“Why will I go to jail? Who is taking me to jail?”
“The government, of course. Because of what you are writing.”
I let that sink in for a while. “You know, what kind of government have we voted in, if we are always afraid of being jailed? Is it still a democracy we live in?”
Another pause. “Well, you better be careful. You have children to look after now, responsibilities…”
My parents have always been staunch supporters of the establishment and status quo, to the point where the mantra that any sacrifice is worth a safe and peaceful country is something they really believe in.
If you were to tell them that we have an atmosphere of fear in our politics, they will dismiss it off-hand, because they really have no reason to fear what they willingly participate in. Conversations such as the above wash over them easily, and they remain unfazed that the government they support is the same that could deal them punitive and draconian blows.
But it does not in the least offer a plausible explanation for why we can still expect the police to come in the night and drag us away. Here, in democratic Singapore. I felt as if we were describing a Gestapo moment, or something reminiscent of a bygone era of foreign occupation.
And that must have been exactly what the “Marxists conspirators” felt when they were summoned, “tried” behind closed doors and put away for years under the Internal Security Act. Years after their ordeal, some are still in exile and cannot expect to have a fair and open hearing of exactly what they have done wrong.
Perhaps for them, it was really a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps they were really attempting to subvert the government by undemocratic means. Perhaps they were victims of political motivation. Perhaps it was, as in another case of internal security, an honest mistake – it shouldn’t have happened, we’re sorry it did, so let’s move on.
What is more troubling, however, is that Singaporeans might not really care enough to push for greater transparency on this matter.
For sure, the history of these detainees is not our fate, nor something most of us can share and empathise with. We believe that in our daily lives, we have done nothing wrong, and the ISA is always only something of concern to someone else who deserves it.
But it is not. I believe the ISA has contributed immeasurably to the climate of fear in our political ecosystem, as much as society at large. In a very real sense, it is also partly the reason why we are still unable to find people willing to participate in politics. There must be capable ones among us who believe that avoiding the field altogether will be the easiest way to avoid getting our noses bloodied. Conversely, supporting the ruling party, the current custodian of the ISA, feels like the safest way to contribute.
How poorly a hand has democracy been dealt, under a sweeping national narrative of a need to be safe rather than sorry.
Advocates of the ISA would tell us that there is every reason for its existence. Never mind that around the world, despite this being a Post 9-11 world, we are witnessing cases of abuse of its equivalents. This has allegedly happened in Afghanistan, Egypt, Malaysia, the United States, and who knows how many others.
If nothing else, these instances lend weight to the argument that no system of law is so infallible as to be free from abuse, or above the necessity and reproach of an open inquiry.
Ultimately, whether we support or are against the ISA, or can tolerate something in between, is entirely a personal decision. You would also have your own views about whether the “Marxist conspirators” deserve what they got.
But we would be wrong to couch this issue as a lofty foray into the championing of human rights that has little meaning for our pragmatic society. The ISA matters to you and me, common citizens, because it determines how we function as citizens.
All you have to think of is this: What if the Internal Security Department comes knocking on your door tonight? Would you even know what you have done to deserve the visit? What would you think if the call was made on your neighbour instead? Saying “you will not be in trouble, until we come knocking” simply undermines our dignity as individuals, as responsible and law-abiding citizens living in a community, and casts a shadow of “default criminality” on all of us.
What should be clear is that we need greater transparency on the ISA. What exactly is it protecting us against today? How does it work? What kind of evidence does it gather and use to detain without trial? Who is accountable for its execution? What serves as the ISD’s external check and balance? How will we know it has not been abused? If the key interest is security, what are the alternatives? Has its use really secured our country, or only served to marginalise those with diverse opinions?
We need answers to these questions and more, for no other reason than to walk in the light of freedom, a freedom that we can be fully cognisant of and can be active participants of, rather than forever assume that some sacrifice must be made for the good of national security.
We will only get our answers if we can be open about how the ISA is used. For one, it may put to rest any misgivings the “Marxist conspirators” might have and hopefully reconcile them with our nation, for that should be the ultimate aim of any policy on national security.
But it will also be good for us as a nation to have greater clarity on what it means to be subversive or a threat to internal security. We need to lift ourselves out of the climate of fear that, in my opinion, the ISA has been most responsible for creating.
What we need is to be participants of our national security, even if just through public conversations to shake the old skeletons out of the closet. Such conversations have so far only been restricted within the walls of the Ministry of Home Affairs, and monologues do little to encourage public discourse, much less instill public confidence.
MY ACQUAINTANCE, MR DAVID DUCLOS, A FORMER POLICE INSPECTOR, AND HIS LAWYER FRIEND, EYEWITNESSED LEE KUAN YEW RIGGING THE 1997 CHENG SAN GRC ELECTION. READ MORE AT MY BLOG ENTITLED "I CAME, I SAW, I SOLVED IT" :