I sometimes wonder if we have become a people that acquiesce all too readily. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Ifyou are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.
I think the blogs, online news media and moderators have done a stellar job amassing articles, reflections, detailing the chronology of events, providing blow-by-blow accounts, of that most tragic incident. But for me, the message strikes closer to home. My generation has often been chastised as being insouciant and blasé about politics. I think we deserve more credit. With the advent of social media and its efficacy, with proliferating numbers of young people involved in both politics and in civil society, I think that common refrain leveled at us is a prematurely scathing one. Which is why Operation Spectrum and the fallout it generated resonates so deeply with me. Like the 22 in 1987, a lot of us are compelled to do something, yet the series of events in 1987 can unbeknownst rear its ugly head again. The message conveyed is highly contradictory and frustrating; not to say unsettling sometimes.
Why so silent?
I grew up completely oblivious to this part of Singapore’s past - not knowing any better in school, from my parents, or from the church. I only got to know about it in my sociology and some history classes back in university. How is it that this atrocity of a most high order continues to elude our consciousness and conscience? How is it that my parents never told me such impunity goes on in a place I call home?? And most sobering of all, how is it that only some kids are ever going to sit in on those classes and be privy to this blemish in our history?
It was during my university days that I got myself involved with migrant worker issues. What we did - having a soup kitchen for migrant workers, going to the hospital and to the MOM with them, advocating at policy level, issuing press releases, engaging the government, etc. - are not qualitatively different from what the social workers arrested in 1987 were doing. The ISA still continues to cast a long shadow over events past and present. Who’s to say bloggers, activists, volunteers, anyone that operates under the auspices of an “organization”, are not to be confronted with something of 1987 proportions once again?
Many comments on Facebook are vitriolic about this intransigence and indignance towards something so “dated”. However, many people still do not know how and why it happened; and putting it out on the national landscape is an important first step before we negotiate other legal, philosophical and ethical terrains (i.e. Commision of Inquiry, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, enacting a more targeted and relevant law that address terrorism, even the eventual abolition of the ISA). For the victims, 25 years is not some hazy memory. The precision and intensity with which Teo Soh Lung continues to recount that harrowing experience - from the knock on the door to physical features of the detention centre, to the torture and interrogation proper -is telling enough that the past or history that some deride is still as salient and visceral today as it was 25 years ago. This is far from dead and buried; simply because it is still a potent instrument that can be brandished today on any of us. That it continues to exist today in the legal and political architecture is disconcerting - it can be used again, and it will continue to stymie dialogue, feedback, and even criticism as people are wary not to cross or overstep some nebulous boundary.
For all these reasons and more, please do not forget to remember 21 May 1987. It continues to have currency and relevance today and tomorrow.
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