Back To The Past
By Dr Wong Wee Nam
12 October 2011
It seemed so promising. The big guns in the PAP started some instant soul-searching soon after the May general election, became very apologetic and talked about reform. A number of them even stepped down and made way for the new.
It seemed like an injection of freshness into the political air. But it now appears to be a bit of premature to hope for any drastic change. Just when we thought that we were moving from the third world to the first, the events of recent weeks brought this dream crashing down.
I looked at Burma and its political development. By slowly accommodating Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and releasing of thousands of detainees, the government there appears to be making a big leap forward. By their standard, it is a great leap forward. They are trying to move from the 50s to the 21st century. On the other hand, in the recent debate on the Internal Security Act, the ruling party has shown that it is still stuck in the 80s. The old times were relived and the arguments revisited as the Ministry of Home Affairs tries to justify the retention and the use of the Internal Security Act.
The interest in this subject was sparked off by Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia when he recently promised his people that he would revoke the ISA in his country. Whatever his reason for wanting to do away with the Act, it is a move long overdue. This is because the ISA has been misused against political opponents and has become a symbol of political oppression.
Sometime ago, Singapore has said it would do the same as long as Malaysia does it. There now appears to be a change of heart on our side and the reason given is just a refrain that had already been sung in the past.
The ISA is a very blunt instrument. It is claimed to have been used sparingly but that is not a good reason to retain it. No hardcore terrorist is going to be deterred by it. It only terrifies the ordinary people and turns them into apathetic citizens. Rather than having a law that could be used against anybody and misused by those in power, it should be replaced with clear and unambiguous laws against terrorists.
It has also been argued that in such security cases, we need to guarantee the security of informants, agents and spies so as not to jeopardize future operations. Thus we should not bring such cases to court. Unfortunately it is flawed reasoning. This problem can easily be dealt with by having court hearings in camera. Moreover, since current legislation allows a detainee to be jailed indefinitely, such a law could easily be misused. Justice cannot be seen to have been done by refusing detainees a fair trial.
Furthermore, it is the rule of justice that the credibility and admissibility of evidence from whatever witnesses must be tested by cross-examination in the court of law. After all, informants, agents and spies are not perfect and infallible human beings.
On 21st May 1987, over 20 young people were arrested under the ISA in an operation known as Operation Spectrum. These people were alleged to have been involved in a Marxist Conspiracy. How they came to be Marxists was not explained. The Marxist organizations they belonged to were not named. How they plotted and conspired and their eventual aims were not revealed. The official statement was couched in such generic terms that I had to remain a skeptic and suspend my judgment.
A member of parliament invited me for lunch and he tried to convince me that the conspiracy was real. I asked him to give me the evidence and he could produce none.
To me the arrest and its reasons did not sound real or logical and I had my reservation. First of all, if it was a Marxist conspiracy, then there must be a Marxist organization behind it. This organization must also be big enough to be a threat. No such organization was named. It cannot be the Malayan Communist Party because they were not interested in Singapore without Malaya. Furthermore, at that point of time, the MCP was having its own internal ideological differences and was certainly not in a position to back anything.
I told this to a minister who had asked my opinion on the arrest.
To me, reading only the open official version, I can only conclude those arrested were only do-gooders or some kind of social activists.
In May 2010, I bought and read Teo Soh Lung’s book on her detention entitled Beyond The Blue Gate. I wanted to see if she was such a national security threat as she was made out to be and had to be put away without trial. There was nothing in the book to suggest that she deserved to be put away. That was the impression I got. Of course, Soh Lung could have been biased and refrained from revealing anything in her book that might incriminate her, but so far the Ministry of Home Affairs has not come out with evidence to rebut her. Until they do, I shall remain unconvinced that she deserved to be put away.
Her personality that I had gleaned from the book matches the real person I got to know later — a quiet, unassuming, soft-spoken, non-aggressive and shy person. She has a heart for the poor but certainly do not seem to possess the obstinate drive to conspire and overthrow the existing order.
As things stand, I agree with Mr Walter Woon, the former attorney-general that “the Government’s case is still not proven”.
It is sad that in this age and at our state of development that we still have the ISA. Though the act only allows for the detention without trial, it appears from books and speeches from ex-political detainees that they were subjected to cold treatment, solitary confinement and psychological pressures. It is totally unnecessary and regrettable that such treatments were meted out to active citizens who did not preach violence. This is why ISA can be such a cruel and intimidating instrument.
For these reasons, the Act should be replaced by one that is specifically used against terrorism.