Selling the ISA – Part I

January 30, 2003
Singapore Democrats

This post is at least a year old. Some of the links in this post may no longer work correctly.

The PAP has recently taken to building the image of the Internal Security Act (ISA) in order to neutralize critics who say that the ISA has been misused and abused by the ruling party against its opponents.

In a flashy booklet sold in major bookstores entitled Why the ISA? the Government has seized the opportunity at a time when the rage is to detain without trial everyone and anyone suspected of terrorism to try to paint a noble picture of the notorious security law.

But no matter how brightly it designs the booklet or how cleverly it uses words to present the ISA as a hero to the rescue, the PAP cannot run away from the fact that it uses the law to arrest and imprison opposition and civil society leaders, and thus subvert the process of democracy in this country.

For example, the propaganda booklet omits rather glaringly the detention of opposition leaders in the 1960s and 70s. Leaders of the Barisan Socialis such as Said Zahari, Samad Ismail, Lim Chin Siong, Lim Hock Siew, Mahadeva, Chia Thye Poh, Poh Soo Kai, et al. have all been thrown in prison under the guise that there were a threat to Singapores internal security when their real menace was only to the authoritarian aspirations of the PAP.

These opposition leaders were locked up for various periods ranging from a few years to more than two decades. Chia Thye Poh holds the dubious honour of being the worlds longest serving political prisoner.

There is also no mention about the 22 social activists who were roped in under the ISA in 1987 for the laughable charge of being “Marxist” conspirators.

The PAP continues to insist that the arrests were legitimate and deny that they were carried out against legitimate opponents? How are the people ever going to find out the truth?

It turns out that the British have recently declassified some of the secret documents pertaining to some of these detentions during the 1960s. Historian T. N. Harper has revealed the other side of the story in the fascinating book Comet In Our Sky – Lim Chin Siong in History (not available in major bookstores in Singapore, of course). The evidence is damning.

For instance, while Lee Kuan Yew accused his nemesis Lim Chin Siong of being a communist and pressed the British to arrest Lim through the then Internal Security Council, Special Branch reports stated that:

…there is no evidence [Lim] is receiving his orders from the CPM (Communist Party of Malaya), Peking or Moscow. Our impression is that Lim is working very much on his own and that his primary objective is not the Communist millennium but to obtain control of the constitutional government of Singapore. It is far from certain that having obtained this objective Lim would necessarily prove a compliant tool of Peking or Moscow.

Lord Selkirk, then British High Commissioner to Singapore, added that: [Lee Kuan Yew] is probably very much attracted to the idea of destroying his political opponents. It should be remembered that there is behind all this a very personal aspect…

One week after the 1963 arrests of Barisans leaders under Operation Coldstore, the PAP continued to press the line that the opposition was engaged in an anti-Malaysia revolt to justify its crackdown. Selkirk complained about the numerous passages and exaggerations about the extent of Lim Chin Siongs involvement in the revolt. The High Commissioner added that despite all the injustice and heavy-handed tactics used against them, the Barisan leaders still adhered to constitutional tactics.

In the midst of the PAP machinations for the arrests, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, then Malaysian prime minister, stated that: The fact is there is no evidence at present that Communists or Communist sympathizers in Singapore intend to resort to illegal activities or violent action.

The release of the information from the British government was a goldmine as far as the truth about PAPs use of security laws was concerned. It led Harper to conclude that:

After 1959, Lee Kuan Yew had urged the necessity of defeating the radical left through open democratic argument, whilst trying to provoke them into extra-legal action. The left, however, had not been deflected from constitutional struggle. Therefore, from mid-1962 at least, Lee had concluded that this confrontation could only be resolved by resort to special powers that lay beyond the democratic process. This merely exposed the extent to which the crisis was, as the British had argued, a political one, and not a security one.

This is dirt that the PAP is trying to wipe out using the present situation of terrorism as some sort of detergent. Unfortunately history will record indelibly the PAPs abuse of the ISA and the time of reckoning will come one day when democracy arrives.

What should be of concern to those who seem convinced or allow themselves to be convinced, including some of us in the opposition, that the ISA is somehow a good tool with proper safeguards against abuse by the PAP should consider why the Government has left out the arrests against the Barisan leaders and those activists in 1987.

Allowing such powers to an authoritarian government with a record of that of the PAP and only requesting it to present White Papers whenever it makes an arrest is like asking a wolf to promise to eat only wild animals and stay away from domestic sheep or cattle. It would, of course, take a very silly farmer to ask this of the wolf, an even sillier one to trust the beast.

The following passage from Harpers essay puts the situation in perspective:

The rulers very possession of such arbitrary powers means that the continued enjoyment of civil liberties remains at all times dependent on their goodwill. But this is to say that you remain subject or liable to having your rights of action curtailed or withdrawn at any time. And thisis equivalent to living in a state of servitude.

In the next instalment, the SDP will refute the Governments claim that the ISA is transparent, that there are safeguards to protect the rights of the detainees, and that prisoners are not abused or tortured in anyway.