After all this time, the Internal Security Act continues to be controversial. We saw that at TOC’s Face To Face 2 forum [i], where the question of the 1987 detentions of the so-called Marxist conspirators sparked a sharp exchange between candidate Mr Tan Jee Say and our current President Dr Tony Tan. And we’ve seen that over the past week, as the Ministry of Home Affairs scrambled to react first to Malaysia’s announcement that it will abolish its ISA, and then to the call by 16 Singapore ex-detainees to abolish our own ISA.
The Online Citizen believes that the ISA in its current form is no longer relevant to or necessary in Singapore, and we therefore call for its abolition. In the past 2 decades, the ISA has been used primarily to fight terrorism and to counter espionage. If preventive detention continues to be necessary for those purposes, then the objective is better met by specific anti-terrorism and anti-espionage legislation than by a broad law like the ISA.
In 1991, then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested that Singapore would seriously consider repealing the ISA, if Malaysia did the same. Now that Malaysia has actually done the unthinkable, the MHA sought to distinguish the two countries’ ISA, to justify Singapore’s continued retention of this repressive law.
But the two differences cited by MHA (in Singapore, a detention or restriction order has to be issued after 30 days of arrest, as opposed to 60 days in Malaysia; and since 1991, the President has a limited veto power not present in Malaysia) are minor and spurious, and neither of them go anywhere towards explaining why Singapore needs the ISA when Malaysia does not. And as pointed out by the Singapore ex-detainees, Singapore’s ISA has been used to detain individuals without trial for decades, far in excess of the detention periods seen in Malaysia.
The MHA’s response to the ex-detainees was also far from convincing. Its references to subversion were vague and supported only by mere assertions of fact and references to some of the ex-detainees’ confessions.
The ISA was originally introduced because of the alleged difficulties of conducting open trials in security cases. But the most controversial detentions under the ISA, of Dr Chia Thye Poh for 26 years; Dr Lim Hock Siew for 20 years, Mr Lee Tee Tong for 18 years; Dr Poh Soo Kai for 17 years; Inche Said Zahari for 17 years; and of the alleged Marxist conspirators between 1987 and 1989, occurred decades ago. The MHA has so far not suggested that there is any extrinsic evidence of their alleged subversive activities, other than their own confessions (which are suspect since they were made after protracted detentions).
If there is any such evidence, the MHA should provide it now, to prove to Singaporeans that those detentions were justified. There is surely no reason why decades-old evidence, from 20 to 50 years, cannot be produced today. What security risk could the release of this information today pose?
Apart from the allegation that Dr Poh Soo Kai treated a saboteur in Malaysia (which he has since denied [ii]), the MHA has also so far not provided any details as to what types of subversive activities had been undertaken by the detainees, especially the 1987 ex-detainees. Vague assertions of “subversion” and “infiltration” will not assure Singaporeans that the ISA has never been used to deter peaceful, non-violent and lawful opposition to the government of the day.
The MHA’s continued silence on these questions only leads one to wonder if any evidence of subversive activities, whatever that may mean, ever truly existed. Its speedy response to the ex-detainees’ statement also contrasts with its failure to respond to date to the comments by Mr Peter Low (“ISA: Judicial review should replace advisory board”, Straits Times Forum, Sep 23, 2011 [iii]), a past president of the Law Society and member of human rights NGO MARUAH Singapore, questioning if the ISA advisory board is in fact an effective safeguard.
The Government is essentially asking Singaporeans to trust them. But those who seek powers as broad as those in the ISA, need to explain why they are necessary in the first place, and then to properly justify their past exercise of such powers. The Government has, to date, failed abjectly in both aspects.
TOC therefore remains unconvinced by the bare assertions of MHA, that the ISA has never been used to detain political opponents of the government due solely to their political beliefs. We believe that few Singaporeans today truly believe that the ISA in its current form remains necessary, and that our security needs cannot be better met by specific anti-terrorism and anti-espionage laws that do not overly curtail human rights. The Government should therefore simply abolish the ISA immediately.