Singapore: Human rights and the Internal Security Act
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Singapore: Human rights and the Internal Security Act

By Sharon Chen

Debate rages on over Singapore’s controversial Internal Security Act despite the government’s unequivocal rejection of calls to repeal the act or form a Commission of Inquiry to investigate detentions made under it.

The ISA was passed in 1960 by a newly independent Malaya facing dangerous communist insurgents. It allowed the government to arrest individuals suspected of threatening the country’s security without warrant and detain them indefinitely without trial. When Singapore and Malaysia separated in 1965, both retained the ISA in slightly different forms.

Two weeks ago, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced plans to repeal the country’s controversial Internal Security Act (ISA). This prompted calls for Singapore to do likewise, bolstered by a statement made in 1991 by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that Singapore would “seriously consider” abolishing its ISA if Malaysia were to do so.

The Ministry of Home Affairs made its case for keeping the ISA, declaring it has only been used “sparingly” and “no person has ever been detained only for their political beliefs.” It argued that the ISA “continues to be relevant and crucial as a measure of last resort for keeping the country safe and secure.”

Following this, 16 former detainees responded with a petition demanding an end to the act. They pointed out that political detainees have been imprisoned for up to 26 years, far longer than the 30 days permitted by the act, and relayed from personal experience the practice of unfair or absent trials.

The prized place the protection of human rights has come to occupy in international parlance makes the problem even trickier. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia have, time and again, championed so-called “Asian Values” in their attempt to carve out a place in a “Western” international system governed by liberal norms. Yet, I wonder if this takes cultural relativism too far, turning it into a “battle of moral one-upsmanship” that overlooks the individual lives at stake.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad encapsulated the paradox when he expressed his support for his government’s decision in terms of winning the “moral high ground” over other developed countries. He compared those detained under the act to those currently held in Guantanamo Bay, saying:

Previously, they [the US] criticised Malaysia for purportedly being cruel by detaining people without trial. But they are the ones doing it now.

The desire to prove one’s moral legitimacy seems inconsistent with the appeal to human rights underlying such a decision. Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies has also suggested that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s decision was ‘driven primarily by domestic political considerations.’

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council concluded its first Universal Periodic Review of Singapore, a peer review process that each country undergoes every four years to ascertain its progress on human rights. On the list of changes Singapore has to make: repeal the ISA and other preventive detention laws.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said:

Singapore commits to human rights reform only at the margins, well away from any measures that would ensure meaningful freedom of association, expression, and assembly, which the government considers threatening to its unchallenged power.

Like every country facing the nebulous yet undeniable threat of terrorism, Singapore faces the difficult task of weighing security against the rights of the citizens it seeks to protect. It remains to be seen if, and how, the Singapore government can continue to justify such a divisive set of laws domestically and internationally.

Sharon Chen is a Regional Representative for Asian Correspondent based in Singapore.

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