Majority of S’poreans do not have an irrational fear of the ISA. Is that okay?
The number of ISA arrests have decreased over the years, but we must regularly examine if it is still relevant.
Wednesday’s announcement (March 16) that four Singaporeans were arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for attempting to participate in the Middle East conflicts has some Singaporeans heaving sighs of relief.
This announcement came just two months after 27 male Bangladeshis working in the construction industry were arrested under the ISA and deported.
Both instances of ISA arrests this year have probably led to some Singaporeans appreciating the fact that the authorities were able to act swiftly and decisively before these personnel become security threats to Singaporeans and Singapore.
However, the ISA, which enables detention without trial, was once used for what some critics would believe were for politically-driven purposes — to arrest members of an opposition party in the 1960s for security reasons. This, in turn, weakened the political opposition to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
So why is the ISA mostly accepted by Singaporeans despite its past? Or is it accepted because of its past as Singaporeans have been politically-domesticated as a populace?
Singapore is using ISA to curb potential threats to national security
In response to media queries on Wednesday (March 16), an MHA spokesperson said:
“72 people have been detained under the ISA for terrorism-related activities since 2002, and about 80% of them have since been released. There are presently 14 persons issued with Orders of Detention, one on Suspension Direction and 22 persons issued with Restriction Orders.”
In other words, it is an average of five arrests per year from 2002 to 2016.
If one were to exclude the 31 arrests made this year, it is an average of three arrests per year from 2002 to 2015.
Compare this to a total of 2,460 arrests made between 1959 to 1990, which constitutes a whopping average of 79 arrests made per year.
This was revealed by then Minister for Home Affairs (now Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security) Teo Chee Hean, who gave a reply in parliament that 2,460 arrests were made, of which 1,045 were detained for various reasons, including alleged Communist subversion, terrorism and espionage.
The rare use of ISA towards the end of the 21st century could be due to several reasons: The end of the Cold War (and the decrease of communist threats), as well as the creation of existing legislation to rein in political opposition.
Media academic Cherian George analyses this succinctly in his book Freedom From The Press:
“The spectre of the ISA has been so permanent and prominent on Singapore’s political stage that it can distract from other significant trends in the PAP’s employment of coercion. What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that the government has tried to avoid routinising the use of detention without trial, which it regards as a blunt instrument of last resort.”
The government often opted to employ subtle legislative methods to rein in political dissent after the ISA was used — reining in unions, creating the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, restructuring student unions to rein in student activism.
Defamation suits were used against politicians who had on their part made disparaging comments about PAP’s leaders.
Such moves are more politically sophisticated, as the rise of online sites and social media in recent years mean that draconian measures against dissent carried out in the past would have caused a greater political backlash and fuel political support against the PAP if carried out today.
Though regulations (individual licenses for online sites) were put in place on online media — there were no arrests made against bloggers and journalists, compared to Malaysia, where a blogger, Raja Petra Kamarudin, and journalist, Tan Hoon Cheng were arrested and detained for anti-government comments in 2008.
The government continually reinforces its own narrative about arrests in the past
In 2014, the government organised the Battle for Merger exhibition and republished the accompanying book.
The effort served to remind Singaporeans about how the late Lee Kuan Yew used a series of 12 radio talks to convince the population to vote for PAP’s position on merger, in light of the communist threats.
This, however, also serves to reinforce the official narrative about the ISA arrests in Singapore’s early years.
While revisionist historians, citing recently released colonial documents, have disputed the ISA’s original intent despite the official narrative, the MHA’s use of the ISA after the September 2001 attacks could be one of the reasons why Singaporeans believe that the ISA is no longer a tool for political purposes.
In 2011, some 22 years after the arrest of the late Francis Seow, which was the last political arrest under the ISA, Malaysia repealed its own ISA.
The MHA soon responded with a statement that said that the ISA has “only been used to deal with threats of subversion, racial and religious extremism”.
Rachel Zeng, an activist, said events that undermine national security overseas legitimises the laws that govern Singapore as it makes people feel safe: “The fear of unknown danger that will destroy safety and peace exists among the general public thanks to the acts of terrorism that we have seen happening in other countries.”
“So the existence of the ISA seems to give them a sense of security even though they may not know what it is all about or reflect upon whether it is justice for individuals to be incarcerated without a fair trial.”
In an Institute of Policy Studies’ survey on Singaporeans’ perception of history, Operation Coldstore (1963) and Operation Spectrum (1987) — two major chapters in the history of the ISA — were ranked last in a list of historical milestones of Singapore’s history.
“I don’t think that everyone is aware of the stories behind the former political detainees’ detentions,” Zeng added. “Generally, people are too comfortable with accepting the official narrative.”
Moreover, the details of the past are sketchy. Take the number of people arrested for Operation Coldstore.
Operation Coldstore was conducted on Feb 2, 1963 to arrest alleged “communists” who belonged to the Communist open front organisations which threatened Singapore’s internal security.
Depending on which document you read, the number of people arrested differs: 107 (National Library Board, The Straits Times), or 111 (Lim Chin Siong in History: Comet in Our Sky, author: Tan Jing Quee) or 113 (Living in a time of Deception, author: Poh Soo Kai) or 130 (Original Sin? Revisiting the Revisionist Critique of the 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore, author: Kumar Ramakrishna).
The government has also sought to reinforce its own version of events.
After 16 ex-ISA detainees called for an inquiry into their detentions, the MHA responded that “the subversion and violence of Communist insurgency from the 1940s to the 1970s are a historical reality”, and that the Marxist plot in 1987 was “explained and justified”.
Singaporeans invest political trust in the government, but are pretty apathetic about it.
Nearly 74 percent of Singaporeans trust the government, compared to 68 percent in 2015.
This trust has led to people no longer questioning proof from the government of a detainee’s guilt.
Criticisms of the ISA has also been confined to ex-ISA detainees and members of civil society.
The movements to repeal the ISA, from appeals to open Committees of Inquiry (COI), to books and films that document the stories of ex-ISA detainees, and nominations of detainees for the Nobel Peace Prize have not gained traction in the public sphere or the online space.
“Apart from members of civil society — who are still a minority in the general Singaporean population — there isn’t very much criticism of the Act,” said freelance journalist Kirsten Han.
“When the Ministry of Home Affairs puts out statements that someone has been arrested and detained under the ISA, there is very little public questioning of whether that person is actually really guilty of all the accusations or not — people appear to simply trust that what the government says in the public release is the truth.”
In other words, this is the reason why it is important for MHA to state the reasons clearly on why someone is arrested and the acts he/she has committed — something that the authorities did with the arrests on Wednesday (March 16).
Without a doubt, there is also political apathy among Singaporeans.
PAP’s landslide win in the General Election 2015 seemed to see the introduction of apathy into society.
Author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh wrote after a GE2015 forum:
“Recall that one of the takeaways post-2006 and post-2011 is that the apathetic Singaporean is dead. Now, finally, Singaporeans have found their voice. The global trend where a political awakening follows rising educational and income levels had finally, at long last, snared Singapore.
But maybe apathy never went away. Maybe Singaporeans are really just concerned about bread-and-butter issues, nothing else. (…) Maybe, in fact, the polity is much more homogenous than we think.
And even amongst the more worldly, more educated, more “intellectually engaged”, I get the sense that many want a sort of popcorn democracy.
Every few years, come election time—they get excited, they read the news, they feel some democratic stirring. But in between those elections, they are unwilling to engage with the messiness of democracy, to speak their mind, to push for change they might believe in.”
The political apathy and trust in the current government is perhaps why — even with the ISA’s political past — movements to repeal the ISA have not been met with much success.
That, combined with the relatively recent terror threats, would mean that the government’s narrative and reasons over the use of the ISA has never really been questioned.
Perhaps we should regularly question the government and the use of powers the ISA confers upon it, and perhaps we should start caring about our own rights.
Just because we don’t feel a Sword of Damocles doesn’t mean that the sword isn’t there.
Top photo from Ministry of Home Affairs website.