The Internal Security Act or the ISA as it is notoriously known, is the most unjust and intimidating law enacted during peace time in Malaya and forced upon Singapore by the colonial authorities.
Japan invaded Malaya in December 1941 and Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. The British promptly left Malaya leaving the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) to resist the occupation. The courage and sacrifice of the CPM during the war years is well known and acknowledged by both the people and the British after the war.
When the British returned to Malaya in 1945, they presented Chin Peng, the leader of the CPM with two medals and awarded him the highest honour for outstanding achievement, namely the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Wu Tian Wang, a representative of the CPM was appointed by the British as a member of the Advisory Council.
But the alliance between the British and the CPM came to an end shortly after. The murder of three white men in plantations in Malaya gave the British the excuse to declare a state of emergency and to introduce emergency regulations in Malaya in 1948. The CPM was declared an illegal organisation.
Singapore was then a crown colony. Because of her proximity to mainland Malaya, the British also proclaimed a state of emergency on the island. Their excuse was that they did not want the island to be used by the communists. The proclamation of emergency was supposed to be effective for just three months. Sadly, the British abused their power and extended the emergency for seven years and more.
In 1955, Singapore’s then Chief Minister, David Marshall introduced the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO). He took great care to insert two safeguards:
(a) An independent Appeal Tribunal comprising two High Court judges and one District Court judge who had full powers to order the release of detainees.
(b) A mandatory review, at least once in every six months, of a detention order or restriction order by a Reviewing Officer who must be a person qualified to be a judge. The Reviewing Officer had the duty to make recommendations to the Chief Secretary or to the Appeal Tribunal.
The PAP which was then in opposition, vehemently opposed the law. However when it came into power in 1959, it immediately removed the above two safeguards by replacing the Appeal Tribunal with an Advisory Committee, comprising a judge and two lay persons. As the name implies, the Committee’s power was reduced to one that could only advise the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State).
In 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia. The Malaysian Internal Security Act (1960) with modifications, was introduced to Singapore. The new Act enacted the Advisory Board which basically performs the same function as the Advisory Committee. When Singapore left Malaysia in 1965, the ISA continues to be in force.
The government claims that when the Board recommends the release of a prisoner, he/she has to be released unless the President of Singapore decides to veto the Board’s recommendation. This very limited power of the Board and the President does not detract from the fundamental evil authorised by the law.
An ISA detainee is imprisoned without a trial for an indefinite period of time. Thousands have been detained without trial and a significant number like Dr Chia Thye Poh, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Ho Piao, Lee Tee Tong, Said Zahari and Dr Poh Soo Kai have been detained for decades. Many have been severely tortured. Just imagine the hardship caused to the detainees and their families. Imagine the loss to Singapore with so many brilliant people spending the prime of their lives in prison.
There has not been any debate in Singapore as to why we should not abolish the ISA. The situation in Malaysia has improved. After severe criticisms from the people, Malaysia abolished the ISA in April 2012.
In 1991, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked why the ISA was still needed in Singapore even though the CPM no longer posed a threat. His reply was that if Malaysia did not abolish the Act, it must have its reasons. Singapore would seriously consider abolishing the ISA if Malaysia were to do so. Now that Malaysia has repealed the ISA, would Singapore do likewise?
If Singapore is truly a first world nation, there is no place for detention without trial. Every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, assembly and expression. As a member of the international community, Singapore has for 64 years flouted and continues to flout Article 9 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”
The ISA, a tool of our colonial masters, has been used to full effect in post colonial Singapore against law abiding citizens. If Singapore claims to be fully democratic, then there can absolutely be no doubt that the ISA must be abolished.
You just need to ask yourself one question: Would you feel wronged if you were arrested and have no means to defend yourself, i.e. detained without trial, for an indefinite period of time? If your answer is “yes”, then join in the call for the abolition of the ISA now!