The Asian Human Rights Commission calls on the Singaporean government to repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA) immediately. The ISA is a draconian law that has been used as a tool to suppress democratic opposition and silence critics for half a century. It also poses a constant threat to the human rights of people in Singapore in regard to personal liberty, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
The ISA was enacted by Malaysia in 1960 (then known as Malaya) to replace the Emergency Regulations Ordinance 1948 but retain much of its powers. Singapore inherited the ISA when Singapore became a part of Malaysia in 1963 and retained it in law after separating from Malaysia in 1965. Therefore, the ISA in Malaysia and Singapore is virtually the same.
Under Section 8 of the ISA of Singapore,
(1) If the President is satisfied with respect to any person that, with a view to preventing that person from acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of Singapore or any part thereof or to the maintenance of public order or essential services therein, it is necessary to do so, the Minister shall make an order —
(a) directing that such person be detained for any period not exceeding two years;
(2) The President may direct that the period of any order made under subsection (1) be extended for a further period or periods not exceeding two years at a time.
Under Section 74,
(1) Any police officer may without warrant arrest and detain pending enquiries any person in respect of whom he has reason to believe —
(a) that there are grounds which would justify his detention under section 8; and
(b) that he has acted or is about to act or is likely to act in any manner prejudicial to the security of Singapore or any part thereof.
The length of detention pending enquiries can be extended up to 28 days following a maximum 48-hour limit if “an officer of or above the rank of superintendent of police is satisfied that the necessary enquires cannot be completed within the period of 48 hours”.
By conferring powers to police officers to arrest without warrant and detain pending enquiries any person that being considered to pose a threat to national security and public order, a detainee is deprived of the right to due process and judicial safeguards. As a result, the detainees are totally placed in the hands of the police and subjected to torture and cruel and inhuman treatments. From the statements made by former detainees, they were subjected to beating, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, cold room treatment, and humiliation during their interrogation and detention.
As stated in Section 8(2), the ISA also provides the power for the President to direct the extension of the detention of persons without trial for an indefinite time through continuous renewal of detention period every two years. This seriously violates the right to personal liberty and the right to fair trial. The indefinite detention itself also constitutes a form of torture. Furthermore, according to Section 8(1) (b), the Minister can also impose conditions on the detainee’s release, including curfews, restrictions on mobility and prohibitions against addressing public meetings or holding public office or taking part in any political activities.
In Singapore, since Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party (PAP) came to power in 1959, the ISA has been used primarily to stifle opposition and critics. The most well-known cases of ISA implementation in Singapore have been:
1. Operation Cold Store, 2 February 1963, when the Joint Security Council of Singapore, Malaya and Britain detained without trial all leaders of the opposition parties and the labour movement in the two countries, some for as long as 17 years.
2. Chia Thye Poh, who, in 1961 was one of three members of parliament who formed the Barisan Socialis political party. In October 1966, Chia was one of 10 Barisan members who walked out of parliament to fight the People Action Party (PAP) on the streets. Three weeks later, Chia was arrested. He spent the next 23 years in detention. In that period, the Singaporean government under the PAP did not produce any evidence or charge Chia for any offence.
3. T T Rajah was arrested and detained in 1974 for 18 months. In 1971 he had acted for some ISA detainees and had taken out summonses against individual officers who had allegedly beaten his clients.
4. G Raman, a lawyer for political prisoners, who in 1977 was himself arrested together with several others for a “communist conspiracy”.
5. A total of 22 persons were arrested and detained on 21 May and 20 June 1987 for being part of a “Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government by violent means”. These persons were professionals, social activists, students, and Roman Catholic Church workers.
6. Francis Seow, a former Solicitor General and Law Society President, was arrested and detained in May 1988 while taking a statement from a client detainee in the 1987 arrests. Earlier he had incurred the wrath of the government by his criticism of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Bill.
After half a century, Malaysia Prime Minister Mr Najib Razak announced on 15 September 2011 that the Malaysian government will repeal the ISA and other emergency laws. People generally welcomed this announcement, though the government’s sincerity still has to be confirmed by the actual actions taken to realise its promise. At the same time, it raises the public demand that the Singaporean government should follow to repeal the ISA.
On 19 September, 16 former detainees under the ISA of Singapore made a statement calling for the repeal of ISA. In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press statement on 22 September affirming that the ISA “remains relevant and necessary in today’s evolving security environment, for keeping Singapore safe and secure.” The response of the Singaporean government fails to meet the demands of the people of Singapore for living in a real democratic society where people can voice their views freely without fear.
After the elections in Singapore this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on 8 May that “Many Singaporeans wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach. We hear your voice. The PAP will learn from this election and put right what is wrong.”
It is the time for the Singaporean government to take a great step to ‘put right what is wrong’ by repealing the ISA. Any justifications to keep the ISA will only show that the ruling PAP wants to maintain its authoritarian rule. The Singaporean government should also accept the recent demand of former detainees to set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate if the allegations made against all the former ISA detainees are justified.