Security panic and the intoxication of power

Singaporeans Kwik Chong Oei [not his real name] and Tee Seong Joon [not his real name] were deported by a neighbouring country last month after completing a short prison term for immigration offences. They were received by our own police and quickly put behind bars again.

Kwik and Tee are leading members of the Red Iron Gang which had been planning bank and goldsmith robberies for nearly 15 years. They had been casing several banks and gold shops in the late 1990s, and then decided to cross over to a third country to learn from the Preto Pantano Gang how to plant explosives and break safes. The Red Iron Gang considered themselves affiliates with the Preto Pantano.

When the third leading member of the Red Iron, “Popcorn” Soh, was arrested by police in 2003 for planning a break-in at a diamond dealer’s shop, Kwik and Tee looked into the possibility of sending an envelope of anthrax to the police headquarters as revenge.

Fortunately, none of these deeds were carried out. No bank has been robbed.

Soh continues to be in detention. Kwik and Tee have now been put behind bars. A ministry statement having been published, there is no need for a trial.

You may have guessed by now that the above is fictitious. Nonetheless, if it had been true, would you have wholeheartedly agreed that there was no need for a fair trial?

* * * * *

Yet, in what way is the fictional story different from this statement from the Ministry of Home Affairs?

Two individuals were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for their involvement in terrorism-related activities.  They are Abd Rahim bin Abdul Rahman (Abd Rahim) and Husaini bin Ismail (Husaini), who were issued Orders of Detention (ODs) under the ISA in Mar 2012 and Jun 2012, respectively.

2. Abd Rahim and Husaini were senior members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist organisation.  They had undergone terrorist training in Afghanistan with the Al-Qaeda terrorist organisation in 1999/2000.  They had also been actively involved in reconnoitring several potential local and foreign targets in Singapore for the purpose of a terrorist attack.  Both men had fled Singapore in Dec 2001 soon after the commencement of the security operation against the JI and took refuge overseas.  While on the run, Husaini was involved in the plot led by Singapore JI leader Mas Selamat bin Kastari to hijack an airplane destined for Singapore and crash it into Changi Airport in Jan 2002, to retaliate against the disruption of the Singapore JI network.

3. Abd Rahim was arrested in Malaysia in Feb 2012 and was deported to Singapore.  Husaini was arrested in Indonesia in Jun 2009 and was imprisoned for immigration offences.  Upon the completion of his jail term in May 2012, Husaini was deported to Singapore.

For slightly over a decade, the mere word “terrorism” creates such panic in us that we suspend our better judgement and our sense of fairness. Once hurled at someone by authorities, it sticks to him like flypaper on forehead. We consider it unpatriotic, even immoral, to question the labelling or the authorities’ response. Once more, the Internal Security Act (ISA) is used with hardly a demurral.

It seems not to trouble us that we will detain Abd Rahim and Husaini at the government’s leisure, with no need to prove any fact, and indefinitely.

Why not an open trial like any other? If the government has evidence, as the ministry’s statement suggests it has, why not present it in court?

One common argument is that the evidence had been collected through clandestine intelligence, and to reveal the evidence would give away the undercover operations and their sources. But consider this: the nefarious deeds that Abd Rahim and Husaini are alleged to have performed are more than a decade old. If the undercover operatives have not been pulled out by now, they should be. If evidence had been obtained through electronic surveillance or secret informants, it is extremely unlikely that these sources are relevant anymore. And anyway there are established judicial procedures to deal with sensitive information.

Even the ministry’s statement makes no claim that these men were planning anything current that poses an imminent, widespread danger, that might in extremis justify (as some might argue) a suspension of law for a brief period. It is wrong, plain and simple, to detain them without trial.

* * * * *

The full version of the ministry’s statement referenced above also informs the public that three individuals have been released and 17 others, who had previously been released, has had their restriction orders lifted.

As far as I know, the 17 have not spoken publicly about their experience. Why not?  Has there been a gag order?

Why is there a need for a gag order?

It is important for these three and seventeen to start speaking about their activities, if any, that led to their detention. The public has a right to know what happened and what was done to them in the name of our State. We should have had that right honoured through a fair and open trial in the very first place, but better late — and in the form of a public discussion — than never. How were they treated, for example, while behind bars?

* * * * *

Somewhat related, is this rather breathless TED talk given by Philip  Zimbardo “On the psychology of evil” (total length 23 minutes). He explains how easy it is for ordinary people to slip into doing bad things. We often point to the culpability of the individual for doing bad; sometimes we recognise that the contextual situation has a role to play. But seldom, Zimbardo points out, do we see that it is the intoxication of power that lies at the root of it. “Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically, to hurt people physically, to destroy people morally . . . and to commit crimes against humanity.” (2 min 40 secs)

And all of us who assent to the exercise of such power share in the responsibility too. But it also means that we have it in us, in each of us, to withdraw that assent and put a stop to evil.

16 Responses to “Security panic and the intoxication of power”


  1. 1 Mike Zeng 13 October 2012 at 14:22

    Some people have innate megalomania and even sadism in them from young. These are the chaps who will be attracted to jobs which provide them a ready-made environment to make their fantasies come true.
    Law enforcement agencies like the SPF etc provide instant access to activate their craze for power and sadism. I’ve learnt this from real-life experience decades ago.

  2. 3 Whatever 13 October 2012 at 14:59

    You could have written better than this by giving a scenario of the detainees being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It does happen to people accused of drug trafficking, why not for terrorism? No fair trial. The Ministry can say whatever it wants.

  3. 4 heart landers 13 October 2012 at 15:41

    I feel it is good to have open trials.

  4. 5 teo soh lung 13 October 2012 at 20:38

    I fully agree.

  5. 6 octopi 13 October 2012 at 21:23

    Let’s play the devil’s advocate here. The reason why evidence should not be made public is not merely because you will reveal the methods of clandestine surveillance. The concern is also that you disclose to a terrorist organisation which is at large what you already know about them, and this will be very disruptive to other ongoing surveillance efforts. It’s like, you have a gang of 100 members. Then you arrest one member. You put him on trial, and basically open the file on what you know about the other 99 members, thus making them harder to catch. Does that make sense?

    The status of the people who have been detained without trial is uncertain. I do not believe that all of them are totally innocent. Sometimes the govt will get it wrong, and some innocent people will be detained. But the government is not detaining them on grounds of proven guilt and it would not be appropriate to go through a trial to prove them guilty when the whole point is that you are detaining them without proven guilt, as a pre-emptive measure. (Or you do have grounds for conviction but you are not willing to release the evidence.) Where you do have a point is that detention without trial should not be indefinite, and there must be some limitations on the amount of time.

    My belief is that you shouldn’t want all the people who were detained to speak up. Assume that some of them speak up about their experience, and those who are guilty of planning terrorist attacks will not speak up. If you were to highlight those who speak up, and presumably are not guilty, then you present an unbalanced viewpoint.

    But having spoken up for detention without trial, I still have to say that it is probably not be indispensable. We would have a lower level of security without it. We might have permitted events like the Andres Brevik murders to take place in Singapore. And we should not kid ourselves that there are consequences to abolishing detention without trial. But I think we will be able to accept them. We could tighten scrutiny on detention without trial to such an extent that we are confident that the government will not abuse it.

    • 7 NC 14 October 2012 at 17:32

      You said “Sometimes the govt will get it wrong, and some innocent people will be detained” as if it is ok. What if this is you or someone you know?

      You draw parallel to the Andres Brevik massacre but you should be well aware that he is acting as a lone man, and no detention without trial will ever lead the police to pre-empt his actions.

      Anyway, now, let’s assume you are right, the government have (good) reasons to detain someone without trial under ISA. You speak of a time-limit, but it is much more than that. It is a question of whether or not there is an agreed framework surrounding the use of these powers. Questions like, how broad these powers are – how is terrorism defined? Is there a time limit to the detention? Is there a statutory need for, let’s say, a committee to be accountable, approve and review these decisions? Is there someone from the judicial system in this committee? Who has oversight of the treatment of the prisoner? Is there a need to periodically re-approve of the continuation of the detention? Do we know when the “threat” is over, whether the reasons for detention without trial will ever be revealed? Do we know if a mistake is made, there will be recourse on the government such that they exercise care in using these powers? Do we know if there is a system to ensure the human rights of the detainees are not violated?

      I dont think any of these questions have been addressed , and that’s the whole point of this article. If you have not watched the video you should. in one part Zimbardo said “if you give people power without oversight, it’s a prescription for abuse. They knew that, and let that happen.” And I think this is exactly what Alex is talking about. We have far too long been living in a system lacking in oversight/accountability, putting too much blind trust in the authority, and do not critically question. It is time to change that.

      • 8 octopi 14 October 2012 at 19:03

        Let me summarise your post using something that I had already written before: “We could tighten scrutiny on detention without trial to such an extent that we are confident that the government will not abuse it.”

        The answer to some of the questions you raise are found here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_Security_Act_(Singapore)#Safeguards_of_the_ISA

        Whether these are satisfactory answers or sufficient measures is – of course – a totally different matter.

      • 9 octopi 14 October 2012 at 19:07

        If Breivik was a Singaporean, the ISD would have been on his trial once he tried to obtain the weapons and the explosives for his operation. There is no need for him to have been a member of a larger organisation.

  6. 10 Jeromino 13 October 2012 at 21:52

    Easier said than done. I dun thnk any country has successfully trialed a terrorist in open court. Even the US has decided to (a) jail them in other country or (2) kill them in foreign country using drones. This including murdering one of their own. They don’t have the guts to try anyone in open court in USA. The issue of retribution is real. And imagine the rhetorics of extremism begin broadcast live on TV – it’s terrorists dream.

    The indonesian make a big show about it but really I think the JI leader is having a good life in prisons.

    Unfortunately, this is not the same as gay rights. Giving gay and lesbians the rights to marry and make love does not hurt anyone. Giving a robber rights entail that he hurt one person at a time. But terrorists – I am not sure. Who dare to testify against the terrorists in the first place – a turncoat? A witness (who probably would have died)? a family member?

    You probably will not be saying the same thing if one day a bomb blew up your family members, and we will all be asking the same question the US ask FBI / CIA in 2001 – why don’t you know? Why didn’t you take pre-emptive action.

    • 11 roni63 15 October 2012 at 03:48

      And you will most definitely not be saying the same things if one of your family members was one of the innocent ISA victims, accused by the government, tortured physically, psychologically, and emotionally, forced to give a false confession, and detained indefinitely.

      • 12 lobo76 15 October 2012 at 16:32

        Since ‘one of your family members’ argument could have happen on either side, why not just take it out of the equation?

        We are thus left with ’1 possibly innocent man’ vs ‘potential of mass deaths (tens? of innocent men)’. To me, I would err on the side of caution.

        But because he is not yet guilty, his ‘stay’ shouldn’t be too harsh (but not too comfy that people would pretend to be terrorists). Alternatively, he can be given the option of exile. Maybe some countries would grant him asylum.

        p.s I do NOT claim the above to be ‘fair’. Life sometimes just doesn’t give you much choice.

    • 13 Anon yRe2 16 October 2012 at 10:35

      Not very sure about your definition of open court but terrorists have been tried “successfully” in many jurisdictions (see for e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khalfan_Khamis_Mohamed).

  7. 14 Duh 14 October 2012 at 00:26

    It should not be assumed that an open trial held in Singapore courts will be ‘fair’. I do not have confidence in the courts of law in Singapore. Sorry seen too much judges and lawyers with PAP affiliations.

  8. 15 Tyson 18 October 2012 at 20:48

    Sunshine tends to burn away the mildew and makes the shadows disappear.

    I saw one or two replies that assume a fair trial and an open court mean the same thing. I think a closed trial can be used for these accused terrorists as well.

    It may take more (wo)manpower and time, it may take more oversight panels, but as long as it gives the innocent a chance to clear themselves, it is a good thing.

    Otherwise, why do we hire the government for? Certainly we don’t wish to have a mysterious and all powerful overlord as our government.

  9. 16 Kenneth Koh 21 October 2012 at 14:56

    It is very easy for those who have enjoyed the safe environment to condemn the ISA and all those government brutality are against criminal as violations of human rights. Many think this safe enviornment is a given,

    Let me ask a question here: Assuming Mas Selamat is still not dead and one day you saw he was about to board a train with a bag in his hand. What would you be thinking? Wouldn’t your first thoughts be: is he going to bomb the train, is he up to some mischief, will people die as a result?

    If you were the MRT Station Manager, would you allow him to board the train? If you don’t, aren’t you violating his rights as well? Like you say, he should be assumed innocent until proven otherwise.


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