While there is certainly much to criticise about American anti-terrorism methods and the reprehensible treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, it should not detract from the problematic aspects of the ISA raised by the report. It rightly pointed out that the ISA “specifically excludes recourse to the normal judicial system” as detainees have “no right to challenge the substantive basis for their detention through the courts”. Hence, while the initial detention may be for up to two years, the Home Minister may renew it for an unlimited number of additional periods with the President’s consent.
Without detainees having recourse to the judiciary, it seems disingenuous for the Singapore government to assert that the ISA provides “a proper legal framework, and prescribes rules, for preventive detention”. The reality is that the secrecy with which arrests and detentions under the ISA are made make it impossible to judge whether this is the case – the very act of detention implies guilt, one that suspects often find difficult to shake off.
The practice of the ISA therefore leaves an uncomfortable amount of room for arbitrariness. Indeed, the Act has been used more as a broadsword than a scalpel – it has been swung at anything from alleged Communists in the 1960s to 1980s to alleged terrorists in the 2000s after the Communist threat waned.
This is especially problematic because there is still public distrust lingering from the detention of Singaporeans in the 1980s for alleged Marxist conspiracies. Quite a few ex-detainees have repeatedly said over the years that their confessions while in detention – in most cases the only piece of evidence justifying their detention under the ISA – had been coerced under torture, charges that have yet to be addressed by the authorities.
Ironically, such allegations of arbitrariness and mistreatment may prompt comparisons with America’s Guantanamo, albeit admittedly a legalised version. It may thus be little surprise that, despite the Singapore government’s well-worn contention that “trade-offs between rights are inevitable”, fewer and fewer Singaporeans seem to think that the ISA is an acceptable part of that bargain. Public events involving ex-detainees have garnered significant support and attention in recent years; opposition parties who have called for the abolition of the ISA won the sizeable followings in last year’s elections. Singapore’s closest neighbour, Malaysia, from whom it inherited the ISA when they separated in 1965, has moved to abolish its own ISA and to replace it with specific anti-terrorism legislation.
It is not inconceivable for the Singapore authorities to do the same, especially since the elimination of the ISA still leaves them with an impressive array of powers that security officials in more civil liberty conscious countries can only wish for. As the State Department’s report pointed out, the police have the discretion to search a person, home, or property without a warrant if they believe that it is necessary to preserve evidence; security agencies such as the Internal Security Department have highly sophisticated capabilities for surveillance and wire-tapping that they do not require warrants for. It is therefore up to the government to make the case for retaining the ISA beyond the usual simplistic arguments that it puts out.
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