I am very particular about making international calls on my mobile. I mean, it costs quite a lot. But on Thursday night I whipped out my phone and called my friend in Kuala Lumpur without a second thought. I was so excited I even forgot to dial her number through M1’s 021 scheme (which I will be regretting when the bill arrives).
“MALAYSIA REPEALS THE ISA IS IT TRUE OR NOT OH MY GOD?!”
My friend laughed at my dizzy hype. “Whoa…”
“WELL, IS IT?”
“Yes, it’s true.”
I hung up the phone and clinked half-pint beers (drink responsibly, yo!) with the friends I was with at the time. We were on a sudden high, excited about the possibilities that Najib’s announcement had opened up. Can we finally shake the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Singapore?
By Friday night, the answer appeared to be a big, fat NO.
In February 1991, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used Malaysia’s retention of the ISA as the reason for Singapore keeping ours, saying that Malaysia must have its reasons for not abolishing the ISA. He also said that Singapore would seriously consider abolishing the ISA if Malaysia were to do so.
Fast-forward 20 years: Malaysia PM Najib announces the repeal of the ISA, and apparently all it takes is 24 hours for Singapore to “seriously consider” before the Ministry of Home Affairs issues a press statement saying that “the ISA continues to be relevant and crucial as a measure of last resort for the preservation of our national security.”
In other words: screw Malaysia and all of you, we’re keeping our ISA.
According to the press statement, Singapore’s reasoning for keeping the ISA is as follows:
- Although they both came from British colonial law, Singapore and Malaysia’s ISA have evolved differently over the years. In Malaysia, a person can be detained for up to 60 days without a Detention or Restriction Order issued. However, in Singapore, the detention period without the Order is only 30 days, and the President can veto the decision.
- The ISA is only used “to deal with threats of subversion, racial and religious extremism (such as inciting racial or religious hatred, strife and violence), espionage and terrorism.” It has not been used against people who have different political beliefs.
30 days, 60 days… is there a big difference?
By raising this “30 days vs 60 days” point, the MHA is implying that while Malaysia’s ISA heads out the door it’s okay for Singapore’s ISA to stay, because ours isn’t as bad as theirs.
Try telling that to Chia Thye Poh, who was detained without trial for 23 years with a further 9 years of house arrest. Or to Said Zahari, who was detained for 17 years without trial. I’m sure they felt the “30 days vs 60 days” difference.
The thing is, this “we can only detain you for 30 days” point is only relevant if there is doubt as to whether a Detention or Restriction Order will really be issued, and if the President will really veto the decision. So it comes down to this: What is our President’s stance on the ISA? When the government says “let’s issue the Order and detain this guy”, do we think that the President will really veto the decision?
Here is the video of our current President Tony Tan (who was a Cabinet minister during the detention of so-called “Marxist Conspirators” in the 80s), speaking in support of the ISA:
Never used on political beliefs
The MHA statement says that the ISA has “only been used against individuals who have acted in a manner prejudicial to the security of Singapore or to the maintenance of public order or essential services therein” and that “[n]o person has ever been detained only for their political beliefs.”
There are plenty of people out there who don’t actually buy that line; just check out these links provided by Martyn See.
This part of the MHA statement makes me uncomfortable because I don’t quite know what all their definitions are. How does the government define “political”? As we have seen from their gazetting of a blog as a political association, and their more recent remarks on the political/non-political nature of the People’s Association, the PAP government’s definition of “political” might not always be the same as everyone else’s.
Also, how do they determine what is or isn’t “prejudicial to the security of Singapore”? This is coming from a government that has amended laws (and the very Constitution itself) so that even a single person can constitute an illegal assembly, and peaceful protests have been denied permits for “law and order” reasons. When they are talking about things that are “prejudicial to the security of Singapore”, just how far are they stretching this term?
When we look back at Operation Spectrum, read Teo Soh Lung’s book Beyond The Blue Gate or listen to the speeches made by ex-detainees, how many of us are really convinced that they were a threat to Singapore’s security? Were they really conspirators and terrorists, or were they just activists?
The truth is that as long as the ISA remains, it will hang as a spectre over the head of every Singaporean wanting to make a difference. It might not necessarily be used, but just the knowledge that it is there, and could be used, is enough to perpetuate the climate of fear and paranoia and self-censorship.
Just from personal experience alone, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked, “Aren’t you afraid the ISD will come for you?” when they hear about my involvement with TOC, or with the anti-death penalty campaign. Or “I would love to help you but I don’t feel safe.”
The ISA doesn’t need to be used to be oppressive. It just needs to be dangled over our heads.
Abolishing the ISA doesn’t mean a lack of anti-terrorism laws
Another of the points made in the MHA statement is that we need the ISA because of the threat of terrorism.
Firstly, to be clear, no one has said that Singapore should not be protected against the threat of terrorism, or that we should not have laws and security measures in place to protect our country. Similarly, the repeal of the ISA in Malaysia doesn’t mean that Malaysia is now going to throw its doors open to terrorists; Najib has said that the ISA will be replaced with other anti-terrorism laws (and the question for Malaysians will be what this replacement will be).
As NUS political scientist Dr Reuben Wong said when approached by Yahoo!SG, “Many democratic states such as the United States and the European states have specific laws against extremism (Nazi ideas, holocaust denial and suspected terrorist links), but with greater powers of judicial review. There is no reason why Singapore should not consider such specific laws.”
Singapore’s “terrorism expert”
In the report for Channel NewsAsia, MediaCorp interviewed a “terrorism expert”, Dr Rohan Gunaratna from the International Centre for Political Violence and Research (part of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University).
Dr Rohan expressed his strong support of the ISA, saying that it is “an invaluable tool to preventively detain terrorist suspects to investigate and also to confine them. If this important piece of law is taken out of the equation, it will not benefit governments to fight terrorism effectively.” He also went on to say that there is a heightened threat of terrorism in the region now.
Wow, when things are put that way, of course it seems as if Singaporeans should be scrambling for all sorts of measures to stamp out this bloodthirsty extremists. But wait, who is Dr Rohan Gunaratna?
According to this article from The Age, Dr Rohan’s authority has been widely questioned (if not outright rejected) by other academics, and that he was only a favourite of British authorities because they could “rely on him to be apocalyptic”. Some of his claims about his background and expertise have also been revealed to be largely exaggerated.
And this is the expert we’re getting our information from. This is the guy our policymakers are listening to.
That’s. Just. Great.
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