'Marxist plot' revisited


Part 1:
Relating of the facts: May – September 1987 (Below)

Part 2:
Initial reactions of the Church of Singapore


Concluding Reflections

An Account of the Facts: May – September 1987

  The Arrests

Early in the morning of the 21th of May 1987, sixteen persons were arrested by the political police and immediaely imprisoned in the Whiteley Road Centre of detention. In the following hours, a group of agents of the same police entered the premises of the Geylang Catholic Centre for foreign workers inspecting and filming the disposition of the place. That day, the newspapers reported the news “unanimously”, but briefly and without any details. They simply mentioned the discovery of a Communist plot and the solitary confinement of the persons arrested in consequence of an Internal Security Act. (1)

As soon as the news of these arrests and above all the identity of the persons detained was made known, it became apparent that this government offensive had a very precise purpose. Among the 16 arrested, 10 belonged directly to militant Catholic movements for social justice and human rights. The others, as we shall see later, worked in a very closely related orientation. To the leaders of the four Catholic movements to which belonged or were linked the arrested militants, it was the confirmation of their fears and the putting into effect a threat which they had already perceived for a long time. (2)

The four movements aimed at were the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Singapore archdiocese, the Young Christian Workers of the archdiocese, the Catholic Association of the students of the Polytechnic of Singapore and the Catholic Centre for foreign workers formerly called “Geylang Catholic Centre.” These four organisations are linked by the same orientation and kept up frequent contacts. With a few other movements, they found themselves in C.O.R.D. (Federation of organisations for religion and development). The militants who were arrested often collaborated with several of these. (3) That was why from the 22nd of May a certain number of lay leaders and four priests, Fr. Joseph Ho, president of the Justice and Peace Commission, Fr. Edgar D’Souza, assistant of the editor-in-chief of the journal “Catholic News”, Fr. Patrick Goh, national chaplain of the Young Christian Workers, and Fr Guillaume Arotcarena, a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions director of the Catholic Centre for foreign workers, put together a committee to coordinate, which was to write up press releases agreeable to all and to co-ordinate the reactions of the four organisations.

The Persons Arrested

As the press release of the four organisations implicated mentioned (4), among the 16 detainees, four worked full-time for the Catholic Church of Singapore.

Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan: Considered by the press release of the Minister of Home Affairs as the leader of the group, was a former theology student, a full-time worker in the Church movements. He was the secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission where he had worked since 1983. From June 1982 to June 1983, he undertook the coordination of the volunteers and their activities in the Catholic Centre for foreign workers. (But) he no longer belonged to the group since 1984.

Ng Bee Leng: This young lady of 23 was a full-time employee at the Catholic Centre for foreign workers. She was formerly a student of the Polytechnic of Singapore where she had been president of the Students Union.

Tang Lay Lee, 33 years, a lawyer, was an employee of the Young Christian Workers of Singapore.

Kevin Desmond de Souza, 26 years, a graduate of the Law Faculty of the University of Singapore, was, at the time of his arrest, an employee of the Association of Catholic Students at the Polytechnic. He was a member of C.O.R.D.

Six others who were accused had collaborated as volunteers for other organisations of the Church of Singapore.

Mah Lee Lin, 22 years, was also a graduate of the Polytechnic of Singapore. From 1982 to 1984, she had been the secretary of the Students Union. Within the framework of the Chai Chee Catholic Centre which was an extension of the Catholic Centre for foreign students. She belonged to a group of volunteers which helped Malaysian workers.

Teo Soh Lung 39 years, was a lawyer and as such, offered her services to the Catholic Centre for foreign workers, besides, she had been one of the first collaborators of the Centre at its foundation in 1980, especially in its activities regarding Malaysians and Filipinos. With Tan Tee Seng (see below), she had organised English lessons and an introduction to workers’ rights. That went on until 1982. She was then engaged by the Director of the Centre as an advocate-councillor.

Kenneth Tsang, a graduate of an English University, was an economist by training. In 1983, he gave English courses at the Catholic Centre for some months to foreign workers. He collaborated in the Justice and Peace Commission.

Jenny Chin Lai Ching was the wife of Kenneth Tsang and the sister of Juliet Chin, a student who had been expelled from Singapore in 1974. Jenny was a journalist for the Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times and a collaborator for the Justice and Peace Commission.

Tan Tee Seng 28 years, was a former student of the Polytechnic and Vice-President of the Students Union. With Teo Soh Lung, he was one of the first volunteers of the Geylang Catholic Centre, where he had been active until 1984. He, too, had taken part in the activities of the Justice and Peace Commission.

Low Yit Leng, wife of the above, a graduate of the Polytechnic, she had carried out the charge of Secretary General of the Students Union. She had also been the Secretary General of the Association of Asian Students which had its headquarters in Hong Kong (81-83). She collaborated in the Justice and Peace Commission.

The six others arrested, though not belonging directly to the four Catholic movements mentioned above, were not without links with them all the same. Most of them collaborated In a young group of dramatic art: The Third Stage which had been created in 1980 within the framework of the Catholic Centre for Foreign Workers. The plays acted and produced had been written by the members of the theatrical group and dealt with life situations of the poorer classes. One of the best-known plays of their group was called Esperanza, the name of the title role, a maid, native of the Philippines, who had immigrated to Singapore. Like many other persons arrested, these activists were more or less related to the Workers’ Party, an opposition party with moderate tendencies which manifested a particular concern for human rights and respect for the Constitution. They collaborated with publicaitons of this party and participated in electoral campaigns.

Teresa Lim Li Kok 32 years, who, as publisher, enjoyed a certain notoriety in Singapore. She took part in the activities of The Third Stage.

Chung Lai Mei, 22, a graduate of the Polytechnic, just ended her term as Assistant General Secretary of the Association of Asian Students, a position she had occupied since 1985.

Wong Souk Yee, 28, former member of the Students Union, she had written and produced theatrical plays for The Third Stage group.

Chia Boon Tai, 36, graduate of a British University, was a Malaysian who collaborated with The Third Stage group.
William Yap Hong Ngian, 40, a graduate of a British University collaborated in a television chain. He was a member of the group “The Third Stage”.

Tay Hong Seng, 36, a collaborator for the government controlled television station SBC. He was a founding member of the theatrical group The Third Stage.

The Report of the Minister of Home Affairs.

The arrests of the activists was followed by five days of silence. It was only on the 26th of May that the voluminous communique of the Minister of Home Affairs was published, followed by four addenda. It was announced that it would be published in the local press in instalments, at the dates given in the communique itself.

The Content of the Accusations

It is interesting to note that the campaign of accusations which the Minister for the Interior let flow by means of this communique followed a very precise strategy. It followed three stages.
1. The first days (5), the bulk of the accusations bore on the arrested militants whose subversive activities were given in detail, their connections with persons or revolutionary movements described as “Marxist”. If the accusation mentioned the Catholic organisations to which they belonged, it was hinted that these were merely a screen which the plot made use of. They were not directly implicated. In the Straits Times of May 27, 1987, on page 14, under the picture of each of the arrested persons were noted a detailed list of the accusations made against him/her. Nevertheless, all were involved in the same accusation of a Marxist plot of which the head of the band in Singapore was Vincent Cheng who himself received orders from Tan Wah Piow who was exiled in London. It was this person who, as the diagram of the plot (Straits Times, May 27 1987, page 15) showed, was the pivot of the whole affair.

Tan Wah Piow was a former student leader in Singapore in the 1970s. In 1976, he was condemned to one year in prison in a case where the principal witness against Tan was the leader of the official Trade Union of Singapore, Phey Yew Kok. Later, Phey was involved in an affair concerning corruption and perhaps with the tacit consent of the authorities was forced to exile himself. In 1976, Tan Wah Piow, after having refused to fulfil his military service exiled himself to London from where he led an active opposition to the Singapore Government from within the FUEMSSO (Federation of the United Kingdom and Ireland, Malaysia and Singapore Student Organisation). In 1986 a law was passed which decreed the loss of citizenship for citizens who were absent from the country for ten years. At the beginning of 1987, Tan Wah Piow undertook formalities to recover his citizenship. It so happened that it was precisely on the 21st of May, the day of the arrests of the 16 militants, that a letter was sent to him from the Singapore authorities confirming the loss of his citizenship.

2. In a second phase, starting from the addendum 3 of the communique entitled “Vincent Cheng, a theology student turned Marxist”, the attacks turned directly against a certain social current in the Church of which Vincent Cheng was the symbol. According to the communique there was a real “subversion” installed within the Church movements and propagated by a certain Catholic press. For the authorities, the harmful ideology which animated this “subversion” and which they called “Liberation Theology” was nothing other than a form of Marxism operating under cover of religion.(Straits Times, 30th May 1987)

3. The purpose of the operation conducted by the Minister of Home Affaris became clear when finally the accusations and pressure of the government upon the Church hierarchy were concentrated directly on the four priests named above and when it insisted that they be the object of religious sanctions.

Initial reactions of the Church of Singapore

(1) This act specifies that persons who are arrested can be detained by the police without being deferred to tribunals for a period of 30 days, a period which could be extended for up to 2 years at the demand of the President and on orders from the Minister for the Interior. (See “The Straits Times”, 28th May 1987, p.10)

(2) In the Introduction, on page 3, we had tried to re-situate this affair in the context of pressures already exercised by the State for some years on the local Church, for her to abandon a certain number of orientations which were a source of concern for it.

(3) In the 14th of June issue of “The Catholic News” one may find the four notes written up by those responsible for these movements, giving the history, the activities and the aims of their groups.

(4) This Communique which is common to all four associations, presented itself on the 26th of May 1987 in the form of a photocopied text.

(5) The newspaper “The Straits Times” had, in its articles of the events of the first week, re-printed in is entirety the text of this communique.

Initial reactions of the Church of Singapore