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Singapore’s controversial Internal Security Act (ISA): national security or political persecution?

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA) has always been controversial. Academics, historians, jurists, journalists, and international NGOs have long been critical of Singapore's harsh security laws and practices. Singapore's ISA has led to round ups of opponents and critics of the Singapore PAP government. The world's longest serving political prisoner Dr Chia Thye Poh,  was incarcerated under the ISA, and restriction orders for 32 years, five years longer than Nelson Mandela.

Over the last twenty-five years, Singapore's Internal Security Department (ISD), the primarily administer of the ISA has changed focus from anti-communist, to anti-terrorism, which has reinvigorated the ISA. There has been more emphasis on using the ISA as a preventative detention measure today, with tacit community support.

Singaporeans are being arrested in the middle of the night, from their homes, at border crossings, or snatched, rendition style, off the streets, quasi-extrajudicially, without right to any transparent legal due process.


The Internal Security Act provides the Singapore government with sweeping powers of arbitrary arrest and detention, by executive order. The origins of the ISA come from the British colonial Emergency Regulations, to deal with the communist insurgency. In 1955, the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (PPSO), replaced the Emergency Regulations, and in 1963, the Internal Security Act was introduced into both Malaya and Singapore to deal with communists, subversives, organized violence, racial and religious extremism.

Section 8 of the ISA allows the government to detain any person who is perceived as an active threat to Singapore's national security for a period of two years, without charge or right to a court, renewable indefinitely. The ISA is not intended for punitive detention, rather preventative detention of anyone suspected of being a potential threat. A person can first be held for 30 days without a warrant or court order, on the say so of a police superintendent. The home minister issues the detention order, although home ministry documentation indicates that actual decisions are made for any detention by the prime minister and cabinet.

The only legal recourse a detainee has under the ISA, is that each new case under the ISA must be reviewed three months after a detention order is issued, and then annually, by an Advisory Board. The Advisory Board consists of a judge from the Supreme Court and two prominent citizens appointed by the President of Singapore. If a two-year detention order is renewed, this will be reviewed by the Advisory Board. According to the ministry of home affairs, detainees have a right to a lawyer. However, this is disputed by a former detainee. Further, the lawyer doesn't have access to documentation regarding the detainee. Results of any Advisory Board inquiry are presented to the president who has a veto power over any detention order.

The ISA detention facilities used to be at the Whitely Road Holding Centre, inside the Whitely Prison Complex. Initial detention, and interrogation was conducted on the top floor of the Central Police Station. Here detainees were put into small dirty, spartan, and insect infested cells in solitary confinement. According to accounts by past detainees, they were regularly interrogated during the first 30 days, where there are published accounts of mental and harsh physical torture. Some long-term detainees were eventually transferred to the Moon Crescent Prison, in Changi Prison complex. In 2008, the Prisons Department built a state-of-the-art ISD detention centre, within the Changi Prison Complex, to prevent any escape, as occurred in 2008, at the Whitley Road Holding Centre. The facility is managed by the ISD, and guarded by Gurkhas, unlike the rest of the prison. A special Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) was set up by the government in 2003, and partly funded by the Majlis Ugama Singapura (MUIS). The group comprises of members of the MUIS council, and Asatizah Regulation Board (ARB) members, who are primarily Islamic teachers.

There has always been concern that the ISA has been primarily a political tool in Singapore. Former Singapore prime minister Lee Kwan Yew has been widely criticized for widening the net of people to be rounded up under Operation Coldstore in 1963. Lee wanted it to be perceived that the operation was instigated by then Malayan prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, as a condition of entering into the Malaysian federation. However, Lee directly controlling the operation desecrated his opposition, the Barisan Sosialis, before the 1963 general election. This changed the trajectory of Singaporean politics, leading to a 60 year political dynasty. Until today, documents relating to this incident have not been declassified.

More controversy erupted in 1987, when 16 church workers and volunteers were arrested under the ISA for an alleged Marxist conspiracy. Accounts of the then Archbishop's meeting with Lee over the matter, reported him saying that the detainees where "stupid novices", "simpletons", and nothing more than "do-gooders, who wanted to help the poor and dispossessed." The detentions at the time, evoked criticism from jurists, parliamentarians, and NGOs, from around the world. Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong revealed in his interviews for a book "Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Political Party", that former national development minister S Dhanabalan, left the cabinet in 1992, speaking of being uncomfortable with the way the government handled the incident. Some historians in their analysis of the incident are sceptical and dismissive of the government's Marxist conspiracy narrative.


With the 1989 Hat Yai agreement, leading to the disbandment of the Communist Party of Malaya, the end of the Cold War, and the emergence in the region of Jemaah Islamiyah, the ISD moved away from communist threats, to focus on Islamic extremism, and potential terror attacks. The Jakarta Stock Exchange was bombed, and Al-Qaeda had made a number of attacks, showing that anywhere could be a target. The 911 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington DC, led the US "war on terror", which Singapore worked in close cooperation with the "Five Eyes" western security grouping. The Bali bombing in 2002, and rumours of impending attacks all over the region, created community fear.

The Singapore government has used this climate of fear to reinvent the ISA, as a necessary tool to fight religious extremism and terrorism. The ISA is portrayed as the protector of peaceful society. Arrests of alleged 'Islamists' has led to the highest numbers of detainees, in prison under ISA, since its inception, back in the 1960s, according to some.

The profile of those detained according to media reports, are those who are reported to be on the path to radicalization, and may have intentions or motivation to undertake undesirable extremist activities. This includes those who may be planning something, raising funds, gives donations, or assisted others. For example, Mohamed Fairuz Junaidi, aged 39, was arrested, because according to the media, he had considered travelling to Syria to fight with ISIS. Rasidah Mazaln, a 62 year old, was arrested, where according to the media, she was communicating to others people, who were suspected of having links to extremists.

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An abridged version of this article was published on the Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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