What Lee Hsien Loong didn’t say about the ISA

November 24, 2008
Singapore Democrats

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Gandhi Ambalam

The specter of the Internal Security Act (ISA) has again been hoisted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Speaking at the 60th anniversary dinner of the Internal Security Department (ISD) recently, Mr Lee traced the “internal security concerns” over the years and went as far back as 1950 to cite the Maria Hertogh incident of that year to the detentions in 1987. It was an exquisite exercise of distortion and simplism.

First, the incident that culminated in the custody battle over a 13-year-old girl, Maria Hertogh, in 1950 was described by Lee Jr as one of race riots in Singapore. It most certainly was not. The Maria Hertogh episode was one of the first uprisings against British colonialism after the end of the Second World War.

This was clear from the fact that the unfortunate victims of the riots were all from the colonialist class. I repeat: The Maria Hertogh riots were not race riots but a revolt against the undemocratic system wrought by the British. To distort a struggle for independence that reflected the yearnings of the locals for justice and freedom from their colonial masters, and to label it as race riots is mischievous, to say the least.

It is also instructive to note that the Prime Minister chooses to cite the use of the ISA by the British to justify the law. Perhaps, he subconsciously admits that detention without trial is useful for subjugating the will of the masses, and not for national security reasons.

Mr Lee regurgitated the same old refrain and the Straits Times lapped it all up, devoting one whole page to a “condensed version” of the Prime Minister’s speech. No analysis, no checking of the facts. Just pure professional parroting.

Mr Lee also cited the use of the ISA against the editors and management of the Chinese-language daily Nanyang Siang Pau in the late 1970s/early 1980s for glamourising communist China and stirring up chauvinistic sentiments over Chinese language and culture.

A brief historical background is in order here: It is no secret that then prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew showed complete disdain for Chinese-educated Singaporeans and treated them as second-class citizens, in part due to their support for his arch rival Mr Lim Chin Siong.

As part of his ruthless suppression of Chinese education and culture Lee Sr went to the extent of closing down Nantah in 1980 — the only institution of higher learning outside China at that time.

What does one expect a Chinese-language newspaper to do under such circumstances? How could the editors and management of Nanyang Siang Pau stand by and do nothing when the Chinese language, culture and identity came under relentless assault?

But when they spoke up, Mr Lee Kuan Yew labelled them as communists and communist sympathisers, and unleashed the ISA on them.

Then there was the arrest of 22 professionals as well as church and social workers in 1987 who were accused of, of all things, being followers of Karl Marx out to violently overthrow the PAP Government.

Who was their ringleader? Mr Lee fingered Mr Vincent Cheng — yes, the bespectacled, grey-haired man you see in this video heartily singing We Shall Overcome. I would sooner believe that Lucifer is capable of good than to subscribe to Mr Lee’s awful lie that Vincent Cheng would overthrow the government, much less resort to violence to do it.

In the same episode, the ISA was also used on Mr Francis Seow, the former Law Society president and solicitor general, who was representing some of the detainees. At his creative best, Mr Lee accused Mr Seow of colluding with a US diplomat to set up an opposition to contest the PAP.

Now, after a lull of almost 20 years, the ISA is being bandied about by the PAP Government again. Part of it is to repair the damage that was done in the Mas Selamat debacle (assuming, that is, that the detainee really escaped).

The other part is, of course, to remind the people that the PAP still wields the power to detain citizens at the PM’s pleasure.

But people are waking up to the abuse of such powers. Up north in Malaysia calls for the abolition of the ISA are getting louder. Even the component parties in the BN Government, including a few cabinet ministers, have openly voiced their objection against the Act.

Back home, it is just as clear that the ISA has no place in society regardless of how Mr Lee Hsien Loong spins it. The sooner we are rid of it, the sooner Singapore can move ahead and develop into a truly democratic and confident nation.