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
“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.”
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.