For some of us who believe in civil liberties, the latest spate of gang-related violence has called for some soul-searching. The police, signalling their determination to stamp it out, mentioned that they are prepared to use preventive detention to achieve their goals. Is this supportable?
"Criminal Investigation Department director and Senior Assistant Commissioner of police Ng Boon Gay said young offenders involved in violent crimes would not be treated lightly simply because of their age.
They can expect to face the full brunt of the law, including the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows for detention without trial."
– Straits Times, 11 Nov 2010, Fifth youth charged with gang murder
In its operation, the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA) is not substantially different from the Internal Security Act (ISA). It’s just that the former has historically been used against secret society elements, while the latter is meant for persons who would engage in armed subversion against the state.
Yet, a history of abuse of the ISA has emerged. We have seen a pattern of the People’s Action Party government using it to imprison people who spoke out against government policies or who were able to mobilise opposition, even if peaceful. A long list of names – none ever convicted in a court of law – has been associated with detention periods stretching for years. In Chia Thye Poh’s case, it was 23 years – 32 if you add the nine more years when he was under restriction orders confining him to Sentosa Island.
From the memoirs of these political detainees, we read about inhuman treatment, solitary confinement and harsh interrogation, bordering on torture.
The systematic abuse of the ISA has completely eroded what trust I have in the government using it fairly. I lean towards its abolition.
What of the CLTPA then? What makes us think it too has not been abused? What makes us think we can trust the authorities to use it judiciously, even in the face of the recent outbreaks of fighting among street corner gangs?
Yet, with young men and their molls running about wielding knives, slashing and killing their perceived opponents (and the occasional uninvolved bystander), how can we do nothing? Is preventive detention not justified under these extreme circumstances?
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