Singapore should scrap ISA like Malaysia

From ‘Abolish ISA in S’pore’, 17 Sept 2011, ST Forum

(Tan Si An): IN 1991, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore would consider abolishing the Internal Security Act if Malaysia were to do so (‘S’pore ‘will consider scrapping ISA if KL does so”; Feb 3, 1991).

…On Thursday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak boldly announced he would repeal his country’s Internal Security Act, the Banishment Act and three emergency proclamations (‘Malaysian PM to scrap ISA’; yesterday). According to a Malaysian minister, the ISA was no longer needed as Malaysia is a developed nation and Malaysians are multiracially and multi-religiously mature now.

By the same analogy, Singapore should consider itself more developed than Malaysia.

…All these suggest that the application of the ISA against racial riots is now as irrelevant as the communist threats it was originally intended to counter. Subsequently, presidential candidate Tony Tan described the ISA as ‘a very blunt instrument’ (‘Heated words over ISA at presidential forum’; Aug 20). It would be in the interests of Singapore to possess several sharp instruments instead.

New anti-terror and anti-espionage legislation would be more adapted to deal with the varied security challenges of today and tomorrow. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was decisive enough to review ministerial salaries. A similar review of the ISA would place the onus on certain opposition parties to offer more constructive policy alternatives instead of recycling old rhetoric to score points.

It’ll be a field day for opportunistic human right activists and bloggers piggy-backing on Malaysian’s sudden ‘openness’ to coerce the government to do the same, but I’ve written enough about how the ISA may not be simply a ‘last resort’ blunt instrument to keep communists or riots at bay. It remains to be seen if Singapore would have collapsed into total chaos without the preemptive strikes by a Government claiming to be incorruptible and wise in its deliverance of brute, but necessary, force. The ISA terms have been buffered by so much legalese ordinary Singaporeans fail to realise that it’s essentially an long-drawn abduction first and foremost whether or not you’re granted legal rights or not, that you’re basically ‘Guilty until proven innocent’ and your life would be marred forever.

As for Najib’s ‘groundbreaking’ crowdpleaser, only time will tell if repealing the ISA in Malaysia is a case of, as Tan Cheng Bock puts it, ‘Wa Teng Boh Wah Liao’. But in the meantime, however much sceptism one would cast on such moves gearing towards a greater, liberated Malaysia, at least our neighbours have been spurred into giving an ISA review some serious thought, even if it’s for no other reason than remaining in power. This was in fact a scenario painted by  none other than former PM Goh Chok Tong himself in 1989, 2 years before Lee Hsien Loong’s statement on the possibility of change:

This was in response to the PAP granting themselves ‘absolute power’ by doing away with all the fundamental rights under the Constitution for detainees, along with abolishing appeals to the Privy Council, which somehow garnered a stunning 80 to 1 vote (Chiam See Tong) in Parliament. NCMP Dr Lee Siew Choh was against the idea as well but his  voice vote was deemed ‘inaudible’ according to the report. Choh, of course, a staunch opponent of the ISA, cited the above ISA Amendment bill as ‘one of the blackest days in Singapore’ equivalent to our surrender to the Japanese in 1942. Goh Chok Tong also mooted a ‘watchdog’ committee to prevent a future corrupt government from abusing its powers. Today that ‘watchdog’ happens to be President Tony Tan acting in accordance to the recommendations of the ISA Advisory Board (Chaired by a Supreme Court judge), which is as useful as an independent ‘third party’ body as a backseat passenger to an impulsive driver, or worse, a bus passenger on the upper deck of a bus. According to Law Minister K Shanmugam in 2009, one of the ‘checks and balances’ of the ISA is that the elected President has the FINAL SAY in the Board’s decision for release. This is also where an independent President is of paramount importance, and suffice to say that having an ex-PAP President making such vital judicial decisions doesn’t add much assurance at all.

This Advisory concept is nothing new, and its role was questioned by Queen’s counsel in 1988 as being more of an administrator of the Executive’s decision rather than an independent judicial body when it reviewed the cases of Marxist plotters in Operation Spectrum. Later in May 2002, the MFA reported that the Advisory team, consisting of  3 members including Chairman, a businessman and a medical practitioner, granted 13 JI detainees the right to legal representation, a process which took nearly 6 months of deliberation from detention till final negative recommendation. According to the report, there was indeed murderous intent among the captured jihadists, and henceforth this particular success of the ISA in ‘ferreting’ out would be terrorists and potentially saving hundreds of lives would be used constantly as a prime example of its relevance today, though the ghosts of ISA’s troubled past of stifling political adversaries still haunts humanists today.

Ultimately, the Advisory Body says nothing about what happens in wrongful detention, nor has any say on whether a detention should be carried out in the first place with or without the President’s concurrence, which casts doubt on its purported role as a ‘safeguard’ against any malicious abuse of power and rather more as an elaborate afterthought, a surface ‘softener’ of the iron-clench fist that is the ISA. An advisory board to the ISD is like putting glasses on Godzilla. It merely makes the monster LOOK like it’s thinking about its destructive actions.

Domestic and international pressure mounted subsequently, but Lee Hsien Loong wasn’t the first to hint at copycat abolishment in 1991. Even his father the pioneer proponent of ISA lockdown suggested reconsidering it in a 1989 interview (Abolish ISA? Maybe one day. Give foreign papers a free hand, never, 19 Nov 1989, ST)

Later in the month, S Jayakumar admitted that ‘The ISA could only be abolished when the security situation in Malaysia was such that the government there could abolish their ISA.’ (S’pore still needs ISA to fight various threats, 30 November 1989, ST). Well, that DAY has finally come, and true to form, despite all this hopeful talk in the past of following Malaysia’s footsteps, a statement has been issued just a day after Najib’s announcement to thwart any suggestions that Singapore should do likewise, providing the usual justifications of why ISA is still relevant in this climate of extremism and terror, with our Government probably praying secretly that Malaysia would turn out to be a terrorist hotbed so that they can go ‘Nyah nyah I told you so!’.

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One Response

  1. What does the existence of ISA have anything to do with Malaysia? We should stop PAP using them as the bogeyman to keep an antiquated law that has no relevance in today’s society, if there’s one that we can reform instead. IS a question of the govt.’s will, and this govt has plenty of that.

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