What is the ISA? Why and when is the ISA used?
The Singapore Internal Security Act (ISA) has its roots in preventive detention laws introduced by the British colonial government to tackle serious threats to social and political security in Malaya. After Independence, the ISA remained a law in a sovereign Singapore and was important in enabling the Government to continue to counter national security threats to our young nation.
The ISA empowers the government to address threats to national security not just through preventive detention, but also other measures like the imposition of curfews to deal with civil disorder.
While the ISA provides considerable powers to deal with threats to security, it also contains important safeguards which have been enhanced over time. An Advisory Board chaired by a Supreme Court Judge reviews all detentions under the ISA. In 1991, the ISA was amended to give the Elected President veto powers such that where the Advisory Board recommends the release of any person, that person cannot be detained or further detained by the Government without the President’s concurrence.
Determining what is a security threat to Singapore that requires the use of the ISA is a judgement. This judgment must be made by the elected Government of the day, at the given time and based on the situation at hand. The ISA allows an overall assessment of the threat posed by a person to be presented and considered in totality, unlike a criminal case that is tried before the courts which considers only specific acts directly related to that charge. The ISA thus allows the government to act quickly to prevent a threat from developing into something very serious such as a bombing; or to stem an organised pattern of subversion which promotes civil disturbances and disorder.
The government needed to use the ISA from the 1960s till the late 1980s to counter the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). In the 1990s it was rarely used, except in a handful of espionage cases. But the ISA proved critical after 11 September 2001 to protect us from global jihadist terrorism. Let me take you briefly through these three periods to illustrate how the ISA has safeguarded our security against the evolving security threats.
1960s-1980s: The threat of the CPM and its underground organisations
From the 1960s right through to the late 1980s, the ISA was used mainly to counter the serious threat posed by the CPM and the underground satellites of the CPM. The CPM was determined to violently overthrow the democratically elected governments of the day. Communism was on the march world-wide. In South East Asia, every country faced a communist insurgency; and in Indo-China, countries fell like dominoes under communist regimes.
For the CPM, Singapore and West Malaysia were always one entity called “Malaya”. The CPM’s revolutionary strategy had two tactical prongs, with priority being given to one or the other at different times. One prong was armed struggle by an insurgent CPM guerrilla army hiding in the jungle. The other prong was mass struggle relying on covert infiltration and subversion of open and legal organisations to create a communist “united front” (CUF). This “united front” would incite and stage illegal strikes, riots and civil strife, to de-stabilise the Government and the State. Given Singapore’s urban geography, the preferred tactic was the “united front”. Even then we were not spared deadly terrorist incidents by CPM elements.
In the 1960s, when its armed insurgency failed to achieve success, the CPM stepped up its united front activities, aggressively infiltrating political parties, trade unions and schools in Singapore. This led to rising labour and student unrest, strikes, demonstrations, boycotts and even riots. Attacks on the Police were common.
In such a situation where the subversive threat was hiding in legal organisations, the Government needed the ISA to flush out and neutralise these CPM elements, separating them from those who were not involved. Several of the CPM elements escaped and fled to re-join the CPM insurgents in the Malayan jungles, including two PAP members and elected parliamentarians, who were deployed by the CPM to its 12th Assault Unit in south Thailand.
Following these security operations, ISD’s assessment was that the CPM underground network was neutralised. The government foresaw a more peaceful decade ahead in the 1970s, but was proven wrong.
ISD later learnt that in 1968, the CPM had issued a policy to return to armed struggle. Numerous new CPM satellite organisations were formed. Between 1970 and 1974, they were behind at least 35 arson and bomb incidents in Singapore.
In Apr 1970, a young girl was killed by a CPM booby-trapped bomb in Changi. In another incident in Dec 1974, CPM elements targeted the Managing Director of the Nanyang Manufacturing Co. Members may refer to the more detailed documents I have distributed. (Appendix I and II). However, the bomb exploded prematurely in their car at Still Road killing two of the bombers. A third bomber survived and fled. He was given refuge by the CPM underground who smuggled him to Johor. While in hiding, he received assistance from CPM supporters.
The group behind the Changi bomb was the Malayan National Liberation Front (MNLF) which managed to recruit a few hundred Singaporeans from infiltrated organisations like trade unions, Old Boys Associations, drama and cultural groups, the Barisan Sosialis, Nantah and the Singapore Polytechnic. Another CPM organisation assassinated the Malaysian Inspector-General of Police and the Chief Police Officer of Perak. In Singapore, the plot against the then Commissioner of Police narrowly failed.
So while ordinary Singaporeans remember the 1970s as a peaceful time and largely went about their lives, intense security operations were continually being undertaken to preserve that peace. More than 800 people were arrested under the ISA in the 1970s of whom 235 were issued with Orders of Detention. Most were detained because they were more than just sympathisers and had provided financial, logistical and manpower support to the CPM insurgents.
The return to armed struggle did not mean an end to “united front” activities which carried on in parallel, actively radicalising local and foreign workers. A number of these activists in the 1970s were university and polytechnic students. Some of them also penetrated a religion-based student group. Several of the student radicals eventually worked in the CPM radio station, the “Voice of Malayan Revolution” in Changsha in China, to produce English-language broadcasts.
The CPM also exploited the grievances of workers and sought to radicalise them. Their confrontational approach resulted in strikes and even a demonstration in front of the US Embassy in 1973 against multi-national corporations in Singapore. In 1974, the Government charged several activists who played key roles in inciting disorder and strife. One of them later emerged as a key figure in the Marxist group in the 1980s.
In 1979, the CPM issued a directive calling for higher priority to be placed on penetrating and subverting open social and political organisations. There was thus renewed energy to get involved in social and political activism. Certain CPM-linked elements and their supporters infiltrated legally-registered organisations, including some linked to the Catholic Church. Some of these infiltrators had connections with one of those charged in the 1970s.
When the Government did move against this group in the mid-1980s, it made clear that it was not acting against genuine social activists or members of the clergy, but only those who were covertly pursuing their subversive Marxist political agenda by hiding within the church organisations. Appreciating the sensitivities involved, the Government made every effort to explain to the Church leadership that this was not targeted at the Church. The Church leaders and the Vatican itself acknowledged this publicly. Following this episode, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was passed as an additional legal instrument to keep politics and religion separate in Singapore.
Two years later in 1989, the CPM laid down arms with the signing of the Peace Agreements in Hadyai with the Thai and Malaysian governments, finally ending the four-decade struggle against the CPM and its manifestations. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the opening up of other communist countries also eroded the credibility and appeal of communism. Some members of the CPM armed units in the jungle, as well as many of those who had been detained were given help to recover their lives and re-integrate into society back in Singapore.
1990s: Relative calm and stability
While it seems distant now, the communist threat to Singapore was a real and serious one. Without the resolute steps taken then by the Government, the outcome for Singapore would have been drastically different. When that era passed, Singapore enjoyed a period of relative calm and stability. The ISA was used during the 1990s only to counter isolated episodes of espionage.
2000-Present: The threat of terrorism
But today we face a new serious threat. Al-Qaeda’s global jihadist terrorism, like communism, is an ideology with a global agenda that advocates the use of violence. It puts forward a distorted view of Islam and seeks to unite a trans-national community against the “non-believers” who are viewed as “enemies of Islam”.
Jihadist terrorism has managed to recruit many into its fold, including some Singaporeans who went to Afghanistan to train and fight as mujahideen. They were so indoctrinated by the extremist ideology that they were prepared to participate in a terror plot with the regional Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group against targets in Singapore, even knowing that that would mean the loss of many Singaporean lives. While ISD had previously found Singaporeans flirting with violent groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or even the Hizbollah, they had never encountered Singaporeans prepared to go as far as what the JI members were prepared to do.
Using the ISA, the Government could take prompt pre-emptive action to neutralise and disrupt the network. Otherwise there could have been several truck bombs targeted at embassies exploding in Singapore in 2002. Information from those arrested under the ISA assisted in the arrest of the JI bomb-maker Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi in Manila in January 2002. He had already amassed 1.2 tonnes of TNT and 2.4 km of detonator cord, and was on the way to Bangkok to obtain funds to complete the purchase of explosives for the attack in Singapore. Singapore also narrowly missed an attack in early 2002 against Changi Airport: Mas Selamat and his team backed off boarding the plane in Bangkok to Singapore when their identities were exposed in the Thai newspapers. Singapore had a third narrow miss when JI’s master bomb-maker, Dr Azahari Husin, gave up trying to stage an attack in Singapore after failing to connect with the local JI network which had been disrupted by ISD. Azahari then went from Johor to Indonesia to join the JI team planning the Bali bombing.
Today, most would agree that the use of the ISA against the JI group was warranted. At the time though, there were many sceptical voices. Some thought the Govern¬ment had deliberately exaggerated the JI threat. Others called for those arrested to be released or openly prosecuted in court. Court proceedings would have focussed on those involved in the plot, but stalled the investigations which uncovered the broader network. Only after the Bali bombings ten months later in October 2002, were the sceptics silenced.
Since 2002, 60 persons have been detained for involvement in terrorism-related activities. Although the original JI organisation is disrupted, the regional network has morphed into different forms – splintered groups but connected to one another in the larger extremist network. In addition, there is a new self-radicalisation threat which is even more difficult to anticipate and detect.
Let me now explain why the ISA continues to be relevant for Singapore, why a specific Terrorism Act would not be adequate, and how the ISA allows a small country like Singapore to protect itself in the face of our challenging security threats and needs.
The Relevance of the ISA
Terrorism not the only security threat
The threat of violence is not the only national security threat Singapore has faced or will face in the future. The ISA has been used, for instance, against foreign subversion and espionage as well as racial agitation. Between 1991 and 2010, there were a total of 7 cases of detentions for espionage. One case was subsequently charged under the Official Secrets Act. Wherever possible we have prosecuted espionage cases in court, but this is not always practicable when the danger from compromising confidentiality of the intelligence involved outweighs any advantage from open prosecution and conviction.
The threats to our national security can take various forms. For example, the CPM and its affiliates used not just terrorist violence but also covert subversion and infiltration by an unseen network behind open and even religious organisations in a united front to subvert the Government and the State. They incited civil disorder and disturbances and defiance of the law to threaten stability, order and security.
The use of the ISA in tandem with changed security thresholds and needs
The Government has used the ISA as a last resort when there is a significant threat, and other laws are not adequate to deal with the situation. Investigations provide useful information to map out subversive organisations, and identify key leaders, members and their roles. In many cases a person arrested is not eventually detained; he can be released on a Restriction Order or unconditionally, once he is no longer a threat.
For those arrested for communist-related activities, all were eventually released, and most have re-integrated into society. A few were detained for longer periods because they adamantly refused to renounce the use of violence. They were eventually also released when communism lost its appeal, and they were assessed to be no longer a threat.
Similarly, not all those arrested post 9/11 were detained. In the first phase of the JI investigation in Dec 2001, 23 people were called in for questioning. Of these, 16 were arrested under the ISA, of whom 13 were eventually detained. Of the 60 who have been detained for terrorism-related activities over the past decade, 43 have been released, some on Restriction Orders. They and their families continue to receive counselling and assistance to re-integrate back into society. Some however, have to remain in detention as they are assessed to continue to pose a threat to security.
The severity of a threat is always tied to prevailing circumstances, vulnerabilities, and consequences. For example, the ISA has been used to deal with racial and religious extremism over the decades, but calibrated to the circumstances of the time. In the years following the race riots of 1964 and 1969, the risk of renewed ethnic violence was high and the government needed to deal quickly and firmly with extremists and communalists. In current times, those who provoke ethnic violence will still be prosecuted. However, those who are insensitive or offensive but are unlikely to provoke ethnic violence, may be interviewed by ISD and warned, but they are not usually detained. Where terrorism takes on the cloak of religion, this becomes a particularly dangerous threat, and the government has acted firmly and decisively.
Terrorism Act as an Alternative to the ISA?
There have been suggestions to abolish the ISA and replace it with a specific Terrorism Act.
A Terrorism Act would not allow pre-emptive action against those who have not yet committed overt deeds that warrant prosecution, but nevertheless belong to a wider terrorist network, unless the Act is very broad in scope and provides for preventive detention just like the ISA. For example, we now have a Terrorism (Suppression of Bombings) Act1 passed in Nov 2007. But, if it had existed in 2001, it could not have been used against most of the JI network. Based on what was known at the point of arrest, only the cell involved in taking manifest action in pursuit of the Al-Qaeda bombing plot would be liable.
With the ISA, the Government was able to systematically uncover the network in Singapore even though not all of them were then actively engaged in terrorist operations. Then US Attorney General, John Ashcroft speaking at the US Council of Foreign Relations in 2003 elaborated on the new prevention paradigm: "In the past our focus has been on traditional law enforcement - prosecution. Prosecution is retrospective; it re-creates a past event... Our new...goal of terrorism prevention, on the other hand, involves anticipation and imagination about emerging scenarios, the puzzle pieces of which have yet to come into alignment.” He also said there is a need to “anticipate these dangerous scenarios and to identify, intercept and disrupt them before they become tragic terrorist realities."
Sir, when dealing with suicide-attackers, prevention, as the US discovered post-9/11, becomes a greater imperative, compared to prosecution after the fact.
A Terrorism Act drafted, say in 2002, would probably not have adequately anticipated new forms of the terror threat, like the self-radicalised lone-wolf which has emerged in recent years. A case in point is the full-time NSman who was self-radicalised through the Internet. He had expressed intent to conduct jihad abroad and had already made on-line contact with a suspected Al-Qaeda recruiter and radical ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki. But that would not have been sufficient grounds to charge him in court, as under normal criminal legislation, he had not yet committed an offence. The ISA enabled the government to detain him preventively, while he was doing his NS, just before he embarked on demolition training in his course. We now have time to assess, counsel and rehabilitate him. This avoided exposing Singapore to a high, perhaps unacceptable degree of risk. The consequence may not just be loss of innocent lives, but also serious damage to inter-communal relations and trust.
There have been calls also to try the terrorism cases in court. Such trials would expose information which terrorists could use to pursue their agenda. Sometimes information that uncovers security threats comes from painstaking and dangerous efforts by our security personnel. In other instances, highly secretive information may come from foreign security agencies, on the understanding that we will not disclose the sources and details. The disclosure of such information, which reveals current sources and methods of intelligence gathering would compromise ongoing or future counter-terrorism operations. On the other hand, if the information is not disclosed in court, the case could be weakened because of evidentiary requirements in a court of law, the terrorist could be acquitted, and could walk free to pursue more terrorist activities.
Where national security threats deal with issues of race, language or religion, the very airing of these incendiary issues in a public trial can further exacerbate an already volatile situation as in the Maria Hertogh communal riots in Singapore.
National Security: The Responsibility of the Elected Government
Let me now address the related issue of judicial review. The process of making a threat assessment is to anticipate, pre-empt and prevent security incidents in a timely and effective manner and this is different from our judicial processes. A judge in court is not equipped to investigate or decide whether there are suspicious circumstances warranting some restraint. Mischief-makers engaged in conspiracies or other covert operations, do so in a clandestine, furtive manner, making it impossible or extremely difficult to get the kind of evidence that would enable a conviction in court on a specific charge. This was the main reason why preventive detention was needed in the first place. The ISA allows an overall assessment of the threat to be made, based on the best possible information available, as distinct from proof or evidence in a court for a specific criminal charge.
More importantly, giving the final say on what constitutes a serious threat to national security to a judge would in effect mean that the judge rather than the government becomes responsible for, and answerable for decisions affecting the national security of Singapore.
In Singapore, this responsibility and accountability to act to protect national security is placed in the hands of the government. This is in accord with long standing principles since Independence and going even further back to 1948, where the Executive alone has been responsible for decisions on national security, including arrests and detention. This matter has been debated in this House on a number of occasions and been re-affirmed. This is reflected in the way that the ISA is drafted. The ISA recognises that it is the elected government which has to carry the heavy responsibility to assess what constitutes a threat to security, and to act on this assessment.
However, while the government makes the final assessment, it cannot act arbitrarily. It can only act within the powers provided to it by the ISA, and has to follow the procedures and abide by the safeguards specified – in particular an Advisory Board chaired by a Supreme Court Judge, and since 1991, the Elected President’s veto powers. Otherwise, the Government can be challenged in court. It is the Government's view that this framework is unique and strikes an adequate balance in the present circumstances.
Every country has to grapple with the issue of what legal powers its government needs to protect the security of its people, and how to balance the effectiveness of the powers against the need for safeguards and due process of law. Every country has to make its own decisions as to the best approach depending on the threat it faces and its own external and domestic environment. The Americans too face this dilemma. The US government decided to build a detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to house foreign terrorists outside their legal system. They have also had to wrestle with the legality and ethics of military strikes to kill not just foreign but even American terrorists like Anwar al-Awlaki, and they have decided that the government has the legal power to do this.
The difficult decisions that a Government has to make to protect its people must be made based on an individual country’s context and circumstances at the time. In Singapore, we have a law called the ISA, which empowers the government to act, but it comes with a system of safeguards, and provides the detainee certain rights which must be accorded to him.
Over the years, the Government has used the ISA in good faith, and in a measured way in the prevailing security situations it has had to face, keeping Singapore safe and our people secure.
Singapore is a small country which can be buffeted by the many powerful forces and influences that intersect here. A broad range of threats can undermine Singapore’s security. These include terrorism, subversion, racial and religious extremism and espionage, and also other unanticipated threats that may emerge in the future. For the foreseeable future, Singapore will need a law containing provisions like those in the ISA, including preventive detention, to empower the Government to pre-empt and prevent serious threats to our security. The precise form the law takes may evolve with time and circumstances. But for the present, the ISA is a shield that we need that protects us against these threats, allowing us to deal with them swiftly and effectively before they cause us serious and possibly permanent harm.
1 An Act to suppress terrorist bombings, to give effect to the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings and for matters connected therewith. The International Convention was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 15 Dec 1997.