Ministry of Home Affairs building

by Teo Soh Lung

It is reported in Today Online that in arresting and detaining the 16 year old unnamed youth under the Internal Security Act (ISA),  “the boy’s age was not taken into consideration… “

It is a shocking statement from Minister of Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam. Why did he disregard age when using the ISA? Has he forgotten that Singapore voluntarily acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and accepted the definition of “child” or “young person” as a person below 18 years of age? Under the Children and Young Persons Act, a person under the age of 18 must now be tried in a special court and his identity kept confidential.

By using the ISA, on the teenager the minister undermines the power of the special court and the judicial system.

The minister went on to lament: “I think we agree that he is capable of doing harm. And until he’s rehabilitated, if we leave him out, and if he carries out what he intends to do, I think we’ll all be very sorry”.

Is he saying that without using the draconian powers of the ISA, the boy cannot be rehabilitated, if indeed the allegations against him are true? How certain is he that the ISA can rehabilitate the boy? Is there a possibility that the boy may turn against the State feeling grievously wronged by the ISD’s unfounded allegations against him?

The minister should know that the regime under the ISA is exceedingly harsh and indefinite detention without trial is totally unsuitable for a young person or for that matter, any person. In the first month of detention, detainees are often subjected to ill treatment and put in solitary confinement. Can the minister guarantee that such treatment will not have an adverse effect on the young person? And if he is not put in solitary confinement, can the minister guarantee that having to share a cell with an adult is good for him?

Minister Shanmugam went on to say that “the criminal process is not suitable in this case as it can be argued that the teenager has not yet performed any criminal acts so far.”

He has obviously forgotten that attempting to commit an offence is also a crime under our laws?

If the police have evidence that the boy had taken substantial steps to attack Muslims in the two mosques, he can be “convicted” in a special court and professional child psychologists can rehabilitate him, something indefinite detention under the ISA cannot do.

Channel NewsAsia reported Minister Shanmugam as saying that the teenager will “get a hearing within the rubric of the Internal Security Act and would have a lawyer, and his position will be put across. His parents are fully involved.”

This is poor consolation for him and his parents. A hearing under the ISA regime is a far cry from being tried in a court of law. ISA detainees appear before the advisory board which usually comprise three officials, one of whom would be a High Court judge. The hearing is in camera i.e.  in the private chamber of the judge. The presence of a lawyer does not help the detainee who is faced with vague allegations. No evidence is produced against a detainee. In fact, no officer from the ISD appears before the board.

Finally, it is not uncommon for the board to ask irrelevant questions such as “if we recommend your release, will you be a good person and stay out of trouble?”

It is clear, though the minister does not tell us that a detention order has already been issued against the teenager. The length of the order is not disclosed. In any event a detention order can be renewed indefinitely even if it states that it is for one year.

The important difference between the ISA regime and the ordinary criminal law is that a sentence passed by a judge in a court of law is for a fixed term. A convicted person is released from custody without conditions after serving the term. Under the ISA, a prisoner can be detained for 20 or more years without trial. Even upon release, he can be subjected to stringent restrictions such as prohibition from leaving the country or joining organisations. Such conditions are very onerous and can also be renewed indefinitely.

It is not the first time that the government has used the ISA on young people.

In 2016, a 17 year old youth was detained. Last year, another 17 year old was detained and is probably still in detention today. He was apparently arrested under the ISA at the age of 15.

The Children and Young Persons Act was amended in July 2020 to reflect Singapore’s acceptance of the universal definition of “child” as below the age of 18. There is no excuse for the government to continue to arrest and detain young people below the age of 18 under the ISA.



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