Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ex-detainees call for abolition of ISA

From Function 8

On 1 November 2010, Function 8 submitted a report to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights calling on the Singapore Government to abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows indefinite detention without trial. The submission was made to the first Universal Periodic Review of Singapore’s human rights record before the Working Group comprising Spain, Bahrain and Djibouti on 6 May 2011 in Geneva. (About UPR, please see attached)

On 14 February 2011, former ISA detainees, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Said Zahari, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Dr G Raman, Ong Bock Chuan, Koh Kay Yew, Teo Soh Lung, William Yap Hon Ngian, Low Yit Leng, Tan Tee Seng, Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan and Wong Souk Yee issued the following statement in support of the submission.


Submission on the Internal Security Act by Function 8

A Recommendation

We support the report to the 11th session of the Universal Periodic Review for the abolition of Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows indefinite detention without trial.

B Why abolish the ISA?

The ISA began its life as the Emergency Regulations in 1948 when Singapore was a British colony. The British used the Regulations to imprison opponents to its rule and trade unionists who fought for the rights of workers. In 1955, the Emergency Regulations were passed into law with the enactment of the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO). When Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963, the Federation of Malaya’s Internal Security Act 1960 became part of our law. Singapore left Malaysia in 1965 but this law with modification continue to be in force. In 1989, the ISA was amended to oust judicial review.

The PAP came into power in 1959 on the election promise to release all political prisoners imprisoned without trial. It reneged on that promise. Many who were detained by the British in the 1950s were not released.

The first major arrests carried out by the PAP with the support of the Internal Security Council were in 1963. At least 151 people were arrested and imprisoned without trial for decades. Among those arrested were prominent members of the opposition like Dr Lim Hock Siew (imprisoned for 20 years), trade unionists, doctors, lawyers, journalists, university graduates and undergraduates. They formed the cream of society. With their arrest, opposition to the PAP was snuffed out.

Arrests and imprisonment under the ISA did not stop after 1963. In the name of national security, several hundred more were arrested by the PAP. They were labelled “Communists, pro-Communists, Euro-Communists, Marxists and terrorists” and included opposition members of parliament like Chia Thye Poh who was detained for 32 years. The systematic and frequent waves of arrests resulted in the closure of the prestigious Nanyang University, the Chinese language university built with the donations of people from all walks of life, from rich tycoons to hawkers, trishaw pullers, students and several news dailies. The arrests also wiped out civil society voices. Singaporeans lost their fundamental rights to free speech and assembly and the exercise of these rights has worsened to this day.

Throughout its 52-year rule, the PAP government has evoked the ISA with consistent regularity. The table below lists the ISA arrests recently compiled from newspaper reports and information obtained from the Ministry of Home Affairs website. We believe arrests are under-reported as people who were detained without being served with detention orders were not reported and there is no freedom of the press in Singapore. In a speech given by C V Devan Nair, PAP representative to Socialist International reported in The Straits Times of 2 June 1976, detention orders were served on a total of 661 persons between 1960 and 1976. The figure for those arrested but not served with detention orders was not disclosed. The Straits Times of 22 January 1999 reported Minister for Home Affairs, Wong Kan Seng as having said in parliament that since 1965, 591 people had been detained under the ISA.

ISA Arrests

Year Number arrested and detained
1959 The PAP failed to keep to their pre-election promise to release all political prisoners.
1960 2 journalists of Tiger Press had their detention orders renewed.
1963 Operation Coldstore[1]: At least 151 people including prominent members of the opposition, trade unionists, doctors, lawyers, journalists, graduates and undergraduates of Nanyang University.
1964 52 undergraduates of Nanyang University.
1965 More than 22 undergraduates of Nanyang University and trade unionists.
1966 More than 30 opposition members and members of parliament like MP Chia Thye Poh who was detained for 32 years, 5 years longer than Nelson Mandela.
1970 At least 56 Opposition Barisan Sosialis members and officials.
1971 9 people, including editor-in-chief, manager, editorial writer and public relations officer of Nanyang Siang Pau, a Chinese daily.
1973 Lee Eu Seng, Managing Director of Nanyang Siang Pau.
1974 30 people, including T.T.Rajah, lawyer for many detainees.
1975 6 alleged members of Mao Tse-Tung Thought League or the Tung League.
1976 About 50 people, including Singapore Polytechnic student leaders and theatre practitioners.
1977 50 people[2], including lawyers, doctors, journalists, teachers and unknown numbers of students.
1979 2[3] people.
1987 4 Muslims.
1987 Operation Spectrum[4]: 22 people including lawyers, theatre practitioners, church workers, students, businessmen, senior media executives, journalists and engineers.
1988 8 recently-released detainees from Operation Spectrum and 2 of their defence counsel, Francis Seow and Patrick Seong.
1997 2 people.
1998 4 people.
1999 6 people alleged to have committed espionage.
2001 15 Muslims alleged to have links with Al-Qaeda[5]
2002 23 Muslims
2003 18 Muslims
2004 1 Muslim
2005 3 Muslims
2006 4 Muslims
2007 5 Muslims
2008 1 Muslim
2009 2 Muslims
2010 4 Muslims

C Impact of ISA detentions:

  • Elimination of political opponents and activists, resulting in the absence of critical voices and a robust civil society, creating a fear of political participation thereby concentrating power in the PAP with no effective checks and balances in parliament.
  • With parliament reduced to a rubber-stamp, the PAP government has an unbridled license to make any law to curb fundamental freedoms such as the absurd Public Order Act 2009 which defines illegal assembly to include a one-person public protest.[1]
  • Detention without trial under the ISA is an affront to the Rule of Law and the basic right of citizens to a fair trial. The ISA prohibits judicial review. The ISA continues to be a real threat to political participation of members of civil society, human rights defenders and opposition political parties as its continued presence in the statute book and its use effectively eliminates all forms of dissent, free speech and association and assembly of citizens.
  • The ISA has robbed citizens of the right to demand transparency and accountability of the PAP government and to shape the direction of the future of democracy in the country.

We call for the abolition of the ISA.


Dr Lim Hock Siew (detained from February 1963 to September 1982 – Operation Coldstore)
Said Zahari (detained from February 1963 to August 1979 – Operation Coldstore)
Dr Poh Soo Kai (detained from February 1963 to December 1973 – Operation Coldstore and from June 1976 to August 1982)
Dr G Raman, Ong Bock Chuan and Koh Kay Yew (all detained in 1977)
Teo Soh Lung, William Yap Hon Ngian, Low Yit Leng, Tan Tee Seng, Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan and Wong Souk Yee (all detained in 1987/1988 – Operation Spectrum)

Date: 14 February 2011

[1] Dr Lim Hock Siew at http://vimeo.com/13292596; Said Zahari. Dark Clouds at Dawn: A Political Memoir, Petaling Jaya: Insan 2001; The Long Nightmare: My 17 Years as a Political Prisoner, Petaling Jaya: Utusan Publications and Distributors Sdn Bhd, 2007; Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew eds: The Fajar Generation, Petaling Jaya: SIRD 2010.

[2] http://newspapers.nl.sg/ (The Straits Times, 1977)

[3] The Straits Times, 14 Feb 1980, Page 13 (http://newspapers.nl.sg)

[4] Teo Soh Lung. Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner, Petaling Jaya: SIRD 2010; Fong Hoe Fang ed: That We May Dream Again, Singapore: Ethos Books, 2009; Francis T. Seow. To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison (Yale Southeast Asia Studies Monograph Series, 1994); Tan Jing Quee, Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew eds. Our Thoughts Are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile, Singapore: Ethos Books 2009.

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