24 March 2008

Improving the Internal Security Act

This law gives the government wide discretionary powers to detain people without trial. We can either abolish it or create a mechanism for oversight. Full essay.


Anonymous said...


In your blog you have suggested that the rationale for ISA or, in generally detention with trial type instrument, as being necessary particularly in intelligence led operations. However, based on my many private communications with many intelligence operatives in, let's just say Western countries, many professional are dubious about the value of ISA type instruments.

In simple term, a successful intelligence operation is one where the observed is unaware that it/she/he is being observed. The last thing one wants is the attention it would arouse by an ISA like arrest of the principal.

Your argument that intelligence sources have to be protected and thus requiring preventative arrests does not seemed to square with what I am told. ISA itself will not protect the source so to speak, any more that say one held in an open court. After all when an arrest is affected, it is often apparent to the principal that who had tip off.

Now you might argue that say some nasty act is to be executed and without ISA it would not be stop. Again, this is a somewhat simplistic argument. My understanding from practices in other countries is that protecting the source of intelligence is important. Quite often it may be a necessary thing to let certain acts get to a point where, it cross the line of say conventional law, which is then used to disrupt the act. A case in point is Al Capone, who got convicted of tax evasion rather than racketing. So you see, you can use a battery of laws to disrupt other nasty act.

But it could be argued that, hey we are dealing with nasty terrorists who are willing to blow up people. The answer is so what? Why do you need ISA to deal with the problem? After all, any good intelligence agency could easily use counter-intelligence method to direct to some many existing laws, such as possessions of dangerous materials, firearms, etc, to disrupt an act of terrorism. For example, getting tipping a traffic cop to stop a terrorist to stop a van and carrying out inspection. Whilst protecting the intelligence source.

After all, failure such as 911 or 7/7 in London, were the result of intelligence failure not the lack of ISA or preventative arrest as such. If you don't have intelligence, ISA is no use.

Even using ISA as a means of extracting intelligence is dubious to say the least. Let's say hypothetically you allow ISA the use of torture to extract intelligence, you risk compromising the key principles of intelligence in the first place, which is to remain invisible to the principal. If any of the principal is caught under ISA, the intelligence network would be compromise anyway.

The questions comes back to is ISA really any use. Well, from what I can gather, the only use of ISA is really political. In the case of Singapore, quite possibly a useful psychological control mechanism to ensure, let's just say, the protection of THE establishment -- i.e. I leave it to the readers to read between the lines.

To be "objective", you will find many Western democratic government resort to similar instruments -- i.e. US Guntanamo for instance. Again this seemed to stem from political need for a tangible demonstration to the electorate that they are indeed fighting a war on terror. After all it is hard to demonstrate that you are doing something when the real success is from appearing to be doing nothing -- i.e. good intelligence!

Anonymous said...

It is not happening. You cannot then accuse Francis Seow of colluding with American agents and catch him under the ISD acts. Why would the PAP give that up to catch supposedly 'crooked' oppositions?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for comment on ISA. I too thought it was strange that we the public are told to look-out for a "terrorist suspect" but not told why he is labelled as such.

I tend to believe that "power corrupts" and prefer a robust system of checks-and-balance between judiciary and the executive. Thus, I'd prefer abolishing the ISA altogether. IMHO, should the ISA stay, its maximum detention period should be shortened drastically. Nowadays things change very quickly, 2-3 years-old information are often already obsolete, the public review should therefore be held within 2-3 years. If someone should be unjustly detained under ISA, then it gives the same person a chance to bring his case to light within the same/next election cycle and the abusers can be held accountable while they are in-office.

Anonymous said...

I am glad that Yawning Bread has chosen to highlight this topic which I mentioned earlier in my blog on how the local blogosphere, caught up in the frenzy of the escape of Mas Selamat, has missed their window of debate on the ISA itself.

Upon reading his take on ISA, there are still issues associated with his proposition that ISA cases be presented to public within 5 years.

Abolishing ISA is not a matter of being 'purist'.

Detaining someone without trial for 5 years by itself contradicts the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in any fair courts or that it is against the spirit of Habeas Corpus (the right to challenge against unlawful detention).


KiWeTO said...

One funny question our ISA brings up about us is:

ARE there no non-partisan civic leaders that we can turn to as impartial reviewers rather on this proposed 5-yr board of inquiry rather than day representatives of the government, executive, legislative or judicial?

At the end of the day - to excommunicate an individual from his own society (presuming ISA is primarily used on citizens rather than foreigners who will just be deported to their home country prison systems), greater society have had a say on whether the said individual is a THREAT to its continued well-being. Yes, the judiciary should be involved, or at least, someone to ensure that procedural propriety was carried out, but to for a representative of the current government to chair the inquiry encourages a pro-govt bias.

In that sense, a non-current ex-judiciary or ex-law practicioner would reduce any pro-current-government bias on the board.

If intelligence security is an issue, then, having people that society trust as upstanding and incorruptible to review an arrest would provide greater society with a re-assurance that the executive branch is not abusive of its wide powers, whilst reducing the opportunity for intelligence leaks.

But I do agree with anonymous1 - easier to arrest the insociable (terror, crime, whatnots) over other lawbreakings rather than some insubstantial allegation that they cannot prove.
(which is why Mr Chee and company keep getting arrested on minor laws of public peace etc, rather than given the ISA hammer to take him out as a political force).

If other democracies (or at least, accountable governments that DO get thrown out of office due to abuses of power) can live without an ISA, why does a tiny city-state require one to defend itself from itself? Is it fear that we could become the pawns in international geo-politik (and what implications that gives for our own leaders who can be influenced so readily!) or that we still face 'Konfrontasi'-style threats or a resurgence of social-evolution (previously known as communism)?

I stand on the abolitionists' side. ISA has more cons than pros in its ease for executive abuse. If we are to create a society of trust rather than fear, then ISA is a roadblock that needs to be removed.


Anonymous said...

Nothing is going to change.
Nothing will change.

Simply because most Singaporeans care too much about themselves...

...and doesn't give a hoot about anyone else.

This is aptly demonstrated during elections. People only want the Opposition to win in other wards/constituencies (NOT their own) for fear that they'd lose the paper value of their pigeon holes.

Alan Wong said...

It really beats me that our super efficient world class Gahmen still need to resort to such draconian laws to "protect" our country's internal security.

What has happened to the very basic tenet of law that says a person is innocent until he is proven guity ?

Are there no other laws that we can rely on to deal with such accused persons ?

Are we such an uncivilised or ungracious society that does not seem to respect or recognise the basic human right of freedom for each and every human being on this earth ?

Why is it that our leaders including LKY can still profess to the whole world that our Rule of Law in Singapore is widely respected when in reality we still have such cruel laws in existence being implemented against our own humanity ?

It appears the our leaders including LKY still have not provided any valid answers to any of the above questions.

Anonymous said...

Many people openly use the term 'criminal' to describe Mas Selemat. But i have yet to know what crime has he committed.

Anonymous said...

The ISA should rightfully be abolished. If there are proof that anyone has harbour and or acted against the interests of fellow citizen and the State, he/she should be charged with all the evidence(s).

The citizenry cannot allow the Authority to simply detain anyone they like without evidence and proof. It is as simple as this.


Anonymous said...


I read this about the RI / NJC boy and realised - this is horrendous, the ability of the govt to do as it pleases without an iota of evidence. Shocking.

Teck Soon said...

I can't believe that you would advocate taking YEARS of somebody's life and not even give them a trial in advocating retaining of a tweaked ISA. We're talking about holding people in PRISONS here, not hotels. It's not just confinement, but all the other conditions of prison life that you are foisting upon what should be presumed-innocent people. If we suspect people MIGHT commit crimes, then we should expel them (if they are foreign) or legally monitor/wiretap them (if they are local), not lock them up for 5 years.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting topic, and as the blog suggests, has been floating around in people's heads (at least in mine!) since MSK's escape.

While I may have some thoughts on the matter, I'd rather reserve my comments until I've had a chance to read the Act in full; would anyone be so kind as to confirm that it is Chapter 143 in the statutes so I can read it after I get home from work?

Anders said...


Thanks for bringing up this topic.

I'm not entirely convinced that one needs the ISA for witness protection and that there is no better way to do this, but let's say that it is and that we really need to be able to detain people without trial. Then maybe we should ponder who should make that decision. I'm not a law scholar, but I though that under normal circumstances, the execution of law (the judiciary power) should absolutely not be handled by the government itself as this would invite using the law as a political instrument. In meritocratic Singapore it also seems obvious that matters of law should be handled by people learned in law (and the ethics of law).

What is the practice in Singapore?

Anders said...

Btw, just to clarify. When I ask the question who should make the decision, I mean of course who should make the decision to detain.

Anonymous said...

The ISA needs to be completely abolished as it is open to abuse and it has already been abused by the government.