Written by Ng E-Jay
10 May 2009
After news of the re-capture of alleged JI terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari broke, the mainstream press as well as the general public were quick to give praise to the authorities on both sides of the causeway and in particular, our own Internal Security Department, for their effort in the operation.
A letter from Mr Lionel De Souza published in the weekend edition of TODAY newspaper congratulated Singapore’s ISD and Malaysia’s Special Branch for “the excellent and protracted investigation and cooperation“, and even lambasted critics of the Government who asked DPM Wong Kan Seng to resign last year, saying they should “in shame, remain silent forever“.
In his statement to the press, PM Lee Hsien Loong said that he had no doubt Mas Selamat would eventually be found because of the “quality and commitment” of the ISD officers working the case. DPM Wong Kan Seng, who is also Home Affairs Minister, also shared emotional moments with the mainstream press, recounting the numerous congratulatory messages he had received via SMS, and praising ISD staff for their “teamwork and camaraderie“.
Lost in all this mutual congratulatory ebullience is the fact the Mas Selamat Kastari has never been charged in a court of law for his alleged terrorist activities.
The mainstream press in Singapore states unequivocally that Mas Selamat Kastari is a terrorist, echoing what must be the sentiment of the Government. Surely after spending so many years investigating the activities of this man, and after so many months interrogating him in Whitley Detention Road Centre, the authorities should have sufficient evidence to charge him in a court of law.
What reason is there to hold Mas Selamat under indefinite detention and deny him a fair trial when there should already be a mountain of evidence stacked against him?
While the mainstream press and many members of the public are elated and relieved over the re-capture of Mas Selamat, I feel this congratulatory sentiment should be kept in check for two reasons:
- The fact that Mas Selamat managed to escape from our shores despite supposed heightened border security shows that more needs to be done in this regard. The authorities have not convinced me that they are doing all they can by merely dishing out platitudes about how vigilant they are.
- I worry that this episode will be used by the ruling PAP to further entrench the legitimacy of ISD and the Internal Security Act in the eyes of the public, and encourage the people to adopt an unquestioning attitude towards the issue of detention without trial in Singapore (and also in Malaysia). This would be treading on precarious ground.
The ruling PAP has always tried to inculcate the message to Singaporeans that the Internal Security Act (ISA) is absolutely necessary to combat terrorism and preserve homeland security.
However, the ISA has been abused by the PAP in the past to crack down on political dissent rather than on criminal elements. Two notable examples come to mind — the 1963 widespread arrest of Barisan Socialis and Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) leaders and members termed “Operation Cold Store”, and the 1987 “Marxist Conspiracy” in which social workers and activists were arrested and made to confess to being part of a communist plot. Other examples of arrests of political dissidents include that of Chia Thye Poh who was detained without trial for 23 years and Said Zahari who was similarly detained for 17 years.
In my view, there is in fact no cause for celebration if lingering doubts over the effectiveness of our security forces and the overall competence of the Government in the area of homeland security remain, and alleged terrorists like Mas Selamat Kastari do not get a fair trial in a court of law but remain under indefinite detention.
The Internal Security Act in both Singapore and Malaysia is a blunt tool and a draconian piece of legislation that has too often been used to destroy political opposition. It is a dangerous instrument to be left in the hands of undemocratic Governments like the Singapore’s PAP and Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional, even if they do from time to time use it for the right purposes against criminals and terrorists.
Clearly there is a need to reform this archaic piece of legislation that has for far too many years caused untold harm to innocent victims that just happened to be the target of regimes fearful for their own power.