ISA destroys the human spirit

Abolish ISABy Teo Soh Lung

Friends and acquaintances often tell me that they are confident that the PAP government will not use the ISA again. When I reminded them that even today there are Muslims imprisoned under the law, they tell me that that is a different matter. “We should not doubt the professionalism of the ISD (Internal Security Department)”.

I have never doubted the integrity and professionalism of the ISD before my arrest under the ISA. It was during my imprisonment that I began to doubt. Senior ISD officers used to tell me the government is the ISD and the ISD is the government. It is deeply regretted that for such senior officers, their work and what the government wants them to do have merged. They honestly believed that their job as guardians of national security was to ensure that the PAP continues to be in the business of government.

Will the government again use the ISA? Well, on 27 May 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that two young people, aged 19 and 17 were arrested in April and May 2015. No weapons or documents showing any plan to carry out violent attacks in Singapore were disclosed.

The statement however said that one of the two tried to approach others to join him in planned attacks. If this is true, could not he be tried in open court?

It is depressing that the Singapore government deems it necessary to use this draconian law on two unarmed young people. Despite the government’s lavish praise of several Muslim organisations for their rehabilitation works of ISA prisoners not so long ago, it did not deem it appropriate to entrust these two young people to their care. Instead, it had resorted to the use of the ISA, as if it is the best, the most effective and convenient tool in its arsenal of laws. It disregards the lifetime adverse consequences on ISA victims.

What are some of these consequences?

The effect of arrest and indefinite imprisonment without trial under the ISA has never been examined by any psychologist or psychiatrist. While psychologists have conducted tests on ISA prisoners, I have not seen any report made of such investigations. I do not know if released prisoners have ever sought assistance or be treated by psychologists besides the late Mr Lim Chin Siong.

I am however convinced (from my observation) that arrest and imprisonment without trial do have detrimental and often devastating effect on prisoners. Families also suffer. The stress and effect on families who have lost their breadwinners, whether they are spouses or children, have not been documented.

One of the common effects of imprisonment without trial is the reluctance to talk about prison experiences. Released prisoners suffer a kind of paranoia.

Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew
Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew

Before 1987, I was not aware of any former prisoner who has spoken about his arrest and prison experiences. Even though I was aware of the 1977 arrests of alleged Euro communists, I did not have the faintest idea as to why those arrests took place. This reluctance to talk about their experiences led me to the conclusion that perhaps they had done something wrong or they would not have been arrested. This is probably the same doubt people have today about those in prison today. This presumption of “guilt” of ISA prisoners led me to believe in the 1980s, that I would not be arrested under the ISA because everything I did was open and legal. It was thus to my great shock that I too ended up behind the Blue Gate.

Why do ISA prisoners remain largely silent after their release? Why were they reluctant to speak about their past, not only to their friends but also to their children and grandchildren?

The reasons may range from being practical i.e. it will not help anyone if they had spoken up. Their children and grandchildren may be hampered in their career advancement. Or it could simply be one of shame for succumbing to the demands of the ISD in order to get out of prison. The easy way out is thus to remain silent.

After all, they have lost their battle in politics or whatever they were doing. They have fought for better pay, better housing, better policies etc. Several, if not all of these ideals have been adopted by the PAP government and they should be satisfied that their descendants today enjoy the fruits stolen from their labour. Let the next generation deal with the ISA or even forget about it if they have achieved material success. They have paid the heavy price and they can move on. Thus their secret would remain with them and die with them. Their children and grandchildren will enjoy normal lives as heirs to their struggle and sacrifice. Some would even go on to attain high positions in the PAP government.

Does the deliberate choice of keeping silent a normal reaction to a traumatic past? I think it was a normal reaction until recently. What then is the effect of keeping silent? The words of the late Mr Lim Chin Siong are perhaps the most apt. He said to historian, Melanie Chew in her book “Leaders of Singapore”:

“The fact is that all of us were detained without trial, for ages. Not knowing when we would be coming out. That I would say is a torture. A torture. You are detained for years until such a time that you are willing to humiliate your own integrity. Until you are humiliated publicly. So much so, when you come out, you cannot put your head up, you cannot see your friends. Alright, then they may release you. It is a very cruel torture.

It is worse than in the Japanese time, when with a knife, they just slaughter you. One shot, you die. But this humiliation will carry on for life. It is very cruel.”

Indefinite imprisonment without trial under the ISA is not something to be taken lightly of. The government in continuing to imprison nine people and arresting two young people in recent months may be doing something convenient to their scheme of things. They may want to use the new arrests to warn people of the existence of “threats” and continue to justify the retention of the ISA.

But they should pause and think seriously the effect of such arrests and imprisonment on the prisoners, their families and the population, with particular concern for the minority Muslim community.

This article first appeared on the Function 8 Facebook page.