Ex-ISA detainee sees need for Act but urges changes

Businessman Ho Kwon Ping has called for limits to Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA), under which people can be detained without trial if they are deemed to pose a threat to national security.

The one-time political detainee also called for the phasing out of caning, and the introduction of a period of national service (NS) for new male citizens and Singaporean women.

In a lecture yesterday on security and sustainability, he said Singapore must evolve to keep up with changing social values.

"A willingness to change with the times... can prevent the intellectual rigidity that weakens the sustainability of our society as a dynamic and evolving culture," he said in the third of five public lectures as the Institute of Policy Studies' first S R Nathan Fellow.

A former journalist, the 63-year-old was detained under the ISA in 1977 for writing articles with a pro-communist slant.

But yesterday, he held back from calling for the Act's abolition.

Instead, he suggested reducing the initial detention period to one year - down from the current two - and putting in more rigorous checks and balances for the subsequent periods.

As Islamic radicalism casts a pall over the world today, Singapore needs to find a balance between the Government's power to meet some threats and the space that civil society needs to express its views without fear of detention, he said.

In fact, preventive detention - once heavily criticised - has become "grudgingly accepted" by Western governments as they struggle with the terrorist threat, he said. And calls to abolish it have been watered down to calls to ensure that unconstrained power is not abused.

"What must not change is the constant awareness that any people who surrender too many extraordinary powers to any government do so at their own peril," Mr Ho cautioned.

In the hour-long dialogue after his lecture, he was pressed on the issue by Mr Chew Kheng Chuan, the chairman of theatre company The Substation. Mr Chew was detained in 1987 under the ISA for involvement in a Marxist conspiracy against the Government.

Charging that the ISA had been "absolutely abused" in Singapore's history, he said he was taken aback by Mr Ho's defence of the Act. He argued that the power of preventive detention is too "seductive" for any government to resist exploiting.

Mr Ho said the issue is an emotional one for "victims" like Mr Chew and himself, but he believes preventive detention is needed to counter certain security threats that exist today.

"The removal of the power of preventive detention could lead to more dangers, so my biggest concern is how to prevent a government from using this power for its own survival rather than for the survival of society," he said.

During the lecture, he also urged a widening of the fairways when it comes to racial and religious issues - long the most taboo of topics in Singapore.

"Societal security requires us to eventually discuss openly the most sensitive issues of race and religion, even at the risk of causing controversy overseas, or bordering into communal politics at home," he said, adding that sensitive issues are desensitised when brought into the open in responsible discussion.

He noted as well how the fault lines between long-time citizens and new arrivals might be displacing old ones of race and religion.

Touching on resentment against new male citizens who do not have to undergo NS, he suggested that those of reservist liability age go for a three-month programme to learn some NS skills.

In addition, the conscription of women must be considered seriously, to maintain Singapore's military readiness, as the pool of young men shrinks, he said.

His lecture, he hoped, would start the ball rolling in terms of the direction that Singapore should take.

"Fundamental issues concerning society and what values we stand for take longer to unfold and resolve," he said.

In the audience of about 160 was sociology student Foo Jia Xin, 21, who said Mr Ho's theme of needing to develop a more mature society resonated with her.

"The topics he discusses make me realise there are so many aspects of society that still have way to go. And we have a part to play, and we can't just sit back and say: 'I can't do anything, it's beyond me'."

This article was first published on February 6, 2015.
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