Soh Lung eventually chose to study law at the university, and it was for no fanciful reason. “It turned out to be the right choice – law was a relaxing course! Just one lecture, one tutorial per week, lots of free time, unlike law students today," she told publichouse.sg.
“We weren’t rich,” she says, “so I used to work in the library, doing shelving, working at the red spot counter. I spent whole vacations working. The librarians liked me, because I could do one stretch of three hours, unlike arts students who had a lot of readings to do!”
Marshall, the pupil master
Upon graduating in the early 1970s, she did her pupillage with David Marshall. While most Singaporeans would recognise Marshall as Singapore's first Chief Minister, Soh Lung knew him as a generous man and a thoughtful pupil master. He made his pupils sit in his room, and interviewed his clients in the presence of his pupils. Marshall had a policy in which his clients had to buy his pupils a cake whenever they won the case, as recognition of the combined efforts of his team.
A case of appeal that Soh Lung worked on had successfully acquitted a man for a fatal road accident he never caused. Even though she had already moved on from her pupillage by the time of the good news, Marshall did not forget to ask her out for chicken rice as a show of appreciation for the work she had put into the case.
Wine and cheese and legal aid
As a young working adult, Soh Lung started volunteering to give tuition to children at void decks and church centres, seeing it as a chance to “do a little good.” It was from this period of her life that the early stirrings of political and social consciousness began to take root. By her own admission, Soh Lung had hitherto been apathetic to most issues outside of work. “The 70’s were a time when there was a lot of repressive laws,” she says. “The Voluntary Sterilization Act required a permanent resident spouse of a Singaporean citizen to be repatriated, if the couple had more than two children. This couldn’t be right.”
Together with her friends, Soh Lung collected signatures to oppose this Act and sent the letter to The Straits Times. She also questioned the Law Society for doing nothing and “only talking about golf.”
When she and her partners moved their law firm to Geylang Lorong 24, the young lawyers indulged in wine and cheese every Friday in the office after business closed for the day. Friends often dropped by. It was during these sessions that they discussed setting up the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, an idea that was subsequently sold to the Law Society. Hitherto only the civil part of the Legal Aid and Advice Act had been activated.
Anson and JBJ
Because Soh Lung’s mother lived in Bukit Merah, they were close to the action surrounding the 1981 Anson by-election, where the late JB Jeyaretnam, then secretary general of the Workers’ Party, was contesting. On polling day, she remembers chatting with a neighbour who was dead certain that Jeyaretnam would win this time. It turned out that the neighbour simply did a straw poll among her own family members to determine who voted for whom, and because that neighbour had a large family, she came to the conclusion that it was representative of the entire constituency’s result.
Indeed that evening, the Anson constituency elected the first opposition politician to parliament since 1966.
Soh Lung recalls the whole neighbourhood erupting into ecstatic cheers the moment the result was announced.
In the next general elections in 1984, Soh Lung and some of her friends thought it was important that Jeyaretnam kept his seat. Otherwise it would be “back to square one”, with a Parliament entirely dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Soh Lung and her friends thus volunteered to help Jeyaretnam campaign in Anson, but they were sent to help the Workers’ Party candidate for Leng Kee instead.
For the duration of the campaign, her law office was abuzz, like it was the election headquarters, she says. They had a “manager” who directed the distribution of pamphlets by blocks of flats. They accompanied election candidates throughout the hustings, and stayed in the office till the wee hours.
Forebodings of arrest
One day, around the time that Soh Lung started to be active in the Law Society, the lawyer and former ISA detainee Tan Jing Quee dropped by unannounced at her office. He asked Soh Lung, “Why have you set up your office in Geylang? You are just attracting unnecessary attention to yourself.” Geylang, of course, was already known as the seedy red light district of Singapore and the target of police raids. While puzzled by the question, Soh Lung was nonetheless adamant that she was not doing anything wrong, and had nothing to be afraid of.
Even Vincent Cheng, whom she knew from the Geylang Catholic Centre, offered her advice in the event she was arrested, such as tips on keeping herself warm during interrogation. She laughed it off.
But her life changed inexorably on the night of 21 May 1987, when plainclothes officers showed up at her place and curtly announced that she was under arrest under the ISA. She was completely dumbstruck with disbelief, and simply sat down. She and 21 others were subsequently detained without trial for allegedly being involved in a “Marxist plot” to “destabilize” the government which was helmed by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Her friend, Vincent Cheng, was accused of being the “ring leader” of the “conspiracy” and jailed – without trial – for 3 years. He was also the last one to be released among all the detainees.
Soh Lung was detained for two and a half years.
The charges of being "Marxists" involved in a "plot" to "destabilise" the government have always been refuted and rejected by the former detainees.
In 2010, 23 years after her ordeal at the hands of the ISD, she finally detailed her experiences under incarceration in the book, Beyond The Blue Gate.
The arrests were codenamed “Operation Spectrum” by the authorities. Soh Lung was 38-years old when she was arrested.
What does Soh Lung want for her and her other fellow ISA detainees, 25 years on from Operation Spectrum? “I don’t think we are looking for compensation. But if they want to set the record straight, they should relook all these cases, especially those who suffered more than we did in the 80’s," she says.
“You are a small country. You think you have done the best for the country, but you have locked up so many of its elites in the past. It is only good for the national consciousness that this thing gets cleared up, their names reinstated, and show that they were not a threat to the national security of the country.”
At last year’s general elections, Soh Lung took her activism one step further and stood as the SDP candidate for Yuhua. “I had a lot of fear when contesting, like for most people of my generation,” she recounts. “But standing for elections was not completely out of my thoughts. Young people were coming out, so I thought I would join the fray. Anyway in the older days, candidates were usually very young. You must give a bash to the PAP. The busier they are, the better it is for everyone. The elections were a good experience that was inspired by the young people.”
A bogus robbery
Soh Lung recalls a case of a goldsmith shop robbery for which she acted early in her career. The case, and her own personal experiences, have convinced her that the threat of indefinite detention has serious consequences on how some accused will admit to crimes they did not commit. In that particular case, her client wanted to plead guilty to armed robbery, despite using only toy guns in the incident. Later he revealed to Soh Lung that the whole robbery was a staged “inside-job” by the goldsmith shop owner, for him to make a bogus insurance claim. In return her client would presumably get his reward – from the shop owner - when he had finished his prison sentence.
Soh Lung was bewildered. “Why are you pleading guilty to something you didn’t commit?” she had asked him. The client simply wanted a definite period of imprisonment, he told her. He had a young family to support. A police officer had told him that as a “gangster” subjected to detention without trial under Section 55 of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, he could be put behind bars for a minimum of five years, which could then be extended indefinitely. Even though he would be caned as a result of pleading guilty to armed robbery, he was fine with it if it helped nail down a definite period of imprisonment. Soh Lung advised him not to plead guilty, while she informed the Attorney-General’s Chambers of the whole story. She then asked that her client’s charge of armed robbery be replaced with a less serious charge to reflect the actual situation.
“You see, the threat of indefinite detention causes people to admit to things they didn’t do. You need a fair trial,” she explains. “The ISA should simply be abolished.”
Loke Hoe Yeong is a researcher in political science and international affairs. He also writes on various issues in Singapore.
21 May is the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum. The occasion will be marked by an event at Speakers' Corner on 2 June. It is called, "That We May Dream Again."
All are invited. Details are here.