Officially, my uncle was part of a group of people who believed in the doctrine of Karl Marx, the founder of communism. Marx had argued that one day the poor would rise up and overthrow the capitalist economic system. They would establish a new and happy utopia where people would work happily and for the same pay regardless of what they did.
Marx spoke of this revolution in some far away distant future but some of his followers were less patient. The result was a slew of violent revolutions globally and what you got was a series of communist governments around the world. Communist governments are known for getting and maintaining power through violence and during the Cold War, insurgent groups hoping to overthrow existing governments in favour of communist ones, could rely on the communist superpower (USSR) for support.
When you look at things in this context, one can understand why the Singapore government was worried about the possibility of a “Marxist Conspiracy” taking root here.
However, there’s a major disconnect between the official version of events and what I know of my uncle.
In 1987, my uncle worked in advertising and he would later go on to become the Singapore CEO of two multinational media buying houses. It’s hard to think of anyone in this profession wanting to overthrow the system in favour of a Marxist one.
More importantly, he’s from the branch of the family that’s always been staunchly Christian. Marxism and Christianity are diametrically opposed to each other. Marx called religion, “the opiate of the masses” and rejected the very existence of God. Christianity places God at the centre of its system. It’s virtually impossible for one to be both a devout Christian and a dedicated Marxist.
Personally, I don’t have an issue with the PAP. As a governing political party, it has done well and I did vote for them in the last election. However, whenever I listen to our ministers defend the ISA vigorously and refuse to provide evidence for the 1987 arrests, I worry that there may be a disconnect between the government and people.
For a start, I acknowledge that things like internal security and official secrets may be necessary. Like it or not, there are people who are dedicated to causing violence on a mass scale. The medical wisdom of “prevention is better than the cure” also works in law enforcement. It is sometimes necessary to stop people from doing things even if you don’t have enough evidence which will stand up in a full court trial.
However, the concept of “security” should not become an excuse to lock people up who do not agree with those in power. Doing so undermines the very concept of the “Rule of Law” and ultimately economic prosperity. Given the current climate of the “War of Terror,” it’s also essential for the government to communicate with its people.
I look at the government’s continued refusal to provide a single shred of evidence as to why the 1987 arrests were necessary. What exactly is the harm in releasing information 25-years after the event? Nobody seriously believes Singapore remains under threat from Marxism. Our socio-economic situation does not foster conditions for such groups to function. It’s a case of either providing the evidence or admitting that mistakes were made and getting on with life. The continued refusal to ‘come clean’ creates an impression that the government has something to hide.
More importantly the refusal to provide evidence for certain things only creates an atmosphere of distrust between the governing and the governed. I think back to the Mas Selamat incident. I remember a prominent writer telling me, “There is no evidence to suggest that Mas Selamat is a terrorist – for all you know he could be a sarabat stall owner who got on the wrong side of an ISD man.”
While this statement was made in jest, the possibility that people who thought that do exist. Mas Selamat was aided by relatives. I think of how the government said something about my uncle and how it deferred so greatly from what I know of him and I try to imagine how I might have felt if he had come to me for help.I realize that Mas Selamat could well have persuaded his relatives that the State was persecuting him unfairly. While I don’t condone breaking the law or terrorism, I can understand why they did what they did.
The current security landscape involves the issue of dealing with ideology. More importantly it involves religion, which history has shown is an idea people will gladly die for. As such, governments cannot assume that the public will take its official version of the story at face value. Threatening someone with imprisonment or death won’t work if that person believes it’s an honour to be incarcerated or killed for his or her faith. Unfortunately people in this situation attract sympathisers. When dealing with an ideology, you need to ensure that it does not have sympathisers.
I return to what I might have done if my uncle had come to me and asked for help. Given the disconnect between what I know of the man and the official version of what he did, I see enough of a case to risk breaking the law to help him. However, if the government had come to me and provided evidence for their case, I wouldn’t. I wonder if any of our security departments considered the possibility that Mas Selamat’s relatives might be sympathetic to him purely on the grounds that he was a relative. Was any effort made to communicate with them about the crimes he allegedly wanted to commit? Current evidence shows that our security services were oblivious to the role family might have played – unfortunately this does not speak well of them.
By all means arrest someone for reasons of “internal security” if there is a valid reason to. Withhold information where necessary even. However, there has to be a limit to how long one can hold people without trial. The current situation requires public involvement. As such, the public does need to know why certain things are so.
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