On 15 September, Malaysia announced that it will abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA). The Singapore government acted swiftly to debunk and put to rest any hopes of Singapore doing the same. The very next day, 16 September, Singapore’s Ministry for Home Affairs issued a statement which explained the government’s position. “The ISA continues to be relevant and crucial as a measure of last resort for the preservation of our national security.” Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean reiterated the same point in Parliament in October, saying that the ISA “continues to be relevant to the country.”
What is worth noting is that in 1991, Mr Lee, who was then Deputy Prime Minister, had said that “Singapore will seriously consider abolishing the Internal Security Act if Malaysia were to do so.”
Opponents to the ISA were perplexed at the speed at which the government moved to nib calls for abolition, given what Mr Lee had said in 1991. It also raised questions about PM Lee’s sincerity in wanting a “more open approach” to governance.
There were no open discussions or consultation about the ISA’s relevance in this “new normal” era, even though many have called and continue to call for it to be removed from the law books.
The proposed redevelopment of parts of the Bukit Brown Cemetery is another example of how the government makes the decision on something which affects Singaporeans without first extending the hand of consultation to the public on the options available.
But to be fair, the Minister of State for National Development and Manpower, BG Tan Chuan Jin, has been having discussions (both online and offline) with various stakeholders and interested parties, including members of the public on these options. The problem is that he is doing so only after the redevelopment decision was taken.
It has resulted in unhappiness among some quarters, giving rise to the perception that the government is back to its old ways of doing things. This is unfortunate as BG Tan seems to be sincere in wanting views from the various parties to be heard.
And then there is the mandatory death penalty (MDP). Despite campaigns and calls for the government to relook the practice, the government has so far – at least publicly – put on a stoic face, repeating its stand on the matter without so much as signalling even the possibility of engagement with those most affected.
The calls for a review of the MDP are not just from activists such as We Believe In Second Chances and the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign. They have also come from parliamentarians, lawyers, the Law Society, academics, local and international non-governmental organisations, and members of the public.
Yet, the government refuses to even acknowledge these calls, preferring to stand its grounds that the mandatory death penalty is an “effective deterrent”, even though no studies have ever been done in Singapore or evidence ever been offered to support such a claim.
PM Lee has promised more engagement on issues which Singaporeans are concerned about and which affect Singaporeans. The manner in which the government dismisses these very concerns, such as the ISA, the MDP and even the Bukit Brown Cemetery matter, however, will reinforce the perception that the authorities are just paying lip service to the pledge of engagement.
On the positive side of things, however, several ministers such as Maj Gen Chan Chun Sing and BG Tan, are taking time to engage at the ground level. One can see these even online, on Facebook, for example. It is something to be supported and applauded.
But the government, and the Cabinet especially, should and must be more open and be willing to defer making major decisions until after matters are put before the public for discussion.
While the government’s concern may be that such engagement will result in “endless consultation” or "gridlock or malfunction" in the process of governance, it should also be aware that Singaporeans see value in being part of the process in decision-making.
Sometimes, it is more important to win hearts, than to just win minds.
And the time taken to do this will benefit all parties involved.