History of the ISA
by: the organising committee of "That we may dream again: Remembering the 1987 'Marxist
The Internal Security Act or the ISA as it is notoriously known, is the most unjust and intimidating law
enacted during peace time in Malaya and forced upon Singapore by the colonial authorities.
Japan invaded Malaya in December 1941 and Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. The British
promptly left Malaya leaving the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) to resist the occupation. The
courage and sacrifice of the CPM during the war years is well known and acknowledged by both the
people and the British after the war.
When the British returned to Malaya in 1945, they presented Chin Peng, the leader of the CPM with
two medals and awarded him the highest honour for outstanding achievement, namely the Order of
the British Empire (OBE). Wu Tian Wang, a representative of the CPM was appointed by the British
as a member of the Advisory Council.
But the alliance between the British and the CPM came to an end shortly after. The murder of three
white men in plantations in Malaya gave the British the excuse to declare a state of emergency and
to introduce emergency regulations in Malaya in 1948. The CPM was declared an illegal organisation.
Singapore was then a crown colony. Because of her proximity to mainland Malaya, the British also
proclaimed a state of emergency on the island. Their excuse was that they did not want the island to
be used by the communists. The proclamation of emergency was supposed to be effective for just
three months. Sadly, the British abused their power and extended the emergency for seven years
In 1955, Singapore's then Chief Minister, David Marshall introduced the Preservation of Public
Security Ordinance (PPSO). He took great care to insert two safeguards:
(a) An independent Appeal Tribunal comprising two High Court judges and one District Court judge
who had full powers to order the release of detainees.
(b) A mandatory review, at least once in every six months, of a detention order or restriction order
by a Reviewing Officer who must be a person qualified to be a judge. The Reviewing Officer had the
duty to make recommendations to the Chief Secretary or to the Appeal Tribunal.
The PAP which was then in opposition, vehemently opposed the law. However when it came into
power in 1959, it immediately removed the above two safeguards by replacing the Appeal Tribunal
with an Advisory Committee, comprising a judge and two lay persons. As the name implies, the
Committee's power was reduced to one that could only advise the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of
In 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia. The Malaysian Internal Security Act (1960)
with modifications, was introduced to Singapore. The new Act enacted the Advisory Board which
basically performs the same function as the Advisory Committee. When Singapore left Malaysia in
1965, the ISA continues to be in force.
The government claims that when the Board recommends the release of a prisoner, he/she has to
be released unless the President of Singapore decides to veto the Board's recommendation. This
very limited power of the Board and the President does not detract from the fundamental evil
authorised by the law.
An ISA detainee is imprisoned without a trial for an indefinite period of time. Thousands have been
detained without trial and a significant number like Dr Chia Thye Poh, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Ho Piao, Lee
Tee Tong, Said Zahari and Dr Poh Soo Kai have been detained for decades. Many have been severely
tortured. Just imagine the hardship caused to the detainees and their families. Imagine the loss to
Singapore with so many brilliant people spending the prime of their lives in prison.
There has not been any debate in Singapore as to why we should not abolish the ISA. The situation in
Malaysia has improved. After severe criticisms from the people, Malaysia abolished the ISA in April
In 1991, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked why the ISA was still needed in
Singapore even though the CPM no longer posed a threat. His reply was that if Malaysia did not
abolish the Act, it must have its reasons. Singapore would seriously consider abolishing the ISA if
Malaysia were to do so. Now that Malaysia has repealed the ISA, would Singapore do likewise?
If Singapore is truly a first world nation, there is no place for detention without trial. Every citizen
has the right to freedom of speech, assembly and expression. As a member of the international
community, Singapore has for 64 years flouted and continues to flout Article 9 of The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights which reads:
"No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile."
The ISA, a tool of our colonial masters, has been used to full effect in post colonial Singapore
against law abiding citizens. If Singapore claims to be fully democratic, then there can absolutely be
no doubt that the ISA must be abolished.
You just need to ask yourself one question: Would you feel wronged if you were arrested and have
no means to defend yourself, i.e. detained without trial, for an indefinite period of time? If your
answer is "yes", then join in the call for the abolition of the ISA now!
More than 2,500 Singaporeans have been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) since the
1960's. The ISA, which allows the arrest and indefinite detention of citizens without trial, is a blunt
national security instrument open to abuse by governments which can use, and have used, it in the
decimation of legitimate organisations and individuals opposed to their social, economic and
25th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum
"Operation Spectrum" was mounted by the Singapore government on 21 May 1987 under the ISA.
Sixteen individuals were arrested in the first wave, with another six detained soon after. Two of the
lawyers (including a former Solicitor-General of Singapore) who represented these individuals were
subsequently detained as well. The 24 arrested were mainly professionals such as lawyers,
journalists, community and church workers and entrepreneurs.
The government alleged that the detainees were "Marxist conspirators", without giving them the
right of defence in an open court. Instead, public "confessions" were elicited under the threat of
indefinite detention without trial.
These "confessions" were repudiated in a press statement by nine of these individuals some months
after their release. Eight of them were immediately re-arrested the next day, while the ninth
signatory was in England at the time of re-arrest.
Nothing substantial or credible was ever produced to corroborate the government's allegations.
Later documents showed even greater ambiguity in the reasons behind the detentions in 1987. An
injustice was perpetuated and continues to linger to this day.
Function 8 Limited and Maruah as well as other civil society organisations, have come together as
partners to remember the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum through a series of activities.
A session themed That We May Dream Again. Remembering the 1987 "Marxist Conspiracy" will be
held from 3pm to 7pm on Saturday 19th May, 2012 at Speakers' Corner, Hong Lim Park.
Amongst other activities, survivors of the 1987 "Marxist Conspiracy" will be sharing stories of their
lives before and after their detentions with members of the public.
We hope these activities would:
a. Raise awareness on the misuse of the ISA in the past;
b. Raise awareness of the danger on the continued existence of the ISA which may lead to
complacency of the authorities in dealing with real security threats to our country;
c. Work towards the abolition of the ISA; and
d. Press the government to welcome the return of those who have been forced into exile
because of the ISA, such a move being the first step towards national reconciliation and
healing for all parties.