Thoughts: 1987

Me and S snuck into an R21 theatre for the first time in our lives today. It wasn’t sex, nor drug use, nor strong language that was the main attraction. It was anti-state subversion.

1987: Untracing the Conspiracy traces, through a series of concise interviews, the experience of 22 political detainees arrested in 1987 under the ISA for an alleged Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Singaporean government. There were no weapons, no evidence, not even Marxist inclinations, just concocted confessions. It’s a shocker that a film so blatantly defiant of The National Narrative could pass through censors with a mere R21 rating. Jason Soo, director and visionary behind the film, illuminates us with a subtler answer: banning Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore with Love in 2013 merely invoked the Streisand effect, whereas a less publicity-screaming R21 rating in this case would bury the film under the immanent amnesia of the Singaporean public.

I’ve watched some incredible films that have incited great anger in me; this was another one of them. Torture, repression, injustice, Kafka-esque absurdity – the full Orwellian treatment spelt out in the soft and quiet confines of my very country’s history. Unthinkable. Unpalatable. Impossible to swallow.

If I was born just two generations earlier, I would have very easily been one of those former detainees sitting there before an audience, talking about the absurdity of my experience under the boot and the truncheon. Throughout the film, I was silently cursing myself for all my explicit dabbling in Marxist-themed pranks, and all the troves of pro-Maoist conversations on my phone. All of that along with the Little Red Book beside my bed would serve as enough a body of evidence for a 30-year stint in solitary confinement.

Unlike the 1987 treatment of the detainees where their prime-time television confessions was their last words to the world, this screening inverted that hierarchy with a post-screening dialogue. The detainees themselves will speak last, not the manipulative medium of film and media.

“What can we as private citizens do against such monolithic state power?” is the penultimate question of the dialogue which stretched longer than what I imagined the attention span of a Singaporean could last.

Tan Tee Seng shrugs and laughs in response, “We can’t do anything.”

We can only want for a country with an accountable government, with the rule of law, said he. That the ISA is a suspension of law, is the one running comment that next to every one on stage has reiterated.

In a private conversation, S and I talk to Vincent Cheng, the alleged ring leader of the conspiracy, now a mild-mannered white-haired man . He says there’s hope. He smiles at us, young boys, unshaven with our black NS spectacles and army haircuts.

He thanks us for our support. We thank him for his courage.

It’s been almost three decades. Lee Kuan Yew is dead. There are 6 opposition members of parliament. The Internet is a superstructure that the state has not been able to subsume. And the ISA still stands, an unchanged institution.

What has changed? A lot has changed.

What has changed? Nothing has changed.

Was it worth it? For political expediency? For economic stability? Mere collateral damage of the wisdom and grand schemes of our paternal leaders? It’s not up to me to judge – that would be the correct answer. I am no president scholar, nor a white-shirted, white-pants minister. I am just a coward, I would confess to every damn thing they accuse me of.

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