When Chew Kheng Chuan heard a knock on his door on the morning of June 20th 1987, he knew exactly who had come to chauffeur him. KC, as he’s known to friends, was a rising star in society. Singapore’s first-ever undergraduate at Harvard had returned in 1983 to reunite with his intellectual comrades, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, now Singapore’s senior minister, and Yeoh Lam Keong, former chief economist at GIC, a sovereign wealth fund.
In 1978, KC, Tharman and Lam Keong had, as teenagers—long-haired, bare-bodied, slightly dishevelled in one photo—published but we have no legends, a collection of poems on Singapore, from military service to materialism. By 1987, age 30, they had promising careers. KC had first worked at DBS before starting his own firm, while Tharman and Lam Keong were economists, at the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and GIC respectively.
When KC heard the knock, he wasn’t sure how long the interview would be, so he went to take a shower, and calmly dressed himself in a suit. KC lived in an old, pre-war house with thick walls, iron grilles over the windows, and a solid bolt across a thick door. He told Chia Kwok Ying, his then wife, not to let anybody in until he was ready. As the banging got louder, the dogs outside started barking, and KC’s neighbour yelled: “I’m going to call the police!”
The people on his doorstep sniggered. They were the police—Lee Kuan Yew’s secret police. Having just seen mugshots of his friends in the papers, KC had been expecting the officers from the Internal Security Department (ISD).
Over the course of the following days, they subjected KC, he claims, to psychological and physical torture—Sim Poh Heng, ISD’s deputy director, slapped him about 50 times, until the inside of his mouth was bleeding. It was the start of an ordeal that would see KC spend, over two spells, a total of 13 months in detention without trial. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) claimed that the 22 activists, church workers, and opposition volunteers it arrested in Operation Spectrum were “Marxist conspirators” plotting to overthrow the state.
Just two years before the Berlin Wall fell, and with the Malayan Communist Party defanged and about to sign a peace treaty with Malaysia and Thailand, it was an outlandish claim. That many Singaporeans accepted it reflected Lee’s messianic control over society. The government has never charged the 22 with a crime and, aside from their torture-induced confessions (many later recanted), has yet to offer conclusive proof of the plot. (ISD did not return requests for comment for this piece.)
KC still doesn’t know what he did wrong, including in his junior year abroad in London: “Whatever I did in London as a student activist, Tharman and Butch [Lam Keong] did three times more!” KC jokes, referencing the fact that two of them—both still his good friends—were there three times as long.
In London they, along with others such as Jane Ittogi, Tharman’s wife-to-be, regularly met dissidents. “It was Tharman who introduced me to Tan Wah Piow,” KC says, about the exiled student activist and Lee’s bête noire. In 1987, the ISD hauled in Tharman and Lam Keong for a few days of “civil” questioning, says KC, but then released them. The episode doused KC’s youthful activism: “Bloody Spectrum really blew me out of the water.”