By Teo Soh Lung
When news of the arrest of 27 Bangladeshis under the Internal Security Act (ISA) broke on 20 Jan 2016, most of us thought that the arrests were made on the day before. That, however, was not the case.
Except for one Bangladeshi worker who is serving a 12-week jail term, the other 26 had already been flown home. And they were all arrested more than two months ago. The news was stale, very stale.
The late disclosure of such an important and shocking news shows how dependent we are on news from our government. If the Ministry of Home Affairs had not issued a press statement, no one would have known. Singaporeans and the world would have been kept in total darkness.
The arrests of the 27 Bangladeshi construction workers were made between 16 November and 1 December 2015. The government has successfully kept this news from us for more than two months. And when the news broke, scary headlines fronted the newspapers.
But let us examine what little we can gather from the newspapers.
The New Paper (TNP) on the following day of the news (21 January), reported that Mr Mahbub, a compatriot of one of the arrested workers, Mr Hossen as saying that his family was alarmed and worried about his wellbeing because he had not called them for a week. That was in November 2015.
TNP wrote in its report, “Late last November, Hossen's family contacted Mr Mahbub and said they had not been in touch with Hossen for a week or so, and asked if Mr Mahbub could help look for him. Despite repeated efforts to contact Hossen's employers, the police and even Mr Mohsin, he was no closer to finding his friend.
His friend's mobile phone had also been switched off. It was only when a Bangladeshi newspaper ran reports of the men having been repatriated that Hossen's family realised he had been arrested.”
So Hossen’s family only knew about the arrests recently, i.e. two months later. Presumably, the families of all those 27 arrested knew nothing of their whereabouts.
Twenty-seven hard working foreign workers who come to Singapore to earn a living in order to send money home to feed their families disappeared in first world Singapore. Is Singapore, China or Brazil or Laos where people simply disappear without a trace and even their embassies are not aware or are they in cahoot with our government?
This is the power under our draconian law, the ISA. People can disappear on our streets or from their homes and workplaces. Families, relatives and friends can be worried sick as to whether they have been kidnapped or murdered. Our Singapore government can deprive anyone of his/her liberty any time, anywhere. People disappear. They can and usually are tortured during the 30 days of interrogation permitted by the law even though torture is illegal. Our government is immuned from prosecution. They can do anything they like and those arrested have no recourse, especially when they are poor construction foreign workers.
When news of the arrests broke, people panicked. Even stale news is capable of arousing great emotions and shock.
MyPaper of 21 Jan had its front page covered with this headline: “27 Bangladeshis arrested under the ISA”, while TNP’s headline was “Editor of Singapore's only Bengali paper: Radicalised Bangladeshis have brought us shame”, it went on to report: “Community shocked after 27 Bangladeshis arrested".
When interviewed, Mr A.K.M. Mohsin, editor of Singapore's only Bengali newspaper, Banglar Kantha, apparently told The New Paper that those arrested “brought us shame.” for forming S'pore's first foreign terror cell.”
Thinking people no longer think with such headline news. They are shocked because they do not know that the Singapore government like any autocratic government is capable of doing what Goebbels did for Hitler.
This is not the first time the Singapore government has used such shock and awe technique to scare Singaporeans. However, this is the first time they have used foreign workers to instil fear in our foreign workforce. It wants to terrorise those who work here. And it also wants to remind Singaporeans that we are living in a fragile country, and we need the ISA for our safety. They do that all the time, from Operation Coldstore to Operation Spectrum and all the arrests of Muslims after 9/11.
The Ministry of Home Affairs' press release of 20 Jan 2016 did not disclose the dates of release of the 26 people.
However, Yahoo News reported that 14 of them were deported on14 Dec 2015 (i.e. probably within the 30 days where the ISD is allowed to detain people without a detention order). They were arrested in Dhaka airport after their deportation. Another report of the same day said that the Dhaka police did not find any ISIS or Al Qaeda link.
BBC ran a clearer story citing that the Dhaka police confirmed they had arrested all of the deportees when they first arrived home on 21 December. The authorities said that some were released after finding no evidence against them, but continued to detain 14 after uncovering links to Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), a group that has been blamed for attacks on secular bloggers.
If the Dhaka police have found no substantiated terrorist connections which the 27 were accused of by the Singapore government, can the workers sue the government?
The government of Singapore used the ISA to arrest, detain and deport the 27 workers because it has no evidence of any terrorist links against them. This law allows them 30 days to interrogate and torture them. We do not know if they gave any incriminating statements when subjected to 30 days of interrogation in freezing cold rooms and without legal counsel.
Presumably, the Ministry of Home Affairs did not even inform the pro bono service of the Law Society of Singapore to assist them. If these 27 workers were charged in open court pursuant to the Penal Code or such like laws, it is likely that they will be acquitted. The migrant workers have come to Singapore to work and they have been maligned, tortured and deported without a fair trial. They were likely to have borrowed money to come to Singapore.How are they going to pay their debts? Is Singapore being fair to them?
The use of the ISA to arrest, imprison and deport these 27 foreign workers without trial gives Singapore a bad name. Far from showing that the ISA is a law that prevents terrorism from happening on our soil, it tells the whole world that we do not respect the rights of these workers and that they can be arrested, imprisoned and deported at any time without trial.
Singaporeans should open up their mind and ponder if the ISA is really a law that we need. This law instil fear in the public. Is it right for our government to constantly remind us that it has this blunt instrument which can be used on anyone at any time and anywhere?