Y! Exclusive: Law Minister K Shanmugam on the ISA

In an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Singapore, Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam sits down and tackles head-on tough questions within (and just beyond) his portfolio. In this first part, the minister shares his personal take on the Internal Security Act.

[Click here to read the second part of this series.]

Holding two portfolios, Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam is a busy man indeed.

He hasn’t yet filled the cabinets in his office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tanglin — instead stacking his three-sided desk with books and papers.

The main source of colour in his office comes from a world map, upon which red tacks indicate Singapore’s embassies around the globe. The only personal touch comes from an electronic photo frame at a corner diagonally behind where he sits that show pictures of his wife and two children, both of whom are studying abroad.

Yet, based on an interview with Yahoo! Singapore last month, the 53-year-old former senior partner at Allen & Gledhill seems to enjoy his work at both ministries.

In the one-hour meeting, he spoke on a host of hot-button topics as well as on matters related to his previous portfolio, Home Affairs, which he held for a year before taking on the foreign affairs position from his predecessor George Yeo last year.

Should the ISA be abolished?

While still at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), he was frequently asked about the Internal Security Act (ISA) — a law that enables the government to detain people without trial. The issue also recently grabbed headlines when the Catholic Archbishop of Singapore retracted a letter of support he sent to activist group Function 8, when it organised an event earlier this year calling for its abolition.

Asked for his views on more controversial detentions in Singapore's history, including Operation Coldstore in 1963 and Operation Spectrum in 1987, he felt it inappropriate to offer comment on specific incidents in the past because he was not privy to the specific security considerations applicable to them.

With clearer knowledge of the situation between 2008 and 2011, however, Shanmugam is certain of the overarching rationale for the Act in the current international security environment -- that ultimately it acts as a preventive measure where security threats are discovered on classified intelligence.

With the days of mass, high-profile detentions a thing of the past, though, whether the law should stay or not, he feels, all boils down to the evaluation of which of two risks Singapore is more prepared to take.

“(The ISA) gives the power to the government to detain people without going through the due process of the courts. Once you have such a structure, is there a possibility of abuse? Of course... so that’s the risk,” he acknowledged.

However, he pointed out, “Society has got to decide between that risk, or the risk that an incident might actually occur, and then you have to ask yourself, ‘What are the consequences of each of the two risks materialising? What is the impact on Singapore?’ and then people have to choose.”

Shanmugam explained that where Singapore lacks in natural resources, it makes up for in a clean ecosystem that is friendly to businesses.

“There is no particular reason to come to Singapore, but we have created an ecosystem (here) — a regulatory framework which is clean, with good human capital and talent, and a good judicial system, rule of law, excellent logistics, clean, non-corrupt system — all these are positive factors, and underlying it all, confidence,” he said.

“If you destroy that confidence in Singapore, you create a question mark on our economy. There are many ways in which that confidence can be affected — one way, I believe, would be if there is a major terrorist incident in Singapore,” he argued.

A further reason he gives in favour of the ISA’s existence is the nature of the circumstances by which intelligence is gained on a particular security threat or suspect. The Act, he says, allows the government to “move ahead of time” and detain people even before an offence has been committed, purely on the basis of sound intelligence, information that is often classified at security levels too high to bring up in court.

Guantanamo Bay example

“The Americans acknowledge it, others acknowledge it — you get a tip-off, or if you have a mole in the organisation and as a result you get a tip-off, you’re not going to release it in court,” he said, adding that even for all the championing that America does for its constitutional rights, it practices the same thing for its prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Of all the U.S.’ detainees there, Shanmugam pointed out that only one of them, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, was actually brought to trial.

“Congress was very reluctant to have many detainees brought to trial in the U.S. because they didn’t want to take the security risk these detainees posed,” he said. “The U.S. has its principles of due process, constitutional rights, but they sidestep it by saying they don’t apply to people in Guantanamo because they are not Americans.”

Even in Khalid’s case, he added, the U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder said during Khalid’s trial that if for some reason the court decided to acquit him, America would detain him anyway.

“That was the reality, (and) often much of the discussion overlooks this reality,” he said.

From this, he explained that although both Singapore and the U.S. practice detention without trial, he noted that Singapore does it in the form of the ISA, and has over time applied two levels of safeguards to the ISA: an independent advisory board led by a Supreme Court judge, which reviews the detention, and Singapore’s president, who is empowered with the ability to grant the release of a detainee without the advice of the Cabinet.

The independence of the President

Shanmugam did, however, acknowledge that some Singaporeans may not recognise the president as being fully independent.

“I’m sure there are people who think that,” he said. “But you have independent elections for the president... he’s chosen by the mandate of Singaporeans — and you take the current president, you take the previous president, they’re both people who have outstanding achievements and record of public service; it would be I think a minority of people who will not acknowledge that and who will think they are going to not be independent.”

Noting also that one of Singapore’s first elected presidents, Ong Teng Cheong, was widely respected as independent, despite being part of the government for a long period, he said also that anyone who knows the country’s current president Tony Tan would know how independent he is as well.

"He's a very strong character," he added.

Ultimately, though, he said that for any law to change, be relaxed or eventually abolished, for that matter, Singapore's wider society will need to accept and support these amendments.

"Laws always need public support to be enforceable, particularly laws of this nature," he said. "So questions on what more needs to be done (with respect to the ISA, for instance) have to be considered as society and the security environment changes, and you've got to tweak it according to the changing needs."

In the next part of this series, Minister Shanmugam delves deeper into the recent proposed changes to the mandatory death penalty, sharing more insight to what triggered them and how they enhance the enforcement system.

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