Responding to a question by a participant over the arrest of 22 people under the ISA in 1987, investment advisor Tan Jee Say said, "I believe the ISA has outlived its usefulness."
When one says this (the ISA) is used against political opponents, I think this is a very serious charge. You must be able to back it up Dr Tony Tan
"I don't even know whether it was justified in the first place because the ISA has been used on political opponents and those who (are) on the other political side of the law," he said, adding that "the history is such that it's been used for political purposes".
At this point, the usually-placid Dr Tony Tan jumped in and rebutted pointedly, "When one says this is used against political opponents, I think this is a very serious charge. You must be able to back it up."
Tan Jee Say then rose to the challenge and shot back, "The people who have been detained have opposed the government. That's what I'm saying."
I have been attacked on my understanding of the English language... What's in his English dictionary about political opponents? Tan Jee SayDialogue moderator Viswa Sadasivan attempted to get the latter to withhold his comments until the debate session later but an agitated Tan said, "I have been attacked on my understanding of the English language. No, no, no, Viswa, let's be fair."
Referring to Dr Tan, he went on to question, "What's in his English dictionary about political opponents?" Dr Tan did not respond to Tan Jee Say further.
On the 1987 case in question, 22 people were arrested under the ISA and charged for a Marxist conspiracy to replace the government with a Marxist state. The ISA allows the government to arrest and detain people without trial.
During that time, Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock were part of the government as Education Minister and head of the Feedback Unit respectively, while Tan Jee Say was principal private secretary to then deputy prime minister Goh Chok Tong.
Describing the ISA as a "very blunt instrument", Dr Tan -- who has also held posts of Defence Minister and Co-ordinating Minister for Security and Defence -- said before the heated exchange that "it should only be used in the most extreme circumstances and where the government really feels that there is such a need."
"I also feel that in the present world in which we live in, needs arise where the government will have to use the ISA and only in the most extreme of circumstances," he stressed later in response to another question on the ISA.
"This is not a comfortable statement for people to receive but that is the reality of the world today and we have to keep society safe in Singapore. We have to keep our homes safe, our people safe."
On the Marxist conspiracy, he said the cases were "very carefully discussed" within the Cabinet at the time but he could not reveal more under the Official Secrets Act.
"I subscribe to the principle of collective responsibility of the Cabinet. Whatever be the discussion in Cabinet, once the decision is made, it is the responsibility of the whole Cabinet to abide by the decision and take responsibility for it," said Dr Tan, noting that any future steps on the matter depends on the new information made available.
Watch the heated exchange here.
Meanwhile, commenting on the same issue, Dr Tan Cheng Bock wanted to see new evidence before taking any action, while Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian proposed a commission of inquiry to find closure to the matter.
The two-hour dialogue, which was organised by online news site The Online Citizen, was attended by some 20 participants, including socio-political blogger and civil society activist Alex Au, property agent and ex-journalist Teo Hwee Nak and lawyer Harpreet Singh.
Other topics covered include the evolving role of the Presidency, how each candidate would keep in touch with Singaporeans if they are elected and who they would appoint to the Council of Presidential Advisers. (Part 1 and 2 of the full dialogue will be shown here.)
What do you think of the exchange between Dr Tony Tan and Tan Jee Say?