The Online Citizen (TOC) chose as its teaser a four-and-a-half minute segment that contained sparks flying between Tony Tan and Tan Jee Say. It was from the forum TOC organised on Thursday night (18 May 2011) involving all four presidential candidates.
At first sight, some Singaporeans may ask what this history has got to do with the future. How is this relevant to the choice one has to make on Polling Day, 27 August 2011? I will argue here that it is relevant and explain why.
The question was posed by Clara Feng representing Maruah, a human rights group. She asked, “Based on all the evidence today, do you think that the detention of the so-called Marxist conspirators in 1987 was justified?”
The evidence that she was referring to include the writings, speeches and memoirs that detainees have produced in recent years. They strongly contest the accusations made by the government in the period 1987 – 1989 justifying their detention — a detention which eventually included lawyer Francis Seow who tried to defend them when they were first arrested.
Responding, former Deputy Prime Minister and one of the four presidential candidates Tony Tan said the matter had been “carefully discussed in cabinet” but he was not at liberty to reveal anything because cabinet discussions are “covered under the Official Secrets Act”. He added that “the [Internal Security Act] ISA is a blunt instrument only to be used in the most extreme circumstances.”
By saying that, Tony Tan effectively classified the 1987 detentions as an extreme circumstance, thus contradicting the writings, etc, of the former detainees who have argued that all they were involved in were plans to help migrant workers. Based on their own reporting, what they were doing was far meeker — understandably, given the circumstances of those times — than the efforts and advocacy of migrant worker help organisations active today.
Notably, Tony Tan then spent the next 90 seconds talking about the risk of terrorism. By doing so, he seemed to suggest that the 22 persons detained in 1987 – 1989 were some sort of terrorists. I don’t think even the harshest of allegations made at that time accused them of planning terrorist attacks.
Tan Jee Say, as you would have seen in the video above, made two points:
1. He said the ISA “has outlived its usefulness” and “I don’t even know whether [those detentions were] justified in the first place.”
2. He then called a spade a spade, pointing out that “the ISA has been used on political opponents . . the history is such that is has been used for political purposes.”
Sparks flew soon after, and the moderator, Viswa Sadasivan, had his hands full trying to keep control of the situation. What is even more interesting, but you do not see in the teaser video above, is what happened when Viswa reprised the subject further on in the forum. I think you will see that in Part 2 of the full video, scheduled for release Sunday night (21 August 2011). Watch body language (that is, provided the camera captured it).
[Update: The moderator Viswa Sadasivan brought up the topic again in Part 2 of the video, starting from 41 min 22 secs.]
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Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Kin Lian, the other two presidential candidates, also responded to Clara Feng’s question, which you can see at 43 min 10 secs of this full video of Part 1 of the session.
Tan Kin Lian said, in 1987 “we were in a very different world”, indicating that what might have passed as convincing then might not be convincing now. Moreover, he added his opinion that the “information given was somehow controlled by the authority giving the information,” while today we have “more new sources of information”. He was evidently signalling that he was prepared to revisit and reconsider the episode.
Tan Cheng Bock, when his turn came, essentially gave his take on the constitutional provision without answering the question that had been asked.
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Why do I say this issue is relevant today, in these presidential elections? Because it’s a good indicator of what role the candidate, if elected, will carve out for himself.
If you’re looking for a president who is there to “complement” the government — a word I found the mainstream media applying as a desirable attribute — then you will see this in Tony Tan and maybe even Tan Cheng Bock. On this issue of the 1987 detentions, they’re not about to rock the boat and re-interrogate past events.
If you’re looking for someone less deferential to the official record, then you have Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian. Jee Say, as you can see in an interview I did with him a little while back, wants to be “the conscience of the nation” if he becomes the president. Kin Lian asserts fairness and honesty as among his foundational values.
Despite the specificity of the question asked at the forum, the issue is not just about the 1987 arrests or even detention without trial in general. What we see in their responses to this question is almost like a huge spotlight on how they would play the role of president. At least one, if not two, would stay on the side of the government when it comes to defending its record, which also means that he would probably be suspicious of any accusations that the current and future direction of government policy — whether on matters of security, economy or social policy — is wrong. It is the instinctive bias within him/them.
The other two live up better to their claims of being independent and non-partisan, in the sense that there is no instinctive bias. But it also means that with them in the Istana (the presidential palace), the risk of conflict with the current government is greater. Some voters might think that is a bad thing to be avoided. Others might think that is a good thing, part and parcel of freeing up Singapore’s political scene; these same people might say, how do we know what is the best policy possible unless there is open debate?
So, while the question asked in the forum was about the past, the responses offered were pointers to the future.