Marxists in Singapore? Lee Kuan Yew's Campaign against Catholic Social Justice Activists in the 1980s

Michael Barr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


Singapore's ruling elite runs a finely calibrated system of social and political control based on a mixture of monitoring and repression by the state, and self-monitoring and self-restraint by all elements of civil society. This system matured under Goh Chok Tong's premiership in the 1990s but its template was created by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the final years of his premiership with his handling of a fresh upsurge of social justice activism and dissent that was becoming increasingly brave. In response to these challenges he created a fanciful narrative about a "Marxist conspiracy" to overthrow the state and centered the main force of his allegations on a group of activists who were associated with the local Catholic Church. He accused them of being Marxists who had been subverted by the teachings of liberation theology and used the Internal Security Act to detain them and destroy their rather modest and innocent operations; their treatment provided both an exemplar to other groups and a model for the next generation of the ruling elite to follow. This article uses archival, oral, and secondary sources to build an account of these events with a particular focus on the motivations and activities of this group of Catholics and the motivations of the government-which essentially means the motivations of Lee Kuan Yew.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)335-362
Number of pages28
JournalCritical Asian Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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