“There are very few human rights which are absolute,” lawyer George Hwang told the audience. “Even the right to life is not absolute.”
“But freedom from torture is one of them; it is one of the few rights that is absolute.”
He said this to explain that those detained without trial in 1987 and 1998 under the Internal Security Act (ISA) could have sued the government.
Some of those detained have, in the years since their release, that they were inhumanely treated while in detention. Tang Lay Lee and others have written about being physically assaulted with body blows. Others have recorded being interrogated in icy-cold rooms dressed in nothing but shorts, when their interrogators had woolen jackets. Or interrogated for long hours without sleep.
Despite allegations of torture surfacing repeatedly, the Singapore government has never denied such treatment.
The Habeas Corpus petitions were unsuccessful. The government also changed the law to remove judicial review of executive decisions taken under the ISA. But this shouldn’t be the end of it. Our lawyers are not creative enough to find ways to sue, said George Hwang. Everybody seemed to have given up when the law was changed to remove judicial review of detention orders. But one could still have sued over torture.
He was speaking at a forum organised by filmmaker Martyn See (see his blog) on the arrests of the “Marxist conspirators”, as the government labelled those they detained. It was held at a hotel last Sunday, 28 June 2009.
People don’t want to talk anymore about these events, but nonetheless this episode has lasting consequences on the Singapore of today, Martyn told the room of about 40 participants. “I want to destigmatise this issue.”
The first of the lasting consequences has been mentioned above — abolishing the power of the courts to review executive decisions, one of the most fundamental principles in the rule of law, for how else do we ensure that government decisions are lawful? The government has in the years since applied the same change to other laws. Censorship decisions applied by the Media Development Authority and confirmed by the minister for example now cannot be challenged in a court of law either. This being the case, how can our courts protect the right to freedom of expression? We have repeatedly raped basic principles of constitutional democracy and the rule of law.
Another lasting consequence of the events in the late 1980s is the emasculation of the Law Society, though this was not a direct result of the ISA arrests, but more the result of the battle of wills between Francis Seow, the then president of the Law Society, and the government. Seow lost, and he was later to be detained under the ISA in 1988 for assisting the earlier batch of detainees.
Traditionally, law societies in democratic countries offer opinion on proposed legislation. But our Legal Profession Act has been amended to restrict that function to only such times as the government deign to ask the opinion of the Law Society.
Section 59(1)(d) says:
(d) to examine and if it thinks fit to report upon current or proposed legislation submitted to it and any other legal matters;
(emphasis in bold made by Yawning Bread).
If the government does not ask, the law society has to shut up.
Here is another area where I too think Singapore lawyers (there are exceptions of course) tend to be an underwhelming bunch. Nothing should have stopped them from forming another organisation to critique proposed and existing legislation. If the Law Society can’t do it, form another. Yet, it is not done. The gag is accepted.
For example, does any reader recall lawyers coming together to comment on the recent amendment to the Films Act re political films? Or to the recently passed Public Order Act that redefines public assembly to be a group of one person, giving powers to police to chase him away, and stopping others from filming and photographing the actions of police?
There should have been vibrant debate, if not uproar, but there wasn’t. Why this timid abandonment by our legal profession of their responsibility to the civic space? Is it a sign of how demoralised and scared our lawyers are, after the “edifying” experience of Francis Seow being detained in 1988?
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Why were the 24 persons arrested between May 1987 and May 1988? The common denominator for nearly all those arrested was that they were trying to help low-paid factory workers and other underprivileged. They were Roman Catholics, and moved to manifest their faith by social action.
As Vincent Cheng, one of those detained, wrote:
What is justice and how do you bring it about? Was Jesus bothered about justice? Why are some churches more interested in charity than in justice?
The old theological understanding of justice as commutative justice – that is, the kind of justice that deals with how individuals relate to one another – clouds the newer understanding of justice as a Kingdom value that is fundamental to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Individual justice has to be understood as part of the larger whole of social justice, not the other way round. Thus, justice is to be understood primarily as being concerned with how society is organised, Working for justice means working to build a society that is intrinsically just. The World Council of Churches summed it up best: “What the world needs is a just, participative, and sustainable society.”
— Vincent Cheng in That we may dream again, published 2009 by Ethos Books, edited by Fong Hoe Fang,
Cheng, who had trained as a priest, committed himself to working for migrant workers and domestic helpers.
In 1982, the Geyland Catholic Centre needed someone to help coordinate its various functions as a mediation centre fo runaway domestic helpers, an activity centre for young Malaysian workers, a halfway house for ex-prisoners and a counselling centre for troubled people. I took up the job and concentrated on the issues of migrant workers. These foreigners came to develop our economy, many leaving their homes at high personal and financial cost to take up lowly-paid jobs here which were shunned by the locals. They lived in substandard housing conditions and faced various restrictions on their personal and social life.
I remember the long bus journeys to Jurong which seemed so remote. So when the YCW asked me to take one of their English classes for factory workers – mostly Malaysian and young females – why did I agree? I felt I wanted to do something practical, I wanted to see for myself what factory workers were like, and I wanted to see Jurong, our largest industrial estate.
— Tang Lay Lee in That we may dream again, published 2009 by Ethos Books, edited by Fong Hoe Fang,
Such was the idealism of youth. Further on, she wrote,
I chatted, cooked, joked and laughed with the workers who came to the Centre for English classes, or games, or just to relax and socialise in the evenings and during weekends. We also had activities like Labour Day celebrations, labour discussions , outings and overseas holidays.
Knowing the law is one things, claiming workers’ rights is an entirely different ball game.
So anyone who thinks that it is easy to “instigate” workers to do what seems to right should have his head examined and his heart replaced. Well, the YCW was not involved involved in instigating workers, which would be disrespectful, dishonest and heartless.
One thing we did together was to organise a modest survey on the effects of the 12-hour shift and publish our findings and recommendations in the Catholic News. Workmen’s compensation was another issue workers were concerned about, so we organised volunteer lawyers to provide legal counselling and representation.
My guess is that most younger readers of Yawning Bread would find all the above to be news to them. Was that all they were doing? And they got detained under the ISA and subsequently tortured, for that?
The horror of such heavy-handedness may be one reason why Singapore’s political conversation in the years since has avoided discussing these arrests. It’s as if we have been so traumatised by these events, we suffer a collective amnesia and mental block.
Our mainstream media, naturally, cannot delve far into it either. The problem is that the injustice is to stark, and official explanation so ridiculous, there is no credible way for journalists with any shred of integrity to revisit this story without poking huge holes in the government’s case.
As my friend Russell Heng pointed out at the forum, by the late 1980s, Marxism was in terminal decline. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, workers in Poland — the same workers that Marxism and communism claimed to champion — were demonstrating under the banner of Solidarnosc against the communist state, while in China, Deng Xiaoping had buried Mao-Tse-tung thought and opened Special Economic Zones for capitalists. Did Lee Kuan Yew really think that labelling Vincent Cheng et al “Marxists” would convince anybody?
In my view, it didn’t. That being the case, how does anyone — journalists, academics, etc — discuss this case without drawing attention to the absurdity, and thus the likelihood of illegal abuse of power, at its very heart? Yet, accusing the government of abuse of power is fraught with risk. Hence, talking about it became a kind of taboo for 22 years since.
* * * * *
The irony is, Martyn See said, non-government organisations today, such as TWC2 and HOME, are doing ten times more than what those early activists did for migrant workers. Indeed, it seems to me that people Like Bridget Lew, Jolovan Wham and Stephanie Chok are far more outspoken than any of those lay Catholics in the 1980s.
Heng, who is active in TWC2, reckoned that many of the younger volunteers would know very little of the 1987 detainees and their work history. Today’s young volunteers go about their work driven by their own idealism.
If that is so, I asked, shouldn’t we let forgetfulness stand? Why recall the details of 1987 and 1988 and scare a new generation away? Why not let the young beat a new path blissfully unaware of the pain suffered by others?
Because those who are unaware of history may end up repeating it? suggested See.
I don’t know if history is programmed to repeat itself. Our government leaders change too, and old instincts to crack down on the slightest attempt by anyone to pursue an agenda not to the government’s liking, may not stay the same. Or am I wrong?