New Mandala contributor Lim Li Ann details the disturbing situation of arbitrary detention in Singapore.

Between July and August 2015, two Singaporeans, Muhammad Shamin bin Mohamed Sidek, 29, and Muhammad Harith Jailani, 18, were detained for allegedly planning to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). With extremism on the rise, the United States struggles to temper the panic-buying of more guns, Malaysia expedites the passing of the controversial National Security Council Bill, while Singapore prides itself on being a maverick. The Internal Security Act (ISA), wielded against both men, enables preventive detention and permits incarceration for two years without trial.

Arbitrary detention provides the Executive with unchecked powers of detention, ironically relegating the Judiciary to a lower order by use of law. By definition, individuals under “preventive detention” may not have committed, or be likely to commit offences against the regular criminal code that would warrant imprisonment. Activists lament the two-year preclusion against detainees from claiming their right to a judiciary.

“I think all detainees should be given a trial. If the government have evidence, give them a trial,” asserted Dr. Poh Soo Kai, twice detained for a total of 17 years.[1] He was accused of plotting a “Communist conspiracy” to subvert the government during his leadership in an opposition party in the 1960s. However, Dr. Poh recalled that ISA detainees could barely exercise fundamental human rights, “They’ll (prison officers) tell you it’s only privileges – no rights.”

Many ex-ISA detainees have shared anecdotal claims of torture. In a joint statement by detainees of a 1987 mass arrest, they asserted that “[m]ost of us were hit hard in the face” and that they “were made to stand continually during interrogations, some of us for over 20 hours and under the full blast of air conditioning turned to a very low temperature.” President of local human rights organisation MARUAH, Braema Mathi expresses that these “account[s] of torture … should be investigated”.[2] However, the burden of proof often lie on the victims themselves, not the state, as recommended by the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

Teo Soh Lung is one of 22 victims of the 1987 mass arrests. In her 2010 memoir, Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner, she explains that ex-detainees had alleged inhuman treatment but could not substantiate their claims, putting themselves in a bad light.

Figure 1: Press release by the Ministry of Home Affairs in response to the join statement by ex-detainees (Emphasis added)

Figure 1: Press release by the Ministry of Home Affairs in response to the join statement by ex-detainees (Click to see full image)

Here’s the rundown – “No witnesses, so no case,” Dr. Poh explained.

ISA detentions transpired en masse every decade until 1987, when a decade-long lull was observed. However, since December 2001, there have been at least 74 known ISA arrests — all of whom are Malay, Muslim men. The transition – from imprisoning political detainees to targeting alleged “self-radicalised Singaporeans” – began after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Figure 2: Arbitrary detention in Singapore. Annotations show periods of mass arrests.

Figure 2: Arbitrary detention in Singapore. Annotations show periods of mass arrests (click to see full image)

The government only publicises arrests on a discretionary basis. Harith was arrested for his alleged “intention to carry out armed jihad”. For “express[ing] unstinting support for ISIS”, Shamin was detained “to assess if he posed a threat to Singapore’s security”. This was expressed by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 30 September 2015; there has been no updates since. Despite the lack of transparency, Singapore has not had any notable protests.

Peter Low is a human rights lawyer and counsel to two ISA detainees in the 1980s. “The ISA is an odious and an out-dated piece of legislation,” he argued, “It is a fundamental departure from the rule of law and principles of good governance. It suspends the protection of personal liberty guaranteed in the Constitution.”[3]

But, at the advent of extremism worldwide, the opposition minority – human rights activists and ex-detainees – struggle to elicit public empathy towards human rights violations against detainees, while the government comfortably depicts the law as a security tool against “international terrorism, foreign subversion and espionage”.

In a recent public lecture, Ho Kwon Ping, a detainee in the 1970s but now a prominent businessman, suggested reining in the powers of the ISA by reducing the initial detention period from two years to one. Despite refraining from calling for the abolition of the law, Ho was rebuffed by fellow Singaporeans who reiterated the government’s own rhetoric — national security concerns.

Disagreeing with Ho in his letter to the Straits Times Forum, Singaporean Chua Soon Hock asserted, “I am proud of our unique, effective security measures in this increasingly lawless and vulnerable world.”

The opposition minority – human rights activists and ex-detainees – are troubled by such apathy, helpless in face of public complacency that prioritise purported security over civil liberties. According to a study by MARUAH, no political party included the abolition of ISA in their manifestos for the nation’s 2015 General Elections. This reflects public sentiment that juxtaposed to socio-economic issues like healthcare and housing, arbitrary detention is not a “bread-and-butter” issue.

Nonetheless, the prevalence of public apathy does not translate to the irrelevance of campaigns against arbitrary detention. By principle, the ISA is analogous to “lawlessness within law”. By practice, the civil liberties of ISA detainees cannot be guaranteed. The alleged torture is akin to an extrajudicial “second sentence”, exacted upon detainees without judicial review

The full research for this article is reflected in the chapter on arbitrary detention in The History of Human Rights Society in Singapore, 1965–2015. The book will be available by Routledge in late 2016.

[1] Personal interview, Poh Soo Kai, 9 September 2015, Singapore.

[2] Personal interview, Braema Mathi, 3 November 2015, Singapore.

[3] Email interview, Peter Low, 5 October 2015, Singapore.

Li Ann graduated from Singapore Management University with a Bachelor of Science in Economics, and a second major in Public Policy in 2015. She is a co-author of the chapter on arbitrary detention in the forthcoming book, “The History of Human Rights Society in Singapore, 1965-2015”. She can be reached at