ISA’s scar on Singaporean society

By Dr James Gomez –

The ISA has scared Singaporean society at three fundamental levels.

At the first level it has scared the individuals directly arrested and detained. Years after their release, almost all remain traumatized and psychological scarred from the experience. It takes a life-time to break out of this experience. I am glad to note a change as more from this group have come forward.

At the second level immediate family members, friends, associates from work and members from social organizations (e.g. church, welfare group, the arts, etc. that those detained under the ISA belonged to), also bear the long-time psychological effects. The fear of having being so near to those arrested and detained also does have a bearing on how this immediate group interacted with others especially when it came to engaging in political matters critical of the PAP government. There is certainly less fear among them now.

At the third level, in the general body politic, it had scarred a whole nation into self-censorship. It prevented many for the longest time from taking an active stance in our domestic politics, leaving it to a few to lead the charge. Even today it is not unusual to evoke the comment that the “ISD is watching or listening” whenever we hear an electronic crackle over the telephone line or an audio interference over a PA system at a meeting. Yes we laugh it off, but it belies a deep psychological fear. That is extent of ISA’s scar on Singaporean society. But we now have come a long way.

Collectively, this scar also extends to foreigners and visitors to Singapore and how they have and continue to conduct themselves when it comes to speaking up on political injustices in Singapore or undertaking critical commentary. This the extents of the ISA’s psychological reach beyond our borders. I think to effect a change across the border would take a little bit longer as the ripple of change out of Singapore would need more time to travel.

Thus, 22 years ago when, I was an Arts and Social Science student in NUS I asked Lee Kuan Kew at the 1990 NUS Forum: Lee Kuan Yew on ISA and Marxist Conspiracy whether Singapore would consider abolishing the ISA given the region had become much more stable. I was not convinced of the answer.

Back then, those of us who spoke up against the ISA were few, now we are a little more and from all three levels. I am confident that together we can work to abolish the ISA.


Dr. James Gomez, a 3rd year undergrad at NUS in 1990, asked Lee Kuan Yew whether he would abolish the ISA.

This article is published by The Online Citizen, 20 Maxwell Road, #09-17 Maxwell House, Singapore 069113.