I am often told that Singaporeans don’t care about the ISA. The fact that this law has been with us for nearly 70 years is taken for granted and even with respect. Our country’s stability and orderliness are frequently attributed to the presence of this law.
To be honest, I too did not bother about the ISA in my younger days. I was aware of the imprisonment of several people under this law. But I thought that they must have done something that I was not aware of and the government had reasons to arrest them. I trusted our government.
In the 1980s, I went about my work and activities without fear. I rationalised that if I did everything lawfully and openly, I will never be arrested under the ISA. I was thus completely shocked when I was arrested in 1987! I had refused to listen to warnings, to avoid being involved in opposition politics and being critical of laws that were unjust and unfair to Singaporeans! I believed in the freedom of expression and access to information. I acted according to my conscience and the ethics of my profession. That was naivette, a description I freely admitted to ISD officers!
But if I were to turn the clock back, I would repeat what I had done!
I learnt my lesson never to trust the government in 1987! No government wants to lose power. The PAP is no exception. The ISA is too useful a tool for any government.
Today, there are about 23 Muslims in prison under the ISA. Three of them have been in prison for about 14 years. We do not know if they had done any wrong because there is no trial.
I can understand why Singaporeans don’t care about the ISA. Like me, they think that they will never be arrested and imprisoned under the law. But is it right for them to be so naïve? Unlike 1987 when there was no literature on the ISA, today, there are many books and even a documentary on the survivors of the ISA. The film 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy is now being shown at The Projector. There is no excuse for anyone to be complacent.
Let me conclude with the warning of R L Eber, the father of John Eber, a Cambridge educated lawyer, a war crime tribunal lawyer who was imprisoned without trial for two and a half years under the Emergency Regulations, the forerunner of the ISA:
“I firmly believe that unless public opinion is swiftly aroused to the gravity of what is happening, and compels a complete overhaul of the whole machinery, the cause of freedom, justice and common decency in this country will suffer a blow from which it will never recover. These are not idle words: let those who read take warning.”
R L Eber (1952)
Indeed, we have not recovered since 1952. Will we ever recover is a question we must ask.