Sunday, 3 June 2012

In Memory of 1987


On Saturday 2 June 2012, MARUAH and Function 8 organized an event called "That We May Dream Again" to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum. I spoke at this event as Vice-President of MARUAH.

In Memory of 1987

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues, thank you for coming here today. My name is Siew Kum Hong. I speak today in my capacity of Vice-President of MARUAH. And I am very honoured to speak here today.

The U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Looking at all of you here today, I am heartened to know that so many Singaporeans are no longer afraid of the Internal Security Act, or of the 1987 detentions.

And fear is the currency of the ISA. Its scope is notoriously broad, its wording infamously vague. I personally believe that this is deliberately so, to keep the population in line.

I once heard someone say, with full sincerity and conviction, that the ISA has not been used to detain political opponents in the last 10 to 15 years. I think that is probably true. But that time-frame seems carefully selected. Would that person have been equally sincere and convincing, if he had said 25 years instead?

The events of 1987 still haunt many Singaporeans, especially the older generations. It is different from younger Singaporeans, many of whom had not even been born in 1987.

In 1987, I was 12 years old.  I only have a hazy recollection of what was happening then. So most of what I know is based on what I have seen, read and heard as an adult. And of course, what I studied in law school and what I and my colleagues in MARUAH have researched since.

Like how some 1987 detainees challenged their detentions and won their case before the Court of Appeal, only to be immediately re-detained upon their release. Like how the Government quickly amended the ISA after that case, to limit future reviews of ISA detentions by the courts to purely procedural grounds, as you’ve just heard Jeannette say. Like how, even in the post-9/11 world where preventive detention laws have become more commonplace, the ISA continues to lack the checks and balances found in other countries’ laws.

What are some of these missing checks and balances? Firstly, even though the detainees are not brought before the courts, they are still subject to some sort of hearing that should comply with due process. In Singapore, we have a hearing before an advisory board. But this process is shrouded in secrecy and is completely non-transparent.

According to a lawyer who has appeared before advisory boards, the detainees and their lawyers do not get to see the evidence that is presented against them, and do not have the right to challenge witnesses against them. The decisions of the advisory board are not published and not even disclosed to detainees. So much for the right to a fair hearing.

Another critical area where the ISA falls short of international norms, is the maximum period of detention without trial that is allowed. For instance, Australia allows detention for only up to 48 hours. Even the UK, which has suffered actual terrorist attacks on its own soil, only permits detention for up to 28 days.

But in Singapore, preventive detention is potentially indefinite – for instance, Chia Thye Poh was first detained in 1966, released from ISD detention in 1989 after 23 years, but confined to Sentosa until 1992. The remaining restrictions were gradually lifted over the years, and he became a completely free man only in 1998 – 32 years after he was first detained.

Singapore went through the Universal Periodic Review process last year, which is a process where the United Nations reviews each country’s human rights record in turn. MARUAH submitted a paper focusing specifically on preventive detention and the death penalty. In that paper, we called for numerous reforms to the ISA to bring it in line with international norms and due process. The objective was to ensure that even if there is a legitimate security requirement for preventive detention, the detention is done in accordance with human rights norms and due process.

Since then, we have refined our position. MARUAH now thinks that the best way to achieve that objective, is to simply repeal the ISA and introduce new anti-terrorism laws consistent with human rights.

And that is exactly what Malaysia has done. Around six weeks ago, Malaysia repealed its own ISA, replacing it with an anti-terrorism law that limits preventive detention to 28 days. Yet, the Singapore Government continues to insist that it needs the ISA in its current form, and that a specific anti-terrorism law would not work or would not be enough or would take too long to implement. The Singapore Government continues to make these bald assertions without any real explanation or justification.

Well, I can only say in response: “Malaysia boleh!”

As many of you know, MARUAH is also calling for an independent Commission of Inquiry into the 1987 detentions. We are asking Singaporeans to sign a petition in support of this call.

Look around you today. Today, we see so many of the so-called Marxist conspirators standing together again, in public. This is Singaporeans’ chance to find out the truth for themselves.

Look at the ex-detainees. Go up to them. Talk to them. Look into their eyes. Listen to what they have to say, but more importantly listen to how they say it.

And then ask yourself: could these allegations really be true? Could they really have been subversives? Could they really have plotted to overthrow the Government? Could there really have been a Marxist conspiracy, or any conspiracy at all? And if the answers to those questions are “no”, then what could have been the justification for the detentions?

I have always doubted the supposed reasons for the 1987 detentions. And the first time I met and spoke to Vincent Cheng, I stopped having any doubts. I knew that I could not accept the story put forth by the Government. I became convinced that these were just good men and women who wanted a better Singapore. And for that, I salute them.

The 1987 detentions effectively killed civil society for an entire generation. Activists saw what happened to those who were willing to act on their conscience, and either gave up or went underground. Common people saw what happened to those who were willing to stand up and be counted, and so they shut up and sat down.

The Government talks about an active citizenry, it talks about getting Singaporeans involved. They talk about so many things, but they don’t talk about the great big elephant in the room.

In recent years, ex-detainees, whether from 1987 or earlier, have been publishing their own accounts about what happened to them. And these stories always contradict the official version stated by the Government. So far, the Government has completely failed to respond to the ex-detainees. As a first step towards coming to terms with the ISA, we need to understand, once and for all, what really happened in 1987. What evidence did the Government have of a conspiracy, that led them to order the detentions? Were the confessions by the detainees coerced? Were the detainees mistreated or tortured?

A famous American judge once said: “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.” I ask the Government to shine a light on the events 25 years ago, and once and for all resolve all the doubts and questions that so many Singaporeans continue to have. Hold an independent Commission of Inquiry, and disinfect this gaping wound in our national psyche and soul. That is the only way that we can start to heal, and finally begin to come to terms with this dark stain on Singapore’s history, and have an informed national discourse on whether the ISA in its current form is necessary today.

Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for listening. Thank you for coming today. Most of all, thank you for taking a stand against this law called the Internal Security Act, that has destroyed so many lives. May we see its abolition soon.

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