Chia Thye Poh, who is still in detention after twenty years, was cited as an example. We were told that no one could help us unless we “cooperated” with the ISD.[3]

Remarkably, Chng’s appeal resulted in a landmark ruling which found the Minister of Home Affairs providing insufficient evidence for the detention of the accused. This will not be the last time that a member of the judiciary calls for court-admissible evidence in the case of any ISA detention. In his 2003 reading of the case, the former Chief Justice of Malaysia Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah saw that the ruling placed the onus on the Executive ‘to justify the legality of the detention of the Appellants by producing evidence that the President acted in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or the authorized Minister … The evidence required must be cogent as would be admissible in trial’.[4]

By inviting the light of trial to an often secretive process, Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin achieved two outcomes: First, he empowered the judiciary to act as a check on executive decisions regarding national security matters. How the state decides what exactly constitutes national security is outside the purview of the courts, but Wee in his judgment writes in favour of ‘the judicial function of determining whether the decision [to detain] was in fact based on grounds of national security’[5]; Second, the ruling gave detainees a viable channel through the courts to challenge the grounds of their detention, a significant victory considering that their earlier appeals for writs of habeas corpus were dismissed.


The rollback was swift. Within a year, legislative amendments to the Singapore Constitution and the Internal Security Act effectively annulled that ruling. Subsequent legal challenges brought on by a second detainee proved that subjective, discretionary powers of detention have been further ascribed to what is already a powerful executive,[6] and any wisp of a case in court against the grounds for detention evaporated into despair. Throughout this, the application of the rule of law or a respect for due process was never in doubt. Letters of concern regarding the current round of detention prompted a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs giving reassurance of due process, but due process is so moot it is almost beside the point. We should notice instead the paradox that the legal challenges and appeals suggested in that letter are extra-judiciary. The ISA Advisory Board, while looking like a court of law, able to hear a detainee’s representation and summon witnesses, is patently not a court of law, and the legislation is careful not to name it as such. The Advisory Board operates as an exception from the judicial system. For one, members of the public are not allowed to witness the proceedings. For another, it is not possible to lodge an appeal to a higher court against any ruling by the Board.[7]

In the meantime, the Catholic Center for Foreign Workers closed; the resignation of the head priest broke this camel’s back. Religious organizations were instructed to move away from social justice towards pietistic charity or risk ‘serious repercussions’.[8] Advocacy on behalf of foreign workers was tarred with the perilously red brush of Marxism. Foreign workers are fiercely discouraged from getting organized. In late 1990, Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin retired after 27 years of service to be replaced by Yong Pung How.

An inverse relationship between the situation of the foreign worker and the power of the executive emerges. While one is dispossessed of advocates, the other increases in discretionary power. The image of foreign worker threatens its messengers; sought out as a threat the image emboldens the state. The exceptional power of the state – aided by a law of the ‘special case’, the ISA – conjugates with an attack against an exception, a foreign element, within it. The detainees were allegedly abetting foreign worker unrest as well as orchestrating the whole operation with headquarters in the ivy-laden danger-room known as Oxford University. And is it too crude for my analysis to add that while the foreign worker is currently defined in law by a maximum wage (no earnings more than a stated amount), the executive is measured out by a different cup (no earnings below a top-tier benchmark)?


What we also understand from this bit of legal history is that state action concerns less with securing particular conditions for citizen agency; it is aimed instead at securing the discretionary power of the executive. To raise the subject as this project does is to begin thinking about the conditions of agency. The dispossession affects every citizen, and to the surprise of art practitioners then and now, them too. To say that the ISA is for special cases only is to forget that the law is written to apply to all of us. This law does not discriminate and it does not require detention to be publicly explained. Those with discretionary power decide where and how the shackles fall.

We begin thinking about our positions as subjects – how do we act the way we do, and how are those actions defined for us? Sometimes the knotted paradoxes are the most productive of answers. For example, three persons or more together in public could be charged with illegal assembly in Singapore. Protesters could walk the fine line by setting out in independent groups of two or three. In these cases, a current strategy of protest management involves police linking elbows to isolate an individual protestor. Yet, does not that very act of isolation free the protestor from the charge of illegal assembly? And does the delinking of elbows reconstitute that charge? If so, does it make those police party to wrongdoing?

Raising the subject has the double meaning of provoking a topical conversation as well as lifting into view persons and individuals, resurrecting a subject that has not been given a place at the table nor the urgency of being present, here. I thought it was highly suggestive that the schematic drawing in the catalogue is of a platform that is also reminiscent of a coffin The Lazaruses are not here, they are outside the gates. Not that I am intent on only these other people; raising them as subjects raises ourselves as such, a parallelism understood in the end of the movie-musical Love’s Labours Lost directed by Kenneth Branagh. The very moment the foreigners are finally welcomed, they are compelled by circumstance to leave, and it is only at that point these singing and dancing bodies, vectors of lightness, accept guilt and self-consciousness and become subjects. The film ends in the words of the immortal script, ‘you that way, we this way’.


On the other hand, you can retort that these sociological and political ways of talking and thinking ignore the way that those involved in this project are raising the subject as arts, that I have critically elided these projects as art and saw them as ethical-political acts. What I am actually suggesting is that a hybridity is necessary in our approach to these installations, projects and performances, that it is not adequate to resort to either-or, but to grant an admixture without drawing down the divide. I am thinking back to last night’s dinner conversation, when a friend explained how his Peranakan gatherings are coming to question the category of Peranakan as strictly between the ‘pure’ ethnographies of Malay and Chinese, instead choosing to see the term as a mélange of a variety of Southeast Asia ethnicities. Perhaps we could consider that the blurring is not a convenient explanation, but a critical one.

Abandoning continuities from this approach to others in history is not necessary when it is a matter of picking one’s parents, so to speak – Robert Smithson, Littoral and Jean-Francois Lyotard over Anthony Caro, John Currin and Rosalind Kraus. A critic named Grant Kester has called this littoral art, beautifully associating it with the constantly shifting zone between high and low tides. Among other things, Kester asks that we evaluate such art practices on the ‘condition and the character of dialogical exchange itself’.[9] Kester places a great premium on communicative catalysts for change and action. Dialogue, participatory conversations and exchanges are key terms within these practices, and he offers these as one basis for criticizing whether an effort succeeds or fails. To talk about enjoying this art is almost offensive (imagine enjoying a conversation on employer abuse), unless we are thinking of enjoyment along the lines of a demanding empathy, or in Slavoj Zizek’s reworking of the golden rule, of a demand to love your neighbour more than yourself.

I want to say two more things on not being here. In a way, foreign workers are not here because they have never been included even in Marx’s model for economic change. Given that Marx’s proletariat is presumed to be found belonging to various social bodies (the factory, the city, the nation), the foreign worker is excluded from the count for barely registering its presence in any given place; its stay in any given site of production is variable and short, limited by restrictive work permits. Marx would have considered them lumpen, a nebulous neo-class that includes secret society conspirators, prostitutes, service workers, persistent unemployed and beggars.[10] Marx has variously railed against the lumpen for obstructing his revolution and demurred over its significance.

I think that the lumpen is not completely out of Marx’s picture. Instead, I argue that the lumpen is a supplement to social change, a small but crucial nudge to his complicated and often unwieldy systemic theory. Before I provoke an unwelcome red scare with that statement, I will repeat what I wrote recently in the exhibition essay to ‘extra ordinary’. Forget revolution. Even incremental change may be asking too much (I feel like Bart Simpson, writing this on a blackboard for an invisible disciplinarian). But if we are to ask for respect for what is common, shared and public, in other words, for an extra dose of what is ordinary, then the lumpen is one consideration of that ‘extra’, both as excess and sub-par to the original working class. In this case, we can read Marx against himself and see the lumpen as signifying not only the failures of a proletariat revolution, but the foregone possibility of an alternative organizing principle around which a different vision of the future can be vitalized.

Finally, this is me saying as Lucy Davis, the editor of focas: Forum On Contemporary Art & Society, once did. In her essay on the desire for real interactions, Lucy writes of the artist as anthropologist, heading outside the gallery ‘to find and interact with the ‘real’ hybrid’.[11] As she pointed out, it is not more real out there than it is in here. I am not foolish enough to think that through my writing I will raise the subject to a face-to-face exchange with me, or that I could even pin down who a ‘real’ foreign worker is.


It seems that some of the artists in this project are cognizant of this difficulty of speaking to real subjects. After all, a monument to foreign workers will be presented with inscriptions in a language a great number of them will not be able to comprehend. Two artists re-inscribes the name Raffles as a chain[12] linking persons up in progressive solidarity, thereby presuming the name Raffles to be as free a signifier for us artists as it is for the ‘real’ foreign workers. One crucial decision facing the artists seems to me to be the mode and time of address; addressing the subject directly or by way of another audience, for example, and if the response should be deferred or timely.

Maybe raising the real subject is not the right question to ask anyway, of the efforts in this project, or of this essay. The ‘real’ foreign worker is not here reading this. With a nod to Kester, the questions to ask may be, who is talking (are you talking to them), and who is talking to whom (are they talking to you)?


[1] ‘Marxist Plot Uncovered’, The Straits Times 27 May 1987.

[2] Chris Lydgate, Lee’s Law: how Singapore crushes dissent (Melbourne, Scribe Publications 2003), 200.

[3] Francis Seow, To Catch A Tartar, (New Haven, Monograph 42, Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1994), Appendix 1.

[4] Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah, ‘National Security Considerations under the Internal Security Act 1960 – Recent Developments’, Malaysian Law Journal. First presented at a conference on “Constitutionalism, Human Rights and Good Governance” at Kuala Lumpur on 30 Sept to 1 Oct 2003.

[5] Chng Suan Tze vs. Minister of Home Affairs, Singapore Law Report 132, C.A.

[6]Teo Soh Lung vs. Minister of Home Affairs, Singapore Law Report 40, C.A.

[7] Internal Security Act 8B(2).

[8] The Straits Times quoted in Chin Kin Wah, “Singapore: Threat Perception and Defense Spending in a City-State,” in Defense Spending in Southeast Asia, ed. Chin Kin Wah (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987), 246.

[9] Grant Kester, ‘Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework For Littoral Art’, Variant 9.

[10] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Marx & Engels Collected Works: Volume 10 (Moscow 2005).

[11] Lucy Davis, Natural Born Vandals (Or The Desire For Real Interactions With Real People), focas: Forum On
Contemporary Art & Society
No 1 Jan 2001, 130.

[12] See chain of equivalence in Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, (Verso, London 2005).


An essay I wrote for Raised, a festival revolving around foreign workers, has been pulled from publication by National Arts Council. Raised is a major component of the Curating Lab, part of this year’s Singapore Art Show. 8 artists are involved, and three of them corresponded with me as I wrote my essay – Amanda Heng, Cheo Chai Hiang and Justin Loke.

It began early last week, when NAC called for a meeting regarding the publication of the catalogue. It was originally going to include my essay, artists’ interviews as well as images. Amanda and Chai Hiang were called, but I was strangely omitted. Lim Chwee Seng, Phillip Francis, Director and Assistant Director of visual arts in the Council were present. Amanda and Chai Hiang were told that the essay cannot be published. Amanda had asked if the essay could be published if they suggested areas for rewrites, but the directors were firm on their request for no rewrites, but no publication. According to Amanda, they offered a few rationales to her and Chai Hiang, one being that a single catalogue essay will overwhelm any other interpretation of the artists’ work. Amanda, that dear woman, replied that speaking as one of the artists involved, she has no fear that Jason will overwhelm her work. Another rationale was at five pages, my essay was too long in comparison to the shorter artists’ interviews, but again, they were firm on suggesting no rewrites.

When I’ve gotten word of the meeting, I called Phillip up to talk over a coffee. Phillip was careful to avoid framing the removal of the essay from publication as censorship. Whether he is reflecting his boss’ opinion, or his own, I cannot tell. He says that NAC will look for alternative platforms to place the essay.

A few questions came to my mind. In deciding between publication platforms, does Chwee Seng and Phillip have some kind of division between publics, between a critical one and a non-critical one, for example, or between a populist readership and a marginal one? And what does pulling the essay the week before the Art Show opens say about the possibility of re-publication? Also, it is hard for me to determine the level of sensitivity that the two directors have taken issue with. Is the essay threading on sensitive territory because I connected the ramifications from 1987’s Operation Spectrum to the contemporary engagement with foreign workers as a social cause? Or is it because I footnoted Francis Seow? Or is it because I discussed the dreaded Internal Security Act? Or is it simply because I suggested possibilities of seeing socially engaged work as art, where the social engagement is evaluated as a crucial criteria of the work’s artistic success? Finally, since my writing is part of the meeting’s agenda, isn’t it professional courtesy to call me to the meeting?

That is the problem with bureaucratic positions that suggests ambiguity in place of censorship. I understand the desire for wiggle room, but I also wonder if it might be better for the council to hold a press conference for every future time they decide to withdraw a license, pull a publication, cut lines or images. Publicly announce the decision and the rationale. If there is no rationale, just say exactly that. At least it acknowledges how the requirement for justification is, in reality, low, and it preempts journalists going to artists to ask difficult questions that the council might be unhappy about.

On hindsight, looking at this from 2010, the offer to find alternative publication is a deceptive misdirection. I have not received any offer in the intervening period to re-publish, and I have not received any apology for they not being able to find opportunities to do so

Jason Wee is an artist and a writer. He also runs Grey Projects, an alternative arts project space, www.greyprojects.org

Read Full Post »

Michael Fernandez and Tan Jing Quee at the ‘Detention-Writing-Healing’ Forum

Transcribed by Seet Wen Hao and Ong Pei Chey, edited by Loh Kah Seng

On 26 February 2006, an idea mooted by history teacher Lim Cheng Tju to his friends in the arts scene came to fruition: to have former political detainees break the silence and speak of their experiences at a public forum. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Teng Qian Xi

An edited version of this article first appeared in Today, 9 March 2006.

What picture does the phrase “political detainee” conjure up for you? What picture does the phrase “political detainee” conjure up for you? (more…)

Read Full Post »

Kevin Blackburn

This article was originally published in the Oral History Association of Australia Journal, no. 29, 2007.

On a Saturday afternoon, 26 February 2006, over 200, mostly young people, crowded into the Recital Studio of Singapore’s Esplanade Arts Centre to listen to ex-political detainees from the 1960s and 1970s give their side of Singapore’s history. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Sai Siew Min

Sometime in June this year, a friend alerted me to Alex Au’s commentary on a book launch he had attended in Malaysia. The book in question was a poetry collection, Our Thoughts Are Free (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »