I doubt the Opposition will get rid of the ISA

The passing of Dr Lim Hock Siew has refreshed the debate about whether the Internal Security Act should be abolished. The majority of online articles and opposition parties strongly protest against the ISA. But as Singaporeans, have we ever asked ourselves whether an opposition-led Government would actually remove the ISA (or its variants)?


Recapping ISA: Preventive Detention is the biggest bugbear

If you look up the ISA, it actually covers a lot of things, such as “No wearing of quasi-military uniform”, “preventive detention”, “subversive publications”, “possessions of firearms” etc. The biggest complaint about the ISA focuses mainly on “preventive detention”. (I guess the part about subversive publications isn’t as big an issue given that we can post almost anything on the internet nowadays.)

Most laws only allow a person to be punished after a crime has been committed. But preventive detention gives  government the right to detain a person without trial for a specific period of time. The PAP used this power during Operation Coldstore and Spectrum to detain hundreds of people. Although there are a number of safeguards to give some semblence of fair treatment to the detainee, the effectiveness of such safeguards is always up for debate.

By the way, we have another law that is not called the ISA but has similar effects. The Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act empowers the state to preemptively detain people suspected of criminal activity. When we talk about repealing the ISA, we must also look at this law as well.


Responsibility of power puts leaders in a tough spot

Imagine if the PAP was overthrown. Imagine if Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Kiang or Vincent Wijeysingha were the Minister of Home Affairs. One day, the ISD director walks into the minister’s office and says:

“We have uncovered evidence that suggests XX group is likely to bomb multiple MRT stations within this week. If we arrest this group now, we could prevent thousands of deaths. “

Will the opposition minister waive the power of preventive detention when human lives are on the balance? Is freedom more important than lives? These are the difficult decisions that leaders must make. Great power comes with great responsibility.

The government of the day has responsibilities to its people. The top responsibility is to keep the people safe, which is why the state has the sole power to create an army and police force. And we cannot ignore the fact that terrorism and other threats to our safety exist in our world today.

If I were in the Minister’s position, I would “detain first and ask questions later”. Because the consequence of lost life is just too great. I will not be able to look into the eye of a parent who has lost her child due to my hesitance. It is not enough to gamble that I can deploy enough security officers at the MRT stations to prevent a bombing. What if the bomb was hidden and planted ages ago? What if another target was chosen instead?


Preventive action – it’s not just Singapore

Even the UN endorses preventive action:

“it is rarely possible for authorities to control a tactical situation so completely that they can be sure of intervening precisely when the plotters have begun to attempt the offence, and so would be subject to prosecution, but before violence is accomplished.”

“.. .the phenomena of fanaticism and suicide bombings make the deterrent effect of the criminal justice process virtually irrelevant.”

“If terrorist violence is to be reduced, authorities must re-focus their attention upon proactive intervention at the planning and preparation stage.”

“A preventive, even aggressively proactive, anti-terrorism strategy can be based upon scrupulous observance of human rights, and can simultaneously enhance both the rule of law and the protective abilities of Member States.”

The Worker’s Party also recognises that preventive detention is necessary.


Any real difference between the ISA and its replacements?

If you clicked on the WP link above, you will notice that they propose abolishing the ISA and replacing it with an “anti-terror law” that allows swift detention without trial.

Let’s be honest here. There isn’t much difference between the ISA and any law that allows swift detention without trial. Sure, there can be differences on the suspect’s right to fair representation and living conditions. But these are safeguards. The fundamental power still remains intact. (Don’t get me wrong, safeguards are important. But this article won’t dwell on the level of safeguards when people want to abolish the entire ISA.)

Reducing the scope of the ISA may not be as effective as we hope. Restricting the ISA to only terror activities may miss out other crazy stunts, like death cults that cause collateral harm to others. Even if the intention is to prevent the ISA from being used for political means, it is possibly side-stepped by terrorists that become politicians.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone saying that they would abolish the ISA and replace it with an anti-terror law is being (i) populist and (ii) depending on the stupidity of the population. It’s a classic switch-and-bait that is targeted to gain votes. Isn’t it easier to simply amend the ISA rather than abolish it and replace it with a similar law?


Blame the tool-wielder, not the tool?

The ISA is nothing more than a tool of the state. It gives power to its wielder, but a tool can be used for good or evil. It all depends on the wielder. We trust the policeman to hold a gun, but we will not trust the average citizen to own a gun.

This means that we must differentiate between (i) “disdain for the ISA”, versus (ii) “disdain for PAP using the ISA”. The litmus test for ISA protesters is to ask themselves: “If a government led by the Worker’s Party or Singapore Democratic Party decides to retain the ISA, do you still want to abolish the ISA? Will you trust these parties to wield the ISA properly?

This is a very pertinent question, because if your answer is to retain the ISA, then your gripe is not with the ISA but with the way it was used. In which case you really should be focusing your efforts on asking the government for an explanation on its previous usage. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

But if your answer is to abolish the ISA, then I must ask what you would have done if you were the Minister of Home Affairs in the situation described a few paragraphs ago.


A  burden the government must bear

I believe that no matter which politician is in the government, he/she will retain the ISA in one form or another. The worst-case scenario is that the ISA is abolished but the government still exercises preventive detention, because the detainee won’t even get the basic protection that the ISA today confers.

There may be the usual smoke-and-mirrors where the ISA is revised to seem less onerous, or even replaced with an “anti-terror” law. But make no mistake, the responsibility of safeguarding lives means that the ISA is a “necessary evil” for a long time to come. Especially in an age where bomb recipes can be found online.

In the meantime, the government will continue to be pelted with accusations of power-abuse and fear-mongering by “freedom-loving” citizens. (or merely citizens who hate whatever the establishment does). Opposition parties will continue to score cheap political points by joining in these calls without having to bear the responsibilities of governance. Such is the yoke of responsibility borne by the establishment.

The political awakening of Singaporeans (especially in the online sphere) means that it is political suicide for the PAP to use the ISA for political purposes. Ironically, this actually makes the ISA less likely to be abused, and thus a safer tool for Singapore than it was in the yester-years.

Singapore is refusing to abolish the Internal Security Act which gives them the ability to detain individuals without a trial (Photo Courtesy of SDP Fans).

(photo from SDP Fans)

About sgthinker

I'm a 40-year old Singaporean male, and this blog pens down my thoughts and feelings about Singapore's political happenings, government policies and society trends. I hope this blog will provide a moderate voice in the growing online debate about the state of Singapore's society. Some of the posts here won't be solely written by me, since there will be times when other writers are more eloquent at expressing their views, in which case I'll share their insights (along with my comments). The content on this blog is owned by me.If you wish to share or reproduce the content, please attribute it to this blog.
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8 Responses to I doubt the Opposition will get rid of the ISA

  1. Pingback: Sorry KJ, but Singaporeans don’t care about our IMF loan | sgthinker.wordpress.com

  2. Raze says:

    If that is what you think, then i will be glad to inform you that wikipedia provides a very simplistic and misleading interpretation of the statutes in question and the actual facts lie in the fine print.
    While it is true that the detainee has the right to make representations against the Detention Order to the advisory board(noticed how its called an advisory board and not a court), ultimately it is the President who decides on the outcome of the detention order. The advisory board is just there to review the detainee’s representations and to ‘advise’ the president who ultimately decides whether the detainee is allowed to be released. I quote “section 8(1) of the ISA makes a person’s detention dependent on whether the President (acting on the Cabinet’s advice) is satisfied that person poses a risk to national security, among other things. Similarly, section 10 states that the Home Affairs Minister can revoke a suspension direction if satisfied that the person has failed to observe any condition imposed, or that it is necessary in the public interest to do so.”

    I do think that ISA is a mockery of the legal system as the judiciary has to be independent of the state. Please do read through this thorough analysis of the ISA http://singaporepubliclaw.com/2012/06/05/internal-security-act/#more-221

    • sgthinker says:

      Good, we actually agree with each other. I also said in my article that safeguards are important, but that I won’t dwell on the level of safeguards.

      It’s good that you have a more nuanced view of the ISA. The way I see it, most netizen commentary calls for the ISA to be fully abolished. This article was written for these people, because they see things in black and white. The wiki link was really for these kind of people who don’t bother to search for the actual statutes.

  3. Raze says:

    Nobody is against preventive detention measures to deal with situations that require a prompt and immediate action. It is the preventive measure unique to the Singaporean government that allows for detention without a trial for long periods of time that people has a problem with. It is a mockery to the judiciary and compromises the integrity of the legal system for anyone to be held in detention indefinitely without having the right to prove his innocence. It is this particular preventive detention that people hoped to abolish because it is absurd and morally wrong, and has no place in a civilized society.

    • sgthinker says:

      If this is your position, then you will be happy to know that your perception of the ISA is outdated. The ISA gives detainees the right to make representations to prove their innocence. Try clicking on the 2nd last link in the article.

  4. NoStudy says:

    But in recent year is there any opposition been charge under the ISA? Or who is the last opposition been charge for ISA? And also why do opposition like to use the word “opposition”?

  5. Support opposition says:

    That is up to the voters who support the opposition parties to press for it.

  6. Brendan says:

    Sure. Of course the opposition would want to use the full force of it to bring certain fractions of the PAP to justice when it becomes the opposition.

    A good taste of your own medicine.

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