STOP10 Feb 2017: '1987: Untracing the Conspiracy'

On 11 February 2017 at The Projector, a local documentary titled 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy will be screened. While the film has been screened before, we strongly recommend this film for so boldly taking on a sensitive yet important topic and the film had been awarded the Best Southeast Asian Feature at Freedom Film Festival 2015. The event will also feature a post-screening Q&A with some of the ex-detainees and the director, Jason Soo, a graduate of visual and media arts from the University of Melbourne. Aside from being an independent filmmaker he is also an adjunct lecturer in art history.

The film covers Operation Spectrum,an operation where 22 people were arrested under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1987, accused of being involved in a Marxist conspiracy to establish a communist state. The detainees were tortured and then coerced into implicating themselves and their friends on public television. Featuring interviews with ex-detainees and political exiles, the film focuses on the first 30 days of their ordeal, including various physical and psychological techniques used by their interrogators. 

Here are excerpts of our interview with Jason, done in 2015.
What first piqued your interest in Operation Spectrum?

I started with the intention of making a film that would express the best and worst of Singapore. And for many years, I tried to find or write a story that would do this. It wasn’t until I read the book Beyond The Blue Gate by ex-detainee Teo Soh Lung that I realised I had found my film. In a period when the term “activism” was not even widely used, the detainees were engaged in various forms of social work, whether directly in organisations such as Geylang Catholic Centre, or indirectly through social criticism in plays and books. And the worst of Singapore was not just how the detainees were imprisoned without trial and tortured, but also how society allowed such abuses to take place. Each and every one of us has to take some responsibility for Operation Spectrum. Each and every one of us did not do enough to change the system that made such abuses possible. Our indifference or our lack of solidarity allowed this system to persist, even up till today.

What do you hope to achieve with this documentary in terms of in the public sphere?

The story of Operation Spectrum should be known by every Singaporean. It should be also be in the school textbooks. And taught to every student not just in the way previous security exercises like Operation Coldstore have been falsified, but as a lesson in the abuse of power and the consequences of that abuse.

In Singapore however, education has become less and less about empowering the citizen with critical thought and knowledge. It is now oriented towards a kind of job training, so that the individual becomes skilled at performing a specific number of tasks.

So we have to ask, do we really have a public sphere that we can speak of? Who is the Singapore public? Does it even exist, in the concrete, effective sense of the term, as a space of real, meaningful contestation? We should therefore make a distinction between what we call a people as opposed to a population. In Singapore, the people do not yet exist. They do not yet exist as a real, meaningful collective. What we have instead, is a population. In other words, a numerical entity, a figure that is measured, managed, and manipulated through statistics and publicity campaigns. What we therefore need is to create a people, a collective force who can express their will in a larger movement or who can express solidarity with the people around them. This does not yet exist, or only in very limited forms.

I believe cinema is one way to help make these people come into being.

There will be a plethora of difficulties you will encounter in the making and distribution of this documentary; why go through with it and what are your greatest concerns for yourself and for its censorship within the state?

Censorship is a problem. But an even bigger problem is self-censorship. Censorship is easier to resist because it is much more visible, and we know what we are up against. But today, the way in which control works is harder to detect, because it is imbedded in us, within us. The person being censored faces a power external to him, but the person who is censoring himself has internalised that power, and he now regulates himself. So the difference between censorship and self-censorship is this difference between an older, repressive method and a new form of power and control that is less visible and hence more efficient. You could even say that this new form of power produces us. We are the products of control. And if we resist, it is to go against these forms of control that produce us, that gives us our individuality, and that determine the very fibre of our being, how we should or should not think, act, or behave. The emphasis on individuality in modern consumer societies is a tool of control. We have to go beyond the individual, and create a sense of solidarity with each other. This does not mean we have to subjugate ourselves within a collective; it means mastering ourselves rather than regulating ourselves; it also means finding new forms of collectivity based not on conformism but on differences. Easier said than done. But we first need to have the desire to do all this. And the awareness to understand how control takes place in our societies.

Is there a greater statement you wish to reveal with this film?

Besides the untold stories of the arrests, interrogations, and torture, the focus of the film is on how something like detention without trial can happen. That means not just the existence of a law in order to carry out the arrests, but also the existence of supplementary institutions in order to legitimise it in public opinion. This was of course done through the mass media and through parliamentary debates. So purportedly democratic institutions such as parliament, the judiciary, and the mass media are complicit in the whole affair.

We all know how in the absence of an effective opposition, we have a dysfunctional parliament in which laws are passed without meaningful debates. As for the judiciary, Jothie Rajah has written an important book in which she makes a distinction “rule of law” and “rule by law”, in which we have the appearance but not the substance of legality. As for the mass media, given that the government enjoys de facto control over broadcasters and newspapers, public opinion can be easily manipulated.

So all these people working in these institutions have a role to play in the unfolding of the story of Operation Spectrum. Each of them has a role to play in order to legitimise the arrests. And each of them could have done something different.

Can you talk about any unexpected revelations or discoveries that surprised you the most?

One of the things that surprised me most when I was researching the film was a BBC news report from 1990. It described how Singapore was already at that time importing huge numbers of foreign labour. And that’s why the ex-detainees at Geylang Catholic Centre were already grappling with the same issues that organisations such as HOME and TWC2 are facing today. So when the arrests happened, not only was civil society crippled for the next 20 years, problems such as the lack of workers’ protection, incorporation of workers’ unions into government-led organisations, lack of minimum wage, low birth rates, all these were carried over from the 1980s till today, they become even harder to solve, with the added problems of rising xenophobia, infrastructural deficiencies, lack of economic innovation, etc.

I’m not saying of course that had Operation Spectrum not happened, these problems would not exist today. But this is just an example of how something like the Internal Security Act cannot be taken in isolation. It’s not just a law that exists on its own. It has consequences for the rest of society. We should be concerned. Because we’re still suffering those consequences today.

Check out the trailer:

Tickets are available here.

For more information on the film, regarding its development into a feature, the crew and funding, you can visit the website here.

Original interview by Chris Yeo
Edited by Rifyal Giffari

For the full list of February 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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