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Former detainees call for abolition of Singapore's 'crippling' Internal Security Act

Straits Times - September 20, 2011

Rachel Chang, Singapore A group of 16 former detainees has called for Singapore's Internal Security Act to be abolished, arguing that the safeguards which prevent its abuse are spurious.

The 16 signatories of the statement include Barisan Sosialis members Lim Hock Siew and Poh Soo Kai, who were detained for close to 20 years each. They called the ISA's effect on Singapore society 'crippling and pernicious.'

Their statement comes after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced plans last Thursday to repeal Malaysia's ISA and replace it with terrorism-specific laws.

The former detainees called for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to "translate his 1991 statement into reality and keep in step with the aspirations of our people for a mature and functioning democracy."

In 1991, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee told Malaysian journalists that Singapore would 'seriously consider' abolishing its ISA if Malaysia were to do so.

However, Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said last Friday the Republic would not scrap its ISA as it remained 'relevant and crucial' as a measure of last resort to keep the country safe and secure.

The MHA said while the ISA in both countries shared the same roots, the ISA in Singapore has evolved and is now different from that in Malaysia.

The former detainees took issue with two points the MHA made. The MHA said that a person arrested under the ISA in Singapore may be held in custody for up to 30 days after which an Order of Detention or Restriction Order must be issued, or else the person must be released unconditionally. In Malaysia, the period of custody is up to 60 days.

The former detainees called this comparison 'irrelevant', because political detainees in Singapore have been imprisoned for periods 'which far exceed those in Malaysia'.

They pointed to leftist leaders detained under Operation Cold Store in 1963: Dr Chia Thye Poh was detained for 26 years, Dr Lim Hock Siew for 20 years, Lee Tee Tong for 18 years, and Dr Poh Soo Kai and Said Zahari for 17 years. Apart from Chia, who resides in Europe, the rest signed the statement.

The MHA also noted Singapore's "additional safeguard" to prevent misuse of the ISA. The president has, since 1991, the power to veto the Government's decision to detain someone if the ISA Advisory Board, chaired by a Supreme Court judge, recommends his release.

"The protection accorded by the Advisory Board is spurious, if not a farce," countered the former detainees.

Seven of the signatories were detained in 1987 for an alleged Marxist conspiracy Teo Soh Lung, Vincent Cheng, Low Yit Leng, Yap Hon Ngian, Tan Tee Seng, Wong Souk Yee and Tang Fong Har. The remaining five signatories are Loh Miaw Gong, Chng Min Oh, Tan Sin, Toh Ching Kee and Koh Kay Yew.

Those among them who appeared before the Advisory Board in 1987 said that the board did not examine witnesses or evidence against the detainee.

"In 1987, appearances before the board lasted not more than a few minutes each," the statement said. "Furthermore, detainees were discouraged from appearing before the board by Internal Security Department officers. Many were advised that appearing before the board would jeopardize their chances of early release."

The statement also argued that Singapore has other laws that deal with acts of terrorism, such as the Sedition Act, the Terrorism (Suppression of Bombings) Act, and the Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act.

"Indefinite detention without trial is an affront to the human rights of citizens and an assault on our justice system," the detainees said.

Separately, former presidential candidate Tan Jee Say yesterday called for the ISA's abolishment and the formation of an independent Commission of Inquiry to look into past detentions, which some believe were politically motivated.

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