The ISA – A tool of our colonial masters used against law abiding citizens

By the organising committee of 'That we may dream again: Remembering the 1987 'Marxist Conspiracy' 

The Internal Security Act or the ISA as it is notoriously known, is the most unjust and intimidating law enacted during peace time in Malaya and forced upon Singapore by the colonial authorities.

Japan invaded Malaya in December 1941 and Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. The British promptly left Malaya leaving the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) to resist the occupation. The courage and sacrifice of the CPM during the war years is well known and acknowledged by both the people and the British after the war. 

When the British returned to Malaya in 1945, they presented Chin Peng, the leader of the CPM with two medals and awarded him the highest honour for outstanding achievement, namely the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Wu Tian Wang, a representative of the CPM was appointed by the British as a member of the Advisory Council. 

But the alliance between the British and the CPM came to an end shortly after. The murder of three white men in plantations in Malaya gave the British the excuse to declare a state of emergency and to introduce emergency regulations in Malaya in 1948. The CPM was declared an illegal organisation.

Singapore was then a crown colony. Because of her proximity to mainland Malaya, the British also proclaimed a state of emergency on the island. Their excuse was that they did not want the island to be used by the communists. The proclamation of emergency was supposed to be effective for just three months.  Sadly, the British abused their power and extended the emergency for seven years and more.

In 1955, Singapore’s then Chief Minister, David Marshall introduced the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO). He took great care to insert two safeguards:

(a) An independent Appeal Tribunal comprising two High Court judges and one District Court judge who had full powers to order the release of detainees.

(b)  A mandatory review, at least once in every six months, of a detention order or restriction order by a Reviewing Officer who must be a person qualified to be a judge. The Reviewing Officer had the duty to make recommendations to the Chief Secretary or to the Appeal Tribunal.

PAP used ISA for its own ends

The PAP which was then in opposition, vehemently opposed the law. However when it came into power in 1959, it immediately removed the above two safeguards by replacing the Appeal Tribunal with an Advisory Committee, comprising a judge and two lay persons. As the name implies, the Committee’s power was reduced to one that could only advise the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State).

In 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia. The Malaysian Internal Security Act (1960) with modifications, was introduced to Singapore. The new Act enacted the Advisory Board which basically performs the same function as the Advisory Committee. When Singapore left Malaysia in 1965, the ISA continues to be in force.

The government claims that when the Board recommends the release of a prisoner, he/she has to be released unless the President of Singapore decides to veto the Board’s recommendation.  This very limited power of the Board and the President does not detract from the fundamental evil authorised by the law.

ISA Detainees

An ISA detainee is imprisoned without a trial for an indefinite period of time. Thousands have been detained without trial and a significant number like Dr Chia Thye Poh, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Ho Piao, Lee Tee Tong, Said Zahari and Dr Poh Soo Kai have been detained for decades. Many have been severely tortured. Just imagine the hardship caused to the detainees and their families. Imagine the loss to Singapore with so many brilliant people spending the prime of their lives in prison.

There has not been any debate in Singapore as to why we should not abolish the ISA. The situation in Malaysia has improved. After severe criticisms from the people, Malaysia abolished the ISA in April 2012.

In 1991, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked why the ISA was still needed in Singapore even though the CPM no longer posed a threat. His reply was that if Malaysia did not abolish the Act, it must have its reasons. Singapore would seriously consider abolishing the ISA if Malaysia were to do so. Now that Malaysia has repealed the ISA, would Singapore do likewise?

If Singapore is truly a first world nation, there is no place for detention without trial. Every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, assembly and expression.  As a member of the international community, Singapore has for 64 years flouted and continues to flout Article 9 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads:

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”

The ISA, a tool of our colonial masters, has been used to full  effect  in post colonial Singapore against law abiding citizens. If Singapore claims to be fully democratic, then there can absolutely be no doubt that the ISA must be abolished.

You just need to ask yourself one question: Would you feel wronged if you were arrested and have no means to defend yourself, i.e. detained without trial, for an indefinite period of time? If your answer is “yes”, then join in the call for the abolition of the ISA now!

About the event

More than 2,500 Singaporeans have been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) since the 1960’s. The ISA, which allows the arrest and indefinite detention of citizens without trial, is a blunt National security instrument open to abuse by governments which can use, and have used, it in the decimation of legitimate organisations and individuals opposed to their social, economic and political directions.

Operation Spectrum

25th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum “Operation Spectrum” was mounted by the Singapore government on 21 May 1987 under the ISA. Sixteen individuals were arrested in the first wave, with another six detained soon after. Two of the lawyers (including a former Solicitor-General of Singapore) who represented these individuals were subsequently detained as well. The 24 arrested were mainly professionals such as lawyers, journalists, community and church workers and entrepreneurs.

The government alleged that the detainees were “Marxist conspirators”, without giving them the right of defence in an open court. Instead, public “confessions” were elicited under the threat of indefinite detention without trial.

These “confessions” were repudiated in a press statement by nine of these individuals some months after their release.  Eight of them were immediately re-arrested the next day, while the ninth signatory was in England at the time of re-arrest.

Nothing substantial or credible was ever produced to corroborate the government’s allegations. Later documents showed even greater ambiguity in the reasons behind the detentions in 1987. An injustice was perpetuated and continues to linger to this day.

Function 8 Limited and Maruah as well as other civil society organisations, have come together as partners to remember the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum through a series of activities.

Amongst other activities, survivors of the 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy” will be sharing  stories of their lives before and after their detentions with members of the public.

Desired outcomes

We hope these activities would:

  1. Raise awareness on the misuse of the ISA in the past;
  2. raise awareness of the danger on the continued existence of the ISA which may lead to complacency of the authorities in dealing with real security threats to our country;
  3. work towards the abolition of the ISA; and
  4. press the government to welcome the return of those who  have been forced into exile because of the ISA, such a move being the first step towards national


A session themed "That We May Dream Again. Remembering the 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy” will be held from

3pm to 7pm |  Saturday 2nd June 2012  | Speakers’ Corner, Hong Lim Park.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments