Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Abolition of ISA is Long Overdue

The Abolition of ISA is Long Overdue
Author: Teo Soh Lung (Singapore)


Teo Soh Lung delivered her speech to around 700-strong crowd at the 
Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park. The participants are made up of 
ex-ISA detainees as well as individuals from democratic parties and groups 
with significant number of the younger generations.



Good afternoon friends, ladies and gentlemen.

I am privileged to be given this opportunity to speak at this historic event and in this historical Hong Lim Park. I want to thank:

1. The organisers for working so hard in making this commemoration happen.
2. Mr Tan Kok Fang and his team for putting together a very important publication We Remember 2 February 1963 which is available to all of you today.
3. The contributors to this impressive publication for putting their thoughts down for posterity.
4. The survivors of Operation Cold Store and the survivors of all subsequent operations who are here today. Thank you.

The ISA is a cruel and draconian law which allows the government to imprison anyone without trial for as long as it wishes.

The Late Dr Lim Hock Siew had this to say about detention without trial.

“.. detention without trial is not a peaceful action. It is an act of violence. They come to see you not in the daylight with an invitation card. They come in the morning, 4 am. That is the time when decent people sleep, and when political terrorists and tyrants strike. And when you are detained, you are subjected to all kinds of mental and even physical torture.”

The result of Operation Cold Store was to instil great fear in Singaporeans. Wave after wave of arrests throughout the sixties, seventies, eighties and even the turn of this century, silenced the population and enabled the government to enact oppressive laws and policies that curtailed our fundamental freedoms and human rights. Instead of a government which listens to the people and carry out the wishes of the people, we have a government that did what it wanted to do. Those who opposed its plans were put away in jails, sued for defamation and charged for frivolous offences.

Periodic arrests throughout the decades divided the nation and even divided those who were detained. Detainees kept to themselves after their release. Few would speak about their traumatic experiences, not even to their children and grandchildren. The fear that telling their stories would expose them to rearrests and bring shame and discrimination was real. To be critical of the government and to be involved in politics became synonymous to inviting trouble. How often do we hear of parents telling their children to stay away from politics. And that was how Singaporeans became depoliticised.

When I was in prison in 1987, my only knowledge of the ISA dated back to the arrests of the so called Euro Communists in 1977. In that year, my employer, G Raman and several of his friends in the legal profession were arrested. According to DPM Teo Chee Hean, more than 800 were arrested in the 1970s. Though I was strongly of the view that Raman and others were unjustifiably detained, the majority thought otherwise. Their favourite rebuttal to my defence of those arrested was “they must have done something that you and I do not know”.

Raman and his friends were released after a year or so. Like detainees before them, they never tell their stories because the fear of rearrests was real. In all probability, they also felt that no one would believe in their innocence.

In prison, I was threatened with indefinite detention and reminded of Chia Thye Poh who was then still in prison even after 21 years. I was in the dark as to why he was detained and that itself generated even more fear. If the government could imprison a person for so long, how can anyone be sure of a release?

Today, people are beginning to be aware of Operation Cold Store because more and more literature of that era is emerging. Back in the 1970s, I knew almost nothing about those arrested in the 1960s. The first time I heard about Said Zahari was when I saw a friend, the late Francis Khoo, selling a little collection of poems by Said Zahari. The title was Poems from Prison. I bought a copy. I took another copy from him and attempted to sell it to a priest. I can still remember the shocked look on his face. He shook his head, refusing to even touch the little book and walked away hurriedly.

That sadly, was the political climate of the early 1970s. Taking advantage of the silence of released detainees and the fear of the ordinary citizens of being arrested under the ISA, the PAP governed without restraint.

We are very fortunate today that despite the devastation caused by Operation Cold Store, we still have survivors like Dr Poh Soo Kai, Said Zahari, Michael Fernandez, Tan Kok Fang and others. They have not only survived the darkest days of Singapore’s history, they have survived to tell their side of history. They have spoken and written books in the last decade, telling us the contributions of their generation which the PAP government have deliberately distorted and maligned.

And so to all of them and to all the survivors of Operation Cold Store, I say thank you for liberating us from the British colonial masters and thank you for sacrificing the prime of your lives in pursuit of a dream for a Malaya, embracing Singapore and building a land that believes in equality, democracy, multi culturalism and human rights.

Although that dream for a united Malaya was interrupted by Operation Cold Store and wave after wave of arrests under the ISA, I am confident that the decades of silence is over. In the last ten years or so, the internet has returned the voice to Singaporeans. Thanks to you, the young people of Singapore, this voice is getting louder and louder and it will not be silenced again.

Today, there are about 19 people in prison under the ISA, some of them for more than 10 years. This is wrong and I call upon the government to either charge them in open court or release them immediately. We cannot be expected to trust the reasons for their detention, when we ourselves have been wrongfully detained.

The abolition of the ISA is long overdue. Malaysia has abolished this law and I cannot believe that Singapore which possesses the most sophisticated weapons and spyware in Asia cannot do without this law that has caused and continues to cause untold miseries to thousands of detainees, their families and friends and silenced the people of Singapore. And so I call upon the government to abolish the ISA.

It is my hope that all those who have been imprisoned under the ISA will one day receive a public apology from the Government of Singapore. It is important that we recognise the invaluable contributions of an earlier generation of Singaporeans who fought selflessly for our country. An admission of how badly the ISA has been abused will be the beginning of a proud history of Singapore.

Last but not least, I call upon the government to let all exiles return to Singapore without conditions. They have sacrificed their youth for our freedom and they have every right to return home to the embrace of their families.

Thank you.



The participants took photo in front of the banners after
 the 50th Anniversary of Operation Cold Store event on 2 February 2013.


Some members of Sahabat Rakyat Johore Working Committee, 
some members of Function 8 and a few individuals who participated 
in the 50th Anniversary of Operation Cold Store event
 took a group photo in front of the banners after the event.






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