Why 1987 ISA detentions still relevant to 2011 presidential elections

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.]

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

44 Responses to “Why 1987 ISA detentions still relevant to 2011 presidential elections”

  1. 1 harishpillay 20 August 2011 at 16:09

    I think the fact that Tony Tan chose, and in this case, rightly so, to stand by his colleagues in that episode does mean that ANY president might NOT be given all the facts by the government of the day should something similar arise.

    It points to the bigger issue of (the lack of) Freedom of Information to get to the cabinet papers of that period to ascertain exactly what happened and not hide behind the Official Secrets Act. If the individuals directly implicated by the cabinet’s decisions are today saying that they were NOT doing as alleged, I think Tony Tan should, in retrospect relook the situation and force his former comrades to come clean – not that it will happen, but it is a good thought exercise.

    Tony’s terrorist angle is probably a knee-jerk reaction because he was also the minister covering security issues before he stood down from government. That further complicates the issue for him should win the presidency – he knows too much of that might result in a group-think decision on his part.

    What we need in a president is someone who has some knowledge of how the government works but not too much and an insight to how the people would feel. TCB, IMHO, is probably closer to that – given his medical practise background and a very well run (from all accounts) Meet-The-People sessions when he was MP for Ayer Rajah.

    This election is easier to decide who NOT to vote for (Tony Tan). 7 more days to think through.

    • 2 Poker Player 21 August 2011 at 11:50

      ” TCB, IMHO, is probably closer to that – given his medical practise background and a very well run (from all accounts) Meet-The-People sessions when he was MP for Ayer Rajah.”

      You mean he learns the rules well and plays within them.

      • 3 harish pillay 21 August 2011 at 16:26

        No, “not that he learns the rules well and play within them”, but he is more likely to be a ask the right questions, and do what is needed to get the answers. TCB does not have the legacy of Tony Tan who has intimate knowledge of the inner working of the cabinet which Tony could become constrained by self-restraint “Tony, you know how it is in the cabinet with these things? You were one of us. So just take it quietly.”.

        TCB cannot be brushed off with a statement like that I think.

      • 4 Poker Player 21 August 2011 at 18:13

        ” do what is needed to get the answers”

        You mean like for the Marxist conspirators?

      • 5 Poker Player 21 August 2011 at 18:31

        And you know how absurd Tan CB can be?

        He was already MP (pre-GRC days) in a ward where people used recycled
        water for their toilet flushing system. This caused corrosion and smells.

        He said he needed A BIGGER WINNING MAJORITY to strengthen his hand for his appeal to the govt. He was already MP for chrissakes!

        He has the soul of a supplicant.

      • 6 yawningbread 21 August 2011 at 18:33

        Do you have any source citation for that?

  2. 7 Richard Lee 20 August 2011 at 16:55

    The ISA allows imprisonment without trial; ie without giving a reason or checking if this reason is valid. It was introduced by the British who felt that voilent Communist dissidents could never be brought to trial cos witnesses would be intimidated into remaining silent.

    Several prominent members of the original PAP, including former President Devan Nair, were imprisoned under this. They were not tortured and their brilliant young lawyer, a certain LKY, was not harrased by the Ang Mow oppressors.

    I have always defended the ISA and thought the Singapore Government would never abuse it .. but fast forward 30 yrs.

    The PAP government detains 22 people under the Internal Security Act in 1987. Torture is applied to obtain some “confessions” (which are later retracted) The PAP’s view is that if no blows are applied & no bruises evident, no torture has been used, a view shared by the Americans in Guantanamo Bay. Their lawyers are also arrested & tortured.

    Under the British system, every 2 yrs, the Government has to persuade a (hopefully independent) judge that detention was appropriate.

    In 1989, the PAP “improves” the Act so this was no longer necessary and made it retrospective. Perhaps the Singapore Judiciary (judges) weren’t all PAP bootlickers like the foreign press likes to claim.


    The above court cases challenged the legality of these changes as it seriously impinged on the Rights of Singaporeans supposedly safeguarded by the Constitution. At least one judge thought it was Unconstitutional but his judgement was later overturned on the grounds that the changes had gone through Parliament. (This is one result of not having a strong opposition. The Government can change laws, even eroding the Rights of Citizens under the Constitution, at will )

    What I would like to know is if the present Act requires the President to be persuaded of the need for someone’s imprisonment. If so, the choice of Singapore’s Elected President becomes even more critical.

    He becomes the last bastion against political or personal abuse of the ISA eg …

    A hypothetical power broker, whom we’ll call LKY for convenience, has a grouse against you. Perhaps you denied him the “dignity” he feels is his due. He tries suing the pants off you but is only partially successful (because Singaporean Judges are not all his boot lickers like the foreign press claim).

    But the Minister of Home Affairs owes him, perhaps cos the Minister has been “dignified” by our hypothetical LKY. You are arrested under the ISA and disappear for 2 yrs.

    If the Elected President also owes our hypothetical LKY, then everything is simplified. There is no need to even extract confessions and face inconvenient demonstrations by Human Rights Groups at Singapore Embassies. The key can be thrown away and lawyers and other people will think twice about commenting on your absence.

    Lets be perfectly clear about this. This hypothetical scenario is all too possible. Presently, the only safeguard is that the elected PAP government would never be so vindictive, cruel and evil to stoop so low as to abuse the ISA for political and personal ends.

    But if the Elected President could be a further safeguard against misuse, vote in someone with the integrity & courage, moral & physical, to do so.


  3. 8 Thor 20 August 2011 at 17:06

    Initially, I was incensed at the threat in the content and tenor of Tony Tan’s interruption. But as I read comments on the exchange on different forums, one salient sentiment emerged which is echoed in this article. The idea that TT is not partisan. He has shown so vividly and emotively, that his first instinct, will be to defend the party and his name. Then the spriti of the elected preseidency is moot and we should have stayed with a cermonial head of state. To my mind, the choice is clear. TJS.

  4. 9 Only 1 winner 20 August 2011 at 17:43

    Whether the 1987 ISA detentions is still relevant for 2011 PE, it all depends on whether majority voters know about it, think about it or even bothered about what is it all about. Remember some current voters were very young then or not even born yet in 1987.

    My guess is that majority voters don’t even know what is it about or if they know, what is there to it. Or surf the Net and bother to read such matters.

    That’s why I think the PE 2011 outcome on 27 Aug will quite accurately mirror the recent GE 2011 outcome, whatever the issues that may be raised in the PE campaigning. And the chances made worse for the “non PAP” candidates as a result of 4 corner fight!

  5. 10 cat 20 August 2011 at 18:20

    Both Dr Tans claimed they want to be the unifying figure. How can they?

    The Marxist Conspiracy ghost is now back to haunt them. It will not be laid to rest until the wrongly accused are vindicated. By refusing to acknowledge the wrong perpetuated against a group of innocent, mostly Roman Catholic do-gooders, it would be the albatross hanging around their necks.

  6. 11 ThePasserby 20 August 2011 at 19:38

    One could say that bringing up the spectre of terrorist acts as a way of justifying the ISA is a non sequitor, especially with the example of Brevik. What could a law that allows the government to detain citizens without trial have done to prevent such an act, which took everyone by surprise? And if it cannot prevent it, how does imprisoning a suspect without trial serve justice better than a normal judicial process, for a terrorist who wants to be known and remembered for his acts?

    The drama had the unfortunate side-effect of diverting the audience’s attention away from Tony Tan’s fallacious argument, which is nothing more than a red-herring at best.

  7. 12 Ben 20 August 2011 at 19:49

    It isn’t stated in the constitution that a president cannot speak out against policies implemented by the government. However, it is clear that a president cannot act beyond what is subscribed in the constitution. Since the president has no power to change policies, such as abolishing the ISA, how does the president use his influence to effect such change without actually executing it?

  8. 13 yuen 20 August 2011 at 19:55

    being a foreign resident in singapore, I have no wish to comment on ISA nor 1987 detentions; however, I wish to point out that there was a chain of events with related significance

    1986: Francis Seow and Teo Soh Lung took part in parliamentary hearings over the newspaper legislation on behalf of law society

    1988: Francis Seow and Patrick Seong were arrested over their contact with US diplomat Hendrickson, who was expelled

    1988: the Singapore Academy of Law act was passed; The Law Society primarily upholds the interests of the practising lawyers whilst the Singapore Academy of Law seeks to advance the legal profession as a whole

    1989: limitations were placed on appeal of legal cases to british privy council

    • 14 Poker Player 21 August 2011 at 11:52

      “being a foreign resident in singapore, I have no wish to comment on ISA nor 1987 detentions”

      But 377A – no problem.

      • 15 yuen 21 August 2011 at 13:45

        I dont recall commenting on 377A specifically, but maybe you have better memory about my comments than myself; in any case, why does this bother you?

      • 16 Poker Player 21 August 2011 at 18:18

        “I dont recall commenting on 377A specifically”

        Oh I see, you are the “letter” and not the “spirit” type of person.

        Then I withdraw my comment and change it to “legalization of homosexual acts in SIngapore”.

      • 17 yuen 21 August 2011 at 20:37

        since you are so interested, why dont you discover what my comment on the subject was and explain why it bothers you?

      • 18 Poker Player 22 August 2011 at 01:08

        “since you are so interested, why dont you discover what my comment on the subject was”

        You mean comments (plural). I’m a long time follower from the ybsampler1
        days – look there.

        “why does this bother you?”

        Huh? If you comment, expect a response.

      • 19 yuen 22 August 2011 at 06:06

        so why dont you retrieve one of those ybsampler1 comments and “respond” to it, so that we know what is bothering you?

      • 20 yawningbread 22 August 2011 at 07:47

        I need to put a stop to this. It’s getting off-topic.

  9. 21 yo 20 August 2011 at 20:25

    I’ve read that Tan Cheng Bock said he would not change his mind unless new evidence appears. Don’t see how and why you regard as a “general statement” showing acceptance. I still don’t see why this issue is relevant. It seems that it’s just brought up and used to target the ex-MPs who happened to be there in Parliament then. But it so happens everyone forgot that the late President Ong Teng Cheong was also present then and held a bigger role in it as he was DPM. He also never addressed the issue when he came EP in 1993. So why didn’t you bring it up then?

    • 22 cat 21 August 2011 at 09:01

      To whom do we bring it up to? How can we possibly know the truth when it was all covered with lies. Everything was so tightly controlled by the govt under LKY.

    • 23 Poker Player 21 August 2011 at 11:54

      “I’ve read that Tan Cheng Bock said he would not change his mind unless new evidence appears.”

      A fine president he would make by LKY’s standards. LKY says the president is not supposed to be “activist”. A good boy he will be.

  10. 24 Tan Tai Wei 20 August 2011 at 20:39

    Tony Tan said Jee Say should back up with evidence. Was he really ignorant of the following information that have been passed through the internet and elsewhere in recent times, or was he faking ignorance, taking advantage of the largely media blackout of it all to appeal to a public largely kept ignorant?

    First, there have been testimonies voiced in books, internet postings and speeches, etc, given by persons incarcerated at “Operation Coldstore” and the “marxist” detentions. Now, having been imprisoned without trial, they could not present their personal witnesses as evidence in court then. So what they now say in self-defence should be taken as evidence, being evidence that would be accepted in a court of law.

    Second, there are those recently declassified documents in London that at least two academics, Cambridge and Australian historians, have researched and found to show that Lee Kuan Yew had motives other than state security in detaining his political opponents at “operation coldstore”. These academics had their reputation as scholars at stake in publishing their views. And their conclusions are confirmed by some of those very people detained who still lives, and have indeed stood up in the witness box of the people’s court.

    Alex, what do these observations say as to the sort of President Tony Tan would make?


  11. 25 Tan Tai Wei 20 August 2011 at 20:53

    I am not saying that those “evidence* I mentioned amount to proof. But Tony wasn’t asking for proof either. He said “evidence”, and those I mentioned are evidence. And so the ball is now in Tony’s and the government’s court to response. And the fact that, thus far, government has kept uncharacteristic silence over it all seems additional evidence that the evidence points to the truth.

  12. 26 ce 20 August 2011 at 22:13

    ISA is like the movie minority report. the operative term is “pre-crime”.

  13. 27 Alan Tang 20 August 2011 at 23:35

    Wow! Your goodself is so observant! Even if any of them were to fart, you would be able to pinpoint and analyse which angle or direction the sound came from! Respects to you! Thks for useful pointers ! LOL !

  14. 28 Anonymous 21 August 2011 at 01:15

    To be frank ISA in sg only used to restrict Opposition parties rather than terrorism, clearly TT is avoiding this point.

    • 29 yawningbread 21 August 2011 at 11:51

      Not really. Starting around 2001, ISA detentions were of people allegedly planning attacks for Jemaah Islamiyah; of course, like all previous detentions, we still don’t know the truth.

      Other countries deal with terrorism using a specific law called Terrorism Act or something similar, which may allow for a bit of preventive detention of a few weeks, but more importantly, require court trials.

      • 30 Poker Player 21 August 2011 at 11:56

        For non-terrorist opposition we have libel laws and the “fashion police” – some colours they don’t like on t-shirts.

  15. 31 Calculon 21 August 2011 at 02:55

    While I do not have any heavy weight commentary to provide, I did watch TOC forum part 1, contents of each candidates speech is certainly up for scrutiny, and Tony Tan seems most eloquent in delivery, at ease with public speaking, Tan Jee Say simply have to stop his nervous tick of adjusting his invisible tie, I don’t doubt his confidence, but he is a tad bit confrontational, take time, not rush, project a more relaxed mannerism…

    To prove my point, try turning on YouTube close caption from transcribing audio, this is what America ears hear, Singlish! (¬_¬)

  16. 32 JS 21 August 2011 at 09:56

    Looks to me Tan Cheng Bock would rather not get personally involved in these decisions. But is it the role of the president under the constitution? Should it be?

    It is a shame we lost a chance to understand how the decisions to detain people under the ISA are being made, and the stance of each candidate might be in such circumstances.

    • 33 yawningbread 21 August 2011 at 12:08

      How people are detained under ISA would have been outside the scope of this forum, because presidents are not involved at all in the initial detention decisions. The only time a president can get involved, as provided for in the constitution is when,

      1. After three months, the Advisory Board recommends release of a detainee;
      2. Cabinet disagrees with Advisory Board;
      3. Then president has to be tie-breaker.

      If the Advisory Board formed under the provisions of the ISA does not even recommend release of a detainee, the president cannot butt in.

  17. 34 K Das 21 August 2011 at 15:44

    You infer that by TT saying that “ISA is a blunt instrument only to be used in the most extreme circumstances” he has effectively classified the 1987 detentions as an extreme circumstance. This may not be necessarily so. It could well be the case that TT is telling that the 1987 case does not justify the use of ISA and that it has been used bluntly. It is possible that he spoke against they being detained under the ISA and that he was outvoted in the cabinet.

    We should strive to bring the case to a closure. You cannot expect and I feel it is not right for the Government to apologise for a past deed, even if it was wrong on the surface of it. Perhaps a third party can facilitate for a negotiation whereby the Government pays token compensation for those arrested as gesture of goodwill for the pain, suffering and loss of income for the period they were under arrest. The Malaysian Government did precisely that to Lord President Tun Salleh many years after he was sacked from his post as Lord President as he was seen to have passed significant judgments against the Government.

    • 35 twasher 21 August 2011 at 21:20

      Why is it not right for the government to apologise for a past deed? Plenty of other governments have done so.

    • 37 Tan Tai Wei 22 August 2011 at 00:11

      I don’t think so. He meant “blunt” in the sense that it isn’t sharp in terms of, say, the satisfying of legal process, etc., for detention of persons, and therefore that blunt instrument should be used only in the most extreme circumatances.

      But you may be still right about Tony’s seeming concession that he differed with his then Cabinet colleagues about the need to use that blunt instrument in that particular instance. He said it was thoroughly “debated”. That means there were differences of views that called for not only debate, but thorough debate. He seemed to distance himself from the eventual decision when he said he couldn’t give information of the substance of debate because of the Official Secret Act, thus seemingly venting his regret that he couldn’t vindicate himself of that wrong decision.

      Now, if I am right, that is very significant, for it would be a direct participant in those detentions admitting to the sinfulness of it all! (His subsequent challenge to Jee Say to “back” his claim referred only to the charge that the motive of the detentions was political. So, that was consistent with his not agreeing that the detainees were really dangerous marxists.)

  18. 38 Only 1 winner 21 August 2011 at 16:30

    “If the Advisory Board formed under the provisions of the ISA does not even recommend release of a detainee, the president cannot butt in.”
    Yawning bread 21 August 2011 at 12:08

    Cannot butt in no doubt but the president is not dumb so therefore he can speak up (in private of course) and this may have some influence, right?

    After all, influence power is more through moral and respected authority while enforcement power is through legal authority.

    Which I think is what some Presidential candidates are trying to sell themselves and the powers of the Presidency.

  19. 39 JabbaTheHutt 21 August 2011 at 19:20

    This is more of a questions post then it is a statement.

    1. Are ISA detainees considered convicts? If so, after release, will they have a criminal record?

    2. If found not guilty, is compensation given to ISA detainees?

    3. Do ISA detainees get a court hearing to get their cases heard or is it mediated ‘under the table’?


    • 40 yawningbread 21 August 2011 at 22:51

      To the best of my understanding,
      1. No, no.
      2. No trial, so the question of guilt cannot be determined.
      3. No. There is some process behind closed doors that is more “rubber-stamp” than fair.

  20. 41 Mark 23 August 2011 at 01:56

    hi alex, i apologize but as a young layman (22 years, i was not even born when this incident had happened) singaporean not entirely familiar with the law and constitution, i would like yuen to emphasize on the significance of the timeline he mentioned in his comments, or maybe somebody could for me too? for good discussion’s sake, i would recommend simply moderating Poker Player out until he has something to offer and not just take offense at the words other people use.

    • 42 Poker Player 25 August 2011 at 16:39

      “for good discussion’s sake, i would recommend simply moderating Poker Player out until he has something to offer and not just take offense at the words other people use.”

      Pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions is not taking offense. There is a difference.

    • 43 jem 28 August 2011 at 12:23

      Good discussion does not involve taking out views you do not wish to hear.

      • 44 Mark 1 September 2011 at 11:17

        oh wow jem, you’re so awesome with your one-liners. funny how i request to be enlightened on some things and people just like to pick on the small things that are completely unrelated to them to add in meaningless opinions. you true singaporean.

        please get it clear, i am not asking yawningbread to curb opinions, but since there is an obvious moderative aspect on this wordpress i mentioned that when you try to shoot someone down in the aspect of his or her background or his choice of words rather than to engage his opinion that’s ridiculously troll-ish.

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