Interview with Jason Soo, Director of 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy on the Marxist Conspiracy, and ISA

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Welcome to Xperimental Pathways – where we showcase Xclusive interviews with distinct individuals on controversial, or alternative topics which may not always be aligned to the ideals and structures of mainstream society.

Name: Jason Soo

Occupation: Filmmaker

Feel free to click these 2 links – HERE and HERE to read up a brief summary of what Operation Spectrum/Marxist Conspiracy is about, before you proceed on to watch the film’s trailer, and read our interview with filmmaker Jason Soo!

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Picture of Vincent Cheng (1987) / Vincent Cheng (present day)

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Below is the film’s trailer 🙂

*1987: Untracing the Conspiracy is currently screening at The Projector cinema on 7 Jan 2017. Do click the green link – 1987untracing.wix.com/1987untracing to find out it’s future screening dates! 🙂

+ Importance of exposure to both mainstream and alternative news sources +

Q: What stage of life were you at in 1987, and what was your reaction to 1) the news of Operation Spectrum/Marxist Conspiracy, 2) and to Tracing The Conspiracy (*A documentary broadcasted on primetime TV which showed the supposed confessions of the detainees in regards to the Marxist Conspiracy)?

JS: I was 11 years old when the arrests took place, and being quite immature and self-absorbed, I had no idea that it was happening at all. The first time I watched Tracing the Conspiracy a few years back, my immediate impression was how convincing it would be – for a largely ill-informed general public. That being said, any person with some common sense would not be so totally naïve as to believe everything they see and read in the mainstream media.

If you possess a healthy dose of skepticism, and if you are motivated enough to make the effort to find out what really happened from alternative sources, then the kind of narrative offered in Tracing the Conspiracy easily falls apart. Basically, in a world in which mainstream media is controlled by the rich and the powerful, making the effort to seek out non-mainstream sources is not a luxury, but the only responsible thing to do.

“..in a world in which mainstream media is controlled by the rich and the powerful, making the effort to seek out non-mainstream sources is not a luxury, but the only responsible thing to do.”   

  + Taking the non-mainstream route +

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Q: Getting involved in politics (*other than being a politician) is usually something Singaporean parents would want their children to avoid, for fear that they could be “black-marked by the government”. And they would rather their children hold down a financially-stable white-collared job. As such, were they supportive in your filmmaking journey which had strong political overtones e.g. Interview with Teo Eng Seng (Teo So Lung’s brother) on his artworks (2008), The May 13 Generation (*On the Chinese Middle School Student Movement) (2014), Young Activists (2015), 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy (2015)?

JS: Yes, my parents would much rather that I have a financially-stable job. But having seen the film, and having heard firsthand from the ex-detainees, I think my family understood why I made this film.

+ The preparation, and challenges faced during the making of the film +

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News article on the Marxist Conspiracy in May 1987 (*Picture of Tan Wah Piow)

Q: Did you approach all 22 who were detained during Operation Spectrum to be interviewed for the film?

JS: What I did was to sound out directly or indirectly, if each of the ex-detainees would like to be in the film. There’s a few others I’ve yet to track down. Those who declined did so for different reasons – personal and professional.

Q: As seen in your interview with TOC which was published on 9 April 2016 – would you like to elaborate on “the slow process of earning the detainees trust”?

JS: 19 out of 22 ex-detainees were coerced to appear in at least four government-produced programs televised on prime-time, in which what they said was either rehearsed, or edited to impart a sinister meaning. So you can understand their reticence when you ask them to appear again in the audiovisual medium to talk about what happened.

What I did was to start approaching them only when I had reached a certain level of research. That took me about 18 months, reading books on Operation Spectrum and also on Singapore history, socio-politics, and so on. By being prepared in this manner, I think they could see how serious I was.

Q: In the same TOC interview, you also mentioned the “difficulty of getting access to documents” as “many documents are not freely available even though they are in public institutions”.

Thus, I’m curious to know how you managed to retrieve all the old footages of television shows, or news on Operation Spectrum/Marxist Conspiracy which was shown in your film?

JS: Fortunately, I managed to find someone who in 1987, had videotaped some programs on television. That person would prefer to be anonymous. The root cause of the problem is that Singapore does not have a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  A FOIA is a fundamental pillar of a true democracy.

For example, with a proper FOIA in place, citizens would be able to see in detail how government policies are discussed and decided. Imagine being able to read the minutes, or even watch a live telecast of policy meetings at government ministries. That is when we would have taken a real step towards transparency and accountability.

“..(With) a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)..citizens would be able to see in detail how government policies are discussed and decided..being able to read the minutes, or even watch a live telecast of policy meetings at government ministries..(That would be) a real step towards transparency and accountability.”

Q: In the same TOC interview, you also brought up that one danger of making this film would be “being on the radar of the authorities”. Have you, your colleagues helping you with the film, friends, or family – faced any issues with the authorities in the past, present, or foreseeable future?

JS: For myself, so far, not that I know of. But I have friends whose contracts were not renewed at public institutions because they had been considered too critical. And just last month, policemen entered the house of ex-detainee Teo Soh Lung without a warrant, and confiscated her laptop and mobile phone.

+ On the relevance, and misuse of the Internal Security Act (ISA) +

* Mr Lee Kuan Yew views on the ISA and the Marxist Conspiracy at a 1990 NUS Forum

Q: Neighbouring Malaysia had replaced their ISA bill with The Security Offences (Special Measures) Bill which focused more on dealing with terrorism back in 2012. There is the fear that abolishing the ISA in Singapore will prevent our country from countering national security threats e.g. terrorism, foreign subversion, communism, espionage, religious extremism, and acts of violence or hatred in relation to race and religion.

Thus, would replacing ISA with improved laws, or renewing the ISA clauses e.g. make it terrorism-specific, or applicable to those who incite violence towards a specific race, religion, sexual identity, nationality, community etc. – so as to prevent it from being abused as a tool to stifle political dissidents – be more practical alternatives, than to just abolish ISA itself without finding an imperative replacement? Or what would you suggest?

JS: First, I must point out that communism by itself is not a security threat. Communism is a system of social organization, just like capitalism. In many democracies, communist parties are legitimate organizations. To lump communism in the same category as terrorism and religious extremism is quite unfair. There may be so-called communists who advocate violence, but there are also so-called democrats who wage war in the name of freedom.

As for the ISA, you should be aware that Singapore already has the necessary laws to counter national security threats. I’ll list 5 of them:

 All these laws are more than adequate. So the ISA does not need to be replaced. It needs to be abolished. Why? Because history shows us that it has been consistently misused. 

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Picture of PJ Thum

Just take a look for example, at the work of historians like PJ Thum (*Has a free online weekly podcast called – The History of Singapore) and what he has uncovered in relation to the mass detentions of the 50s and 60s. In 2011, Minister Teo Chee Hean revealed that there were 2,460 ISA arrests between 1959 and 1990. That means, 2,460 detainees who were imprisoned although they were never convicted of any crime.

*Click this LINK to read the Parliamentary Speech on the Internal Security Act – Speech by Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs, 19 October 2011 (mynewsdesk)

[*Picture of Chia Thye Poh (top left), Lim Hock Siew (bottom left), Said Zahari (right)]

Some of them, like Chia Thye Poh, Lim Hock Siew, and Said Zahari from Operation Coldstore were detained for 32 years (*23 years in prison, and 9 years in restricted detention), 19 years, and 17 years respectively. And many more were also imprisoned for decades or exiled. Can we even begin to imagine what that is like, to be banished from your own country, or to spend decades in prison without having been convicted of any crime?

“Can we even begin to imagine what that is like, to be banished from your own country, or to spend decades in prison without having been convicted of any crime?”

Many defenders of the ISA argue that there are safeguards such as the Advisory Board that is supposed to review detentions at least once every year. But note that this is called an “Advisory” Board. This Board can only make recommendations. It has no actual power to determine the fate of the detainees.

Second, how independent is the Advisory Board? Who appoints the 3 members of the Board? Is it the same people who rubber-stamped the arrests?

Third, what happens during these Advisory Board meetings? Ex-detainee Teo Soh Lung appeared three times before the Advisory Board during the 3 years of her detention. Go read her account in Beyond The Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner and then decide for yourself whether it’s an adequate safeguard.

Looking ahead towards progressive change in Society +

Q: The current unfinished version of the film focuses more on the tortures, and forced confessions as told by the detainees during the investigation and detention period. When I looked through the books “That we may dream again”, and Beyond The Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner, there was a wider scope of events on the Marxist Conspiracy.

I have read your film’s methodology. And adding on to the that, would the full length film which you are currently raising funds to complete – also include a broader perspective, timeline, events, and parties e.g. Government, Catholic Church, Civil Society, Law Society, local art scene – who were either involved or/and affected by the whole Marxist Conspiracy saga, issues in judiciary and executive decisions, appeals, reviews; as well as changes to society or existing laws the ex-detainees themselves hope to see? 

JS: Yes, the full-length film will provide a lot more context, as well as cover the most critical events of that period.

Q: What are 5 changes you would like to see in our socio-political, educational, media landscape, civil society, or our younger generation 10 years down the road?

JS: (1) A Social Security scheme that is worthy of its name

Watch this recent talk below by Ex-GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong (28 May 2016):

*MUST WATCH* For the full list of videos at the Poverty and Inequality in Singapore forum which includes the FAQ session – click HERE

“110,000 – 140, 000 (10-12%) of resident households in absolute poverty affecting some 350,000 -500, 000 residents.”(*From 20:00 of the video)

In Singapore, poverty affects an estimated 350,000 – 500,000 residents. That’s a huge number. So it’s obvious that our current level of social protection is pitifully inadequate. Yet, Singapore has the financial ability to eradicate poverty, if only it has the political will to do so. How much will it cost to eradicate abject poverty? Roughly $1.6 billion per annum, which may sound a lot, but its only 0.4% of our GDP. (*from 22:00 of the video).

As a point of comparison, the projected expenditure of MINDEF in 2015 was $13.12 billion. In other words, to eradicate poverty in Singapore, all we need to do is to spend 12% less on the military-industrial complex, and redistribute this to the poor. Why aren’t we doing this?

“How much will it cost to eradicate abject poverty? Roughly $1.6 billion per annum.. (about) 0.4% of our GDP.. (In contrast) the projected expenditure of MINDEF in 2015 was $13.12 billion.. (A)ll we need to do is to spend 12% less on the military-industrial complex, and redistribute this to the poor. Why aren’t we doing this?”

OP’s additional cross-reference to the poverty issue:

It has also been reported that there are more than 300,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents who earn less than S$1,500 a month (excluding employer CPF contributions) despite working full-time. (2013) 

$116 million in social assistance payments was made to the poor in the last financial year, ending March 2015. This was a 14 per cent jump from the previous year and almost double the $61 million given out five years ago. This money was used to help 91,093 individuals last year, up from 54,041 five years ago. (2015)

Approximately 110,000 to 140,000 resident households.. find it difficult to meet their basic needs today.(2015)

(2) A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

As already mentioned, the FOIA is a fundamental pillar of any true democracy. To give another example, the civil service and the various ministries spend millions of public money conducting research and collecting data. But much of these information are not shared and as such, researchers are often hampered in their work.

The FOIA affects every area of society. Whether it is the field of environmental protection, criminal justice, housing, employment, food security, transport, arts funding, etc. With an FOIA, the quality of research in all the different fields would improve tremendously. We have to understand that access to information should not just be a right of each citizen, but a responsibility for all public institutions.

“..access to information should not just be a right of each citizen, but a responsibility for all public institutions.”

(3) An independent and responsible mass media

In the 2016 World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders), Singapore is ranked 154 out of 180 countries. We are 11 places behind Myanmar and 34 places behind Afghanistan. If you’ll like an account of how the Singapore mass media has been brought under de facto control of the authorities, a good place to start is Francis Seow’s The Media Enthralled: Singapore Revisited.

(4) Environmental Protection

From simple things such as banning free plastic bags and banning the use of non-biodegradable Styrofoam, to the enactment and enforcement of more stringent laws to protect our environment, there is so much to be done, and it’s so urgent.

Singapore uses 3 billion plastic bags a year: study (Eco-business, 2 Oct 2013)

 (5) An education system that does not train students to become obedient workers or profit-driven entrepreneurs, but one that realizes the potential of each person to form non-exploitative relationships with the environment, and with the people around them.        

Q: Last question, when can we look forward to seeing the full film?

JS: By the end of this year.

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Picture of Tan Wah Piow (present day)

*1987: Untracing the Conspiracy is currently screening at The Projector cinema on 7 Jan 2017Do click the green link – 1987untracing.wix.com/1987untracing to find out it’s future screening dates! 🙂

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Thank you for reading Offbeat Perspective’s interview with filmmaker Jason See! Click HERE if you want to check out our Facebook page for new updates 🙂

1.pngClick HERE for a list of TOC articles on the Marxist Conspiracy so that you can have a balanced insight on the matter alongside mainstream media sources 🙂

10 Marxist Conspiracy / ISA related videos

1.png10 articles on Poverty / Social assistance in Singapore

The invisible poor? (ST, 26 June 2013)

3 factors that help everyone understand why the poverty of S’pore’s poverty data is absurd (Mothership.sg, 23 Oct 2013)

Measuring poverty in singapore frameworks for consideration (SMU, 2013)

26% Of Singaporeans Live Below Poverty Line In Singapore (The Heart Truths, 25 Oct 2013)

One quarter of Singapore households below poverty line (YawningBread, 27 Oct 2013)

Discussing Poverty in Singapore, Andrew Yeo, IPS Update, April 2015

3 Hard Truths About Poverty In Singapore (Dollars and Sense, 19 May 2015)

Middle class woes in Singapore: Are they missing out on the slice of the pie? (OP, 3 Jan 2016)

Everything You Need To Know About The (Lack Of) Poverty Line In Singapore (My 15 Hour Work Week, 20 Jan 2016)

Poverty in Singapore: The faces behind the financial aid figures (If Only Singaporeans stopped to think, 1 Mar 2016)

1.pngPhoto credits in chronological order:

Main Photo: Pusat Komas

Photo credit: SiNdie.sg

Photo credit: iDocs-port 

Photo credit: 1987untracing.wix.com

Photo credit: Singapore Rebel

Photo credit: Project Southeast Asia                                                                                                        

Photo credit: sc mp.com

Photo credit: xinguozhi

Photo credit: Amazon.com

Photo credit: Ethos Books

Photo credit: Ethos Books

Photo credit: alleventsin1.png

 

 

 

 

 

 

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