Bread and butter

By Teo Soh Lung

50th anniversay of Operation ColdstoreI thank Catherine Lim for putting forth three proposals to the government to bridge the “emotional estrangement between the government and the people.” She suggested the government considers the return of exiles to Singapore without conditions, the setting up of a commission of inquiry with regard to those arrested under the ISA and the repeal of the ISA and other laws which we inherited from our colonial masters as a way forward for the PAP.

Catherine Lim is probably the first political commentator and author to publicly put forth such brave proposals. As a former political detainee, I am grateful that she has written not once but twice on the subject. Please read and

The ISA has mainly been brushed aside as an unimportant and irrelevant topic that does not merit any serious discussion. I have time and again been assured by friends and acquaintances that arrests under this law will not happen today because the government does not have the gumption to carry out another mass arrests. I am assured that the internet is our protector and the authority’s inability to hide what it does today will never allow the government to carry out massive operations as it had done in the past. When reminded that there are today about 16 people imprisoned without trial at the Whitley Road Centre, they make a distinction between former political detainees and them. “They are terrorists, different from the detainees of 1987.”

Yes, the 16 have been labelled “terrorists” and members and sympathisers of “Al Qaeda” by the government. But what is the difference between them and the 1987 detainees? Those detained in 1987 were labelled “Marxists” involved in a “Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state.” I recall that when I was first given the “charge sheet”, I was completely at a loss as to what all those allegations meant. The government can label anything on detainees and those labels stick and stink. Political detainees of the 50s, 60s and 70s were labelled “communists” who used violence to achieve their goals. Those arrested in 1977 were labelled “Euro-communists”.

Soon after the bombing of the Twin Towers in September 2001, Singaporeans were arrested and accused of having connections with those responsible for the destruction. They were labelled “terrorists” and “members, supporters and sympathisers of Al Qaeda or some fundamentalist groups”. Between 2001 and now, more than 80 citizens were arrested. About 16 are still in prison today and several of them have been in prison for more than ten years. We know nothing about them, except the brief escape and re-arrest of Mas Selamat. None of those arrested and released have spoken. Their families and friends have also not said a word and we remain in the dark as to what they had done or were supposed to have done. Like citizens arrested under the ISA in past decades, the labels have stuck and even those who have accepted the 1987 Marxist conspirators as normal law abiding people are still not able to accept the detainees of this century. It is the case too of detainees of the 50s, 60s and 70s who until the beginning of this century, have been silent. Fortunately, historians today are searching archival materials from Kew Gardens and recording the voices of the few still alive. They are taking a new look at the history presented by the government and those historians indifferent of their duty to write true history. History will no doubt be re-written in the foreseeable future.

Thousands have been arrested under the ISA and its forerunners, the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance and the Emergency Regulations. The original intention of the British in enacting the Emergency Regulations in 1948 was among other things, to silence the call for independence in Malaya and Singapore. The British were too embarrassed to admit defeat in World War II. They abandoned both Malaya and Singapore in a matter of days. How could they face the people with such a deplorable defeat? Thus when the colonised called for independence, the easiest way to stop the tide was to enact laws which allowed them to put away the leaders in jail without trial.

50th anniversay of Operation ColdstoreHistory tells us that when the PAP took power in 1959, it conveniently retained and used all those oppressive laws enacted by the British. Lee Kuan Yew knew its effectiveness because he was the legal adviser to trade unions and many of those arrested by the British. But unlike the colonial masters, the PAP’s record of oppression of the people is much worse. While the British imprisoned people for a maximum of two or three years, the PAP’s record is ten-fold worse. We know that Dr Chia Thye Poh was imprisoned for 32 years and Dr Lim Hock Siew for 20 years. And there were many others who were imprisoned for decades. The treatment meted out to the detainees was also much worse. While the British kept the prisoners on St John’s island and government bangalows in Changi, the PAP kept them in horrendous small, hot, dark and bug-filled cells at Central Police Station, Outram Road Prison, Queenstown Prison, Changi Prison and Whitley Road Centre.

Why then do we brush aside the discussion on the ISA when victims of this unjust law run into the thousands and when torture by the captors was the hallmark of the PAP? Will forgetting our past help us to deal with bread and butter issues better?

I have been thinking about this subject for a long time. When I participated in the last general election, many people advised me not to speak about the ISA because it is not an election issue. I was advised to speak on bread and butter issues. Except for former ISA detainees who were strongly of the view that the ISA is an important election issue, no one was interested in the subject.

Reading the comments following Catherine Lim’s articles, this view on the ISA has not changed. Andy, one of those who commented on her article had this to say:

“Let’s not forget that PAP still gets 60% of the votes in GE 2011. Why would it jolt itself out of this comfortable margin and embrace some of these intellectual’s ideals such as abolition of ISA, COI, etc? No – the real issue behind the loss of trust is bread and butter issues, where PAP is viewed as elitist and uncaring.”

Is the abolition of the ISA “an intellectual’s ideal” as Andy and many others assert?

The ISA is not a fiction. It is not a law that has been discarded into the bin of history. It is hardly discussed but it is actively used by the government as evidenced by the 16 still wasting their lives in jail without trial.

Catherine Lim rightly pointed out that the abolition of the ISA and all oppressive colonial laws will remove “once and for all, the climate of fear.” Once this climate of fear which we have internalised for more than six decades (counting the time of the British), Singaporeans will be a free and creative people. Imagine if we remove the climate of fear totally by the abolition of all oppressive laws, the practice of big law firms issuing letters of demand for apologies and hefty damages will be a thing of the past. The ISD officers will never have the opportunity of knocking on our doors in the wee hours of the morning, ransacking our possessions and taking away our personal freedom. Imagine that we will no longer be afraid of being put away in prison without open trials. Imagine that organisers of events at Hong Lim Park will never fear being questioned by the police or arrested for encouraging people to gather and speak up against the 6.9 million white paper. Imagine that Singaporeans will be free to call upon the government to conduct referendums on important matters that affect our lives. Imagine if by speaking up without fear, we are able to change government policies? Imagine that we will never worry about our phones being tapped by the secret police.

Can we say that if the ISA is abolished, we are just being idealistic? Far from it. We will be free to discuss bread and butter issues without fear and civil society will thrive without fear. Singapore will be the most liberal country in South-east Asia where ideas will flourish and we will not need the PAP to implement haphazard short term solutions to the massive problems that it had created for us over decades of its rule.


About fn8org

For computers, it means to start again in safe mode. For us, we hope we can also start again in safe mode. But it's more like re-booting our systems and starting from much needed basics for democracy in Singapore.
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