Wed, Aug 21, 2019 - Page 8 News List

The diverging paths of two islands

By Nigel Li 李澤霖

The year 1987 was a pivotal one for both Taiwan and Singapore: martial law was lifted in Taiwan, ending 38 years of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) repression, elections would be held and opposition parties, once outlawed, were legalized.

The same year, the People’s Action Party (PAP)-led Singaporean government was faced with a “Marxist conspiracy”: Sixteen people were arrested on accusations of plotting to topple the government through communist “united front” tactics. The accused were arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which enabled the government to swiftly act against what might be threats to national security — such swiftness would mean detention without trial. The anti-communist sweep was named “Operation Spectrum.”

“Justice, the rule of law and transparency are bedrocks of Singapore society,” wrote Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh of Singaporean news site the Mothership. “In Operation Spectrum, the worry is that all three were suspended.”

The government’s response to dealing with such a threat might have been — at that time — what it deemed to have been a necessary response. Operation Spectrum had stifled the growth of Singaporean civil society and discourse, as people employed self-censorship in fear of crossing boundaries — many such sentiments still linger in Singaporean society today.

However, 1987 for Taiwan seems to be a moment of triumph for democracy in Asia. After decades of one-party rule and martial law, then-president Chiang Ching- kuo (蔣經國) lifted martial law and led Taiwan into a democratic future.

However, it is essential to recall the brutal experience that Taiwanese had to endure during the initial stages of KMT rule.

The 228 Massacre of 1947 is engraved in Taiwan’s collective memory as a national tragedy. The imposition of martial law and the anti-communist “White Terror” that followed were a clear suspension of justice, the rule of law and transparency.

Singapore and Taiwan have experienced domestic tumult; it is worth highlighting that both islands have been under threat by their larger neighbors, Malaysia and China respectively.

Singapore, since gaining its independence through its suspension from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, has seen its sovereignty tested throughout the decades. With most of Singapore’s water supply coming from its northern neighbor, Malaysia has often threatened to turn off the tap when it felt necessary to prod the island.

And just last year Malaysia anchored its vessels in Singaporean waters, questioning the legitimacy of agreed-upon maritime demarcations. Such developments would generate a “rally-around-the-flag” sentiment throughout Singapore, strengthening national solidarity and identity.

Similarly, Taiwan has faced decades of threats to its sovereignty. Most notable of such instances was the First Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954 to 1955, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army seized islands in the Taiwan Strait, sparking armed conflict between Taiwan and China.

A second and third Strait crisis would follow, creating animosity between the two neighbors and striking fear into Taiwanese.

With external pressures, Taiwan and Singapore have experienced immense securitization. Both islands still maintain conscription. Taiwan’s neighboring threat had injected domestic fears of communist infiltration during the White Terror era, and similarly Singapore sees its security with caution and vigilance.

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