Saturday, 7 February 2015

Ho Kwon Ping sees need for ISA but urges changes

IPS-Nathan Lecture III - Security and Sustainability
Ho Kwon Ping also calls for phasing out caning, and starting NS for women
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh And Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 6 Feb 2015

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'."

Ho Kwon Ping on...


"If you take the view that we don't need NS, and (so) degrade our military (ability), you'd better hope you're right. Because you cannot make a mistake on national security. You can make a mistake on economic strategy - countries rebound after recessions. But if you make a mistake on military deterrence... we are not a Russia that can take Napoleon's invasion deep into our hinterland (and survive). I hate to sound so 'government rhetoric' but we are a small dot. And if our young people fail to believe this and they think that military deterrence is not a necessity but a luxury, I would say it's a very dangerous situation for our young people in the next 50 years."


"If we are going to have an active civil society, there must be much greater access to information. I think you'll find that most governments are overprotective of information.

Generally, information is power and civil servants like to give as little information away as possible. I should think that most (intellectuals and academics) would support the call for some kind of Freedom of Information Act whereby state agencies are required to disclose information that's not classified as secret."


"The death penalty is a punishment that's still retained by a lot of countries. Whereas caning is such an unusual punishment that you find very few countries that still practise it. I'm going for low-hanging fruits. I think it's easier, for a society like Singapore, to recognise that flogging or whipping is something that we can gradually do away with. It does not behoove a country that has gone from Third World to First to still be using this method of punishment."

The next 50 years of Singapore's security
Ho Kwon Ping, the first Institute of Policy Studies S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore, delivered his third lecture this week with the focus on security and sustainability. Here is an edited excerpt from his speech.
The Straits Times, 7 Feb 2015

THE debate has shifted in recent years from calls for outright abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA) and its equivalents, to the need to ensure that this unconstrained, extraordinary power does not become abused.

Preventive detention must not be unconstrained and must have checks and balances which serve the legitimate purposes of security agencies while making abuse more difficult, if not entirely impossible. For example, the right to detain a person for an initial one-year period - possibly reduced from the current two years - should remain unconditional and unconstrained.

However, subsequent detention periods could require a higher degree of external review than currently provided for - say, two High Court justices rather than the current single judge and two persons appointed by the President. Failure to achieve unanimous approval for further detention would trigger a process of further review by, for example, a non-partisan panel comprising members of the legislature. There could also be a cap on the maximum number of consecutive detention periods unless specifically approved by a similar legislative panel.

Such measures cannot fully prevent abuse by an all-powerful government, but in a parliamentary system with at least some opposition representation, truly national security threats as opposed to opponents or critics of a ruling party, can be differentiated and abuses brought to public attention.

Civil security

LET me now move to civil security, which deals with the relationship between the individual and the state on issues related to crime and punishment. My question here relates to the sustainability of various forms of punishment into the next 50 years as we become an increasingly affluent, mature, and presumably more compassionate, "civilised" and humane society.

The practice of caning might have been the norm in the past century, but would certainly be construed as cruel and unusual punishment in the First World, to which we apparently have arrived and want to remain in, at least in terms of wealth.

There are two different approaches in the arguments against caning. First is the notion that it is by itself barbaric and should be abolished.

Second is the notion that even if one were to reluctantly consider this a necessary punishment for some offences, it should in some vaguely moral way be appropriate to the crime - that a physically injurious punishment should be restricted only to physically injurious offences.

This concession to retaining caning for violent crimes such as rape or grievous hurt has no basis in legal philosophy; but at least it meets the human desire for some kind of moral retribution, not unlike the biblical injunction of an eye for an eye, a life for a life.

But even this concession would find unacceptable the practice of caning for offences such as spraying graffiti on public walls, or for moneylending by loan sharks, or for overstaying a visa. All these offences, and more, now provide for caning.

What started out in colonial times as caning for hardened criminals and violent triad gangsters - who incidentally were not Europeans and therefore not worthy of the same humanity - is now meted out for a very wide range of offences with little relationship to each other, except perhaps that they were social problems at the time and caning was seen to be the most effective deterrent.

Proponents of caning are not shy about the reason for its deterrent impact. It is intentionally brutal and painful. Since we have placed deterrence as the sole reason for a punishment and have abandoned proportionality altogether, one wonders what offences we would not apply the cane to, if the offence became widespread enough. How about e-commerce crimes which, as the papers recently noted, have increased over 200 per cent in the past few years?

The other egregious use of caning is for young people - something which might surprise most parents here. The minimum age for criminal responsibility is - guess - seven years old. Juvenile offenders between seven and 16 can be caned and put into solitary confinement; they can be imprisoned for life if under 18 years old and tried in adult courts. Yet you can only vote at 21 years old. Is the discrepancy between age of criminal liability and political maturity somewhat unbalanced?

A reasonable step a government can take is to impose a moratorium on caning, either selectively or as a whole, and measure whether the offences increase as a result.

For example, some believe that caning for graffiti-spraying was introduced in the 1960s because the Barisan Sosialis supporters painted politically incendiary slogans on walls and caning was introduced to stop them.

Whether that was justified or not, is for history to decide. But the likelihood of such forms of civil disorder recurring is not high.

Whether repeated drink driving will increase if offenders are not caned, I do not know, but we can easily find out and measure the consequences. The result should determine the next steps.

Over time and with the excellent law enforcement we have, I would hope that we can evolve into a relatively crime-free society without the need for punishments which belong more to centuries past and not centuries future. But if I am wrong, we can always end the moratorium.

The hallmark of a society progressively evolving towards higher standards of civilised behaviour is its ability and willingness to explore, debate and try out new ideas and test their efficacy. At this milestone of our national journey, we should have the moral audacity to question the sustainability of old ideas and aspire for a higher level of human development.

A moratorium on capital punishment follows the same logic as for caning. But it would be unrealistic to think that this will happen without first achieving a positive result from a moratorium on caning.

Societal security

I NOW come to societal security. The challenges to Singapore's societal cohesion has always been religious and racial cleavages. We can still do more to enhance social cohesion, especially at this juncture of history when new challenges also present new opportunities.

The opportunity is to gradually and carefully open up debate on the most sensitive racial and religious issues so that we achieve the full transparency, candour and mutual trust between racial and religious groups which marks a truly mature society, without the divisive tragedies of societies which allow totally free expression even at the risk of inflaming already volatile and emotional issues.

Singapore, if it has erred at all, has been on the side of caution, so that the slightest discussion of anything potentially divisive in the realm of race and religion, is considered out of bounds. European nations have erred, on the other hand, in allowing such freedom of expression as resulted in the tragic Charlie Hebdo massacres.

I believe that erring on the side of caution is the right approach, but in the next 50 years we can gradually introduce more transparency and candour in the discussion of race and religion so that our societal security can flourish with fewer and fewer OB markers.

Statistics and policies on the ethnic composition of the national service army and police are considered too sensitive for open discussion. Demographic data on new migrants are not openly available, but birth rates of different races in Singapore are public information. There seem to be inconsistencies on what is deemed sensitive or not, and what is confidential versus publicly available information.

It can be argued that the traditional fault lines of CMIO - Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other - are transforming as new fault lines emerge.

The so-called curry wars where Singaporeans of all races lined up against new citizens from China who objected to curry aromas from their HDB neighbours, illustrate that culture and race are intertwined rather than inexorably fixed along simplistic racial lines. The same may be true for Singaporean Malays versus those from neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia. Policies based on presumptions of old fault lines may have to be revisited as we evolve.

Security must take priority over idealism

I READ with concern Mr Ho Kwon Ping's recommendations on some amendments to the Internal Security Act (ISA) and on caning ("Ex-ISA detainee sees need for Act but urges changes"; yesterday).

The Government and Singaporeans must be careful about idealistic recommendations that may sound good and reasonable, but will have long-term, adverse consequences for our national security.

The world is being steadily challenged in many security areas because of the following:
- The world is becoming smaller as globalisation and all kinds of people travel easily across nations.
- The prevalence of information, including on mass violence and harm, through the Internet.
- The rise of extreme terrorism and violent acts.
The ISA is still the most efficient and effective way to arrest people bent on mass violence before they carry out their acts.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Singapore was able to quickly resolve the gangster and drug problems with caning.

Hardcore criminals are not afraid of going to jail, where they get free food and lodging.

But the pain from caning is a big deterrent. We need to be careful about removing this.

Why have Singapore's drug and chewing gum problems been effectively addressed in the past 50 years?

It could be that the harsh penalties are announced on all flights to Singapore.

Singapore is a very exposed city-state with a huge influx of people, some with questionable backgrounds and whose views on law and order and human lives differ from ours.

I am proud of our unique, effective security measures in this increasingly lawless and vulnerable world.

As the world gets smaller, maintaining these measures will be even more important in safeguarding our people's well-being.

Chua Soon Hock
ST Forum, 7 Feb 2015

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